Wargamer’s Notebook 19

Some of you, who go a way back, may remember previous attempts to put wargaming on television. My fondest recollections are for the one-off Model World, the film Callan, and the Battleground series of six period games, which while ancient (mid to late seventies?), were pretty damn good. I seem to recall a certain Mr Gilder directing operations across a wonderful set up, everyone having a good time, explaining the basics and, importantly, creating a positive image for the hobby. So, twenty years later, it was with no little interest that I sat down to watch Game of War on Channel 4 at 7pm last Sunday. Presented by Angela Rippon, a couple of old buffers levered from their armchairs at the Guards Club try out their tactics and refight Balaklava, Naseby and, inevitably, Waterloo. Wow. What potential. Who was behind such a coup? How would they do it? What top notch figures and terrain could we hope to see? And all in the age of the video so we can watch it till it fades. Cor. But by now, most of you will know the reality.

Aside from the notables, there were three recognisable hobby characters. Iain Dickie, honcho of Miniature Wargames magazine whose role was colour man (quite literally in the case of the waistcoats); Paddy Griffith, respected historian, author and former WD leading light; and Arthur Harman, perhaps the most prolific writer in the hobby – both of the latter charged with conducting the game. The structure was, with hindsight, predictable, and reflected a form of modern Kriegspiel – the commanders in separate rooms feeding in orders dependent on limited information, the action on a central table resolved by Paddy and Our Arfur using dice when required – adding ‘The Element of Chance’ said Mr Harman, in his best adenoidal brogue. Paddy and Arthur were resplendent in quite magnificent cardigans and while they did the best with the material on offer, and kept it broadly historical, struggled to make it consistently interesting. They looked excited; I was left cold. And if the hobby has an image of being populated by dull historians then the effect was one of consolidation rather than disproof.

And for what could be argued the biggest media event for years, was there any build up or publicity in the hobby press? No, as far as I know it came out of the blue and lots of people missed it completely. We don’t yet know (since the supporting booklet hasn’t arrived) if anyone interested has been offered a lead into the hobby. Was there any period setting, beyond a brief battle description and Mr Dickie coming out with the typically simplistic potted history beloved of wargamers? No. Any pictures of the commanders or uniforms, or indeed any semblance of flavour? No. Any awe-inspiring or even decent terrain? No. And worst of all, the figures, where so much close-up action was focused, were red and blue plastic blobs (sheesh) onto which coloured stickers were placed to designate casualties. No major problem with the latter, but what exactly is wrong with good looking figures and scenery on, say, distinctly shaped bases? Am I alone in thinking this a massively missed opportunity? Would it not be apparent that the infantry at Balaklava were rather different to those at Naseby? And the greatest crime is we lose the colour, glory and uniforms – may as well have featured a modern night action; Tumbledown anyone? Cost considerations are not an issue – any one of twenty clubs could and would have put on a better display than this for free.

Playing Devil’s Advocate, it could be argued that the three hobby presenters, who presumably had some input on proceedings, are not exactly the greatest proponents of attractive displays. Indeed, one wonders if they understand the concept of marketing the hobby at all beyond the closed doors of academia and the military. One need only look at Miniature Wargames to realise the aesthetic sense on parade here, while our cardiganed friends have been known to espouse figureless gaming. So stand back, and imagine the same programme made with input from Duncan Macfarlane, Bryan Ansell and Bill Gaskin. Or The Perries. Or Mark Allen, or Kevin Dallimore. Or Peter Gilder in his heyday, bless his cotton socks. Or perm almost any other three people (excluding the competition crowd) from the thousands in the hobby, without the need to go abroad. Blimey, even Stuart Asquith would have known exactly what to do. But no, we have been ambushed by the Plymouth Brethren of wargaming who have raised asceticism to a TV art form.

But what of the impact of the programmes on the public – who I shall split into three: the existing gamers, the interested historians (one might say the partly converted) and the rest. I was once in the latter group, erring towards the middle category. At about 13 I knew enough about history to know it was my favourite subject, I made Tamiya and Airfix models, and when a friend said he went along to a wargame club on a Sunday, I was keen enough to go along to see what they got up to. That was the start of all this for me, swayed heavily by the fact that my first game was Napoleonics, always my main love, compounded by a visit to Waterloo Day in 1975 where I stood transfixed for hours by a 15mm demonstration of the battle. And believe me, their efforts were far better (ie more evocative and inspirational) than Game of War 22 years later. I don’t know if the producers had any aims of expanding the hobby, or whether they just wanted to make some interesting programmes on a budget. The effect on most gamers seemed to be negative – not least because the image of simply rolling dice and adjudicating at random gave a very misleading view of what goes on in those chunky rulebooks and our minds. But what of the conversion opportunities? What of the 13 year olds watching because they, despite what the modern history syllabus requires, know something of hussars and artillery and generalship? Or perhaps had been to Naseby while on holiday? Would they have been moved to take up the hobby? I strongly doubt it.

That then would be the downside, and it is easy to snipe. But to the programme’s credit, it made it to the screen, was not on Channel 5 or Sky or some obscure cable channel, and was even on at a reasonable time. In American Football parlance, they got the ball across the line, in prime time to boot. But it won’t make the highlight reel. And believe me, for every show that makes it, there are many that don’t – even I have been approached to make no less than three gaming series by hyper-enthusiastic producers, all in search of the next Driving School or Teletubbies-scale success. Needless to say, all of these were abortive ideas waiting in line to be worked up into a concept and (as ever) looking for funding, or at least a free lunch or two. The other positive factor was that the series got better as it went on. Waterloo was actually quite interesting (despite the inexplicable allowance of 100% Hindsight by the umpires) but Paddy Griffith, as in the previous two programmes, maintained a high standard of professionalism throughout and Angela Rippon did her utmost to squeeze some life out of a dull, even moribund, exercise. Without her, it could have been the best cure for insomnia since Riverdance hit the stage.

While we can never know the various agendas behind the programmes (cost restrictions, limited access to individuals and groups, inadequate research etc), what galls is that I just have this gut feeling that it could have been so much better. But then I am not a TV producer. Am I naive in thinking that beautifully painted figures and stunning terrain are likely to appeal to the public? Or does the opposite apply – that in fact this is the underlying problem with the hobby’s accessibility and recruiting drives (not sure we’ve ever had one of these, thinking about it). I am not entirely sure, and Game of War has at least made me think. At the moment I am sticking with the theory that great models, fascinating history and impact will carry the day. Which leads me to my next point. I fired off my initial response to a group of email correspondents and what came back surprised me. Most agreed with my comments, but the feedback from a couple of people was positive – they had enjoyed the approach, and their partners as well. Speaking to viewers in the ‘public’ domain, they too had thought it very good so perhaps it is the old story encountered by Sharpe and similar – we just know too much! My complaint was that the overall image and naff props would just up the ante that the hobby has to overcome, but several people said that the ante, largely formed by ‘playing with toy soldiers’, was insurmountable. So, was Game of War in fact accessible, surviving perfectly well without soldiers, and is Siggins spouting on something he does not really understand (again)? Interesting.

Anita Decor is a company that could have helped with the terrain. They are based in Holland, but have recently appointed a UK agent in the shape of CGW Models, 22 Harold Road, Birchington, Kent CT7 9NA. Tel: 01843 848101. I came across the range at the recent Chatham model railway show and was highly impressed. I have since contacted CGW and obtained some bags and I can recommend them without reservation. The range is huge, from bushes to retaining walls, and lists are available, but I would point you initially to the excellent mosses and the ‘broccoli’ – a species of lichen that resembles said vegetable, and paints up or takes coloured flock to give your bases a really professional and natural look. Both of these come in large bags at £3 or £4 each, and they will last you for months or years. Also good is the stump grass – beloved of Bill Gaskin who uses it extensively on his bases – check any back issue for details. Bill uses a cut-up bristle broom, others use sisal string, Anita provide the same thickness of stem but pre-cut in a bag. Much like Marks & Spencer grating your cheese for you, at a price. A superb range and I will report back when the next batch arrives and I have had a chance to experiment.

Counterpointing Game of War was the second highlight of the year: Partizan II. Another hot day in August saw me on the train looking forward to a show that, if even a fraction as good as the May spectacular, would be a real treat. To put this in perspective, I had turned down the opportunity to go to Laguna Seca in California, on VIP tickets, and watch the Monterey Historic Racing tribute to the AC Cobra that same weekend. Not dissimilar to Centre Court or Cup Final tickets for this punter. So are you now convinced how important a show this is? The good news is that I was not at all disappointed. There were once again half a dozen quite superb demonstrations. All the games were exemplary by comparison to other shows, but there were still some stand out gems. So again, congratulations to Lawrence Baldwin and his team, and in no particular order, the games:

The Perries and friends put on an incredible Bronze Age game with their trademark terrain and figures, and what an inspirational sight it was. Only the pictures will do it justice, but the centrepiece was a superb camp surrounded by a lake that looked deep, but which on inspection was cleverly painted. The camp was perfect for the period, but would have worked, oddly enough, right through to the 1600’s, especially in colonial North America. The figures fought alongside, overlooked by a stone circle complete with dancing girls to appease the Gods. This was one of those games that, every time one returned to it, there was something new to see. A quite brilliant effort. On a neighbouring table, and being used for play, was a proof copy of Warhammer Ancient Battles which cannot now be far off. We await with interest to see what impact this rule set will have on the hobby.

Trickett and Whitehouse, the dynamic duo of SODS, put on a gem of a game which was sadly tucked away out of sight behind the voluminous Foundry stand. But I found it eventually, and was glad I did. These talented individuals have a worrying ability to sit and think, rather as I do, about a range of figures, or a scene and imagine how it might work as an original game. The difference between them and I is that they actually get round to implementing it, in style. The theme this time was the snowy wastes of Napoleonic Russia, with a scattering of cossacks bearing down upon some French stragglers in and around a couple of well modelled sleighs. With the superbly rendered snow, some wonderful Foundry figures and simply excellent staging, Siggins’ mind instantly went to the sleigh scene in Flashman at the Charge. Very evocative; a beautifully handled game. As awe-inspiring as the terrain was, their painting standard has come on substantially, even compared to the superb Sikh Wars game of last year, and the result is some quite beautiful figures. If you get the chance to see this game on the circuit, have a very close look. Envious, me?

The League of Augsburg had, once again, trekked down from the Northern Wastes to present us with yet another great game of the Great Northern War – with ships already! Extracted from a campaign setting, the theme was an invasion of England by a collection of damned foreigners (at whom we hissed manfully), held at bay by a rag-tag British army. The result, once again, was a stunning game that I couldn’t stop myself from returning to time and again. There is definitely something about this period that appeals – uniforms, exotic weaponry, flowery regimental names. Wonderful. Permit me a sentence or two of mawkishness. When I chat to Phil and Barry about their games, and gaming in general, I have a real feel of these guys representing exactly where my hobby is. We seem to share similar objectives, standards and values and they are among the most enthusiastic people I know – despite my rock hard resolve to avoid new periods (time and money considerations, nothing more) these games do the most to shake that resolve. Would that one day I can put on a game as good as theirs.

The Victorian Military Society put on an impressive display of an Indian Mutiny siege. Red dust, battered ramparts that went on for about eight feet, and some very nice figures. MAD, who did the outstanding Napoleonic game in May, had two games this time: a beautiful ‘stock’ Seven Years War game and a novel game featuring hordes of Celts and Imperial Romans with opening moves camouflaged by a sheet. Add to these the wonderful Pirate and Natives participation game, a wry vignette from John Martin showing a group of re-enactors, and the Stonewall Group’s amazing Arsouf game – these boys know how to put on a big game. Their terrain was also rather clever. I think I may have seen something similar before, but this was the best implementation so far. Some of the terrain squares had a let-in frame in the middle, so they could be filled with a building module, a redoubt, or trees. Neat. And they will even build them for you – Superior Scenics, 89 The Knoll, Mansfield, Notts.

I have at last found a decent primer. Halfords White Acrylic to be precise, and it seems to work fine for plastic and metal, drying to a tough finish. The fact that it is an acrylic means little in the way of pungent pongs, it comes in spray can at a very fair price, and covers really well – one coat is usually enough but two thin coats is, as often happens, a better bet. Many thanks to my colleagues on the internet for this advice.

It has been a good month for books. I have greatly enjoyed the recent Men at Arms on the Army of Louis XV featuring some superb art by Eugene Leliepvre and the new Warrior on the Redcoat is rather good as well. Highlight number one is the long awaited Austerlitz book from Scott Bowden, which even if it contains a few errors as have his earlier volumes, is still streets ahead of anything in the order of battle and images stakes. As for history, I will stick for now with Christopher Duffy’s excellent volume, but this is a valuable adjunct. Better still though, and sneaking Book of the Month, is La Guardia Imperiale Napoleonica by Vittorio Novarese. An excellent compilation of over 80 images at less than a pound per plate from Hersants. Marvellous. But I’m starting to think that Kirkham woman has the measure of my weak points.

I will finish off this column with a direct reference to Mr Hawkin’s letter in WI 120. I happen to think Mr Hawkins is sorely mistaken when he implies the column is liked only by ‘anoraks’ – an impolite and potentially self-destructive term, however it is used, I think you will agree. But if he is correct and I have indeed ended up with the ‘wrong’ readership, then I have failed. I don’t mind whether 1,000 point competitive gamers read the column, but it is not written with them in mind. If however I have alienated the other, more open minded groups, then I have failed properly and for the next four weeks I shall be deliberating whether this column continues. What Mr Hawkins does correctly point out is that the slot would undoubtedly benefit from variety. We now have a regular letter column where before it was infrequent, but disparate views do need to be aired with equal weighting. So I’ll do you a deal. I’ll write one more column to give you all a bit of breathing space, Mr Hawkins can do the next one and others can follow where he leads. Can’t be much to it can there? A bit of waffle, a couple of contentious but sincerely held views and an attempt to be thought provoking or enthusiastic about a great hobby. What, twenty minutes a month? No problem. A doddle, in fact. 1500 words then, deadline to Duncan of 10th October and rewards beyond the dreams of avarice. But I think it is well worth it. Away you go then Mr Hawkins, I look forward to reading your thoughts.