History to Wargame 23-2: Congo Mercenary Traveller

I’m not sure when I first saw the movie The Wild Geese, but it had to be in the early 1980’s. The movie itself is too slowly paced for today’s audiences and the musical score is…different. In those days if you wanted to read about mercenaries you visited your local newsstand and picked up the latest issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine.

[At least you tried to. My parents were NOT fans of Soldier of Fortune so my friends and I would have to sneak copies in backpacks and the like away from the prying eyes of our parents. Later, when I was on the Speech Team and had a library of materials (usually Time or Newsweek magazines) I ‘just happened’ to have a few issues of Soldier of Fortune in there too.]

Wild Geese courtesy YouTube

Fast forward over 40 years into early 2023 and I purchased the book Congo Mercenary by Mike Hoare (Greenhill Books, 2022). Congo Mercenary was originally published in 1967 and tells the story of ‘5 Commando,’ a mercenary unit led by ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare in the Congo of the mid-1960s. Congo Mercenary was one of the ‘inspirations’ of the movie The Wild Geese.

Colonel ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare wearing the uniform of his 5 Commando Armée Nationale Congolaise (5 Commando ANC) during the filming of the movie, The Wild Geese, for which he was hired as a technical advisor in 1977/78. (Courtesy juleswings.wordpress.com)

When I first got the book Congo Mercenary, I thought a good “History to Wargame” pairing would be to look at Congo Mercenary though the lens of the wargame combat adventure game Commando from Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) in 1979.

They both have berets…(Photo by RMN)

The more I read Congo Mercenary the more I felt that Commando is maybe not the best game to pair with the book. While some of the actions fought by 5 Commando could be replicated in Commando, I was struck by the sheer size of the unit—1000 men. More dramatically, I was also taken in by the way 5 Commando recruited and the terms of their contract. It brought to mind another mercenary-themed wargame in my collection.

Strictly speaking, Traveller Book 4 Mercenary is not a wargame. Mercenary is the fourth book in the Classic Traveller role-playing game (RPG) system. As the back of the book describes:

In depth, a treatment of all aspects of military adventures in the universe of Traveller. Detailed character generation for mercenary characters, including 11 new skills and 12 advanced weapon types. Plus, rules for recruiting, tickets, and the resolution of battles.

Mercenary, aimed at the military oriented Traveller adventurer.

Traveller Book 4 Mercenary

I am comfortable calling Book 4 Mercenary a wargame because of the Traveller mini-game found in the “Battles” chapter that expands the Traveller Combat System (TCS)—the personal combat system used in Traveller—as well as introducing the Abstract System which which is the Traveller version of a mass combat system. But the parts of Book 4 Mercenary that best connects the game to Congo Mercenary for me are actually the chapters on “Tickets” and “Recruiting.” While tabletop RPG players may see these chapters as part of the setting or adventure hooks, a wargamer can use them as a scenario generator, which is exactly how they are used in the Abstract System.

A Real Mercenary Ticket

A real amazing part of Mike Hoare’s Congo Mercenary story is how simple the contract was that he was hired under. At it’s heart, the ‘Ticket’ (to use the Traveller Mercenary term) was three short paragraphs:

  1. A company of 200 men must arrive immediately at Kamina: MISSION—Retake Manono, Albertville, Fizi, Uvira.
  2. 300 volunteers should be formed into six platoons for the six mobile groups now in creation.
  3. 500 volunteers in company with elements of A.N.C. must retake Stanleyville immediately.

Signed: Commander-in-Chief, A.N.C.

J.D Mobutu

Major General

In Traveller Book 4 Mercenary terms, this is a ‘Dream Ticket’ for a mercenary Striker unit of Brigade strength. Weapons are to be provided by the employer. The troops will be well paid.

Discussed, but not shown in detail, in Congo Mercenary are the specific financial terms of the contract. Here Hoare is less than forthcoming for while he talks about the salaries for his troopers he doesn’t talk at all about his personal earnings. I wonder what his Broker skill rating would be Traveller?

Hoare talks in Congo Mercenary about the challenges of recruiting 5 Commando. I noted with interest the fact he was willing to accept recruits with little actual military background. This seems starkly at odds with the entire premise of Traveller Book 4 Mercenary which leans heavily into the trope of ex-military trooper now seeking a life of adventure and wealth…and maybe even some glory.

Putting Watch-chain together Abstract-ly

The first battle fought by Hoare’s mercenary unit in Congo Mercenary was a raid on Albertville named Operation Watch-chain. Hoare originally intended to use his first 100 recruits in the raid but only 38 arrived. Due to “attrition” through troops backing out or partaking in outright mutiny the number who actually went on the raid was reduced to around 30. This small number again got me thinking about using Commando to play out the scenario but after reviewing the historical scenarios I noticed that no battle had more than twenty or so on a side. A group of 30 would likely push the game system to the point of breaking which threatened to diminish my enjoyment of the play. So it was back to Book 4 Mercenary and the Abstract Combat System.

The first battle for 5 Commando was near a village called Malembe. The 30 or so mercenaries armed with Belgian SETME F.N. Rifles engaged a group of 31 rebels armed with a few Mauser pistols and home-made weapons.

The Abstract System in Traveller Book 4 Mercenary is a very simple set of rules for mass combat. For each side you need to know the unit size—scored on a scale of 0 to 9—as well as the Technology Level of the combatants. You also need a relative efficiency score which figures into die modifiers from the encounter type. You also need to determine the Tech Level of the combatants which I decided was TL7 for the Mercenaries and effectively TL2 for the rebels (few pistols, lots of sticks and clubs, and plenty of hopped up, doped out youngsters). To determine Efficiency ratings the Abstract System rules call for each side to roll a d6 with a +2 die roll mod (DM) for mercenary units. In the interest of resolving this historical scenario, I ruled by fiat that the encounter type was ‘Enemy Surprised.’

Consulting the Firing Matrix, cross-referencing the Target Unit size (0) with the Firing Unit size (0) is ‘E’ or even—no DM. The TL difference of 5 is a positive modifier for the mercenaries and a negative DM for the rebels. Strictly using the rules as written, each round of combat will see ~50% of the rebels rendered combat ineffective while there is a slight chance of a mercenary being injured (1% hit…somebody with a light wound?).

In real life, the mercenaries killed 28 rebels (three ran off) without anything more serious that some cuts and scrapes to themselves. This result is neigh-impossible to replicate in the Abstract System.

Too Abstract?

Maybe Traveller Book 4 Mercenary is too abstract a combat resolution system for the battles from Congo Mercenary. Well, at least this first battle. Later battles would be larger affairs and feature vehicles, medevac, and even occasionally air support.

Which brings me back to Commando. Like I noted before, a scenario in Commando usually has no more than 20 soldiers on a side. The Commando team is usually 8-10 soldiers. That makes the game well suited to very small unit actions. Where there are 30 or so soldiers on a side you probably need a more skirmish-scale wargame; something a step up from man-to-man combat in Commando. Maybe a set of miniatures rules like Ambush Alley (I have the sci-fi version Tomorrow’s War) or—going back to the Traveller universe—Frank Chadwick’s Striker rules for 15mm.

On the other hand, Congo Mercenary may be too personal for a wargame-based combat resolution system. While Congo Mercenary relates many of the battles 5 Commando fought, it is a personal tale first. There are many parts of Hoare’s story that are important out of combat, like putting down a mutiny in the ranks or witnessing war crimes by indigenous forces. Those stories are perhaps better related in a role-playing game…like Traveller.

Feature image courtesy juleswings.wordpress.com

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2023 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

6 thoughts on “History to Wargame 23-2: Congo Mercenary Traveller

  1. Another option is Peter Pig’s “AK47 Republic” miniatures ruleset.

  2. Well then, for once you’re ahead of the game!

  3. Have you tried Joe Miranda’s small solitaire game Congo Merc?

    Besides The Wild Geese, Joe once told me that he had the movie Dark of the Sun in mind (1968: Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux, and a chainsaw) with its diamond-theft plotline.

    1. I have not seen Congo Merc but will look. I have admit I saw Dark if the Sun many years ago but had forgotten about it.

      1. You might like it. It’s not complicated, you have an interest in the topic and learning this solitaire system gives you quick access to several other games using it (Border War: Angola Raiders, LRDG, Merrill’s Marauders). They all came out 2012-16 so used or trader copies are available, even buying a new one is not expensive.

      2. I have Merrill’s Marauders already 🤔

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