Wargamer’s Notebook 2

Is it just me or are Matrix Games a lot of fuss about nothing? Aside from the benefits of speed and the chaotic developments encouraged by the game format, I was wondering why the designers have gone for a restriction of using the words and ‘order’ format. I ask this because the games certainly seem very freeform and flowing and much of the time the results and reasons are fairly nebulous. I am very much reminded of roleplaying systems wherein the players can do virtually anything they desire, and the GM decides what happens. The matrix game format seems rather more controlled than that, presumably shifting the Umpire/GM away from a ‘storyteller’ role towards the ‘moderator’ (the extreme is presumably to let the players have almost complete control). However, the restrictions placed upon the players seem rather artificial. Would there not be an argument for unrestricted, concise use of language to outline the respective cases, thus leaving the umpire to adjudicate the outcomes? There would be no problems with weak, or wild and wacky, proposals as they would simply be assigned a very small chance of success, or even dismissed out of hand.

This strikes me as essentially pseudo-Kriegspiel; albeit hobbled and bastardized compared to that illustrious institution. There seems to be no real reason not to go for broke and run a full blown Kriegspiel or role playing game, with the umpire deciding the outcomes. Why restrict the language when it is the strength and richness of such games? Moreover, is a player ever going to suggest anything negative? “My column is [delayed] three days because of [disease], [exhaustion] and [stragglers]”. No, can’t see it myself. Negative actions seem therefore to result as a consequence of failure of your suggestion and necessary adoption of your opponent’s plan – hardly the same as real life where bad weather or dysentery will sweep in regardless of a matrix choice by either party. I am also interested to see that despite having an umpire (very much a luxury if my experience is anything to go by), there are no apparent mechanisms allowing hidden movement or limited intelligence. I wonder if this is considered insignificant? The other umpiring aspect is that it surely relies heavily on him knowing his stuff.

On the upside, I am quietly impressed by the number of game topics already available and I like the multiple victory criteria for each faction, but I am still of the opinion that, at the end of the day, it is the Emperor’s New Clothes. I for one expect more from Wargame Developments than this, and the diversion of effort into what must ultimately be a blind alley is stealing resources from their better ideas. Until they come up with something that converts the theorising into concrete systems (and I don’t mean endless Matrix Games), they will remain the ivory-towered academics of the gaming world. WD seem to retain a mix of innovation for the sake of it, infighting, elitism, pomposity and outright silliness – I cannot imagine that boxes on heads will ever convert exactly the people they need for numbers, ideas and hobby weight – but they do have some good ideas. Let’s see them in action.

Ever on the look out for a ‘decent grey’, a truly matt dark blue or a yellow that covers first time, I am a born experimenter when it comes to paints. Those of you reaching for your pens to tell me about Humbrol 107 or similar noxious concoctions should be aware that, due to hyper-sensitivity, I am now restricted to acrylics and oil paints. Even my thinners have to be low odour, or my nose suffers for days. Anyway, with the advances in acrylic technology this is hardly a problem. With practice I have managed to recreate all my old techniques; they are unbeatable for washes and never seem to fade. The only drawback is the limited range of useful colours and covering power. This is why I’ll always look around for new makes and shades to add to my trusty Miniature Paints and Citadel acrylics and I have recently come across two ranges that may be worth your time. The first is from Winsor & Newton and is called Finity. I have tried Rowney’s artists acrylics before with poor results but these really are something special. Although still ‘buttery’ in consistency, they thin down superbly for coverage or washes, just like artist’s watercolours, or gouaches, but without the fixative drawbacks. More to the point, they are available in the entire artistic colour range. The Payne’s Grey is a life saver, the light ochres are great for undercoating horses and the Benzimadozalone Maroon (!) makes for an excellent dark shade on your redcoats. The other make with which I am currently experimenting is Liquitex. These come in big pots and seem to fall somewhere between Citadel and Finity in viscosity. However, unlike the occasionally ‘gritty’ Humbrol acrylics, Liquitex are extremely smooth and are therefore ideal for airbrushing as well. At the moment they need a matt medium to get the best out of them, but they are worth a look at your local art shop.

I bumped into Stan Agar at the Warfare show in Reading, the first time I’ve seen him in the flesh, as it were. Stan is one of these gifted people who will relieve you of money in return for making and painting your models to a professional standard. Now I’m sure his painting skills are as good as anyone’s, but the reason I mention him is his excellent range of custom made buildings. These are suitable for 25mm figures and come in at prices from £15 to £40 for a large, wood framed house. I’m sure you could pay more. And they are rather good. Far better than the PoP Enterprises’ renditions that seem to have made a decent splash, but which somehow seem to be more suited to Hansel & Gretel than a wargames table. Recommended.

Even if you have managed to avoid the perils of Magic, there can’t be many of you who have missed the phenomena that is collectible card games. My considered view, having tried almost all of the flood of titles, is that precious few offer a decent game system and most are utter rubbish. I am frankly amazed at the positive reaction to these games – are we in computer game territory, where for some reason they are judged by different criteria? Let’s take the painful example of the WWII game Echelons of Fury (but there are many others). Apparently months (hours surely?) in preparation, rated very highly by the magazines and its designer (well, yes it would be…), the game has reportedly sold very well. Having seen the rules I charitably assumed there was more to it when you played it. Having done this, my opinion of this game is that it closely approximates Snap in historical accuracy and play options, and is about as exciting. Yes, the artwork is pleasant, but it is still unadorned snot. Quite why gamers have been enthusing over this I have no real idea. So let’s get this into perspective: without the artwork and the collectability, this game should hardly raise a gamer’s interest. It is on a par with those card games one is obliged to play with young children. Avoid, and when your dealer sells you crap like this, let him know you aren’t happy. When you add in the clusters of card swap nerds (what is the collective noun? a sadness? a slobbering? And why do they all have eyes like Ray Liotta?) and you have a phenomena that is quite depressing. Some of these guys could bore for England. It has actually got to the point where my favourite game shops have to be checked out before entering in case the anals are there, droning on about Ice Age and absurd card prices. Enough.

A card game I can recommend however, as it has no marketing nastiness and is possessed of a decent game system, is Columbia’s Dixie. Concentrating on the battles of the American Civil War, it isn’t the greatest simulation or game ever, but it does work well and quickly. In fact, it is the best card game since Modern Naval Battles and stands comparison with any of the recent titles. The main attractions, without question, are the cards provided for each of the units at Bull Run (aka Manassas: The Gathering). You can collect all 200 of them if you wish, but you can just as easily play with one pack. The cards are nicely done, if not top-notch artistically, with each uniform different and even unique poses for each trooper. And you get all those exotic units like the NY Highlanders and lots of Zouaves. The best news is that there is a flat distribution of cards, so no hard to find rares. A set is therefore reasonably easy to obtain, if you are that way inclined. I understand the game has been a major success for Columbia who now intend to move onto further ACW battles, WWII and Napoleonics. The former I’d have thought will show a marked drop off in sales ( I may be wrong) while the latter, ohhh, might just tempt me to buy a crate or two.

The game system owes a lot to the Napoleon/Bobby Lee tactical sub-games for those familiar with Columbia’s Block System. You deploy a centre, two flanks and a reserve (cards held in your hand) and must take two of the three opponent’s positions, though taking even one will make it hard for him to win. You set up your forces (face down, for a hint of chaos) and then wait for the ideal time to attack. Your opponent does the same. The timing of the attacks is entirely down to you, usually following an artillery bombardment. It is then down to the dice to see how your assault force fares. In practice, this leads to one or two weak positions and one highly rated strike force with the best units to deal the killer blow – but it doesn’t always work out. The system is pretty simple and easy to commit to memory. Everything bar movement runs off dice and it is essentially ‘6 to hit’ stuff, which for the level of game seems appropriate. There is a lot of die rolling, though it’s pretty fast and I would say that with the intuitive system it isn’t too much of a problem. We played our games in no more than half an hour each.

Dixie doesn’t strike me as that strong on history or even extended play value. The decision making is of nothing more than a rudimentary nature. It is however quick, logical, tight on systems, easy to learn and flavoursome. It has some nice touches (reserve counter attacks, reinforcements, leader effects, terrain cards, outflanking etc), often as a result of the special action cards such as railroad movement, rally, uniform confusion and sharpshooters. But I’d have liked more of these latter for variety. It also looks good, thanks to the artwork. Taken as an introductory game it is okay, and far better system-wise than most of the collectible games. In truth, it could have been a lot better than a re-hash of an existing design and we await developments to see what they can do next. I guess Columbia saw the market niche and decided to go with a proven system with an eye to delivery speed and presence, rather than innovation. Whatever, well worth a tenner to try it out for a few games.

Sole candidate in the rules department this month is Flintloque, from Alternative Armies. Coming in a box, with some figures to get you underway, these are essentially fantasy Napoleonic skirmish rules. Mmmm, yes, I know what you’re thinking but fortunately I am not of that persuasion. But we mustn’t be judgmental because although the army lists include Ratman Highlanders (I kid you not), Warhammer has shown us that fantasy mechanisms can be applied universally. In this respect, I think the set is well worth a look and I will report back when we have run through a trial skirmish or two. With historical troops, of course.

My Book of the Month is Don Troiani’s Civil War (Hersants, £35). Not at all my favourite period, though one that understandably seems to have its share of fanatics. Whatever, this book features paintings good enough to transcend even my prejudices. There are pictures, scenarios and composition in here that will thrill and excite, and give you more ideas for conversions, grouping and miniature painting than you could rightly expect from a ‘serious’ art volume. I say serious since anyone that can afford a Edouard Detaille original is charging proper money for his output. Incidentally, Troiani claims that Detaille is his mentor (can you have a mentor who’s dead?) and since he is my all time favourite military artist, I can see how this would be a generally good move. He may well be his mentor, but their techniques are quite dissimilar – if I can describe Troiani’s style as two dimensional Bill Horan, with a touch more elan, we may be closer to the truth. And that is a major compliment, as any reader of Military Modelling will know.