Thursday, 3 December 2020

"This Ain't Kafiristan" or "The Man Who Found too Much"....

How to Conquer - or indeed find - a Kingdom that Ain't there; An Adventure in Mappery..

Prompted by a query on the FB Solo Wargames with Figures Group I dragged out some old notes and started to write up "A Brief And Cursory Account of on how I approach games where one is dicing into the unknown".

This is the method, referred to in an earlier post, which I had used in years long past for Spanish Explorers in "This Ain't Mexico", "Romans in Them Thar Hills" and Norman and Norse freebooters in "This Ain't Ould Ireland" - i.e. folk campaigning in a land for which they had no maps, where the lie of the land was unknown, and where I wasn't too fussed about geographic accuracy - just wanting the feel of "exploring in the dark"... I found it worked for me.... 

Rather than having folks search for my (brief) earlier
 post I thought I'd run through the process again.   

Basically, in "encountering unknown lands", be they the blanks on the map for Victorian Explorers, the wild lands"Beyond The Wall", the territories "Up Country" or The Mysterious Planet GaGa XII one first has to decide what one "knows" and what one "don't Know" - i.e. is this a Brave New World previously undiscovered (except by the natives, obviously..  But, as The Man said, "Just living there doesn’t count") with there being no clue as to what might lie therein, or is it an area where traders, travellers' tales or some kind of basic survey have already supplied me with an inkling of what might be expected..?

In some of the the cases above the answer was simple: I limited my knowledge to the coastline of the land in question, its immediate hinterland and visible points of interest (e.g. . ranges of mountains visible from the coast) and some vague knowledge of points of interest further up country - but no exact locations for same and no clear idea of the terrain, political situation  or who/what one might meet (see also the board-game "Source of the Nile", by Avalon Hill). 

In these circumstances the "map" would be pretty much bare. THIS makes set up and preparation. easy. All I then needed was a "Terrain Generating Chart", a decision on scale and rate of progress, how the country would be explored (i.e. in one main body, scouts etc.), how much data might come from native guides/local knowledge - and how to decide how frequently terrain might change.

Where there might be some knowledge of what might lie ahead I might mark out known routes, known  locations etc.  - but have blank spaces between; again, these being "discovered" via the Terrain Table or some other method. 

This kind of "Into the Blank" way of doing things could be used for all sorts of scenarios/campaigns.  "Not the Anabasis", "This Aint's Caledonia" (or Germania) or "Nero Says: Find me the Nile", "The Hunting for Even Newer Spain", "Doctor Elphinstone, I presume", "King Solomon's Bungalow","Will Robinson Is Missing" etc. etc. all spring to mind - the list of possibilities is endless

However.... The actual query on FB was in regards playing a game based on "The Man Who Would Be King" - something I had thought about gaming in the past; the project being "On The List" and some ideas having already been sketched out. However, on returning to the subject.. Well, see below.....

Part One: Preparation, "The Known and the Unkown".

In my original concept of a "The Man Who Would Be King" game my thoughts (ages and ages ago) revolved around using the above method. I had penned out potential Terrain Types and was working on the basis of a Blank Map, as above....

However, having revisited the idea this week, and knowing (or rather having thought) more about the geography and, more critically, the period  than was the case (pre-Internet) a few decades ago, I initially felt a tad unsatisfied with the Total Blank idea. I decided a fresh approach was needed, so started with The Basics....

) Problem One - The Period - and what is "Known":

With the Kafiristan adventure my "Player Knowledge" - and the map - will depend on the period I decide to set the game in and how "true to life", in historical terms, I want to make it. Pre-existing knowledge of the country and the political situation will be affected by this. 

I went back to source....

Kipling's short story/novella itself (and if you've not read it then I seriously recommend doing so) was published in 1888, so the adventure clearly takes place before then (I'm not going by the real people the story was possibly based on, but the characters in the novella itself).

Kipling is, as usual, deliberately vague and I had originally assumed, when first thinking about this project waaaay back, that the action was originally intended to be set 1860s-1870s, and had been"updated" for the film (I hadn't read the book for some time). But on going back to the original source this week I had to ditch this idea. In fact the action is likely set towards the mid to late 1870s or even early 1880s - much later than I had in mind.... 

I say this because there is a specific reference in the tale of a future opportunity for the adventurers when Sniders are replaced in India by the Martini Henry rifle, and our lads will be able to get their hands on them cheap.

The text suggests this is imminent or even in progress. But this changeover didn't apparently take place until after all British units had been so equipped - which itself does not seem to be complete until about 1877. 

(Re. above see )

Replacement among Indian Army regiments took time - right into the early 1890s. But luckily (for us) we have an end date for our adventures; the Afghan invasion (1895) of Kafiristan* following the Durand Line agreement (1893) with the British.

(* And its subsequent renaming to Nuristan, following the conversion of the "Kafirs" to Islam)

There is also a reference in the story taken by some to indicate that the events took place after 1879 (referral to a work on Kafiristan by Bellew).  I suspect Bellew may have produced other relevant material before then to which "our heroes" might have had access but can't be sure about that so on balance I'm going to say 1879-87 for the kick-off. This seemed a bit late to me, but there we are. It didn't to Kipling or his readers, and they were closer to the ground than I, so..

My next thought was "the only "problem" with this late date is that I was finding, via the good offices of Mr. Google, that we already have some wonderful-looking, pretty detailed maps of the area by the late 1880s-early 90s - so, so much for my launching into the "totally unknown" idea....

Or so  I thought...

I started comparing the various maps I was finding online - in particular an 1894 sketch map by G. S Robertson (of Chitral Fort fame) of his travels in Kafiristan and the rather fine Royal Geographical Society's map of 1881.

I then sought out an early Edwardian one, some modern maps and Google Maps...

WTF..?!! Is this even the same place..? How come that range of hills/watershed comes, then goes, then comes back again..? Where'd that extra river come from..? How come there are two rivers, no one, no two, again, in that valley. And why are ALL all the place names changed..??

On closer inspection I could see where certain salient details matched up - but also where they don't; and I suddenly realised "This place hasn't actually been explored properly after all - let alone surveyed...". Despite the confident (and convincing-looking) Royal Geographical Society's map it was clearly not a chart of "what is", but a map of "what we think it is"...

(Robertson's "From native Information only" comment on his map perhaps explains the two rivers where there are only one on the RGS's map. And the range of hills that vanishes.. As to some of the other anomalies; heaven knows).

Then I stumbled across Col. Sir Thomas Holdich's "The Gates of India on Gutenberg.. Even in 1910 he is talking about the area as being unexplored. Good enough for me... 

I recalled my work in Nigeria in the 1970s - where a Surrey lad, used to the wonders that are the Ordnance Survey maps of UK, came face to face with the practicalities of having to use a map produced not by "feet on the ground" but by an overview (In this case aerial photography... Over forested country.. Talk about not seeing the wood for the trees...) of major visible features, supplemented by local knowledge. This introduction to the wonderful world of "What do you mean, you can't get from HERE to THERE..? There's a track on this map, see..?" "What do you mean, sorry, this isn't Ekefun ? The map says it is..." and the ever-popular "Where did this bloody river come from?".... The map looked LOOKED convincing, but didn't reflect reality on the ground. It was as bad as using a road map in 1980s rural Ireland... 

So where did this leave me?

Basically in a good position; someone at the time of our expedition could go in with a rough idea of the country, but with minimal fixed or known details and some seriously wrong details. This was good enough for me.  I went back to Robertson's sketch map. THIS would be my template.

I decided the ranges of hills/watersheds would be "fixed" as "knowns". I marked (roughly) the tribal boundaries. 

So, now I had my "Blank Map". Not totally blank, but within these boundaries I was happy to be fast and loose with the details of "This Ain't Kafiristan".

I was happy with this.. In the story "Our Heroes" have only the sketch map and notes they made in the newspaper office. Dravot and Carnehan had about two hours to make themselves familiar with the route and territory (I find I've "lost" about seven hours doing research for this so far - and THAT was on the Web; i.e. simple Googling, copying and pasting and downloading images - never mind digging out and poring over actual books to find references and making sketches and pencilled notes). The detailed layout of the region STILL has to be discovered after all. I can have my "undiscovered country"...

So to begin....

I marked up the different tribal areas in different colours.

I set my protagonists to start at Point A on the map below ("We turned off before Jagdallak, because we heard the roads was good. But they wasn’t good..."). This is on a river valley which provides the best rout (so far as I can tell) coming off from the Kabul River/Kabul-Jalalabad route east of Jagdallak into Kafiristan. It also gives four choices: 

1) Push up the Alingar/Kao Valley.
2) Push up the Alishang River.
3) Push over the hills to the territory of the Ashkun.
4) Retrace our steps back to the Kunar River and try further east.

This, I feel, is a good start. 

2) Problem two - The nature of the terrain.

I looked at the maps and spent some time on Google earth (what a wonderful tool for wargamers that is.... Extraordinarily useful - esp. the 3D element) and in looking at some videos on Nuristan (former Kafiristan) on the ol' Youtube ("Unseen Beauty of Afghanistan Nuristan Afghanistan" etc. etc.). 

This cemented the feeling (already planted in my head) that the terrain is really going to funnel the movement and the action, in that there is high ground where nobody is going to to go without a VERY good reason (the watersheds/ridges). and parts they will go (i.e. along the valley floors).  

It became clear that, like certain parts of Iran's Zagros Mountains, where I spent a lot of time on foot once upon a day, the valleys (and command of same) are key, and much of the high ground is only relevant to goats, timber-grabbing or certain military contexts. Also, there will be no roads as we understand them, just rocky tracks of various sizes. Most movement will thus be along the river valleys, rather than over the hills. 

We get a good picture of what we might expect from the account of Robertson (1894) in which he says;

"Kafiristan consists of an irregular series of main valleys, for the most part deep, narrow, and tortuous, into which a varying number of still more difficult, narrower, and deeper valleys, ravines, and glens pour their torrent water. The hills which separate the main drainage valleys the one from the other are all of them of considerable altitude, rugged and toilsome."

"Some of the ravines up which regular roads run are of most picturesque and romantic description, others are bare rocky glens. Indeed, many various kinds of scenery are to be met with according to differing altitudes and to other circumstances. At the lower elevations fruit trees abound, and in the hot weather the traveller pushes his way along the torrent's bank through thickets and tangles of wild grapes and pomegranates. At such low elevations splendid horse-chestnuts and other shade trees afford pleasant resting-places, while the hillslopes are covered by shrubs, wild olive, and evergreen oaks.

At somewhat higher elevations, say from 5000 to 8900 or 9000 feet, dense 
pine and cedar forests abound. They are composed of magnificent trees, which with a snow background afford most delightful prospect. Higher still, the pines cease; the hills are then almost bare, rocky, shaly, etc. ; while the willow, birch, and the juniper cedar are the chief trees met with, and the wild rhubarb grows abundantly. Higher still-that is to say, above 13,000 feet-there is no vegetation of any kind, except rough grasses and mosses."

Nowadays there has been a lot of deforestation, but you can still get a good feel for what the country would have been like in the nineteenth century. 

Robertson also notes; "The main roads of communication, if roads they may be called, are almost invariably along the river-banks, so narrow and so steep are the valleys. Although they vary very greatly the one from the other, they have this quality in common, that they are almost always extremely difficult. That part of the Bashgul valley above Chabu, as well as nearly the whole of the Presnngul, is quite easy when you once get into those districts; but all other Kafiristan roads which I travelled over were simply abominable.

Well there we are.... Also:

"The bridges over the rivers are sometimes extremely well built, but are high above the water, and often not more than 18 or 20 inches wide in the middle, with parapets only a few inches- high, so that the whole structure looks far more like an irrigation trough than a bridge. They are somewhat trying to the nerves, specially if you are suffering or are just recovering from an attack of 
fever. If this is a description of the good bridges, it may easily be conceived how extremely bad the inferior ones are."

However:  "The rope or rather twig bridge common in Gilgit, Chitral, and the Kunar valley is never met with in Kafiristan" (Oh dear.... So much for THAT element of the story... Still, a minor detail....).

So, from this I draw that roads can be ignored for our purposes (other than to lead us to other villages), river crossings by bodies of men will take a while (and be potentially hazardous) and that almost all movement will be along the valleys.

From Robertson and others it is clear that in winter the high ground and passes will be all but impassable.

Fine with me...

3) Problem Three - The Politics and Population:

The area is linguistically complex, divided into of tribal areas - like the book. Robertson gives the impression that inter-tribal rivalry is pretty intense - as in the story - but other accounts say there is little actual organised warfare between the various groups, and it is more a question of violent but low-level feuding; plus a bit fo random killing/headhunting to gain "Big Man" status. This isn't a problem for us. Our Heroes are setting out to be "Big Men"..

The inter-tribal boundaries appear in most places to be the ranges of high hills, which makes things neat. However, Robertson is a bit vague about the areas he hasn't been, and not all boundaries are clear. He does (usefully) sometimes give the number of villages controlled by the different tribes. All this gives us leeway to be creative.

Kipling gives figures for the population which seem way, way out. The population of the whole region in modern times has been estimated as between 100,00-140,00, but Afghanistan - despite the troubles - has seen a fourfold increase in population since the 50s. so I am happy to divide the higher recent figure by four.

Villages vary between 30 to 300 families nowadays. MacNaire gives one of the large villages, Kamdesh having 600 houses. Say one or two fighting men per household gives us plenty for our purposes.

The people themselves: In 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica says of the locals: 

"A warrior's weapons are a matchlock (rarely a flintlock), a bow and arrows, a spear and the dagger which he never puts aside day or night. The axes, often carried, are light and weak, and chiefly indicate rank. Clubs, carefully ornamented by carving, are of little use in a quarrel; their purpose is that of a walking-stick. As they are somewhat long, these walking-clubs have been often supposed to be leaping-poles. Swords are rarely seen, and shields, carried purely for ostentation, seldom."

This seems fair enough, and matches with Kipling.

So where does this get us?

We have a time period.

We have a map - and a feel for what should be known an unknown.

We have some idea of the terrain and the folk we are likely to meet.

All we need now is a game. Detailed thoughts for this will be set out in Part Two, but to set the scene:

I would start a project like this as follows:

1) Sketch out a map based on Roberston's map - or print out his map.

2) Mark up the tribal areas OR make that random and unknown (i.e build that into the Events part of the Terrain G
enerator. See next post for this).

3) Decide on the time scale and distance to be travelled each day (ideas on this in the next post). 

4) Decide on how many days food your folks have with them and how many "trade goods" they carry (ditto). 

5) Use a Terrain Generator to see what kind of country you are traversing and what random events - inc; weather and hostiles - might occur (ditto).

6) In the event a "Council" of local bigwigs need to make a decision (to join you,  or reject you or to go along with any plans you might have) see my "Council... What Council" post of 30th May 2018.

So there we are. Watch this space for more.

There is a lot of stuff in the above I'm afraid. The second post will be more "How I would Do it" ideas and examples of game processes.

Meanwhile for them as is interested; some links to copy and paste into a search engine if desired. There is a LOT of incredible research material out there on the Web for wargamers generally (including The journals of the Royal United Services Institution !!) and folk fascinated by history - but watch out for getting pulled too far down the rabbit hole of research... Onwards and upwards.. :)

"Kafiristan" Surg. Maj. C.S. ROBERTSON (slow, but takes you to a PDF)

"Kafirs of The Hundu Kush" (illustrated) Surg. Maj. C.S. ROBERTSON (downloadable PDF)

"Kafristan and the Kafirs" Surg. Gen. H.W. Bellew 1879

"A Visit To Kafiristan" William Watts McNair (1883)

"Secret and Political Records 1885-1900" (notes from Political Officers),%20Schuyler.pdf

 gates of India, being an historical narrative" Colonel Sir Thomas Holdich 1910.



  1. Blimey! You certainly get 10/10 for research!

  2. Ha, ha... I just got drawn in... :)

    I started looking for maps (I am a map freak, I'm afraid) and dates, but there is SO much stuff digitalised now it's amazing.

    Project Gutenberg is a godsend of course. Finding that the journals of The Royal United Services Institution and United Service Institution of India -with loads of technical stuff of interest to wargamers/historians/geography buffs (well, that's three boxes ticked for me)- are online was a joyfull turn-up for the book...

    Plus photos, illustrations, Youtube (stumbled a across a great little video by a Canadian gent demonstrating/comparing a Snider and a Martini-Henry for rate of fire and accuracy), Google Earth etc. etc...

    We have "click of a button" access to the greatest reference library in the world, in our homes.. And folk still post on FB to ask things like "Is it true dogs can't look up?" and think the earth is flat... Hey, ho...

    Right: back to the Rules-wrangling.... :)

  3. Replies
    1. Cheers... We're getting there...

      Playtesting some of the ideas, for Part Two, tomorrow.


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