…Battle of Biscia, 1875…the road to Keren

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In this encounter we see the forces of the Egyptian Khedive clash once again with the Ethiopian warriors of King John. In this game we shall be using The Men Who Would Be Kings for our rules – (check out the author’s blog).

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In our last encounter, the Egyptian forces of Danish officer, Colonel Adolph Arrendrup, engaged the enemy Ethiopian force of Ras Ali under the somewhat dubious leadership of emigre officer, Pasha Rivertski. This happened after the Egyptian forces had left Kassala (see map), the force having only recently arrived at the approaches to Wanchai. Readers of that tale will remember the solar eclipse that occurred during the battle and the death wish of the Pasha himself, dutifully administered by an Ethiopian spearmen.

…so goes the last encounter to the dustbin of history…

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In this encounter larger forces are afoot as Colonel Arrendrup sets forth a contingent committing some of Egypt’s finest under arms. Appealing to Khartoum, thence, Cairo, the Khedive could not bare the thought of another loss to stain the honour of Egyptian arms, so at Arrendrup’s request, a unit of well regarded Egyptian cavalry was dispatched from Khartoum to catch up with the expedition to add some ‘sting’ to the force.

Thus Arrendrup’s command, now regrouped, included horse, foot, and guns on his march toward Keren, with Agordat being his immediate objective, scouts confirming that the Ethiopians had pulled back their main force in front of the small town of Biscia.

Taking command of the advanced column was Pasha Dasha, an Ottoman officer, well known to take to the bottle once the bullets start flying. His force consisted of a body of four Egyptian regular infantry units, plus two units of musket armed Bashi-Bazouks – all infantry being (unsurprisingly) unenthusiastic. Added to this was the aforementioned smartly outfitted cavalry unit kitted out with red fezes, as well as a Krupp gun.

Small traditional Ethiopian village; Biscia.

King Yohannis (John) of Ethiopia’s response was to do as his countrymen have always done – rally to the call of a Ras and take up arms against the invader. Leading the push in the upcoming clash with the Egyptian advanced column was the veteran commander Ras Veygus, with 2 units of Tigrayan regulars with muskets, 1 unit of Shoan regulars sporting breechloaders and 4 units of Highland swordsmen – spear and shield at the ready. All count as fierce expect the Shoan regulars.

In TMMWWBK speak these translated into 36 point forces ie 1.5 times the usual size of a game. We find this size force gives a nice on table presence and enough manoeuvre elements to make it interesting. One of the advantages of the quick playing game is that it handles this upsizing quite easily. We didn’t use traits for all unit but we plan on trying this for the next game; instead we only used it for the commander of each side. In this game Pasha Dasha had the trait of “the gentlemen has a bottle” ie his leadership varied dependant on his level of intoxication! The Ras was deemed a Hero of the Empire…translated being off course “Lion of Ethiopia”…giving him a 4+ leadership rating…a drunkard mercenary officer vs the lion of Ethiopia…all sounds about right so far…

The Ethiopian host.

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Ras Veygus carries his own standard into battle. The pretty flag is from Ian at Warflag.

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The Egyptians march on. Cavalry move to a flanking position, the gun protected by the infantry, themselves advancing in something of an Egyptian phalanx…all very orderly…

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The flower of Egyptian recruiting drives! Dubious bashi-bazouks and not so keen regular infantry….so goes the typical command for mercenary officers in the Khedive’s army.

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A motley crew…clearly along for the spoils and little else. I do believe the well mustered Egyptian gunner with gun swab is chatting to his mate about this lot…not too convinced…

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Game Start.

Top left is the Egyptian host as detailed in the pics above. The Ethiopians similarly positioned bottom right. The rocky outcrops are impassable and really only two tactically important terrain features. The light colored brush near the Egyptian deployment location and the elephant grass in front of the Ethiopians, which was rather small and could only hold 1 unit.

Objective

We played scenario one, “Just Passing By”. It would require each force to exit via the opposite edge or drive away their opponent completely. We modified the scenario slightly to allow for more room to place troops on table.

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The Ethiopians have clearly come to play. Understanding that the strength in their army is in their close combat ability, they push up. They move forward on their left (lower picture) through the trees and brush behind the rocky outcrop.

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Meanwhile in the centre and right they advance, with the Shoan riflemen moving into the elephant grass. This should provide some cover and an ability for them to fully utilise their breechloader’s long range fire ability.

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Whilst on the Egyptian left Pasha Dasha instructs the cavalry detachment to sweep around the right flank of the enemy behind the cover of the rocky outcrop.

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Moving to counter the cavalry advance the Ras waves his standard, directing his right flank highlanders to interdict the move should that be necessary.

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…the Ethiopian main highlander force moves into position, still beyond the reach of any Egyptian weapons.

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…moving at the double, the Tigrayan musketmen quickly advance to form a ‘left horn’ of the impending Ethiopian attack.

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…slowly but steadily the good Pasha brings his men up. He needs to get something of a battle line formed before the fast moving tribesmen overwhelm his force.

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The end of a few of turns sees the attack plan developing. The Ras intends to sweep around his left flank and drive in the bashi-bazouks, whilst keeping up a hot fire from the elephant grass with his breech-loading equipped Shoan unit. His right flank is held by a unit of highlanders, the remaining tribesmen poised in the centre.

The Egyptian commander starts to shake his line out but the gun is lagging behind rather badly. The cavalry are out to his left flank behind the rocky outcrop, coiled like a spring. Naturally enough he is going to build his attack/defense on a line of firepower – trusting to the wonders of modern whizzbangery to bolster his men’s morale and prevent them having to do any actual hand to hand fighting….quite sensible really!

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…a view from behind the Egyptian position. The Pasha located near the officer waving his sword carrying the Khedival standard.

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…a lone unit of regulars thinking themselves rather lucky at the moment with all that other marching stuff happening over yonder…

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…Pasha, pistol in hand, shouts out his commands and gets his line into shape…

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…finally the gun starts to move into position…

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…Shoan regulars take up position in the elephant grass…

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…the next turn sees the Ethiopians push up further. The left flank Tigrayans make good progress, the Shoans are positioned and the highlanders move further forward , taking advantage of the slow Egyptian deployment.

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…the lone unit of regulars, breechloaders in hand, fire on the plucky lead tribesmen unit and score several hits, driving them to ground (ie Pinned).

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…moments later the Shoan regulars open up from the elephant grass, their aim being a bit off at this point as they try to establish long range sighting of their weapons. The Ethiopian left has pushed up further and now stands poised to move on the Egyptian right flank. The Ethiopian right flank advances and now faces of the Egyptian cavalry that emerge from behind the rocky outcrop…the left and right flanks look set for action…

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…keep firing!

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…snappy Egyptian cavalry.

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…snappy Egyptian infantry…

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…the Egyptian plan develops. The cavalry moves out from cover to threaten the Ethiopian left…

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…meanwhile the infantry are in place and start engaging the enemy, with the gun now unlimbered and ready to fire on the enemy riflemen.

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…mmm…maybe not such a good place after all…

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…the Ethiopian centre holds. Ras Veygus decided to mature his plan by driving in the Egyptian right flank first and hold his central tribesmen back until this attack develops.

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…and here you see the engagement maturing quite nicely.

A brisk long range fusillade has erupted, with the Pasha and his ‘bodyguard’ conducting a tactical withdrawal after taking some hits and failing a rally test. For the most part the good Pasha has been rather inspiring to his men by his rousing alcohol fuelled speeches (ie his leadership rolls have been quite good – 6+).

Though not shown, the Shoans take some artillery fire and become pinned…quite sensible really!

…All this as both armies sense an increase in the tempo of the battle. The left flank Tigrayans stand ready to attack…

(Play note – it’s worth observing how the armies deploy by virtue of he activation method used in TMWWBK. This is an important point to bear in mind in your games. It is this built in game friction that creates tactical interest and opportunities for both players and should not be underestimated in how important it can be to effect the outcome of the game).

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…and so they do. With a desperate at-the-double move they successfully engage the hapless Egyptian infantry who get slaughtered…

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….not one left standing…ouch! Fierce tribesmen vs enthusiastic Irregulars generally works out that way. Now, if the Ras can just get the rest of his troops into contact…

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…ahem…ahem….that’s the Pasha, bottle in hand, ‘rallying’ his men…not so good this time. Fortunately the men can rely on the sound of the Krupp gun to raise their spirits…

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…from the darkest corners of the Khedive’s empire…opportunists and cutthroats…

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…sensing the moment, the Pasha barks out a command and throws the Bashis forward to scout out his left flank…yeah, right!

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The Ethiopian plan fully prepared, but perhaps to late. On the left flank the Tigrayan musketeers have driven of an isolated unit of Egyptian infantry. In the centre, one unit absorbed fire (intentionally) and the other two have gone to ground, safe from any long range shooting. The Shoans, still unable to recover from the shock or retreat, continue to do so whilst the right flank holds steady, the tribesman having gone to ground perilously close to the cavalry in front of them – but safe from fire from the bashi-bazouks to their front.

It only holds now whether the Tigrayans can put in a attack on the Egyptian right flank and then the whole line will surge forward to sweep Pasha Dasha and his men into oblivion…

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…the advance goes well so far…

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…the bashi-bazouks on the Egyptian right ‘present’ to receive the coming tribal tide. Checking their muskets, they stand at the ready…

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In the ensuing two turns the Tigrayans launch an impetuous attack through the scrub and only just fall short of being able to reach the Egyptian line…oh so close…This provides the Bashis the time to unload a volley of musketry into them whereby the tribesmen fled helter-skelter away from the terrible fire…arrgghh!

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Meanwhile the tribesmen unit in the centre of the table rallies and prepares to advance again, whilst on the right Ras Veygus pulls a tactical gem from his bag of tricks. He quickly moves his entire force to the right at-the-double in an attempt to overwhelm the bashi and cavalry unit to save the situation and create some tactical surprise…perhaps restoring momentum back to his attack, now his left and centre are all but gone….doesn’t sound good does it!

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…quickly they move through the brush…the Shoan riflemen still not yet rallied.

The tribesman unit facing off the cavalry have in the past few turns been engaged in a cat and mouse game as each player refuses to come of his ‘safe position’ as neither have been able to move at the double into contact.  The movement of the bashi unit will for the Egyptians, bring together horse and foot, and that should be enough to trigger the tribesmen into action…tactics!

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…the Egyptian line holds firm, Pasha Dasha sensing that victory is his…

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…the gun, once again, thunders across the valley, to the great approval of the men…hurrah!

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…the Bashis look on as the tribesmen build a storm…

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…Dasha, safely away from danger, looks on as his bashi’s are given the honour of delivering the final blow…or get massacred!

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…all is ready…

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… and wait no more! The Egyptian cavalry launch at the tribesmen nestled in the rocks (that round disk means they have gone to ground ‘hiding’ and thus fight at half strength), creating a maelstrom of horseflesh, spear and sword…

(TMWWBK note – this cat and mouse between the tribesmen continued for 4-5 turns until one unit rolled enough move distance to make contact. In combat, cavalry are quite hard to beat as they require two kills per figure loss…making them very tough…lancers and elite cav are even tougher…watch out!)

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…not satisfied with one round of carnage they launch a follow up attack doing even more damage.

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…the attacks continue as the tribesmen unit to the rear launch their assault and see if they can see of the horseman…

…they too failed and fled the field but not before exacting some heavy losses on the cav.

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…in this sanguine shot Ras Veygus sees his centre non existent (a lone standard bearer remains defiantly!). His left flank is shattered and held by a lone unit offering up desultory fire. His tribesman are all but defeated however they sell their lives dearly as only a single Egyptian horsemen is alive. Finally his riflemen rally…bit late chaps!

…with all now looking a lost cause, he orders a withdrawal through Bisci back toward Agordat…comfortable in the knowledge that the Egyptian cavalry have been dealt a terrible blow…we should not expect to the see them next game!…and there are plenty more highlanders rallying to the colors…

..thus ended the battle.

Afterthoughts

The game took about 2-1/2 hours to play, 30 mins to set up. It played at a cracking pace. Despite the fact that we play with oversized armies this really didn’t place undue burden on gameplay or speed at all. In fact it was refreshing to be play a game and concentrate on tactics and movement and not worry about the ins and outs of the rules. Despite the relative simplicity of TMWWBKs, it does deliver a satisfying tactical game with emphasis on troop type behaviours that are appropriate.

The overall plan was for the Ethiopians to try an eke out the Egyptians on their right flank, maybe turn their left and ultimately try and force the Egyptian firepower to spread or attack where it wasn’t  massed. Firepower is king in TMWWBK and those that attack frontally into it will suffer….as they should. Covered approaches and massed attacks are the order of the day but this concentrated battlefield and somewhat limited cover probably played into the Egyptians hands..bbaahhh…excuses! The thing we like about ‘Kings’ is that it emphasises the important stuff to get right. If you throw caution to the wind you are likely to get your head handed to you…but there is glory in that off course so not all is lost!

The Egyptian player clearly wanted to keep his distance and use his cavalry strike arm when able. Cavalry are rather nasty in Kings and I wonder how a more cavalry heavy force would go against this Egyptian host…something for the Pasha to consider next time!

The scenario itself could in fact have gone on a bit. The Ras could’ve pulled back and forced the Egyptians to advance. They need to get off table to get points and secure the victory and they probably would not be able to do that easily in the turn time allotted. The Ethiopians lost two units on table but with the cavalry sure to die, then so to would the Egyptians have lost two units. So it was actually a much closer game than it seemed…we cut it short a bit. So, always remember what the victory conditions are…it’s not just killing the enemy!

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For all of the above, Kings doesn’t get a free pass on everything! We feel that the game is certainly slanted towards the firepower player. Whilst it might be good having all sorts of fancy nasty traits for tribal troops, it’s not much good if you can’t get them into contact because they can be easily shot and pinned.

We can see that terrain layout is very important. I think given the importance of terrain to the tribal player that maybe the rules author could’ve given a little bit more guidance than he did in terrain guidelines. Terrain is always a murky subject when it comes to writing rules and no doubt the publishing format limited the amount of space available for such a rules method.  That’s fine and not unreasonable and something we understood.

Nevertheless we feel though that the firepower player is advantaged in play and a slight restoring of balance and uncertainty into gameplay may help even things out a little bit and make the game more enjoyable. We’re going to adopt the following rule for the next game – Rally with Elan.

This simple rule allows for pinned units to be able to be activated IF they roll 3 or higher than their required leadership score eg if a unit needs a 7+ Leadership score to pass its rally test then on a 10, 11 or 12 it would remove all pin markers and then be able to be activated. If it rolled a 7, 8 or 9 it simply rallies of the pin marker and it’s turn is finished. A natural roll of 12 always allows a Rally with Elan result.

This simple tweak allows for all units to be have the possibility to keep going in a turn instead of being pinned, rallied and then pinned again. The better quality the unit the more likely it is to rally with elan. It also removes some of the certainty for the firepower based army which can sometimes seem to be able to just shoot and pin enemy units a little too easily.

The above tweaks in no way changes our opinion of the rules. We think they work really well and in some particular historical settings that the rules as written work perfectly fine. The very nature of TMWWBK is to fiddle and tweak to allow the core rules to provide the basis for your specific period. This is clever design and I think intentional if one only looks at the optional rules in the book.

It’s this flexibility that makes the rules really appealing. We can jump around the globe with this set of rules and with only minor adjustments and tweaks it works for most periods, or at least gives a plausible, fast, accessible game that can be remembered and taught to new players. If you don’t have them you really aught to give them a go.

Lastly, I think that the use of the scenarios and leadership traits is important to getting the full game experience…something we shall certainly be looking to do next time…now, where is that scenario list…enough with these frontal assaults!

..until next time…

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“..a victory so great it made the London News…”

Khedive Ismail

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