Duncan MacFarlane died recently. He was 73. There is something about a sudden death that makes you think, clearly and urgently, about that person and what they have achieved. I don’t think Duncan will come up short when offering his CV to St. Peter. For a long, long time Duncan was the main driver of our hobby in the form of early Miniature Wargames, Wargames World and, of course, Wargames Illustrated. He was a publishing master – photography, content, marketing, vision – and less good at other things. Admittedly, he drifted to the Dark Side with his competition gaming, but as a rule he was a positive force of nature.
He pulled people into the hobby, kept them there and dragged them back in when they had lapsed. To walk into WH Smiths and see, at eye level, glorious colour pictures of our hobby is still amazing. He took the baton from Peter Gilder, Battle and MilMod and ran with it, forming and sustaining the modern hobby, allowing companies to thrive and, let’s face it, setting the agenda. Others tried – Old School, small scale, MW vanilla – but in your face, top quality, pictorial 28mm was the real story. Duncan knew this and used that knowledge well. Ultimately, the hobby diversified and there are alternate power bases in many areas, but Duncan had it all at his feet.
I worked with Duncan, on and off, for twelve years. I got to know some of his foibles and warmed to him steadily. We often cheaply say ‘top bloke’ or ‘nice guy’, but Duncan was exactly that. He could chat about anything, was very knowledgeable, there was a dry humour, and he kindly kept me anonymous through my WI career (shockingly, some people wanted to punch me on the nose). He was a private man, and his close friends have written a tribute worthy of a prime minister. You can find it on the web here or on my Twitter feed.
As far as I can tell, like me, Duncan worked largely on his own. He told me about his trips to London to get the magazine layouts and printing done and that will be how I remember him, slipping into Mole Jazz or Armies in Exile with WI under his arm. In truth, I don’t care how it was produced, it just needed to exist or, I strongly suspect, the hobby would have floundered. To publish an international magazine is an achievement. To do it on your own… hard to imagine.
Ultimately, Duncan fell out with me. Getting money out of him was a zen artform, and I rarely succeeded. He also redefined chaos, losing copy, pictures and entire conversations. So when I left to work with Henry at Battlegames, mainly for my own sanity, he stopped talking to me. Awkward. There was no exclusive deal, but to this day I am sad that this happened and now, I look back on it all with a smile. It changes nothing – it was a one-way snubbing – and I still have all my Duncan edited magazines in binders. There is nothing like picking one up at random and enjoying his enormous legacy. RIP.
The World According to Mike
Mojo. Beloved of Austin Powers who, like me, lost it. Again. It has been almost a year since I painted any big figures for myself. Five years, ish, since I painted a unit. I have painted model railway figures, and some commissions, but that’s not the same. But here I sit, once again, looking at figures on the web. Plastics mainly – because I know I can convert them, but also Baron’s War and Dark Ages from Footsore, and Napoleonic civilians (not much doing on the latter). I refuse to look at Avanpost for fear of bankruptcy. Given current figure prices, The Mojo has clearly returned and I am thinking about future projects again. Phew. So, with Lockdown hindsight deployed, what happened this time?
I had a bad moment. Really bad. I was looking at WI on the train and the scales fell from my eyes. I wondered why on earth I was still in this daft, niche, socially uncomfortable hobby, with its focus on warfare, competitive killing and ‘games’ about death. Surely it was only a matter of time before we were all cancelled. It synchronised with becoming depressingly bored with skirmish boardgames, which is still the case. That was one level, but then that was not a new realisation. I have had it before and it passes. Probably suppressed.
Then, the major shortfall of the hobby, for me. I started this hobby for two reasons: history and the models. I can buy books about history, but I can do that anyway. Apart from a very small number of people, I didn’t see any history coming through or much understanding, or desire to depict it. Ignore the traditional Byzantines vs Assyrians crap, nod supportively to the many rulesets that don’t have a clue about innovation or history, and humour those who are obsessed with history-as-armour-thickness. In fairness, as a percentage, this hasn’t changed much.
The other revelation was seeing through the pretence. The notion that 24 men represents 1200 or a division, that hills have contours, that there were still very few rules I liked, that people were painting twelve figures and calling it an army, the word ‘faction’, saving rolls of any ilk, and that we all somehow manage to ignore bases. Generally, and primarily, it was the unrelenting rise of skirmish rules and the corrosive mentality – commercial and hobbyist – that it engenders. The final straw was the figures. I spent decades seeking the right figures and horses, the best paints, and honing my style. I have painted the Gordon Highlanders four times, doubtless a masochistic form of kaizen. But that day, even looking at the best of the best, I realised none of them were working for me. None. Anatomy, look, unit size, hat wavers, casualty figures, tufty/Chelsea Flower Show bases, extreme paint techniques – all unsatisfying, some annoying. Even now I look at figures I once adored and cringe. Not good. I had to read my Historex catalogues to recover.
So that was that. I gave up with 28/30mm. Overnight. My list of twenty-odd future projects, my lead mountain, my buying plans – all scrapped. Painted figures went into box files. I kept the project list, sold 99% of the unpainted and stopped buying and reading rules. I genuinely thought this would never happen. As a form of rebound project, I worked in 2mm for two years, relying on Ian at Irregular to provide the basis for several armies. One glorious day I set them up on my newly finished 2mm terrain, pressed an opponent, and we fought a War of the Roses battle. Without doubt, THE anti-climax of my life. I didn’t want to play the games at the end of the painting trail. Still don’t. Project shelved. Hobby shelved. I entered the Dark Age.
Mr Backhouse will see you now
There have been individuals, in all my hobbies, where I think, “Yep. They get it.” I am so odd, demanding and hard to please that it is, frankly, a miracle to find anyone on my wavelength. Mark Backhouse is just such a person. I first saw his excellent 2mm games on the web, and followed up with the magazine articles. Generally speaking, he is doing exactly what I have always wanted to achieve. I wrote a piece for WI decades ago titled Troops in the Landscape. So long ago I can’t even find the Wordperfect file! The idea was to reduce figures to tokens or markers, with some semblance of the right scale ‘look’, that simply existed in the terrain which became the star. You would still game with them but the rules would not be bothered with forming square or negotiating caltrops, or even divisional formations, if you are with me. Real helicopter time machine stuff. Mark has now moved into a set of rules, to be called Strength & Honour, which deal with ancient battles at a very high level. Huge numbers of troops. Legion sized bases. Entire tribes turning out for a scrap. A real sense of, dare I say given trademarks and all, epic battles. Having been privy to the prototypes and playtests, I think the rules will be game changing. Well worth a look on Facebook.
So. Plastic 13.5mm figures. Who would have thought it? I have to my right about 600 painted Epic ACW infantry (Warlord and Kallistra), cavalry, guns and generals (Kallistra). Under the table, as a temporary footrest, is the Epic starter box and some extra regiments, unopened since March. Epic appealed so much, I cracked in minutes. I love the idea and the bulk buy price, I can accommodate the scale (I quickly made some smaller trees!), I can live with the first wave failings, but I strongly dislike the second wave of releases and now, I am wavering. Fickle is my middle name. Simply put, I got busy at work, I lost momentum, and the project has stalled before the basing stage. But I am grateful to Warlord for the injection of enthusiasm and a bunk-up back into the hobby. The hard truth is that I don’t really like ACW – I knew that from the start, but purchased anyway hoping the period would finally come to fruition (okay, Airfix ACW left their mark). Mainly, I like Dahlgrens, ironclads, painting butternut, and Confederate flags which these days I have to whisper.
Epic seems very popular amongst the chattering hobbyists, a different breed to the hard core painter and gamer. Difficult to gauge such things these days, pandemic and all. My guess is, like me, people saw the 2,400 figure deal and bought in, large. I know some people who bought two or three sets. The record is 8,000 but if you know different…. What I can say is that are very easy to paint and crank out hundreds of troops. Some hardy souls are doing wonderful stuff – headswaps! – and keeping my Epic candle alight. But – in the cold light of day – I don’t need that many figures, all in the same pose and uniforms. Once I had started converting them, trimming hats and adding long coats and backpacks, I realised I was in trouble and missing the point. Conversions are for horse and musket, 30mm upwards. And with the Zouave pricing/resin, and the Iron Brigade fiasco, Warlord killed the goose before I had even finished painting the eggs.
Plan B is obvious. What I think I will do is paint the regiment boxes and the magazine sprues, giving me two decent armies for Fire & Fury, and sell the 2,400 figure surplus. Just like a subsidised farmer would. What I want, now I have had the taste of mid-scale, is Napoleonics, then AWI and SYW. I can work with just infantry strips for now (plastic, not 3d prints). When can I have them?
My interest in this new/old part of the hobby is as strong as ever. Like tin flats, one doesn’t have to do anything with the books and figures. They are just great to look at. The Italian splinter group actually uses flats images to make their books, and Peter Dennis is steadily cranking out more sets for his website. The arrival of the PDF versions from Helion has improved production no end. Watch this space.
On Thursday afternoons we play virtual battles. We have worked through Peter Pig’s Bloody Barons for War of the Roses, Twilight of Divine Right ECW and 30YW, and I am teeing up Bloody Big Battles, Twilight SYW, Grand Manner and Dell’arte Della Guerra (Realtime). I think Blucher and Lasalle are also going to work. Impressed? I thought you would be. Again, watch this space.
Given the Lockdown, you would think that I have not been playing many boardgames. Untrue. Online sessions using Vassal, Yucata, Steam and Tabletop Simulator have seen a productive year. I have designed two new games, published another one – Supercharged, on BGG – and have made huge advances on my miniatures rules. I have also finished a joint design with Mike Clifford that could, in theory, retire us both to the Cayman Islands. We shall see. In addition, face to face sessions are slowly returning. My highlights, and recommendations, are:
All Bridges Burning (GMT/Vassal). An excellent three player COIN game on the Finnish troubles in 1919. If you can handle the COIN game mindset and game quirks, you will enjoy this one.
Atlantic Chase (GMT/TTS). A game changing naval system with semi-hidden movement. Absolute cracker. Pacific and WWI versions coming.
Imperial Struggle (GMT/Vassal) A worldwide game about the 18th century global wars, politics and trade. Outstanding. My review is here.
Pax Pamir 2nd Edition (Vassal) and Pax Porfiriana (Yucata). These are my staples. Over twenty games of each and highly recommended,
Root (Steam) Not really about small furry animals. A brilliant COIN style wargame and online implementation. All time Top 5 for me.