Wargamer’s Notebook 30

In my quieter moments I often find myself wondering about painting techniques (and yes, you can send this to Pseud’s Corner). I am in no doubt about what I like, and about which aesthetic treatments produce a positive reaction – the atmospheric models of Peter Gilder and Bill Gaskin, the colour sense of Mark Allen, the clinical technique of Kevin Dallimore and his school, the flavoursome style of the League of Augsburg and Trickett & Whitehouse, the sheer technical brilliance of Dave Andrews. I was also very taken with Mark Wilkin’s work in WI 139, in my view the best piece in a wargames magazine for some while. But the diversity of those styles is indicative of my concern. None of them are ‘realistic’, though a couple come close, and obviously some more so than others. The black undercoat technique in particular produces effective pieces that never fail to please, but I can’t bring myself to warm to them (except for Mr Wilkin’s, which are black undercoated but also ? well, white in style!). They don’t stand close inspection (except to marvel at the detailed brushwork), and I have never understood the multiple knuckles, but of course they look stunning in a unit, in a case or on the table and I should be so lucky as to paint like that? So do we have painting for effect?

I am very much reminded of the Historex painters of the 1970’s who gradually perfected a quite beautiful oil technique (on figures little more than two inches high) which, while marvellous to look at, was nothing more than a stylised fashion and the ‘accepted’ way to paint them. Of course there were mavericks, and unlike ice skating, they even won some competitions or featured in the vaunted Historex catalogue – David Catley comes to mind. I have said before that I think the most realistic figures in the world are the 54mms painted by Bill Horan (woowoowoo – subjective statement!), and, oddly enough, the sublime flats created by Mike Taylor. But what is ‘realistic’ on a 25mm or 15mm figure, and do we want that? Think especially of horses – these are the most sinned against beasts in the name of art! Anyway, all that brings me to an excellent book. Euro Modelismo Painting: Overhead Lighting comes from the post Horan school – the talented Spanish painters, Rodrigo Chacon and Raul Garcia Latorre. The idea here is to explain how to paint in acrylics using a single light source, and the entire book concentrates on explaining and selling the technique. That selling is of course quite easy when the book is full of colour pictures of the highest quality. Hersants can supply at about a tenner.

Arghhh! More paint incoming! For a while I have been wanting to try the highly rated Chromacolour acrylics which are produced primarily with animation cel painting in mind and which are reputed to have the best covering power on the market. I bought a sample selection and have to report that they are very nice indeed – really top quality paints, very smooth, and readily thinned to wash strengths. I am particularly taken with the Sepia, which is a powerful stainer (care required here) and a useful shade, as is the Parchment – an unusual off white which makes a change to the buff and sand tints. Sadly, the yellows and whites don’t seem to have much more covering power than Vallejos or anything else. They are also in large pots – albeit with an excellent dispensing system. Recommended.

I have always stayed clear of Humbrol acrylic. While they had a good range of useful colours, they always seemed somewhat ‘gritty’ and inconsistent in viscosity across the range. Perhaps aware of this, Humbrol have revamped the formula and the new paints are much improved. Still slightly ‘milky’ and needing two coats in some cases, but still a big improvement. Finally, a range you can safely avoid, not because they are poor quality, but because I these seem to be the first acrylics that I have failed to find useful! I am a big fan of Winsor & Newton’s Finity acrylics – tubed variety. The new Finity ‘concentrated’ range is in pots and offer a ‘pourable’ consistency similar to Vallejo or Humbrol. But the covering power of the lighter shades is almost non-existent and some have that slight satin sheen that makes matt varnishing essential. Some colours also show brush strokes like you wouldn’t believe. The answer seems to be that they are designed for fine artists working on canvas or similar, and for once, may not have a hobby application. Unless you spot one – terrain perhaps? Airbrushing? Good job I only bought six pots.

WestFront is the PC game most favoured by my ‘hot seat’ opponent at present, so that means I get to play it a lot. Eventually he will splash out on his own computer and a modem, and we can play properly. But until then we go through the ridiculous motions of “Finished yet? No! Don’t look – I’m plotting artillery!” Anyway, WestFront is the logical (and highly predictable) follow up to Talonsoft’s EastFront, and it is an impressive item. The engine is much accelerated from the painful drudge of the earlier game and the interface and graphics are improved to the point where I can only say that the height elevations are a little unclear, but everything else is incredibly good: the graphics really capture the varying terrain and unit types (the desert tiles are near perfect – and miniature-gamer-compatible – the 25pdrs and Quads uncannily like little Airfix models); sound effects are spot on (the scout motorcycles are very ‘Great Escape’, while tanks squeak pleasingly); fog of war effects are well handled; and the scenarios range from North Africa to Normandy with huge variation and the chance to build your own. Frankly, I would be impressed if you completed even all the standard missions. I am not that enamoured by the tactical system, it is platoon based so you see one vehicle driving up the road – wreckage suddenly appears to designate a step loss of some description – and the weakened unit carries on. Indeed, exactly the same aesthetic problems encountered in miniatures gaming where the scale is anything but 1:1. But that is a minor quibble. The game is an outstanding piece of software and although it is not quite up my street subject-wise, my mate rates it, with Close Combat 2 and Steel Panthers, as one of the four best WWII titles he has played.

The other one is Operational Art of War (also Talonsoft via Empire Interactive). This is basically a construction kit that will enable you to play just about anything from 1939 to Korea. OAoW is a sumptuous and accomplished program. It is quick, versatile and will realistically keep you occupied for months to come. With the option to build your own scenarios, the phrase open-ended is apposite. But at the end of the day it feels (and looks) like a 1970’s hex wargame. It may be the definitive incarnation of that genre, is a major feat of programming, and if you like that sort of thing it will suit you perfectly. I just can’t help feeling it marks the end of a gaming era, ironically an era ushered to a close by Talonsoft’s own output.

The final piece of software under review is where I can save you some money rather than encouraging spending. I was quite taken by the idea of 101st Airborne (ISI). You choose a ‘stick’ of 18 US paras and drop them into a range of exciting missions – ambushes, bridge capture and blowing, HQ attacks and so on. The first part of the game is choosing the team and weaponry which is quite interesting in itself, but unless you take the ‘auto’ options, a little time consuming. The Dakota takes off, and your brave chaps leap into the night, all rendered in passable computer animation. Then the problems start. One gets the distinct impression that dice are being rolled to decide their fate – tree landings, losses from enemy fire, detached from the group. Your ‘stick’ is whittled down to a twig of perhaps six or eight men in the unluckiest drops. And then the enemy turn up and start firing. But the killer is that the whole game really slogs along. It is turn based, and it takes an absolute age to do anything – even running. Multiply that by the number of men and you have a pace that would make a snail look like Lynford Christie. Hardly gripping combat action. Oh, and the Germans seem to shoot like Audie Murphy, even at night. It is a huge shame because the graphics are okay, the missions plentiful and at least challenging, the terrain is huge and carefully constructed, but someone forgot to attend to playability issues and that is what makes 101st Airborne unworthy of your money.