Monday 28 May 2012

Size of an Elephant! Random Thoughts on the Elephant in Wargames

(The last of the eBay black elephants - a bit less Jefferson Airplane than the other two, but he does have a red face mask)

Ever since reading Terry Wise account of his Carthaginian v Romans clash "The Battle of the Po" (a thrillingly Old School affair in which Airfix redskins are deployed as Numidians) in his Introduction to Battle Gaming (1969) I have experienced a, frankly, juvenile excitement about the prospect of deploying elephants on the tabletop.

In wargaming, I think it is fair to say, the elephant is just about the only thing that is capable of doing more damage to its own side than to the enemy (Insert your own joke about the commanding officers here). This capacity for uncontrolled mayhem is, naturally enough, the wargame elephant's greatest appeal.

In Terry's battle, the pachyderms - six Britains baby elephants with cardboard howdahs - were formidable indeed, destroying "all infantry in a line two inches directly in front of them" and requiring consecutive sixes from opponents to kill (the howdah occupants are more easily dealt with). Looking at Terry's account of the battle again, however, I was suprised to find no rules that gave the elephants the opportunity to run amok. Once all the pachyderm's crewmen were killed he appears simply to have subsided with a weary sigh, like a well excercised dog in front of an wood fire.

Luckily this suprisingly dull approach from one of the Sixties pioneers is more than made up for by the radically different attitude of another two, Don Featherstone and Tony Bath. In the ancient rules provided in The Don's War Games (1962) the pachyderm is delightfully capricious, requiring no more than a good shouting at to go into full stampede mode (when approaching infantry three ranks deep and D6 throw of 1,2,3 cause Jumbo to swerve, with a directional dice score of 6 sending him racing back towards his own lines, trumpeting and flailing his trunk). In the Battle of Trimsos, played with Bath's 30mm flats, three elephants are deployed on the Hykranian side. The first is killed almost immediately by a stone thrown by a war engine. The other two successfully charge through a unit of Hyperborean infantry, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, but then when faced with a second infantry unit one shears off to the side and drops off the table edge. The other carries gamely on, smashing through a further Hyperborean infantry formation before a crushing blow on the head from a well-aimed missile from a war engine brings him to a juddering halt.

In Practical Wargaming (1974) Charles Wesencraft - who deploys Minifig S range and Garrison 20mm figures in his armies - divides elephants into light and heavy, summarising the former as "Usually fairly obedient, they have a tendency to go berserk...". The later meanwhile "do no not go berserk so easily as light elephants but when they do disaster can follow". Wesencraft gives the mahout the opportunity to kill his rampaging elephant before it does any damage (throwing 3,4,5,6 on a D6) but after that hilarity ensues.

While I can't say that I have read around the subjective exhaustively it appears to me that there is actually little in the way of substantial evidence to support the "mad stampeding elephant" idea (though, of course, it happens quite often in Tarzan films). It is true that at Xama Hannibal's elephants were confused by loud noise and ran away, but as a counterweight Porus' elephants at the Hydaspes seem to have fought gallantly and to the bitter end without trampling their own side. On balance Terry Wise may have taken the correct approach with his sensible slumping pachyderms. However, for historic wargaming reasons - and because it's vastly more entertaining - I follow the Featherstone-Bath-Wesencraft line.


  1. I'm currently struggling to come to grips with elephants in 19th century India. By rights they should be restricted to generals mounts and baggage animals, but I keep being drawn back to the idea of native war elephants.

  2. In wargames, you should never overlook a gimmick weapon. This is clearly the prevailing mood as more Macedonian staff-slingers turn up on eBay than Companion cavalry. Personally I recall fondly the Zulus' use of stampeding cattle herds during a wargame campaign of my early adolescence. The Britsih square might have withstood Marshall Ney but when confronted with a surging mass of longhorns it was a different matter.

  3. Don't forget the Successor tactic of using elephants as an anti-cavalry barrier.

    Then there is Pyrrhus's elephant getting stuck in a doorway. I think WRG was the only one to cater to that.


  4. I think we're into Garcia Hernandez territory here. Though I'm not in a position to throw stones, the Legione Irlandaise make up about 40% of my French light troops.

    Unleash the flaming pig of war!

  5. As a ‘long time elephant user’, I have only just started reconsidering my views on elephants, following an intriguing article in the most recent Slingshot. I am ashamed to say that I cannot remember the author’s name, but his view, which seems convincing from the sources he quotes, is that elephants are *very* hard to kill (something my father described in the 20th century), and that the general pattern was that vast amounts of shooting would kill the crews and goad the unfortunate animals to charging, or at least lumbering, either into their opponents or back through their own troops.

    Re-reading Arrian, this does appear to happen at the Hydaspes. I want to read more on the subject before changing the rules, but I would make elephants hard to kill, and once they have received enough shooting to produce the above effects, dice for them ‘going berserk’ as per the current PP rules, but with the chance that they might go forwards as well as back. This would probably entail changing the current rule about going berserk after failing moral tests, and the ?associated low morale rating that they currently have.

    1. Thanks. I wonder if the elephant might go berserk after it has received it's final hit? I agree that if maddened it should also have a chance of going forward.

    2. Yes, that seems right Harry. Belatedly, Nick