Wargamer’s Notebook 12

Sorry about the hiatus last month. I fell foul of some weird illness which is still bugging me six weeks later, but I hope to keep the columns rolling along. It is of course the quiet phase of the year for shows. Nothing much happens in December and January round these parts, and then two good ones come along at once in early February: the bright sparks in command at York, a show I always combine with their fine city and shopping, have moved to the Sunday to clash neatly with The Napoleonic Fair. Now I am forced to choose…. So in the absence of winter shows, we’ll have to get back up to speed on the goodies, including those that found their way into my Christmas stocking.

Lots of figures have arrived since last time, not least a bumper bundle from Redoubt. There are too many samples to cover this issue, so I will revisit them next time, but the first that come to hand are the mounted heroes from the Three Musketeers range, along with a wide selection of civilians. All of these are rather nice figures, perhaps a little long in the body at times, but generally detailed, in useful poses and with superb, characterful faces. Above all, they have atmosphere and feel for the subject. Subjects include cooks, scullery maids, a brace of barmaids (TM37 is my favourite) and even a couple of bouncers. The best figures though are the washerwomen with whom you would not wish to mix it. I wouldn’t like to name precise dates but I would think all these civilian figures could cover a fair range of periods from the 17th to 19th century and are ideal for pub, village or rural scenes. For all my moans about Redoubt’s Peninsula figures, and the horses, it is figures like these that completely restore my faith in the company. Excellent work.

The latest batch from Guernsey Foundry is one I have really been waiting for. Yes, it’s the first of the pesky plains injuns. The first release has around a dozen cavalry and a similar number of infantry, and all are up to the usual Copplestone standard. One quickly runs out of superlatives with these seemingly monthly updates and suffice to say these will make ideal opponents for your wild west selection (which you have painted haven’t you?). My favourite is the big mounted brave with the crucifix, but you will doubtless find your own.

Like many of you, I am always on the look out for new techniques materials to customise figures, units, bases or set pieces. I have long yearned for an equivalent of the etched brass masterpieces made by our cousins in the model railway hobby and, recently, decided to see what was available and at what cost. The people to contact are Scale Link (Rear of Talbot Hotel, Blandford Road, Iwerne Minster, Dorset DT11 8QN) who have a massive range of frets covering everything from bicycles to 1930’s cars to bullrushes in a variety of scales, including 1:72 which will obviously suit many of us. There is also a range of trees, white metal these, and numerous scenic related subjects. I bought oak, maple and deciduous leaves (SLF series) and ferns (SLF40) which suit 25mm perfectly. These plug into your bases, or can be attached to tree stumps or similar and are quite superb – I think these are the leaves Kevin Dallimore ties to his Covenanter’s pikes. For those interested in the modern era there are even more items on offer since you will be able to use the wonderful gratings, wire, mesh, fencing and road signs. I could go on all day, so you’ll need the extensive catalogues to get a sense of the scope. None of this comes cheap, about £9 for a leaf fret for instance, but there is plenty to be done with each one and for that special model, it will be worth it. Highly recommended.

I have been playing Talonsoft’s Age of Sail which has proved rather more satisfying than even their Battleground games. Why? Because there isn’t really so much that can be criticised on the command and control aspect and I have always had a liking for naval games. The game is basically a simple boardgame system transferred to the computer, which of course willingly does all the bookeeping for you and depicts the action with nice pictures in real time – unlike the rival Wooden Ships & Iron Men from Avalon Hill which uses a turn based system and, in my opinion, suffers in comparison. The emphasis in AoS is to make your decisions while the battle is underway, preferably with the speed turned up to the max. Your crew can be relied upon to reload for you, though you must tell them to load chain, grape or double shot in preference to ball, and your job is to steer the beast, use the wind and sink the other guy (or at least get him to surrender).

The best encounters so far have been the two ships on two, or two on four or five battles. One on one is okay, but there is much more interest in having a couple of ships to handle, preferably with a degree of outnumbering to offset the Artificial Intelligence. There is also an excellent campaign game where you can be Bolitho or Hornblower and rise up the ranks, starting with an iron bath and a old sheet. For those that aren’t happy with the 100 odd scenarios on offer, featuring all the major seagoing nations, there is a design your own module which works well. All sorts of variables are available – wind speed and volatility, crew quality, ship size, battle sails, reload times and many other aspects are neatly handled without cluttering up the essentially clean system.

There are two minor drawbacks. The first is, to my knowledge, that there are no coastal actions. Well, at least in around twenty scenarios I haven’t seen any land. This would have been a welcome addition. The other one is the old chestnut about clinging to boardgame restrictions when you really don’t need to. Although the sea is clear terrain, the game still runs on a grid – I guess an octagon or similar – which means turning is not gradual, but jerky. Instead of turning right on a steady arc, however wide, the ship sails straight and then kicks round 45 degrees. Why? Have they not heard of Bezier or curve fitting at Talonsoft?

The graphics are very good, allowing for the Talonsoft trademark varying levels of zoom. At the closest ratio, the ship details are just right, resembling the little models from GHQ or Langton – and you get everything from 12 gun cutters up to the 120 gun monsters. The colours are spot on, the sails get peppered with holes in battle and the only missing item is the crewmen running around. Not so good is the sea – a sort of black/blue fractal effect with no white topped waves or even wakes from the ships. A bit like playing on a carpet tile with hovering men of war. The sound is pretty good as far as it goes, but I question the approach and the sound of a broadside which is closer to musketry than a thunderous roar of 50 big cannon. Of course, I have heard neither in the flesh, so this is just subjective criticism. The rest of the sound is background period music. Good enough, and quite flavoursome, but I’d have preferred slapping sails, the wash of the waves and the odd seagull.

The other problem I’ve had is that I haven’t been able to get much joy out of the big battles as my ailing 486/33 is not really up to moving more than a dozen ships at once. I should think you’d need a Pentium to do it justice, but I struggled through a few turns and it works on the basis of giving the lead ship in the squadron orders and the others following suit. Plenty of scope for breaking the line and getting the massed rolling broadsides. Overall? This isn’t in the same category as Malcolm Smalley’s Clear for Action (Langton) – you will not find a better miniatures assistance program than that – but where CfA is hardcore data, this makes up for it in graphics, feel and elan. And of course there is always a ready opponent. My advice would be to own both… Either way, AoS is recommended. It is quick, fun and seems to handle most of the important stuff, especially the wind gauge, well enough. The graphics are good, the sound is acceptable. Rumour has it that they will do ironclads and ancient galleys in the future, which could be very interesting.

I wrote a couple of issues back about MagWeb, the site on the World Wide Web that is aiming to build up a rich electronic resource of hobby related magazines. I have been on to monitor progress a couple of times recently and it is growing steadily – not yet big enough for a whole hearted endorsement, but what is there is very well put together. You can now read reasonably recent issues of MWAN (not to be sniffed at, this facility) and there are constantly growing numbers of specialised and general magazines – one example being El Dorado, unknown to me until mentioned by Bryan Ansell, which I have been avidly downloading and reading. If you have any interest in the hobby press, and the titles are growing all the time, you’d be best advised to drop by at MagWeb – www.magweb.com – and see what they have got on offer.

Book of the Month is a reprint, From Flintlock to Rifle 1740-1866, by Steven Ross. Published by a company local to me, Cass, it is a highly specific title but makes a fascinating addition to the horse & musket library and an excellent adjunct to the more general works. Full of interesting snippets, it concentrates on the transition of infantry tactics from linear to open order and offers some unusual conclusions. The analysis is excellent, the prose style highly readable and the shifts from background to detail are well handled. Recommended.