Bittereinder deserves more attention. It’s an effective game simulation of an intriguing war that has been largely ignored by the wargaming world.
The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 straddled the 19th and 20th centuries in time as well as in the style of warfare. Some 50,000 citizens (estimates differ) of the two tiny Boer republics – the South African Republic and Orange Free State – taking on the mightiest empire on earth doesn’t make for an even contest. After less than a year of sieges and trench warfare, the Boer armies were scattered and both their capitals conquered. Instead of surrendering, the Boers split into small mounted commandos and waged guerrilla war for another two years before the combined effect of concentration camps, the British scorched earth policy, the militarisation of African tribes and other factors forced a surrender. (Sieges, trenches, terrorism, scorched earth and concentration camps in one war… scary.)
Interestingly, the Boers won the peace as surely as they had lost the war. Eight years after surrendering, the Boer general Louis Botha became the first prime minister of a united South Africa. The country was led by an unbroken succession of ex-Boer generals from 1910 until 1948.
From a gaming perspective, the challenge is to find a system that effectively simulates both stages of the war, as well as the fact that winning and losing in this war was about the will to fight rather than simply success in the field. Bittereinder achieves this rather impressively.
In many ways, it’s an old-fashioned wargame, with area movement, odds-combat and stacks of cardboard counters. The level is strategic, with 32 monthly moves that translates to an estimated 8-hour playing time.
A magazine game, it comes with a large paper map that covers the eastern half of South Africa. The map is divided into areas for movement and combat and looks great.
Disappointingly, terrain features don’t really feature in the game. There are special rules for mountains, but only three mountain areas, none in key spots. I would’ve expected the mountainous terrain of the northeastern Free State, northern Natal and western Transvaal to be reflected in the game, as they had an impact historically. In Bittereinder, it is as effective to defend on the featureless plains of the southwestern Free State as it is in the rugged northeast. Maybe the designer could consider giving some of the areas an intrinsic defence capability.
** EDIT: The designer responded to the point in red above, giving a good explanation for his decision. So feel free to ignore what turned out to be an unfounded gripe.
The game includes 264 counters and 14 pages of rules. The Combat Results Table is hidden away after some ads for other games. It would’ve been good to have that on a separate card or printed on the map. As for the counters, I’m not so sure about the purple Free Staters. (Hmm, these units from the Orange Free State… what colour shall we make them?) Apart from that, the counters are well designed. The rules are clearly set out and logically organised, but you have to concentrate pretty hard in places and there’s too much repetition. I’ve simplified and condensed the rules for my own use.
The set-up is easy, with starting areas printed on the counters. The British Empire starts with a relatively small force strung out along the borders of the Boer republics, until massive reinforcements arrive in turns 3 and 5. Also, eliminated Empire units can almost always return as replacements.
The downside for the Empire player is that their strongest units are on foot, thus only able to move one area per turn, and they require supply units to attack. At least rail and sea movement can get them close to the action quickly.
Maintaining supply and infrastructure is a problem for the Empire, as is keeping their morale up, especially in the first few turns. Morale can be reduced by loss of terrain or units, as well as razing Boer areas. (The soldiers didn’t like what they were doing.) And cornering those slippery Boer commandos is damn hard. Later in the game, the Empire can use special tricks such as building blockhouse lines to curb Boer mobility and razing Boer areas to deny the Boers their War Commitment Points.
The optional rule that allows for Empire Morale to decrease due to Boer tactical victories is sensible, as the Boers have little incentive to attack otherwise. It also discourages Empire attacks at ridiculous odds just to soak up Boer War Commitment Points.
The Boers start with as strong an army as they’ll ever have, as there are no reinforcements and their eliminated units cannot return. Being mounted, all their units can move two areas per turn, except when they combine into an army. The downside for them is that they can only combine their units in attack if those units are part of one of their two armies, and to a lesser degree if they have a leader available. It’s the price you pay for having a citizen’s army. There are three Boer leaders in the game, though two only appear after the destruction of the Boer armies.
The upside for the Boers is that they are mobile and get their supplies from the land. They also get to move after the Empire player, so have the option to avoid battle or pick off weak Empire forces.
The Boers’ major problem is hanging on to their War Commitment Points. They get these points every turn for each unrazed Boer area not controlled by the British and can add to it by capturing British supply units. However, every combat strength point they commit to battle costs them the equivalent War Commitment Points.
If the Boer War Commitment or Empire Morale drops to zero, that side loses. Otherwise, the Boers win if they can hang on to more than ten units by the end of the game. As the name suggests, this is fighting to the bitter end.
For the Boer player, the game is not one of dashing victories, but of protracted guerrilla warfare. For the Empire player, it becomes one of careful planning to corner the Boers.
I’m very pleased to have this game, mostly because of the unusual subject matter. Bittereinder simulates the salient historical aspects of the Anglo-Boer War very effectively, presenting the gamer with unusual challenges. Hopefully there’s a really slick, elegant Boer War game still to come. Chances are such a game would adopt many features of Bittereinder. In the meantime, give Bittereinder a go!
ADDED MUCH LATER: On rereading this review, I think I was somewhat harsh in the final paragraph, criticising this game for not being what it isn't. I've developed a taste for simpler euros and had this in mind when reviewing a wargame... For a wargame, this isn't hard and it has a number of smart solutions to tricky aspects of the war. How many more games on WW2 do you want? Try something else for a change!
- Last edited Wed Dec 30, 2009 10:13 am (Total Number of Edits: 3)
- Posted Sun Jan 14, 2007 2:29 am
Wonderful review, Zirk- if I had any geekgold, I'd send some your way for it.
I should also mention that the game was originally a modest DTP (MDG) effort; meaning that the original format mandated many of the [simplified] design decisons. Several of the ATO features, e.g. Random Events, were not in the original.
Otherwise, I'm flattered.