The Forces of the Three Kingdoms
The Three Kingdoms (3K) period, generally considered to over the years 220 to 280, provides wargamers with a vast palette from which to color our tabletop games! It should be noted that the although the Han dynasty officially ended in 220, wargaming this period could begin around 189 when things really started going bad for the Han and the land became fractured with the fighting against Dong Zhuo, Cao Cao’s machinations and his battles to gain control in the northlands, and the battles fought trying save the Han dynasty. The famous Battle of the Red Cliffs was fought in 208.
During the3K period, the kingdoms not only fought each other but various tribesmen on their borders. From the generals and the soldiers to the intrigue of the internal and external politics to the guile employed by famous military strategists, the period is pretty wide open for creative gamers. This is true whether you enjoy the history of the period with or without the historical-romance flavor of the great novel.
With regard to relative national strengths, the Kingdom of Wei comes in first, having the largest population, with Wu ranking second and Shu third. However, the armies of each of the three kingdoms were likely very similar in construct. Although Wei appears to have had a larger standing army, all 3K forces seem to be a mixture of standing armies, paramilitary forces (warlords and feudal barons), conscripts/levies and various tribal and barbarian allies. Generally speaking, tribal alliances could be fleeting and often these soldiers were thought of as unruly and unreliable. This would, naturally, provide a great variance in the moral quality of the units within the armies – as it was in the later Han period.
Chariots had passed out of general use in battle but still could be seen as the mount of important generals. But, we feel that it would not be completely out of context to field a chariot unit once in a great while, most likely with Wei’s forces.
On foot, the typical Han 5-rank deployment likely remained the norm. Unless armored, in Pulse of Battle terms most Chinese units will be rated as “medium foot”. The typical Chinese combat weapon was the halberd with a sword-like tip. Chinese armies did not typically deploy throwing spears other than some javelin-armed light foot, although allied auxiliaries may have employed some throwing spears. Crossbows and bows were most often used in mass “indirect” shooting, like artillery is used today. It is conceivable that a minimum of half of the units in our tabletop armies could be crossbow or bow armed – including the horsemen!
Individual units probably varied in uniform, color and armor. It is thought that the primary color of Wei was black, Wu green and Shu red. It is likely, especially in the conscript and levy units, that these colors would appear in the banners flown by the unit while the soldiers wore various clothing.
With around 60% of the Chinese population at the time, Wei is set up as the most powerful state of the three kingdoms. Given the proximity to the horse tribes of the north, Wei has an advantage over its enemies in acquiring horses and mounted allies, making them able to field powerful mounted forces.
On our tabletops, the forces of Wei could consist of up to half of the units in the army being mounted units. Typically this force would be a mixture of Chinese cavalry and allied light horsemen. The remaining units typically being a mixture of heavy and medium foot with few if any light foot troops. Naturally, smart generals tailor their forces to meet the expected conditions of the campaign, so we don't consider these suggested proportions a requirement!
It seems that the Kingdom of Wei had a large standing army; some sources say Cao Cao had 1,000,000 men under arms before his death in 220. Regardless of the actual number, the point is clear, the army of Wei could have a fairly large percentage of trained men in most forces - with the remainder filled out by conscripts and tribal allies.
Sometimes allied with Shu against Wei, Wu uses its many rivers to provide natural defensive positions and obstacles to enemy maneuver. A large portion of the kingdom is tropical and this terrain is often unsuitable for cavalry armies. As a result, Wu fields little cavalry, what cavalry it does present would likely be light Chinese cavalry.
Trained men certainly would be available, but we consider that the majority of Wu’s forces are conscript footmen (heavy, medium and light) with auxiliaries from the southern tribes. The terrain making it practical to employ a larger number of light foot than the other armies of the period. An alliance with the Kingdom of Annam (modern day Vietnam) can add both medium and light footmen as well as elephants to their armies. In addition, Wu has strong naval forces.
Sometimes allied with Wu against Wei, the western kingdom of Shu was noted as the land of many of the most famous personalities in China.
Shu appears to have been very successful in recruiting the western tribes to their cause. This provided both foot and mounted units for their armies. Shu can field good sized cavalry forces, perhaps up to one-third of a tabletop army could be mounted troops. These troops, like Wei’s, would be of Chinese cavalry and allied light horsemen.
As with Wu, although trained men certainly would be available, we consider that the majority of Shu’s forces would be conscripts, with the armies filled out by allied auxiliaries. Shu’s footmen would be a mixture of heavy, medium and light with the allies usually providing the majority of the light foot.
The Bottom Line
To us, it is this terrific mix of quality and troop types that gives us a lot of potential for wargames that can contain the opportunity for tabletop generalship. Not only do you have to worry about getting the right troops to the right place at the right time, but you must be aware that some portion of both armies on the field are somewhat less reliable than others. Disaster and opportunity dance freely together!
This equals enjoyment and entertainment for us. Collecting and painting armies and learning about the history is fun. Using them on the tabletop and having fun in that realm closes the loop!
I'll make more posts about troop type distributions that we use and stuff like that. Hopefully, someone will be inspired to look into this colorful period!