The 1st Afghan War (S&T 179)


Playings; 2, 6 hours (1 Afghan win, 1 draw)


S&T 179 presents a rare colonial game that is also an example of the rules of the yet to be seen "The Sun Never Sets" trilogy. The system is a good deal better than "Like Lions they Fought", admittedly not a hard thing to do and has obvious roots in Miranda's Imperial age games.


Afghan war is based on 1 of the few Flashman books that I have not read so I am relegated to general colonial reading and the limited S&T support article for advice. Certainly this is the late 1830s so the natives are not outclassed, indeed some of them have better guns than the East India Company boys, they also get a big bonus from the terrain. On the other hand there are not many natives and an awful lot of redcoats. The game appears to go for simulation at the cost of play value with a resulting low excitement factor. The key to play is a road that runs from British India through still independent Baluchistan, four important Afghan fortresses (including Kabul), then back to another chunk of India again. British new units and replacements appear in either the upper or lower part of India and are looking to gain victory by controlling the 4 Afghan fortresses, the Afghans are looking to prevent this with both sides also scoring for eliminations by combat. Naturally play involves zipping up and down the main road or more likely preventing the other side from moving along it by sitting on or astride the fortresses and in other obvious pass hexes. A large chunk of mountainous Afghanistan is not going to ever see any combat units.


Combat is common for all the system games and is well intentioned but dice heavy. Units are rated for fire type (light, heavy guns, muskets and rifles) or melee (cavalry, sword and shield and everything else). Combat occurs over 3 rounds with 1 side firing all guns followed by the next, then going again for small arms and yet again for melee. The side that goes 1st is decided by a die roll modified by the leader's strategic rating. To complicate the die rolling a player can split up his available units in each round to make maximum use of the tables. Units have morale classes that improve the combat die so it is better to roll for 1 veteran unit then another roll for a line unit compared to adding the 2 together. Most combat in this game goes on around the bottom of the combat tables (which go way up to Omdurman force sizes) and a lot of rolling will have no result. To be fair this is Afghanistan with 15 mile hexes and 1 month turns and most combat occurring in fortress assault or in mountains. The conflicts represented are more likely to be sweeps over several days or occasional sniping than vast waves of savages dashing at the thin red line.


Certainly the degree of die rolling can be reduced by limiting the number of separate die rolls per combat table to the tactical rating plus 1 of 1 leader on each side (or 1 roll if no leader is present). Leaders in this game rate 0 to 2 so we are talking 1 to 3 rolls per table for an absolute maximum of 9 per player but with most combats having far less. In each line chosen the column and die modifiers will be that of the majority troop type. This can be explained by saying that the better commanders will have a better degree of control and deployment and will make the best use of the troops available. Poorer commanders will find some units masked by others or not available at the crucial moment. Another worry of the combat system is that cavalry are rather good in melee, regardless of the terrain. To tighten this up cavalry should be treated as "other" melee units when attacking or defending in mountain or pass terrain, there may be enough flat bits in hill terrain to let them charge about. A related problem are civilians, they do not fight, count as 4 units for supply and move slowly. There a victory point bonus for killing them in combat but not through any other reason. British players are tempted to kill them off through attrition to improve the rest of the stack's survival and avoid the Afghan killing them in combat. A simple solution here is to award the Afghan victory points fro eliminated civilians regardless of how they are removed.


Far more losses are going to come from desertion and attrition than from combat. Units are rarely knocked out straight away but suffer attrition 1st (except on bad combat rolls) however the 3 rounds of combat plus attrition will see a lot of units going in and out of the dead pile. The British have a healthy replacement list which is close to allowing all dead units to come back although they will have to march in from India. The Afghans depend on die rolls with a 50% chance of 1 to 6 randomly chosen new units appearing in any friendly stack each turn. The odds are improved if the Afghans are doing well and go down if they are not, there is also a basic 1 in 6 chance of 1 to 6 units going home in a turn.


Both sides have to roll for random events every turn and these events can heavily influence the game making it hard to do well purely by making the right moves. The British can lose units due to Sepoys not liking to cross the Indus (geographical note, all of Afghanistan is on the wrong side of the Indus) and the Afghans can lose further units to desertion particularly those units after rich victory point pickings within India. Some events can really slew the game, the British can lose a lot of victory points if they do not have stated garrisons in certain towns. There are also the evacuate and rescue mission events that only occur if the British are doing badly. The evacuate event reduces the points that the British gain for hexes in Afghanistan but gives a bonus for evacuating units, the British can only ever win a minor victory if this event is played. These sort of events are not going to go down well with the game player but do handle the period feel pretty well. Movement is also based on a die roll which can prevent a stack from moving and repays having good leaders with important stacks.


Supply is always a problem in colonial games and is simulated here by supply counters for the British which appear 1 a per turn in India, the Afghans have to trust to luck. They will supply an unlimited number of units in a 2 to 4 hex range and are then expended. The problem is that this is only enough supply for 1 stack or a group operating closely together. Supply units are also rather slow except when a good march result allows triple movement, along roads this will up the supply unit's 4 hexes to 24, 360 miles in 1 month. When not close to a supply unit, all nations can draw free supply from an unbesieged fort or dice for the number of supplied units in other hexes. Unsupplied units are disrupted, only already disrupted units will be eliminated. Besieging forts is a lot easier than in most games, a single unit adjacent to the hex for the whole of its movement phase will do the job. The units in the fort will have to attack out to drive off besieging units or lose their free supply and have to dice for it. The pass hexes are obviously good places to block the single road but passes are not so good for staying supplied in making them a mixed blessing.


To demonstrate the relationship between the game and its subject consider how the retreat form Kabul is handled. Monthly turns do allow the campaigns to be represented in a reasonable amount of time but downsize the disastrous repeat from Kabul to 1 turn although it took less than a month and involved running fighting. Even civilian units can make it all the way from Kabul to Jelalabad in single turn if they roll a march result plus a moving stack can attack while on the move and continue moving but there is no means for an Afghan stack to attack a moving British stack. The best that can be represented is to have a British force leave Kabul for Jelalabad and be slowed by passing through Afghan ZOCs on the way. The stack can't make it and stops part way because it does not have enough movement points and is then attacked and wiped out by Afghans. This is not going to happen unless the march rules are adapted to force a player to state the composition and destination of a marching stack (better still all marching stacks) before rolling on the march table (incidentally a pretty good idea). A more likely result is the British staying under siege in Kabul where they are wittled down by attrition, this will not destroy a stack in a besieged town so the Afghans will have to charge in to finish the job.


Looking at the system as a taster for "the Sun Never Sets " there is lot of potential here but house rules will have to be introduced to buff up the edges. The problem is of a full game costing a full price but basically being 3 issue type presentations in a single box. Although this works out much the same as 3 subscription issues and less than 3 bought of the shelf there are a lot of other games still to be bought. If the 3 game set turns up at any sort of discounted price it would be well worth going for, it is most tempting to take the rules and do a home version of the Sudan game but so much easier to go out and buy the Decision game.


Summary of rules changes.


(1) Players must state the composition route and destination of a stack before rolling on the march table. If the stack cannot reach the destination hex it must travel as far as possible.


(2) Leader's tactical ratings are no longer used as die roll modifiers in combat. Tactical ratings increased by 1, a stack without a leader has a tactical rating of 1. In each fire phase, artillery, small arms and melee the maximum number of volleys that can be fired is limited to the tactical rating of 1 leader in the player's stack. If more than 1 unit type is combined into a single volley the most numerous (owner decides if equal numbers of types) type is chosen for the class and rating of that combat unit type.


(3) Cavalry is treated as "other" for melee combat in mountain and pass terrain.


(4) Civilian units count for Afghan victory points when eliminated by any means.