Thursday, 30 October 2014

Battles for Empire - part deux

I'm not sure whether I'm going to be able to get this battle finished before the weekend, largely because I'll need to clear the hut for an RPG games day on Sunday. Hence, the engagement has a real time limit which may or may not see it played to its conclusion. We're at a point now where there is likely to be a clash between the two sides, and casualties will be taken.

Turn 3

Colonial scouts cross the donga
This time the Zulus won initiative, giving them an effective double move. Reinforcement roll saw them get another two units which advanced on from the chest division. They still have only two commanders on the field. The Zulu induna commanding the left horn decides to detach one unit from his formation and send it in the direction of the kraal.

The British continue towards the donga. The Colonial Volunteers stop at the donga, rather than face being in it when they contact the Zulus, who are now obvious to their front. The British commander decided to keep the column moving, and gets his dragoons over the donga in short order. Overall, the British remain confident about the whole situation.



Turn 4

No reinforcements for the Zulus this turn.

Initiative back to the British, and their dragoons detach from the column and canter independently towards the kraal. Company A from the column now struggles over the donga, picking up disordered status on the way. The British colonel keeps pushing his men, but detaches his native infantry who, with their commander, move to support the rifle skirmishers. He is worried about the two units of Zulus massing to their front. The rifle skirmishers shoot at the Zulus to their front, but only succeed in giving them a disruption marker (i.e. few enemy hit). Luckily for the Zulus, they are not rated as Boers.

Two waves of Zulus at the end of turn 2.

Now the Zulu left horn enters the donga, getting disrupted again in the process. The rest of the army is moving through the maize field behind them.


It may well be that this battle does not progress any further, hence I will include some initial impressions here. This game is really being played as a walk through, and I have to say I do like the mechanics. It has to measure up against The Sword & The Flame, which I have decided is a good set of rules for smaller battles, but no good once you have more than, say, 40 imperial troops on the board, effectively a company of imperial forces in that game. Go beyond this, and it begins to get clunky, or you have to play 800 Fighting Englishmen, the bigger battle variant, which we may be trialing on this blog in the future.

Battles For Empire feels like it can manage larger engagements, and has been written to play out the battles specifically of the mid-colonial period (i.e. between the general issue of breech-loading rifles to imperial troops and the adoption of non-linear tactics during the Boer War). At the time of writing I have not touched on the melee rules, nor has there been much shooting. I expect I will play test further in the future, possibly using a historical scenario this time!

Zulus including third wave from chest, kraal in the distance

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

GUMSHOE Esoterrorists - first impressions

So I'm in the middle of play testing Esoterrorists, the original edition from Pelgrane, published back in 2006. As this was one of the earlier iterations for GUMSHOE, I wanted to use it to test drive the mechanics before stumbling into anything more complex, like Night's Black Agents. Esoterrorists 1e is a very much stripped down, basic version of the game, so good to get to grips with initially.

We were playing the starting scenario in the game with three players. Rather than muddle about with the default setting of the Ordo Veritatis, we used the Delta Green background setting, bringing it forwards to 2007 so that we can make use of the starter scenario in Esoterrorists. In future, I would probably prefer to continue to use Delta Green rather than the Ordo Veritatis, as it is simply a better developed background. Esoterrorists reads like it was written with DG in mind, and could readily be employed for DG scenarios, if you get sick of BRP as a system.

So, first impressions. We all remarked on the lack of dice rolling, especially as we spent most of our first session in an almost purely investigative mode. It took no time at all to generate characters, and we built a scratch DG 'W' cell for a mission in Washington DC in less than 30 minutes. We have a retired CIA assassin now working as an antiques dealer, a history professor, and a Boston police detective. I set up the first scene as a meeting with Agent Verity in the car park of Ronald Reagan airport in Washington.

Gumshoe in its purest form is VERY investigation focused, more than BRP, which is the system I have tended to use historically for running Call of Cthulhu. The scenario is not an easy one, especially if you are dealing with experienced players who can circumvent many of the obstacles a less veteran troop would encounter. Plus, as a DG cell, with DG's contacts and resources, they are ideally suited to a high level investigation of the sort we were dealing with.

There is much less dice rolling in a Gumshoe game - the investigative skills allow for players to pick up most of the core clues they need fairly easily. Where points are being spent from skill pools, they are adding to the core findings - e.g. whether the blood in a bath is more than the quantity one would expect from a single person (Forensic Anthropology). The interpersonal skills, like Bureaucracy, Cop Talk, Bullsh!t Detector, and Flirting all got plenty of use, and as a CoC GM is was pretty easy to call for them rather than ask for Fast Talk or Persuade rolls. Data Retrieval is also a great skill for investigators in this kind of environment, and abstracts what would otherwise be time-consuming rolls on Computer Use.

The discipline for the GM is to be ready to wave things through, rather than instinctively put up obstacles. Gumshoe does not have that philosophy at all. It is like playing Dungeons and Dragons, but letting the party force the door automatically. Assume they don't need to roll - the only question is how much noise they make doing it.

I think we're starting to get our heads around the basics now. We have not finished the adventure yet, and it would be good to try out some more of the general skills in the second half, just from a road test perspective, but as we get more familiar with the skill list and with what skills can do, we will be better prepared for something like Night's Black Agents, with its additional crunch. More on Gumshoe once we have finished the adventure...

Monday, 27 October 2014

We play Battles for Empire

Following on from my last post, I am play testing the Battles For Empire rules by Chris Leach. I am using the first edition of the game, largely just to give it a go and see whether it might become my new default battle rules for the Zulu War. Previously, we've had forays with a Legends of the Old West variant, and The Sword and The Flame, by Larry Brom. Incidentally, I'm using a Larry Brom scenario, 'The Kraal', the give these rules a dry run.

I will be endeavouring to chronicle the progress of this battle on a post-by-post basis for the rest of half term, and hopefully it will be played to a conclusion.

The Setting

A British punitive expedition has been sent to burn the kraal of a Zulu chief who has been raiding across the Tugela river and attacking Imperial supply convoys for the main army already operating in Zululand. The British commander's objective is to destroy all three huts in the kraal, signalling irreparable damage to the Zulu base. He must do this in at least 10 turns (I am setting a maximum 14 turn game limit, but each turn after 10 there is a chance the game will end). He must avoid losing four units in the course of the battle.

The British have the following:

  • Three units of Regular, 1st Rate Infantry
  • Two units of Green Natal Native Contingent, 3rd rate Infantry (I'm not running these as Zulus for this battle, but as Regulars, but Green ones and 3rd rate shots)
  • One unit of Regular Dragoons, 1st Rate Cavalry
  • One unit of Colonial Volunteers, 2nd Rate Skirmish Infantry
In addition, the British column has the Colonel as its CinC, and a Colonial officer in charge of the NNC units. It also has two ammo mules.

The Zulus are split into the traditional horns of the buffalo command structure. They have a total of 15 units of warriors to bring to the party, of which two are armed with rifles and muskets. They have ONE unit of white shields which I have rated as Elite, representing the chief's personal retainers and household warriors.

British column on the march, led by dragoons and local scouts.

The Zulus must prevent their kraal from being burned, or take out at least four units from the invading column.

Part of the objective for this game is to get a clear grasp of the rules via a leisurely walk through, but also get an estimate of when enough Zulus are enough for a regular game of BFE. Most of the scenarios in the book seem written for slightly bigger tables than I have, so I have scaled back the total number of figures appropriately. Plus, I think 15 units would be sufficient for most of the battles in the Colonial Campaigns scenario book I have purchased for the Zulu War.

Onto the action now...


In this scenario, the column deploys up to 24" onto the table. Some units have yet to enter. The British are brigaded as a multi-unit formation. Two Boer scouts lead the way, in case any Zulus ended up getting into the donga early. I put the dragoons at the head of the column, followed by the British regulars with the NNC and ammo mules bringing up the rear. I'm not sure what benefits the column formation brings in BFE, but the imperials are presumed to be in march formation anyway at this stage of the scenario. The colonial rifles are already in skirmish formation and off to the right of the column in case Zulus attack off the ridge. All Zulu forces begin off the table.

Turn #1

The British won initiative and marched confidently onto the field, heading for the kraal. The Zulus then rolled three units of regulars from the chest formation, entering from the opposite edge of the table. With them is the induna in command of the chest. He brigaded them into a multi-unit formation, and they began wading through the mealie field to their front.

Turn #2

The British won initiative again, electing to go first, and moving their forces towards the donga. All of their troops are now on the table. At this stage the Zulus were still too far away to be spotted, plus most of them were in the mealie field. BFE has a maximum 36" spotting distance at this scale. One British unit is the equivalent of an infantry company.

First wave - Zulu chest unis advance through mealie field.

The Zulus roll again, this time getting the left horn of their buffalo, and three units of regulars, including one with rifles. The Zulu player elected to bring on the left horn commander. Unfortunately, his troops arrived behind the chest unit, with the Zulu warriors trailing them into the melee. An expensive waste of time with the enemy getting ever closer.

So, at this stage, we have the British approaching the donga. The Zulus have moved to the second deployment table in the rules, as they have units from one of the horns on the table. Six Zulu units are on the table in two formations, along with two commanders.

Tune in later this week to find out what happens next...

Monday, 13 October 2014

Another venture into Zululand?

This blog has been sadly silent of late, largely because work has been so heinously busy, and showing little evidence of letting up. My efforts to finish my Realms of Cthulhu / Tour of Darkness cross-over adventure have been shelved yet again, although I'm about 90% there. Still, work is getting more and more interesting every week, so no complaints there.

With half term soon upon me, I'm pondering whether to play some miniature wargames with the kids, to help them fill time rather than kicking their heels in front of Minecraft or I Carly. Instead I will seek to twist arms into a possible play test of the colonial era miniatures rules, Washing The Spears.

WTS is a battalion level set of rules for the Anglo Zulu War of 1879. I've been working to expand my collection of figures in this area, with more Zulus and Boers and my first gatling gun. I fear I am still light on Zulus and seemingly can't resist the temptation of add more units to the British force rather than making sure the Zulus enjoy the 3-1 numerical advantage they need.

I am using the Larry Brom scenario, 'The Kraal', which appeared in The Sword and The Flame scenario portfolio in 2000. This may be played simply using classic TSTF, or with WTS, or indeed with both. The British objective is to burn the Zulu kraal in a punitive action. The Zulu impi simply has to stop them.

For this battle I've been experimenting with a new approach to hills, using old PS2 boxes to model the two long ridges topped with brush that feature in this scenario. Sadly, they are not immediately obvious in the photos, but they are very clear to the human eye. NB: the thorn wall around the kraal was not finished when these photos were taken. You can also see the dry donga (riverbed) which is a big feature of this battle, and which offers concealment for Zulu units which make use of it.

Note PS 2 boxes being used to create the ridge at the bottom left.

I am also tinkering with the Zulu deployment, using a system that draws from Washing the Spears and Force on Force. The Zulus have 12 'hot spots' along the edge of the battlefield, with a 20% chance on the first turn of 1d3 units appearing on a random location. They get a free 2d6 inch move straight onto the battlefield, or can choose to remain concealed, letting the luckless British get a bit closer.

British entry edge on the right hand side.

More on this as and when I get to play it...