The Italian Colonial Empire came quite late to the party: towards the end of 19th century both France and Germany were firm actors, let alone the "old big star" England, in a race to cut out the biggest piece of cake.
So after the appropriate agreements, Italy carved up its niche in the Ethiopian land of Eritrea (1890), but eventually its expansion faced a firm stop at the hands of the fierce Ethiopian leader Menelik II, who succeeded in holding together the many divided tribes, as well as receiving help from Russia.
The First Italo-Ethiopian War (War of Abissinia) opens well for the Italians, with the victory of Halai (1894) and the great success of Coatit (1895), but soon things get worse with the massacre of Amba Alagi (1895), the lost siege of fort Mek'ele (1896) and the very decisive battle of Adowa (1896), where 5:1 outnumbered, ill-prepared Italians met a sound defeat which put a definitive stop to our colonizing nation's efforts. According to the historian Raymond Jonas, "In an age of relentless European expansion, Ethiopia alone had successfully defended its independence."
Along the regular soldiers, the Italian Colonial Army comprised indigenous forces called Àscari: once called Bashi-bazouks ("crazy heads"), they were fierce warriors, loyal to the death, more than serious about their duty, and heart-warmingly attached to the Banner - not only in this era, but also in the following World War II, and I urge you to read the stories of Scirè or Beraki Ghebreslasie (in italian) to see for yourself what I mean.
The designer Marco Campari very wisely sets the spotlight on those iconic troops with his namesake wargame, Ascari.
The game is sold in a classic magazine-format ziplock and includes a 24-pages rulebook, 2 double-sided mapsheets, a classic 5/8" single countersheet and a player aid. Overall quality is pretty good, chits are sturdy (almost GMT brown-core quality), maps have a glossy finish and show 4 tactical regions at a 250meters/hex resolution, and the player aid is made of cardstock robust enough to hold the heat of the battle.
The rules fill up only 6 pages and are extremely linear to follow; the rest of the manual includes 5 scenarios, a historical context background essay, and 5 pages of historical notes for each battle; a combat example rounds up the reading. As a nitpicking, oddly enough the page numbers are missing, but really this is a trivial complaint and all the full-color, plastic-like pages are clearly divided in the appropriate sections - highly readable, easy to check at a glance.
I must say that I'm extremely impressed with the amount of goodies included in such a "humble" package, it's quite obvious that this isn't "just a game" but they want you to understand the simulation and why they took those design choices - this is one of the reasons why we play wargames and I'd love to see it in every uncommon (read: not WW2) wargame settings. Bravo!
The units are at company level (100-200 men), artillery batteries (3-4 guns) and cavalry squadrons (100 cav). Other than flags and IDs, there are 2 main values: melee strength on the left, and move allowance on the right.
By default, only Riflemen can range fire, while Spearmen (marked with a colored band) and Cavalry can only melee, but there are special conditions where gunless troops can pick up abandoned rifles and use them (there are appropriate counters to show this).
Leaders have their individual chits too, and they show only movement and, for someone, a fire or melee bonus. They are really important because they can prevent units from receiving a lot of negative markers, e.g. -1 DRM to firing units that fully moved or entered melee, or the Retreat marker.
Most of the chits have 2 sides to allow a classic 2-steps damage reduction. All the pictures on the chits have individual details and different poses: the overall impression on the table is a flowering of warm colors that really "sets the tone" of the game and make the chits easily noticeable against the underlying maps, also given the very minimum stacking unit limit (only Leaders may stack).
The gameplay is pretty classic: players take alternate turns and activate their full army for movement and range combat. During movement, if a unit enters into an enemy hex a Melee check is triggered: this is ruled by a D6 roll plus Melee Strength and various modifiers (terrain, leader, bayonet charges, previous retreat...); both player roll and then compare the result, typically the loser must retreat (and take a No-Fire, -1 Melee chit) but based on the amount between values, it can also take 1 (or even 2) step loss.
Other 2 very important features of movement segment are Op Fire and Moved Markers:
- Op Fire is triggered by the moving enemy units (moving only): the firing unit receives a Op Fire marker for that turn and roll on the firing table with a -1 DRM; so Op Fire is a kind of "dynamic, voluntary ZOC" - which is instead lacking in its classic "static" form.
- Moved Marker is given to units which move their full Move Allowance: this is important because it means that the firing unit will get a -1 DRM in that turn.
Range combat is clocked at 4 hexes and is quickly solved with a single D6 (as usual, it's subject to LOS check and DRMs): the to-hit number is based on range and troops quality, e.g. Italians have +1 at each range, and another +1 if they're supported by a nearby unit. Units taking hits flip to their damaged side, and another hit removes them - in some scenarios, destroying a Riflemen unit results in a Rifle Marker on the hex that can be used by other non-rifle units.
Quite interestingly, at the end of the turn you'll remove all Op Fire chits (meaning that units can both Op Fire in the enemy turn, and then immediately Fire again in their turn) - but you'll leave in place all the Retreat and Combat markers inflicted to the enemy, meaning that if you force an enemy Rifle squad to Retreat, it'll be useless for firing purposes in the next turn.
The included scenarios range from a simple, introductory engagement (First Agordat, 1890) to big battles (Agordat 1893, Coatit 1895), the Little Bighorn-like few-against-many Amba Alagi (1895) and the atypical, leader-less Ethiopian assault against Dervishes of Metemma (1889).
I highly praise all of them for including many touches which make them sufficiently different from each other: for example, in First Agordat you have a caravan of Camels chits to show the Dervish booty - but on their back, there are Women units which historically revolted against Dervishes during the battle. In Coatit Ethiopian riflemen know the terrain and don't get a Moved marker, making them more than deadly. In Amba Alagi the Italians have a melee bonus due to the bayonet charges, and so on.
Also, let me say that I'm impressed by the support for this "humble" game: in the files section there are no less than 3 additional scenarios, Dogali 1887, Sagaineti 1889 and Serobeti 1892. A fourth free scenario is available at the Author's page, taking the system in the Old West (1866).
In conclusion, you won't find a revolutionary game here nor the definitive take on Colonial Wars, but everything is more than solid, extremely fun to play and with an above average overall production (at 20 EUR, for what's inside, I find it a true bargain).
This could be a very pleasant introductory wargame, too, as many scenarios present not only interesting tactical problems to face but also a nice narrative in a very compact playtime (my only caveat is: keep the counters well organized, or you'll get crazy setting apart a IB Spear from a MG Rifle! - of course this is true for the vast majority of wargames, magazine or boxed, that don't sport "only" an easily distinguishable bunch of brown chits for russians and grey chits for axis ).
And now, get ready with your Carcano Mod. 91s - this time the Ras won't have an easy kill!
Figuring out which counters belong to which scenario was a headache the first time through. Now that I've figured it out, I have sorted the counters out by scenario.