Fighting the Genpei War with ‘Bag the Hun’

Converting Too Fat Lardies’ WW2 air combat rules for 12th century Japan.

At first, and indeed second, glance it may seem like a crazy idea to use a set of WW2 aircraft rules for medieval Japanese skirmishes. However, I think it provides a useful example of how looking outside the obvious period or genre can be rewarding. Wargamers tend to be rather conservative when it comes to rules. If you’re playing a game in the early 19th century Europe, you’ll use Napoleonic rules etc. But where it comes to warfare that isn’t typical of the period, sometimes it’s better to look further afield. If you wanted to model Wellington’s campaigns in India for example, you may be better off using late 19th century colonial rules and changing the weapons rather than using Napoleonic rules with a lot more additional rules to represent warfare very different from Europe.

With that in mind, the initial thought for a Genpei War skirmish game came from reading Karl Friday’s “Samurai, Warfare and the State in Medieval Japan.” In his reconstruction of late Heian warfare, Friday suggests that it “involved individuals and small groups circling and manoeuvring around one another in a manner that bore an intriguing resemblance to dog-fighting aviators.” This led me to try and see if it were possible to convert a set of dog-fighting rules to a period 700 years before the invention of powered flight. I decided on ‘Bag the Hun,’ mainly as it was the only one I knew of that didn’t involve writing orders every turn.

First, it’s important to point out that in some older history books, it’s said that Heian period warfare consisted of a serious of single combats that followed on from individuals issuing ‘challenges.’ I don’t think any serious historian believes this anymore, even Stephen Turnbull has pretty much given up on it in his last Osprey volume on the Genpei War. There are various theories on how Heian warfare was conducted, but most of these are only available in Japanese, so Karl Friday’s theory is rather more accessible to the English reader, and it’s this that has provided the model here.

^Minamoto bushi appear out of the sun.

The dominant warrior of the Genpei War was the mounted archer. However, the Japanese mounted archer differed significantly from the equivalent on the Asian mainland. There were 3 main factors that contributed to a different battlefield role. Firstly, Japanese bows were much weaker than the composite, re-curved bows of the Asiatic horse archer, greatly reducing their effective range. Secondly, the heavy armours of the period provided protection that further reduced the effective archery range to little more than ten metres. Lastly, the geography of Japan itself was very different. There are no large flat areas where the sweeping moves of the horse archers of the steppes could be utilised. The overall effect is a more claustrophobic battlefield ideally suited to the wargames table.

So, where are the parallels with fighter planes? Well, a fighter has a narrow field of fire to its front. Similarly, the long bows coupled with the restricted movement of the box-like armour of the Japanese bushi, meant that they too had a restricted field where they could shoot. Effectively this was to their front-left, a bit narrower than the arc of 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock. Both forms of warfare, then, involve carefully manoeuvring in order to get a shot. A dogfighting pilot will attempt to get behind the enemy and follow them, so as to keep them ‘in the sights’ for longer. For the mounted bushi, this would mean trying to get behind and to the right of the target, to keep them in the shooting arc while moving in the same direction and better react to any attempt by the enemy to cut across to the shooter’s right. So, the tailing mechanic could be ported over.

^ Bad form from the Taira as they appear sneakily out of the clouds, oops I mean bushes.

But, on a more fundamental level, a game involving mounted archers circling around each other needs to have a model that has a feel of constant movement. Clearly this is something that is similarly imperative to dogfighting games, and I think it is this basic concept from which everything else follows.

The initial draft also simply crossed over the damage results, where pilot hits were the rider and ‘plane hits were the horse. ‘Wing damage’ became a horse injury reducing manoeuvrability, ‘gunsight damaged’ became an arm injury to the rider reducing archery ability etc. Even the presence of flak became a way to represent the intervention of infantry followers of the mounted bushi in an abstract way.

Since then, it’s become a bit more refined, but I think the game is still recognisable as ‘Bag The Hun.’ And what began as a ‘thought experiment’ has actually turned out to be a very enjoyable game.

The rules can be downloaded here:






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