Australian Frontier Wars (II) – what do I need?




What do I need?

It might seem strange starting with the question “what do I need?”, before I know pretty much anything about the period; but seeing how accessible the period can be is one of its attractions so it’s good to getting a feel for how it can be done before deciding if you want to try ‘something different’.



Fortunately there is nothing particularly unusual about the Australian Frontier Wars that precludes the use of existing colonial rules sets for this period. There are certainly specific elements that would need to be fine tuned to give it that unique Frontier Wars feel but these are simple enough to add, which we shall do in later posts. For me a number of rule sets jump to mind for this period that suit the scale of actions fought.

At the lowest end of the game size spectrum regards figures needed and actioned portrayed, the Skirmish game Smooth & Rifled by Dadi and Piombo is well suited. It is perfect for actions involving as few as 10-15 figures a side and a quick small game. It can handle larger forces but the sweet spot of 30 odd figures means it sits nicely above a true role-play skirmish game (which is not quite my cup of tea) and a larger mass skirmish game.

As an aside, I’ve got some ideas about using Studio Tomahawk’s African exploration game Congo for Australian style exploring missions. I think it’s a fairly good fit with the theme nicely suiting the many exploration journeys in Australia, so it might be a nice twist and add variation on the more conventional settler vs native type games…more on this later.

Both Smooth & Rifled and Congo enable strong narrative games of small actions to be played out which were very common in the Frontier Wars. You can see a good review of Smooth & Rifled here and an excellent AAR here, emphasising the ebb and flow of game play. A quick google search on Congo brings up many hits. Smooth & Rifled has an emphasis on firepower, reloading and move initiative which is very much in tune with Frontier War style engagements. They can handle up to 50-60 figures a side so they interleave well with the next, and my usual, preferred scale of action – mass skirmish.

…but just before we do…Mana Press do a rule system called Tribal that is rather popular – great rules cover to! It is perfectly placed to use for inter tribal clashes that were quite common, particularly as settler expansion forced one tribe onto another’s land. Concepts of payback and revenge (or utu as the maori would say) are common to many tribal peoples and these rules capture this aspect of tribal culture….they are well suited for aboriginal clashes.

The aboriginal figures we shall look at below are in fact a range of figures designed to work with these rules set in prehistoric times so you get two armies for one if you get an aboriginal force….good for over 10,000 years or more!! Whilst Tribal are not specifically related to settler conflict they are definitely worth looking at, reasonably priced and put together by a good bunch of blokes…you can’t go wrong really. I hope that perhaps an expanded range of minis, even a handful along the current line of Denisovan figures, will deliver some more figure pose variations for the intrepid Frontier Wars or Tribal player…back to the rules…

The next level of game suits a system such as Muskets & Tomahawks from Studio Tomahawk. This system which is aimed at small scale narrative game play for the French and Indian Wars is a favourite. I have adapted these rules to the 19th century colonial period as readers of this blog will know ie my own, Rifles & Spears. Muskets and Tomahawks will work as written up to the 1860s before the wider use of breechloading weapons. Even these can easily be added to the base system.

They are eminently suited with their sub plot system, leader traits and dynamic card activation system. For those familiar with my own colonial period variant Rifles & Spears, I have elected to not use these at this point as I want to make information in these posts usable only with a selection of commercially available rules whichever ones take a player’s fancy – a variant for Muskets & Tomahawks however will most likely be added as it fits nicely into the entire theme and is a rules set of choice.

Similar to Muskets and Tomahawks in game scale, but perhaps a bit more accessible at this mass skirmish scale is the popular Osprey rules by Dan Mersey – The Men Who Would Be Kings (TMWWBK). These strike a slightly different note to Muskets and Tomahawks but are similar in many ways and use similar numbers of figures, though TMWWBK probably more easily handles larger forces – we play both.

They approach their theme in the right spirit which I’m looking to convey for actions of the Frontier Wars so both are a solid choice for the larger skirmish level action. These are easily adaptable to the period and the author encourages tailoring the rules which we shall look at in a subsequent post in some detail.

The other system is the recently re-released Chris Peers rules Death in the Dark Continent. These rules reflect a higher level of play, a battle system if you like, so can nicely represent larger scale actions ie ‘small battles’ at a true 1:1 scale. We shall look closer at using Death in the Dark Continent in a later post.

The other rules set that will also work for our purpose is Sharp Practice. These will work very well for the period and offer interesting game play using the TFL unique ‘jump off point’ mechanic to reflect the superior bush skills of aborigines against their whitefella foes. In addition the accumulation of shock (stress) is a good way to reflect the interaction of troops and this rule set is a favourite of many.

Possibly the only point to bear in mind is the disparity between fire-armed settlers vs spear armed warriors, a factor that will need some consideration. Perhaps TFL will do a ‘Darkest Africa’ type extension of SP and address the manner in which native forces meet colonial ones. Sharp Practice has a strong following and is a well regarded game system.

All these rules work for small scale actions or larger affairs as players choose and can pretty much handle the period at a 1:1 scale of game play from actions involving as few as 15-20 figures up to 200+ figures for the aboriginal forces…a true mass skirmish effect which many actions of the Frontier Wars were, all played at a true 1:1 scale.

In later posts after we delve a bit deeper into the distinctive aspects of the Frontier Wars, along with some background, we’ll revisit thoughts on rules and how they can portray table-top actions faithful to the Frontier Wars period.



When one looks at the Frontier Wars the truth is that one of the main limitations in the past for gaming this period has been the unavailability of suitable figures to portray the aboriginal peoples.

Also, to get that uniquely Australian look a gumtree or two and a kangaroo or three really sets things off to give it that distinctive Aussie feel…these are now easily obtainable to. Let’s face it, how could one possibly engage in an Australian wargaming period without a kangaroo…nice one skip!

It’s these small things that will help set the scene so the games don’t just look like they’re being played somewhere in Europe, North America or Africa. Lastly, not having to invest in large armies is certainly a bonus and this period lends itself eminently to the mass skirmish game, so the scope off actions to portray is right on point…virtually 1:1 scale.

In fact, the period is very much geared around those size actions, with a few exceptions…the petite de guerre is what it’s all about.

For anyone considering the Frontier Wars the first thought is maybe….”not another damn hundred figures to paint“. Well, the chances are a typical Colonial gamer has already got an Australian Colonial Force in one shape or another…and one of the attractions of the period is that the native aboriginal forces are usable throughout and somewhat easy to paint….you will only need to supply the distinctive colonial forces for the time period that interests you. Those should also be relatively easy to paint, they being civilian types for many of the colonial combatants.

It’s probably best to take a moment to broadly define the periods that a player may be interested in. For those into the early period of settlement, Captain Cook and all that, then use your American War of Independence British figures. If you prefer the slightly later First Fleet settlement period into the early 19th century then use your Napoleonic British Peninsular war figures…the real Peninsular veterans actually did fight in Sydney so those figures are spot on! These miniatures will do particularly well for the fighting that occurred in New South Wales, a much larger colony that encompasses the later colonies of Queensland and Victoria. Those same figures can also be used for the war in Van Demien’s land ( Tasmania) as well.



On a side note, the French explorer La Perouse landed five days after Captain Arthur Phillip set foot on Botany Bay, January 26, 1788. La Perouse established a camp ( a wooden stockade equipped with two guns) on the northern shore, now called after him, and maintained good relations with the English during his six-week stay. His two ships were the La Boussole and L’Astrolabe which had 225 crew. In his time ashore he established a ‘fort’ and at times clashed with Aboriginal tribesmen. So wargamers with 1790-ish French and British are well placed for some interesting ‘first contact’ scenarios if they wish, maybe even a less cordial French vs British clash for a continent??

Another excellent source of a more campaign look…and something a bit different…is to use the British Legion figures from Oronico Miniatures. Very suitable and they can start to be used from 1816 onwards. The Belgic was in service from 1812-16 in Australia before the Regency shako was implemented 1816-29, then the Bell Top Shako from 1829 until the Albert shako made its appearance in 1844. I’d use the Regency/Bell-top interchangeably as they both have the same ‘bell top’ look with the regency shako being a bit higher. I actually think the figures from Oronico Miniatures would work really well for the post Belgic shako Brits in Australia for a nice campaign look to the figures…they fit Perry’s size wise as well.

If the later periods of the Frontier Wars interests you ie the 1830s and 1840s, then it’s perfectly reasonable to use your British infantry from the early Maori Wars or Cape Wars periods and/or ‘stovepipe’ and/or ‘belgic’ shako Brits whilst mixing in some Colonial forces such as police and settlers. You can even use that unique ‘bell top’ shako for a distinctive post napoleonic look…check out the Perry Miniatures Carlist War BAL Infantry or the Oronico Miniatures figures above.

This period saw many locally raised forces and the mounted police force had a decided military look and function despite their name as ‘keepers of law and order’. The distinguishing headwear of this early Victorian era being the ‘pork-pie’ forage cap. If the 1850s and 60s takes your fancy, then you can go for that distinctive Victorian era look which will round out the end of British service in Australia.

Off course towards the back end of the 19th century, when the last great ‘resistance’ occurred, you can use any of those forces that come from the high Victorian period with a real ‘colonial’ African type look, or Wild West style from North America. All these figures in one form or another will most likely be usable to varying degrees and happily span adjoining timelines without too much objection… it all depends on how much of a button counter you want to be.

It is worth pointing out at this stage that broadly speaking up to the 1840s-50s military forces were involved along with local police and settler forces in operations against Aboriginal resistance fighters and from then on operations devolved to colonial police and settler forces in the main. So the later periods can see more of a para military force look than the earlier periods where classic redcoats can be used against the natives who can be supported by civilian looking types as no ‘organised’ militia forces were formally established on a large scale.

Ad-hoc forces were generally the order of the day up to the mid 19th century, though some local forces were ‘thrown together’ at times such as the Loyal Sydney and Parramatta Associations during early days of settlement in Port Jackson (Sydney) who fought Irish rebels and Eora tribesmen. Disbanded in 1810 it was a further fourth-four years before local auxiliaries were raised again in the form of the Rifle Volunteer movement.

This policing role was essentially a function of who had responsibility to perform the task – in the early period the British Army were the police and after a time it became apparent that local forces were needed as the army couldn’t cope with the policing duties in such a huge country…they had better things to do. This ‘civil policing’ role was because the British government didn’t recognise the aboriginals as a separate people – they were British subjects under the law of Terra Nullius so fell under police jurisdiction when they ‘broke the law’ in their war of resistance.

Anyway, in the scheme of things, I don’t think the occasional uniform irregularity will detract from the overall feel of the period if all the other components come together on-table. With the advent of plastic boxed sets these days you can get a core force for next to nothing and ‘kit bash’ to create unique miniatures. Darkest Africa figures are usable, Boer War figures, Maori Wars figures, Indian Mutiny figures, American Civil War figures, Old West figures..all are possible if judicially chosen. Australian civil and military fashions generally followed the trends of the time, they didn’t really invent to many. No doubt there will be the occasional local variant such as the ubiquitous slouch hat but you have a fair degree of latitude I would say.

Of course the most important component in all this are the Aboriginal warriors. Without them there is very little that the aspiring Frontier Wars gamer can do. The lack of a suitable indigenous Australian figure range to support this period has in fact been one the main reasons that it’s never actually been readily accessible for wargamers, at least in 28mm (baring the now defunct Cannon Fodder/BlazeAway range). Along with the figures from the respective time periods mentioned above it is now easy to find skirmish style posed models which are most suitable for Frontier Wars gaming.

Fortunately the ever expanding range of high-quality figures from the likes of Empress Miniatures, Perry Miniatures, and Eureka Miniatures have come to the rescue. Between these manufacturers they offer high-quality 28mm skirmish style figures that really unlock this period. No doubt other mini lines also have various figures in their ranges to offer as well but the three above are my preferred choice due to their high standard of sculpting…each to their own.

Of late, the expanding Perry Miniatures range into the African Cape Wars period (which not surprisingly bares similarities to the Frontier Wars) and the burgeoning Eureka Miniatures line of Denisovan ‘primeval’ warriors, has provided excellent models that serve our purpose. Eureka Miniatures’ soon to be released 1930s alternate Australian history figures for “A Right Bloody Mess” has models in its range, along with those above, that now provide most if not all of the troops one would need. It is the Eureka Miniatures line of Denisovan ‘primeval’ warriors however that are the key to making this period viable.

The Denisovans will do very nicely for Aboriginal warriors, on which they are loosely based. For the Frontier Wars gamer this will likely be the main source of high quality, varied and characterful figures. With luck more figures in different poses could be in the offing in the future. Aboriginal warriors most definitely looked different in differing regions of the country, not to mention the climate they lived in…Tasmanian Aboriginals being clothed in skins and furs with Northern Australian Aboriginals being much lighter clad, little more than naked.

As these figures are at the heart of the period it’s worth seeing them as they are a relatively recent release and not widely known; the pics below of the ‘greens’  show you what I mean. The great thing about these figures is that beyond their sculpting ‘beauty’ they are eminently convertible –  simply cut and drill to provide the iconic spear to make even more pose variations than those shown. Bend an arm here and there and yet more subtle variation is possible. I shall highlight some of these figure modifications in a later post…you really can get a lot of variation if you put your mind to it.

Suffice to say, these figures are great as they really capture the look of the aboriginal warrior showing them in combative, defiant and iconic pose. Some may perhaps be a wee bit ‘chunky’ for depicting some of your typical 19th century aboriginals, but otherwise they are just what’s needed for this period!










Without getting into the specifics of what figures are to be used for what troops, it’s fair to say that all the figures that you need, or nearly all, are now available in high quality multi pose variations for (mass) skirmish gaming.

In the next post we’ll look at some background and scenario ideas for the Australian Frontier Wars.

…and with that, here’s a nice figure I’ve converted up to show you what I mean…he does look the part.


A converted leader….given a spear with green-stone spear end…plus a fur head band.






5 thoughts on “Australian Frontier Wars (II) – what do I need?

  1. Sensational stuff. I have been pushing wargaming as a means to bring the frontier wars into the public arena for several years. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes. Two questions : where do you get the smooth and rifled supplement from , and whereabouts are the Denisovans hiding on the eureka site ?


  2. Hi George,

    Glad to hear your thoughts are similar regards widening knowledge and acceptance around this topic through historical gaming – peeling back aspects of AFW history is my idea.

    The Denisovans are from Eureka but for some reason are not on the webpage. I suggest an email to Nic to ask if he can put them on his website would be a good idea.

    Smooth and Rifled will feature in my upcoming posts (soon) and will be free (off course).

    I’ve got a bit of ground to cover as we ‘build’ toward getting the figures, history and gaming elements all coming together. As I’m kind of ‘laying it all out’ I’m being somewhat systematic so that the uninitiated has good grounding as they dig further into the topic.

    …I hope you stay tuned 😉


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