Sultan & Shah
Publisher’s Preview
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
June 2020

As much as I like our Gunpowder Strategy series of games, we’ve been pretty neglectful of it over the past few years. We brought Soldier Emperor and Indian Empires back into print, but they need a bridge so you can play them together. And that bridge is Soldier Emperor: Sultan & Shah.

Sultan & Shah is an expansion book for the two Soldier Emperor games, with a new connecting map covering Central Asia from the Persian Gulf up to the Kirgiz Steppe, and from Baghdad to Baluchistan. There are a dozen playing cards, the same type as the ones we put in the new edition of Soldier Emperor, 25 big (one-inch-square) tiles like those in the core games for the new armies and fleets, and 24 simply large pieces for markers and leaders.

The centerpiece of the book is a brief rules set allowing you to play Soldier Emperor and Indian Empires side-by-side. That adds enormously to the fun, and not just because it’s now a really big game (and once you add the upcoming Asian Empires, a really, really big game). The British and French players (and to a lesser extent the Spanish and Russians) get to do stuff in both games. Unless you have a whole lot of players at the table (and that works, too), now the Prussian and Austrian players get to move armies and conduct diplomacy a world away, too.

The “bridge” map provides an overland connection between the two games, but it’s a long way to Tipperary from Travancore and you’re not going to be marching across it often - but you can. The big changes are on the fringes of both games, Soldier Emperor in particular. Russia and the Ottomans have a more or less secure rear flank (the Turks do have a minor power Persia behind them) and can focus all of their attention on European affairs.

That’s less true now. Persia’s not a huge threat to either of her hereditary enemies, and the Central Asian khanates of Khiva, Kokand and Bukhara aren’t likely to come marching across the steppes to invade Russia. They do present an inviting target for Russian expansion, and seizing them can provide a springboard into Afghanistan and thereby into India. That’s a very long and hard march, but the threat alone gives the Russian player a small bit of leverage.

Afghanistan’s Durrani Empire decayed rapidly after the death of its founder in 1772, and so it’s not the powerful threat is posed to the Indian kingdoms during prior decades. The Indian rulers still kept a watch on the North-West Frontier, and the British believed the Afghans powerful enough to hold back the Russians should they march on India. So we’ve added a little randomness to Afghan power (and a few more armies, in case the dice so command) so that players will have to look to the new Afghan capital of Kabul with a wary eye.

Persia is now more powerful, and while she’s unlikely to defeat the Ottomans on her own, she can inflict a lot of pain if she attacks while the Turks are involved in a major European war. Thus she fills her historical role, and we’ve added an option for Persia to be a player-controlled power. With the entire Empire on the map, and her forces, there are a lot of options for the Persian player. Should she manage to get some European training for her army (which historically occurred after the time-frame of Soldier Emperor, but not Indian Empires) she can deal out some damage as the Persians did to the Ottomans at Erzurum in 1821.

Ottoman Turkey wasn’t like the other empires of the Napoleonic Era, and I’ve never seen a game that gets it quite right (though a few have taken a stab at it). It’s not really accurate to call it an empire at this stage, given the widespread autonomy of the regional governors. These governors could raise huge numbers of troops, some of them fairly steady but most of them brigands along for the loot and the adventure. Even these men would at times fight fanatically, especially in situations not requiring large-scale maneuvers. And when the tide turned against them, a religiously-inspired fatalism took hold and an army that had been on the verge of success could disintegrate very quickly.

Sultan & Shah pays a lot of attention to revising Ottoman Turkey’s role in the game (that’s the “Sultan” part of the title) to better reflect Ottoman power and its use. Much of the Empire’s strength is now under control of the regional warlords, who may not always have the same interests as the Sultan. They’ll (usually) fight infidel invaders, and might cross the border to bring one-time Ottoman lands back under the light of Islam (Sunni Islam, that is). But those huge stacks of Ottoman armies aren’t going to rampage across Europe to the English Channel (as they now can, at least in theory).

So most of the Ottoman armies are now provincial forces, that can fight inside the Empire’s borders and just outside them, not far from their point of origin. And they might not always do what the Ottoman player wishes. They’re powerful in the aggregate, though individually weaker than most European armies, and they’re not easily controlled once unleashed. The Turks are numerous and fierce, but they have their own ideas about where they want to go and who they want to fight.

However, just like Sultan Selim III, the Ottoman player can attempt reform to bring his or her armies in line with those of the other powers. That will make the Empire a truly great power if fully successful, but failure will be disastrous (as it was for Selim).

Along with that come national goals for victory, for all of the player-controlled powers in both Soldier Emperor and Indian Empires, encouraging players to think more like their historical counterparts. The Austrian Emperor doesn’t care much about Ceylon, but he cares very much about controlling Bavaria. Some of the goals are political in nature rather than simply seizing territory, or involve blocking a rival power from achieving certain goals. That complicates diplomacy (as it should in a good game of the era), as some winning combinations of allies just aren’t possible, since they have the same goals or have incentives to deny them to their supposed ally.

With Sultan & Shah I think we’ve added more historical verity to the two games, and a great deal more fun. Everything east of Suez remains a sideshow for the European players, but it’s an engrossing sideshow that can topple someone’s chance for victory (chiefly, the British player) who fails to keep on looking to the East. The Indian kingdoms have a chance to display some of their own agency and fight against colonialism rather than each other, but the rewards for betraying one another are alluring, as was the case in the real events.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold is a good dog.