Wargamer’s Notebook 3

There is a distinct Napoleonic feel to this month’s column, partly because that is what I like, but mainly because a flood of such products have appeared on my credit card bill. I promise some balance next time.

We start with the modern scourge of the wallet; collectible card games. Having recommended Dixie last time, Columbia Games have now also released Eagles, the one I’ve really been waiting for. Now it’s here, it’s big, and it has some holes in it. I had expected every unit in the Waterloo campaign; instead it has ‘just’ 300 cards, with major gaps in my beloved British and elsewhere. What we have is a single unit representing a brigade, so no Gordon Highlanders, no 23rd Light Dragoons and no Horse Guards. Plenty of boring guns though. What is there is good, and they have also chosen the units so as to be representative – we do get a 95th rifleman, for instance. The system is largely unchanged from Dixie, upgraded slightly to account for horse artillery, cavalry charges, columns and squares. The artwork looks to have been rushed (not surprising – Eric Hotz, the artist, must have produced at least 900 pictures in the last eighteen months) but is generally accurate apart from the odd spelling error (Arendshidt!). Sadly, the game as it emerges from the boxes feels nothing like the four battles depicted, has only a passing resemblance to Napoleonic tactical warfare and has some mighty strange rules for cavalry – such as you can’t charge the other horsemen until they are blown, and vice-versa. A bit of an impasse, you might say. Overall though, nothing a bit of rules tweaking can’t solve and it is damned exciting opening those boxes. For those of a more modern bent, I can also recommend The Last Crusade which does for WWII what Dixie has done for the ACW – provide you with a playable, flavoursome and temptingly collectible diversion (“Cor! I’ve got a Hellcat!”), as long as you aren’t too fussed about the history quotient. I think overall their use will be as games, to help people think about the way we design rules and game systems, and to pick up some of the better ideas and improve upon them. In that sense they are well worth a look, and they are also a lot of fun.

For those players of ASL, either with miniatures or counters, who are sick of waiting for Beyond Squad Leader on the PC, may I commend SSI’s Steel Panthers. This isn’t ASL, but it is about as close as they could get without the thrills of a lawsuit. You get lots of scenarios, top down views of tanks and infantry and a exacting, but ultimately usable, movement and combat system. This in many ways represents the current pinnacle of WWII design on computer and is notable for having, at long last, cracked top notch graphics, fog of war and ease of use in one package. But you’ll still need a fast PC to get the best from it. What it hasn’t sorted is any historical fixes to the ASL system so we still have units doing exactly what you want them to, when you want it. Just like it was in real life. Sort of.

I suppose it had to happen. Having moaned about the lack of decent 25mm Wild West figures in the last column, and decided to go 15mm, along came Guernsey Foundry. And what a range they have. There is not a duff figure in the entire release, and most of them are just superb. The Apaches are the best I’ve seen, capturing the unusual clothing and stances to perfection. And we have more to come, including plains indians. Can’t wait, and the first batch have already made it through to the painting bench. I was also fortunate enough to see, courtesy Dave Thomas, the 10mm figures that will form the core of the 18th Century range coming along next year. These too are extremely impressive and, based six or eight to a stand, they are going to look outstanding on your table. It will mean my buying some 15mm terrain (those beautiful Architectural Heritage buildings for starters), but since they have figures and rules in the works, it makes sense to assume they will provide these as well.

If my calendar is working correctly, I estimate that this column will appear just after many of you have watched the latest, and perhaps last, series of Sharpe. Having come to a natural end, and let’s face it they have excelled themselves given the flimsy plots and dire characterisation they had to work with, my thoughts turn to a replacement. Personally, I have always thought the estimable Flashman a logical successor. The books are immeasurably better than Sharpe (and still in print), the subject matter is unsurpassed, and there is plenty of love interest in the shape of Elspeth and his many paramours. But who to play the starring role? Certainly not Sean Bean or Daniel Day Lewis, but perhaps Ralph Fiennes would suit, or a dubbed Kevin Costner, since his film career seems all but over. Your thoughts are welcomed by Mike Siggins, c/o Gandamack Productions, La Jolla CA.

Let me run something past you. Trundle down to your local library, or to your bookshelf if it’s well stocked, and have a look at Dorling Kindersley’s Ultimate Horse Book by Elwyn Hartley Edwards. Check through the shapes and colours of the horses and then tell me if you recognise any of these on your figure shelf. No? Neither did I. What I’d be interested to know, from the experts out there, is what type of horse is closest to, say, that ridden by the Scots Greys at Waterloo or (insert unit and period of your choice here). Then armed with that information, we could go away and try to model them. That was a lengthy preamble to introduce my views about 25mm horses. I think 15mm (and smaller) horses get away with murder because, well, because they are so small. 25mm’s vary from the almost there (some Gilders, a few First Corps, Foundry) through the passable (Front Rank, Elite) to the downright weird (Dixon, Old Glory, Redoubt, Minifigs, Suren, and everything else). The solution? Well, call me a francophile, but I think the best horse models around are 54mm Historex. As you may know, these are sold as around twenty different body halves and heads, which can all be mixed and matched giving a huge variety of poses. They are also anatomically excellent – good proportions and musculature (if slightly ‘thin’), perfect heads and thin legs in the right trotting/galloping positions. So what I’d like, from an enterprising manufacturer, is an equivalent range in 25mm scale. I know they’d need more work on cleaning up and filling, they might need a stiffer metal to do the legs properly, and they’d be expensive, but I’d still buy some, and I’m sure others would too. By Christmas would be nice, if you don’t mind.

If, like me, you use boardgame systems either for ideas, campaign play or tactical battle systems, then you will certainly be interested in the latest release from Charles Vasey. To my mind Charles is virtually the only publisher of truly historical boardgames. Some of you may remember his excellent King’s War issued through the Pike & Shot Society, and always with an eye to the miniatures market. The latest release is no exception. It covers the battle of Flodden and plays superbly within an hour or so. The game can be played using any of several historical models, and with a little ingenuity the counters can easily be replaced with figures. Highly recommended, and while you’re writing, ask for a copy of Perfidious Albion, his excellent historical design magazine. Flodden can be obtained from Charles Vasey, 75 Richmond Park Road, East Sheen, London SW14 8JY for £9 inc p&p, Perfidious Albion £2 extra.

At the recent York show I came across B&B Flags who have taken the logical step of putting their PC and graphics package to good use by turning out a range of pre-coloured flags. They are good for two reasons: firstly they have had them professionally litho printed so the colours and material look right (unlike Revo) and they also understand the requirements of those who use ‘big’ 25mm figures – the flags are correspondingly large. The range is already extensive and even covers specific Napoleonic campaigns. Recommended. However, if like me you think that pre-printed flags can never look quite right and insist on painting your own, you may be interested in the following technique. It may have been done before, but I certainly haven’t seen it written down. I came to (re-)invent it because I can neither paint sheet metal flags without a ‘paint by numbers’ line guide, and because I am deeply envious of Mark Allen’s efforts. The drawback is that unless you can draw, you too will need access to a PC graphics package, which means the flags work out at around £500 each.

The idea is essentially to create a black and white flag that has all the necessary detail in place ready for painting. The flag will be pre-shaped on the staff before painting, which allows you to mould it into those great billowy shapes (and throw it away if it goes wrong), and to be able to see the shadows and highlights as you go. This is how I made all the six flags for the Brunswickers at Waterloo, but the technique also worked for my Renaissance Swiss cantonal standards and lancer pennons. There are more projects in the works. 1. Using white 55gsm paper (typing copy paper), reproduce the flag design to exact scale size using the graphics package or hand draw using technical pens. Make sure the ink (or toner) is black or sepia and, importantly, water resistant – Winsor & Newton Black or Peat Brown inks are ideal. NB Leave a 1.5-2mm section between the two sides to allow for wrapping round the pole. 2. Carefully cut out the flag from the paper and gently fold it in half. 3. Using PVA glue sparingly, completely cover the inside of one half the flag. 4. Working quickly, fold the flag again around the pole, and align the edges. Squeeze the flag so that both sides and corners are firmly stuck. Remove any escaped PVA, taking great care not to get glue on the flag faces. 5. While the glue is still wet, gently mould the flag around fingers, pencils, cocktail sticks or brush handles to the desired shape and ‘flappiness’. It will take quite severe folding, but beware of ‘creasing’ the paper or tearing it through extreme contortions. 6. Leave to dry overnight or longer if possible. 7. You may wish to make more than one of each to allow for unrecoverable errors while painting. 8. Either varnish the whole flag with matt varnish before painting and shading with acrylics or enamels or leave as is, and use watercolours. This isn’t as daft as it sounds as the PVA seems to shield the other side of the flag from water and colour penetration. However, keep the washes relatively ‘dry’, using the paper’s natural colour as highlights. Spray with fixative when you’re done. And that’s it. They look good, they’re quite tough, and you don’t have to paint without line guides. Now for those British colours….

Like many of you, I have a whole pile of books and magazines on each of my favourite periods – uniforms, formations, histories, rulesets and so on. It was only recently though, when I came to make up some terrain and buildings, that I realised how few I have on these important subjects. Given the effort we all go to make sure the troops look just right, I can’t be the only one to wonder if the terrain is historically correct as well. Yes, I know many of us are happy with some vaguely European style half-timbered houses, a few bits of walling and hedges and a plastic tree, but did walls look like that, were those hedges there, what shape were the fields, what sort of trees were growing? I don’t know the answers, and short of looking at period paintings (Constable is good here) I have no idea how to find out. I have tried Wood’s Historical Britain and Rackham’s History of the Countryside, but neither really gives enough information or pictures, and of course they are specific to Britain. Does anyone know of a good book or two on European and American rural history?

Of course all this faffing around with tree varieties is just one symptom of perfectionitis. This vile disease can afflict the gamer in various ways: constant pursuit of historical accuracy and the ideal figure pose, or scale, or period; the quest for the holy grail of rules; whether to paint in oils, acrylics, gouache or even watercolours; constantly evolving techniques for basing and flags; making buildings and terrain that wouldn’t look out of place in an architect’s office. The upshot of all of this is that you take literally years to get anywhere and when you’ve done it, it’s time to redo the first unit you produced to those then exacting standards. I am not moaning though, because I will readily admit that I too suffer from this ailment. After a short break from the hobby, I re-started my Napoleonic armies around five years ago. As of last month, I have at last finalised the unit sizes, basing approach, scale of terrain and, importantly – thanks to the excellent Finity acrylics I mentioned – the painting style I am happy with. All it will now take is to apply that to the several hundred undercoated Foundry figures, base them, build the terrain and design the rules, and I’ll be ready for a stunning demonstration game in, oh, around 2002. As long as my mate finishes the French by then. Which makes it all the more depressing is that people like the Perry Twins can do what they do in the time available, and put on a show each year at Newark with figures still warm from the moulds. But since they are not of this earth, they’ve probably got a machine to provide fifty waking hours a day anyway.

Show of the Month honours go jointly to Vapnartak in York and the Napoleonic Fair in London, and not just because they were the only shows I made thanks to February’s blizzards. In its short history, the latter show has settled into the calendar very easily and now draws a respectable crowd. The traders are rather more varied, and specialised, than the typical miniatures show (as you’d expect), and the demonstration games are okay, but really just an afterthought. Which is good since the first figures I spotted on the huge Austerlitz game were some anachronistic French Lancers – or did my eyes deceive me? Sadly, the show is also notable for droves of those re-enactor johnnies. Is it just me or do these pillocks get right up your nose? For all the years I’ve been in the hobby, I have fought long and hard against accusations of being a total wally, playing with toy soldiers or guns, and dressing up in Action Man gear. And then along come these prunes in their SS regalia, or marching to a cacophony of pipes and drums, ogling busty camp followers, or shouting orders, and either strutting around like peacocks (the ‘officers’) or speaking in those adenoidal voices more usually employed by trainspotters (the ‘privates’). Does this really do anything constructive for the hobby or am I just an intolerant old sod? Personally, I still have trouble not laughing out loud. And the saddest thing is that they take themselves so seriously, as if the fate of the show and historical research rests upon their rounded shoulders. I suppose we have Sharpe to thank for that, since they now think they’re all legitimate media stars – but please keep it to the re-enactment fields lads, or the privacy of your own homes. The mirror makes a wonderful drill sergeant.

For years I have read Empires, Eagles and Lions magazine, interested, if not enthralled, by its mix of haughty editorial policy, erudite articles and tireless research into the vagaries of the era as applied to wargaming. But now that has changed; partly for the worst, partly for the better. E,E&L is now named Napoleon, and is published by the all conquering Todd Fisher at Emperor’s Press. Issue one was bought and read at the Napoleonic Fair and I have to say I’m impressed. Matt DeLaMater (he of Legacy of Glory fame) is at the helm, and promises a steady stream of interesting articles commencing with a fascinating analysis of Grouchy’s actions during the Hundred Days. The rest of the magazine is packed with a mouthwatering selection of interviews, books, adverts, reviews, colour pictures and general chat. What I really miss is Mike Gilbert’s excellent wargamer’s column, which seems to have fallen by the wayside, but what I liked was the pervasive Napoleonic flavour. The articles are well written, the content fine for the price, and it looks wonderful. It is however a mite straightlaced at present, which will doubtless soften as time passes and confidence grows. Highly recommended.

Book of the Month is Tulard’s L’Histoire de Napoleon par la Peinture (Belfond). French, yes, but as this one is mainly pictures it hardly matters. And what pictures. About a complete a pictorial reference as you could hope for on Napoleon, his court and his battles. An incredible book.