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Adowa 1896: adapting the Commands & Colors system to the Age of Imperialism leads to another outstanding play experience






Adowa represented the most decisive defeat suffered by any European army during the Age of Imperialism. This battle (also known as Adua and Adwa) was the triumph of a feudal Ethiopian army over an Italian expeditionary force with inadequate leadership. Adowa is one of my favorite Battle Cry scenarios adapted from the Commands & Colors system created by Richard Borg. This is a huge session with almost 250 miniatures on the board. For convenience, the soldiers from Italy and Africa serving under General Baratieri will be referred to as the "Italian" army in this article. The terms "Ethiopian" and "Abyssinian" will be used interchangeably to describe Emperor Menelik's army.

In spite of poor Italian performance in earlier skirmishes government officials in Rome were urging General Baratieri to move against Emperor Menelik and the Ethiopian army. The indecisive Italian general had problems with supplies, equipment, and troop morale. The emperor was also confronting a logistical challenge because his supply system was more suited to a Biblical horde than an army equipped with breech-loading rifles and modern Hotchkiss artillery.

The Abyssinians were preparing to retreat when the Italians moved forward to threaten the emperor’s camps. The Italian commander planned to occupy a line of hills near Adowa and lure the Ethiopians into an attack. Baratieri had less than 15000 men ready for battle and expected to face approximately 30000 enemy warriors. Menelik actually had at least twice that many fighting men available.






One fascinating element of the battle is the dramatic difference between the command structure of the belligerents. Menelik had gathered warriors from across Ethiopia with some formations marching hundreds of miles during the campaign. Each regional faction was led by a local warlord or Ras, a powerful figure in the feudal hierarchy of Abyssinia.

The army was, in many ways, fragmented but the Abyssinians were united against the foreign invaders. The emperor had a loyal imperial guard while his warrior queen Taitu (an astute woman who distrusted Europeans) commanded a large force of her own. I used a simplified color coded system to simulate the various factions. For example, the talented warlord Ras Alula led the formations (dark brown) posted on the Abyssinian left flank.

Menelik was not a battlefield leader. In fact, this Christian emperor was praying at a local shrine when the Italians attacked. Each individual Ras led his own warriors into action with a rather opportunistic style... under the watchful eye of the emperor when he finally arrived at the front. Representing this conglomeration of Ethiopian warriors using the C&C system is a challenge. In a similar historical situation a knowledgeable player suggested giving one player extra command cards! That concept does not portray the actual command structure with much accuracy.






This is a photograph of Ras Mengesha (or Mangasha... Ethiopian spellings vary widely) and he was one of the most important warlords. His horse is ornately decorated and he carries the traditional Abyssinian shield. Ras Mengesha is also proudly displaying his modern rifle.






This leader miniature in white garments with a shield was crafted specifically for the scenario. This figure of the Ras has an additional command function if his faction is activated during a turn. Each turn the Ethiopian player may activate ALL of the units in one faction and play one command card. The chosen faction receives the Ras figure. The player can use the leader to move an Ethiopian unit in his faction one extra hex OR use the leader to add an extra battle dice to one attack by a unit in his faction during this turn.






Here is an example. The entire gray faction has been activated. The player has decided to use the leader miniature to add an extra battle dice to the assault on the Italian artillery unit.

The square Ethiopian flag token represents an Abyssinian objective. Occupation of these hexes is one of the criteria used to determine victory in the scenario.






Most of the emperor's men were armed with rifles including many weapons superior to the obsolescent Remingtons issued to the Italian soldiers. Abyssinian warriors did not expend scarce ammunition by firing at long range; infantry formations roll a 3-1 pattern on the battle dice. Yes, figures carrying spears are included in this scenario. That is just a bit of "chrome" to create some pageantry.

Ethiopian tactical doctrine stressed close combat and encirclement by "crescent moon" assaults. If an Abyssinian formation conducting a close assault has an adjacent friendly unit on each flank an extra battle dice is rolled. The orange token indicates an attacking formation. Each of the Ethiopian infantry formations with seven figures represents approximately 2000 men, depending on the quality of the troops.

Sources talk about Menelik and his 80000 Abyssinians. While there were certainly thousands of Ethiopian warriors in the vicinity of Adowa it is unlikely (in my opinion) that more than a fraction of that number were engaged during the battle. Italian accounts mention waves of 15000 Abyssinians sweeping over the Ascari or Bersaglieri battalions. That may be true. I do question the total number of Ethiopian warriors that actually participated in the fighting. Including the substantial Ethiopian reinforcements available this scenario contains the equivalent of about 40000 or 50000 Abyssinians.






Baratieri was not an effective commander. His brigades became separated and fractions of his army were defeated in detail while Baratieri lost control of the battlefield. The general was swept along with the retreating Italian army. He bravely attempted to halt the panic and rally a rear guard but his actions were limited after he lost his eyeglasses. A staff officer had to describe the action for General Baratieri.

The beleaguered Italian player uses the traditional command system with a hand of four cards. Optional rules increase Baratieri's leadership ability and give the Italians a better chance of salvaging their honor.






Things do get quite confused during a session with fighting swirling all over the board. Players who prefer a "tidy battlefield" might find the scenario uncomfortably chaotic. In this photograph the Ethiopians have just captured the Mount Belah objective and will be facing an Italian counterattack.

Reinforcements sent from Italy were a hodge-podge of inexperienced soldiers thrown together prior to the campaign. There was no unit cohesion and little esprit de corps among these regiments. The three battalions of Alpini and Bersaglieri were trained professionals. These are considered to be elite formations and may avoid one retreat result on the battle dice. These elite formations are marked with an Italian flag token.






The army possessed a heliograph system in 1896 but it was not used at Adowa. The explanations for this tragic failure vary from source to source but the ultimate responsibility must be placed on Baratieri. An optional rule includes the heliograph. The unit is set up on the forward slopes of Mount Eshasho (the location of the first Italian headquarters) but may not be used during the early turns because the sun wasn't up yet. The heliograph can send an order to one unit anywhere on the board.






Another error was the result of a garbled telegraph message to Major Ameglio, the commander of the 5th Native Battalion. His unit marched in the wrong direction and missed the battle, depriving Baratieri of at least 1000 additional veteran Ascari soldiers.

This optional rule allows the battalion to begin the game in the southeast corner of the board. In this photograph an Italian general has been sent to hurry the unit forward. A general functions like an Ethiopian leader, increasing movement distances or augmenting a formation's battle strength.

Ascari miniatures are distinguished by their aggressive pose and the fez. These were formations of African soldiers (mostly from Eritrea) serving under Italian officers. Ascari were considered to be reliable fighting men: in the mishandled Native Brigade of Albertone the recklessly exposed 1st Battalion fought like tigers. The highly regarded 3rd Battalion serving under Major Galliano in Ellena's Third (Reserve) Brigade broke and fled during the afternoon but there was a solid explanation. This unit had been forced to surrender when the major botched the defense of an Italian outpost at Mekele six weeks earlier. The soldiers had been allowed to withdraw by Emperor Menelik after promising not to fight the Abyssinians in the future. If captured at Adowa, men from this battalion would have faced mutilation or death.






Most of the Italian artillery pieces were small mountain guns; these performed effectively at Adowa and their crews often fought to the death rather than retreat. Sources say the Third Brigade was equipped with modern "quick-firing" artillery but it is unclear exactly which guns were used at Adowa. Another optional rule gives the Italian player a unit of automatic weapons to aid his defense.






Menelik owned an assortment of mostly obsolescent artillery pieces in a variety of calibers. However, a number of modern Hotchkiss guns had been purchased before this campaign. These weapons were manned by Ethiopian crews trained by European advisors. This artillery was superior to the Italian mountain guns.

Here is an interesting tidbit: most of the gunners in the Italian "native" batteries were Sudanese; there was an official policy against providing local inhabitants like the Eritreans with training in artillery.

The session uses my "hot" deck which includes random events like this Bombard card. These events help to create uncertainty and there was an avalanche of uncertainty at Adowa.






Some of the finest units in Menelik’s army were the Oromo cavalry who shouted “Ebalgume! Ebalgume!” (Reap! Reap!) as they mowed down the fleeing Italians. The invading Italians had no cavalry and were forced to rely on unreliable or treacherous local guides. Baratieri ended up groping blindly in more ways than one...






There are six objective hexes on the board. Two on the western side of the map represent advanced positions taken by the brigades of Albertone and Dabormida. Three in the center of the board represent the original defensive position chosen by Baratieri anchored by Mount Belah and held by the brigade of Arimondi. If the Ethiopian player seizes four of these five hexes the game ends immediately with an Italian collapse.

This sixth objective hex shown in this photograph represents the path through the Valley of Gundapta that leads to the Italian advanced supply base at Sauria. This was a narrow gap between the impassable peak of Mount Eshasho (represented by the symbol) and Rebbi Arienni. This area was defended by the brigade of Ellena. If this crucial hex is seized by the Abyssinians the game ends immediately with an Italian collapse.

Menelik needed an overwhelming victory. Anything less would have meant a strategic stalemate and his army could not remain intact while foraging for food in this region of Ethiopia. The rules must require an aggressive performance by the Ethiopian player.






One final piece of "chrome" is the Italian baggage train represented by this soldier leading a pack animal. No expedition during the Age of Imperialism was complete without this tempting target that often drew native warriors like a magnet. The loss of these supplies will increase the Italian demoralization level; as the Italian soldiers become demoralized (mostly due to heavy losses) the already limited command ability of General Baratieri is reduced.


Adowa would make a great convention or game store scenario. It is big, bold, and creates a beautiful display.



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Jim Ransom
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So cool. Thanks Pete -- I learned a few things I didn't know.
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+1thumbsup Thanks Pete, great article and pics!
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jpr755 wrote:
So cool. Thanks Pete -- I learned a few things I didn't know.


Thanks for the positive comments.

This is a fascinating campaign.

The battle has been compared to the Little Bighorn... a badly scattered force is overwhelmed by unexpectedly powerful enemy resistance.

Parts of that comparison is valid but Baratieri did not intentionally separate his units to conduct an attack they way Custer did in 1876. Baratieri planned a defensive battle but his operation fell apart. However, the narrative of both engagements is similar with desperate fighting spread across a wide area of rugged terrain.

Both battles represent a challenge to the wargame designer; this may be the reason I've produced multiple Session Reports on Adowa and a large volume of work on the Custer campaign.
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Another Featherstone in your cap, Pete.
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Barry Kendall
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Thank you, Pete, another entertaining epic! I recently received Acies' "Adowa" (or is it "Adua . . .") the second in their published games on the Italian/Ethiopian colonial experience (the oop "Askari" was first). Very good and highly recommended for hex-and-counter gamers.

"Adua" could be a synonym for "a NOT tidy battle"! It's also one of the most interesting, as you've well represented, and rather rare in that the Natives were practicing Christians.

I'm always excited to "click on" a new P. Belli presentation when I see one on BGG.

Oh, and if I may . . . which manufacturer produced the artillery pieces used in the game? Apologies if you covered this in an earlier Adua report.
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The topic is very interesting at all!!!
If you like to compare with fantastic topic of Pete, have a look at ADOWA from Acies Edizioni; it will give you the feeling of the battle but without these fantastic miniatures!
Enjoy it!
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Sphere wrote:
Another Featherstone in your cap, Pete.


Thank you.

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Thank you for the positive comments, Barry.

Barry Kendall wrote:
. . . which manufacturer produced the artillery pieces used in the game?


I created the "optional" QF artillery used by the Italians. The gun carriage and the operator figure are from HaT 8180 Gatling Gun. The weapon is from HaT 8270 Schutztruppe.

The mountain guns used by the Italians are from HaT 8210 Colonial Artillery.

To represent the Ethiopian cannon I used HaT 8210 Colonial Artillery pieces with the cascable removed so it would resemble a breech-loading Hotchkiss gun.
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Carl Karnuth
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Quote:
Baratieri was not an effective commander.


What?! How dare you! Just look at all those medals!
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Barry Kendall
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pete belli wrote:
Thank you for the positive comments, Barry.

Barry Kendall wrote:
. . . which manufacturer produced the artillery pieces used in the game?


I created the "optional" QF artillery used by the Italians. The gun carriage and the operator figure are from HaT 8180 Gatling Gun. The weapon is from HaT 8270 Schutztruppe.

The mountain guns used by the Italians are from HaT 8210 Colonial Artillery.

To represent the Ethiopian cannon I used HaT 8210 Colonial Artillery pieces with the cascable removed so it would resemble a breech-loading Hotchkiss gun.


You're welcome, Pete, and thanks for the gun info. Very nice conversions! Explains why I couldn't place them from perusing Plastic Soldier! You are an authentic Artiste.
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