Monday, 23 December 2013

The Battle of the Little Big Horn

This is the name of a board game by Waddington's that my younger brother Wayne got as a present for Christmas 1964, when he was aged eight, but closer to being nine. I have never heard of anyone else owning this game, and I suspect that it was soon dropped from Waddington's stable of games because of (a) increased consciousness of the injustice done to the American Indian nations - it wasn't good to cast them as 'the enemy' in a game intended for impressionable children; and (b) more sophisticated appraisals of the campaigns against the Indians, which were coming to be seen as cynical, government-approved land-grabbing and ethnic cleansing - especially obnoxious in the supposed Land of the Free.

But in 1964 it was still possible to enjoy a game of Cowboys and Indians - or cheerfully re-enact Custer's Last Stand - and my brother and myself certainly liked playing The Battle of the Little Big Horn very, very much.

As I said, when bought for Christmas, he'd be eight, and I would have been twelve. It was in active use for some years and might have become tatty, but Wayne, like me, looked after his stuff, and guarded it jealously from harm and pilfering. So that's why, even forty-nine years later, it is still in decent condition, with nothing missing. I wouldn't mind playing it again - how odd is that? - and if Wayne were still around, we would surely by now have got into an annual ritual of battling it out by the Big Horn every Christmas. But of course he was killed eighteen years ago.

This game is one of the very few tangible objects I own that belonged to my brother. I've got his guitar, some of his LP records, some tapes on which his voice is recorded (which I can't, even now, bear to listen to), and this game. So it's precious indeed.

However, it's still a game meant for children, and it shouldn't be seen as a relic but as a source of excitement and amusement, especially if you like battles, and playing with plastic figures. Let's have a look at it.

First the box, which has a stirring scene on the front worthy of any John Wayne cavalry film (e.g. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/She_Wore_a_Yellow_Ribbon):


The bottom side of the box describes the historical background - simplified of course! - and what's in the box. Wayne has written his name there in different-coloured inks:


Lifting the lid reveals a folding cardboard battle-map, which, in Indian fashion, resembles a stretched painted skin inside a wooden frame:


Removing that discloses the hand-painted plastic figures, the Seventh Cavalry Flag, the single dice (or should that be die? Or douse, as in mouse?) and the rules of play:


A little of my own handwriting from the early 1970s is evident, so we must have been playing this game on and off for ten years or so! The figures, whether Cavalry or Indian, are splendid, and worth closer examination. First, Custer in his buckskin jacket, toting sixguns, and the Flag:


Next, his two officers:


Wayne and I named each one of them 'Swordid' for obvious reasons. Next, the other men:


We called both the standing troopers at the top left 'Wangy Man', because they tended to flop over too easily if you accidentally touched the board. Each of the two men firing on one knee we called 'Shorty' - why, I know not. You'll note that although this is the US Cavalry, none of them, not even Custer, has a horse. They can therefore only escape from their exposed battle position one square at a time - a huge handicap.

Now the Indians. First, the three mounted chiefs. The top shot includes my fingers, to give a sense of scale:


Next, the three mounted braves:


And the Indians on foot, with the die, douse or dice:


Gosh, quite a lot of hand-painting here! It must have been hard to keep manufacturing costs down. Let's now set up the game, with the board flattened out on the carpet:


Actually, I've set it up wrong. The mounted Indians ought to start in the positions behind the rocks on the far right of the board. And they can't ride around in bushes. In a proper game, the Indian encampment would at first be defended only by braves on foot.

Like Custer and his men, the unmounted Indians can only move one square at a time. But the six mounted chiefs and braves can move three squares at a time, and clearly this enables them to swoop down, and whizz around the board, in a very satisfying fashion - although of course horses can't go on squares containing rocks or bushes, and no figure (on horse or not) can cross the stream except at the fords. There are also distance and sightline limitations on who can engage who - it matters much whether you attack with a rifle, or are in cover, or if there is cover in between. The outcome of combats is decided by a roll of the dice. This may signify a miss, or force one figure to retreat, or it might mean a kill. A six means instant death.

The Indians are likely to win, of course! They need only eliminate Custer and all his men. Or capture the Flag. But - unlike historical fact - it is possible for the Cavalry to win, if they kill all three chiefs, or somehow get the Flag to one of the two blue arrows at the left corners of the board. I'm afraid though that a Custer win is rare.

Nevertheless, the game is well worth playing. Wayne and I liked being both the Indians and the Cavalry, taking turns, with no great preference for either. If the Cavalry, we treated Custer as a self-glorifying idiot, eminently expendable, and, leaving the Flag in the safe hands of one of the Swordids (serious men of good sense and high duty) we'd let Custer (stupid and insane) draw the mounted chiefs' fire out in the open. In this way, Custer became a kind of mindless and relentless Terminator figure to the Indians, a slow-moving but deadly Nemesis, someone who menaced their free movement and had to be destroyed before they really got down to business. On at least one occasion, Custer got lucky and managed to shoot down all three chiefs before anything else happened, bringing the game to a premature end. The bastard.

Who put up the best show? Well, all the Cavalry men (except Custer) were valiant beyond belief, to the very last man. Custer was a slobbering mad dog. All the Indians on foot were notably brave and self-sacrificing, although we tended to regard the three with red loincloths as lesser men, fit only for guarding the fords and wigwams (wherein, presumably, squaws huddled). The three mounted braves with tomahawks were definitely the ultimate in reckless courage. The conduct of the three mounted chiefs was, on the other hand, always rather questionable, especially if there was only one left. He tended to skulk in the rocks, preserving his cowardly hide, and would only emerge at a gallop if the Cavalry were in danger of winning.

We did play to win. But we didn't play scientifically. We wanted fun and side-splitting laughs. Most often we'd each employ Kamikaze tactics, on foot or mounted, turning the game into an unpredictable but hilarious bloodfest.

But you can of course tackle matters in a cool and properly-analysed way. Have a look at this: http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/725087/a-beautifully-crafted-game-from-the-1960s-that-tur. And if you want some insight into the world of uncomputerised weekend War Gaming with model figures, then this also: http://wargamingmiscellany.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/cow2010-personal-review.html. My word, they do take it seriously - but gaming done that way should be.

As for the historical facts of the real Battle of the Little Big Horn, so far as known, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Little_Bighorn.

I suppose I'd better put Wayne's game back up in the attic. But not till after Christmas. It's one way of having him around.

7 comments:

  1. Lucy! What language, wash your mouth out with soap this instant!

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  2. It's war, Caroline, and sadly it brings out the very worst in people.

    Besides, both Wayne and I considered Custer (the plastic figure in the game, I mean) to be a look-at-me, gung-ho loose cannon, richly deserving a glorious death. If he took out a few Indians, and earned his keep, so much the better. The trouble was, this vainglorious bighead whom we disliked so much often had incredible luck and a supreme will to live, and he warped the game.

    Lucy

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  3. Custer always represented what was wrong with this world and he was what you said. Still in shock...

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  4. I am sorry he is not so around to enjoy it with you x

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  5. Lovely moving post Lucy, Christmas must have mixed emotions for you. Thank you for all the time & effort you have put into your blog over the past year, we all appreciate it so much. Hugs & kisses: Vicky xxx

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  6. Hi Lucy. In a moment of nostalgia (I'm 63 so these moments come along increasingly frequently!) I was thinking about some of the board games I had as a kid. This was one of them! So you have found at least one other person who owned this board game. I remember buying it from a toy shop in Chiswick High Road when I was maybe 9 years old. It was in the era when all kids were into coyboys and Indians. So many TV western series at the time and many hours spent acting out battles in the local park armed with cap guns! Your post brought back great memories of playing this game and despite the very sad reason that you have retained your brother's game it was wonderful to see the contents again. Thank you for the memories. Bless you. Kind regards, Phil Redfearn

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  7. We had the game but never played it properly. Thanks for the article it brought back many happy memories.

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