Tuesday, 7 October 2014

AAR: Wyvern Wargamers All Dayer

Late September brought a prime opportunity to get the Sudan collection onto the table for a few games: a Wyvern Wargamers all-dayer. So, after a hectic post-holiday week of painting miniatures and finishing off some missing movement trays, I rolled up bright and early on Saturday.

The British commanders Stu, Ian and Jon were given the following briefing following follows on from the last game:

10 March 1884
General Graham's defeat of Osman Digna at El Teb in late February avenged the Hicks expedition, but the British expeditionary force in Sudan faces near-Herculean tasks. While Suakin itself and the vital Suez Canal route to British India has been secured by the British troops, the Suakin region continues to simmer with tribal tensions and must be secured more permanently. The truculent tribes must be suppressed and loyalties to Egypt restored. Graham marches against Osman Digna once more.

Further, Major-General 'Chinese' Gordon is in Khartoum and has begun to evacuate the city in the face if the Mahdi's strength. To support Major-General Gordon, routes to central Sudan should be opened, one option being the old caravan route from Suakin to Berber, which offers a staging post on the Nile between Cairo and Khartoum.

While your performance at Hashin was not exemplary, you have field experience against the Mahdists. You are to march to Handoub with a bolstered force, including Egyptian regiments recovered from the remnants of those defeated at the first battle of El Teb. While they of questionable quality and experience, they must be blooded as the long-term safety of a Suakin depends on the Egyptians.
March northwest to Handoub, seize and hold the town and water supplies. Firmly suppress Mahdist resistance.

Commander-in-Chief: Colonel Sir C. Ashburnham (Stu)
1st Brigade:
  • The King's Royal Rifle Corps (Steady)
  • 28th Bengal Infantry (Steady)
  • Screw Gun of the Royal Artillery (Steady)
  • 10th Hussars

2nd Brigade: M. Greenham (Jon)
  • Royal Marine Light Infantry (Steady)
  • Naval Brigade (Steady)
  • Naval Brigade Gardner Gun 
  • Mounted Infantry

3rd Brigade: A. Cathcart (Ian)
  • Egyptian Infantry (Wavering)
  • Egyptian Infantry (Wavering)
  • Irregular Egyptian Infantry (Wavering)
  • Irregular Egyptian Horse (Wavering)
  • Hales Rocket Trough (Steady)
The Mahdist commander (me, also umpiring) was to stop the British advance and deny them the water at Handoub.

As the players were less familiar with Black Powder and my tweaks, I kicked off with a quick ambush scenario to show them the mechanics. The Anglo-Egyptian force, marching in two columns, spies movement on their flanks.

With admirable precision, the Egyptians wheel into a firing line and Stu's British form up to fend the ambush off the other flank. The cavalry screen sees off marksmen in the scrub then a few tight volleys cause the threatening tribesmen waver, then are seen off.

Well, its almost a square...

Throughout, Jon's Naval Brigade barely move from their start positions - not boding well for precise maneuvers!

The second game brings us to Handoub. The British entry, on the top left (vaguely southwest), sees the town and a ridge ahead. The primary objectives are the vital water source and town itself. The three hills forming the ridge are secondary objectives.

The British marched swiftly across the front of the ridge, in good order. Once again, Jon has trouble bringing the Royal Marines and Naval Brigade to order. 

Mahdist scouts in the scrub
Stu's vanguard - KRRC and Bengal infantry in their sharpest formation.

While captured Egyptian gunners and their Krupp gun open the score from the ridgeline under a watchful overseer

More Mahdists emerge to contest the central ridge

Note the Naval Brigade lagging behind - damn sailors!
Stu sounds the advance while the second and third brigades form up behind

In a fit of jingoistic fervour, the vanguard surges forward to assault the ridge on the far northeastern/left flank. While overenthusiastic (*ahem*blunder*), it was pretty much as intended.

Cold steel to the fore, the stalwart British throw the Mahdists of the ridge in disarray. But many hundreds more surge behind them.

Can the line hold?

....apparently not! The fresh units behind the ridge catch the British line exposed and unprepared. A vicious melee ensues and the line disintegrates. The British overextended itself and may be in trouble.

Her Majesty's hussars, in all their parade-ground finery, spur their mounts down the hill to take  revenge on the Mahdist horde, a risky move by Stu with the horsemen of the Baggara tribes finally making an appearance.

While the melee swirls, the enthusiastic tribesmen face down another British line. Finally - the Naval contingent arrives!

Hussars ride down the celebrating Mahdists.

While the furious fire of the plodding Naval troops sees off the threatening tribesmen.

British artillery sees off the captured Egyptian gunners, but the rocket team suffers a dramatic malfunction as a rocket detonates in the trough.

Suffering 'first outing syndrome'
With that, the Mahdist forces pushed off the ridge, there is a lull in the fighting, The battered Anglo-Egyptian force consolidates its gains, able to build makeshift defensive positions. But the day is not done - while a number of objectives have been met, the town is not secure.

The British, having reformed their battered troops, take an audacious tack once again (all Stu's fault, I suspect) - surging into the town before the fresh wave of Mahdists can threaten. But they immediately take a withering fire from captured remingtons and krupps before they can reach the relative safety of the buildings.

The mauled KRRC, reformed after the previous charge, once again take the brunt of the Mahdists' religious fury. 

But while they are flung back, they hold their nerve. Egyptian troops, unscathed until now, are able to start garrisoning the town.

The Royal Marines see off an initial Mahdist charge.

Another lull, but more Mahdists form up to throw the British out of their town.

While a flanking force threatens from the western flank.

A second assault reaches the town and the Marines are caught up in another melee on the rooftop.

Nowhere to escape to
The British are pressed on all sides - as one side of the town is cleared, the Mahdists threaten from another. Can they hold out?

Even the mounted scouts are called upon to charge into the fray to prevent the Hussars being overwhelmed. 

Casualties mount on both sides
It looks desperate, but have the last resrves been seen? Will the foothold in the buildings hold and the day be carried on pluck and the heat of battle?

The day draws to a close - Mahdists mill in the streets, under a steady fire from the buildings, each of which remains in British hands. Managing to displace so many disciplined, well-armed troops is not likely. The Mahdist forces withdraw. A reasonable, but not comprehensive victory for the British!

A fine day's gaming with the chaps: thanks to the three of them for going at it with gusto and thanks to Wyvern for hosting another great all-dayer. This was a milestone game for me, I've put on a few games before but this had everything completely finished: a pleasing moment given how long I've been painting the whole collection. I also got lots of great compliments on the collection, which were very much appreciated.

I controlled the Mahdists, with the dust clouds serving as spawn points, which would be the deployment for 2-3 fresh Mahdist units before I moved them to another point to represent the next wave or flanking force. This mechanic worked well - I could make best units of my limited numbers of units, keep rotating them onto the table and the British could see something was coming and prepare, but not be sure what was threatening.

As the series of games follow one another, I ran them with a very basic campaign system: the morale of infantry and cavalry moved up and down a sliding scale of morale states: Black Powder special rules 'Steady', 'No rule' or 'Wavering'. Troops will lose or gain these states based on good or poor performance. Steady would be normal for British troops and Wavering for Egyptian.

I also ran out sub-plots to add tensions between the players and think these went down really well. We changed them between the two main games. Stu managed to pull two of the most fun: 'Glory Hunter' ("Have one of your units be the first to seize or complete a major objective") and Personality Clash ("Prevent your nemesis from Routing more units than any other allied commander"). Black Powder, in its simplicity, takes such modifications rather well and they evoke the era of adventuring characters looking after their fame/careers rather well!

Black Powder is good for a day's gaming, allowing a fast flowing game on a large board without anyone having played before. No doubt I missed some rules, but that doesn't really get noticed. One niggle was the at-times dramatic shift from a relatively fresh to a routed unit removed from play, particularly if Mahdists managed to charge while relatively fresh. While I see the benefit for ease of play, it doesn't quite evoke the furious but short melees of the period and difficulties in actually breaking a line/square totally. The Bengal infantry and KRRC both being smashed in one round is a prime example, though poor luck on the first two morale checks played a part. I'd be tempted to have another state ("shattered"?), where the unit still exists. It is also off that a battered Mahdist unit is almost as effective as a fresh one: perhaps another thing to tweak given the immense numbers of casualties wreaked by volley fire of the Martini-Henry rifles. I accept that all this fiddling could break what is means as a smooth, process-free game - perhaps starting with a period-specific ruleset would remove the need.

Having said that, the Mahdists still need to have a chance: they have a tough job as it is.
this is why I like GMing them - it is more about presenting a challenge to the British and having some fun rolling the dice than a 'fair fight'. Having read around the period a little and noting the overwhelming advantage of firepower, I'd count routing a British unit as a Mahdist victory (well, a moral victory at least). The British won fairly comfortably and achieved most of their objectives, but in my view, such losses would be unsustainable over a campaign. They would have been well above the proportions registered in the major engagements, with the mauling of the KRRC and Bengal infantry, plus most other regiments having received charges or fire. Perhaps the Mahdists could lose every battle yet win the war through attrition?

Well, that was a long post, thanks for reading if you made it to the end!


  1. Now that has to be the best looking game, I've seen in a long while - fabulous report Phil.

    1. You are very kind Michael, thank you.

  2. A stonking great game and a wonderful AAR, Phil - congratulations for putting on such a good show.

    I really like your approach of GM-gaming one side of the scenario while the players 'cooperate' together on the other. I've tried this a few times and it provides a nice variation to the typical adversarial approach, especially, as you say, when scenario balance would otherwise be in question.

    I also really like your use of dust clouds to signify entry points or 'blip markers' - very evocative for the period, I think. I'll have to try that out with some of our games to see how it works.

    1. Thanks Curt, I've borrowed such ideas from hither and thither but it's great to bring them all together into a game of my own.

      You'd be very welcome to play in it when you're next visiting out green and pleasant isle.

    2. You're on. We'll be there in '16 if not this upcoming spring. Sharpen your haladie for then, old boy.

  3. Fantastic, really fantastic. Wonderful painted figures. Your Mahdists are very nice!

    1. Thank you Juan. You've been seeing them in the AHPC for a couple of years now! :-)

  4. Just make the British steady and then they will auto pass their first break test.

    1. True, but the Beja's 'Fanatics' triggers a break test for Terrifying Charge, which Steady passes automatically. Could always have steady negate that too, I supposed.


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