Wargamer’s Notebook 39

There are some interesting trends developing in the figure hobby, some of which have taken time to establish, but the results are encouraging. One trend seems to be for 28mm figures from ‘new’ sources, often ancients, and all of pleasingly high quality. Any connection with a large firm in Nottingham and the publication of WHAB I leave you to establish. First up this time, Navigator. I first heard of these figures when Trickett & Whitehouse mentioned they were using them for their next big demo game. I have recently seen some samples and they are well up to the task. Occasionally, the hands are a little large and soft on detail, and the poses are a little strained, but in the main nice, solid, characterful figures which will grace any tabletop.

1st Corps have recently reduced their prices, and what were already good value figures become even more so. Their new ranges are sometimes hard to keep track of. At each show they always have something new to offer, and often a completed range – I have visions of frantic activity, and steam coming out of their studio roof. The highlights of recent figures for me were the ancient Indians, thought the Romans seem to be more popular around the hobby. They are not my favourite army, but even I can see that Rob Baker has done some of his best sculpting here – the helmets are amazing pieces of work and the Roman General, no points for identifying him, is a little gem.

And last but not least, A&A Miniatures who have emerged from the Freikorps stable, available through ERM at shows. Now we are talking my beloved Sassanids here, and 28mm at that – compatible with Gripping Beast’s range – so I make that 5 out of 10 before we even get to the figures (!). Purchase made and drool wiped away, you can add two to that total. They are very nice indeed. Facially they are not quite up to Foundry standard, but the pose and subject variety is there, the horses are not at all bad (well, what you can see around the barding), and they paint up superbly. Like Gripping Beast, A&A draw heavily on the Osprey and Montvert books, as well as adding in some extra variety. They have really caught the zen of the subject and even provide some cool looking standards. I have bought enough to bolster my Gripping Beast units, fortunately arriving before painting commenced, and will be sorely tempted to get more, plus some spares for head swaps and conversions. At present it looks as if I might be able to get about forty or even fifty unique clibanarii and cataphract figures which is fine by me – the price too is reasonable. I await the elephants and the infantry with interest, and after that I must almost have a WHAB army (which is good because Mark Wilkin has threatened to field his Minoans or Assyrians against me. At 6 hours per figure, I reckon he might have a small scouting force mustered by, ohhh, 2010).

In summary, I suppose one must ask if these ranges – all easily good enough to stand alone, intermixable with but not up to Foundry standard – are to be your preferred manufacturer. All are less expensive, in one case considerably, and here are ranges that Foundry have not yet done, but is that your main criteria? At the risk of the Cliché Police calling, you pays your money… My answer, simply because I strive for units with all figures different, is to use as many good quality, compatible poses as I can get away with. Mix and match, and add to the diversity. Whether others agree, and whether such selective buying can support the business plans, will be interesting to see.

And so to the company that may, or may not, be giving rise to all this activity and hair pulling. Sadly, given the ‘limited edition monthly tempter’ tactic, Foundry seems to have developed new release slippage, which rather undermines the ploy. I might well fancy the ‘collectable’ figures, and perhaps even a couple of older packs, but an order usually forms off the back of a new deal – both summoning my credit card and defraying postage. As far as I am concerned there hasn’t been a tempting deal release for some while, with ‘new’ deals sometimes rolling over for two or even three months and filling up three of the four ‘new’ slots. With the loss of the random half price ranges (too many people prepared to wait, or cheesed off at paying full price, I suspect), the base pack prices, the ever changing offers, the need to check non-Perry/Copplestone ranges for quality, and the interesting postage fees (along with almost everything else) indicating large infrequent orders, the situation is not exactly conducive to buying monthly or by mail. Let’s hope they sort it all out soon. Meanwhile, pestering Dave Thomas at shows it is then!

So, although tempted in passing by French Resistance and the Texas Rangers, I am still waiting patiently for the long promised Sassanids, Thracians and Mountain Men – instant purchases in volume right there – and completion of the lovely Napoleonic Russians and the even lovelier AWI ranges. At that point I can make a call on whether I forego a holiday to get yet another army (or two) that I may never get round to painting! The range completion aspect is important for me, because like many I am still waiting on other Napoleonic ranges to close – Household Cavalry, Grenadiers a Cheval, Mamelukes and Gendarmes d’Elite for starters – and I want to be sure the Russians will not suffer the same fate.

The AWI launch meanwhile is a real fixer. Initially, when I heard it was coming, I was longingly imagining the figure possibilities and planning a few token command groups or similar. Now that I have seen painted examples (notably those by Jim Bowen and Steve Jones), I have upped my enthusiasm rating and am definitely thinking …mmm, units. Perhaps even armies. Either way, I face almost certain penury because armies in 28mm not to be taken lightly. And I haven’t even seen the Brits or French yet! If the Perries did some Highlanders, Rangers, Hessians and Lauzun’s Legion, I will die a happy man. At the moment, my resolve is holding. Just. My current plan is to sell enough stuff (unpainted lead, books, part of the house) to buy these great figures. This is odd though, because while I have had every intention of starting properly into SYW for fifteen years and guess I now never will, it was always going to be French/Indian, and yet AWI is just much more appealing. Why? An inspirational game or two with Bill Gaskin’s gorgeous collection, the period is a bit scruffier round the edges, has more interesting battles, buildings and terrain, more attractive uniforms and of course is twenty years closer to the One True Period (!). Your mileage may vary, but there seems to be something of a buzz around the AWI at the moment. I do get to use Woodland Indians, right?

There was a very interesting programme on TV recently featuring the modern art community in London’s East End. Since this is where I work at present (Shoreditch, and ultra trendy Hoxton – an awful place!) and as I have an ongoing puzzlement about modern art, it was a must. The jaw dropping sequence was the ‘Apocalypse’ exhibition, whose main feature was a huge diorama made out of 1/35th figures and buildings. It was huge, and it did tell the story of the Apocalypse, but it was clearly a model. Once critic marvelled at the workmanship – one wonders what he would make of a miniatures show. The next day, by pure chance, I was reading a crafts magazine and there was another model of a building, this time termed a Miniature Environment, and commanding a three month show in a Florida gallery. So when does a model cross the line and become art? The answer to the question came when a critic was assessing a ladder in the street. Outside, it is just a ladder. In the right gallery (or perhaps outside, but carefully placed by an artist), it miraculously becomes art and we are invited to ‘see it’, and consider anew the true nature of ladderosity. I can understand that, and some modern pieces work for me at that level, but reality is quickly restored when the investor phase kicks in and the seriously silly price tag is disclosed.

What I am sure of is that the buildings and scenery now being produced to commission by John Boadle (02476 504263, email JohnBoadle@btinternet.com, www.architecturalminiatures.co.uk) are works of art. I haven’t known John long, but having seen some of his work (and taken delivery of an absolutely stunning 28mm Dutch farmhouse) I am convinced he is the best there is in the field. John will, within reason, build anything you desire in the scenery category, and I can vouch that it will not disappoint – everything from trees and gorse, through pantiled stucco, to ornate German churches are meticulously executed and the technical skill is first rate. Can you tell I’m impressed? On my shelf are three disappointing books on model buildings, one by Ian Weekley, one by Derek Bidwell and another by Roy Porter. What I would love to see is a companion volume from Mr Boadle.

And continuing the theme of perception, I have been following an interesting discussion about White Dwarf, of which I remain a big fan after twenty odd years. Games Workshop have become noticeably ‘open architecture’ recently, and the aloof, unresponsive mentality has seemingly long gone. I found myself corresponding briefly with Paul Sawyer, WD editor, and discussing the absence of the ‘Eavy Metal painting section in the magazine. It turns out the feedback from some buyers of the GW ranges indicated that the standard of painting in WD was intimidatingly high, and as such they felt put off, or even gave up altogether. The editorial reaction was to normalise WD through simpler, achievable paint jobs on units, with a little more work on heroes. An interesting move, and one that nearly saw my WD sub lapse! Regulars will know that I love to see examples of The Beautiful Game, of figures and terrain so far in advance of my talents that yes, occasionally, I too despair. Normally I work to a mental image of what I want to achieve, and fall short. Sometimes a long way short. But without those inspirational images to aid visualisation – in WD, WI, MilMod, Vae Victis and Figurines, at shows and on the web – I would have nothing at which to aim. I always come back trying harder on the next one, and I can see the improvement over the years. The ‘Dulling Down’ option – plain and uninspiring images, where average standards rule and threaten no one – is not for me, though for some it clearly does the business. And according to WD it isn’t entirely for them either, as ‘Eavy Metal is apparently returning. Of course there are parallels in our own hobby, with two major magazines taking different approaches – either stirring the muse, or warts and all reality gaming.

For me, it is a make or break year for shows. The horrors of London’s public transport (especially for Sunday shows), poor directions to the venue, floods, Railtrack’s problems and not inconsiderable cost are all taking their toll. Prescott 1, Siggins 0 sums it up neatly. I scratched Elvington because I couldn’t see how to get there from York – next year, a bus is being considered so I’ll definitely go. Tunbridge Wells was a very good show, but an absolute *%&king nightmare to get to and from. I doubt I will return. Partizan (both Fantasy and Normal) by comparison is a model show for access, and the trams make Triples a pleasure as well. Rant over.

I am also a little wary of becoming jaded and over exposed, not to mention the ongoing temptation by the traders… As a well known figure designer said to me at Salute, the games all look a bit samey these days. I guess I know what he means, and since the games identify shows (the traders remaining broadly uniform), the shows seem samey as well. The standard of demonstration or exhibition games (those where nothing moves!, a.k.a. dioramas) is generally high, and occasionally brilliant, but the game that breaks the mould and makes one go “Ooooh!” is getting rarer and, understandably, harder and harder to pull off. Where it used to be sculpted terrain, or amazingly painted troops, or a quirky scenario, all of that has been done and re-done and is even, I think, now expected. A bit like gymnastics scoring I suppose, (“only a triple reverse somersault?”). I am taking nothing away from the heroes that put on these games, but where do we go from here? So as a defence I am going along to those shows that I have not attended before in case I am missing anything, plus the ‘core’ regulars.

I started with Alumwell, a show I have never been to despite its enviable reputation. When I arrived at the station, Walsall was doing a good impression of both a ghost town and building site. Indeed, further on, there was a large sign hung on a wall that proclaimed – I am completely serious – “Walsall is Open”. I apologise in advance, but I have an irrational view of Birmingham and surrounds, entirely in the negative, and this did nothing to advance the cause! Walsall on a winter Sunday was a truly depressing place. The show, however, was an eye-opener. Huge area, good venue, loads of traders, some decent games and an excellent turnout by Joe Punter. The result? Great atmosphere, many purchases, and an impressive show to which I will return. There were even some very good games. The only negative was ‘early leaver’ syndrome by some traders – wearing my “selfish-long-distance-travelling-especially-to-see-you-potential-customer” hat for a moment (okay – it’s a big hat). I don’t care if trade is slack and the missus wants you home by 7pm, sometimes I am just getting there as you are wheeling off your stock. Once already this year, I spied a trader I definitely wanted to buy figures from (and yes, I later realised I could have bought them and asked him to hold onto them). I returned 90 minutes before the show closed – because no-one likes to carry that lead around – and all I could find was a trestle table and some tumbleweed. If the show advertises being open till 4pm or 5pm, but allows packing up and going home at 3pm or earlier, then something is wrong and I look to the organisers to enforce a ruling here. That should make me even more popular around the shows!

Next up was Triples, a calendar fixture and an essential visit for the last five or six years, but now it has lost some shine. Always good for trader coverage, but the games used to be good as well. Now, just so-so, or even poor in many cases. On probation, then.

Loughton Strike Force have gradually built a solid reputation for their ‘mid sized’ annual event, now residing happily in Walthamstow. While I almost always go (it is a mere bus ride away, continuing the riveting public transport theme), this year something weird happened. It was bigger, it was buzzing, it gelled, and it grew from a good show to a superior one. Why? Who can tell. All subjective, touchy-feely and doubtless empirically unsound. Perhaps it was the arrival of a couple of heavyweight traders – Gripping Beast with their excellent Romans – or perhaps it was the outstanding participation games (Saving Private Ryan, The Wombles and Chicken Run) and the large numbers of adults and, significantly, kids enjoying them. Or perhaps the weather is still Factor X? Whatever, well worth your time next year.

And finally, Partizan I. Talk was of a show not up to its past glories. I’d probably agree, but it was not short by much. And whatever the standard achieved, that doesn’t make it anything less than the best around, or a show that can’t bounce back and be ideally placed to set new benchmarks in the future. One has to sympathise with the organisers – they have so much to live up to, yet are largely dependent on others for their core content and perceived ‘success’. Not a job I would take on lightly. Anyway. Walking into the small hall I saw three excellent games, and the usual faces, and that set me up for the rest of the day. Once again I spent the full six hours wandering about (and I needed them), admiring the Herculean efforts, chatting to people, seeing demo games unfold (slowly), meeting some of my email foils, again being impressed by the tireless Bog-A-Ten crew, and generally being enthused intravenously. I would (only because it is expected) single out the League of Augsburg’s ancients display (discussion arising: “are hexagonal bases the next Big Thing or should the emperor get some opaque clothing?”), Mike Blake’s attractive skirmish, the Redcar Rebel’s medievals, Derby’s ACW spectacular and the actively played SYW game by the Mosborough club (even if that grenadier battalion took all day to assault the bridge!).

Ironically, the best game I have seen so far this year was at none of these shows. The Shepway Club put on a Normandy ’44 game at Trucks n Tracks – an AFV modelling event – and it was absolutely superb. A huge table chock full of top quality terrain, sparse vehicle numbers (North Hull please note), and figures and tanks to die for. Great stuff chaps, I hope the PR exercise paid some dividends in new members and interest.

I have been slipping behind with PC games, partly because of the purchase of a PlayStation 2 (summary: inveterate early adopter, games poor thus far but SSX, Le Mans and MotoGP excellent, waiting impatiently for Gran Turismo 3), but also because of the dearth of decent PC titles. Shogun I have, but it makes my three year old PC struggle. Zeus: Master of Olympus has been getting lots of play, but with the same quirks that infuriated in Caesar and Pharaoh. Sudden Strike meanwhile is huge fun with incredible graphics and sound, but very tough to win (to the point of annoyance), and don’t expect historical. And Cossacks is essentially Age of Empires with upgrades taken to the nth degree. Throw in a new period and paint job, and it has much the same strengths and weaknesses. Polish Winged Hussars do not a good game make, but it seems to have got some tongues wagging. The game I should be playing is Combat Mission but I haven’t yet got round to ordering. And Europa Universalis, Tropico and Microsoft’s Train Simulator are coming any time now, which should all be real treats.

So all those eliminated, the star of the month is Empire’s Battle of Britain. Developed by the Rowan team that have produced so many good flight sims, this is the logical conclusion of the series. The idea is ambitious. Not only can you control the squadrons on the strategic display, you can also fly any of the smaller planes – from Spitfire to Stuka – plus you can man the machine guns in a Dornier, Heinkel or Junkers. Quite remarkable scope, I think you will agree. It also gets an awful lot of planes in the air at once, conveying the dogfight well. It is accordingly frantic, but flavoursome nonetheless, especially with the radio chattering away in the background. Good stuff.

Employers do some nasty things, but one client now drags me past a model shop four times a week. Can I resist? Of course not. Especially since this is 4D (020 7293 1996), a company I wrote about very favourably a few columns back. Well, it turns out they are going from strength to strength, and have an impressive staff of over 20 working away. The reason I mention them again is that they now have ready made trees (etched brass, but surprisingly inexpensive – the palm trees are superb), custom models (they did the terrain for Thomas the Tank Engine, which was not inexpensive!) and a new service – dry transfers. Basically you provide a sheet of PC vector artwork and they make up a sheet of monochrome (reasonable) or colour decals (interestingly expensive). Now I love dry transfers, disliking the film around slide offs, and the thought of getting Adobe Illustrator going and producing an A4 sheet of numerals, heraldic symbols or 1940 French tank names has me itching to start.

Is it me or is there a never-ending queue of books to be bought? I have lost count of the times that I have ruled off the list, and said, “That’s it! Finished!” And then there I am buying something else a month later. I suppose the flaw in my defence is looking at new release lists, and having so many areas of interest. Or is that areas of weakness? And Osprey’s many brands, always a regular drain on cash, seem to be getting better with the Campaign series excelling. My recent highlights have been a series of books that go under the name of Alix, by a chap called Martins, and available in France or Belgium. That last may give you the clue that these are bande dessinee, or graphic novels, or comics if you prefer! The basic idea is that Alix is a young chap who travels around in ancient times getting wrapped up, Flashman style, in the events of the day. The story based volumes are okay, but probably more suited for your kid’s Christmas stocking. But the supporting reference works, on Roman, Greek and Egyptian architecture, naval warfare and costume are absolutely inspirational. Each book has a large number of pages packed with colour drawings, some of which must have taken weeks to complete – an aerial view of Rome is particularly stunning. These books are so good, they almost brought back the levels of enthusiasm I held for ancients before WRG effectively beat it out of me.

Just enough space for a Monthly Fad Update. Steampunk has been backburnered (is that a verb?) while Ken Tidwell and I develop an interesting campaign setting (Ken had the brilliant idea, I bought the beers to draw it out of him), and I research Victorian Cults and Dinosaur Cages for London Zoo. So I was forced to find something else to froth about and buy books and models for, and ACW Ironclads won the day. I cut my teeth on Peter Pig’s extensive and inexpensive 1/600th resins, finding quickly that I enjoyed making the river bases (a first) more than painting the ships, about which my mate kindly stated, “You have weathered them like tanks”. Needlessly pointed criticism, but sadly spot on. I am a landlubber, I can’t be doing with barnacles and stuff. But the craving was not sated. Oh no. I quickly moved onto the hard stuff – Thoroughbred’s exquisitely detailed models – available over here through Langton, complete with easy ten year credit terms. In truth I went a little over the top on ship numbers, but if you have to have all the boring vessels, you can’t omit the quirky Keokuk, Manassas and Benton can you? In truth, I want them all and some forts and land batteries and tugs and mortars and quays and… nurse, the screens. I have got my GHQ Terrain Maker hexes (at last available here through Chiltern Miniatures) for rivers, I am tossing up between Snr. Peeg’s radical Hammerin’ Iron II and David Manley’s more traditional rules, and am looking forward to some riverine actions over the Summer. Next fad? I have been eyeing up Peter Pig’s 2mm figure blocks for Quatre Bras…

And finally, an apology to those companies I often forget, but who produce some wonderful stuff with perhaps a lower-key approach. Firstly, AB Figures whose recent 20mm WWII infantry ranges are quite stunning and which in many respects exceed the now sadly discontinued Foundry 20mm venture. A genre redefined yet again. Can we have 1940 French and Italians please? And pictures conforming to the packs on the web site? HLBS, whose 1/48th modern ‘standing around’ figures have impressed me greatly, even though I have close to zero interest in the period. Shell Hole Scenics, who quietly snuck an excellent, inexpensive range of metal StuG IIIs into their line-up. Mark Copplestone’s Future Wars (the original and best) which really test my resolve with each new batch – the Skateboarders and Film Crew were must haves and when The Matrix and Mech figures arrive I will crack again (have I told you about my far-reaching quest for a Mech that isn’t boring?). And lastly, Italeri, whose recent 20mm plastics are a revelation. Opening a box of the Romans, Celts or Saracens reminds one very quickly of the anatomical abnormalities we endure (often unconsciously) in 28mm, and the fact that figures can be beautifully detailed, proportioned, sculpted and animated, and even carry javelins that look like javelins. Their 1st Century Roman General is the best small scale figure I have seen for some time – with no exceptions – and Zvezda, Esci, HaT and the rest are right on their heels. And with modern PVA techniques, you can even keep the paint on!