After Action Reports

Gunboat Unit Capabilities

The Gunboat game unit with its abilities to bombard and transport troops give the British a massive operational advantage in the most excellent wargame, Maori Wars – The New Zealand Land Wars. Published by Legion Wargames, Maori Wars allows players to simulate several scenarios and campaigns over the course of the conflict between the Crown and indigenous Maori, spanning the years 1845-1872. 

Setting aside the morality of the conflict for a moment (which reads brutally and even more brutally to write) as this was a land grab by white European settlers, the conflict itself gives history a fascinating look at counterinsurgency, engineering and fortifications development, coastal and riverine operations, Victorian era technology, civilian/military relations and insight into a colonizing mindset.

For our purposes (I mean we do cover navy stuff) we are going to take a look at the coastal and riverine operational advantages the British have in the game via the Gunboat unit. I’ll attempt to do this in light of what we know about strategic maneuver and control of the seas, amphibious operations and operations in brown water or riverine operations. 

Let us start with strategic maneuver. French military theorist Vice Admiral Raoul Castex summarized strategic maneuver as, “…to move intelligently in order to create a favorable situation.”1 For Castex, strategic maneuver is the method used by one side to conduct operations and improve conditions against an adversary for the best results possible for themselves. “Well that sounds easy”, said no serious wargamer. It isn’t easy because the enemy also believes in strategic maneuver and they are also trying to put their combat teams into the best possible position to succeed as well. Based on the campaign’s principal objectives and secondary objectives, strategic maneuver can also be malleable for each side as the conflict progresses. The goal is to incur a ‘superiority of orientation’ through strategic maneuver. This favors one side over the other resulting in wins or gains for that side against their adversary.2 

Map and unit pieces from Maori Wars. Gunboats can carry 2 units along with Leaders and Artillery and enjoy incredible movement capability within the game as they also did historically.

In Maori Wars the British enjoy a fairly pronounced strategic maneuver advantage over the Maori warriors due in some part to their fleet of gunboats. The gunboat can traverse navigable rivers and the open ocean freely (more on that in a minute) while transporting troops, artillery and leaders to most any coastal landing or open navigable river spot. Gunboats also have the ability to bombard enemy coastal/river fortresses (a Maori stronghold was called a Pa) or enemy troops along coasts and rivers. While the Maori enjoy a devastating ability to ambush and raid British troops in the field, the ability for the British to stretch the operational theater with a flotilla gives them tremendous sway on where the action will take place. They can choose through maneuver when and where battle will take place. This greatly increases Britain’s ability to make battle including having free rein on embarking and disembarking troops along any coast or navigable river while also providing fire support to those units. The Maori can counteract this ability to a degree with their ability to ambush and move through terrain more quickly. But New Zealand is a massive island and the majority of settlements and fortifications are within 20-30 miles of river and coast. This is not to say that every battle conducted by troops delivered via the British flotilla was successful for the British. We have some examples in another writing where this was the case (our simulations of the Invasion of the Waikato and Hutt Valley Uprisings will highlight this). What is true however is that the British can maneuver freely to most actions because of their naval capabilities.    

The British have full control of the sea zones in Maori Wars and did in the historic conflict as well. This point cannot be overlooked and gives the British player maximum control on the ocean and coasts. While the Maori do have canoe units that can traverse even non navigable rivers, due to their intimate knowledge of their own lands, these canoes cannot offer firepower comparable to the British. Many canoes often start inland as well and tactically it can be difficult to navigate to open ocean and conduct operations. Canoes can also be destroyed while gunboats simply retreat. The Maori forces thus cannot prevent Britain from controlling or traversing any coastal or navigable area in the theater of operations. Britain has full control over her naval capabilities and can, through strategic maneuver, apply sizable force to the enemy through her navy. Even if the Maori were able to deploy their warriors via canoe to a coastal or river hex with the intent of attacking British units, Britain can respond in kind fully and may even have naval resources to prevent such an attack. It would be a tactical gamble on the part of the Maori to launch these types of attacks and only as a last resort would such an attack be even viable (say for last round Victory points). Britain, channeling Sir Julian Corbett’s theories and as the invader nation with superior technology, has control of all sea lines of communications.3

While both belligerents have the ability to conduct amphibious operations only Britain can do so with fire support and full control of ocean and coastal zones via fire power. These joint excursions, between the British Army/Militia and the British controlled New Zealand Navy, give the British player another superior battle option against the Maori. The flexibility Corbett discussed in his theories, namely the flexibility and mobility an expeditionary force creates to ‘baffle’ and ‘bewilder’ opponents who are forced to ‘split up their force’4 gives Britain a monumental edge in choosing where and how to apply force in the game. The Maori cannot prevent amphibious operations from occurring and the only aspect hampering British operations is geography via unnavigable river ways. Rivers that are too shallow or narrow for gunboats to traverse are an obstacle for operations. Historically this was the case as well as Avon and Pioneer, two British gunboats which operated in the Maori Wars conflict, both ran aground and became incapable of movement for a time.5 However, the ability to deliver troops to any point on the coast as well as river mouths, the ability to bombard Pa’s and destroy defenses, and the ability to fire at Maori forces before the army engages in battle is a huge advantage to the British player. This was also true historically specifically in the Invasion of Waikato.6 While Maori defenses are set up and static, the British player can choose where to deploy their resources on land while also deploying more military resources via the sea. This joint effort, when fully realized, allows the British player to place British troops into the majority of conflicts and supports the strategic maneuver advantage held by the Crown. 

Through joint amphibious operations there is also no point at which the British cannot reinforce their position. Even if combat is miles away from the coast, landings and then movement to those pressure points are options open to the British player in almost every case. Coastal towns like Gisborne, Auckland and Wellington can be consistently reinforced for defensive purposes if need be. Maori forces that advance on British positions within these coastal areas can also be reinforced quickly thus shoring up defensive positions. Not only can these forces be reinforced through these joint operations, attacks and counter-attacks can be levied against the Maori as well, alleviating pressure for the British in the operational theater.

As we have seen, strategic maneuver is heavily tilted towards the British in their campaign objectives to seize land for settlers while neutralizing indigenous forces. They also have command of the seas allowing them the ability to freely conduct amphibious operations and to gain access to anywhere on the battlefield. The colonial power still has at its disposal capabilities to conduct riverine operations against the Maori warriors as well.

Pioneer was a gunboat used by the British in the Maori Wars theater. Launched in 1863 she was wrecked in 1867 after a storm dragged her to sea. She was rendered unmanageable after attempts to bring her back into harbor were unsuccessful.

During the almost three decade long conflict the battles at Maori strongholds of Mermere and Rangiri along the Waikato River proved that while having superiority in almost all aspects of combat, the British would have to be more cautious in their approaches to these redoubts along the rivers. Their own technology, referenced earlier with beam width, draughts and sails, led to gunboats grounding ashore at times. These gunboat iterations were simply too wide, long and heavy for deeper river combat. This limitation is also set up in the game only allowing the British access to those rivers wide enough and deep enough (just like the Waikato River) to penetrate deep into Maori lands. Most only allow boats to head inland a hex or two, or 10-20 miles. However, at these conflicts the ability to disembark troops and bombard the Pa’s was too much for the Maori and both battles ended in British victories. These victories were key to the campaign.7 So, in the game, not only do the gunboats operate in coastal zones but they can also operate in river basins deep enough to hold them. This gives the British player even more options when laying out the battlefield of their choosing and especially when conducting operations against Maori positions along a river hex.

Maori Wars – The New Zealand Land Wars is incredibly well made and a fun play. With an incredibly detailed and gorgeous game map setting the stage, Maori Wars introduces to the gaming community a rich history of a powerful and proud people in the defense of their homeland against a colonizing power. The asymmetrical combat capability of the Maori does not take away from the gameplay in fact it only enhances it. Several campaigns and battles were on a knife edge, eeked out by the Maori via ambushes or counterattacks. The British gunboats, however, made many of these battles only possible because of their ability to maneuver against the Maori forces, maximize amphibious operational capability, and operate on rivers bringing the fight closer to inland Pa’s and villages. Without their mastery of the seas, Britain’s deployment and operational opportunities would have been cut down considerably in their war against the Maori and this is true in gameplay as well.   

Coming soon – Maori Wars – The New Zealand Land Wars examples of conflict simulation gameplay with a look at gunboat operations during the Invasion of Waikato and Hutt Valley Uprising campaigns        


1 Castex, Raoul, and Eugenia C. Kiesling. Strategic Theories. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1994. pg. 102

2 Castex, pg. 116

3 McCranie, K. D. (2021). Mahan, Corbett, and the foundations of naval strategic thought. pg. 107

4 McCranie, Pg. 195

5 Branfill-Cook, R. (2018). River gunboats: An illustrated encyclopedia. pg. 179

6 Ritchie, Neville. “The Waikato War of 1863-64.” (2007). pgs 12-13

7 Simons, C.R. (2012) Military Intelligence in the New Zealand Wars [Doctoral dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand]

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