Wargamer’s Notebook 28

I was fortunate enough to get across to Seattle recently so understandably I made a beeline for the huge and fabled Wizards of the Coast Game Centre. I was both impressed and slightly disappointed. There are four main areas: an excellent shop (selling products from many other companies as well as WotC and TSR); a huge card/board/miniatures gaming area with enough tables for even the largest event (terrain supplied!); a massive multi-player computer game network (players sit at their own screen with headphones playing Age of Empires, Warcraft/Starcraft, Quake, or Command & Conquer clones etc); and an arcade game area with the latest kit (including the excellent, but nausea inducing, Battletech combat simulators) which, of the four, easily saw the most use on the day we were there. Obviously there is a constant daily stream of events – largely Magic and other WotC product based – and in the evenings the place is packed out. A fast food restaurant is on hand, which sees heavy usage (captive hungry gamers!), but table gaming is otherwise free. Impressive. I was disappointed because at the end of the day, even given virtually unlimited funds and an ostentatious decorative scheme, this is all one could expect and somehow, one hopes to see something more exciting than terrain and a table on which to play. Are you with me here?

Next stop, Denver and a chance to meet the Colorado Gaming Mafia. I was there with the vague idea of seeing the Rockies again (both mountains and baseball team), attending a convention (American Narrow Gauge model railways) and meeting up with Tom Dye of Attactix. As it turned out I got to go out for a meal with Tom, his partner Bill, staffer Heather Barnhorst, Bob Jones of Piquet fame (all among the most interesting, enthusiastic and generous people I have met in the hobby) and a table full of gamers. We could have chatted all night. Tom’s shop has everything – boardgames, wargames, Workshop stuff, sports games, more role play than you knew existed, books (including the new Knotel reprints from Uniformology) and best of all an impressive range of miniatures, terrain and rules. In fact, it was the best shop that I have ever seen in terms of ranges stocked – so good in fact that I was marvelling at some of the figures only to find they were British exports I’d never heard of! Needless to say, I liked it – it took me best part of a day to look around. So well worth a trip if you get over to Denver (and with one of the best British Airways services, that is now much easier), Attactix can be found at 15107 E Hampden Ave, Aurora, CO 80014, USA – why not combine it with a Denver convention and a holiday?

While I was in the shop, Tom implemented an idea he had been considering for a while and which we had discussed at length the night before. He put together a starter kit for the ACW – including 15mm figures, bases, paint, brushes and rules – and literally within minutes of piling it all into a basket and pricing it, he had sold the first one to a passing customer! Now I have seen some smooth operators in my time, but that took the grand prize. On my return to the UK, I see the idea has already caught on. I knew about Pireme Publishing’s efforts, but Two Dragons had some very impressive sets at Warfare and I understand others are coming along soon. Good idea, don’t you think? On which subject the hot item in Attactix was Clan Wars, the miniatures expansion for Legend of the Five Rings which to all intents is a starter set for Samurai wargames, albeit a very posh one. For $75 (about £50 here) you get a Warhammer style box with enough to get started. The figures are very nice indeed, the system is interesting (another variant on the handfuls of dice trend) and it seems to be selling well.

So, to the model railway convention. Calm down at the back there. I am not about to talk Shays and Heislers. All I will say is that I found two items of interest to gamers stroke modellers. The first is a wonderful range of 4mm scale cut timber – absolutely perfect for wooden buildings, fences or indeed anything else you can think of. All sizes you can possibly need from the Mt Albert Scale Lumber Co, 18647 Centre Road, Mt Albert, Ontario, Canada – they do mail order. The other item may be a little obscure, but is incredible stuff. Builders in Scale will quite happily sell you a bag of snow. This is made from ground marble dust and looks absolutely perfect, so if you are doing Austerlitz and need a light dusting on table or bases, this is the stuff you need. Of course Siggins being the naive fool he is, I bought a small supply and thought nothing of it until I was strolling through Gatwick when it suddenly occurred to me that HM Customs might just look a little askance at a plastic bag full of white powder in my backpack. As it happened the desks were unmanned (doubtless all off doing TV documentaries) but I can imagine the discussion. “So, what have we here sir.” “Umm, it’s a bag of snow” “Yes, very funny sir. Follow me, Cedric has been wanting to try his new rubber gloves…”

The last stop in the States took me to the Bay Area in California, ostensibly to stay with my good friend Ken Tidwell and his understanding wife, but really to enjoy a four day gaming and eating extravaganza. The weekend kicked off with a game of Playmobil DBA. This involves sticking large numbers of French and English Playmobil medieval type people to perspex stands (with Blue Tac), laying giant terrain across the middle of the living room floor (about 15 feet square) and then having at it using giant foam dice while trying not to tread on the considerable investment in plastic warriors. And I can safely say I have never enjoyed DBA as much. I don’t think a DBA game would be complete without rules queries (most Americans I met asked me for an English-Barkerese dictionary) and renewed concerns over the system being considered anything remotely close to history. But as a game it is a shining example and we had a great time. For the record, Ken’s French looked as if they had the win sown up when it was time to clear up and eat!

The next day we headed over to the Sunset District atelier of Thomas Foss – artist, salonnier and head honcho of Flagship Games, who make the superb Pirates! range of ships mentioned in September’s column. This was a real treat. Obviously it helps to have proper artistic skills, but it was great to see someone who, even in his spare time, manages to make my output look pathetic. Just 10% of his energy and enthusiasm would be nice. The studio was full of amazing icebergs, skull islands, waterlined sea monsters, figures and box after box of tempting stuff – I liked the ‘Captain Nemo’ style submersibles best of all. These are great models and one wonders how much the arrayed power tools contribute to this – Thomas told us his cannon output was restricted because of needing a lathe, though this didn’t stop him showing me a fantastic hexagonal gun barrel. We then proceeded to the Museum of the Legion of Honour, to look at the Scythian metalwork exhibition and its collection of art. I’d have enjoyed it anyway, but walking around with an artist tells you so much more! Flagship Games, who have just released Pirates! 2nd edition and a whole lot more, can be contacted at 1631 40th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94122, USA.

Held on the weekend before Essen, Le Monde du Jeu was superb. Located in a very light and airy location, with plenty of room to move and play games, it was a big success (not least because the building – a classic car museum in the Paris suburbs – still had the exhibits on show. Gaming amongst beautiful Ferraris, Bizzarrinis, Alfas and those old curvaceous Citroens was a rare treat). While nothing like Essen in overall size, all the participants you’d expect given the rather insular French hobby were there – WotC, Decipher, AWE, Vae Victis, Eurogames, Tilsit, Prince August and so on – along with an impressive range of smaller publishers. The result was that nice cross-fertilisation of miniatures (historical and fantasy), boardgames, RPGs, CCGs and computer games at which the French seem to excel. Apart from a stunning display of Mithril Middle Earth figurines by Prince August, my highlight was the incredible looking Demonworld – imagine Warhammer but with 15mm figures mounted on hexagonal bases and resolved on a gridded map. You can buy the rules and add- on army sets and, from what I saw, this will be a system to watch. Not only are the armies extremely good value, but the overall look is something to behold. And of course using a grid (one of my hobby horses, you may remember) there are none of those awkward accusations over moving buildings, or units creeping a little too far, or mysteriously stopping just outside of crossbow range. Overall, there were plenty (several thousand I would guess) of paying customers and, all things considered, it was not that far from something that the UK might get off the ground. There were also several competitions – miniatures, cards, CCGs, boardgames – which were lively and interesting to view, along with several excellent demonstration games (a superb Napoleonic game took place on the day I was there) which were accompanied by information tables with people keen to pass out leaflets and answer questions. Since these ranged from the smallest figure gaming society to WotC, the coverage and potential for recruitment was excellent. And yes, there were clearly members of the public enjoying the chance to try something new. So an outstsnding event, cleverly timed for a joint Essen visit with a couple of days Paris sightseeing included in the gap. I shall be back.

Bryan Ansell recently sent out a multi-page newsletter which contained some restrained venting, some news and an awful lot of interesting opinion. Bryan will send you one if you send him an SAE care of The Foundry. The most thought provoking section was Bryan’s explanation of why figure prices are too low. He obviously can’t go into details, but there is enough there to get a feel for what the reality is – bracketed as we are at one end by the most inexpensive (and clearly underpriced) figures and at the other by Games Workshop. A telling comment is that on most orders the postage subsidy costs Foundry more than the metal in the figures being delivered! It is certainly something to think about and with the following paragraph you may see why it is has been my topic of the month.

The first news is that while you can still pay a King’s Ransom to Games Workshop (the current record is £4 for a single foot figure and £12 for a cavalryman), they have released some very reasonably priced figures in recent months. The nicest of these are the various Dogs of War regiments, which can be bought for about £1.50 per figure in metal. But also new are boxes of ‘mix and match’ Empire troops which to all intents and purposes are Landsknechts. For a revealing price comparison, read on. Like a squirrel tucking away nuts for the winter, the Autumn always sees me buying my body weight in lead to tide me over those long cold months. This year it was Warfare in Reading (a show that is coming on in leaps and bounds) which saw a frenzy of buying in readiness for those planned lengthy painting sessions, that somehow never quite materialise. Having bought a fair selection of figures, the prices were enlightening: 16 plastic GW Landsknechts for £10 = 62.5p each (excellent value considering…). 80 odd Gripping Beast Moors (package deal) and Arthurians = about 50p each (superb figures – the bargain of the day). Old Glory Landsknecht Command 30 fig bag was £15 but with only 24 unique and 12 of immediate appeal = 50p, 62.5p or £1.25 depending on your taste.

So what do you feel is a fair price? My sole (and reliable) gauge is whether I feel I obtain good value in return for my cheque. I suppose one is subconsciously weighing up relative leisure costs (films, books, CDs, games, sport, theatre, ballet, beer, a decent claret etc), comparing that to income, expenditure and likely enjoyment, and assessing if Mr Thomas or Mr Helm or Mr Gripping Beast is gripping your wallet just a little too hard. Although this is all very grey and nebulous, I can conclusively say that at present levels I am not being dissuaded and they would have to move quite a bit to worry me – check back with me if Bryan’s price increases happen across the board. I think we are in the land of the three pound pint – the two pound figure may represent the same mental barrier. But then I tend to buy a few figures rather than huge armies, and of course large piles of those bought will remain shiny and silver! Bryan Ansell’s view is that more and more gamers these days are (whether they admit it or not) really collectors – going to shows ‘to graze’, buying and painting up just a few figures, buying a rule set to browse and knocking up the odd hedge does not a wargamer make when held up in comparison to those, like the great John Tuckey, at the business end. And I suppose with gaming opportunities gradually shrinking, collecting is where I am drifting, with no real concerns.

Columbia Games have made very few mistakes over the years, perhaps explaining why they are still around while other boardgame companies have sunk, and they also have some real gems under their belt. Victory: Blocks of War looks set to be the next one. The basic idea is to take a streamlined version of their well tried Eastfront block system, graft on decent naval and air rules, throw in a range of interesting land units, and shift the whole affair to a set of fictitious maps. The feel is generic WWII strategic (Block System meets Axis & Allies) and one is keen to hurl in your bombers, battleships and paras. You are free to ‘purchase’ these forces from the mix on offer taking account of the map and your objectives. Remember Seastrike’s missions? This gives you some of the same feel. The drawbacks are really that the game will take you at least two hours (perhaps a little long), there is sometimes a grating ‘death of a thousand cuts’ feel as the blocks reduce then recover (a slightly more dramatic combat system may help) and no, it isn’t historical. But it is thematically appealing (if you can handle the daft map names), logically very sound, has an excellent, almost intuitive, rule set and is good fun. It made a tasty change, if that makes sense. You can also buy expansion maps and new pieces to allow up to four player gaming. I liked it.

As soon as I got back from the States I heard the news about a major shake up at Minifigs. Tom Dye of Attactix has taken over Minifigs USA, promising much better availability of the many ranges and prompt delivery, while Chart International contacted me to say that they have now taken over UK trade distribution. The press release was accompanied by a very impressive trade catalogue that shows not only the massive ranges of Minifigs, but also a huge selection of products some of which, to be honest, I thought had disappeared ages ago. If I mention Bellona terrain modules, Plastruct and Ral Partha historicals you will get the general idea. The latter are very nice indeed, and I have obtained some Egyptians and Swiss samples which are still superbly detailed even by today’s standards – the War Dogs and Handler are state of the art, despite being sculpted many years ago. It also strikes me that their samurai are perfect for Clan Wars, and considerably cheaper. They also sell a wide range of tools, books, boardgames and modelling supplies – cork bark, paints, scatter materials, Esci kits, and so on. They also have a range of kits I have never seen – Glencoe Models from the States – which are plastic and feature some really unusual subjects in some equally unusual scales. I have seen the Viking Ship, Stagecoach and Covered Wagon and these should be checked out. Chart International welcome trade enquiries at Chart House, Littlehampton, UK BN16 3AG Tel: 01903 773170 so if your local shop doesn’t stock what you need, ask them to get in touch.

I was very pleased to come across the Shire Lane range of resin buildings recently. These are true architectural models in 2mm scale (so ideal for 15mm figures) and I have never seen better detail and prototypical proportion. There are several buildings in the range, including cottages, town houses and farm buildings, all very English in style (many perfect for ECW), but at a pinch they might work overseas, perhaps in tandem with the excellent Architectural Heritage, Steve Barber or Hudson & Allen ranges. Sadly, there are no current plans to expand the range to 4mm scale due to high investment costs, and this level of craftsmanship comes at a price, but if you want the very best 15mm buildings – the church is quite superb – I can’t recommend these highly enough. They are also available painted to professional standards. Shire Lane are at Birchmore Cottage, Nairdwood Lane, Prestwood, Bucks HP16 0QQ.

And so another year comes to a close. I can’t say with any certainty which games were the best of 1998 since I missed a couple of major shows due to travel, but of those I saw I thought the best were The League of Augsburg’s Snowball Fight, The Hull club’s Lissa and Welsh Wars from Trickett and Whitehouse – coincidentally all seen at the best show of the year, Partizan I. My favourite figures of the year are Mark Copplestone’s Darkest Africa adventurers and bearers, Gripping Beast’s wonderful Arthurian knights and the Perry’s Landsknechts – these so good that I have finally got that pike block finished that I promised myself in 1978! Best media presentation was BBC’s Timewatch on Trajan, best book was probably Muir’s Napoleonic treatise, though Troiani’s Soldiers in America runs it close, and the most exciting new products were easily Windcatcher’s Woodens and the Pirates! range of rules, ships, cannon and submersibles from Flagship. Rules wise it just has to be Warhammer Ancient Battles which will, because I have seen the evidence in myself, friends and the Internet, get people excited again about ancients, and building armies, and perhaps even create that crossover recruitment appeal for which we have waited so long.