Victoria Cross II: Deluxe Edition Review

“If 1,200 men couldn’t hold a defensive position this morning, what chance have we with a hundred?” Thus spoke Michael Caine in one of the most endearing and enduring war films ever made, 1964’s Zulu. It tells the harrowing story of the battle of Rorke’s Drift, in which a small detachment of British soldiers managed to hold their positions against overwhelming odds in the aftermath of one of Great Britain’s worst military defeats.

After first being exposed to Zulu in my teenage years I’ve found myself coming back to the film every few years for a rewatch. It’s an excellent production that manages to deliver the kind of grand drama that classic war films are known for, with the personal toll of conflict. It’s a must see, in other words. It also sparked an interest in learning about Britain’s less than pleasant expansion throughout South Africa and their conflict with the Zulu Nation. If you’ve wanted to game that conflict there have always been options. Victory Point Game’s Zulus on the Ramparts is a classic in its own right, for example. But nothing I’ve played has matched the production, the quality, and the fun of Worthington’s Victoria Cross II: Deluxe Edition.

Editor’s Note: I also happen to be a big fan of the film, but it must be noted that we’re not here glorify or even celebrate Britain’s colonial endeavours in the 19th century. We were massive toolbags, regardless of whether it makes for a good film or game.

Now I’m a recent convert. I originally obtained a copy of Victoria Cross‘s first edition in a trade a couple years back and was disappointed. The map was oddly shaped, the game used unnecessary blocks, and overall it felt light on replayability. It was quickly shelved and I went back to looking for another way to get the Battle of Isandlwana on my table, even contemplating miniatures (oh for the space, the time, the money!). My wife gifted me Victoria Cross II: Deluxe Edition a little while ago and I was taken aback by the leaps and bounds by which the game has improved since it’s first outing. So, before I gush about the production quality, what kind of game is it?

Things are falling apart for the British, a flanking force have cut off the road to Rorke’s drift and only a skeleton force holds the southeast.

Victoria Cross II is an area wargame covering two battles, Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, with a straightforward and easy to understand set of rules. Each turn, British forces can move one space, or two if there is an officer present or they’re cavalry. The Zulu forces then bring on new units and move those already on the battlefield, with movement again supplemented by leaders. The British force fire ranged attacks, then random Zulu fire peppers the British, then bloody melee combat rounds out the turn. The basic flow of the game is the continual influx of new Zulu units, which can enter from a variety of positions in both games. The Zulu player can have a maximum of 90 strength points of warriors on the battlefield, so casualties are constantly being recycled and brought in to harass the ever-weakening British flanks.

Though Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana are very different scales, the basic structure of the game carries over well between them. There are a variety of unique rules, like dongas at Isandlwana and the Hospital at Rorke’s Drift, and unique units for specific battles, like cavalry or artillery. The Zulu player can hide their numbers with the reverse side of each unit, which keeps the art but hides the specific value. There’s a bit of value in there for deception, but the vast majority of play is spent positioning, predictive manoeuvring, and chucking loads and loads of dice.

The game set up for Rorke’s Drift. The Zulu player will soon throw 90 Strength points of warriors in any configuration around the board edge. It will be a long night.

Victoria Cross II has a lot of alternative and optional rules, which we’ll get into in a bit, but right off the top, players will have to contend with two very different combat systems. The original game assigned a die per strength value. If you managed to hit with that die, a point of damage was done to the enemy. When 45 Zulus are attacking over a mealie bag wall, that’s a lot of dice to chuck. I personally think that’s a lot of fun, and it allows for the kind of groans and whoops that rolling 9 misses of 10 when you needed 2 hits bring about.

It also really lets you feel the weight of the forces you control. Throwing handfuls of dice as your warriors charge into combat over a barricade or let out the third volley of Martini Henry fire is fun. The alternative is a traditional Combat Resolution Table, which works well enough, but doesn’t exactly translate well for stuff like low ammunition at Isandlwana or Zulu Random Fire.

The hospital burns and soldiers, including A. C. Dalton, rush in to carry wounded men out to safety.

There are a lot of options to increase replay value, and some are more worthwhile than others. The optional victory rules are interesting, including the opportunity to play a different Isandlwana that sees the British attempt a fighting retreat after it becomes clear they cannot hold the position. Others are less likely to see the table, like the aforementioned CRT. New win conditions can definitely add replayability, and the core system is fun enough for multiple play throughs, but this should definitely be a pair of battles you want to fight again and again.

And what a purchase! The deluxe edition package has to be one of the nicest wargames in my collection. The rock-solid box has a beautiful insert painting of Isandlwana and a counter tray for storage. The mounted maps are clear and pretty, looking properly like a contemporary military map of the area. Each map area has the ranges to nearby areas printed making Line of Sight and range finding easy. It’s a far cry from the cartoony warped thing in the first edition. The counters are thick, rounded, and have wonderful art depicting Zulu Warriors, Natal Native Troops, and redcoats aplenty.

One of the nicest wargames I’ve owned in terms of production quality.

To round things off, there is an included solitaire bot for the Zulus. I would have liked to see bots for both the Zulus and the British, but the Zulu bots offers an interesting element of randomness that you wouldn’t get simply playing both sides. The game works fine doing that, of course, but the bot’s movement and force introduction have worked poetically against me more than once. It’s not always perfect, and I feel it functions betters on Isandlwana than Rorke’s Drift, but it is serviceable.

I think I’ve found my preferred way of gaming Isandlwana and Rorke’s drift, and I didn’t expect it from this package. The light rules and buckets of dice combat make finishing a session a breeze, and it has theme and period feel to feel like you’re playing out Zulu. Victoria Cross II really does feel like a game of the theatrics of film rather than cold hard calculating wargaming, but the end result is entertaining, and there’s nothing wrong with having fun now and then. Just roll better than I do. The army doesn’t like more than one disaster in a day, after all.