Wargamer’s Notebook 40

A lot can happen in a month. The Perry Twins and Mark Copplestone have left Foundry, and all of a sudden I find myself more interested in the cult of the hobby’s pre-eminent sculptors, rather than the output of a dominant company. It would however be wrong to discount Foundry entirely; they play a squad game, and losing their three top strikers is not terminal. Still on staff are a couple of good sculptors, namely Mike Owen and Steve Saleh, and I look forward to their swashbucklers and Argonauts respectively.

So in a strange quirk of fate, Foundry have become analogous with Games Workshop in my mind, in the sense (and only in the sense) that the figure ranges will likely as not interest me, but the occasional tempting subject definitely will, so they are worth keeping an eye on. These exceptions must now be seen as a luxury purchase, with a corresponding marked reduction in volume. Sad, and an outcome I certainly could not have forecast even a year ago, but what are we to do? We have all loyally read a series of books that we love, only for the author to lose their touch, or change tack in response to whim, market forces, creative diversity or conceit. That is hard to take, because we want more of what we had before, because that was close to ideal.

I honestly don’t know what the shift to fantasy is all about, but then I am really not qualified to speculate, and I see Vendel (spookily similar stylistically to Gripping Beast, I wonder why?) are following suit. Might just be something to do with the Lord of the Rings movie, I suppose. Or providing relatively inexpensive (but chapter unapproved) figures to the ever hungry Workshop crowd? And similarly I can see how Shane Hoyle’s Street Violence figures would be popular in some quarters, and I am quite tempted myself. I actually like the new fantasy figures a lot, especially the Revenant Elves and Vendel’s dwarves, but can’t see myself buying more than the odd single figure for the shelf. And that, I guess, is one figure more than many in the historical hobby, which leaves them neatly on the other side of the Psychological Divide. Meanwhile, I am still waiting for someone to do the Arabian Nights!

Thankfully, we are promised more historical ranges from both Foundry and Gripping Beast, and the flow of new releases is starting again – my mountain men and mules are undercoated and ready to go, and very nice they are too, apart from the ‘too wide, too short’ rifles. But with fewer sculptors labouring under a divided workload it remains to be seen what will emerge, and when. This does nothing to detract from Foundry’s massive historical back catalogue, but for me the new releases were the driver. With that driver subdued I’ll look elsewhere for novelty and inspiration. As I suggested last time there are plenty of worthy options available, because while we could argue cause and effect, the pull of Foundry has been strong: on innovation, marketing, hobby wide pricing, diversity and quality. The hobby will never be the same.

Naturally an eye seeking alternatives falls quickly on Copplestone Castings and Perry Miniatures, the new vehicle for the Perry twin’s historical output. Mark Copplestone is working on his Future Wars (Matrix figures please!) and is already talking about new Darkest Africa ranges – Germans would be interesting, you can never have too many characters, and if the scope runs to the Soudan, that would be good too. The Perries meanwhile have already announced two new ranges, both very close to my heart: a new range of ECW, and (woohoo!) 1815 Brunswickers. Having picked up the first available packs at Partizan today, I am very, very happy indeed. Not only have my favourite Napoleonic troops been captured perfectly by my favourite designers, in the style and uniform variety we have come to expect, but the anatomy has become just a little thinner. I am guessing Das Slim-Fast, perhaps VeightVatchers. The net result, to my eye, is much improved over even Foundry and represent superb figures. And the ECW figs aren’t bad either! With completion of the Brunswickers imminent, with a dribblesome selection of officers and casualties, and more AWI figures in the offing, the future looks rosy indeed.

However you calculate the success of a show, Partizan II in September had it all. In many ways it was the best for some time: plenty of good enthusiastic chat with fellow gamers, lots of excellent games, good chip cobs, and a surprising rush of exciting new products. There was also a very real sense of optimism, of a new era even, with almost too many possibilities in this great hobby. Or was that just me? I have already mentioned Perry Miniatures who, buoyed by some amazing paint jobs by Jim Bowen, were doing brisk business – look for the figures at Dave Thomas’ stand in the future. 1st Corps had some deadly looking ancient Indian swordsmen, Greek Myths and Gods, ancient artillery and ancillary figures (the road building team is excellent) and more besides. GMB were showing off their newest AWI flag samples, which were up to the peerless standard of the now massive range. Hovels had the first section of a 25mm Hougoumont, which looked very impressive – the chateau proper is due in 2002. Expect a final price tag ‘to ponder’. Next up is Gothic Horror, an impressive new range of figures on the West Wind label. Prices are reasonable, the quality right up there. The basic theme is Dracula, his followers and their hunters (no Buffy, sadly), but watch out for the ancillary figures that will suit many historical armies or civilian groups. Look for a demonstration game, with a Transylvanian castle, from the League of Augsburg at Fantizan 2002.

And finally, HLBSC had their stunning 1/48th ultra modern figures and new fauna to die for. I bought some of the former, not because I am considering yet another new period and scale, but simply because the figures are excellent and highly tempting once seen in the flesh. HLBSC have plans for massive ranges in this skirmish scale, and if it gets moving I can see it being popular among fans of CNN, Mujahideen and Kate Adie. I’m not one, but even I can see the appeal of an SAS counter-terrorist team or US Sniper squad with detail and poses that you associate with 54mm plus – the weaponry in particular is first rate. I also bought almost all of the new 28mm animals – bears, bison, tigers and a quite beautiful buffalo. Gaming applications are few (unless, like me, you are into Mountain Men!), but they are irresistible, as are the latest batch of dinosaurs. I really like where HLBSC are going. Check them out, and pester for more. Much more.

Game wise, Partizan 2 also shone. I lost count at ten superb games. The usual suspects (League of Augsburg, Bruno Allanson, Perry Twins, North Hull, Redcar Rebels, Mosborough) formed the quality base and were joined by a clutch of new stars: Coltishall Cowards put on a striking 54mm Vietnam game, The Shed Heads had spent a small fortune on WWII buildings (and some tanks), Grand Manner sponsored a good looking Romans vs Assyrians (!) diorama and there was even some nice terrain on a Flintloque game, spoilt only by those ‘orrible caricatured figures.

I have never really gone in for battle reports in Notebook. Partly because I play so few games these days, mainly because I am not sure they make for interesting reading. But always wishing to push the envelope, this month you get two! The first game is still underway, being an umpired play by email game of Howard Whitehouse’s innovative Science versus Pluck, 2nd edition. I am Major General Siggins, leading a strong column out of Suakim, in pursuit of pesky locals who are mucking about with the railway line. Wasn’t that a Rev. Awdry story? Thomas and the Disorderly Dervishes? The column comprises a home brigade (Duke of Wellington’s, KRRC and the Argylls) and a rather more variable colonial brigade (a strong battalion of Sikhs, a New South Wales unit and Blackadder’s Soudanese). Cavalry is sparse – some bashi-bazouks, and a unit of mounted infantry. As befits such an expedition, a battery of RHA is accompanying. There have so far been plenty of tough decisions, sickness amongst senior commanders, a renegade quartermaster, infighting in the camp, reinforcements from India, a Russian noble playing gun runner and troublemaker, building of zaribas, formation of an ad hoc camel corps, concerns over rations for the Sikhs, much insubordination and commentary on my command abilities from the junior players, and an unfortunate incident where we lost an entire troop of scouts, ambushed due to poor orders. Heads rolled, questions may be asked in parliament. As I write, we are approaching Tamai, and having driven off a skirmish line with a display of artillery prowess, a massive Dervish force has erupted from dead ground right in front of the square. The Duke of Wellington’s regiment looks a little shaky as they raise their rifles…

The second game was in Scotland, as a guest of the League of Augsburg on the evening before Claymore. It is twenty years since I have been north of the border and I immediately wondered why I’d left it so long. Claymore has been a ‘I really must go’ for years, and finally the stars were in alignment (i.e. try to get a train to, or hotel in, Edinburgh during August…). The summary is that not only are the three members of the League depressingly talented individuals, they also make great hosts. I was kindly chauffeured around, saw some sights, met some great people (hi Brian & Dave), and when the extensive catering arrived I kept looking around for the Black Watch Band. As usual the evening was mainly a social event, with the game holding the rest together. And I enjoyed it. A lot. It is such a pleasure to play with top class troops, on good terrain, with fun people, especially when there is an umpire doing most of the hard work.

The scenario was Grand Alliance, and saw four allied commanders chasing a French rearguard of unknown strength. I quickly grabbed the British brigade, and promptly marched off to secure an empty village (no flies on me). But you should know (for future business dealings, and so on) that the Good Men of Augsburg are mean, deceitful and heartless individuals, and would doubtless sell their ageing aunties into the marines. The rearguard turned out to be about three times bigger than our force (and oddly seemed to be coming quickly in our direction), the Chaotic rule system meant we hardly ever moved, and the ‘deserted’ village was defended by a unit of cyborg dragoons with Armalites. In the end we were lucky to get away with a hard fought draw. Excellent stuff, and I look forward to doing it again next year.

Claymore itself was a classy little show. Plenty of traders, good venue, and a high standard of game, with more profligate spending observed than even I can recall. The analysis is the local gamers get just a couple of opportunities per year to buy, so they buy hard and buy long! My host’s game aside, I was much taken by an attractive ancients game from the Iron Brigade, and a pirates game with a smoking volcano. And of course you see a good few traders that don’t get south too often. Well worth a visit.

You only have to look at the latest computer games to realise that in the future (though perhaps not as quickly as many predict) we will all be playing wargames on a giant holographic table. No more painting, just troop mix, terrain, scenario and beer brand to decide, and away you go. Real time or turn based, multi-player or solitaire, your choice of player viewpoint and realistic fog of war; the prospect is mouth watering. But nearer present realities, the topic of ‘kinetic games’ came up recently, prompted largely by the appearance of the Tamiya 1/16th radio controlled Tiger I. This beauty not only sounds the part, but also has gun recoil, turret rotation and muzzle flashes. Apparently Japanese servo technology now exists to remotely control 1/76th and smaller vehicles. So how far are we from troops moving around on our tables? From seeing GHQ tanks cresting ridges? Or Foundry gimps cracking their whips? Well, not too far at all. At Partizan 2, a diminutive Tiger (no more than five inches long) appeared on the Perry’s demonstration game and proceeded to grumble along a road, negotiate gullies and crush hedgerows. The audience, me included, was very impressed. We await with interest knee and elbow implants for 20mm figures, and sound chips for drummers and buglers.

I read too many emails and web sites – on a heavy day, with replies and related ‘asks’, it can take an hour or more – a sobering thought. But feedback is everything, I enjoy it, and it is a great way to keep in touch. So having streamlined, and met some new like minds, occasionally a fascinating subject comes up that makes you think. Last week, it was not which periods you are into, but why? For me, primarily, it is always the history. I always loved history at school, even if I wasn’t great at it, and probably 40% of my 2,000 books are on the subject. If a period grips me historically, I’m there. It is also almost always uniform influenced. Hard to say why this should be, except that even if I come and go on the histories, or the appeal of a period, the uniforms are always fascinating.

My core interest of Napoleonics would be based on ‘first love’ – my first ever game at the first ever club (Chingford, for any old boys reading!) was a big game where I commanded a borrowed brigade of Airfix Hussars and landwehr against a flank of artillery (and nothing else)! Even so, it got me hooked. Much the same applies to WWII, which was the next big thing at the club. The follow-up influence would be the red Airfix Napoleonics guide by Bruce Quarrie which I read until it fell apart, and a visit to Waterloo Day in 1975, which sealed the whole sorry addiction. The sub plot here is that I always play British (they suit my temperament!) except for WWII where I play Germany. I am not aware of any national bias though, which is clearly displayed by my best friend who plays Russian whatever the period.

What else? Flags are good. Always like a flag heavy period. I also like terrain, which I suspect is a little odd. Exoticism is also a spur – something slightly unusual; perhaps it increases the challenge? I am a sucker for a slashed tunic or mail coif, so Landsknechts, Moors, Saracens, Sassanids, Seljuks and Muscovites are all pulls. Did I really say that a mail coif would interest me in a period? I wish I could say it is rules driven, but it isn’t. I play so rarely, and am happy with so few rulesets, that they are a chore rather than an inspiration. Movies? No, not really. Enjoyed WaterlooSharpeGettysburg and Glory, and have watched Charge of the Light BrigadeZulu and Lawrence of Arabia tens of times, but normally the films come a little close to the ‘reality’ – not historically, but visually – and I am reminded too much of the core subject matter. And the more modern it is, the less appealing. So I have never watched Shaving Ryan’s PrivatesPlatoonFull Metal Jacket, or Enemy at The Gatesbecause of what I call Deer Hunter Syndrome, a film that troubles me even today, years after I saw it. Goodness knows what I will make of Band of Brothers.

Books are always a source of inspiration, of course, as are the very best boardgames. If I play a good game, say Chariot Lords or Shogun on the PC, I always go off and read books on the subject, even if it is just an Osprey for the pictures (and Angus McBride’s valued presence can easily sway the verdict here). That too can lead to new period pangs, though curiously the unsurpassed Flashman does not inspire me in the same way. And for every year of the hobby there has always been a figure driver – Airfix, then Hinchliffe in the early metal days, Foremost and Connoisseur, WWII availability (which version of the Firefly do you want?), and then – big style – Foundry and now Gripping Beast, AB and a bunch of others. Attending lots of shows, a good game or even display of figures in WI can trigger wayward thoughts, always tempered by the piles of lead already bought. And in Darkest Africa and Pirates, for the first time a range of figures prompted a period interest, while the Perry’s AWI figures have simply made an interest concrete.

It has been reasonably quiet on the books front, for which my bank manager is temporarily grateful. Both books purchased have been from Osprey, who are putting out some good stuff these days. The first is in the Vanguard series, previously reserved for tanks but now encompassing naval topics. Confederate Ironclads is a timely and interesting volume and, being completely honest here, it is one of the few Ospreys where I have read the text straight away rather than just looking at the illustrations. The latter are rather good as well, so I felt it a sound buy. Terrain Modelling Masterclass (Windrow) is sadly not that applicable to the miniatures gaming hobby, which isn’t the publisher’s fault, and I would suggest that to do a masterclass you need to be up there amongst the best, which probably is. The author is talented, but not great, and I have seen many other modellers who could have done better, and with more up to date techniques and materials. On balance a borderline purchase, but still with some great photographs and useful tips.