Wargamer’s Notebook 4

It cannot have escaped your notice that 20mm metal, and plastic, figures are back with a vengeance. Some would say they’ve never been away. There must currently be at least a dozen manufacturers of metal figures in this scale, with new releases seemingly appearing by the week. As I started my gaming career at this size, I have no problem with the move but it is rather late for my collections which are 25mm – either Foundry sized or ‘big’. I assume the reasons are simple enough: more detail and heft than 15s, easier to paint and more transportable than 25s, and interchangeable with the many excellent plastic mouldings around. These emanate from Revell, Esci, Airfix of course, and a new contender, Hat Industrie. Hat have already released a set of 12 Napoleonic Mamelukes and these will be followed by Napoleonic Prussian Dragoons and Uhlans later this year. Hat are based in Washington State and their UK distributor is Chiltern Miniatures. More on these later when I have seen some samples. What I do know is that they are made of soft plastic, a business decision that I hope someone, somewhere will eventually explain to me. Let’s put it this way – if Airfix and the other companies had produced hard plastic 20mm figures, I’d probably still be using them. It was the simple fact that having spent hours painting them, I couldn’t bear to see them flake away to nothing or have the horses fall off their bases. In fact, going further, I have always been of the opinion that some of the best figure sculptors work in plastic – check out any of the recent Revell releases should you require proof.

Whatever the merits and shortfalls of plastic, or metal, I think the real reason for a return to 20mm is the reasonable price of the figures. I have no idea how many gamers enjoy painting true model soldiers, but it must be the vast majority. Which means 20mm or larger, or the better 15s. Naturally, this ignores those few gamers who use 15s merely as markers in competition games. The cost of 25mm figures is, even to an earner, quite frightening – you are looking at £200-£300 just for a small army, much more if you are a fan of large units. Goodness knows how schoolkids start out these days, though that said they seem to have little trouble building Warhammer armies with single figures costing up to £3 each. I am sure all this also goes a long way to explaining the success of DBA – a few figures, cheaply bought, and lots of variety so you can have several armies, rather than several units. Not my cup of tea, but a shrewd marketing move.

I seem to have caused something of a stir by nominating my top brushmen in the first column. If it wasn’t clear, all this waffle is highly subjective, and your individual views are just as valid. Nevertheless, I didn’t quite expect phone calls arguing the merits of one master painter over another. To some I listened with interest, learning as I went, with others I listened and then argued manfully over the merits of black undercoat, acrylic layering, oil washes, or even enamels. Well, it keeps me off the streets. I think the only point I would re-make, in answer to those that asked, is that a top notch painter is set apart by his understanding and depiction of colour. You may well be the best detailer or animator or fastest brush in the west, but if you haven’t got a grasp of scale hue and, usually, three shades within each colour, the figures will never look as good as a Gaskin, Dallimore or Allen original. Is it possible to learn this? Yes, I believe it is. But if you don’t have it in your blood (like me), you’ll need to talk to these men, and study their figures in the flesh, to identify the techniques and how the colours are built up. Then you practice, experiment and practice again. And in a few years, you might be able to emulate them.

For the second month running, the best figures passing before my critical eye have been from Guernsey Foundry. The second tranche of Wild West figures is even better than the first, in my humble opinion, and the range is rapidly expanding to the point where you’ll have every conceivable figure for gunfights you could ever hope for. They’re all extremely good, but the highlights are the chap in the Ten Gallon hat, the bewhiskered barkeep and the pugilist. And they paint up superbly. If Steve Curtis were around today, he’d be a happy camper (but we still want those injuns). Nevertheless, this is a joint prize this month shared with the Foundry RHA gunners and limber teams. Partly because they’ve appeared, partly because they too are exquisite as usual, but mainly because if I’m really nice they might do me some Congreve rocket troops.

For those of you with a PC and CD Rom, I am about to save you some money. Infogrames have recently released Napoleon: Europe and the Empire. It aims to be a complete overview of Napoleon and his era, and in this it falls well short. Not so much because of poor quality, rather due to the over-ambitious brief it sets itself. It is good on the personal aspects of Napoleon’s court and life, and not bad on the Empire, but the military coverage is distinctly patchy. Even with 600Mb of data available, we get a selection of 500 textual histories that barely scratch the surface. At £39.95, you’d be better putting the cash towards a decent reference book, particularly the Napoleonic Sourcebook. Where it does score is in the ‘multimedia’ department, which to you and me means graphics, sound and animation. The pictures on offer are very good. There aren’t too many, but what you do get are impressive, and often unusual – including some Detaille watercolours I’ve not seen before. There are also two animated battle sequences, of Austerlitz and Waterloo. It was while watching the latter that I realised that not all was well. The production was supervised by the French Museums Association, but it would appear they didn’t oversee the translation to English. Accordingly, you will be interested to know that Picton died at the head of the Union Brigade, and that Kellermann used his cuirassiers to take La Haye Sainte. And there are more annoying errors. Nothing that will trouble the scholar beyond irritation, but not exactly ideal for the novice. Inevitably, with the rush to cram our lives with edutainment titles, there will be more where this came from. Some will be equally lacklustre, while others could theoretically be quite outstanding. I will keep you posted.

Okay, parental warning. I am about to review a fantasy product. I will be using words such as ‘orc’ and ‘elf’. Please read on, and do not scream – it will all come right and historical in the end. Flintloque, and its expansion pack Deadloque, are a set of Napoleonic skirmish rules from Alternative Armies Except they spell it Napoleonique and set it in a fantasy world where the British are orcs, the Scots are ratmen, Russians are undead and the French are elves. Sheesh. There are lands such as Al-Garvey (Portugal, geddit) and Krautia – this one you can guess. Ignoring my initial question – Why? – I was pleasantly surprised at everything apart from the price: £20 for the thin rulebook and 16 very large 25mm metal figures (actually, they are closer to 35mm). The idea is you buy the game, paint the figures, and recreate Sharpe style scenarios. You take either ‘Sharke’s Rifles’ or the onion eaters, and have it out in Sharke’s Gold and other similarly tongue in cheek modules. Deadloque adds more scenarios and rules from the Russian front. I’m sure, like me, you may have looked at these boxes and wondered if they might be interesting – well, now I can tell you.

Everything would be fine if the rules were anything to write home about. Sadly they aren’t, but they will work if you have nothing else to hand and do have a few good ideas in the scenarios (and some disgraceful puns – Orcerlitz for one). In the main though they consist of tables, charts, modifiers and die rolls, with varying distances and hit chances for each weapon type – all the usual recycled stuff that we’ve seen for the last twenty five years – indeed nothing you couldn’t find in an old Featherstone book. What is interesting is that the publishers promise a set of mass battle rules for ‘Black Powder Fantasy’. Let’s hope they are a little more innovative than Flintloque. The figures meanwhile aren’t at all bad. In fact, some of them are outstanding – the Hussar officer and the hooded infantryman – while others are inexplicably clunky and crude. Different designers, or Friday afternoon lemons? And for some reason they all have huge equipment, cuffs and hands (the latter in common with First Corps – is this a failing a la Rembrandt?). But if you are adept with a razor saw, head swaps and Miliput, they may have some utility in your units or as one-off specials. The French in particular come in unusually good poses and require only pointed ear lopping for immediate use. The good news is that you can buy loads of extra figures in cheaper blister packs that will give you lots of ideas for horse & musket conversions. And that’s that, with the usual proviso that if the fantasy lads get into this stuff, they may in time shift to the historical equivalent.

There is no doubt Braveheart is the film about which everyone in the hobby has been talking. Less well plotted than Toy Story, and somewhat bloodier than Heat, it has nevertheless touched gamers’ imaginations in the same way as Sharpe, Gettysburg and Last of the Mohicans. There are, if you look, tell-tale signs. Gamers asking traders if they have any suitable figures, a rush for any decent rule set (that had previously been unsaleable), and a scurry to Hersants for the relevant Ospreys. Whatever, considering the obligatory Hollywood carve-up of history, this is a really good film – exciting, well paced and inspirational stuff. But can you paint all that tartan?

The Internet has been buzzing with the announcement, and accompanying hype, of a new multi-period rules set named Piquet. Apparently, you choose how to pronounce this. Now you know how multi-period rules work (that is, not at all well) but that doesn’t stop enthusiastic publishers jumping in where others have lost thousands. Piquet, however, may at least be different as it gets round the multi-period (and cash flow) problems by selling you extra period specific modules to run with the master rules. The first sign is that it has attracted legions of happy customers, many of them apparently not blood relatives. The second plus point is that Piquet runs off of a set of cards which drive not only the play mechanics but also spice up the action in much the same way as the underrated, indeed undiscovered, Battle Masters from Milton Bradley. Indications are that while it may not be 100% historical, it is a lot of fun and fast. We shall see, since it has been a tough job getting facts out of Piquet’s publishers, let alone a review copy. But I will not be deflected. More news when I’ve tested this one.

Empire Games can rightfully claim at least some of the design high ground in the shape of Legacy of Glory, a rather good set of Grand Tactical rules for the Napoleonic period. While I have a lot of time for them, their major failing is their learning curve, which requires pitons and ice axes to negotiate. Fortunately, a new set of charts and introductory rules has now been released as an addendum for all existing player. Well worth acquiring if you play these rules.

Show of the Month is, perhaps predictably, Triples. Always one of the highlights of the year, and a worthwhile trip from the visitor’s point of view (apart from the parking), it didn’t fail to please this year. Alongside the large trade turnout, there were three outstanding games, one with several thousand 6mm Napoleonics that, for once, looked like a battle, another was a classy WWII airborne landing game on a looong table, but the best game I’ve seen in some while was Raid at Edward’s Ferry, put on by the Redcar Rebels (fighting under First Corps’ colours). It featured an outstanding model of an ACW Ironclad (as in, this could win modelling prizes) and some marvellous custom built terrain. There weren’t many troops around, and one has to say it was more static diorama than proper game, but the setting, the impact of the terrain and big 25mms just made it an eyecatching display. A candidate for game of the year, and no mistake.

Book of the Month is again shared. The first is a small press volume called An Officer of Dragoons (Adelphi Press, £6) that I found languishing in the computer books section of a London store. No, I don’t know why either. Written by Atalanta Clifford (wasn’t she in Stingray?) it is the story of a young recruit in the 12th Light Dragoons who gets into a number of scrapes, mostly with overtones of Sharpe (trendy chap this month, eh?). The difference, and it is a significant one, is that unlike Bernard Cornwell, Clifford can write and understands both women and two dimensional characters. Well worth a look. Also worth ordering for a young relative, and sneakily reading before gift wrapping, is Peter Connolly’s Legend of Odysseus (Oxford, £9). I think this may be quite an old book, but I for one had missed it. Full of glorious pictures, terrain models and clear text, this is the usual Connolly magic.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. Given that Wargames Foundry must be selling vast quantities of castings (it is tough to spot Dave Thomas at some shows, surrounded as he is by eager punters), but where do they all get to? I seldom see a demonstration game using these wonderful figures, so conclude they must either be still on the painting bench, in collections, in use at clubs or exist mainly for the benefit of Duncan’s camera. Any ideas?