Civilization VI: Rise and Fall - Shaka Leads the Zulu

Unquestionably one of military history’s greatest commanders, Shaka’s reforms to the Zulu armies gave them efficiency, organization, and lethality – making the impi one of the most feared forces in the world. Equally notable are Shaka’s wrath and grief which resulted in thousands of lives lost on the African continent.

He was born the illegitimate son of Zulu chief Senzangakhona, and Nandi, the daughter of a Langeni chief. The Zulu chieftain would eventually exile Nandi and Shaka. Driven out and scorned, Nandi found safe haven with the Mthethwa chief, Dingiswayo.

During this time, Shaka enrolled in the ibutho, a traditional regional military cadre program. Young men of the same age group would get grouped together into a unit within the ibutho, and the unit would eventually disband when the men aged out of the warrior class. Shaka’s unit served under the command of the chief. Dingiswayo laid the groundwork for the system of command that would eventually be brought to ultimate refinement under Shaka.

When his biological father died in 1816, Shaka, by now a renowned commander in his own right, left Dingiswayo’s armies and returned to lead the Zulu, who were at this time the smallest of the region’s Bantu clans. Southern Africa would quickly learn to fear the Zulu.

Shaka immediately reorganized the army and its training. The age-grade system of the ibutho was refined and strengthened into an age-based regimental organization, with each regiment having a distinct fortified village (or ikanda), uniform heraldry on their ox-hide shields, specific ornamentation in jewelry and headdresses, and sworn loyalty to Shaka. Organization of the impi and its tactics were standardized. Shaka introduced a corps of officers, promoted on the basis of merit and ability, from all the subordinate tribes. Comparisons to the Marian reformations of the Roman Legions are apt; both commanders took control of fundamentally competent basic forces, and transformed them into unstoppable military machines.

Shaka then took his impi on a march of conquest. His first conquest was said to be the Langeni, who humiliated him as a boy. When his former commander Dingiswayo was assassinated by the rival Zulu chief Zwide, Shaka swore vengeance, and a full-scale civil war of the Zulu broke out. Zwide was decisively routed at the Battle of Gqokli Hill by a force half his size under Shaka’s command.

But Shaka’s reign was not uncontested. There was substantial opposition to his policies within his own kingdom. Escalation of warfare between tribes into near-extermination were a marked change from previous patterns of war. Tensions were exacerbated when Shaka granted European traders concessions. But it was the death of his mother in 1827 that seems to have marked the beginning of the end of Shaka – and the bloodiest part of his reign.

Grief-stricken, Shaka ordered that no crops be planted, nor milk used for a year (and milk was the staple of the Zulu diet). Women found pregnant were to be killed with their husbands, as was anyone found to be insufficiently mournful. Cows were to be slaughtered “so that calves would know what it was like to lose a mother.” 7,000 of Shaka's subjects were killed in his grief, according to accounts.

His two half-brothers had been actively conspiring against him for some time. In 1828, while the impi were on campaign to the north, he was assassinated by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana, along with a third co-conspirator named Mbopa. Tradition states that Shaka’s dying words were a warning both about the growing power of the Europeans in South Africa and about the peril of Zulu disunity.

The meteoric rise of the Zulu under Shaka, coming at a time of increasing European colonization in the region, had a profound and complex impact on the history and culture of Southern Africa, whose implications are still debated and considered. Shaka’s legacy as a ruler is not a simple one, even within Zulu culture today. But his impact on the history of the world is beyond question. 


The powerful warrior regiments of the Zulu were already a formidable force when the ambitious Shaka taught them new techniques: combining the iklwa (a short stabbing spear with a broader blade than a throwing spear) and the ishlangu (a large, oval shield with cowhide layered on top). They trained to form shield walls, both to blunt projectiles and to hide their true numbers, and attack with a “buffalo horns” formation – greener troops would sweep out and around to pin the enemy’s flanks (the horns), while a more experienced center would slam into the pinned enemy (the rest of the buffalo).

The impi training regimes under Shaka were nothing less than brutal, but harsh conditioning led to tightly bonded, well-disciplined soldiers able to carry out complex formations with ease. These Pikeman replacements have an increased flanking bonus, are less expensive than other combat units of the same era, have a low maintenance cost, and earn XP faster.


The ikanda (also known as a “kraal” or “umuzi”) were self-sufficient, fortified Zulu homesteads. A double palisade protected its residents—the inner wall kept livestock in and the outer wall kept interlopers out. Ikanda were ideally placed uphill for reasons both practical and strategic: rainwater flowed downhill to clean the ikanda, while opponents were forced to attack an elevated position.  Within Shaka’s military structure, a regiment would be stationed in an ikanda. It’s where they trained and lived.

As the Zulus conquered and absorbed neighboring tribes, more ikanda would sprout up. These encampment replacements, unique to the Zulu – provide additional housing. Once Civic or Technology prerequisites are met, Corps and Armies can be built outright. This also leads to faster Corps and Army creation.


By the age of 23, Shaka lead an impi regiment. He continued his rise based upon his deeds, becoming one of chieftain Dingiswayo’s most highly-regarded commanders. Shaka was also known for drilling and rearming his troops, trading light throwing spears (assegai) for the broad-bladed iklwa and large cowhide-covered shields. As a result, in the game, Shaka may form Corps (Mercenaries Civic) and Armies (Nationalism Civic) earlier. Amabutho alsoprovides an additional Base Combat Strength to both Corps and Armies.


A tribe, once conquered, was subordinated into the Zulu kingdom, its young men were incorporated into the ibutho, and then the Zulu marched on. Shaka also offered diplomatic carrots, with the stick of the impi ever-present. That’s reflected in the game with Isibongo. After Shaka conquers a city, it gains bonus Loyalty when garrisoned. Conquering a city with a unit will upgrade it into a Corps or Army, if the proper Civics are unlocked.

Shaka Zulu is one of the nine new leaders coming with Civilization VI: Rise and Fall when the expansion releases on February 8, 2018.

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