The rules to use for Darkest Africa games to a large degree depend on what type of game you are after. From the very small skirmish game to the larger ‘massed skirmish’ genre up to a ‘battle game’ system, all are appropriate to one degree or another. All scales offer something different and provide alot of usability for your miniatures in different themed settings. I like to get maximum value from the time and effort put into painting and collecting miniatures so using different game systems that provide a different gaming experience are always things I’m trying to get out of a period.
Looking at skirmish systems to me these cover games with 15-30 figures, a modest force size and one that enables you to get playing very quickly. The very small number allows for a semi-role play element to be incorporated due to the low figure count though this is not necessary and certainly doesn’t define this size of game. Games that would fall into this category would be the Songs of Drums and Shakos series and the (yet to be released) game Congo. Though not generally my first choice of scale to play, if handled properly, the low figure count can give a satisfying game and get things going in short order.
If we look at the other end of the spectrum we are looking for battle game systems that would fit the size and scope of ‘battles’ fought in Darkest Africa games. These include rules like Black Powder or a much more period specific set like Death in the Dark Continent. These games offer a quite different focus and are more appropriate for some Darkest Africa settings than others, though ‘scaleless’ games like Black Powder can be used to represent smaller actions and even DITDC doesn’t slave itself to any particular scale, though its style of play hints at larger actions being portrayed (my past couple of games (posts) gives some idea of what they’re about). They share multi based figure units and that kind of suggests they portray a higher level than a skirmish scale.
Large battles fought in the Zulu War seem to fit this scale but actions fought in the Congo by the Force Publique start to stretch this large scale of game a bit, though still quite doable even if only a hypothetical encounter….there isn’t much that can’t be reasoned one way or the other in this period and as I say, scale is undefined so these types of rules can work well in many settings.
If we turn our attention to rules that focus on single figure games in the range of 40-60 figures that have a quasi-battle feel to them we are getting at the most useful scale for play. If such rules incorporate aspects of single figure movement and bring in aspects of a semi-role play nature, or a thematic narrative game, then we have what I think is the most flexible and possibly appealing game scale to play Darkest Africa actions. I like to call this scale ‘mass-skirmish’ and this is probably the most viable scale in this period covering the vast majority of small unit clashes in the period in a very specific way. The grand daddy of them all in this scale is Chris Peers’ In The Heart Of Africa and its progenitor In Darkest Africa.
In The Heart Of Africa is now in a 2nd edition and includes comprehensive army lists which are very useful in themselves which we shall see. The original game was published in a series of articles in Wargames Illustrated that were provided free by Wargames Foundry on their website, or at least were in the past. You can still access the original files here. An old time favourite is the fabled rule system The Sword and the Flame which has a strong following along with another interesting game system by Two Hour Wargames which covers the Colonial period called Colonial Adventures. Each of these games has alot going for them and there are yet still more that a solid google search will throw up. For me however one game system that is not of this period may in fact be the best candidates for use – Muskets & Tomahawks by Studio Tomahawk.
Musket & Tomahawks fits this genre for a number of reasons even though they are written for the French & Indian and American Revolutionary War periods, or more correctly, 18th century conflicts. Darkest Africa in many respects has a great number of similarities to the French and Indian War which I shall elaborate on below resulting in Musket & Tomahawks being a better fit than first thought and our preferred rules of choice for our chosen period. As well as being our favourite for the FIW, with a strong online support community, we’ve decided to try an adaption for Darkest Africa and see how they work out.
Muskets & Tomahawks
Generally speaking the things that make Muskets & Tomahawks an excellent game for French & Indian War are equally valid for the Darkest Africa period which is the key. For those unfamiliar with M&T here is an excellent concise summation of the game with more useful reviews here and here. An nice quick look at various aspects of play are given in this short series of videos that show you how the game plays.
Further online reviews and videos are also available, one of which I particularly like being Jay’s blog – definitely worth a look for Muskets and Tomahawks action. Jay has also put online a series of in-depth videos that describe the game which are engaging and informative – check them out. Jay has done a great job supporting Muskets and Tomahawks…..I digress…
The rules themselves are quite popular and well supported online and via the Studio Tomahawk forum which is another reason to consider its use for Darkest Africa…most people have already asked everything! Given Studio Tomahawk are delving into Darkest Africa later this year with their much anticipated Congo skirmish themed game the two rulesets very much complement one another as one deals with the period of small unit exploration whilst Rifles & Spears deals with genuine organised ‘large force’ operations. This would certainly bring a focus to all things Darkest Africa and Studio Tomahawk in 2016! Lastly, Meeples and Miniatures did a rather good review of the rules that’s certainly worth a listen.
Before we dive into a rules discussion on Muskets & Tomahawks adapted for Darkest Africa it’s worth sketching out some scenarios that are typical of the types of actions that our Masai, the subject of this series of posts, are likely to engage in. Most Masai style scenarios will involve cattle raids on neighbouring tribes, raids on villages, blood feuds, territory control/denial. Ambush attacks, long range patrols or punitive missions, village or camp defensive operations, rear guard and hasty defense and attack missions and so on…you get the idea.
Conveniently most of the scenarios in Muskets & Tomahawks fall into these categories so alleviating any issues with scenario play, which is a strong element to the success of Muskets & Tomahawks as a game ‘system’. The Slaughter scenario, whilst unpleasant, is particularly appropriate for a Masai army’s objective…hence the reason people seldom strayed into Masailand!
Another Muskets & Tomahawks chap, Tom, has developed a bunch of new scenarios (Ambush, Expedition, Pursuit, Rear Guard, Hasty Defense) he’s used for his Muskets & Tomahawks campaign that are very suitable for Rifles & Spears game situations….and they’re play tested as well. These additional scenarios (objectives) further add to the variety of actions one can play offering up a wide selection of missions for a player to contend with to keep things ‘fresh’ as well as offer an excellent campaign narrative and structure….more to follow on that front.
So with that we can move on to how we’ll make the transition from the 18th to the 19th century using Muskets & Tomahawks.
Rifles & Spears
Ok, so how are we going to adapt Muskets & Tomahawks, let’s call it Rifles & Spears, for Darkest Africa?
The basis of the conversion will be to look at key aspects of the game and how we can reinterpret, add to or adjust game concepts from the 18th to the 19th century as well as levering off the vast amount of information in Chris Peers’ In The Heart Of Africa system. I want to use all the In The Heart Of Africa army lists for force construction and cross pollinate many of the unique Darkest Africa elements of his game into a Muskets & Tomahawks themed game – a synthesis of the two will be the idea. So you can expect to see many similarities between ITHOA in this conversion, this being quite intentional. For those unacquainted, Chris Peers is the guru on all things Darkest Africa, more or less starting the ‘period’ single handedly along with the superb sculpting skills of Mark Copplestone.
So why not just use In The Heart Of Africa you say? Good question. The main point is that the Muskets & Tomahawks is the ‘engine’ which we prefer in our group as we already use it for our FIW games and the multi-tiered game play and scenario/sub plot suite of mechanics makes it very appealing and a highly adaptable rule set. Along with the points above we’ve decided this is the way to go. So the decision is made, Muskets & Tomahawks will be the game system we’ll use. However as noted above, we want to incorporate as much of Chris’ work as possible as he has done a fine job of pulling together the essential elements that make the Darkest Africa genre what it is..so putting those rules and army lists to use along with additional notes from the expanded lists for Death in the Dark Continent as well will give use the best of both worlds…we hope!
Looking at some principal aspects of Muskets & Tomahawks that work well for this period we see they are; the importance of spotting, night fighting rules, hidden units, multi-action weapon reloads, ‘long’ weapon ranges and variable morale table effects based on troop type, variable terrain effects and a host of other related rules like buildings, weather, waterborne operations and so on. The bulk of the game provides a solid foundation for this adaptation.
Furthermore, a strong scenario system is central to Muskets & Tomahawks and the inclusion of the sub plots along with random events pull together the game to make it particularly Darkest Africa friendly and dynamic on a number of levels….the game drives a narrative, a story which is in keeping with all things Victorian in Africa. The effect of artillery and cavalry are well handled with a single figure action based system enabling inter-unit tactics of movement, firing, reloading, etc.
There is alot going on here in a fairly simple game system. Leaders and their traits are important and fit the genre of Darkest Africa to a tee. All these elements are core to the Muskets & Tomahawks system and fit in perfectly with Darkest Africa as a period. So, decision made, Muskets and Tomahawks it is…eerr..Rifles & Spears…so let’s see where it takes us…
A key aspect of this adaptation will be to try and stay as true to Musket & Tomahawk’s core rules and not totally re-write the game – which is not the point; Rifles & Spears should more or less work straight out of the box after it has been ‘Africanised’ and ‘modernised’ with the help of the In The Heart Of Africa (ITHOA) system as much is what is needed is covered in that game. As mentioned, this information is available online and we shall those ITHOA ideas as presented in the series of Wargames Illustrated articles for the ‘Africanisation’ of Muskets & Tomahawks….imitation, flattery, and all that…
To accomplish this we’ll look at a few aspects that’ll need to be made to the core engine to account for technology advances and the period setting. In no particular order these include;
“…If it’s a miracle, Colour Sergeant, it’s a short chamber Boxer Henry point 45 caliber miracle…”
Breach loading and Repeating weapons – the most obvious and significant weapon that decisively changed the battle space in the late 19th century. It gave troops so equipped a major bump in fire power capability and is a defining weapon of this time. Both the shooting effect and their ability to deliver fire right up to the point of melee means we need to accommodate this enhanced firepower as a principal element of Rifles &Spears. We do this in a number of ways.
The first is that breech loading small arms weapons do not need to use an action to ‘reload’ so that they can fire for each action expended. This will significantly increase their fire effectiveness particularly when organised into a firing line and using a ‘2 action’ card in the hands of regulars. There is no longer a need for a (+) rifle modifier as we are not talking about individual aimed ‘long rifles’ here, just fast shooting breech loading weapons, albeit longer range and more accurate weapons but still relying on disciplined volley fire at a higher rate….they dish out plenty.
In addition, they do not suffer any ‘range band’ penalties like smoothbore muskets do. At the low skirmish scale the weapon is essentially a flat trajectory weapon with a good deal of accuracy. The terrain layout and shooting attributes of firing units mitigates some of this advantage but in the hands of well drilled regulars with a clear field of fire they will be, and should be, decisive….take note!
The other thing is that troops in combat armed with breechloaders or repeaters strike first if attacked frontally and those equipped with Repeating Rifles re-roll all missed combat dice rolls. These rules are the way we account for the use of last second frantic fire included as part of the melee and thus prevents the odd situation of an enemy approaching a trained rapid fire unit unscathed by a good run of action cards. Both these abilities will make breech loading and repeating rifle equipped troops the preeminent deliverers of firepower on the battlefield.
We shall also use the (optional) Vigilance rule as a standard play feature which creates an ability for missile weapons, particularly firearms, to dominate the battle space by enabling a kind of ‘overwatch’ or ‘hold fire’ ability, which seems appropriate in this period as mentioned above.
Breech loading artillery, surprisingly, doesn’t really gain much of a benefit from its ‘superior’ breech loading mechanism in this period because the weapon’s recoil results in the gun needing to be relaid after each shot. However it does derive a benefit in its firing accuracy and an increased destructiveness of its ammunition delivered ‘on target’ when it hits. Rifled artillery will be of more use in Rifles & Spears than its distant cousin was in the backwoods of 18th century North America.
In the game therefore all artillery still gains a Black Powder marker requiring one action to reload but it will shoot more accurately and be deadlier when it scores a hit. Some rifled artillery, like the British muzzle loading 7-pounder, was notoriously inaccurate so is considered a smoothbore gun when firing and thus less effective overall. A similar classifying method can be used where this is deemed appropriate for other weapons.
The Combatants – this is where we shall lean heavily on the ITHOA system. In fact we shall adopt the ITHOA classifications in their entirety and adapt these for Rifles & Spears. This will tie in very nicely with the ITHOA army lists which we shall use as the guide when putting our army together…..so now we have complete army lists ready to go! If you haven’t got a copy of the army lists sold by Northstar Miniatures I’d suggest you get them.
The lists are very useful regardless of whatever game system you play and we shall be making good use of them in Rifles & Spears. Whilst not as comprehensive as the later published Death in the Dark Continent lists the format of the lists fits like a glove when using it for the ‘mass-skirmish’ scale of game portrayed by Muskets & Tomahawks and is actually the more useful of the two…almost as if they were written for them. Frankly both are indispensable and should be gotten hold off as quickly as possible!
By using the ITHOA troops classifications we’ll be able to create more subtlety in how African tribal forces are rated instead of the simple ‘Indian’ classification of Muskets & Tomahawks used for native forceswhich is appropriate for that period but not so in Africa. African warriors, their allies and enemies, fought in quite a number of different ways and we want to capture that, just as the ITHOA system has. This has enabled us to add a good deal of texture to the game by portraying unique African combat methods as there were many different temperaments, armaments and fighting styles for African warriors and their enemies and the game should provide some interesting force variation and interactions. This is all handled quite comfortably by the Muskets & Tomahawks ‘engine’.
Command & Control – One nice feature in Death in the Dark Continent was to rate all armies for their command and control ability – Tribal, Organised or Disciplined based on their ability to organise and exercise battlefield control regardless of their actual type. These classifications apply to African as well as Invader armies so some armies, so for example the Ruga-Ruga under Mirambo are rated as Disciplined despite them being a ‘tribal’ army who could be well up against up against a White Explorer army that would only be rated Organised…a command and control advantage to the natives!…though Mirambo, the ‘black Napoleon of Africa’, is hardly any old native!
Building off these classifications, Muskets & Tomahawks has a nice (optional) rule of allowing for more ‘control’ of a player’s army by the use of drawing a small hand of cards, rather than just a random card draw form card to card, and we can use this simple system by allowing a drawn hand of one, two or three cards to reflect the relative command and control ratings of Tribal, Organised and Disciplined forces respectively. In this way we’ve used an interesting existing rule in Muskets & Tomahawks to bring in a bit of command and control variation between the armies to create more interest in game play and better reflect the training and organisation of all the forces, African, European or otherwise. This will further highlight potential differences between tribal vs tribal actions as well where one triable army was notably better led and organised than another.
By using this optional rule as standard and when combined with the abilities of breech loading weapons, and the vigilance rule it can now be seen that the battleground is a good deal different and deadlier than the equivalent 18th century one normally portrayed in Muskets & Tomahawks.
Melee- Whilst it might not seem obvious at first glance there were distinct differences in the way African warrior peoples conducted ‘the fight’. It was this very difference that separated those people’s that are classed as true close combat fighters and the more ritualistic fighters representing most tribal races of Africa in Rifles & Spears. This difference often was the reason for success in the conquest of one people over another. Close combat fighters bring an intensity to ‘melee’ that explained their great success and reputation, enjoyed by the likes of the Ngoni, Masai, Azande and the fierce but diminutive Pygmies. We make these distinctions clear with appropriate Aggressiveness and Defensive combat troops ratings, morale ratings, troop traits and by the way in which they conduct post-melee results…the full suite of Muskets & Tomahawks mechanics to highlight troop quality and variation.
Essentially these Warrior and Pygmy types fight and resolve melee as per the standard rules as that reflects their very bloody approach to fighting, much as it was in North America which Muskets & Tomahawks captures. The other tribal classes however, unless defending obstacles, will simply break-off from combat, allowing the blood letting to cease, as one side usually pulled back and assessed their next move and the other side is not entirely unhappy that this happens. Thus combat can be very deadly or more ritualistic in its approach with losers simply ‘recoiling’ from an adverse combat result rather than a fight to the death, which though still possible between two ‘warrior’ type enemies, is less likely between other classes of natives.
Morale (Reaction)- Muskets & Tomahawks has a number of causal factors that drive morale, or ‘reaction’ in the game. ITHOA also posits similar factors but includes a few more. For the moment I think incorporating these additional reaction test causes are worth going with….though these are not set in stone…further play testing is required. The extra factors that cause morale tests are;
- if a unit is 8” or less from a Hidden marker when it is revealed;
- if a force has its Baggage captured then every unit in line of sight of the captured Baggage;
- all friendly units of a defender’s force that see a building burned.
These seem sensible and also drive along the behaviours of troops as both enemy buildings and baggage become reasons for being targeted and often form part of a scenario’s victory conditions anyway. In reality losing both in isolated Africa would certainly be cause for concern. Hopefully they won’t create any reaction test distortions in the game but for now I think they seem reasonable to include, though the option to ignore these additional reaction test causes can be taken as ‘optional rules’ if desired.
Scenarios – ITHOA uses a system whereby each army is defined as having an aggression value, home terrain and specific stratagems or traits. This system is key to setting up a scenarios for a game and nicely provides a strategic element to the game. This is a part of ITHOA I like and really highlights the differences in each of the forces so I definitely wanted to incorporate this into Rifles & Spears as each army can in this way be portrayed as ‘unique’ even if many of their troop types are similar. All the information is in the ITHOA army lists and ready to use straight away. Lastly, the scenarios in ITHOA can be used as a guide to the utility of the existing suite of scenarios in Muskets & Tomahawks and perhaps even be used to create new ones – you can never have too many scenarios!
Terrain – In the Heart of Africa makes the following comment regards terrain.
“Do not be afraid to cover the whole table with jungle, or tall grass, with a few tracks and open spaces to represent clearings. On the other hand, many areas of East Africa, and the fringes of the Sahara, for example, are covered with short grass with very few trees, so can be represented mainly as open ground with a scattering of hills, escarpments and kopjes”.
Similarly in Muskets & Tomahawks the rules author suggest “as a rule of thumb, there should not be any straight line on the table that exceeds 24″ without meeting a scenery item”…”If you meet this criteria you should have a good Muskets and Tomahawks game”.
It must be said that these comments certainly apply to Rifles & Spears and must be taken to heart. Troops caught in the open will be punished by the power of the breech-loading rifle even more so than in the smoothbore musket era and the rules reflect this reality, even more so in a period with weapons able to fire on each action given by a card and not having to reload, though off course, some weapons still do.
Players should generally lay out a terrain rich environment. Native forces, once understanding the power of modern weapons, sort to use terrain to their advantage at every opportunity and players should dress their table in a suitable way to reflect this real life experience of the tribal warriors of Africa….particularly at the skirmish scale…take note!!
Obviously Muskets & Tomahawks has a good number of period specific rules that are not relevant to Darkest Africa but the incorporation of elements to ‘Africanise’ the game really make it play like a game written for this period. We’ve touched on many aspects that make Muskets & Tomahawks usable for Darkest Africa so the best thing to do is combine all these amendments together and get a game going. This will also enable a structured approach to handling tweaks and adjustments where they occur.
So with that in mind, I’ve put together all the troop types into the following table based on those used In The Heart of Africa Rules which you can see here. Some additional troop types describe those used in the ITHOA rules and lists such as Agile Warriors and Agile Spearmen which were additions after the initial WI version. For the most part the online troop descriptions and table below give you most if not all you need to play. Additional traits account for specific tribe attributes such as the Fan cannibals, Nandi, Masai and Ngoni warriors along with Mirambo’s Ruga-Ruga having the Terror attribute (same as a bayonet charge in Muskets & Tomahawks).
Most natives derive a benefit from being in cover when testing their reaction (much as the North American Indians do) though not all, as ‘true’ warriors care little about hiding in the scrub to steal their resolve, this being reflected in their relative troop type morale ratings and the appropriate reaction test modifiers.
Leaders are somewhat generic in that so much variation can occur in this theatre of wear that an expedition leader who is a civilian could be considered an ‘Officer’ or ‘Local leader’. Similarly specific named professional soldiers or appointed officers might the best rated as a Local Leader or possibly even a Tribal Leader depending on the army. So the list is necessarily flexible and not overly specific when it comes to officer names, ratings and attributes. Player input and common sense is best used here along with the army lists for guidelines.
Troop types come with a variety of possible upgrades or options (the italicised options). This will depend on the army as to how historically a certain soldier/warrior of one army may be different to another even though named the same in both. For example an askari can reflect a poorly equipped and trained local who falls under the category ‘askari’ by being given just enough training to justify the classification. On the other hand in some forces the term askari reflects a soldier more determined and proficient enough with his firearm to rate as a better shot (sharpshooter) such that they could be given the options to justify those traits.
As in Muskets & Tomahawks, the value of a shooter is not usually shown by the simple stat line number…it’s more subtle. The value of a firing line trait is just as deadly in Rifles & Spears and the advantage of rifled weapons over smoothbore ones by not suffering any ‘range band’ deductions further adds to their lethality. Rifles & Spears, like Muskets & Tomahawks, values troops by their rated stat line, their traits and the weapons they are equipped with…it’s the collective that adds to the whole and how a player uses these combined attributes to best advantage will determine success and failure on the tabletop for his men.
Taking our askari example one step further, an improved recruit of those same askari men could make them into the Soldier troop type who now have sufficient training to use the firing line trait (Drilled), who would be given the auxiliaries rating and be equipped with a smoothbore, breechloader or even repeating rifles…and so it goes for other troop types. There is a lot of variation possible and flexibility to cover off near all troop types of this period. Again, using the ITHOA troops classifications we can capture the essence with the appropriate stat line and traits to delineate one troop type from another…Darkest Arica has a lot of variable troop types in it! For some specific troops players can further add what they feel is appropriate.
In toto, the Death in the Dark Continent lists combined with the In the Heart of Africa lists give a very good relative sense of how all the troops types of the period can be rated….thank you Mr Peers.
There are many other subtle wrinkles which the play sheet will show that further crystallise the ‘African experience’ as portrayed in the Muskets & Tomahawks system to make Rifles & Spears stand out as its own ‘animal’.
In summation, it is fair to say that when these amendments, along with the scenario set up ideas and unique combatant attributes are all combined we have a pretty good system for playing a Darkest Africa game highlighting the unique nature of the period and its participants and not just a FIW game with different minis.
In the next post we’ll look at a full game play through, a start to finish example of how we’ll use these rules changes to organise a game, define our combatant attributes and set up for a small ‘sharp’ 250 point proof of concept game of Rifles & Spears and the play sheet to follow through the action…see you then!