Me and Ulf met up at club the other day for a game of To the Strongest! Our last game was very enjoyable, but some question marks remained, mainly regarding shooting and ranged combat. Consequently, we both shared a desire to try out this aspect of the game in earnest.
So, this time we went “all in” and recreated a historical battle were shooting played a significant role: the Battle of the Defile in 731 AD, when the Umayyad Califate clashed with the Turgesh Khanate at the Tashtakaracha Pass (in present-day Uzbekistan). The historical battle resulted both in enormous casualties – almost 50% on the Umayyad side – and in a halt for Muslim expansion in central Asia.
Since I am woefully ignorant both about the region’s history in general and this particular conflict in particular, it was up to Ulf to provide both the scenario setup and the armies; just like last time we played TtS!, his impressive collection of 15mm figures – plus an even more impressive historical knowledge – set the scene for a very interesting battle.
All I did was show up with my dedicated TtS! board and the nice chits that BigRedBat produces. Oh, and I placed some terrain pieces as well…
The setup is rather straightforward: the Turgesh (closest in the above picture), led by the mighty Khagan Suluk, must stop the the Umayyad advance at all costs. The Umayyads, under the command of Junayd ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Murri will of course try to break through and push further into the pass – sparing neither the enemy’s forces nor his own men in the process.
Since I played Arab forces last time I wanted to try something different and thus I ended up playing the Turgesh, which was great fun.
We really wanted shooting to be the focus of this scenario, so the Turgesh forces consisted mainly of horse archers, with some lancers thrown in for good measure. To further enhance this ranged focus and also partially reflect historical circumstances, we decided on a house rule: the Turgesh had an infinite (in gameplay terms) supply of ammunition available in their camp, but to refill ammo, units needed to be in a box adjacent to the camp.
This approach resulted in some interesting situations, but more about that later.
The Umayyad forces were a more even a mix between infantry and cavalry, and they also didn’t have the “infinite ammo” house rule.
So the whole thing starts off. The Umayyads move first, rapidly maneuvering their whole battle line forward.
A side note: The dice visible in these photos are actually ammo counters; the sheer amount of missile fire involved in this battle meant that we quickly ran out of ammo chits. Also, dice proved to be rather efficient way of tracking ammo, so we’ll probably use it in future games as well, at least until we’ve made some dedicated counters.
The Turgesh also advance, sending their light cavalry far up on their left and right flanks while the heavy cavalry in the center hold back. A small contingent of light foot soldiers (javelinmen and some archers), also advance through the rough terrain on the far right flank.
The Umayyads move closer and the horsemen on their right flank hurl some javelins at the approaching Turgesh cavalry. However, this first act of violence fails to draw blood.
The Turgesh heavy cavalry respond in kind to the attack, raining down arrows at the Umayyad infantry. But their attempts are also ineffective – shooting still seems pretty hard to pull off in this game.
The light foot also fail to make an impact on anything else than their ammo counter. All in all a somewhat disappointing turn from the Turgesh side of things.
But on the other hand, the Umayyads are not faring much better when it comes to projectile accuracy – and they’re quickly running out of ammo.
Then, in a sudden strike of luck, their javelins manage to break a unit of Turgesh horsemen on the Turgesh left flank.
Enraged by the sight of compatriot blood, the Turgesh heavy cavalry move up and take aim, and this time their arrows actually hit something. A unit of Umayyad spearmen suffers severe casualties and thus becomes disordered.
More horse archers move up, taking advantage of the situation. The following rain of arrows annihilates the Umayyad unit. Finally, some results!
The armies have yet to exchange one single blow in melee combat – the Turgesh are using their greater mobility to shoot and then pull back, effectively keeping out of range from the Umayyad infantry and heavy cavalry. But now their ammo is dwindling as well and several units need to resupply. Problem is, most of them are at quite some distance from the camp.
Then disaster strikes, as Umayyad arrows kill one too many of Suluk’s men and forces his unit into disorder. A very dangerous situation for a general to be in, indeed. And then things go from bad to horrible, when the unit suffers one more hit and is lost.
Perhaps you think that things can’t possibly get any worse. Well, think again. One of the drawbacks of leading from the front is that you might get killed – which is exactly what now happens to old Suluk. I managed to draw a one-pip chit out of the “Bag of Doom”, which is basically the only number that kills a general in this type of situation. Just my luck, eh?
As a result I lost no less than four victory medals and was now close to defeat.
But giving in is not the style of the Steppe Nomads. The second in command, the Sogdan King Ghurak, charges forward to avenge his lord’s untimely death and shakes up a unit of Umayyad infantrymen in the process. “We can still win this, lads!” he shouts over the clamor.
But he is cut short as he, too gets bombarded by Umayyad arrows and his own unit is thrown into disarray. Can we really win this?
Meanwhile, several Turgesh horse archer units have moved close to the camp and now resupply their depleted ammo. This has also left them at a considerable distance from the Umayyad, something that they of course intend to use to their advantage.
But their “falling back” tactic also means that the enemy is pushing further and further into the pass. Something clearly needs to be done to halt their advance.
Now Ghurak has rallied his troops and urges the whole army onward. With fresh arrows in their quivers, the Turgesh horse archers rain death upon their opponents. They even manage to disorder and rout Amim Tamim’s own retinue, forcing the Amim to join a foot unit instead.
Smelling victory, the Turgesh host rapidly advances with bows raised, causing even more disorder in the Umayyad ranks…
…but unfortunately, hope rapidly turns into sorrow as Ghurak’s unit once again gets fired upon and ends up disordered. The Umayyads naturally seize the opportunity and focus their fire upon the brave King…
…whose unit breaks under the pressure. And that spells the end of the game, as it results in the loss of my last victory medals.
An intense and fun game overall. The whole thing with horse archers and their house ruled ammo worked very well, as it meant that the Turgesh forces were constantly keeping at a distance and falling back, making the slow Umayyad infantry struggle to keep up. But it also meant some hard tactical decisions when my ammo ran out: do I spend precious activations on moving my units to the camp, or do I keep them were they are?
Also, this game proved that shooting can be pretty deadly when massed numbers of archers worked their magic in concord.
The battle could have gone either way, but it was obviously a mistake to place my commanders in the front – I had forgotten just how deadly a game To the Strongest! is. Things die quickly and commanders are no exception (even though I was exceptionally unlucky to draw a one chit at the wrong moment).
I’m now feeling a lot more confident with these rules and their overall ethos, so I expect to have more games in the near future. And needless to say, it will all be documented and posted here on Hook Island!