Forward Observer 2

I already feel I am amongst friends. I can therefore say that I have long harboured a desire for a regiment of Coldstream Guards, marching as one, in 54mm toy soldier style. And a band, while you’re at it. And perhaps some Household Cavalry to escort. Which is a rather odd admission, because generally I have little time for these modern glossy, poorly sculpted, overpriced figures. I also make quite a song and dance about my hobby being based firmly on model soldiers, and not toys. Perhaps the Old School serum is having its wicked way with me.

I wouldn’t actually do anything with these figures, just line them up neatly in my cabinet and enjoy them as I pass by. Accordingly, flushed with a hankering to spend that only a new, rather large, mortgage can generate, I went along to the recent Toy Soldier Show in London to see what I could find. And if I was lucky, I might also spot some crossover products for inclusion here. As I walked through the door, I felt immediately at home: Skirmish Wargamers were running a Dervish Skirmish (catchy, eh?) in 54mm.

As usual, the terrain, figures and PR were exemplary and the game was drawing many admiring glances. A simple cloth covered the table, and sand and terrain elements on top set the scene. A column of British and Egyptians (figures by the excellent Armies in Plastic, plus many conversions by the talented Mike Blake) headed into the Sudanese desert, with inevitable consequences in terms of Fuzzy Wuzzies rather spoiling their tiffin. I think this sort of game is ideal for this event – the attendees can see ‘their’ type of figures (rather than, say, 15mils) being used for something beyond collecting, painting or converting, and if just one person walked away eager to learn more or buy Battlegames, then the effort is worth it.

In passing, Mike Blake informed me that 2006 is the 30th anniversary of Steve Curtis’s death, and if there ever were an unsung hobby hero, it was this pioneer of clever systems, atmospheric rules and virtual invention of The Old West as a gaming genre. I still have a set of Steve’s famous gunfight rules, lovingly cared for, played and re-read many times, and for all the attempts over the years I honestly don’t think they have ever been bettered. The Skirmish Wargames group have held a Memorial Trophy Game every year since Steve’s death and this anniversary will be commemorated by a very special game at Colours in September, featuring revamped terrain in the form of a complete Western town in 54mm. Many wargamers were involved in the early years in the competitive shoot-outs and so there is an open invitation to as many as possible to come along this year in remembrance of the great man.

Moving on, I did a quick sweep of the fair and was quite surprised to find just one company providing what I wanted. Lots of the traders offered Guardsmen, but like Goldilocks I deemed most too thin, too basic or too toy-like. The apparent winner, even though they could only offer Scots Guards (the very thought!), was The British Toy Soldier Company who do some fine marching troops, with options for Slade Wallace or WWI Khaki kit. But the price stopped me in my tracks. £6 per figure, so at least two or three hundred pounds to get a meaningful presence. Ouch. Other 54mms were similar or much higher in price, so I sought a compromise. I found it in an unexpected form.

Scarlet & Gold (www.scarletandgold.co.uk) is a new company producing some interesting figures. They aim to offer the Household Division in miniature, and here that means metal, 30mm, at about £1.50 each. So far there are full dress guardsmen with SA80, an Irish Wolfhound mascot, a RHA gun and crew, and a Guards band (construction of which I can see looming in my future!). There is also a range of guardsmen in modern combat uniform, with resin Scimitars and Warriors (1/58th scale) in support. Future releases will include mounted household cavalry, Challenger tanks, Land Rovers etc. All of these models are also available painted, at very competitive rates. I really liked these figures, as they are closer to models than toys and very good anatomically, while the owner, Richard White, has really done his homework. They even come with separate tiny plumes for each of the five regiments! Most importantly, they look great en masse. I have my samples on the workbench, and a large order is pending. Highly recommended.

I was in Eastbourne recently and, as usual, called in on any local model shop that I can find in the Yellow Pages or the Web. This is often wasted effort, but in the case of Steyning in Sussex, I found two opposite each other! Train Times (32 Seaside) is that great old fashioned style of shop, with everything from Hornby railways through Tamiya, Revell, Airfix and Dragon kits, to Games Workshop in the corner. My eye was drawn to the Woodland Scenics revolving display (a sweet trolley for this hobbyist – very hard to resist) and I spotted a new item – grass mats. Many of us are familiar with the existing ‘bright green static’ varieties from Noch, Heki, Engine Shed and Games Workshop, but these are something else. Very tough, as they are meant for use with ‘starter’ train sets, they measure 100” x 50” in old money, and cost just £20. They come in three grassy shades, and all are really convincing, realistic mixtures. I have seen none better, and can see these covering entire tables, terrain modules or even cut up for use as patchwork fields. Highly recommended.

I think it is fair to say that the feedback for the first issue was both surprisingly voluminous and almost all positive. Thank you. Henry in particular deserves a ton of credit for getting this thing off the ground, choosing what many see as a difficult niche, and making it his own. By far the most common feedback question to me has been, “What is Old School and what is it that Siggins doesn’t like about it”. I am now happy to enlighten you.

It seems clear to me that the idea and definition of Old School is quite nebulous, even among those who pioneered the term. A recent poll of the cognoscenti (I am being polite here) threw up a list of characteristics: large battalions, basic terrain, fictitious countries, 20mm or bigger figures, often plastic and Seven Years War, and so on, but these are all, I feel, incidental and optional. The main focus would seem to be encapsulated in two essential elements: fun games using simple rules. But this is akin to having a list of symptoms without the diagnosis. And what is fun or simple anyway? I am sure, like a favourite game, or wine, it is different for each person or even situation. This may be as close as we can get for now, until historians examine the details in years to come!

What the drivers are for this movement is an even more vexed question. Why, when the flag is raised, do over 500 gamers quickly rally to the cause? It is safe to assume that many more exist, or will exist, and of those that joined, many have always been Old School. So I am thinking that for most it is a reaction (often triggered long ago) to increasing complexity, arguments, politics surrounding certain rules and, perhaps, even overwrought painting styles or excessive aesthetic demands.

Let’s say that the Old School gamer remembers a great time, when they, their enthusiasm, and the hobby were younger and fresher, and there seemed to be unlimited potential. Importantly, games happened frequently and games were fun. I know I have mainly lost that latter quality. Why not then go back to the old ways? The hobby was, in that slightly rose tinted way, always more enjoyable back then. Why not recreate it now?

And so deluded with modern ways, and seeing no alternative, the prospective Old Schooler reverts, takes on the period trappings (the sacred bounce stick and holy canister cone) and emulates the ‘look and feel’ of those cherished games. Is this enough? I think for some it can be enough, and in the same way people are very happy driving round in their Morris Minor with no dashboard computer or ABS to go wrong, simplicity brings its own rewards. But perhaps they are a bit chilly in winter and need better windscreen wipers, and like the look of that metallic paint.

Seriously, if this retro approach works, and I see for many it evidently does, then does one really need an analysis, post-modern or otherwise? It may be nothing more than pure unthinking nostalgia driving this movement, a natural flight  away from ‘bad’ to ‘good’, a vehicle for returning to those days of youth when gaming was vibrant and novel and no-one knew how to pronounce Lefebvre-Desnouettes? In fairness, I am not actually sure I know now, on that last one. Can one go back, or is the exposure to the ‘bad’, or indeed just natural ageing, enough to tarnish the past for ever? Or is it in fact a choice: a real, heartfelt return to basics, quantity not quality, and ‘fun’ gaming?

Actually, if one takes either view, it might easily be regarded as a move away from high standards in modelling and painting, and from the pursuit (though usually not the love) of history. There are exceptions that partly disprove the theory, such as John Ray’s amazing collection, but I am quite happy to present it as a thesis, awaiting your antithesis. I think this is where the Siggins hackles start to rise. Yes, we play games, but I have games falling off the shelves that are more fun and less effort than any miniatures game. Wargames have to have a strong (indeed dominant) element of history for me to be happy playing them, otherwise I would be a much bigger fan of SF and fantasy – Tolkien is an exception because it offers its own history, if that makes sense.

Generalising for a moment, whatever way the Old School rules are presented, it seems that history is not high on the agenda. A veneer of history is there, the game feels okay, it lets you use your favourite armies and it is fun and competitive to play. And into that group, I feel Warhammer Ancients fits neatly. I also want a visual spectacle. Sure, 48 man battalions are spectacular, but block painting, unflocked bases and green baize tables are not.

There is also a social element, as with most gaming, and the Old Schoolers I’ve met are undoubtedly a good deal more polite and interesting than most. I may be getting old and stuffy, but I can no longer read those Internet groups where coarse language and puerile humour set the tone. I certainly wouldn’t want to play games with those people.

But while I see much of value in the Old School gamer, I suspect I may not want to play too many of their games. I worry that they don’t have as much history as I would like. I have played this type of rules many times and all goes swimmingly until we encounter a definite anomaly, something I think couldn’t, wouldn’t and didn’t happen. I query this, and my opponent responds that it is a fun set of rules so it doesn’t matter. At that point I switch off, because I too have been returned to the old days; the bad old days.

I suppose what I am saying is that I have perhaps consciously forgone that fun element because I want to trade it for more historical content, which generates it own type of enjoyment – not strictly fun perhaps, but definitely enjoyment for this gamer. History versus fun, playability or realism. The old balance. Ideally, I want a game with both, but little history means little appeal, and too much means a dull game. We live in hope!