Forward Observer 21

The Editor Asks…

Completely out of the blue, Mr Hyde asks me about maintaining points on brushes. He is worried about hooking and split ends. Here’s the science bit (because he’s worth it). Basically, I gave up ages ago. Acrylic paints seem to ruin brushes in short order, however careful one is, and maintaining a fine point beyond a session or two just wasn’t happening. Initially I was getting annoyed. Brushes aren’t cheap, after all, and you need a point to get decent results even at my level of painting. I hate to think what Mr Dallimore and his mates do.

So I now run against the advice of just about every book, magazine or painting guide ever written and eschew those quality, lovingly cared for, brushes. Well, mainly. My current solution is to buy much cheaper brushes (Games Workshop, Vallejos, Handovers) and regard them as disposable heroes. They go in as fresh troops, take all the pain, and get me 95% of the way there. Sadly, casualties are high. The point gradually declines, but not to the extent that I can’t block in colours and do belts and turnbacks. On a good day I can get a regiment of about 30 to 40 28mm figures painted off one brush, at which point (sorry) it retires to the drybrushing pot. It has done its job, and I appreciate it. If they fall short (and some do), like a cricketer with a broken bat, I just reach for a new one.

After this initial assault, I have a figure that is largely painted. I do touch up, and finish off tiny detail and fine highlights, with a decent brush. As we are on the home stretch of moustaches, lace and lining, they get a much easier life and so last longer. What is a decent brush? Because of their spring I prefer W&N Series 16, now rare for some reason, but Series 7 are great if you can face the bill. What do they cost now? £7 or £8 each? Ouch. You can find discounts on the web. I also really like Raphael and Isabey sables. I found these in Paris a while back, but you can now get them over here. For washes I use Pro Arte Series 41 sables, which are very well priced and last forever. For general painting, and vehicles, I go for Royal Langnickel or W&N ‘One Stroke’ sable mops. For drybrushing (not that I do it much these days) and horse painting you can’t beat Tamiya brushes – the ones with the white hairs. Almost indestructible.

Pre-Gaming

If I ever get round to writing my own set of rules, they will definitely have a pre-game scenario mechanism. The more I encounter and use them in commercial rules, the more I think they are an essential part of gaming for me (unless one is running a campaign). Unarguably, such preparative steps do take extra time but it is worth it for the narrative content, the uncertainty and the additional dimension offered to the subsequent battle.

The best implementation emerged recently in the shape of Marlborough s’en va-t-en Guerre, the excellent set of rules by Real Time Wargames I mentioned last time. Having become familiar with the campaign game, we recently moved onto the tactical battle rules. A French force lined up against Marlborough’s English and allies, with around 40,000 per side. We immediately saw how different this game would be when we negotiated a clever, original, even somewhat formal pre-game where reserves were properly allocated and the armies were required to arrive and form up.

As it happened, Marlborough’s command skill saw him ready and waiting at dawn, all neatly arrayed. He was allowed to do the honourable thing and wait for the French to deploy, or to attack before they were ready. At 6am Marlborough threw honour out of the window, the English line advanced towards the largely unformed French, and the shape of the battle was set.

What followed was a really tense game, with tons of period flavour, concluded in around three hours. There was a learning curve, but after a while we started to regard commanders as characters, were thinking in battalions and squadrons, of placing guns and committing reserves, and enjoying the nitty-gritty when the lines came together and musketry and cavalry charges decided the day. There is a sense of linear warfare, but as reading accounts of Blenheim and similar indicate, it was often not like that. Our lines surged, and the battle ebbed and flowed, reserves were committed, and it felt right.

What Real Time Wargames have done here is to look at actual battles and create a set of rules that evoke the feel and results of that era. That may be what you think all rules aim for, but I would argue that in fact very few do, and even fewer achieve it. More likely they will adopt traditional, familiar systems as a starting point and work towards a perceived (and often improbable) model. This failing can be compounded by trying to have the rules cover too broad a period. Real Time make it a priority to deliver a narrow, period specific, set of rules. So this is not a generic ECW, SYW or Napoleonic system tweaked to work for the Marlburian era, nor will it necessarily work for those ‘adjacent’ periods. It is a Marlburian set through and through.

With this approach, it means that you might encounter some unusual mechanisms and novel concepts, and there are certainly times when you question the rule drafting and the intent, but goodness me, at the end of the game you feel very close to the books and to the history. And isn’t that what it is all about? Brilliant stuff. I can’t wait to get their other sets to the table.

As for the revised AK47, I was very hesitant to even try them. While not perfect, the original version has become a firm favourite over the last couple of years. I have come over all loyal and conservative! Most unusual for me. As ever in life, I have to report that I am glad I tried the new set. The rule changes are subtle but there is definitely an overall improvement in the combat system and battle phase. I really liked the idea and execution of ‘assets’ (conditional airstrikes, artillery, reinforcements etc), attuned to each style of army, and there were other good points too.

What I felt had gone a bit wrong, ironically, was the excellent pre-game element, such a strong feature of the original rules. The revised version seemed to go on forever – one of those ‘do this, do that, lose this, gain this, lose that, and take off the number you first thought of’ routines. Even so, once we had negotiated the pain, there were worthwhile echoes throughout the game. One unit performed very shakily, wouldn’t advance and finally routed without ceremony. It all made sense because the pre-game had told of them being in combat the previous day and taking a pasting. It is tough to get that level of characterisation and narrative, but pleasing when it happens. The jury is out on whether we stick with AK47 Original or ‘upgrade’.

Pocket Battles

As many of you know, I live a parallel life as a boardgamer. Most of the time there is little crossover between the hobbies, but just occasionally something comes along that I feel you might like. Pocket Battles (Z-Man Games) is certainly a strong candidate for your consideration.

Pocket Battles is a quick, two player, easily learned game that is both historically themed and, importantly, fun. It is not a cutting edge simulation, but then what is? Designed by Italian Paulo Mori, the game pitches Ancient Rome against the Celts using a simple, but not simplistic, set of rules, large counters and a few six sided dice. As befits the name, it all comes in a small box.

This is how quick the game is: decide which side you want to play, choose your armies up to a number of points, take 10% of that number in command chips – these are used to activate your forces. Set up the armies on the table (it uses semi-hidden deployment on a five by three grid). Fight the battle. Win by killing 50% of the enemy points. That’s it.

Games should take 20 to 30 minutes at most, including picking your forces and some grumbling when you lose. As a result, a common complaint is that the game is over too quickly (oh, what a disaster!). Indeed, we had games that were done after a handful of turns – due to the luck element, this can be a decisive system – while others that went right down to the wire. The game can indeed turn on a bad or good die roll, but that rather adds to the narrative appeal: there is a strong sense of making your own luck. So play best of three, add terrain, build a scenario, or just choose bigger armies. Problem solved.

Pocket Battles is one of those games that punches above its weight. It manages this by clever design – combining troops into larger units making combat rapid, while some units have special traits or attributes which affect die rolls and outcomes. These include fury for berserkers and command skills for Roman generals, but there are many more. These traits give a distinctive feel for the different troop types even if one category (Druids with magic sponges) does stretch the historical envelope a little too far.

The best guidance I can offer to the game’s complexity is somewhat above Battleline and below Command & Colors: Ancients. I suspect we will see alternative armies for ancients, hopefully soon, then more periods and, inevitably, fantasy and sci-fi battles before too long. Assuming, that is, it sells enough copies. If it all comes to the worst, you could easily make up your own counters or, coming full circle, play it with miniatures…

As is probably clear, I liked Pocket Battles. The game’s length, depth and historicity will be the test for some wargamers, but we had some believable stuff going on at the combat level if not the command, and it would be very easy to tweak the setup and add on further rules – also a neat way to extend the play length. Either way, Pocket Battles is an ideal filler or just right for that spare half hour at the end of club night. It is not going to please the demanding historian, but I bet many of you, or your younger gaming acquaintances, will find it to your liking. Recommended.

Lego

I used to love Lego. Less work than fiddly Meccano, better as cover in marble battles, but admittedly much more painful to step on. Over the Christmas holiday I got to play a couple of Lego’s new boardgame range. No need to comment on the games here, as they are firmly aimed at the children’s market, but I was very impressed with the ‘buildable dice’ included. Basically you get a six sided frame onto which different coloured squares or dice faces can be fitted using the traditional Lego stud system. To me, there are immediately obvious uses in game mechanisms. Depending on colour, the squares might indicate a hit, morale loss, or perhaps ammunition depletion. Four studs to a side give you a very neat and flexible 24 positions to play with, ignoring traditional dice faces or blanks. Here’s hoping they do a nine stud version! The die could be set up for each unit type, say, and (oh, the possibilities…) even reconfigured mid-game as factors and abilities increase or decrease. I am sure many more ideas will come to you. Sadly, and I really hope they change their mind, Lego UK won’t sell the dice parts separately so you will need to buy one of the games with die included – Lava Dragon and Lunar Command offer the basic pieces.