Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Sword & The Flame: First Impressions

The Sword & The Flame is a set of colonial wargames rules written by Larry Brom that has been kicking around the wargaming scene for three decades now. It still seems to be the most widely played rules amongst colonial wargamers, even though it is skirmish-based in nature, with figures mounted on individual bases, and even tracking whether individual characters are killed or wounded.

The core period for the rules is 1878-84, a short period of time during which British and imperial forces were engaged against the Pathans, Zulus, Boers, and the forces of the Mahdi in the Sudan. The edition I own also includes a variant for small unit actions in equatorial Africa, campaigns in China (e.g. the 1860 Arrow War), and for playing the French Foreign Legion in North Africa.

The basic unit is a 20-man platoon or 12-man troop of cavalry (native forces fight in similarly sized warbands) although it is playable down to eight man basic infantry units and six man cavalry units. This is the variant that has been used in the recent series of colonial campaign supplements emerging from Skirmish Wargames.

Having begun play-testing, I can honestly say that they are rather playable. You don't get bogged down too much poring over combat results tables, and don't need to do the sort of number crunching needed for many Games Workshop stable games (e.g. Trafalgar, which I played recently). There is a random element in terms of unit activation, as you use a deck of playing cards to determine the order in which units move and fire. You also roll to see how far units move - e.g. a charging Zulu unit might have 4d6 inches.

Colonial units tend to possess superior firepower, but this is balanced by allowing the natives a number of local advantages, including less concern for rescuing wounded comrades (they can always come and get them later under cover of darkness), ability to cross terrain with no penalties (reflecting better knowledge of the locality), and scope for concealing themselves. This last item lets the native player nominate terrain behind or within which units are hidden, and they are only deployed once enemy units are within 4" or they choose to reveal themselves. This can be a real problem for the imperial player, when natives pop up out of nowhere and charge into combat before you can get a decent volley off. This is like Deep Strike in WH40K, but on steroids!

There are still quite a few tactical considerations: it is not simply a case of one side rushing the other in the hopes they can close with them before being decimated. We are playing Zulus against British in the 1879 Zulu War, and the Zulus are severely lacking in firepower, but once they get within spear-throwing range, things can go badly for the British. They also enjoy numerical superiority of 12:5 which seems to be delivering a balanced game.

Having to manhandle wounded soldiers out of a difficult situation can also lead to tough decisions - do you leave Lieutenant Fauntleroy behind to be speared to death? What will you tell the major at tiffin?

Overall I'm really enjoying these. The game still needs to be finished, but I've moved from sceptical to actually really rather fond of the mechanics, especially their simplicity. The trick will be dreaming up scenarios which will contribute to a close game.

More to follow on the actual game, scenario notes, and the final bloody outcome!


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