Wargamer’s Notebook 10

It has been an interesting month which culminated in a wall of work that has, disappointingly, prevented my collecting as much waffle material for the Notebook as usual. But as you suffered a 50% increase last month, I’ll let you off lightly over the Christmas holidays. Nevertheless, there is plenty of stuff to talk about and I have a healthy list of items to cover next year – computer rulesets, Piquet, Warhammer, command and control systems and, of course, the usual steady stream of new rulesets, books and figures.

There is only one show worth talking about at this time of year, and that is Colours. One of the Big Three (with Salute and Triples), consistently high quality and always a major draw for the crowds and top traders alike, it is about as unmissable as any event in the calendar. I think the only moans one can have about are the queues, which seemingly get longer each year, the PA announcements (Hi-De-Hi on mogadon), which are the same each year, and the narrow passageways ‘up top’ which came to a grinding halt this year. Otherwise, it was as invigorating as ever and well worth the trip across country and negotiating the ridiculous traffic in Reading. This year, like most others, Colours had an odd mix of games. Lots of sad competition stuff in the secondary hall is balanced by relatively few demonstration games. This year the standard was good, but not outstanding, with my nomination for Game of the Month being Vesting Holland, put on by the Basingstoke Society. This was a cracking effort, and easily the standout of the show, depicting the underexposed 1940 campaign in the Netherlands. Clinically executed terrain, featuring a superb canal, marvelous buildings along with some excellent figures, vehicles and planes, this was a real period piece and a deserving winner. I’d like to see it again actually – at Newark perhaps?

In the next month or so I intend to take a long and detailed look at some of the computer based rulesets that are growing in popularity. While I will cover their mechanisms and utility, I also want to discuss whether they are set to be Game Assistance tools for ever or can eventually evolve into battle modellers in their own right. But since the candidates are all land based, and the only naval system I have to hand will thus stick out somewhat, I had better have a quick look at it this month with more comments to follow when I have time to play it. Clear for Action is written by Malcolm Smalley and is marketed through Langton Miniatures, purveyors of those marvellous ship models that frequently tax my wallet. The period covered is 1740-1827 (are there any other worthwhile periods? Sorry…) and if I said they were comprehensive, this would be an understatement of the first order. As well as all the usual fare (movement, firing and boarding) you get everything else here – weather, anchoring, oodles of rigging settings, hoisting and lowering boats, shore parties, designing your own terrain, and even sending signals. England expects, and Mr Smalley has delivered. The system is based on orders, and would seem to be equally suited to handling one ship encounters and shore actions through to largeish engagements. On the downside, there is a somewhat worrying protection scheme on the disks (no objection to this in theory, but I always worry for my hard drive and data thereon) and the price, £37.50, is typically Langton – ie, a little high. But you have to pay for quality, and Clear for Action would appear to be nothing short of the best on the market. More on this one when the ships have been dragged from ‘protective storage’.

In one of those gaming paradoxes, I sat there the other day thinking how much I enjoy reading army lists. Yes, yes very funny. Siggins in trainspotter shock exposé. Since they underpin the type of competition gaming that I revile, and are of course almost completely responsible for the narrow minded, encounter battle, 1000 point army syndrome, you would be right to wonder why I even mention them. But while they have their faults, they are also very useful in the inspiration department – especially when reading up on a new, or obscure period. As a result I have most of the lists ever printed, except those associated with WRG Ancients (crosses himself and grabs the garlic), but I do have the three DBM volumes and look forward with interest to the DBR books.

Why? Because while reading orders of battle is interesting, it does not give a real feel for the mix of troops types, or their quality. Okay, so the old chestnut of rating troops is as subjective as it gets, but there is still enough there to prompt cries of, “No way are Austrian Jägers C class!”, or, “Blimey, he’s rated Pavlov Guards higher than the 95th! Sacrilege!”. So they get you thinking, if nothing else. Of all of them, I prefer the second generation models that are a little looser around the stays – the ones that allow 0-18 elephants or chariots, while correctly insisting on 12-30 units of levy spearmen. At this point we are getting a little closer to reality and it is surprising how many historical formations can be captured with this framework, if of course you ignore the points restrictions.

I have been asked by a number of people what I meant by ‘range of outcomes’, with reference to the resolution of combat, morale or indeed any other gaming mechanism. Given the restrictions on space last time, I skimmed over this one somewhat, so it is worth expanding a little here. Basically it can be looked at in two ways: the mechanical and the historical. The mechanical range is simply the spread between the extremes of combat as defined by the rules – essentially the combination of the worst factor, die roll and modifiers (or whatever systems the rules use) compared to the best. The historical aspect, which needs to mesh very closely with the aforementioned range (but seldom does), is what you consider, as a rule designer, are reasonable historical outcomes, pegged either side of the norm.

Lets take the classic situation of two units approaching each other in line, and engaging in a fire fight. At one end of the scale, you might decide one of the units may not even make it to musket range, so this might be one extent of the range of outcomes – that is, no firefight at all. In the middle, you might decide that the mean outcome is that the units fire x shots, cause y casualties and one runs away after z turns. (This is all hypothetical, so please don’t write in…) At the other extreme, you could have both of them firing all afternoon and going nowhere, at which point you can check the historical sources, and establish whether this is likely or not – and put a number on it.

All of this needs to be converted into a mechanism and then tested, both mathematically and in play, to see whether it stands up and whether all the possible outcomes, and their probability ratios, are reasonable. Continue process for all other battlefield situations. A lot of work, eh? I am not saying for a minute that this is the only way to design, but the concepts are worth bearing in mind when you look at some rules mechanisms in comparison with historical outcomes. It wouldn’t be too far from the truth to say that some rules just take a random number out of the air, or perhaps base it on a die roll, and build up from there until it feels right. I think this is one of the reasons that modifiers creep into so many rules, like parasites – they are needed because the underlying mechanism is ill conceived and can’t work unaided. Under the pressure of twenty modifiers it can start to get there, but the words ‘elegant’ and ‘quick’ do not usually spring to mind when this occurs.

A few columns ago I was trumpeting the Vallejo range of acrylic paints from Spain, which are almost certainly the best I have used. Dave Thomas has decided much the same thing and is now importing the entire range – the large display can be seen at the shows Dave attends, which is pretty much all of them except Spontoon, the foremost exhibition on the isle of Eigg which attracted but three visitors and a visually impaired sheep last year. Or was that Spittoon?

Over past months I have spent a lot of time espousing the delights of the best figures in the hobby – the Foundries of this world have had their fair share of column inches. So, for a change, let’s take a look at a new, and small, company – Wodensfeld Miniatures – who have recently taken the first steps into figure production. I contacted John Weaver a couple of months back and he sent me some samples of his 20mm ACW range. The first batch could charitably be described as basic, and I think John realised this. So, unprompted, over the course of the next few weeks he has kept me up to date with progress – how he has changed the moulds (and blown up a couple), improved the masters, tweaked production, changed his modelling compound – and then came the latest batch which are a huge improvement. They depict the Louisiana Tigers and are rather nicely animated and have the makings of a smart little charging battle line. While I can’t honestly say these figures are the best in the world, they aren’t at all bad and have plenty of potential. John certainly has the anatomy correct, which is more than many achieve. I also feel that the future of the hobby, while partially (or mainly) supported by the established players, is also dependent on the likes of John coming through with new and interesting lines, seeking advice from older hands and delivering a better product. As such, well worth keeping an eye on and as the figures improve (seemingly weekly at the current pace) they will be well worth searching out.

At the other end of the scale we have the latest figure range from Games Workshop, the behemoth of the gaming market. But who, as I’ve said before, are always treated as somewhat distant from our relatively low-key activities. Well, this month make a resolution to throw off those prejudices and take a look at the new Bretonnian range. These are quite excellent medieval figures and but for the slottabases and largish horses, will make a superb addition to your choice of knights, men at arms, archers and peons. You actually get a number of them (in plastic, with the standard improving with each release) with the new Warhammer rules set, retailing for a cool £50, which I hope to have a good look at in an issue or two’s time to see how applicable it is to historical gaming.

Book of the Month this time is Oman’s long unavailable History of the Peninsula War, recently reprinted in its entirety by Greenhill Books. Not exactly a small bedtime book this, and I am only now approaching completion of the third volume of the seven, but what a magnificent experience it has been. Although many would now discredit Oman’s conclusions, I am not one of them, and I find his style of writing, narrative and analysis among the very best. Where it really scores for me is in the detailed descriptions of the battles, which so few games recreate, and the explanations of the campaigns. Since this has been on my shelf for a while, unread due to its size and lack of time, I am once again left feeling I should have got to it earlier. As a friend of mine recently said, ‘books are not osmotic’ – you need to pick the beggars up and read them, a failing to which I will readily own up on occasion.

And as the year draws to a close, it befalls me to make a distinctly tough decision as to who wins Game of The Year – chosen from the games of the month for the last eight columns, and representing, to my mind, the singular peak of demonstration gaming for 1996. So, after suitable torment, those nominations are: Redcar Rebels for Raid at Edward’s Ferry; Trickett & Whitehouse for The First Sikh War and Lowe & Martin with Battle for Rots. And the winner is… The First Sikh War. An excellent game on a rapidly developing period, superb terrain, wonderful figures, excellent atmosphere. A true winner.

And finally, since it is the festive season, I will save my piece on Donald Featherstone’s impact on the hobby until another time. Good will to all men, and all that. Happy Christmas.