Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Rhodesian Bush Wars at Cincycon

Rhodesian G-car flies over a ZANLA encampment in a Fire Force scenario at Cincycon 2019
It is interesting that one of the more interesting conflicts of the 20th century "Bush Wars" -- that of Rhodesia fighting to maintain its minority rule -- is also one of the most challenging to game on the tabletop. In particular, the Rhodesian Fire Force missions of helicopter-borne and paratroop dropped assaults on insurgent camps can be a thorny scenario. The casualty ratio between the Rhodesians and the insurgents is so lopsided that for a long time I considered them not worth trying to stage on the tabletop. I mean who wants to play a side that loses casualties at an 80-to-1 rate vs. their opponent?
ZANLA encampment prior to the Fire Force assault, with troops milling about in the village grounds
However, as I continue playtesting the air support rules for my modern skirmish rules set, Wars of Insurgency, my mind kept trying to solve the riddle of putting on a fun, playable Fire Force assault game, yet keeping casualty rates vaguely historical. One day it came to me: why not have the insurgents played by the GM? The players would take on the role of the helicopter-borne and paratrooper infantry attempting to corral the ZANLA insurgents and prevent them from escaping. Another player would take on the role of an Alouette K-Car (armed with a 20mm autocannon) and an Alouette G-Car armed with a machine gun as fire support. The players would be challenged, as the Fire Force historically was, to prevent the maximum number of enemy from escaping the board. I wouldn't have any ego issues watching large numbers of my troops become casualties, while inflicting few on the elite Rhodesian infantry.
Rhodesian K-car opens the engagement banking left to allow its 20mm autocannon to engage the enemy below
I intend to do another post on obtaining and getting the Alouette III helicopters ready. I ended up going with two different sources, a Heller 1/72 scale plastic model kit (which would end up being the K-Car), and 1/72 die-cast from Amercom (G-Car). The plastic kit would be the K-car because I would be chopping it up to have the door open and insert a gun to represent the 20mm autocannon. I wouldn't bother with sticking a gun in the metal die-cast helicopter. The die-cast rotor assembly was EXTREMELY flimsy, and broke while I was just sizing it up to see how the blades would fit. After consulting with folks on various Facebook modern military history groups, I replaced the blades with a clear plastic sheet to represent the spinning main rotors. I was extremely happy with the look.
On the ground, sticks of Rhodesian Light Infantry advance through the bush, determined to cut off the escape of ZANLA
One unfortunate aspect of running a cooperative, players vs. GM game is that it limits the number of player commands. This would be my smallest Wars of Insurgency game, yet, with only four slots for Rhodesian players. Both slots filled up at Cincycon 2019, though -- I was running Friday evening and Saturday morning. That's my usual trick to allow me to have to set up and tear down only once each. My first group of players were fellow HMGS Great Lakes members and a fun and laid-back group. It included fellow board member Randy Miller and his high school senior daughter, Emma. She has gamed with Randy through the years and has the reputation of being a deadly opponent. 
Due to the large numbers of insurgents, a G-car is pressed into gunship mode and prepares to engage
We had a blast in the first game. I particularly enjoyed the players reacting with alarm as insurgent groups neared the edge of the board as they called over Randy for fire support from his chopper command. In the end, 18 insurgents out of 120 made it off the table. The Rhodesians lost five casualties. Honestly, considering the wounded-to-killed ratio of modern warfare, that would mean only one or two KIA, the others being wounded and out of action. So, the ratio proved very historical, in my opinion. I asked for suggestions from my players and they said it was perfect -- not to change a thing!
The players picked up my Wars of Insurgency rules quickly, and were a great help in keeping the game moving smoothly
The next morning I promptly disregarded their advice and made a couple changes. Number one was allowing two friends to play the insurgents for me, letting me sit back and GM (and causing the game to move faster with two players moving and firing 120 figures!). The best side effect was that both Jenny and Mike S who played the ZANLA force said they had fun. They said other players would likely feel the same way -- as long as they're not hyper-competitive and aren't the type that need to "win" to feel validated. I think at DayCon 2019 next month I will offer those two slots to walkup players, briefing them on what they're getting themselves into!
Rhodesian Light Infantry advance through a village to clear it of insurgents in Rhodesian Bush Wars
The other change I made was rearranging how the ZANLA troops were organized. Friday night, they began with groups of 12 or so, while Saturday morning I chose 20-figure groups. The reason they were so large was because I was replicating the "bombshell" tactic of ZANLA troops when under assault by Fire Forces. The insurgents would scatter in multiple directions (bombshell). So, I made a rule that when a group of insurgents took casualties, they would split into two separate units next turn. Thus, a 20-man group would bombshell into two 8-9 man units. Then, they would further bombshell once more, into 4-5 man groups. From my research, this would be the typical size of small units fleeing through the bush to escape. It wasn't until a unit got down to the smallest size and lost further troops that they would check morale.
A squad of lucky ZANLA troopers make it to the cover of the wooded hills near the board edge
For both games, I used a random aggression die roll when a ZANLA unit activated. I rolled 1d6 per squad. The higher the roll, the more aggressive they would be. So, if under fire from a Rhodesian squad and taking casualties, on a "5" or "6" they would move into cover and return fire. If not actively under fire, they would move to cover and advance towards the sound of Rhodesian fire. On low numbers, they would break off and scatter away from visible enemies. For rolls in the middle, I had them act in what I thought they would consider the most intelligent fashion. This type of simple AI for the insurgents works well in a game with a GM, and I was able to make most of my decisions without any questioning or complaints from players.
Rhodesians closes in on the village center,  firing from the cover of the trees
I was very happy with the outcome of both games. Number one, the players had fun and said how much they enjoyed the game. Number two, it felt like a historic action and had a realistic outcome, in my opinion. And finally, my air support rules worked very well, I thought. Although very little fire was directed at the helicopters, one G-car had to withdraw when it took accurate, damaging fire from the ZANLA on the ground. That also seemed to ring true with the players.
A shot I took before the game with the K-car above the native village, before placing troops
Fire Force will spring into action April 5th and 6th at DayCon 2019. I'll be repeating my times, with a Friday evening game and a Saturday morning games. DayCon is a fun, small convention that is growing rapidly -- come check it out!
ZANLA insurgents begin to scatter in the early stages of the Fire Force attack as a Alouette III G-car moves in


  1. Great post- I think your ideas on how to game it are spot on.



  2. Great ideas on how to make a lopsided game a fun scenario. Interested to see the air support rules.

  3. Really looks great. enjoyed reading your account. All the best John Hop

  4. Who did the rotors on your chopper?

  5. I just used an image I found on Google and pulled it into Photoshop. I resized it for what I needed and had it printed on clear, transparency paper.

  6. How thick was the clear paper pls?