Wargamer’s Notebook 11

October is always a solid month for shows. Not only is there SELWG, one of my favourites, but I also spend best part of a week in sunny Essen for the massive Spiel show which attracts 100,000 gamers of all descriptions. Believe me, this makes even Salute look tiny – imagine the same filling Olympia or the NEC. The visit is primarily to bring me up to speed on my other professional interest, boardgames of all types, but there has been a growing faction of UK traders (with Dave Thomas and Old Glory in the van) plying their wares to the European market, characterized by gamers with bulging pockets full of Marks. Essen has very few figure games, indeed this year it had none at all that I could find, but it is a worthwhile trip if you are interested in other areas of gaming and can put up with a few nights sampling German food and beers. It’s hell, it really is.

SELWG was much the same as ever – a high quality show that still enthuses me with its mix of wargames and military modelling, the relaxed and spacious location, and the excellent trade support. Game of the Month, the first for 1997, is the estimable Continental Wars Society’s Battle of Plevna. Ralph Weaver and his cohorts do sterling, and inspirational, work in a field that gets much less exposure than it deserves. The game, as ever, was well presented, the demonstrators only too keen to answer questions and was a standout in a show with unusually few highlights – rivalled only by SAS’s Bicocca and the GLC Club’s ECW set piece. The Society can be contacted at 37 Yeading Avenue, Rayners Lane, Harrow, Middlesex HA2 9RL.

I suppose if this column were meant to generate anything, it would ideally be feedback from the readers. The fact that I sit here spouting views is definitely not to be taken as some sort of gospel. It is more a case of I say what I think, you respond, I take it on board and feed it back, so we get some sort of consensus view. Admittedly, my views are strongly held and put, and I can understand people considering me opinionated, but I am not – I am in fact quite open minded. But I need effective persuasion. And I am certainly not biased, a failing of which I was recently accused. I actually like to listen to the other viewpoint, be it WD explaining how they always listen to comments, are not elitist and are pushing back the very boundaries of design (still waiting for actual proof on these…), or partisan lackeys putting forward the view that their scale or make of figures is the best and therefore the one to buy. Which is interesting since the only letters published in WI so far have been on exactly those points.

So, assuming WD to be a lost cause, in answer to the latter point let me take a paragraph or two to explain what is going on here. I think, at the end of the day, there are at least three hobbies operating in miniatures gaming. There are those that love to play games, often competitively, in which scenery, figure quality (they are purely markers) and history are largely unimportant. You may be able to guess my reaction to these gamers, but only because they are effectively another hobby, or at least a very different branch of my own, perhaps closer to boardgamers is some respects and likely to elicit the same reaction I would have to, say, anglers, bell ringers or train spotters. There is another group who play and truly enjoy their games, perhaps with a feeling they are recreating history, some of whom take pride in the rules, layout and figures, and some who don’t. And there is a third group, of which I am a member, who believe the overall aesthetics are fundamentally important. I play with model soldiers, not toy soldiers – an important distinction for me. I also happen to believe that history is another vital factor, but that in itself is not always necessary to enjoyment of the hobby of miniature gaming.

So, to me, but not necessarily you, attractive figures, realistic terrain and decent rules are paramount to my enjoyment. The logical conclusion of this is that I will buy the standard of figure, scale and the manufacturer that best suits my interests. This is one of the reasons that there will be a slight tendency to review and get excited about the figure releases that appeal to me, and less so on others. But this is not bias, it is just preference. We all have dissimilar tastes since we are all different. It’s a DNA thing. But this has not stopped me positively reviewing Gripping Beast, Wodensfeld, Peter Pig, Xth Legion, FAA and Kennington with many more to come. After all, I have only been writing for ten issues. But nothing is going to make me like Redoubt’s Peninsula range (because they are dire), Front Rank (foreshortened, built like barrels), most Old Glory (gawky), most Dixon (those creases and the squashed gargoyle heads) or Elite (some strange poses). That is my personal subjective interpretation, no more, no less.

But to round off the discussion, let me explain what really appeals about Foundry and those few others producing consistently excellent figures – I exempt here non- commercial enterprises such as Bill Gaskin & Co and the companies with some good figures, but inconsistent quality overall – Redoubt, Old Glory, Dixon’s Pyramids range etc. Firstly, they appeal on a personal level. They are anatomically excellent, they are accurate, the detail is superb and the animation and pose variety are spot on. In a word, they are impeccable figures. So good that they are probably the first timeless figures I have encountered in over twenty years. Meaning? That I wouldn’t need or want to replace them because I can’t honestly see them getting any better.

So, for instance, having survived years of upgrading from Airfix, to Minifig, to Hinchliffe, to Foremost, to Connoisseur, and even to Front Rank, my Napoleonics are now Foundry and will stay that way. No more painting and basing. No more expensive purchases (unless they do Russians!). They are here for the duration. I am content. And when I expand into new periods, assuming Foundry Mk I or II can deliver the goods, that will be my way forward. Okay, so their detail is such that painting takes a little longer, and they come at a price, but as they are the best models available in my opinion I wouldn’t wish to proceed in any other way.

Secondly, my hobby is about model soldiers and the painting thereof. A close second come history and clever, workable rules. The gameplay is a sadly infrequent, but enjoyable, third and competition is just not on the scale. But it is here that I worry a little and run the risk of being labelled an elitist (ironic eh?). Let’s look at the situation of an average buyer browsing the stands for some 25mm ancients for, say, DBM. He looks at six different manufacturers and concludes that he can spend as low as 35p per figure, or as high as 70p. At the lower end he gets a poorly sculpted lump with an overlong neck, Schwarzenegger torso, short legs and a telegraph pole spear. At the other end he gets a perfectly modelled work of art – incredibly cheap, when you think about it.

And what do some choose? The 35p mutant. Why? Because either a) cost is a significant factor. Fine. No quibbles here. b) The standard of the model is not important to them. Fine again. c) It is a matter of subjective choice of figure 1 over figure 2. Also fine, but debatable, or d) they are genuinely unable to tell the difference and claim figure 1 (ol’ mutey himself) is as good as figure 2. Now I can’t explain the latter, on a subjective or objective basis, and while I had wondered about this, it only became apparent to me when I was listening to two chaps discuss figures at SELWG. One had bought a batch of what I consider to be the stock bring & buy figures – 15mm blobs, no identifiable maker, an amorphous mass of drab, brown painting on flocked bases, and almost always Successors – they remind me of an inauspicious Indian meal, for several reasons. Is there a factory somewhere with a lorry that goes round with these, dropping them off at b&b stands? His mate meanwhile had bought some superbly painted and based Battle Honours, albeit at thrice the price. Chap A was arguing that his were just as good, and cheaper. Not from a ‘utility for gaming’ angle, but from an aesthetic standpoint. The other guy looked puzzled, and so did I. I concluded that some people genuinely cannot tell the difference between the anatomically sound and the Lamming, between the well animated and the Minifig, between the Gaskin and the figure dipped dark earth, between quality and the mediocre. Which certainly starts to explain how Genesis made the charts so often.

Battleground: Shiloh is the latest in the rapidly growing series of computer wargames from Talonsoft. Marketed in the UK by Empire Interactive, and therefore generally available in computer shops, these are the best historical simulation games currently available. That is not to say they aren’t without their problems and shortcomings, but they are certainly streets ahead of anything else on the market. Shiloh shows some evolutionary improvements from even Waterloo, and it very much looks as if the series will gradually develop to a highly polished standard – smoothing rough edges and constantly enhancing the graphics and interface. I have no doubt that there will be many more games using this engine, but in case you felt the naval gamers were getting a bum deal, Talonsoft have just announced Age of Sail, a chance to command a ship of the line in what looks like a superb new treatment. More news as I get it.

I was chatting to Dave Thomas in Essen while picking up some new colours and refills from the Vallejo paints range, and he tells me they have gone done extremely well. Leading lights such as Mark Allen and Kevin Dallimore have been at least partly converted, they are selling well and I too use little else these days. What wasn’t apparent before is just how large the range is – so big that colour mixing is almost a thing of the past. And I can also recommend their WWII tank colours which are spot on – especially for the Panzer fans.

Now this is going to sound really wimpy, but I have hurt my fingers through painting. Yes, yes, very funny. However, four months on with no improvement it is no longer a joke. Back in the summer I had a batch of figures to do and painted for about five or six hours straight – the enthusiasm does this sometimes… Towards the end I got some pain in my thumb and index finger, and thought nothing of it. But it didn’t go away and is even now triggered by holding a brush, pen or even a mouse. I told my doctor and he laughed (he’s due for a change anyway) and I am now looking for a second opinion and a solution. It would seem to be bruising, or perhaps a squashed nerve, which of course never really gets a chance to heal fully. To carry on painting I have had to make foam sleeves for the old brushes, I have bought some Rose ‘triangular’ handled brushes, and can only do an hour or so at a time. So, be warned – pace yourself and don’t grip the brush too hard and if anyone has come across this before, please let me know the answer.

On the subject of brushes, I recently called into my local art shop who advised me, with no real sympathy, that he no longer stocked the whole Winsor & Newton range due to their extreme cost. This is a pain, since for detail work I use their Series 7 and for much of my blocking and shading I use the economical Series 33. I also have a couple of Series 12 sables for eyeballs! For large coverage washes, undercoating, oil ‘scrubbing’ on horses and drybrushing, I have found no better brushes than the Tamiya range. So, I was forced for the first time to look for an alternative source. This was quickly found in the shape of the Winsor & Newton shop in London’s West End but in the meantime I tried the new red handled Citadels which aren’t at all bad. Much better than the older range they replaced and they really hold their point. Recommended.

As I write, the winter months are closing in which is a signal for the figure manufacturers to go into high gear on releases. I have been sent the latest additions to the excellent Gripping Beast range of Dark Age types – civilians, priests and personalities – which are universally excellent. If there were any weak points in the initial range it was inconsistency of facial detail and character, but that is now well behind them. These are superb figures. Also rather good are the Prussians from the two Foundries. Foundry pere have produced a remarkable range of Prussian Napoleonic reservists – five major uniform types, advancing and march attack, and eight head variants within each type should see your units looking suitably varied. Excellent figures as usual, especially those in the caps and shell jackets – real characters. Foundry fils meanwhile have released the long awaited SYW Prussian cuirassiers and these are something else. Old Copplestone collects his seemingly monthly namecheck with what are possibly his best yet – appropriately chunky, serious figures that capture the breed perfectly. Something tells me that Mark spent a lot of time on these – and it shows. I am not sure how you could do without these figures if the armies of Alte Freddy are your weakness. Highly recommended.

Go to any show and you will see any number of companies selling ready made terrain, often big polystyrene square blocks, which vary between “could do better myself” to the expensive, high quality work from System Scenics. These are good, but I think Maxart are way better because they look like scenery rather than a snooker table and I prefer hexes to squares. At SELWG, Maxart launched their new range, Hexscape 300, which is intended for 15mm or 1:300 figures. The hexes are 12″ across though, so would suit 25mm at a pinch I would think. But whether you choose these or the larger, original Hexscape, the net result will be a flexible terrain system which looks quite magnificent. Maxart can be reached at 90 Maple Avenue, Gillingham, Kent ME7 2NT. 01634 851939.

Book of the Month is a dead heat between the two new Brassey’s Napoleonic uniform books. At £20 each, the idea is to breathe fresh life into this surely oversupplied niche in the market. Can we live without another book of British and French uniforms? Well, I for one can’t and I was drawn to these because they have made an effort to be different. The emphasis is not on drill and regulation issue, but what was actually worn on campaign, and thus what the troops looked like. This is of course all open to debate, and I always remember the extract from Coignet where they all spend the morning of the battle tidying themselves up, rolling up greatcoats and attaching plumes and epaulettes on the basis that if they were going to die, they would at least look good. I can’t recall any recent book that has attempted this route, in fact nothing since the excellent (and in many ways unsurpassed) Blandford series and the seminal Windrow & Embleton Peninsula Uniforms volume. So, do Brassey’s match up? Well, no but they make a damn good stab at it. They are a little thin on colour plates for the price, but it is however those plates that draw you in. Richard Hook has done a superb job of depicting the soldier on campaign, warts and all, and the British Hussars plate is one of the very best I’ve seen. Recommended and I wonder if they might do the same for Austria, Russia and the others?