Thursday, 28 January 2010

Are Native troops really better in hand-to-hand combat?

Jim Wright has raised a very interesting point in his comments to my recent blog entry. The main thrust of what he asks is:

Why do colonial wargames rules always seem to make Native troops more effective in hand-to-hand combat?

He made this point in response to my latest Unit Data Table, and after thinking about what he had written I had to agree that he was right … most colonial wargames rules – including my own – do make Native troops more effective in hand-to-hand combat. But I could not give a good reason why they did.

My rather feeble excuse was that it this instance I did not have enough single figure bases of Native troops to have a large enough number on the tabletop … but after thinking about it I came to the conclusion that the reality of the situation was that I had just followed everyone else. So what can I do?

Firstly, I can make Native troops have the same Close Combat Power as their non-Native equivalents. This has the added effect of keeping the rule simple (players only have to retain one Close Combat Power for all Infantry Units, one for all Cavalry Units, and one for all Artillery Units).

Secondly, I can actually get round to re-basing some of my Native figures so that I have more of them to deploy on the tabletop.

Thirdly – and somewhat controversially – I could look at the possibility of using my multi-figure Native troop bases alongside my single figure bases. Native troops that are armed only with swords and spears would remain on multi-figure bases whilst those armed with muskets would be on single figure bases. The Units all contain four bases, but the sword and spear-armed Natives have three times as many figures per Unit. The following picture shows what I mean.

A possible solution it might be … but is it a good one? Comments please!


  1. Hi Bob,

    I vote for rebasing your figures to all singles as you find time. It's all in the "look of the thing."

    I think everyone needs more simple hills and scrub to provide blind spots where the not so numerous natives can hide behind or use to advance without taking fire.

    For colonial games, especially the Sudan, we all have flat tabletops. Real terrain is not like that. It rolls. It has wadis. Standing on it may look flat until as you walk along you suddenly find a stand of trees you couldn't see from 100 yards away.

    I put terrain on top of my mat or table surface, so I need more low hills. Using "troops blinds" and LOTS of simple cardboard blobs to indicate simple rises in the ground, the clever native mullah might be able to get very close to the Imperialist forces. Or maybe draw them into a trap.

    As you can see, I'm not sure the answer is numbers, but more likely our inability to make terrain like Mother Nature does.

    Just another thought. Enjoy.


  2. Jim,

    Another thought provoking suggestion from you to enliven the discussion!

    So your vote is for single figure bases and better terrain that lends itself to ambushes and the like.

    That makes very good sense. After all, the Lancers at Omdurman might not have charged into the large group of Ansar hiding in the gulley if they had seen them much earlier.

    It would not be too difficult or expensive to make or purchase enough of the necessary terrain items to create a very dangerous battlefield for a non-Native army to move through.

    Good thinking Jim!

    All the best,


  3. Hi Bob,

    I don't think it is the case that native troops are 'better' then Imperial ones in close combat, just that they are less disadvanatged than in ranged combat.

    They still have the insurmountable problem that they haven't been trained how to stand close together, so they can't get as many swords/spears per metre of front as close order Imperial bayonets. If armed with a sword, it is however your only chance of doing any damage to a bloke with a rifle.

    In game terms I'd make them at best the same as Imperials on close combat, and arguably worse, but not by much. You could make it more complex by givng them an advantage against open order Imperials, and equal or disadvantaged against close order ones.


  4. Jim is absolutely right - "flat" desert terrain is very rarely that... I use lots and lots of small, low hills when playing my Sudan games....

    W.r.t the question in hand - my readign would indicate that in most instances, and where it was there normal fighting pattern/model, most natives *were* better at close quarters fighting - I'm thinking Zulu, Dervish & North American Indian. Most of the sources show that they are above average when it comes to hand-to-hand and I've assumed that it is simply because of their trainign and upbringing - they are more 'used to it' than European's...

    It wouldn't apply to all - I've always assumed Afghans are better shots then close quarters fighters for example...

  5. Regarding whether natives deserve a higher melee factor than regulars, I suspect it stems from an underlying assumption about what the figures represent. Typically, 1 British regular represents a relatively small number of men (say, 5), while 1 native warrior represents many times that many men (say 30?) Man for man their relative combat value may be approximately equal--although I'm so sure if we're talking about Zulus--but from a wider perspective, I'm comfortable with the notion that 30 natives, highly motivated and armed to the teeth, present a greater degree of combat power than 5 regulars. Whether this remains the case in a true skirmish game, where 1 figure equals 1 man, is another matter, although in my mind I still assume the 1 native figure represents more than 1 warrior.

  6. A very interesting group of comments, and all of them have their merits.

    My own thoughts are moving towards making both Native and non-Native troops have the same Close Combat Power, and having more Native troops on the tabletop. That, combined with a less open terrain (as Jim suggests), should make the rules simpler but still give the Native troops the opportunity to get in close, where force of numbers would begin to tell.

    One option that I had not considered until the comments began to come in - and I had some time to think about the ideas they contained - was having larger Native Units (e.g. 6 rather than 4 figure Infantry units). Because of the way the Close Combat system works in Morschauser's rules, they would have an advantage.

    In a 6 vs. 4 Close Combat, only 4D6 would be thrown. Assuming that each side 'killed' two opponents in the first round, it would become a 4 vs. 2 Close Combat and only 2D6 would be used ... and so on. The larger Unit would have the advantage unless it had been reduced in strength by gunfire before the Close Combat began.

    Many thanks for the comments; please keep them coming!

    All the best,


  7. I think that the real reason that we normally give Natives a bonus in melee is that we want to balance the game and make the Imperial player wary of melee. The first point is moot unless doing a simulation. I tend to think of interviews with Zulus who had fought at Islandwana and said that even after the British ran out of ammo, the zulus couldn't get past the bayonets and had to resort to throwing their assegai at them, Of course we are talking arnage of 4 or 5 feet so still melee range. It gets simpler when we move to element based games (whether single figures or not) as now we are asking can this group of regulars representing x men hold off this group of natives representing 2x or 3x men. Having more terrain to let the natives use cover to balance superior firepower is definitly a good idea. Having the natives visually more numerous is a really good idea. Affects not just the look of the thing but also the player's mindset. Giving them the same melee power but more men does gives them an edge but not as decisive as an advantage in power. It would be even better to give them a lower melee value but even more men per stand to see if numbers could over come but that might lead to too many die rolls per combat and also not balance the game as well. To sum up, same value, more figures per element, more terrain but not dense, it should require thought as to how to take advantage of it.

  8. ps

    I meant to not that against a lot of native enemies, the British still tended to attack aggressively with the bayonet expecting to put them to flight so perhaps make spear & sword natives equal but fire arm based ones inferior. (mind set more than capability)


  9. Ross Mac,

    A very interesting couple of comments, that seem to be in line with the way my thinking is going.

    I had originally set out to create a generic 'Late 19th Century' set of rules that enshrined Morschauser's basic concepts, but what seems to have evolved are:

    1. A working set of rules for European vs. European conflicts that have been play-tested and that work;

    2. A developing set of colonial rules based on 1. but with a few specific changes to reflect the slightly different nature of colonial conflicts.

    If I have time over the weekend I will try to finish 1. and write a draft for 2.

    Many thanks for your feedback,

    All the best,