Wargamer’s Notebook 29

I’ve finally worked it out. The long dark winter, in which much painting is theoretically done, is nothing more than an illusion. Well, at least it is in Gandamack Lodge, familial home of the Siggins clan. Basically, November is still show time: figure buying, planning projects and mental preparation. You can forget December as that is spent rushing around getting sorted out for Christmas. Or avoiding people doing the same. Christmas itself should offer a good opportunity, but the pile of books to read and figures to paint sit untouched in competition with TV, films, food and the odd pint of Warre’s LBV. January is probably the most fertile period. I got most of my Darkest Africa bearers and explorers done, a fair few Landsknechts, a battery of weird and wonderful c16th artillery, a Pirates! submersible, a Hetzer (just a wild urge one Sunday), and a unit or three of Napoleonic British. That was before the mad rush to get my tax return in. February appears, and work picks up (though still no sign of snow or even cold weather). A unit of Brunswick Lancers, some Trojans, a Space Marine, some basing, and three Foundry Pirates (lovely figures, these) are completed but the planned ‘big’ game is cancelled due to widespread ‘flu amongst the French camp. And now, as I write, it is almost March and Duncan is demanding another column. Triples and Salute loom, Partizan I is worryingly close – scratch another ‘productive’ winter.

I made a mistake in going along to the Napoleonic Fair. It clashed with both Tunbridge Wells and Fantasy Partizan and either would have been a far better option. The Fair has pretty much become a book fair. There are still a handful of wargames, mainly well done this time, but the variety and excitement (the obscure stands, the unique ‘finds’) have long gone. But a book fair is a book fair, and it was a heavily loaded Siggins that staggered away from Hersant’s stand. Having been very good, and resisted an ancient leather-bound copy of Fallou’s sumptuous Garde Imperiale (not difficult, it was over £1,000… I wonder if my local library can get one?) and instead buying a couple of old Almarks that have eluded me for years, I turned my attentions to the new stuff. And it is never ending isn’t it? My New Year’s resolution was to buy fewer books and not to buy any until I had cleared at least 50 from the reading backlog. That cast-iron resolve lasted until January 4th.

Why? Because we now have a Borders in London. I had spent much of my recent America trip jealously ogling various branches of this wonderful chain and when I got home, there was one in Oxford Street. Bliss. Why is it a good book shop? I don’t rightly know. The vast range of American magazines and unusual imported books certainly helps. And the fact that you can sit in a comfy high back old leather chair and read for hours if you wish. But it is really a shop for browsing, as many others have better stock, but if that is the mood in which you find yourself then Borders is unbeatable. Except when you get the credit card bill. So as I have resigned myself to the fact that I cannot stop buying books, I now feel marginally less guilty about those that are piled high around me. The truth is that you either stop going into bookshops or reading catalogues (not a realistic option I feel) or live with the fact that there is always something, somewhere that must be bought – recent discoveries include Tradition’s Campagne de Saxe 1813, Connolly’s Holy Land and Ancient City, Helmet’s Castiglione, Allan Mallinson’s (he of The Spectator fame) A Close Run Thing (by all accounts the new Flashman, and set to knock Sharpe into a, well, a cocked hat) and, of course, In Praise of the Potato. But they are just the hors d’oeuvres before the feast that is Christopher Duffy’s new volume on Suvorov – Eagles over the Alps (Duffy is probably my favourite historical writer), Hourtoulle’s Jena Auerstadt (£20? Surely a mistake for such a beautiful book) and (yes, I cracked) Pigeard’s Les Campagnes Napoleoniennes on which extravagant topic I am completely lost for words. Do you think I can get some therapy for this problem?

So, weighed down and beset by swarms of frankly embarrassing re-enactors (although one unit, the 12th Light Dragoons, looked pretty swaggerish, and quite impressive I have to say – I must be mellowing…), I was ultimately forced to retire to the First Corps stand where things were still rather upbeat. Launching their new range of British Napoleonics (a ‘Firing Line’ or square, 1815 vintage – memories of Peter Gilder and his classic Foremost project), I was also taken with two or three other items that I hope catapult this revamped company to, well, wherever they want to go! Tackling the Napoleonics first, these are much smaller than Rob Baker’s usual figures and are designed to complement another company’s (initials TF) ranges. Not enough variety from the men of Guernsey? Then mix in a few First Corps. And variety is where this range really scores. The figures are a very good match height-wise, the heads are usually smaller (this may be correct) but with less character, and the bodies and legs are slightly dumpier. But they are pleasing overall, have good detail, and they mix, which is what matters. First Corps admit to a couple of problems – occasionally over-large hands, and a set of mutton-chop whiskers are in evidence! – but these will be ‘sorted’. Next release is looking to be Old Guard Grenadiers doing what they do best – standing around waiting for action. Further down the line there will be Lights, Rifles and, to keep Rob awake, Spartans (a cracking sample figure was on display) and some other surprises. The first of these is a small but growing range of 25mm resin buildings, which will need no more introduction than they are designed by an ex-member of the Monolith team. An excellent start, and as ever a company to watch.

On the same stand, and eagerly being promoted, were the best ready to use flags I have ever seen. This is a completely new range from the talented hands of CMB Designs (16 Goodwin Rd, Heeley, Sheffield S8 9TJ). The initial subjects are 25mm British Napoleonic standards (of passing interest to me!) and they are quite superb. Each pack costs £2.50 and includes both regimental colours, hand painted and somehow transferred (scanned?). Printed to the highest standards on thin paper, they are simply cut out, glued and draped (touch up highlighting and shadows are optional, but effective) and you have one professional looking flag for a fraction of the cost of a painting service. I don’t know exactly how they have been produced, though I intend to find out (!), but the effect is extremely good. My only adverse comment is that some of the whites look a little pinkish, but curiously enough the overall tonal values are sound. As ever, something that looks just right often is. French flags are next, apparently with individual regimental distinctions and I hope many more will follow. If you do nothing else at the spring shows, have a look at these flags – and if you see them, and you have the relevant units, you’ll buy them.

I have to say that I was initially a little worried about MagWeb’s survival prospects. This was the company I reported on in the earliest Notebooks who had decided to convert literally hundreds of paper magazines to electronic format and put them on the Web. Fine, lots of people do that – even my own Sumo is out there. But Magweb were going to charge for the privilege of reading them. The idea is that you pay an annual subscription (albeit mere pennies per week) and get to read or download your favourite hobby magazines. The problems seemed to me to be attaining critical mass, and overcoming the initial paucity of material, but both have been achieved in style and the service is now one I regularly check to see what is new. Indeed it is becoming indispensable; need info on painting camels? – look on MagWeb. The telling factor is that there are now over 55 magazine titles including such stalwarts as MWAN, Gauntlet, Saga, Courier, Lone Warrior, Napoleon, First Empire etc as well as esoterica like the excellent Dragoman, Perfidious Albion, Heliograph and Renaissance Ink, making for over 10,000 articles and 500Mb of information that can be read, searched and cross indexed. And it is all surprisingly nippy. Very impressive work. They have recently added a fearsomely effective PR lady, Beth Brody, and it looks as if MagWeb is very much here to stay. www.magweb.com is where you can see what is on offer and try a sample publication. Recommended.

Death Ride is a new game-kit designed by Charles Vasey – you may remember his outstanding King’s War boardgame from the Pike & Shot Society. This one covers the battle of Mars-La- Tour from the neglected Franco-Prussian War and plays quickly with all the flavour and tactics of the period. Eschewing the usual hexes, the game is area movement on a substantial map which accommodates over-size counters (supplied in full colour) or, if you were really keen, figure blocks. Like our fine MPs, I have to admit to a small interest in that I helped playtest this one and designed the counter images – we really tried hard to get the fantastic uniforms across – but that (I hope) should not colour my recommendation of this excellent game. Death Ride costs £15 inc p&p (or $25 cash) from Charles Vasey, 75 Richmond Park Road, East Sheen, London SW14 8JY, cvasey@aol.com.

As it follows Dixie, a slew of CCGs, and a couple of dire card games (Rebs & Yanks for one), Blue & Gray (QED Games) has profile problems – it rather got lost in the rush. But since it is neither collectible nor tactical, and works extremely well, it cannot be compared to Dixie or any other similar card game of recent years. This is essentially the whole American Civil War in cards and would form an admirable driver for miniatures campaign play. It has innovative and challenging systems (though more knowledgeable people than I would have to vouch for its overall historical accuracy), but…. the rules are truly awful. So bad that two gamers with at least fifty years combined experience struggled for over an hour with basic concepts such as movement and placing of units. The designer has simply assumed too much and dispensed with basic definitions and structure. Okay, so you can find most of your answers on their website, and QED have put out a 2nd edition rulebook, but not everyone has web access and you should get a working game in the box. This is not good enough for gamers, and one can only boggle at what an interested member of the public would make of this mess. Otherwise it is all good news. The game plays quickly – political, supply, combat and strategic issues are neatly handled with some very subtle effects, the card-based expanding map is clever, and there is a good feel for the command structures and differences between Union and Confederate (they have distinct strategic options which are fascinating). There is also a real sense of atmosphere and pressure on both sides – so seldom experienced in a game, but despite this you can play pretty much the entire war in two hours, with all sorts of excellent stuff going on. So, a game I can highly recommend if you are willing to do the work on the rules. Blue & Gray is distributed by Gargoyle Games in Bedford.

I suppose you have noticed the small scale explosion that is Warhammer Ancient Battles? I knew it was hugely popular, but when I saw it on sale in Dillons bookshop in Oxford Street, I knew it had made it! Just out is Armies of Antiquity (army lists) which the churlish might say should have been in the basic rules, but either way it is an excellent addition to this thriving game. What there also seems to be, rumbling away in the background, is a huge swell of discussion (verbal, internet, magazines) about these rules. There are the madly pro, and the slightly con, and those that wouldn’t touch the game with a sarissa. Whatever the stance, it is good to see this dialogue getting underway as I think there are wider issues to look at. I suppose one must ask what WHAB is, what it is trying to do, and how well it is achieving that aim. What it is (as far as I can glean sitting here, rather out of the loop) is a rule set that seems to have enthused people like nothing I have seen in years. It is not overly commercial (yet) and the publishers are accessible, human and even responsive. It is also a fun and very playable set rather than a simulation (you may argue elsewhere whether this is good or bad) and will, because of what it is, probably have a major effect on Ancients gaming – to my mind a very different effect to WRG 4th-7th, DBA or DBM, but not necessarily worse.

What I like about the reaction I have seen is that there is a massive surge of enthusiasm (in me as well) for the period, to discuss and buy units, to paint, to build armies, to discuss basing, to play frequently, to build web sites, to spread the word. All of which had been neatly suppressed for years by the legacy of WRG’s 1970’s stodge. And the enthusiasm is infectious – lord knows we have waited long enough for the crossover people from Warhammer proper and now I have seen, with my own eyes, the evidence that they are coming (in small numbers). Roll on Warhammer Napoleonics. I will even put up with complete oafs saying Picts or scythed chariots are ‘Way Cool’ if it means it gets them into the hobby. Combine this with the noticeable ‘Return of the Greybeards’ (appreciable numbers of thirty/fortysomething gamers coming back to the hobby) and we may have something to build upon going into the new millennium.

What I also like is that at last we have a chance to have a standard rule set, managed by some bright people, that can easily promote tournaments (not a gaming form I personally like, but I can see the merits), spread the word, and within bounds of reason (this is someone’s design after all, not at present a piece of public property) set a new standard. As for changing the rules to your own ends, that is great too. But of course any changes you make will be for use inside your house or perhaps at the club, and for public submission to the publishers. I for one will be very interested to see where it goes after that! What is clear to me is that a hell of a lot of work was put in by the authors to make sure that the 1st edition was up and running and working as it hit the streets. Okay, so we have had some slight tweaks and we await future volumes to see more, but I think it is an excellent, creditable effort – and worth waiting for.

What I am not so keen on is that the rules will become hugely popular (not a problem in itself) and thus, by weird and wonderful linkage, have status conferred upon them as a historical rule set. I don’t think it is tempting a lawsuit to say that they do not have a historical focus (I have read Jervis Johnson saying exactly that in a few more words) but already people are equating what happens in a WHAB game as true to history. That is, long term, not a good thing – partly because I am a boring old buffer who believes reading/research will be on game benefits and points values rather than understanding how a unit or battle tactics actually worked. Again though, if that is where a novice gamer is ultimately led, then the rules have worked. I think I would sum up WHAB as a caricature of history – and they can be both wickedly accurate and appealing, or grossly distorted. At the moment we are tending towards the former, but the possibility for drift is there. There are also a number of discussions on (inevitably) points values, special skills, matched armies, and how to win using the rules rather than using history. It is too early to say what this will mean but there have been enough depressing outbursts to make me very concerned that this amazing surge of interest will soon, for any number of reasons, be annoying me so much I will have to distance myself in much the same way as from those ridiculous re-enactors. But for the moment, WHAB game is A Good Thing and I find myself strangely enthused to paint Bronze Age troops (Northern and Southern!) and menhirs and goodness knows what I will do when Foundry’s Sassanids appear. Long may that feeling continue.