Zulu Dawn – The Battle of Isandlwana

White Dog Games have a number of titles available, many of them freeware that are worth looking into. One such game available for a very reasonable price is the title Day of the Spears II: The Battle of Isandlwana. The company is a Print and Play wargame developer who sometimes knock out computer playable versions of their titles. A recent article in the Military Times had my interest piqued in this famous battle, and led my wandering attention back to the 60’s film Zulu. So I decided to pick the game up from this era, and give it a quick run through.

Now what you have to understand with White Dog Games titles, is that they’re assembled as home-brew hobbyist games often written in Visual Basic. The presentation is often a nice clean boardgame look, but the user interface can often be quite fastidious and sometimes downright frustrating. Which is a shame, because these games have a solid design behind their mechanics, they just lack the user interface of modern day gaming expectations. Much of the game information are contained in form labels and text boxes, as well as much of the unit information being stuffed into stock floating tooltips. Still, if the subject matter is interesting, you can overcome these unpleasantries to explore how the scenario’s play out.

I’d love to see White Dog Games get some funding and employ a coder who can put together a package that at least hangs together a proper interface, with drag and drop, with unit movement ranges, and firing solutions and proper unit information displays. But then its easy for me to wish money to fall on a developer from the sidelines. Which is why I’ve purchased three of their titles to show my meagre support of their ideas. I wish them all the luck for their future endeavours.

As we enter the scenario, there’s a brief summary of the Battle of Isandlwana on display.

Looking at the Victory Conditions, as the British, we can see defeat would be my total annihilation and victory would be ability to put up a decent defence and reduce their strength by about 17 percent.

The game plays out in phases:

  1. British Movement
  2. Zulu Movement
  3. British Musket Fire/Artillery
  4. Zulu Musket Fire
  5. Zulu Melee

Movement can be ordered unit by unit, or you can right click and unit and its formation will move. Once selected you click on the hex you want them to move to, and then you click on the Move button. The unit’s will glide across the terrain towards the target hex, but will stop as their movement allowance is spent.There is no visual indicator as to where you’ve ordered the unit or formation to move to.

You can get used to this mechanism fairly quickly, but the way you move around the map is totally dependant upon your selection mode. You have to have completed a movement round on the currently clicked unit, before you can move the map. By left clicking on an open space towards the direction you want to move the viewpoint. I found myself in all sorts of trouble at times, not knowing where I was in the click cycle, and I was unable to move around the map using this method. Luckily there are four directional arrows at the right hand edge of the map that will shift it in the appropriate direction when clicked. It can be a bit fiddly though, if you’re not used to these unorthodox UI mechanics.

Another aspect of the interface that troubled me was that the cursor itself was a square bitmap icon, the one used for the desktop shortcut as far as I can tell. This made selection a bit fiddly in places, the actual cursor “point” being a bit vague, as well as obscuring a chunk of whats beneath it as you hover over units. A little niggle, but one which could easily be rectified no doubt.

Here you can see the unit info in the tool-tip, hovering over the Sikalis Horse unit under Lt Raw. Its a lot of information to take in on a horizontal line. It looks like my old debug strings I used to inject into my VB code a long, long time ago.

To advance through the AI movement, you can click on the Move button repeatedly to follow each unit path, or you can hit the Auto button and see the whole Zulu dance happen before your very eyes.

Rather than spend a long time planning out each firing solution and watching the results, and rolls made in the information box – I opted to Auto resolve all combat. I simply wanted to see how my manoeuvres on the battlefield could attempt to hold back the chanting tide of angry spear and shield. All combat decisions were thus made by the AI itself. Even the melee.

Here’s how it went, in an stop motion screenshot based animated short.

I was destroyed. Completely. My retreat towards the higher ground, and my defensive wall of fire didn’t really make much difference. Each Zulu unit had a strength of 20 when most of my units were averaging around 5. My musket fire and rocket barrages didn’t seem to do enough damage to the advancing horde of bloodthirsty warriors.

I couldn’t get the game to detect an end game situation, where I had no units left to move. It still proceeded through the Move/Fire/Melee cycle eternally. But since I was completely trounced, I decided we could call it a defeat. Not Day of the Spears, rather Defeat at the end of a Spear.

I feel as if I’ve been a little too harsh on the game, whilst I was playing it through – even with AI combat resolution – I was engrossed with the conflict and trying to puzzle out how to best stem the surge of the Zulu’s. The UI does chip away at your enjoyment a little, but the scenario and the era covered made it worth the investment, and when I dig a little deeper with the unit types and stats, as well playing through my own combat hits I’m sure I can get more out of this budget title. If “print and play” gaming is your thing, and your happier with cardboard chits and you don’t mind quirky UI’s as long as the wargames mechanics are sound, then I think you’ll get on with White Dog Games titles. The beauty of it being, that a lot of their games are free, so you can try them out as no expense to yourself. Perhaps you’ll find a gem that you’ll warm to?

  • Per

    How come you did not win this scenario. The Zulu was reduced to 69 percent of starting strength, while the victory condition stated 83 percent would be enough?

  • spelk

    Yeah, thats the thing, I couldn’t work out when the end was. It seemed as if the game just ignored the victory conditions. Perhaps it was because I was auto resolving the combat on both sides? I wasn’t surprised that I was doing so badly, because the Zulu force was overwhelming, especially in melee. But I didn’t actively check the Stats until I’d lost all my men and had got fed up of waiting for the game to realise I couldn’t play anymore. So perhaps I’d managed a win a few turns previously, but wasn’t told about it?

  • Per

    Leaving out an end condition in a scenario seems to be a pretty critical issue. But in the end it seems that you did pretty well in inflicting losses on the enemy, so I would definitely call it a win.