Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Black Powder AAR: Supplying Handub Fort, Sudan, April 1884

A couple of Saturdays ago, Samulus dropped over to try out Black Powder with my growing Sudan collection. Without enough troops to play one of the larger set-piece battles, I knocked together a fictional scenario: an Anglo-Egyptian force led by Major-General Davis sent to re-garrison and re-supply a fort at Handub, near Suakin, weeks after the defeat of Osman Digna's tribes at the second battle of El Teb. A small Anglo-Egyptian force is sent, not expecting significant resistance so soon after a major Mahdist defeat.

The British force deployed in brigade square, with two British battalions at the core: the King's Royal Rifle Corps and the Royal Marine Light Infantry, with firepower from the Naval Brigade's Gardner Gun and a single Screw Gun. This core was bulked out by two battalions of Egyptian infantry and both mounted and foot Egyptian irregulars. Samulus took control of the Mahdists and I the British.

My, what a neat formation...

Mid-morning and two-thirds of the way to their destination, the Anglo-Egyptian approaches a dried up wadi, with a ridge-line in the distance. The Anglo-Egyptian force had unit mid-afternoon (eight turns) to clear and seize the ridge in order to reach their destination by nightfall.

A handful of Mahdists occupy the heights, surely no match for the British firepower advancing upon them.

Beja skirmishers lurk in the scrub to the Anglo-Egyptian left, ready to pick off targets.

After an initial, plodding advance in brigade square, the British commander Major-General Davis and his Egyptian counterpart Ka'im Makam Bey become impatient, ordering the square to be broken up in favour of a quicker advance in line. This would also allow crushing firepower to be brought to bear, to clear the Mahdists quicker.

But disaster! Approaching the range of the Beja riflemen on the ridge and skirmishers in the scrub, the Egyptian brigade wavers in the face of the enemy, turning about and retreating to a safe distance. The Naval Brigade are carried along with them. What a disaster, without even a shot being fired!

With a blunder rolled, the steadier British are exposed, but there isn't much to do but hope their commanders can bring them quickly about to reinforce the line .

So much for the formation! 

Meanwhile, in an effort to steady their allies, the British screw gun open the firing for the day, scoring a direct hit on the Mahdist horse milling on the right flank, disrupting them.

So much for range-finding

Berated by their brigade commander, Captain Cathcart, the Egyptians are brought about, but make slow progress towards the advance British advance positions. The Beja in the scrub lurk patiently.

Irregulars are sent in to clear out the skirmishing Beja and start exchanging fire.

Keen to clear the ridge, the British advance continues steady, and they clear the wadi and approach the range at which their Martini-Henry rifles can be brought to bear with devastating effect. Meanwhile, despite the range the screw gun maintains effective fire, even at long disrupting riflemen on the ridge.

As they approach the ridge, the British spot more Mahdists on the far side of the ridge. More and more are identified, with many hundred of tribesmen sheltering in the relative safety of the far side of the ridge. With the Egyptians still floundering around trying to return to something resembling a fighting formation, the British are in trouble


The impetuous Baggara charge home against the British irregular horse, who barely put up a fight and are thrown back.

While Beja camelry swing round on the exposed British flank, ploughing through the screw gunners before they can bring their gun to bear.

Cutting down the gunners, the camelry pile into the RMLI (still being in the painting queue, the mounted infantry were standing in). After some quite dreadful rolling, they too are destroyed.

With the cavalry brigade having the the British into disarray, the rest of the tribesmen surge forward, seeing their chance to deliver a single, devastating blow. The irregular infantry skitter off, while the Egyptians and Naval Brigade rush to plug the gaps. Two units of the elites Beja slam into the KRRC, who hold steady, firing to the last despite being severely outnumbered by the swarming Beja

The KRRC are pushed back into a fighting withdrawal, but regain some British pride by breaking one of the Beja units.

Morale saves on 4+, you say?

Despite that final, fortunate combat result, I declared the encounter unsalvageable for the Anglo-Egyptian force and handed a major victory to Sam. While the Egyptian infantry were relatively unscathed, their unsteadiness (having the rule wavering) and lack of a defensible formation or position, and being outnumbered over 2:1 meant a fighting withdrawal was the best that could be achieved, with no hope for securing the ridge that day.

Post-game analysis

Well, what an introduction to Black Powder. I'll write up my thoughts on the rules themselves another time, but suffice to say a great game was had by us both, despite some erratic luck!

In hindsight, the plodding advance of brigade square would have been much safer, protecting the guns and should have enabled me to see off the Mahdist cavalry. The plan to smash the Mahdists on the ridge with sheer firepower were thrown into disarray by an ill-timed blunder. In fact, my order rolls were wretched throughout - the Egyptians took two turns to get moving again - whereas Samulus succeeded pretty much every one. Command rolls on 2D6 seem to be my nemesis.

Except the one actual blunder didn't really come at that bad a time, my entire force was out of rifle range and out of charge range of the Mahdists behind the ridge. I pushed on and assumed my luck would turn, I'd get double-moves to bring the Egyptians back into line. But I had time, should have stopped the British for as many turns as the Egyptians required. I was too worried about the turn limit and underestimated the Mahdist forces, even though I knew exactly how any units they had lurking!

Man of the match must go to the screw gunners, who managed three hits on sixes on the first three turns, resulting in three disruptions: impressive shooting.

As for the scenario, it works just fine, the British needed an objective to get them moving to some degree so they don't just stand and blow the Mahdists away from long range. (n.b. you may recognize the terrain and forces as being a stripped-down El Teb from the back of the Black Powder book). The British had that basic option of a slow, reliable advance in brigade square or upping the pace but risking something going wrong. Which it did, of course! Meanwhile, the Mahdists could sit tight knowing they were fairly safe from the British guns and weigh up their best time to charge out with both the cavalry and swarms of infantry.

Next time, I'd like to try the same scenario, but tweak the forces slightly, while I had kept the force balance broadly the same as in the BP book, I don't think I'd factored in how much of a disadvantage it would be switching half the line units to Egyptian infantry. My initial thoguhts are:

  • Bulk the Naval Brigade up from tiny to small to make them more useful
  • Switch out the irregular horse for British Hussars, to give the British a unit with both reach and a bit of 'oopmh'.
  • Probably drop one of the Mahdist infantry units too, or at least have them as a reserve that arrives much later, to give the British more of a chance of doing enough damage in their 1 - 2 rounds of shooting before the charge hits.

But all in all, a great afternoon's gaming, over in just over two hours despite a little book-consulting being required to resolve some situations properly. Now I just need to finish painting the units I hastily base-coated, get some proper command stands finished (I was scrabbling around a little to find enough command figures) and get my sabot trays textured and painted. Given me a few months and it'll look awesome!


  1. This was a really fun game and bp handled it well! Very impressed by the simplicity and common sense approach of the rules. I think if command rolls had been better and the brit formation had held together, taking away the opportune flanking attack by the camelry, it would have been a different story!

  2. Good read Phyllion, the dice gods play their part too!

  3. A great AAR. The painting of your figures is wonderful, wonderful.
    I like a lot "Black Powder", I think it is a really good rulebook, easy to learn and with a good level of accuracy and fun.

    1. You summarise my thought s in it Juan! A really find ruleset, simple enough to be adapted for a variety of situations. I'll be making use of it again, hopefully soon!

  4. A great report and always a pleasure to see the Sudan collection on the table. It reminds me that I need to start thinking about the winter challenge!

    1. Yes indeed - I sense a gamut of Sudan crossing our collective painting desks, looking forward to it.

  5. Late to the party (again)... Fabulous AAR Phil! We too love BP for our Sudan games. They are easy to pick up, bloody and have that right amount of chaos to keep things interesting. Well done!


Please feel free to leave a comment if you liked this post.