Wednesday 27 September 2023

Zulus! Isandlwana game at Colours 2023

Surprised not to have seen many reports of the Colours wargames show that happened in Newbury as usual earlier this month. Here's my own modest addition to the literature on this subject.

I can't say much about the show in general as I spent most of it helping to run our participation game. I talked to a couple of traders who said it had gone well for them, which is always good to hear. It was swelteringly hot and my impression was that it was really busy in the morning but that a lot of people faded, wilted and went home early when they got too hot and bothered to stay for the afternoon.

At last year's show we ran a nice obscure Hungary 1848 battle in 6mm. This time we went much more mainstream as Bruce laid on a game of Isandlwana using his gorgeous 28mm figures. Lots of people are familiar with this battle. Indeed, several of our guest players or spectators had actually visited the battlefield and knew it very well indeed, one even having had a relative perish there in 1879. That being so, it was particularly gratifying that one of our knowledgeable guests played the whole game through and said at the end, "that felt right".

This is a tribute to Bruce's skilful scenario design, as he adapted BBB (a ruleset geared to making battles of 100s of 1000s of men feasible as wargames on 6'x4' in an evening) to an action in which the smaller side had fewer than 2,000. BBB's elastic scale proved capable of shrinking down that far and still producing a very plausible game.

I thought I took a bunch of photos of his work but apparently not. I can only assume I was too busy chatting with people and helping to run the game. All I can offer you is a view of the racecourse, a couple of pics of the terrain being created and one of the British deployment, followed by a few reflections.

The view from our splendid vantage point. We were as overheated as greenhouse tomatoes, but it still beats the Distelfink room at Historicon. Maybe it captured the right feeling of southern Africa and all we needed was some itchy woollen clothing with tight high collars.


Step 1 of laying out the terrain was to put together Bruce's cunningly crafted polystyrene jigsaw for the hills.

Drape a cloth over the top, add the most prominent hilltops, sprinkle tiny gravel to help to define the slopes. Dongas (streams) and campsite will follow. Top left of pic is the range of hills the main Zulu force camped behind and attacked across. Isandlwana hill is the rocky brown one. Zulu right horn came from left edge of pic, left horn from the right edge. Our visiting expert complimented Bruce on his choice of green cloth: apparently, the movie 'Zulu Dawn' gives a false impression of a dry brown battlefield because it was filmed in the more convenient dry season, whereas the actual battle took place when the grass would have been lush and green.

A thin red line awaits the storm. Each pair of redcoats represents a company, with one figure being equivalent to 50-80 men. Bottom right, Lt Raw's men gallop frantically back to camp, having discovered the Zulu army. To see more and better pics of Bruce's figures in action (including Zulus this time), see my report of his Nyezane game.


It's a thin red line. Inevitably, the much-debated question came up of whether the massacre was due to ammunition problems (difficulty opening ammo boxes, etc), along with the alternative theory that it was because of weapons fouling up and misfiring. My own feeling after playing the game is that it didn't need any one major factor to make it happen. The problem is, unless the British deploy in a proper tight square (preferably protected by improvised obstacles and with guns at the corners) as they did later in the Sudan, eventually the Zulus will find a flank somewhere. Once they do, the line will get rolled up and swarmed and it's game over.

Popular vs Obscure. I love to explore the esoteric corners of history. There's a particular pleasure to be had from researching wars and recreating battles that few people have ever heard of, especially when (as so often) they present unusual tactical challenges; colourful, even bizarre incidents; and strong characters. Bringing such games to the tabletop, especially at shows, is in its way a service to our little community. However, there is also a lot to be said for the 'headline acts': Gettysburg, Waterloo, Balaclava - the famous battles that everybody knows and can enjoy identifying the terrain features and notable regiments as portrayed on our tables; the ones where the 'what-ifs' have been discussed at length and it can be particularly interesting to see how alternative plans play out in a game. Our previous more obscure games at shows have been appreciated and gone down well enough, but I have to say I think Isandlwana was the most popular yet, so maybe we will go for more such better-known battles in future.

28mm vs 6mm or 10mm. Another factor in the popularity of the Isandlwana game may have been the use of 28mm figures. We usually use 6mm or 10mm because these give the right mass effect for the massed battles we normally lay on. However, larger figures are easier to identify and more eye-catching at a show. Another conundrum to chew over for future games - or maybe we could go in the opposite direction and try 2mm next time!

Update: Bruce's scenarios for Isandlwana and Nyezane are both freely available in the "BBB Zulu Wars" folder in the BBB io group files. 


Sunday 10 September 2023

A bad day at Malplaquet (WSS, 1709)

Matt Bradley treated us to the fourth of his Marlburian games: Malplaquet. When he ran it previously with another group, it ended in emphatic Allied victory (see his report here). It is with mixed feelings that I tell you we demonstrated scenario balance by incurring an Allied defeat.

Five captioned photos tell the story, followed by post-battle reflections.

This shows the French deployment before we set out the Allies. The French hold a line of fortifications between two large woods. The fleurs de lys mark the three objectives: the redoubt on the left, the crossroads in the centre, and the road to the exit top right. The Allies must take one for a draw or two to win, while not losing Aulnois or Rieu de Bury. Allied forces deploy >12" away from the French line. Note how the ground the Allies have to cross is cut up by streams that seriously impede any attempt to shift pressure from one sector of the line to another, while of course the woods hinder their advance on the right and any efforts at outflanking. By contrast, note also the entirely open space behind the French line, meaning they can shift reserves to wherever they may be needed with relative ease and counter any Allied move.

The Allied left is deployed. Our plan on this flank was for Tilly's Dutch (commanded by David B) to move through the woods against the flank of the French redoubt (as they did in Matt's game) while Lottum's force (my command) attacked its front.

The Allied right. The scenario allows Withers's force to flank march and arrive on the west or east edge after mid-game, but Luke and Ben opted to commit it here to back up Prince Eugene from Turn 1. The limbered grand battery looks impressive but achieved nothing.

I used up all my good dice on Turns 1 & 2 with all my infantry conducting absolutely balletic manoeuvres to wheel into position. Unfortunately David was less fortunate and took a little too long to blunder through the woods, so Crispin was able to react and move reserves to protect his flank before we got there. No more pictures are necessary on this flank. After one turn of waiting for David, he and I then spend the next five turns banging our heads repeatedly against the brick wall of entrenched French and their flank support. Perhaps we only needed to be lucky once, but we weren't. Nil points.

A similar story on the right - if anything, worse. As we had committed Withers, Mark knew he had no flank threat to worry about and could immediately redeploy his reserves. While Luke and Ben struggled through the woods, the French fluently deployed into an enveloping line. Again, no more pictures necessary. Top left you see a French infantry unit storming out of its redoubts to see off the unwary grand battery before it could set up its guns. Next to them, Luke's infantry then got enveloped, enfiladed, assaulted and driven back. Right of pic are the French dragoons who got on Ben's flank, creating a succession of devastating French assaults from front and flank that shattered Ben's force.

Thus we Allies failed to take a single objective and were roundly defeated.


Allied errors. Well, we made a few. What you won't notice in any of the pictures is the two biggest and best Allied cavalry units. I had these loiter behind Lottum to exploit the breakthrough that never came. Maybe they'd have been better held in the centre where they could have deterred the French artillery-killing infantry charge. Our boys on the right kind of put their heads in a French noose by exposing both flanks, but in fairness it is hard enough to manoeuvre 18th-century troops in the open, so in the woods you've got no chance of doing anything efficient or coordinated. Likewise with our left flanking move that maybe could have been slightly better directed initially, but really it was down to the woods and the dice to stymie us.

Linear warfare and limited decisions. To grind one of my favourite axes ... at one level I had enough to do, wrestling with small tactical decisions like which brigade should lead the next futile assault or how best to get a cavalry brigade across a stream. But at a grand tactical level, my situation didn't change and I had hardly any choices to make. I marched up to the redoubt, I assaulted it four or five times in essentially the same way and I bounced off it every time. Not that I didn't have a good time - we all did and everyone was smiling and laughing at the end despite our emphatic defeat - but I'd say the game was absorbing rather than exciting, at least on my sector.

That'll have to do for reflections this time as it was Colours yesterday and I have a Peninsular War game tomorrow and things to do today, so right now let's publish and be damned!