Wargamer’s Notebook 1

What on earth is this? Well, it’s a new column that will hopefully fill in the gaps not yet considered by Mr Macfarlane on his road to world domination. Basically, it will cover all the subjects that you discuss while leaning on the bar at Partizan, or deciding whether to risk the sausage rolls at Salute. It will review figures, rules, books, paints, computer games, the latest films related to our hobby, and even a bit of history here and there. And who am I? Well, just a typical gamer really. I have been in the hobby for twenty odd years, more or less, I have a set of Battle for Wargamers, own Charles Grant rulebooks and have painted early Minifigs. I’m not ashamed to admit this. I am ashamed that I have many more ‘stored’ figures than painted (and no time to paint them) and that these days I chat more often than I play. And continuing the normalised theme, my favourite periods are Napoleonics, SYW, medievals and Colonial. Pretty unusual, eh? But I do have a catholic and eclectic approach to other periods, the hobby and related fields, I enjoy thinking about how we can progress rules and systems and will hopefully bring some lateral thinking to this sometimes stagnated pastime of ours.

As we come to the end of 1995, my diary tells me I have been to fifteen shows this year; from Bristol to Essen, from Folkestone to Newcastle. My overall thoughts are that it has been a great year for figure releases, enthusiasm and innovative sets of rules, a bad year for decent boardgames, computer games and collectible card games, and rather puzzling on the attendance front. There is no doubt in my mind that the crowds at Salute and Colours were quite a bit down this year. The fact that you could breathe out at Salute quickly gave this away. Conversely, numbers at the traditionally smaller shows seems to have gone up markedly. Even in the sweltering heat of Kelham Hall, Partizan II boasted a very impressive turnout. And rightly so for this excellent, state of the art display of wargaming’s greatest proponents. Does this mean that people have finally got fed up with the scrums and have instead opted for the more laid back events? Or are people buying less? Or sunbathing more? Or are there just too many shows these days? No idea personally, but it seemed well worth mentioning.

I’ll be frank for a moment. I am not a great fan of the Empire ruleset and have recently had cause to doubt Mr Bowden’s research in Armies at Waterloo, so it was with some trepidation that I purchased Chef de Bataillon. With this new set, Messrs Getz and Bowden aim to take us into the realms of the HUGE battalions and truly low level Napoleonic combat. The figure scale is 1:5 (think about that for a moment), the emphasis on petite- tactical manoeuvres and single units. Short of men? Call up another company or troop. I am all in favour of the concept, and intend to combine all my 1:50 units as soon as terrain permits, but why (oh why) do they have to take a cool 180 pages, plus 124 charts, to enlighten us? The irony is that the rules open with the mission statement of Easy to Learn. Perhaps, in America, this somehow equates to verbiage and complexity. As I haven’t had time to take it all in, I decided to take a quick look at musketry. This is covered on five pages, with a plethora of tables, modifiers and results. I didn’t understand it, and I’ll need to read more. So, I rapidly conclude, we have a game that is firmly emphasising the detail and the micro-texture of horse & musket warfare. That is fair enough, though whether the world is ready for Advanced Squad Leader meets Empire remains to be seen. Whatever, I will clear my mind of prejudice, go to try and read the lot, and let you know what happens.

A much more accessible set of rules is Principles of War, from the ever wonderful Victorian Military Society. The set purports to cover tactical warfare from Waterloo to Mons, but its precepts could, usefully, be deployed in many other periods. PoW (snappy eh?) makes concrete a number of trendy ideas, such as an absence of casualty removal, workable and realistic morale, minimal troop classification and strength point-based units. And it executes them all rather well. The result is a clean and easily assimilated set of rules that both captures the feel of the period and remains discreetly inventive. What it doesn’t do is live up to its claim for no lists of factors (give me a rule set with an absence of modifier lists and I’ll buy a dozen) and, having cleverly trimmed and downsized elsewhere, it is rather over-detailed on small arms types. Whatever, this reads as an innovative, smooth, well tested ruleset and we are keen to try them. Since we have a mass of colonials and some Foundry Crimean War itching to become active again, these will get a run out in the near future.

I have recently managed to get onto the Internet and can confirm my suspicions: signal to noise ratio is poor, the whole thing is grossly overrated and it is 90% rubbish. However, I did track down The Miniatures Page which is fortunately part of the better 10% that saves the day. It is a huge resource of gaming information, broken down by period, and features listings of all known rules (I will be adding a few UK sets they are missing). There is, for instance, an entire section devoted to Napoleon’s Battles. Elsewhere, there are reviews of recent products and even discussions on systems. Is it me or does anyone else feel this latter element is largely missing from the hobby? I subscribe to anything vaguely related to either the hobby or my periods, over a dozen magazines in all, and very rarely do you get discussion at all, let alone ones that take us forward. Are we that happy with the history portrayed by our games and rules? Do we ever think about exactly what the rules are depicting? Can we honestly stand up and say, that after thirty odd years, we yet have a rule set that accurately simulates, say, command control? Personally, I think not (witness the ratio of commercial to private rulesets for evidence) and it is only in magazines such as this, or on The Miniatures Page, that we will get these subjects aired. Perhaps one less historical article on Paraguayan Wars and one more on morale mechanisms might strike a balance?

Sitting around chatting the other night, having finally decided that Shearer was definitely a better long term Fantasy Football bet than Ferdinand, we moved on to the old chestnut about who is the best brushman in the hobby. And the answer, as ever, was completely different for each gamer. Being an indecisive (and tactful) sort, I can never plump for just one. The way I see it, you have to elect three or four as each one has a very different technique. The subject matter and prolific output affect some people’s views and there are amateur/professional considerations too. So who, in no particular order, are the lucky nominees? The first one has to be Peter Gilder, for without having seen his incredible brush and conversion work at the Model Engineer show, I for one would still be playing golf as a hobby. He and Doug Mason have done more for the ‘black line and gloss varnish’ style than anyone else, and may for all I know have invented it. Combine this with their move away from identical figure units (Clone Patrols, as they were affectionately known), and you have a seminal effect on the hobby. Number two is a Gilder disciple; Bill Gaskin. Now I know Bill has a small country-wide army of assistants, and he cheats mightily because he’s talented enough to make his own castings, but his figures are something else. The characterization of individual models (and they are all different these days) and the effect of the entire unit just has to be seen to be believed. The young pretender is Mark Allen, a man who seems to have painted and sold more armies than everyone else combined. Just like Senor Gaskin, Mark has awesome control over and understanding of colour, an instinctive feel for his periods, and he paints some mean flags as well. The last nominee is probably the best of all of those mentioned as far as detail and impact goes, but falls at the last for me because of the black undercoat (not my favourite technique) and those weird, segmented fingers. Yes, of course, it’s Kevin Dallimore of Special Forces. Anyone who has seen his SYW Prussians, Covenanters, Front Rank Napoleonics or those staggering Timurids will know this man is up there with the very best. And you have to admire anyone who can relieve punters of a tenner to paint one figure!

I always find it interesting that the talented multi-millionaires at Games Workshop take time off from their spikey orcs and snotlings and relax by painting, designing and playing historical subjects. Not all of them, granted, but quite a few – the Perry Twins, Jervis Johnson and Norman Swales to name but four. Now if we as a hobby could come up with a killer ruleset to wean them off those Warhammer dicefests, perhaps we’d be in business. Spookily enough, a number of moles have indicated that a very senior ex-employee of said company, is not only producing such a set of historical horse & musket rules, but may also be starting up a Midlands shop, based on GW practice, but full instead of lovely historical stuff. Can you imagine that? Shelves laden with superbly painted figures, a monthly colour catalogue, open evenings for anyone that wants to come along, and most important a healthy dose of business acumen behind it all. I think I’d better go and lie down. And what a fillip to the recruiting drive, were it to go ahead. If my local GW shop is anything to go by, opening a new outlet is akin to creating several thousand eager gamers out of nowhere. All with hands stuffed full of £20 notes and their thrash metal Walkmen set on stun. But if they’ve read Flashman, or seen Sharpe, Zulu or Gettysburg, or even Crimson Tide, then they are ripe for encouragement or conversion. And oddly enough, Warhammer is probably the best crossover catalyst for this to happen. Fingers crossed, as otherwise your local club will soon look like a Darby & Joan outing.

If this column continues for any length of time, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t, you will quickly learn that I am a dyed in the wool 25mm man and Wargame Foundry’s biggest fan. Yes, yes, I know all about the extravagant claims put about by their rivals about being simply the best. Poppycock and crazy talk. There is the indisputable fact that Foundry are expensive and rarely manage to finish a range before starting on another one, but they are the finest figures on the market by a country mile. They are also easily worth the money (for the faces alone) and those new ranges are nearly always more exciting than the one before. But I still want my Austrian Uhlans. Please. Why am I a 25mm devotee? Because I like to paint figures as models rather than markers, and because in my youth I had a nasty experience with 15mm’s.

It is 1975. Imagine an enthusiastic gamer on a paper round salary. Having painted and despaired over flaky Airfix Highlanders and Hussars, my friend and I decided that these new-fangled 15mm Minifigs were the way to go forward with our new Quarrie ruleset. I was to be British, he French (we never claimed originality) and we needed to convince the club so we could get them to buy the small houses. No go. “Fifteens? Nahhh. No future in them sonny, stick to your 25s.” This we did, heartbroken, and convinced we had seen the future. By the time we’d painted up all our hard earned 25mm Minifigs and Hinchliffes, the club had deserted en masse to the little buggers and we were left with shares in the wrong portfolio. Since then, mentally scarred, I’ve never been able to go back to them, despite the best endeavours of the talented Mr Barton and Essex Miniatures to tempt me across.

But now I’m cured. I have bought some ABs and Battle Honours at last, I no longer go to clubs and listen to advice, or deride the serried ranks of bland 15mm competition games. Well, not as often. Anyway, I’ve been looking around for a while for a decent range of Wild West figures, ostensibly to use with Avalon Hill’s Gunslinger rules, TSR’s Boot Hill, or perhaps Once Upon a Time in The West, but also because I like the subject matter. Finding it hard to believe there were no passable 25mm figures of gunfighters and war bonnetted plains indians, I turned instead to Peter Pig. And I’m pleased I did. I have bought a number of packs, disappointed only by the slight lack of pose variety, but the figures paint up really well. With a good white undercoat bringing out their exquisite undercuts and detail, they suit the rapid wash technique well; you can complete them in minutes. Based up on sandy bases, they look excellent. And there are loads of interesting packs yet to come. Recommended.

I am not prone to arguments, being of a generally calm disposition, but I was recently almost driven to abuse by a vocal gamer who insisted that most figure games, and particularly DBA, offered accurate representations of tactical command. This made me splutter somewhat as it seems to me that when in battle, one can rely on nothing much more than the fact that things will go horribly wrong. In fact, Herr Clausewitz may have had a few things to say on this subject – see under friction. While most rules offer only a cursory nod to this unavoidable phenomena (how many real battles see every unit moving every turn?), the act of throwing a dice and deciding which units to activate does indeed limit your choice, but your choice it remains. The Companions still charge home just when they are needed. A more accurate system might be to have your opponent decide which units you could move, which would at least take us towards some form of reality, and away from chess with pretty units. Worse still are those rules that work on variable command radii. Are we really saying that the better or more senior the commander, the louder his voice? “Hey, you guys over there on the other side of that hill, form square now!” Perhaps when you reach General de Division you are given a megaphone.

Far be it from me to recommend a rival to Mr Macfarlane’s august publication, but if you’ve got O Level French, or even if you haven’t, you might be advised to have a look at Vae Victis. This is a fairly new magazine from France, published by the Histoire & Collections people, that covers miniatures, boardgames and computer games in an orgy of colour printing. This is incredible stuff, full of beautiful pictures (many from Duncan’s famous bellows) and even includes a historical boardgame in every issue. And it isn’t expensive either. All around the world, lesser magazines are looking either a) to their laurels or b) very upset. I don’t think WI has much to worry about, but many have (especially if the VV boys get a translation program going). One to look out for when you hit the hypermarkets next year.

My Book of the Month, apart from Fernandez-Armesto’s Millenium (a wonderful précis of a thousand years of history), is Piers Mackesy’s British Victory in Egypt, 1801 (Routledge, £45). Not the cheapest book you will buy this year, for sure, but one that both entertains and conveys the key elements of this little documented affair. If, like me, you have always had an inexplicable preoccupation with deserts, coastal actions and Napoleon’s Pyramids campaign, this book is the last piece of the puzzle. Full of analysis, insight and detached profiles of the characters, not least Abercromby, and their troops, this is a book you should not miss. You could always try the library. Excellent stuff.

Film of the Month is Clueless, which offers no insight into the wargames hobby, but does institute the phrase, “That man is a Monet”. Meaning he’s handsome from a distance, but not so attractive close up. The scriptwriter was clearly familiar with Old Glory figures.