Death in the Dry Continent


a variant for Chris Peers’ Death in the Dark Continent rules for

Australian Frontier Warfare.


Death in the Dark Continent, the well regarded big battle colonial rules re-released by Northstar Miniatures, is a set of rules designed to handle large forces. For ‘battles’ of the Frontier Wars this would represent the larger actions that occurred when army, settler and/or police detachments met larger aboriginal forces. Whilst smaller engagements were typical, evidence is coming forward to suggest that a greater number of larger actions occurred on the frontier than first thought.

Whilst there were never any regular large colonial force concentrations of significance on a regular basis they could occur as happened at Battle Mountain in Queensland against the massed forces of the Kalkadoon aboriginals. This was a large battle involving up to a thousand aboriginal warriors against several hundred colonials ie roughly a company sized clash, well suited to DITDC.

The lists that I have created allow a little bit of latitude by including convicts or bushrangers as an ‘allied unit’, who sometimes united in common cause with aboriginal tribesmen against colonial authorities.

Therefore, hypothetical or real, Death in the Dark Continent are perfectly suited to a 1:1 scale for playing larger actions of the period…they’re a fun set of rules to! I did a rather comprehensive review of them a little while ago which is worth a read to get a good grasp of the game; with that, Death in the Dry Continent is born!


Unlike Death in the Dark Continent which limits itself to the high Victorian era, we shall utilise the rules for the entire period of the Frontier Wars ie 1788 to ostensibly 1900. This is easily achievable as the rules have all the weapon and troop types that cover this period; once again, a sensible reason for using these rules for the ‘bigger scale’ game.

Looking at the army lists it can be seen that a typical Aboriginal force of 300 pts would be made up of approximately 60-70 bases, each organised into units of 6 to 8 bases. An early Colonial force could be made up of roughly four base units of  x4 Regulars, x4 armed settlers and x3 native police, making an army of 44 bases.

A good game can be had with half to two-thirds of these numbers so DITDC is still quite within a player’s reach for gaming. In the later period the much higher points cost of the heavily armed settler and native police forces would drop the number of bases required for them by roughly half that shown above ie about 22 bases…quite a small army, but familiar to DITDC players who fight colonial vs native actions in Darkest Africa

All these figures can be sabot based up from the single figure use we have been looking at with TMWWBK and the lower skirmish game level of play.

Rather than create multiple lists the rather generic nature of the armies lends themselves to two lists more or less covering the entire period, with suitable upgrades and adjustments. Individual regional differences between forces can be reflected by using some of our background posts to help get a more accurate feel for the respective combatants, though some have been included in the lists as a start.

Rating aboriginals as raw warriors in DITDC works quite well. It accounts for a reduced fire and combat ability but both are still possible avenues for success, particularly if combined. The option to take warriors as Skirmishers accounts for some tribes being less willing to tolerate losses from close combat encounters and thus less likely to want to enter contact, preferring to defeat their enemy through the use of missile fire.

The option to use both is open for players wishing to combine these effects. Some tribes, such as the Kalkadoons, can be taken as Warriors reflecting a more fierce determination to confront the colonists in open hand to hand combat. In addition, regardless of fighting style, the aboriginal warrior often utilised missile fire before combat so Warriors may take this as an option for an additional point cost. This properly reflects tactical behaviour.

The shear number of variations and somewhat limited background information on aboriginal forces in some cases precludes a detailed definitive view and players are encouraged to tweak the lists as and when their research shows a difference from the information presented. This also provides a little wiggle room for interpretation so further allowing players a bit more scope for tailoring their army.

Players can if they wish field their aboriginal force as Tribal, however, I rate them as Organised as generally speaking the high level of pre battle planning should be at least the equal of the usually more clumsy European forces.

One last point worth mentioning is that by using the Pitched Battle scenario, two opposing aboriginal tribes could be pitted against one another in a traditional clash. This would involve both sides typically forming up opposite one another, followed by an initial exchange of missile fire and then a fierce hand to hand contest would ensue. The DITDC ‘pitched battle’ scenario allows for just such a game. Both sides taken this way would best be represented as Warriors to enable close combat to occur in DITDC.

As this form of ritualised warfare was less ‘bloody’ than usual defeated units can be taken to represent dispirited or rapidly retreating opponents without them necessarily being considered ‘killed’, though this did occur. Such a battle should use the Witchdoctor rules, as the aboriginal warriors were highly superstitious.

The DITDC baggage train effect can be considered to be the tribal women-folk onlookers, often the source of these confrontations, and also sometimes taken as the spoils of war when an opponent was defeated. Such a game would provide for quite a spectacle on the wargames table.


Tactical Notes: just as in real life the aboriginal player in Death in the Dry Continent will have to use similar tactics. In the early period the aboriginal player can take advantage of the limited fire capability of musket armed infantry and confront the British and Colonial Settler force in more of an open confrontation if he chooses. Against a British Army force it will be harder as they are trained disciplined troops and will likely hold their own if attacked frontally – though it is still to a degree problematic dependant on the effectiveness of their fire. Against Settler forces the Aboriginal player has his best chance of success with this style of attack.

Importantly for the Aboriginal player he must seek to use terrain ; its layout and then movement through it, will greatly enhance his chances of success. Terrain is part of you arsenal so use it wisely. An open field encounter is generally the last thing you want. The options in the army list provide a good deal of variation and can therefore represent a range of different tribal styles of fighting and their commitment to do so. For pick up play choose the force that suites your style of play – missile based skirmishers or hard charging warriors…the choice is yours.

If wishing to reflect the later conflicts then the British and Colonial Settler force will have access to greater firepower through the breechloader and repeater upgrades. Like all tribal forces that faced this challenge, the same rules apply. Seek terrain and use movement to minimise the effectiveness of fire and move to flank and strike your enemy where he can least be able to fire in defence. Numbers will probably be your greatest asset so unsubtle frontal charges will not be your best strategy for winning.

Historically aboriginal warriors used ambush attacks and ‘surrounding’ crescent formations to encircle their opponents, much like the Congo Azande tribes – you would be well advised to do the same.

An interesting wrinkle can be added to your force by taking a convict or bushranger unit. This will  produce something of a surprise element to your army and the additional hand to hand ability or firepower may help turn events in your favour in some situations – it’s certainly a choice worth considering and adds a touch of flare to an already good looking force.

For the British and Colonial Settler player your tactics are largely the opposite of the native player. Your single greatest asset is firepower. You must seek out opportunities to use it as much as possible, utilising open terrain spaces and largely denying the Aboriginal player the advice he has been given above!!

Taking mounted troops will give you greater mobility and help in pinning him down where he can then be defeated with shooting. Native Police add some serious fighting potential in your force. If you can make the contest one where the native player is limited in his ability to ambush, restricted in movement and able to be fire upon, preferably in the open, then you will have a good chance of success.


...on to the lists.




(Ag 1, Organised)

The Aboriginal list covers all tribes with variations noted below;


Warriors with spears (7 points) or Elite Skirmishers with spears (8 points) 0-1
Raw Warriors with spear (5 points) or Skirmishers with spears (4 points) 2-9
Skirmishers with muskets (7 points), breechloaders from 1885 (8 points) 0-1
Escaped Convicts: Elite Skirmishers with hand weapons up to 1810 (8 points) 0-2
Bushrangers: Wazungu or Elite Skirmishers with Muskets (11 points), or breechloaders from 1850 (21 points), repeaters from 1870 (24 points) 0-1

Home terrain is Mountain if Tasmanian aboriginals; all others are Coastal, Steppe or Savannah except north-western Western Australian, Northern Territorian or Inland Queensland Aboriginals, who have Outback home terrain (see below).

Defences: Scouting, Surprise, Witchcraft


Special Rules:

Outback Terrain: must include at least one Kopje, Rocky Ground, Escarpment or Gully. No Jungle, Marsh, Crops or Tall Grass.

Woomeras: Aboriginal warriors used the Woomera; a long ranged spear-throwing weapon that increased the range, accuracy and velocity of the spear which it ‘fires’. The ‘thrower’ also doubled as a club. Skirmishers (but not warriors) have a maximum range of 4 inches when throwing spears, rather than the usual 3, and also add +1 to all their shooting dice. However, because of their lack of shields and close combat weapons they deduct 1 from all their close combat dice except in the first turn of hand-to-hand combat against the current opponent. These rules are assumed to cancel out, and so their points costs are not affected.

The woomeras use however was not universal; Aboriginal tribes of Tasmania, south and central Queensland and the Tiwi in the Northern Territory did not use the woomera, so may not take this option. Woomeras increase the range of the warriors spear to an Effective range of 4″.

  • An Outstanding Chief may be taken such as, or similar to, Dundalli, Pemulwuy, Windradyne or Jandamarra.
  • May upgrade to Warriors as Kalkadoons or similar (+2 points)
  • Any Warrior type may shoot as if skirmishers with spears (+1 point). If equipped with Woomeras, then use those rules above.
  • One unit of Aboriginals may be taken as Elite Skirmishers representing veteran warriors and/or a clan led by a champion.
  • Troops armed with Woomeras are treated the same as bows at an additional +1 point cost (see special rules)..
  • Convicts and Bushrangers may not be taken together, both are rated Elite reflecting their commitment and/or animosity against colonial authorities. They may not be taken if the your opponent’s army is Aboriginal.


British and Colonial Settler

(Ag 4, Organised; British Army force, Disciplined)

The British and Colonial Settler list covers all forces with variations noted below;


Army Regulars: Soldiers with muskets (9 points), breechloaders from 1870 (20 points) and repeaters from 1890 (24 points). 2-5
Armed Settlers: untrained Skirmishers with muskets (5 points), breechloaders from 1875 (8 points). Half may be taken as Skirmishers as frontier veterans (+7 points). 0-6
Native or Mounted Police: Light Horse with muskets (9 points), who may be upgraded to Elite (+4 points). From 1861 may have breechloaders (18 points), and repeaters from 1885 (22 points), either of which may be upgraded to Elite (+7 points). 0-6

Home terrain is Mountain if Tasmanian British or Colonial Settler ; all others are Coastal, Steppe or Savannah except north-western Western Australian, Northern Territorian or Inland Queensland British or Colonial Settler ; all others are Coastal, Steppe or Savannah except north-western Western Australian, Northern Territorian or Inland Queensland , who have Outback home terrain (see below).

Bomas, Fortified Building..
Special Rules:

Outback Terrain: must include at least one Kopje, Rocky Ground, Escarpment or Gully. No Jungle, Marsh, Crops or Tall Grass.

Tracker:a British or Colonial Settler force may include a tracker with the leader’s unit. If so, then any Aboriginal units in Ambush are revealed on a 5+ before game start on a d6 die roll; roll for each unit once deployment is complete. During play any enemy in ambush within 8″ of the leader’s base unit is revealed on a 3+; the aboriginal player announces a ‘tracker roll’ is required and his opponent rolls a dice.  If revealed, no morale test is required by the unit being revealed and the unit is placed on-table.

  • The British army had left by 1870 so would not be available from that date.




4 thoughts on “Death in the Dry Continent

  1. Dear A Grab Bag of Games
    hello and thanks for your work on this site. As an old but inactive war-gamer (ie I war gamed in my youth) I appreciate your interest.
    I’ll be using an image from your site in a talk I’ll be giving for Reconciliation Week to argue that the fact frontier war is becoming known and accepted. I certainly don’t have any objection to war gaming it.
    I am very sorry that your otherwise excellent bibliography omits my 1986 book The Remote Garrison: the British Army in Australia, which includes colour illustrations (by Lindsay Cox) that depict British troops as they appeared in clashes with Aborigines. I always regarded it as superior to Ron Montague’s book, because mine depicts how troops actually appeared (based on contemporary sources), not how they were supposed to look according to dress regulations. One of the types of readers I hoped would pick up the book were war-gamers – it began life as a proposed Osprey – it’s a shame you hadn’t found it.
    I’d be glad to provide more details.
    (Prof.) Peter Stanley
    UNSW Canberra


  2. Hi Peter,

    Thanks so much for popping by and making comment. I’m more than happy for you to use whatever content you wish as (my blog) is meant to be a free online resource to encourage interest in anything people find of use.

    My series on Australian Frontier Conflict was to highlight, not so much just from a wargamer’s perspective, the resistance side of colonial history. Forgetting about toy soldiers for a second, I think I have provided some solid information in a balanced way that anyone can use as a basis for their own further research.

    I confess, and apologies, for not putting in your book as it most certainly deserves to be there – I have corrected that. In my defence, I haven’t been able to track down a copy of your 1980s title so I only put in my bibliography what I had in my library or had access to…I do know of your book and it should however rightly be in the bibliography as a unique Australian title.

    As I don’t have a copy, but using your comments as guide, I have included a description as follows;

    Remote Garrison: The British Army in Australia 1788-1870 – Peter Stanley. A 1986 book on the British Army in Australia, which includes colour illustrations depicting British troops as they appeared in clashes with Aborigines. This provides a better guide to the ‘campaign look’ for collectors preferring a less parade ground look.

    I think that captures the spirit of it from your description – as to content, I cannot say. I shall keep my eye out for your title and hopefully pick it up in my travels around the country in some sleepy bookshop somewhere.


    Happy Wanderer


  3. Hi Happy
    Would you or Prof Stanley be able to tell me if the constables that took part in the punitive operations during the Sydney wars up to 1817 or the field constables who took part in the Vandemonian War wore uniforms or did they just wear civilian clothes.



  4. Hi Roger,

    Peter Stanley may be better placed to answer this question based on the information in his book (which I don’t own).

    However, I assume when you mean constables you are talking about police? If so at the time of the Sydney and Vandemonian Wars there were no police as such – the military detachments formed the law enforcement duties of the colony for the most part. So your typical British redcoat, as described in my posts on the Early British Army in the AFW should give you an indication of what they look like.

    However, you may mean Governor Phillip’s ‘constables’, the so called para military Night Watch, that were formed from retired soldier-settlers that were the backbone of initial forces defending the Sydney basin colony other than redcoat detachments. I don’t have uniform details on them but suspect they were in civilian clothing given their recruitment pool.

    Hopefully Peter, or any one else, can chime in with further details if they have some sources describing otherwise.


    Happy W


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