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Subject: Squad Leader in the Kyber Pass rss

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Kurt Weihs
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My son and I recently searched through my game collection for wargames that modelled conflict in the post-American Civil War and pre-World War I periods. We found three games and played through at least a portion of each one. The first was Soldiers of the Queen: Battles at Isandhlwana and Omdurman, the second was The Battle of Roark's Drift, and Khyber Rifles was the third game.

Khyber Rifles first appeared in the October, 1984 issue of The Wargamer (vol. 1, #34) and errata appeared in the following issue (vol. 1, #35). I do not possess the errata so this review is based on my experience with the game as it was originally published.

Basics - To my knowledge, this is the only wargame that specifically models the conflict on the Northwest Frontier in the late 19th century. This rarity, alone, makes the game worth having. The game is tactical in scale with hexes representing 50 yards, counters representing 10 men (1 man for leader counters). There is also a gatling gun with crew counter and several wagons. Turns represent 10 minutes. Counters have statistics for firepower, melee power, morale and effective/maximum range increments. On the flip side of the counters the units have stats for their Panic state where they have only a morale number. Finally, there are counters that represent improvised fortifications (sandbags). Troops are either British or Afghan native irregulars and Pathan tribesmen.

Components - The components for Khyber Rifles are very unimpressive. The counters are fairly typical of those produced for magazine games at the time. They have a non-gloss finish with functional pictures of the soldiers and "headshots" of the leaders similar to what we'd see with the Lock 'N Load squad level games today, but not anywhere near as nicely done. The two maps are printed on white, light cardstock (construction paper?). Terrain is nearly unrecognizable and rather garishly printed in green and blue. The rules are passably written in typical SPI format and are actually indexed. There are 10 pages with a limited amount of space dedicated to line-drawn examples.
Overall, I'd rate the components a low 4/10 with the horrible maps dragging down the otherwise typical-for-the-time components. The Wargamer had produced some very nice maps for their magazine games so I am not quite sure why this particular game didn't get the same treatment.

Rules - As I said above, the rules follow the accepted format for the time. Each phase of the game is individually paragraphed and is actually fairly easy to read. Khyber Rifles is essentially Squad Leader with a few flavor rules tacked on for good measure. Counters represent squad-sized units or leaders in a period where the smallest tactical maneuver unit was the platoon. Opportunity fire is modelled and there is no differentation between the Afghans who were armed with muzzle loading weapons and the British who could achieve a much higher rate of fire. British troops are given special rules for volley fire in which a line of counters are allowed to fire under direction from a leader. Stacking is allowed so a typical volley line of 5 hexes could rate anywhere between a platoon or a company which is fairly historical. Unfortunately, there are no other requirements for cohesion with the British after that. Both Fire combat and Melee are conducted in a similar fashion as Squad Leader where you add up combat strengths and consult a CRT for your results. Terrain and volley fire can modify the results. There are special rules for Gatling guns but they are pretty much treated like support weapons from SL complete with jamming rules if you roll a 2 or 12 on your attack roll. There are also special rules for cavalry. Mounted Cavalry are unable to conduct fire combat but melee at double strength. Dismounted Cavalry are treated just like infantry. Supply wagons are modelled and can provide cover. Sappers are present in some scenarios and can be useful for attacking fortified positions. Sepoys can mutiny as an optional rule. If they roll a 2 or 12 when observing British troops being attacked they join the Afghan side. Finally, there are seven scenarios at the end of the rules. Because the two maps are made to match up no matter how you orient them you can produce several different overall maps (again, like Squad Leader). The scenarios have some interesting flavor rules and model a variety of actions. As they stand, the rules are well written but I can't help but feel the period specific rules of volley fire, cavalry, and sepoy mutiny are tacked on to a game system that is essentially Squad Leader.
I rate the rules at a 5/10.

Overall - It's great that there is actually a game out there modelling tactical battles during this period. There are a few strategic level games that kind of cover the region at this time(Pax Britannica and Colonial Diplomacy are the only two that come to mind), but they fail to do so on anything less than a grand strategic level. Unfortunately, that is where Khyber Rifles' greatness ends. Gameplay revolves around squad style combat which is not how operations were conducted in this period. By allowing the British to operate at this reduced scale gives them an advantage that wasn't there historically. Rates of fire are not differentiated, cavalry are unable to fire from horseback which was not only possible, but practiced. This game is essentially Squad Leader with some minor tweaks to make it appropriate for the period. As far as magazine games from the 80's go this isn't a bad game, but it could have been so much more. I can't help but think what a game company like Lock 'N Load or GMT could do with this same scale and subject matter today. For a better wargame that deals with the period I recommend Soldiers of the Queen that I mentioned above. Worthington Games has Victoria Cross, but I haven't played it so I can't comment. It has the advantage of still being in print, though and seems to have really good ratings.


edited for grammatical correction
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Kurt Weihs
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Quote:
Worthington Games has Victoria Cross, but I haven't played it so I can't comment. It has the advantage of still being in print, though and seems to have really good ratings.


I stand corrected, Victoria Cross is currently out of print though Worthington Games has indicated that they are looking to reprint an improved version with better map and Euro-game level components.

Hopefully we will see this soon!
 
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Jim Marshall
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While there were exceptions (Sturm nach Osten remains in my collection), when I look back at the magazine wargames pumped out in the 80s 'quantity' rather than 'quality' often springs to mind.

A lot felt like barely-tested bedroom projects on the designer's favourite subjects to me. I suspect the economics of magazine production dictated this was often the case. Some had interesting ideas for sure, but things like play balance, play length, playability (100 ways to use chits to record which unit had moved, which had supply, which bridge had been blown, how many movement points each unit had left to spend, which units had egg for breakfast etc.) seemed like optional extras in many cases.
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Kurt Weihs
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Re: Squad Leader in the Khyber Pass
Quote:
While there were exceptions (Sturm nach Osten remains in my collection), when I look back at the magazine wargames pumped out in the 80s 'quantity' rather than 'quality' often springs to mind.


I have to agree, and I think this is still somewhat true today even though we don't see the huge production of magazine games today that we did in the 80's. There were some bright spots to be sure, though. I subscribed to Ares and S&T during this time and every once in awhile something came along that was cool. Ares, especially, was willing to go more out on a limb and try outlandish designs. I still fondly remember the Stainless Steel Rat solo game. We also spent a considerable amount of time on games like Hof Gap and Berlin '85 from S&T, but these games were rare.
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