Butcher's Yard: A Wargaming Foray into the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879

By Joe Robinson 08 Jan 2019 2

So as some of you may have heard, it was my birthday on Sunday. I’m not that old, but nor am I young so I didn’t spend much time dwelling on it – what I did do, though, was trek up to a wargames club I frequent and took a little trip back in time to 1879.

In case you didn’t know, this year also marks the 140th Anniversary of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, which officially started on January 11th and ended on July 4th of the same year. It was a cynical, imperialistic land-grab and one of the British Empire’s worst moments, but it did give rise to the greatest film ever made – Zulu (1964).

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of taking part in a short club game designed by Jim Wallman. You may or may not recognise him from my features on mega gaming – large day-long experiences that are part simulation, part table-top wargame and feature fleshed out teams and hierarchies. His day job is to run similar (but smaller) experiences for various defence clients in the growing realm of professional wargames.

Zulu 2

Taking the Bull By the Horns is Jim’s small-scale rule-set he devised for playing wargames set during this war. While in theory it could be scaled up to model something like Isandlwana, it was mainly designed for engagements that only feature a few thousand Zulus at most, with no more than a couple of company’s worth of troops on the British side. The link is to an old version of the rules, but the basics are still there.

The scenario was simple – A company of and half of white British troops and a half-company of Natal Native Contingent were charged of escorting an Ox caravan from one side of the map to another. Opposing us were around 1,000 Zulu Warriors split up into around five sub-groups.

Zulu 1

I was on the British team with three others – we were in charge of a half-company’s worth of troops each (A1, A2 the NNC and my B1), with one of our number also being the column commander. We deployed ourselves at the front and either side of the of the track, with the NNC bravely taking up the rear. There were two hills that ran parallel to the track to either side of us, with the narrowest point being where we started. I was on the right, another of my team mates were on the left, and we each decided to try and recon in force up our respective hills to see if we could see anything. My teammate’s hill was closer, so he managed to get to the top of his before I even got to the base of mine… which is where he found several hundred Zulus coming up the other side. The Battle was on!

The rules for this game are all about command and a control with a skew towards personnel action – everyone taking part in the game was represented by a counter which denoted their person. You could either do something yourself or order your men to do something instead (given that in this game, it’s impossible to walk and talk at the same time).

Things you would do yourself include moving, shooting or engaging in hand-to-hand combat, or ‘encouraging’ the troops around you, giving them ‘buffs’ as it were. The ‘Order’ action would instead allow you play one of several command cards such as Move, Charge or Open Fire. The British and Zulu each had their own unique Order cards and rules.

Fire results used a deck-system, although really it's dice rolling translated into a deck of cards - I think Jim mentioned he'd mapped the results of a d16 across the whole deck, so instead of rolling you'd just draw a card. The benefit of a system like this is that you can have the results on the card itself, instead of having to consult a chart. It also allowed for multiple charts and variables to be on a card as well, so regardless of whether you were firing, fighting hand-to-hand or doing a luck check, all those results would be on a single card, based on the result spread of your chosen dice.

Zulu 4

Actions were resolved simultaneously, although certain things happened in order e.g., melee before movement. To bring us back to the game, my teammate was quickly charged by the Zulu formation. He men fell back – the Zulus did melee damage first, and then the troops resolved their movement down the hill.

From that unexpected initial encounter, things escalated quickly. Essentially the majority of the Zulu force ended up piling over that hill down on the column. A2 Company (who made initial contact) ended up being driven to my side of the column, while A1 Company (the column commander’s unit) ended up getting quickly surrounded and slowly get to pieces (although they gave a very good account of themselves). The Natal Natives were oddly useful, given that they didn’t have as good stats or resolve – they managed to check the lead formation and stop them wrapping round the back of the column.

No Zulus appeared on my side of the column all game, although I made sure to watch my back just in case. A final formation did appear from the front of the column, but they concentrated their attack on A1 company, trying to finish them off.

Zulu 5

My part in the battle was heroic (naturally) in the sense that I didn’t lose any men… on account of not doing much (heroically). In essence, I formed a firing line and fired into any Zulu formation that was closest. The game ended somewhat prematurely, but for good reason – the Zulus had managed to steal several Oxen and almost annihilate a company, but they were themselves taking pretty heavy losses, especially since my firing line was free to engage at will and A2 Company had formed up beside me. Collectively we had great success in focus firing on several formations.

The rules are very interesting – the British soldiers can be quite inflexible once the battle get’s going. Each half-company is formed of two sections worth of bases, and you can only give orders to sections and above. Also, once you give an order for a section to start firing, you THEN have to give them the order to ceasefire before you can tell them to do anything else.

Zulu 3

There was an awkward situation where, having spotted the final formation of Zulus, I realised I couldn’t bring any additional guns to bare at them beyond the one section because it would take me three entire turns to get them in place, namely – Ceasefire, Move, Open Fire. It smacks of being one turn too long, something I’ve debated with Jim, but then the British firepower is very good at checking Zulu advance. The game uses Resolve and Fighting Spirit as trackable stats, and you can’t charge or attack if your fighting spirit drops below a certain level. If a Zulu formation catches a full volley from an entire company, or even half section, they can be checked quite quickly and be unable to close.

All in all it was a very fun, short-lived experience. It’s definitely something I would play again, perhaps with some slap-dash campaign context to tie it all together.

Personal Favourites

If you’re interested in getting more Zulu War in your life, war gaming or otherwise, here are a few things that might help from my personal collection:

Zulu (Penguin 2005) by Saul David

A Wargamer’s Guide to the Anglo-Zulu War (Pen & Sword 2017) (Review), by Daniel Mersey

Zulu (1964) (50th Anniversary Blu-Ray) or if you prefer, DVD.

In terms of computer games, there are Anglo-Zulu War mods for Napoleon: Total War & the Mount & Blade spin-off DLC, Napoleonic Wars.

Finally, Digital Gameworks have created several indie wargames based on the war, the most recent of which we reviewed last year.

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