Bringing Up the Rear

Odds and Sodds on this and That

Vers le haut de la crique sans palette (Up the Creek without a Paddle)



Somewhere in Tonkin, 188?

A Sword and Flame – Boilers and Breachloaders Game


The following scenario was designed for play at a monthly meeting of the Central Illinois Tabletop Warriors, our local gaming club. I have been working on a mythical colonial game, and was not ready to run the next scenario, but at the same time I wanted to test out the rules for more modern weapons. Accordingly I decided to run the game in Tonkin in the late 1880’s, between the French and Chinese/Tonkinese forces – or to the French the Black Flag Pirates.



Upriver - with defenders Tom Wirsing Jr and Kevin Brown looking downstream. 


I set the scenario on one of the major canalized rivers of Tonkin. The Chinese forces had constructed a boom across the river, and mounted a battery on each bank to command the river. Their forces consisted of the following to prevent the French from breaking the boom:



On each side of the river, there was an entrenched battery of two 12# Muzzle Loading Cannon, with each gun having a crew of 5, for a total of 4 guns and twenty crew. These guns were given firing characteristics for Sword and Flame for fire against ground troops – and Boilers and Breachloaders for fire against river craft.



The Chinese had a small command group and three 10 men units of infantry, which were rated as Egyptians under the Sword and Flame Rules. Each infantry unit had a bannerman who served as the officer for that unit.


The Tonkinese had a 10-man unit armed with muskets, and two 10-man unit armed with melee weapons. Their Sword and Flame rating was as for the Sudanese, and each unit had a single leader.


The batteries were placed by the referee – but the remainder of the troops could be placed anywhere on the board by the players The boom was placed under the batteries, and could only be cut by the French moving figures adjacent to it, and then rolling each turn to see if they were successful. All troops and batteries started the game hidden from the French on the river, and could only be spotted by the French landing troops on shore, or once they opened fire on the French. (The curse of black powder at work!)


 French Arrive

The RF Jacques LeBegue as seen from the riverbank. 


To break through the boom the French had the following units, all of which started the game on the river:


The RF Gunboat Jacques LeBegue, with two 3” guns and a pair of 37mm Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon. One of the Hotchkiss was mounted on pilothouse in an armored position, and when firing down on targets on the riverbanks – but not hills, fired as if their target was in one worse cover. (Thus Type Three targets were fired at as if they were Type II.)


The RF Jacques LeBegue had a pilot house crew of the captain and helmsmen, ten gunners on the guns, a reserve of a 1st Lieutenant and five men, and a black gang of on officer and eight men, of which six were needed to keep the ship operating at full power.



The French also had two launches, each with a single 1# gun on the bow, with each launch having a crew of a midshipman, three sailors for steering and power, two sailors on the gun, and one extra crewmen. The launches each pulled a lighter with two sailors on board as crew, with each lighter having a “company” of colonial infantry.





The Colonial infantry “companies” each had two ten man sections, with the first section having an officer, an NCO and eight men, and the second section having an NCO and nine men. If operating together, both sections could remain under command if a single NCO remained, but if operating as independent units the normal command rules would apply. The Colonial Infantry was rated as Sword and Flame British for the game. One man from each section could be detached to use as a scout if needed.



The game used the Generic Sword and Flame Deck from the Virtual Armchair General, with the use of a single halt car. For the French a figure could continue with one light wound, but two light wounds became a serious wound. A serious wounded figure with any additional wounds was considered as killed. For the Chinese/Tonkinese, serious wounds were treated as killed, with a goal of making them more brittle. The French had to take care of their wounded, the Chinese Tonkinese did not.


The above house rule had an interesting effect when combined with the rules for the 37mm Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon. I allowed it to fire as a small arms weapon only, with a ROF of 8. However to compensate for its explosive effect, it drew two cards for each hit caused by it, with both cards applying to a single figure. In effect, any hit by the Hotchkiss became a kill for the French, as the worse card drawn would be of two light wounds – which would translate into a serious wound – which meant that the target figure was removed. As the Chinese Tonkinese quickly learned – it was the most deadly weapon.


French and Chines troops close 


Frank Chadwick and Tom Wirsing Sr., as well as a young man whose name I was unaware of were the French commanders, while Rich Nelson, Dave Sering, Lynne Hall (a gurl!!), Kevin Brown, Tom Wirsing Jr. and Tim Mikesell were the Chinese Tonkinese players



The Chinese/Tonkinese players deployed their melee Tonkinese at the foot of the hills below the batteries, and had two firearms units on each side of the river along the riverbank in the hopes of forcing the French to run a gauntlet of fire. The French placed the gunboat in the middle of the river, and deployed a launch and lighter on either side of the gunboat. Their plan was to sail up the canal with the gunboat serving as the base of fire, while the launches towed their lighters as close as possible to the batteries – at which point the colonial infantry would disembark and storm the heights.


Chinese troops waiting in the bamboo 


The terrain on either bank was a mixture of bamboo. Scrub, rice paddies, assorted clumps of trees, and fields. Visibility was very open, but Class III cover was extremely abundant. The river as mentioned was considered canalized, so that there was deep water up to each bank. For the gunboat, launches or lighters to run around, they would need to touch the bank of the stream.



The game started with the French sailing up the canal just out of range of the batteries. The Black Flag infantry section commanded by Lynne Hall, hidden in a bamboo thicket, opened fire from the riverbank on the gunboat and killed a sailor on the aft 3” gun. The RF Jacques LeBegue fired back into the thicket and hit four Chinese soldiers in return in a staggering display of firepower only using it fore gun and pilothouse Hotchkiss.


The advance up river, with the pilothouse Hotchkiss gun clearing the far bank 


On the following turn the French moved into range of the Chinese batteries, while the Chinese and Tonkinese on the riverbanks decided to hold fire as to not reveal their positions. The Chinese battery commanders decided that they could not stop the RF Jacques LeBegue, and so fired on the launches. Tom Wirsing Jr fired at his father’s launch, scoring four points damage and a critical hit, which resulted in additional damage as the critical turned out to be additional flooding. The 3” gun on the gunboat scored the first of ten plus hits on the Chinese batteries, none of which had any effect save to move dirt. (If a battery was hit, there was a 60% chance of no effect as it hit the dirt, or a 40% chance of a critical hit ranging from crew loss to a magazine explosion. The RF Jacques LeBegue NEVER made a roll for a critical hit during the game!!)



On the following turn the Tom Wirsing Sr. ran his launch ashore to stop it from sinking, and the lighter became a target for the Chinese batteries as they attempted to hit the infantry before they could disembark. (Troops could disembark on the turn after their transport connected with the shore.) Several of the men were wounded, but the only figure killed was the company commander, leaving the company under the command of its NCO’s. The Tonkinese fired at the lighter as well – and were shot at by the RF Jacques LeBegue in turn – with the only casualty inflicted was the death of the Tonkinese leader! The commander of the gunboat maneuvered so as to bring his aft gun to bear, and while he continued to fire at the batteries, he had no effect. The Halt card showed up at this point, which ended fire for the turn.



 The French avance on the East Bank  - Tim Mikesell and Dave S in background


The Tonkinese unit failed its morale check for being leaderless, and ran off to rally latter. The Colonial Infantry went ashore on the left bank and exchanged fire with a Chinese unit on the far side of the rice paddy. The crew of the sunken launch fired at the batteries with their 1# gun. On the right bank the launch and lighter landed below the battery as planned, and were hit by the Chinese batteries. Again several soldiers were wounded, but the company’s commanding officer was killed!



The RF Jacques LeBegue parallel parking across the river. 


The Chinese batteries were now under a hail of shot from the RF Jacques Lebegue, which did a wonderful job of maneuvering to bring its aft batteries to bear as it “parallel” parked across the river, as well as the launches with their 1# guns. The Tonkinese melee units on both sides of the river were called to furnish additional manpower to help keep the batteries in action. (Each battery had a gun, three gunners and two non-gunners at the start of the game. As long as two gunners were alive – the gun could be manned and fired. However as non-specialists were killed off, they had to be replaced to provide the manpower to keep the guns in action. The Hotchkiss cannon were noted as being brutal on the gun crews.



Tonkinese troops and Chinese infantry contest the French Landing 


On the left bank, Tom Wirsing charged his two sections of infantry into a Chinese unit, and in the ensuring firefight and melee destroyed the Chinese unit, with the unit’s bannerman in the end attempting to hold off the French attack. However one of the French NCO’s was killed in the action. Leaving the two sections under the command of a single NCO. The Tonkinese – seeing the Chinese troops die in front of them, routed off the table. The gun crews on the hill, having lost their commander, also checked morale and retired in disorder. They did rally and attempt to return to their guns, but it was too late.



On the right bank, one section of Colonial Infantry advance towards the battery, while the other formed up to stop the Chinese troops now downriver from attacking the unit in the rear. A charge of canister tore through the section in front, killing its NCO and making the unit leaderless. There still were Chinese infantry in force on the right bank, but they were cut off from the battery.



Chinese troops defending 


On the last turn of the game, the French infantry found themselves regrouping on both riverbanks. The RF Jacques Lebegue continued her fire on the batteries, and managed to effectively silence them as the Hotchkiss guns continued to kill off the gun crews.



The Chinese/Tonkinese had a single Chinese infantry force left at the end of the game. The two French Colonial “companies” were not yet at half strength, but each company had a single NCO left in command. One launch was sunk, but the other launch and both lighters were afloat. The RF Jacques Lebegue had lost a single sailor and was seen by both sides as the key to the French victory.


Most of the players were experienced in the Sword and the Flame, but Boilers and Breachloaders were new to most of them. In hindsight, the Chinese Tonkinese players might have done better to hold their fire until the gunboat was in range of as many units as possible, and then attempt to sweep the gun crews off the decks. There were a limited amount of replacements on board, and the loss of any weapons could have hurt the French. In the end it was a French victory though superior firepower, but the colonial infantry is in need of officers and replacements, and this war just might drag on for some time to come…..


Greg Novak