Wargamer’s Notebook 24

It may have been me but I thought WI issue 125 was the best for a while. A good combination of articles, some great pictures as usual and a generally good, positive feel. All this in sharp contrast to me. The result is a short issue, due to time pressures, but also sees the first of the letters, with which I am very pleased. Keep them coming.

Bear with me on this. I was browsing in my local Games Workshop store and saw some nicely done, but flat, terrain laid out on the table. On closer inspection it turned out to be a vinyl mat (about 6′ x 4′) which they will gladly sell you for £15. I know, I know, flat terrain takes a lot of effort to make it look good but this really was impressive. Not tacky plastic, but a nice matt finish, and it was just the right colour – a textured pale green. Even better was the sand mat which has more texture and would suit your desert warfare needs admirably. Impressive.

In a quiet time for book releases, though eagerly awaiting the Waterloo work by Peter Hofschroer and the new Ian Heath from Foundry, I have not managed to find to much of immediate interest in the history field, so instead I can commend a related book, Roy Porter’s Model Buildings Masterclass (Windrow & Greene). I have always harboured dreams of having the time to knock up the odd classy centrepiece for the gaming table and if you really wanted to go for broke, this is the book you need. Coming at the problem from the artistic/realistic corner rather than the practical approach favoured by the ubiquitous Ian Weekley, the result is a highly valuable series of tips and techniques which have taught me a lot, delivered as they are in a clear and persuasive style.

Also very impressive, though rather obscure, is the latest publication from Terry Hooker – this time on behalf of The Company of Military Historians of the US. The booklet covers a series of uniform plates (good black & white line art) featuring armies of New Spain & Mexico, 1500 – 1945. Yes, indeed! What this wide brief means is that we get everything from Aztec warriors through the French Navy in Mexico to Mexican fighter squadrons in WWII. The coverage is therefore overview rather than comprehensive, but always scholarly and fascinating. I can say no more, except that if you have any interest in this region this is a must buy. £7.50 from Terry Hooker, 27 Hallgate, Cottingham HU16 4DN.

Notebook Letters

Steve Preston I wonder if you could give me some advice. I have been gaming for several years now in a variety of eras and scales but have always wanted to have a go at Napoleonics. I purchased and painted a squillion figures and based them to Avalon Hill’s Napoleon’s Battles ruleset, thinking them to be well structured and reasonably historically accurate, I haven’t played yet though. Imagine my alarm when I saw your comments in the WI concerning the ruleset and its author. Is it not historically accurate, is it poor altogether? Please advise me what is wrong with the system and if it is beyond redemption, what is a better army level set of rules? I am not fond of the abstract Volley & Bayonet or Le Petit Empereur, I remain unsure about Shako.

MS: This is the wargaming equivalent of deciding how many angels you can get on a pinhead and the animated ‘discussion’ frequently resurfaces to fill up the Internet. There is of course no right answer and although I have been actively looking for years I still haven’t found the ideal Napoleonics set. In fact, I’d like someone to suggest one to me. Personally, as a compromise and to remain compatible with others, I am happy to play Shako, Napoleonic POW, the WRG set (with some home modifications), the recent unofficial Fire & Fury variants or if I am in a playful mood and want to use my ‘big battalions’, Grand Manner. What is coming along in 1998 is a boardgame from Charles Vasey which will give you a ‘transferable’ army level system that I, as a playtester, rate as better than anything I have played, but it would need some work to convert to miniatures. But to answer your question, just because I don’t like Napoleon’s Battles shouldn’t put you off. Give them a go and let us know what you think. I’ll say one thing, they are a better bet than Empire. Ooooh, controversial.

Bruce Luter I would dearly love to paint some Zulus but I have no confidence in my ability to paint Zulu skin, any thoughts?

MS: Well, I can’t help on confidence but as ever, have a go, it can’t hurt you and there is always the paint stripper if it goes wrong. I painted mine using the following technique, which also works superbly for horses. Undercoat the figures with white or yellow ochre/’sand’ – using both gives tone variety. You can even drift up the scale to orange or earth brown. Acrylics or enamels are fine. Let them dry overnight. Then, ‘scrub’ on Burnt Umber oil paint with a biggish brush. Wait a couple of hours and then ‘pull off’ the oil paint to establish thin areas through which you can see undercoat highlights, which by now should be stained with the oil pigment. This can be done with a soft sponge, or by rolling a cotton bud across the skin. The result is very passable, the colour looks just right and is not too tiresome. Trouble is you need hundreds of the beggars…

Chris Payne What is wrong with the old Minifigs?!!! What some people seem to fail to realise is that preferred figures are a matter of taste, tempered by money. The ‘extra’ for Foundry figures I feel is worth it, but I also like Gripping Beast. Redoubt I would rate too, were it not for variable figure quality – are all the figures and ranges by the same designer?

MS: I really don’t know, but I know exactly what you mean. Generalising, it looks as if the Redoubt designer(s) does three or four good figures and then gradually loses application as the range goes on. Their limbs also stretch as time passes. Just look at the Mahratta range. If ever there were a definite buy for me that was it, but once I saw them all I just felt hugely disappointed. Sales lost because of inconsistency. Old Minifigs? Ahem. Well, like many of us I went through the Minifig phase, becoming able to afford them just as they remoulded into the 25mm ‘barrels’ and horses with fat bottoms. What’s wrong with them? Poor detail, poor animation, squashed heads, weird horses and anatomy. Conversely, smooth and easy to paint, easy to buy, huge ranges and the 15mms are good stock figures. If anything, I rather prefer the old 25mm moulds for the nostalgia value.

Steve Wold When it comes to wargames clubs, we Aussies, like you, need to be active in promoting the hobby. Warhammer is taking over fast here, and while I enjoy beating other gamers with my Skaven army it would be nice to see as much enthusiasm, promotion and professionalism going into historical gaming. I have read with interest the comments about the various wargame shows that are run in the “mother country,” and can only express how jealous we Australian gamers are. I know of only one small show run spasmodically in Sydney – over 1000km away for me – and would give my right leg to attend a real, full blown, heaps of exhibitors, lots of miniatures, games and displays type show. So while you “Poms” bitch and moan about your shows, remember us poor convicts who get next to nothing. Perhaps you could persuade a few companies like Dixon, Essex, or Foundry to tour?

MS: What an idea! I can see the Tour T-Shirts! Well chaps, what about it? I think most accountants would regard it as a legitimate business expense… Shouldn’t cost much to ship all that lead to Australia.

Steve Wold I have also read with a laugh your comments about Foundry figures. While I agree they are nice figures they are somewhat cost prohibitive over here. I personally believe you can’t go past Dixon miniatures when it comes to ACW. They have the biggest and the best range that I have encountered and the diversity of figures you can get onto one stand is fantastic.

MS: No argument with their diversity. Just the fact they have heads like Halloween lanterns and creased trousers like MC Hammer.

Mark Dudley I have just read that you may be looking at the US ruleset Piquet. I have played a number of games and I am currently refighting the ACW battle of Stones River using Piquet Hallowed Ground supplement. I also have played Naps and have the SYW supplements. Our group either enjoy them or refuse to turn up if I am playing them. Of all the rules I have played I don’t think I have experienced such diverse reactions. The key thing about these rules is that they are certainly different. Not such much in the combat rules but more in the way you can command, control and activate your units.

MS: We tried our first game recently and while I’m sure they are different I am not at all sure difference is enough. The trick is the card driver deck, something we have seen before in Battle Masters for one, and also in many of Foundry’s proto-rules (which you can get on disk). But the reload card struck me as very artificial. We will play again.

Bevan Marchand I was interested in your appeal for ways to get more people wargaming, and also in several of the letters and articles in WI124, particularly about Games Workshop. Personally, I play Games Workshop games because I can guarantee many opponents in my area, whereas I know of no other historical wargamers. I would welcome the opportunity to play Napoleonic Wargames against someone local (out of term time I live in Banstead), as I think nothing beats the sight of an army of Redcoats on the table. For introducing my friends to “proper” wargaming, I used a set of rules by Leeds club called “Men Against Fire” (which I incidentally obtained through WI), plus 2 packs of Airfix WWII figures. This whole setup costs under £10, and has provided many hours of challenging platoon level combat.. Other than this, I am currently running a map-based ECW campaign over e-mail, with four lords struggling for supremacy in an invented county on the Welsh border. Taking some tips from the umpiring article, the four players have only move distances and costs of weapons and horses at their disposal.

I think that greater publicity would help further interest in wargaming – perhaps having sets of rules available where figures are sold in shops, rather than all by postal service. It might also be beneficial to point out to the younger generation that collecting a historical army is significantly cheaper than the equivalent sized Games Workshop Army. I also have more arguments over interpretation of GW rules each game than I have ever had with historical wargaming, partly because of the mechanisms, but mostly because there is no “reality” to fall back on.

MS: If you lot must play the rules, which seem to me to be 1970’s mechanisms (albeit playable mechanisms) wrapped up in big books and charts, I thought the recent WI article on ‘ersatz’ Warhammer was excellent. The main gripe seems to be that the GW figures are expensive so this was the ideal response. However, I am left to wonder whether there is a peer pressure element here – with much emphasis apparently placed on ‘official’ figures, approved chapters/codices and the like, you could turn up at the shop or club to play with your ‘rival manufacturer’ armies and be laughed out of court. No problem at home of course. And I can’t get used to those separate bases. What will be interesting is the impact of Warhammer Historical this year, and the slight blurring of the edges with Bretonnians and Empire troops coming onto the scene.

David Fox Thought your comments were dead on about Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far. A HUGE improvement of Chapter I, outstanding graphics, exciting gameplay, and a real pit of your stomach generator when your parachute squad gets zapped by an unsuspected flamethrower across the street.

Ed Austin Something that has never been mentioned with regard to Foundry figures is the size relationship between the riders and the horses. I think this sometimes looks a little odd (though the ranges vary), with either the riders being too large or the horses too small. One only need look at re- enactors to see the correct proportions.

MS: Does this not assume that horses (and riders for that matter) are all the same size despite numerous breeds, nationalities and historical periods? I raised the subject of horse size/breed a few columns ago and if we are to have generic horses then I’d prefer a decent horse shape than 100% size ‘accuracy’. On first glance Foundry can occasionally look a touch small, I agree, but in a unit the overall effect is good. They also introduce subtle size differentiation between ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ mounts and their ancient horses strike me as very well interpreted. Again, I don’t think there is a right answer. A friend of mine’s daughter recently graduated at her equestrian school and rode a huge chestnut that was bigger than any horse I’ve ever seen – she was positively dwarfed. But how would a medieval destrier compare? Or an ECW dragoon horse? Or a Hun pony? It would certainly be interesting to see what a French Cuirassier was really riding in 1813 (anything he could get his hands on probably) or a Scots Grey officer on his unblooded hunter at Waterloo? I watched Charge of The Light Brigade and Last of the Mohicans again recently and if one takes those mount/rider relationships as reasonable then Foundry are spot on, but you can watch any film or social riders and see remarkable variety. Could it not be that re-enactors have big horses because they have access to modern mounts and they would feel silly on a Shetland? I am not sure if the cavalry units have more money at their disposal, but the massed ranks of six or less troopers would indicate cost is a restricting factor! I think it is also worth mentioning that the ‘sit’ of the Foundry riders is excellent. With the right dab of PVA glue on their bums and a little tweaking, you can get the riding position just right – something not always possible with integral saddle figures. I also remember Bryan Ansell mentioning that the Perries had adjusted the height of their Napoleonic Prussians because they were a shorter race on average…. just remember those Tudor suits of armour or Samurai equipment – these were not large people.

Lorne Colmar On the issue of recruitment and new blood in the hobby, I’m of the opinion that, as a body, we’re looking at the “problem” from completely the wrong angle. Certainly with regard to historical-based wargaming, the hobby is simply an amalgam of disparate interests with little in the way of a unifying trend running through it. The success of Games Workshop is a case in point – limit your activities to a couple of clearly-defined areas and concentrate all your efforts to make them attractive. The result is a successful international business, thriving at a time when “traditional” wargames/hobby shops are becoming conspicuous by their absence. Contrast that to the historical-based enthusiast – they’re Ancients, Medieval, Napoleonic, WWII or whatever enthusiasts, motivated by a desire to play with toy soldiers for relaxation, or to compliment an enthusiasm for history, or as a subordinate activity compliment their main modelling, collecting or artistic interests.

Thus the idea of presenting “this is wargaming” to the uninitiated in a persuasive manner is, in my opinion, almost impossible on any large scale. Equally, because of its hobby, as opposed to professional/business, status, there is much less motivation for participants to be ardent about finding converts. Taking this a step further, we then find ourselves asking whether we really need to undertake promotional activities at all. Like any hobby or recreational pastime, there are many avenues of introduction already in existence at any one time. My own experience is a case in point – a letter to the boys’ “Victor” comic mentioned wargaming, which led to finding “Military Modelling” in the local newsagent, which led to the defunct “Battle”. The rest is history. I’m sure there are as many different initial exposures to the hobby as there are gamers.

We should also look at what the motivation is to undertake any promotional efforts on the hobby’s behalf. The argument is often made that greater numbers of wargamers would lead to more manufacturers, and variety, of gaming products. Yet, looking at the market today, I suggest this is spurious. The choice of scales, terrain, rules and all the hobby impedimenta has never been greater, with new products and services catering for the wargaming market appearing almost monthly. So the commercial argument seems very weak (in any case, in our society, it is the task of the business, not the consumer, to promote its products).

So what other motivation could there be? A larger number and/or selection of opponents? Again, I don’t know how valid this is. I recall reading some time ago an estimate that only about 10% of UK gamers were active club members. That’s a heck of a lot of soloists or small groups of two or three friends. Apparently, this level of social interaction suits the participants just fine. There is also the additional point that wargaming can be cliquish – individuals or very small groups continue that way because they prefer to enjoy their hobby in a particular manner – be it using one particular rules set, figure scale, period etc. For these people, any growth in the hobby would be of marginal impact, so they do not feel compelled to go out there and shout it from the rooftops.

MS: Precisely, and a point so seldom made it worries me. I will make two horribly generalised statements. The first is that it is quite possible to be at school, or working with, a wargamer for years without actually knowing what they do as a hobby. I know, I’ve experienced it. Why? Because it is downright embarrassing for some people, including me. So they don’t talk about it. Simple. The Selfish Gene determines another mate is not contacted. Secondly, in the sprit of discussion, I propose Siggins’ First Law of Hobbyists: “A variable percentage of any hobby will be composed of people with whom you would not wish to share a room, let alone a game or a historical discussion. The rest of the hobby make up for them in spades.” Reasonable? I have been to clubs where the anti-social percentage was as high as 95% and I didn’t stay long. I was also a member of a club where it was less than 5% and that was the best club I ever belonged to (Leyton Grenadier, late 70s). Nowadays, I am happy to play with a small group of people I know, for the social interaction is at least as important as the games and the figures. The ‘qualification’ test is usually, would you feel happy going for a drink and a meal with this person? Not a good recipe for hobby expansion.

There are also social limitations on promoting the hobby. Firstly, there is the still-existing nervousness of admitting that, as a grown adult, one still plays with toy soldiers. How often do people put wargaming down on their CVs in the “Hobbies and Interests” section? Would they avoid doing this for fear of appearing too “strange” or infantile? We also live in a society that – rather hypocritically – frowns on the concept of playing at war. I’m sure many gamers have come across those who feel it’s morally repugnant to simulate the death and carnage of war, who find the idea an affront to their fragile sensitivities. I say its hypocritical because that same society makes best-sellers of bloodthirsty computer games like Quake, Doom, Total Annihilation etc. Strange, huh?

Of course, I’m not advocating apathy (haven’t yet come across an apathetic wargamer anyway!), only that I feel we need to get our thinking straight if we feel compelled to grow the hobby. In that respect, I feel we should forget any grand plans or schemes to achieve this, and restrict our efforts to localised efforts, whereby a warm welcome and helping hand is extended to anyone who seeks an introduction to the hobby having come to it through existing interests. We should also take our lead from the marketing techniques used by commerce.

The example you gave of the efforts at the Napoleonic Fair fit both of these criteria. After all, it’s far easier to sell an idea to someone who’s half-way converted already, who can see the hobby’s relevance to an existing interest. Think too of things like Local History societies. If a gamer’s a member of such a group, there’s no reason why they couldn’t stage a game of relevance to that group’s interests. Static displays at local museums or libraries of military events related to the local area also have potential. I believe such a non-intrusive method of promotion would pay dividends.

We should also look to at how the hobby promotes itself through its own activities. Here attention falls primarily on public shows. At the moment, most, if not all, appear to try to offer all things to all people, which experience has taught us is almost impossible and even counterproductive. They try to provide something for the avid enthusiast, the toe-dipper and the inquisitive. Unfortunately, this can frequently result in disappointment for all. Now, this is not a criticism per se of those who willingly undertake the thankless task of organising such events, only that their efforts may be better rewarded by concentrating their efforts in select areas.

Living as I do in northern Scotland, my show-going is limited, but those I have seen have left me disappointed, leaving me with a feeling of “what was all that trying to achieve?” One would think taking in a major show would provide an alternative point of view. Back in 1995, I thought about making the trek down south to the likes of “Salute”. But when the schedule for that show was published in the April 1995 “Miniature Wargames”, I was put off. Plenty of mouth-watering trade stands for sure, but of the 32 games on show, no less than 9 were SF/Fantasy and another 6 of little interest (and relevance?) to this wargamer. Therefore, by the act of trying to appeal to all and sundry, the show failed to attract me. Of course, this is a purely subjective viewpoint – but, with regard to attracting the uninitiated to the hobby, it presented a bewildering number of interpretations of what the hobby is and hence present an obstruction to the potential newcomer.

Additionally, if we do want to utilise such shows as recruiting grounds, then it is incumbent upon us to ensure only the best is on display. In the same way commercial enterprises highlight the best of their products to create a strong image to the consumer, so it should be by show organisers. If this smacks of elitism, so be it, but first impressions are incredibly potent where the attraction of new blood is a concern. Heck, there’s nothing that can be done about the negative impression conveyed by the soap-challenged, combat jacket-clad tribe that seem to be permanent fixtures at such public events, so the quality of the show’s substance assumes even greater importance. Perhaps then, the approach taken by the organisers of the two “Partizans” is the way to go – a show for the historical buffs and another for the SF/Fantasy bods, with the emphasis on top quality.

MS: I would go as far to say that very few shows, despite their best intentions, do much in the way of bringing in the public. They may think they do, indeed that may be their raison d’etre, but I see little evidence of success. Is that a fair comment? And if so why?

Equally, the recent “Game of War” series on Channel 4 represented, for me, a hugely disappointing missed opportunity, another example of the fruitlessness of trying to be all things to all people. Regardless of the producers’ motivations, I don’t think it is beyond the realm of reason to expect a number of gamers would have willingly volunteered to provide miniatures and/or terrain for the programme. Not only would this have reduced the programme budget, but it would have had the dual benefit of creating a better game atmosphere while promoting the hobby as a respectable pastime with professional endorsement. Additionally, promotional material could have been supplied to include in any post-programme material Channel 4 is so good at offering. All it would have taken would be a little selling of the idea, but it apparently didn’t happen. I can’t help wondering whether our gaming brothers in the US would have seized upon an opportunity like this with gusto through the medium of a representative body like HMGS. Here is another example of how the lack of a single wargaming voice let an excellent promotional opportunity slip by us – but that’s another subject altogether.

But it should not be forgotten that all of these ideas rely on considerable time and financial commitment on the part of a few individuals. The final question then is do we feel it fair to expect this? The only other alternative, should we feel a drive for increased membership is important, is to go down the route of a decently-funded national body. But previous attempts to do this have not been well received in the UK, giving rise to accusations of empire-building and ulterior motives. For me, this is yet another shining example of the insularity that afflicts our hobby. Frankly, as far as I can see, if this attitude represents the status quo, we might as well forget attempting to grow the hobby as a loose confederation of sectional interests and concentrate on furthering our own personal enjoyment.

MS: I think the British, especially British hobbyists, are possessed of a fierce amateurism (in the best possible sense) and display visceral reaction to being structured. Counterbalancing them are a smallish but vocal group who feel they need to organise us and set up pompously named bodies to so do, which quickly wither away – a fact I find deeply comforting. However, since I think they do a really good job on the whole, it would be interesting to know how the HMGS got rolling since I can’t think of a comparable organisation that enjoyed even a short reign over here.