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The Spanish Main – Playing the Period

Buccaneering for fun and profit...

As a historical period this is one of my favourites. However, while I’ve written about it a lot, I haven’t actually wargames it – until now. Years ago I used to have a collection of pirates – all figures from the Foundry range. The trouble was, while they looked great, you couldn’t do much with them. Pirates operated pretty exclusively at sea, so games were limited, and you needed ships. Also there wasn’t much of a balance, as pirates were robbers, and crime doesn’t necessarily make for a fun game. So, I eventually sold off my pirates with tricornes, but for some reason I kept the others – the guys who were more suitable for this early period. They languished in a box for years, until one day I stumbled across them again. The result is this wargaming period – one where “pirates” for want of a better word) not only fight on land rather than sea, but both they and their opponents look pretty darned cool .A “buccaneer” is essentially a Caribbean-based “privateer” from the second half of the 17th century who picked on the Spanish. In time of war, “privateers” operated under a letter-of-marque from their government, and were essentially licenced pirates. The English, French and Dutch all used privateers fairly extensively in the Caribbean – or the Spanish Main if you prefer – and they evolved into the buccaneers, who were universally disliked by everyone else .. a bit like Chelsea and Rangers supporters. Anyway, in 1655 the English captured Jamaica from the Spanish, while the French established a foothold on the island of Tortuga. They started carrying out raids on Spanish coastal towns, and soon this became big business. The heyday of the buccaneers was from around 1656 to 1672, although they lingered on until the end of the century. Those dates pretty much coincide with the period when Henry Morgan was active – a man so famous they named a rum after.  So, my buccaneers are designed to fit into that same time frame.So, I expanded my figures until I had about a hundred buccaneers, mixing my Foundry figures with some English Civil War ones from Bicorne, to get the proper “look”.   You’ll see what I was aiming for in these Angus McBride illustrations, from the Osprey I did on the Buccaneers a couple of decades ago.Then, for the Spanish, I mixed things up, using old Foundry Cimaroon figures and Bicorne English Civil War ones for the militia, and Bicorne mixed with North Star 1670s range figures for the regular pike and shot. For allies, I gave my buccaneers a skirmish contingent of Cimaroons – runaway slaves – while the Spanish got local Indian allies, armed with bows and arrows. My favourite unit of all though is probably my small contingent of six Spanish cavalry. These are Dragones a Cuera, the buff-coat clad lancers used by the Spanish in the Americas. The figures are actually Front Rank Napoleonic Spanish Irregulars, but they’ve been converted a bit, and given adarga shields. I think they look as cool as cucumbers!So much for the troops. Now, what about the rules? When I first played with pirates, I either used homegrown rules, or the Warhammer set Legends of the High Seas. They were OK, but I’ve never been a great fan of Warhammer rules, largely because I never game into wargaming through fantasy gaming. For our first game we used A Pikeman’s Lament by Dan Mersey, and  published by Osprey. Now, i really like these – in fact I like all the variants Dan has produced from the Lion Rampant stable. It also suits my army, with units of 12 figures being the standard, with smaller units for skirmishers, cavalry or specialist troops like forlorn hopes or gun crews. I also find them fun to play, and easy to pick up. I’ve used them for Border Reiver games, and they seem to work just as well for the Buccaneering era. Typically, a “skirmish” force will have about 60-70 figures in it, which means it gives you the feel of a nice tabletop scrap without calling for a lot of lead. The new kid on the block is Blood & Plunder, from Firelock Games. Now, so far I haven’t played with these, but I’ve read them through, and I was really impressed by them. Like A Pikeman’s Lament these are essentially “skirmish” rules, although games using them seem to be geared up for slightly smaller forces. What these do though, is integrate rules for ships with land combat, along with bits about fortifications, towns fighting and anything else the Spanish Main could throw at you. We certainly plan to try them out soon.One thing I have to say though. If you’re even remotely interested in this period then you should grab a copy of Blood & Plunder. Not only are they full of inspirational photos and a lot of excellent information on the era, they also contain a first-rate chronology of the buccaneering time period, written by my piratical colleague Benerson Little. That alone is worth the cost of the rules. So, there you have it. The Spanish Main. While this’ll never become a mainstream period for me, it is a lovely one nonetheless. So, it the future, when we get jaded with bigger games, and want something fast, fun and colourful, then I can see us returning to the Caribbean, and the world of the 17th century buccaneers. 




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