Sunday, December 18, 2011

Siege of Kanlakab Valley: Playing "The Sword and the Flame" With 10-Man Units

Prologue
The Battle of Kanlakab Valley had begun when an expeditionary force of primarily Gurkhas had been ambushed while marching in column through the steep hills of the Kanlakab Valley deep in Afghanistan on the very edge of the Her Majesty's Empire. It had been a bloody affair, the Gurkhas retreating from the direction they had come. A small company of men from the 1st Gurkhas Rifles volunteered to stay behind as a rear guard action so their comrades could escape. Colonel William George vowed to return as soon as possible to rescue the brave men.

That had been days ago. Though the stone walls atop a low hill toward the bottom of the valley provided some protection for the men, they knew that it would do little to protect them once the waves of natives began swarming toward them, leaping over the walls and fighting hand-to-hand. Though they had been keeping the natives at bay for sometime, the men knew that time was not on their side.

"They are massing their forces," said Sgt. Ganju Pun spying dozens of natives climbing about the hills to the east. "The tribes are coming together once again. I fear an attack is about to happen."

"We shall be ready for them," responded his superior, Lt. Donald James.

James knew that was a lie, and so did his sergeant. Their food and water supplies were nearly exhausted. The sun had been beating down on them so fiercely for days that the skin on their very lips had begun peeling off in large chunks. There wasn't as much as a leaf to provide shade on top of that barren hill. A godforsaken area of the world if there ever was one.

Hours passed while more and more natives began massing in the eastern hills. Feeling emboldened by their earlier victory during the ambush, the Pathan tribesmen did little to hide their presence. An attack was mounting surely.

Hours passed.

Back on top of the fortified hill, a rifleman suddenly shouted, "Look! There! See? A dust cloud. Off in the distance."

Sgt. Pun ran to the wall and peered down the valley to the west, following the man's shaking finger. "Hmmmm. It is a dust cloud. But is it friend or foe?"

"We can assume nothing," said Lt. James, who appeared behind Sgt. Pun. "Sergeant, prepare your men for an attack. Deploy some on the east wall and some on the west wall, until we know who is making that cloud."

"Yes, sir!" snapped Pun, as he ran off to organize his men, possibly for the last time.

And so began the Siege of Kanlakab Valley.

The Game
A few weeks ago, we played a game of colonials using the The Sword and The Flame rules by Larry Brom. This set of rules has been around for decades, becoming one of the classics of miniature gaming. Though Abel had played many times many years ago, this was my first actual game using the rules. I found them easy to learn and quite thematic overall, though sometimes they can be a bit too cinematic, as if Larry Brom had watched Zulu a few too many times!

Using Smaller 10-Man Units
To better utilize the figures we had while keeping the game fast and bloody, we decided to try using smaller units than the standard 20 men. We based our units on the combatant rules found on page 40 of the rulebook under "The Sword in Africa" section.

We made the Gurkha infantry units 10 men armed with Egyptian rifles. For some flavor in each infantry unit, we made one of the figures a sergeant, who was also armed with an Egyptian rifle even if holding a pistol. For extra flavor in the defending infantry unit, we also made one of the 10 figures a lieutenant armed with an Egyptian rifle. We assumed the defending unit had been larger days earlier but by the time the game had begun had lost many men to the elements and wounds from the previous battle. The officer had survived. If the defending force and rescuing force each had two infantry units, we would have given each an NCO or officer as an extra man as suggested on page 40.

We made the Gurkha lancer unit six men, designating one of them as a sergeant for some flavor. Again, if we had more lancer units we would have given them an additional officer or NCO figure instead.

The mistake we made was giving the mountain gun a full crew of four gunners, which made the single gun quite powerful against the smaller units. We rationalized the guns strength as being crewed by zealous gunners, set on revenging their loses days earlier. Next time, we'll play with two gunners per cannon.

We made the Pathan infantry units 10 men either all armed with spears or all armed with jezails. The rules on page 40 suggest mixing the native's weapons, but we found it fine the way we did it. The jezails were horrible weapons as it was, so arming the entire unit with them seemed to balance it out more. Plus, it made the units easier for our first game. The Pathan cavalry were handled the same as the Gurkha cavalry units, though armed only with spears.

Revised Straggler Rule for 10-Man Units
Using smaller units than in a normal game forced us to modify slightly the straggler rule when a unit charges. Whenever a unit must roll for stragglers, we rolled a single D6. On a result of 1-2 one figure straggled, 3-4 two figures straggled, 5 three figures straggled, and 6 no one straggled. It worked quite well.

Orders of Battle
British Defending Force:
1x Gurkha Infantry (Egyptian Rifles)

British Rescue Force:
1x Gurkha Infantry (Egyptian Rifles)
1x 10th Bengal Lancers
1x Mountain Gun
1x Mounted Commander

Pathan Attacking Force:
2x Pathan Jezails
1x Pathan Native Spears

Pathan Reserve Force:
2x Pathan Cavalry Jezails
3x Pathan Native Spears

Deployment
Since I was new to colonial gaming, Abel laid out the scenery on the table and then placed the units. I haven't been doing much gaming the past year-and-a-half, so I hadn't been working on scenery at all. We used what I had on hand, placing my few foam hills under a piece of mottled-tan cloth I had purchased years ago at Walmart. The scenery was very basic but worked well enough that day.

Abel placed the besieged defending Gurkha unit toward the "eastern" end of the table on top of a low hill. We used my Old Glory stone walls to provide their fortification. He then placed a couple more hills a bit farther east, placing three of his Pathan units on the table (two armed with jezails close to the Gurkhas and the remaining two spearmen farther away behind the hills, out of harms way.

I then placed my Gurkha rescue force on the western end of the table in a small valley we had created. My objective was to approach toward the defending infantry unit as quickly as possible and then escort them to safety the same way I had entered. It sounded like a simple plan, though as one can expect thanks to the rules it turned out to be more challenging and dramatic than I had imagined.

The table is set. We're getting ready to begin play!

Photos of the Deployed Pathan Forces
Below are some photos of the 25mm Pathan figures we used.





Photos of the Deployed Gurkhas
Below are some photos of the 25mm Gurkha figures we used.




 

Turn 1: The Game Begins
The first turn of the game started out with little drama. It was the first to move, so I activated my cavalry unit, moving them toward the defending unit. Throughout the game, the random dice rolling for movement added some nice tension and friction. I came to enjoy this aspect of it, allowing us to use our imagination when explain why a unit would roll so badly when moving. As additional activation cards were flipped, I was able to move the remainder of the rescue force closer and shift the defending unit so all the figures faced the eastern wall and the massing Pathans. Abel basically moved his jezail units into range, while making sure his spearmen remained behind the hills. Having learned the movement rules, we went onto the next phase, ranged fire.

The spearemen unit of natives sneak up behind the hill, out of sight from the rifles.
Firing Begins
This is when the fun began. Since we deployed units close enough to each other to get stuck in right away, we got right into learning the firing rules. Abel got the first draw of the card and opened up with the Pathan jezail unit closest to the defending Gurkhas. He rolled 10 dice, one for each native firing. Using jezails against a defender behind a wall, he needed to roll a 1 to score a hit on a die. Since the game uses d20s, that gave him a 5% chance of hitting on each die. Sure enough, one of the dice rolled a 1--a single hit. A darned lucky shot, if I must say so!

He then drew a card to see the results of the hit. I figured he would wound one of my men and that would be it. No, not this time. Instead, he drew an ace of hearts, killing the units leader. Ergh! Down when Lt. James, clutching his chest. To die on top of a godforsaken hill in the middle of a godforsaken country was not a fitting death for a brave Englishman such as Lt. James! Surely, back in England his betrothed darling, Elizabeth, would mourn his passing for years to come. Curse you, you stinking Pathans and your lucky card draws!

That combat complete, we drew another card to see who fired next. Sure enough, Abel got the initiative again. This time opened up with his other jezail unit, once again rolling a single hit. Darn his luck! Drawing a card to see the results of the hit, he drew a heart face card. This meant a "key figure" that is not a leader is killed. We decided that this would be Sgt. Pun, who collapsed beside the recently fallen Lt. James. Double curse you, you filthy Pathans and your lucky card drawing!

The Pathans open fire on the defending Gurkhas.

Gurkhas Fire For Revenge
Next, I finally got to fire my Gurkhas. With vengeance in my eyes, I rolled my eight dice. In the end, three Pathans lay wounded and one lay dead. Though it didn't truly avenge the deaths of my brave and beloved soldiers in the Queen's service, it was a start.

My Thoughts on Movement and Firing
So there you have the first turn. The initiative and movement mechanics made for some interesting friction, wondering if units could reach their destinations in time. The ranged fire and wounding mechanics also were fast, fun, and dramatic. Who would have thought I would have lost two of my best men in the opening volleys? The only downside for me was rolling handfuls of d20s, which was a bit awkward because the dice were so large. A minor quibble if there ever was one!


The Game Progresses
As the game progressed, the Pathans continued with their lucky die rolling and card flipping, killing a third Gurkha and wounding another. I was getting ready to erase all the 1's from my d20s but thought better of it.

Eventually, I moved my rescue unit up to the defending unit. The lancers waited at the base of the hill for an opportunity to charge a native unit. Cavalry seems rather weak in the game, so Abel suggested I not engage the cavalry too quickly lest I lose them. The infantry unit moved up to get the besieged infantry unit out of harm's way. The mountain gun unlimbered and began blasting apart the natives from a distance.

Colonel William George has returned to save the day!
Then Abel charged the wall with a spearmen unit, a suicide charge. At the same time, my lancer unit charged at the flank of the spearmen. This was going to be an interesting melee! The Gurkha infantry repelled the spearmen before the lancers were able to make contact.

Col. George, looking on from behind his approaching forces, called out that help had arrived just as the spearmen and the lancers get stuck from charging.
Rule Change: Attacking and Defending Across Walls
One of the major rules we modified for our game were the rules on page 29 dealing with walls in close combat. The rules do not allow combatants to fight across walls at all, forcing the attacking unit to charge to the wall on one turn and then firing, on the next turn climbing onto the wall in the next turn and fighting at a rather large penalty, and then on the third turn crossing the wall to fight normally. This smacked us of Larry Brom having watched Zulu a few too many times. We just couldn't see this as making much sense when the Gurkha infantry were behind a low, thin stone wall that anyone could easily reach or leap across with little effort. No one in their right mind would try to balance themselves on it and fight! (It reminds me of wooden fences in ACW games giving the defending unit a big bonus, as if the little wooden sticks could actually stop a rifle bullet or obscure the target.)

In our game, we made the charging unit stop at the wall and fight normally, giving the defending unit a +1 bonus. The attacking unit could then cross the wall on the next turn, assuming they had not fled. Considering the scenario, it worked just fine for our purposes.


The Game Is Nearing The End
Toward the end of the game, the Pathan cavalry finally entered the fray and charged headlong into the lancers, who quickly met them with a counter charge. But not until the mountain gun opened fire on one of them, blowing them apart quite well. Once again, Abel rolled and flipped cards amazingly well, killing a lancer with the only hit. Still, the lancers tore up the two spearmen cavalry units, which retreated off the table. Then a unit of fanatical spearmen charged the lancers. And the craziest thing happened. Seeing the spearmen charging in their direction, the lancers panicked and fell back (I blew my dice roll when units are contacting during a charge). What in the world?!

The red and green chiits keep track of the units and are keyed into their roster sheets.
This was not good! During all the charging, the two units of Gurkha riflemen were trying to make it off the board to safety, moving behind the cavalry unit and the mountain gun, which was getting ready to hightail it out of there as well. Though Col. George was doing his best to inspire his men to greatness, the exhausted and wounded infantrymen moved horribly slow every turn. (I kept rolling badly for the units' movement dice. It was quite frustrating because it looked like a sure victory was rapidly slipping from my fingers! If the lancers had fallen back just a bit more, the day would have been completely lost, with the spearmen charging into the flanks of my Gurkha infantry. Wow, I love this game!)

Fortunately, the lancers regained their composure, turned around, and quickly charged the spearmen. The photos in this section show this final great confrontation. The Gurkhas would prevail with a decisive victory, while the Pathans, as fanatical as some of them were, would flee from the battlefield. Granted, the natives still controlled the valley. But Col. George would return once again in the near future, this time with a much larger force.


The wooden red cubes are from the Age of Mythology boardgame. I use them to mark wounded characters. I use other colored blocks from the game to mark other conditions.

Though Allah had been with them earlier in the game, the natives were to experience why the Gurkhas were a feared fighting force, no matter how small their numbers.

Final Thoughts
I hope you enjoyed this after action report about how we played with smaller units and the rule changes we made. We both thoroughly enjoyed the game and the rules, which are easy to pick up and quite cinematic. Better yet, we also got to play an entire game to its conclusion, a rarity in League games!

Obligatory (Badly) Posed Photo
Ok, I just had to include this photo. My wife wanted to snap a photo of us playing the game. I think she told us to look like we were "doing something."  So we did "something." It cracks me up every time I look at it!

Looming over Abel, I show him the rule stating that I always win. "Oh, that rule!" he replied.

5 comments:

  1. Sounds like great game, lovely report. Where did you find your Pathans?

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  2. The Pathans are the old Frontier 25mm pack #F0415 Pathan Inf, the only Pathan pack they made. Plus IIRC mixed with Ral Partha Pathans #88-113.

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  3. A very nice report.

    One thing, a "key" figure is not a "leader" figure . . . and a Sergeant IS a leader figure, so a different figure should have been selected.

    And, yes, I really like TSATF rules as well. There is a lot of "fog of war" built into the rules (such as the movement dice and drawing cards to see which side acts next.


    -- Jeff

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  4. Thanks for the clarification, Jeff. We were a bit confused on that. But it sure made for a more dramatic game. :-) We'll keep this in mind the next time we play.

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