Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Review: The Battle of Waterberg, 1904 by the Historical Gaming Company

I was invited recently to playtest a new 2player board game called The Battle of Waterberg, 1904 developed by Steve Kling at The Historical Game Company. During the last two months, I've had the change to play it several times with my teenage son, as well as to play out a couple of test runs on my own and provide feedback to the developers.  With their encouragement, I'm pleased to share this review of the product in its current form and look forward to playing the finished product when it comes to market.

The Battle of Waterberg - the largest battle of the German Herero War of 1904 in what was then Deutche Suedwestafrika - is little known outside of modern Namibia except for a small group of scholars of early twentieth-century genocides and historians specializing in German colonialism.  It followed several months of stagnation and setbacks for the German forces in the face of spirited and effective indigenous resistance. It was fought in the dense thornveld beneath the high escarpment of the Waterberg Plateau where thousands of Herero fighters with their families and vast cattle herds confronted six converging German Abteilung: detachments comprising two full Schutztruppe Regiments, supported by native auxiliaries, field artillery, machine guns, and a communications network that included heliography and wireless radio (funkenstation). Despite these advantages, the German sections fought isolated engagements, suffered considerable losses, and failed to meet their primary objective of containing and preventing the Hereros from escaping envelopment.  Nevertheless the Hereros were deprived of most of their cattle and were ruthlessly pursued into the arid Omaheke in the East where untold thousands perished.

The rules for this game draw closely from historical sources.  The layout is attractive with a hexagonal grid overlying terrain that depicts the Waterberg Mountains (treated as a barrier for game purposes), Herero settlements, waterholes and a large cattle grazing area.  The hexes within the large Herero staging area are honeycombed with thorny hedges that provide considerable obstacles for the advancing Germans while conferring the advantages of concealment, extra defensive value and free movement to the defending Africans. While this reflects the battle tactics and conditions of the historical engagements fought at the Waterberg, in game terms it reduces German penetration of the Herero setup area to an exercise in close combat trench clearing.  As with the tactics used on the Western Front, the German player is wise who takes advantage of ranged artillery before launching strong attacks across a wide front rather than driving right into close combat with whatever Abteilung reaches the battlefield first.

As a student of this battle and the history of German colonialism in Namibia, I appreciated the small "Easter egg" details in the design of the game pieces, from the initials used to delineate each Abteilung that are the first letters of their historical commanders, to the unique and appropriate headgear on the pieces that represent each of the three "native auxiliary" units in the German force and the seebatallion helmet on the elite Herero unit that was equipped with captured gear and uniforms taken after the annihilation of a German marine company the previous April at Okaharui. These touches are for the most part left unexplained in the game rules but add to the sense of fidelity to the source material cited at the end of the short rule book.  I also enjoyed the artwork used for the cover and the game cards - color paintings by Carl Becker that were first published in 1908 as part of Freherr von Dinkelage-Campe's lavishly illustrated Deutsche Reiter im 

Game play is driven by a set of 8 cards for each player that determine which what forces are available

and modify their movement and combat effectiveness.  The cards add a random element that nicely simulates the contingencies of combat, including those unique to this battle: thorny obstacles, cattle stampedes, overheating machine guns. The Hereros have much more latitude to move individual pieces where they are most needed, while the Germans predominantly "phase" and engage by Abteilung.  While that is indeed how the Germans fought, in game terms it leads to inadequate forces, stalled advances and, because of the current rule that requires disordered units to withdraw out of the enemy zone of control (ZOC) if they are able or be eliminated, causes irreplaceable losses in front-line troops. I have recommended that this rule be changed for the German player so that disordered units go prone and remain in place unless successfully attacked again in the same turn which would result in elimination.

A turn consists of each player's opportunity to draw a card and complete a sequence of phasing affected units, movements and defensive fire, ranged and close combat and rallying disordered units.  A game can involve as many as 24 turns, which at least when we were familiarizing ourselves with the rules meant that our games lasted longer than the designers envisioned. 

There are a number of factors for the German player to consider during the early turns when not all the Abteilung are in play, and later when they have been reduced to the point where Abteilung may no longer have the combat strength to function effectively. Although the German forces are more powerful than most of their adversaries, they have fewer numbers and limited options to replenish their numbers as the game progresses.  The German player in our games often performed very well but was unable to meet its victory conditions (all five strategic locations occupied and at least 18 Herero forces eliminated).  A few changes to the line of sight rules and recognition of the fire suppression capacity of the machine gun units helped to better the odds, as did allowing disordered German units to go prone.  In the one game where the Germans eliminated more than 18 Herero pieces, these forces were able to escape to the edge of the game board before the Germans ran out of time to occupy the waterholes, settlements and grazing herd that were among the conditions of victory.  The reason the German plan in August of 1904 involved approaching the Waterberg region from multiple directions was precisely to prevent such a breakout and inflict a decisive defeat.  Stressing this containment role in the German victory conditions would be consistent with historical objectives and give the converging Abteilung the incentive to utilize their artillery, machine gun and ranged attacks to best effect before slowly tightening the noose.

Despite these factors, we found The Battle of Waterberg 1904 to be a highly enjoyable game to
play, and one that challenged us to find ways to overcome the advantages that familiar terrain afforded to the Herero player.  I commend Steve Kling for bringing this game concept to execution.  As one who has written two tabletop scenarios for miniature war-gaming in this period, I appreciate the care that he has taken to simulate historical combat with fidelity while striving for a positive and playable experience.  The Germans, if well deployed, should be able to hold their own, even as they penetrate deeper into Herero territory, but even in 1904, it was a near run thing for two of the Abteilung


  1. I do not often do boardgames, even though I cut my hobby teeth on them, but this does sound like an interesting title.

    1. The Germans finally met all their objectives the sixth time around, with the rule change to allow them to go prone. I think the final version will play smoother and is certainly lots of fun as it is.