DWG Battleground Game: Saturday 30th November 2019
By Conrad Cairns
Never a group to miss the chance of jumping on a bandwagon, especially one of so slow-moving as this one is in Britain, we decided to revisit Mesoamerican warfare of the sixteenth century to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the campaigns (1519-1521) which broke the Aztec (often now called the Mexica) polity and was a stunning beginning to the Spanish rule over a continent and a half which lasted until the early nineteenth century.
There is little point in giving historical gen, as the subject has been covered so long and so well, in original English works and those translated from Spanish, French and Nahuatl, with at least two books which will stand at works of literature in their own right (Prescott and Bernal Diaz). Continuing research, reinterpretation of the evidence, and new archaeological material ensure that it is a lively field at the moment. Those lucky enough to have seen the 2002-2003 Royal Academy exhibition will realise how much has been learnt since the mid-twentieth century.
What’s new in wargaming?
Lots, and nothing. The figures are of many makes, some Minifigs dating back to shortly after my first interest was aroused in 1969 with the 450th anniversary, and the armies have been expanded and changed over the years as more figures became available, and my ideas of pre-columbian warfare changed and evolved. Years ago, many gamers took a rather mechanistic approach to the evidence, and in particular the material culture such as Codex Mendoza, to reconstruct armies rather along the line of say Hellenistic forces. The Mexicans had in this model numerous troop-types, each with its own uniform, weapons, morale, formation, order (close, loose, open) etc, a pyramid of lead figures based on foundations of sand.
The organiser of the game, Neil Whitmore, has rejected this in favour of a fairly simple game, with standardised units (all the same frontage) based on Sword and Shield rules. Some units have more figures than others, and if you want you can say for some (eg Spaniards) a figure represents fewer real men. Aztecs and their Tlaxcallan foes were culturally very similar, so there is little difference between the two armies, except that the latter has three Spanish units, of excellent quality but not the war-winning supermen so often depicted. Cortes was as brilliant a politician and diplomat as he was a soldier-perhaps his greatest achievement was to put together an alliance which brought down the Aztec confederation. The Aztecs have one unit with the long spears which were introduced to fend off cavalry in 1520, but no real schiltron or phalanx. Mexicans based their mathematics on 20 (because they wore no shoes??) and we can speculate that most of their ‘squadrons’ were 400 strong, some doubled to 800 and some understrength. There is a clash of evidence about Mexican uniforms. Most were to designate the individual status (not rank) of the wearer (how many captives he had taken), or the order of ‘knights’ he belonged to, but Spanish accounts indicate some uniformity of colour within squadrons. We have compromised. ‘Knights’ and other elite warriors sometimes fight in their own units, rather than interspersed with ordinary warriors, but the standard squadrons contain men of many different statuses. Some squadrons have uniform shields. The ‘knights’ units may be rather too uniform in appearance, but there is not much difference in the way they fight from other squadrons, and you can always say with some justification that in all armies some units were a bit better than others!
Neil designed the scenario, which is one of the battles around the shores of Lake Texcoco in early 1521 (we lack the information to be more specific). We wanted to reflect in particular the man-made landscape of the Valley of Mexico, with its canals, heavy cultivation, and numerous settlements. Tenochtitlan, the capital in the middle of the lake was atypical in being on a grid plan, and perhaps shining white, whereas the excavations of Michael E. Smith have revealed other Aztec towns and villages to have been more irregular, with plenty of space for growing things in between the houses. Aztec buildings are usually depicted as flat-roofed, of stone or adobe, but we think that some would have been of organic materials with pitched roofs, as are still found in parts of modern Mexico. Although there are some almost circular ‘pyramid’ we have assumed that all other plans are right-angled. Most Aztec excavations produce only foundations, and the Valley of Mexico has changed beyond recognition in the twentieth century. We have used nineteenth-century sources, most notably the oils of James Walker who accompanied Winfield Scott in 1847. Scott took the same route from Vera Cruz to Mexico City as had Cortes.
All the terrain is from the DWG collection, except for pyramid, kindly made some years ago by Stuart Hitchinson, and the other temple buildings and cacti which I did for the display.
Some may swear at our seven gods (converted, very heavily, from fantasy figures), but we do not apologise. Mexicans believed they existed. Some Spaniards may have as well-in the form of devils. The have no function in the game, so nobody gas an excuse for shouting ‘Heathen’ deities on starboard beam-three rounds of obsidian case-shot master gunner. (NB shooting ragged glass or stone from any firearm is very bad for the barrel, so should only be done when confronted with supernatural targets).
The two brigantines were based on the reconstructions in the BBC ‘Heroes and Villains’ series, and on twentieth-century versions of Columbus’ Nina, which was probably not much bigger than Cortes’ vessels. The hulls were from Games of War in Seaham, with the sterns squared to look more sixteenth-century. Two written authorities (Cotes’ letters and Bernal Diaz) disagree on the crews, and one rather pretty 1724 illustration makes them look like sleek lateen-rigged Mediterranean galliots rather than the fairly simple vessels they probably were. They play no part in the game.
This game ‘reflects current thinking’. Very likely it would look rather different if we were to do it in 2069. Let’s hope so!