On Saturday at Chez Smith we decided to give Osprey’s colonial rules, The Men Who Would Be Kings, a try. Many of us have colonial troops of various sorts and had played The Sword and the Flame for many years. But the protracted close action and decision gridlock when deciding which units to move always seemed to make the games take longer than they should. So, given the positive reviews from many gamers, we were hopeful that TMWWBKs could re-invigorate our colonial gaming.
Boxer Rebellion: The Seymour Expedition
After a review of available troops, we decided to play a Boxer Rebellion scenario. I have always wanted to try a scenario around Admiral Seymour’s hastily assembled relief force moving by train to Peking. That seemed a little over the top for the first game, so we decided to game out Seymour’s return march. Historically, after the expedition ran into trouble on the way to Peking from Tientsin, they turned around and rolled back south. But the Chinese had broken the bridge at the Hai River. The Western allies abandoned the trains and set out on a 30 mile march along the river. They were attacked repeatedly along the way. Finally, they found refuge in an undefended arsenal and fort, which was six miles short of Tientsin. Here they held up with a wealth of ammunition and supplies until they were rescued by another force that sallied out from Tientsin.
Scenario E: Run to the Hills
So, that was our set up. A Western force of marines and sailors with no cavalry and no artillery, versus a combined force of Chinese Imperial infantry and cavalry and a host of Boxers. The scenario that perfectly fit this situation was Scenario E: Run to the Hills. With three players on each side, we decided to assign 18 points to each player. It worked out that each Western powers player had three units, while each Chinese player had five. For the Chinese players, that was three Boxers and two Imperial units. We also decided, with so many points in play, the Western players would bring on two units to start, then bring on their third unit one turn two (if necessary, rolling to move). The Chinese players started with three units on board and brought the remainder on in subsequent turns.
Since the Boxer rebellion is not addressed, we came up with our own ratings. For the Western powers, we considered only the British and French Marines and the Russian infantry to be Regular Infantry. The Brits were sharpshooters and elite, while the French were rates as poor shots but fierce. The Russian infantry was just bog-standard infantry. All the sailors we considered as Irregular Infantry, since they really lack training for field maneuvers. We made all the sailor well-armed, with modern rifles but made them poor shots.
For the Chinese, we considered the Boxer to be fierce Tribal Infantry. The Imperial infantry were Irregular Infantry, poor shots and unenthusiastic but well-armed with the Kansu Braves similar but with out-dated rifles. The Chinese Imperial cavalry were rated as Irregular Cavalry, unenthusiastic, while the Mongols were simple Tribal Cavalry. Finally, the Chinese artillery was poorly disciplined.
We decided to use the card system for each player to move. When that player’s card came up, he or she acted with all his/her units. We had tried this with Pikeman’s Lament and really liked it. It adds a randomness to the order of things, but does not result in a decision-making paralysis as to who should move which units.
The Battle Unfolds
The Western troops immediately ran into difficulties with the slowing terrain all along the northern edge of the table. This allowed the Chinese, especially the Boxers who were not slowed by terrain, to get into positions quickly. But, while the Boxers might move with alacrity, attacking would not prove to be so easy. On the right flank, the Boxers occupied a woods and went to ground, waiting on reserves. This proved to be a mistake, as the British Marines moved up to close range and began to deliver volleys that devastated the Boxer units. On the Chinese left, the Kansu Brave laid down a base of fire while the Boxers and Imperial cavalry moved to attack positions.
We had worried that the defending players did not get to issue defensive fire against attackers. We need not have worried as the roll for Pinning with each casualty served to protect the defenders. That, along with the need for Tribal Infantry to roll to attack, meant that the Chinese were not able to mount a concerted attack, which we had feared would just overwhelm the smaller number of Europeans.
Things Heat Up
During the progress of the battle, the Chinese moved their Boxer units aggressively forward into attack positions. But they were not able to launch the attacks in a coordinated manner. When the attacks did launch, they were pretty damaging. But even these hard hitting charges could not make up for the volley fire from the Regular Infantry. The Boxers made a tactical error on the right by going to ground in the woods rather than throwing themselves at the Brits.
As Chinese reinforcements trickled on, the pressure increased on the Western allies. Tribal units are good as reserves, since their free action is Move, so they can quickly get in position. The Mongol Tribal Cavalry failed several movement rolls, so was late joining the battle. The commander, eager to get at the white devils, was rather too aggressive. They launched an attack at the double, needing to roll a 3 or better for the additional move to reach their objective. Alas, they rolled a 1, and so the charge ended in the face of the British formed line. Not good. One volley killed eight of them!
Things looked pretty bad for the Austrian sailors, who having reached the top of the hill refused to do anything else. But the inability of the Boxers to launch their attacks saved the Austrians for some time. Only the arrival of the Imperial cavalry managed to throw them off the hill. Meanwhile, the Kansu Braves stoutly defended the stream against the Russians, eventually forcing them to fall back out of range.
The Chinese reserves finally came into play. First, after many failed movement rolls, the artillery got into the position to fire. The Austrians on the hill were a juicy target, but effects were minimal. The crew only got off a few shots during the entire game due to failed Firing action rolls. Despite that, the reserve Boxers charged up the middle and crashed into the French sailors who had been trying to sneak their way up the stream.
Things Wind Down
Despite the effective charges that were launched, the Chinese eventually were worn down. After four hours, we could see there was little left with which to oppose the Western advance (or retreat, actually). While the sailors had taken heavy losses, the French and British Marines were still in good shape, as were the Russian infantry and sailors. It was still a near run thing, but the hour was getting late and my feet were sore from standing on hard tile all day! So we called it a draw and began the debrief.
I think we all enjoyed the rules. As with Pikeman’s Lament, several of us had reservations about the mechanics after reading, but the playing allayed those fears. The main one had been the ability of Regular Infantry to stand up to Tribal charges without defensive fire. But the Pinning rules and the requirement for Tribals to roll to make an Attack action worked well. We did not use all the various leader rules, as we were all first timers and so to keep things simple all the Western troops had leadership of 6 and Chinese 7, which kept things simpler and worked pretty well. I am not sure how well our group will handle different leadership skill for each unit, as well as all the special attributes, especially for masses of Tribal units! But with a positive response from all the players, I think we should see more Colonial troops on the table!
Things we did Wrong
Scott did a quick after action re-read of the rules and discovered the following mistakes we made:
- Volley Fire is a free action (Regulars in Close Order do not have to roll to perform it)
- Volley Fire is short range only
- Units in Close Order are +1 to be hit by fire (we were pretty good at remembering the +1 for melee)
- Units in Close Order lose this status when they are Pinned
- Units have to take a Pinning Test when a friendly unit is destroyed or routs within 12”
- Units that fail a Rally Test (but do not rout) must retreat a half move
Check out the discussion of TMWWNK on the Wargame Spot Forum!