Wednesday, November 4, 2009

13. Death in the Jungle

I played a game of the Battle of Rorke's Drift recently with my good friend Tom. We've been refining our partially home-brewed, heavily modified rules each time we play. I think we're finally finished with the editing (maybe). At any rate, having all my figures out and actually playing a game left me wanting more. Plus, building all that jungle terrain really got me wanting to play a game using it. I've been frustrated not having my Dahomey warriors painted. But inspiration strikes when it's least expected. As I was putting away my 15mm Zulu warriors from my Rorke's Drift set (someday I'll show pictures), I realized they would make great Pygmies for my 28mm Foreign Legionnaires! So I set myself up with a little impromptu solo game. More than three years ago I read Don Bailey's "Skirmish at Utla" article in Historical Miniature Gamer Magazine #5 (now sadly defunct). It absolutely fascinated me with it's careful mechanics for solo gaming. I emailed Don in February 2007 and he kindly forwarded me a pdf of his rules, Pith Helmet. It's a one-page (front and back) set of Colonial-era rules that greatly facilitates solo play, although they are not limited to that. I played nothing more than a squad of British versus a Zulu impi, twice through, just to feel out the rules. I was intrigued. I re-read the article, because that actually is a walk-through of a game, clarifying the rules even more. Finally it crystallized: the Foreign Legion would have to put down some troublesome Natives, who were altitudinally challenged! Chances are very few of you readers will have a familiarity with Pith Helmet, so I won’t be giving detailed descriptions of how the rules work. I will only tell enough to make things comprehensible. Click on the pictures for a larger view.

I took one ten-man squad of French Foreign Legion, led by an NCO, and one eleven-man squad of Infanterie de Marine, also led by an NCO, with overall command going to Lieutenant Frye. (Oldest joke in the book, I know: he's a French Frye. Anyhoo....) Their mission was to investigate some ancient ruins hidden deep in the African jungle. The ruins were rumored to be sacred to a tribe of trouble-causing Natives. In game terms, the French were to travel East to West across the table (the long table edge), spend one turn in contact with the totem, and return.

Likewise, I wanted the Natives to benefit from the deep, impenetrable jungle, and so they all began the game hidden, represented by glass beads for their general location. I used a compass d6 to randomly determine their starting location. I decided that hidden units would be revealed when either side caused a Reaction sequence, as defined in the rules. Each unit so revealed would get one free Action Point before the start of any Action Phase. The FFL were not allowed to shoot at a place marker until it was revealed. When it was time to reveal a marker, a d6 roll of 6 would be the one unit with rifles.

For the Natives, each stand contained two 15mm figures. For game purposes I proposed to allow one stand to equal one 28mm figure. Hey, they're Pygmies, fer cryin' out loud! They're little! It also simplified record-keeping. I had three ten-stand squads with Black Shields, each with an NCO; two ten-stand squads with White Shields, each with an NCO; and one ten-stand squad with rifles, led by an “officer.” All the non-rifle armed figures were assumed to be armed with clubs or spears, shields, and blowguns, to which I assigned a 10" range. To clarify the "NCO" thing, since one typically does not think of savage Pygmy warriors with non-commissioned officers running around, in the rules units are led either by an officer, an NCO, or they have no leader. I designated the NCOs by using figures holding Brown Shields. To “help out” the Natives, I allowed them to operate “as Zulu” for their Command values: a very high number. I fully expected it to be a cake-walk for the French. This was definitely a learning game for me. While the rules are not very long, they are quite concentrated. There’s a lot of stuff on those two pages! It took me a while to really wrap my head around the main convention of the rules: the Action Points. On Turn 1, in the Command Phase, I settled up all the Action Points for each unit. Then using an ordinary deck of cards, I determined that the French could activate only one unit, yet spend only one AP. The Lt. and his Marines advanced in column 9”. I thought I’d get the lesser quality unit out front earlier and see how they fared before sending in the tougher Legionnaires. There were no Reactions to test for, so the Natives had nothing to move. This ended up being a mistake on my part, as I should have continued turning cards until all my French units (at the least) had used up their APs. Instead I began Turn 2. I re-rolled APs for each unit, and moved straight into the Action Phase. Well, by now, the French were within Reaction sight of a marker, so Pygmies #3 and #6 appeared out of the bush, using their free AP to move 9” in Open formation, and to fire their rifles from Mass formation, respectively. This caused one casualty in the Marines, but thanks to the Lt.’s leadership they did not React further.

In Pith Helmet, casualties caused by shooting go to the “Rally Zone,” an off-table area which represents the uncertainty of combat. At the end of the turn, you roll for each figure’s possible return, or death. After the free AP by the Natives, I began the Action Phase proper. Again, due to the chance of the card draw the French were limited to one unit, one AP. The Natives were allowed to use half of their units and all of their AP. The Marines fired back (again a mistake, due to their formation), causing two casualties, including #3’s NCO, and forcing them to retreat 13”. Native #6 then fired again at the Marines, causing two casualties with no Reaction. Yet again I goofed, as I still had not moved the FFL squad at all, so I should have drawn more cards, but in my eagerness to see how the rules played out, I went straight on to the Melee Phase. Native #6 charged the Marines; in Reaction, the Marines fired, causing two casualties; #6 had no Reaction to that. They caught the Marines in column, giving them bonuses to their Melee. In Pith Helmet, during Melee, hits caused by card draws are “drop outs,” meaning they simply go to the back of their unit and take no more part in the melee; unless the winning card is a red card, in which case drop outs go to the Rally Zone as casualties.

After multiple card draws, with the initiative going back and forth, suddenly Otanga the Native officer draws a King versus a Two for the French, causing eight drop outs! Both the Corporal and the Lt. tried their special rule to win the contest, but couldn’t manage anything higher than a Five. The Pygmies won the melee, forcing the Marines to retreat 15” and go Shaken in Open formation.

Things were not looking good for France! I began the Morale Phase, attempting through card draws to return some of the missing Rally Zone figures to their units. Two returned to the Lt., two were killed and the Cpl. remained MIA. All of the Pygmies returned. For the French the actual Morale check was rather crucial: they were close to the table edge. And...they failed, so they retreated a further 6” and remained Shaken. Native #3 passed their check and so returned to normal.

That ended Turn 2.

With Turn 3, I changed my mind slightly, in that I brought all the Native units into play (“the trap was sprung”), and gave them their free AP before I rolled for the Command Phase. The four new Native units all moved 9” in Mass formation, heading for the French.

After finishing the Command Phase, I drew cards for the Action Phase. Again, Lt. Frye’s singularly uninspiring leadership prevented a competent defense: one unit, one AP, so the FFL squad under the Sgt. changed formation to a Supported Line. The Natives fared only slightly better: half their units could move, but could only use one AP each. #6 reformed facing the Legionnaires, #3 reformed to face the Lt., and #2 moved to within 10” of the FFL.

Finally I had the rules understood well enough, to continue with a second Action Phase: the card draw was an exact tie, Queen to Queen. Redraw! The inept Lt.’s poor command ability shone through yet again when they were limited to one unit, one point. Frye chose to fire at Native #3, causing two casualties; in Reaction, #3 fired back with their blowguns (they were that close), causing one casualty, which due to the particular die roll indicated it was the Lt.! I now entered a grey area: Pith Helmet does not include French Foreign Legion, or French Marines either in its list of Command ratings. I arbitrarily assigned the FFL to act “as British,” and the Marines “as Other European,” except when they were being led by FFL officers or NCOs, in which case they were “as British.” Now the Marines had lost both of their leaders to the Rally Zone, so their Reaction test was against a much lower number. So low, in fact, that they fell back 4”, which would take them off the table edge. This situation allows one last chance to rally, which they promptly failed by rolling a 37 when all they needed was a 32 or less; therefore they Routed off the table. Buh-bye! We were still in the Action Phase, and there were Natives yet to go. Native #6 fired at the FFL squad, missing them. Native #5 moved 9” closer. I began the fourth Action Phase. The Sgt. had learned some bad habits from the (possibly late) Lt. Frye: he drew the Queen, meaning only one unit could activate, but at least he was allowed to use up to half his APs. And truthfully, the Queen didn’t matter too much, since there was only one French unit left on the board! The Sgt. chose to shoot at #5, causing two casualties; in Reaction, #5 retired 6” Shaken. The Sgt. chose to spend a second (and his last) AP and shoot again, this time at #6 but they missed. In Reaction, #6 did nothing; however they chose to spend an AP and shoot back, but missed, yet this caused another Reaction from the FFL, where they did nothing anyway. Finally we entered the Melee Phase. Native #2 charged the FFL. Since the FFL was out of APs, one figure automatically went to the Rally Zone. The Pygmies attacked the flank with melee weapons and shields, versus the FFL’s Supported Line formation bonuses. After various card draws, with the undaunted Sgt. trying his special rule to no avail, the Pygmies won the melee, sending the entire squad to the Rally Zone due to Red cards.

There were now no French forces on the table!

For the Morale Phase, I had a quandary, but since I was tired I went with the easy route. With no leader on the table, and no parent unit on the table, the entire squad of Foreign Legionnaires routed completely. If I had allowed the card draw for the Sgt. to return first, then seven soldiers would have returned to the table. From the Marine squad, the Cpl. and the Lt. routed, for the same reason (ie, “parent unit not present.” It could be argued that the Leaders “create” the parent unit, but again, I was tired). Essentially, all the French forces decided it was the better part of valor to live to fight another day, and scarpered off into the jungle! Most of the Natives returned from the Rally Zone: 3 of 5. A resounding Native victory! Especially considering the French never even made it more than one move’s worth in, and that the FFL squad never moved at all! So much for the vaunted reputation of the Foreign Legion…. Nevertheless, I don’t consider the rules broken. If anything, I allowed the Natives too high a Command value. They also outnumbered their opponents 2:1, although this wasn’t as much a factor as it might have been. Plus, it was a learning game. I made a lot of mistakes. The real reason for the French loss is the incompetence of Lt. Frye. His not being able to give the necessary orders (“freezing in action”) severely hampered his troops ability to survive. I’m already readying a return mission. The Captain commanding the local French garrison is not happy with Lt. Frye at all, saying something to the effect of, “Si vous voulez quelque chose faite convenablement vous devez la faire vous-même.” (“If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”) The French shall return! Meanwhile, the Natives party on.
Thanks for reading this long report. Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of...Death in the Jungle! (Oh, and Emperor blah blah blah.)

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