Saturday, March 3, 2012

Horns of the Buffalo: A playtest review of Dadi & Piombo's Smooth and Rifled

I've wanted to game the Zulu War for thirty years now. The time and effort involved in painting the zulu forces always seemed beyond me. But after doing two entire Napoleonic corps in 10mm last summer, I decided to go for it. I purchased the Old Glory Rorke's Drift set in 15mm (see above for review) and set to painting. The Old Glory set came with a set of rules, but I wanted something I could use with different scenarios. I remember playing Swort and the Flame a long time ago. Even in the 80's, I felt like they were kind of creaky, and I wanted something a little more fast-paced and state of the art. Dadi & Piombo just released the "Smooth and Rifled" rules on pdf, I thought I would give them a try.
Just a note: The board I am using looks terrible. I think it needs another layer of plaint, plus some highlighting to bring out the texture. Then maybe some stones and scrub to add visual interest.

The scenario I was going to test out: twenty British soldiers, led by a sergeant and a corporal, accompany Lt. Alastair Poppleton-Smythe on a scouting mission to locate the nearest Zulu impi. However, when passing through a hilly area, they find themselves ambushed by 54 zulus who have infiltrated the flanks of the small column. It is a 'horns of the buffalo' maneuver in miniature. With very little covering terrain, this is a straight-up test of the Brit's ability to fend off a charge from multiple directions. This is a large game by S&R standards, but with the relative simplicity of the terrain and forces involved, I did not feel like I was being over-ambitious.

S&R uses an initiative system where each unit rolls 3d6, then uses those points to perform actions. Officers provide some bonus to that roll. The more actions a unit takes, the more those actions cost. Figures can act independently, but for large units, it is necessary to activate your NPCs to command 'group actions.' These are an economical way to move a larger unit, but they are understandably a little less flexible.

Initiative on the first turn grossly favored the British. The three zulu units rolled 8, 7, and 5 on their initiative rolls, leaving them unable to do little more than creep forward under the sights of the British guns. The two 'horns' took serious casualties from aimed fire. One even routed off the board after taking six kills and blowing a morale roll. The other unit lost three figures and had two warriors shaken, but they plowed on.

Shooting works by rolling dice for each figure firing. Shooting individually probably provides more raw firepower, but it would prove tough to activate so many shooters without group actions. Group volleys have the benefit of averaging out casualties. A huge fistful of dice is rolled for the firing group, then the total is divided by a target number based on the range to the target. In this case the range of the Martini-Henry's proved devastating. Figures then are hit are then either stunned or killed on a 50-50 chance. Taking time to aim helps the kill percentage, and since morale is based on kills, it is usually worth it. However, reloading breechloaders also takes an action. After the first turn of lethal volleys, our entire British platoon had unloaded rifles... Still, I thought that this was going to be a walkover for the British.

Thus, for the British, the second turn was one of reloading and maneuvering. Weaker initiative on their part meant that only one of the squads was able to get off a quick shot. One of the zulu units even made contact, though only four of the warriors had enough movement to meet the British lines. A short, inconclusive melee followed, with one British and three Zulu casualties. The Zulus wound up leaving their shaken warriors behind in the charge. This, I learned, created a problem, since these figures would have to pay separate initiative to rejoin their unit, and without an NCO, they could not take a group action. A good dilemma for commanders to have: do you wait and rally, or rush ahead at less than full strength?

Anyhow, the first British squad recovered, fell back, and drove the attackers away with a hasty volley. It still looked like this was going entirely the way of British firepower. After three turns, there was one British casualty to sixteen zulu dead. One of the zulu units had fled, and the other was largely shattered.

Then, on the fourth turn, the pokey zulu unit, which had not rolled above an 8 for its initiative, finally made contact. Here, the weight of numbers made the difference, for while the zulu unit took six casualties, they inflicted seven on the British. Among the dead was the valiant corporal, and a rifleman who took two zulus with him before he fell with an assegai in the gut. Both sides made and passed a morale check.

On the fifth and final turn, the shattered British squad fell back behind the safety of the guns of the other squad, which delivered a final devastating volley on the last zulu unit. It was a British victory, but by a much slimmer margin than their early successes would have indicated.

This whole scenario played out in just over an hour, though admittedly it was a simple scenario consisting of an all-out charge. The mechanics were simple and elegant and produced results within the realm of believability. I'm a big fan of unpredictability in wargames, and I like to see the tide of battle change on the roll of a die. (Suffice it to say, I am not a big fan of DBA) This game of S&R had many back-and-forth moments that kept me on my toes. Had the zulus won initiative in the last turn, they would have been able to close with the British before they could have reloaded and fired. If they could have taken out five soldiers (or fewer if they could take out the sergeant) the game would have come down to a single morale test. Awesome!

A good game, and one I am happy to play again.
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