Wargamer’s Notebook 43

After reading this month’s column, you may think I have completely lost the plot. Yes, even more than usual. Coming right up are favourable comments on Minifigs, a hankering for Hinchliffe, a controversial statement on gloss varnish, and several nostalgic RetroGaming moments. No one will be harmed, but I felt I should pre-warn you. It all started when I walked into Caliver Books’ HQ, in sunny Leigh-on-Sea. This is a game shop of the old school, where you might conceivably find almost anything on the appealingly cluttered shelves, from long out of print books to a small lost child, or perhaps a Black Lotus being used as a coaster. But slap bang in the middle of the shop is an evocative Napoleonic game, vintage 1975, frozen in time and not a little dust. The main characters are 25mm Minifigs (none of this new fangled 15mm rubbish), the stage would be recognisable from any of my clubs of the era, the plot is largely unimportant but you can probably guess – I bet my house that a charge is being declared somewhere, and that one of the eighty man unit of 95th Rifles will be scoping out a senior officer, hoping to roll a six. Nearby, a cannister blast template made from a wire coat hanger is lowered ominously, and the 32 pounder naval gun battery (which were definitely used at the Battle of Maidup in 1803) wreaks bloody chaos on the six regiments of Scots Greys charging their front. I should note here that the Caliver game is a model of accuracy compared to my recollections.

What this singular experience (and a concurrent visit to the excellent www.friendsreunited.co.uk) did was throw me back to a time when you block painted figures that you thought were the bee’s knees as fast as you possibly could, actively gamed with them every week, and proudly stored them on a shelf fit for heroes before scooting off to the school disco on one’s Raleigh Chopper. All the while you were revising rules, reading books, rating Panther and T34 armour, arguing over history, planning the next unit, or that new army you could never realistically afford. Looking back, it seems quite frantic, and focused, and a very different era. Of course hobbies and people change, probably because all that activity time is now spent on nostalgia…

Anyway, duly inspired, I pulled out all my old issues of Battle, of Macfarlane-helmed Miniature Wargames (you are quite safe up to about issue thirty), my treasured copy of Curt Johnson’s AWI book with all the Peter Gilder dioramas, and I was lost in a whirl of Burgundians, Minutemen, Camel Corps, Waterloo Squares, fantastic terrain, Model Engineer exhibitions, Phil Robinson paint jobs and Doug Mason conversions. Great times, and a big thumbs up for gloss varnish and black lining. Next, I dug out my old Minifig Napoleonics and the scariest thing (well, apart from Sting winning a musical achievement award) was that the middle period Minifigs (post shapeless blobs on rocking horses, pre barrel swallowers) actually aren’t bad at all – I have a British sapper right here with believable anatomy and surprisingly good facial detail. And even the beefy, half-faced chaps have their unique, retro appeal. So have I been wrong all this time? Are they, fat bummed horses apart, not in fact horrible figures, worthy of derision? What sealed all this was the latest issue of W.I., where Gabriel Mykaj cunningly snuck some Minifig gendarmerie onto Foundry horses to great effect. Did they look really good or was it just me? How far are they removed from the accompanying Perries? If it weren’t for their hidden faces, well… Waiter, can I get some ketchup with this Humble Pie?

It has been a good month for books, starting with Osprey’s Union Monitor, a fitting (if somewhat predictable!) companion to the earlier volume on Confederate Ironclads. Again, the text by Angus Konstam is well researched, entertaining and informative, and Tony Bryan’s illustrations are, if anything, even better than before. I shall look very closely at the range of colour values in his interpretations, and try to apply them to my Thoroughbred models. As usual, this New Vanguard title is available for around £10, but with just eight colour plates is absolutely dwarfed in the value for money stakes by H&C’s latest volume on the Imperial Guard Infantry, 1804-15. Here we are treated to 80 pages, almost all in full colour, of Andre Jouineau’s splendid uniform mannequins. They cover everything from the grognards to the Turin Velites, with even a nod to undress uniforms and standards en route. Quite superb, and hard to credit how they do this for a tenner. Guard Cavalry next, then Hussars. Cor!

Next up is the long awaited Foundry Companion, which at £8.50 is a snip, considering you get the usual offer refunding the cost of entry. What it isn’t is a complete colour catalogue of all the ranges, as I had hoped. A few pages are conspicuously monochrome, and all the others are essentially recasts of recent colour adverts, albeit using the new figure/deal codes (and some curious combinations). Frustratingly, the landscape pages do not allow ‘horizontal’ viewing, and don’t get me started on Limited Edition figures again. That said, it is a boon to have all these high quality images in one place, if only for colour reference, and I have already been back to ‘re-read’ it twice. So an impressive start, at the right price, and I’d like to see many more like it. What I really want is all the figures, all painted, all in colour – a true catalogue rather than a recent greatest hits recording with a couple of mono tracks.

But the big book hit is Horse Colour Explained (J Gower, Crowood, ISBN 1861263848, £14.99 from Caliver Books). At last, someone has written a book which has a) lots of colour pictures b) explains why the colours, markings and variations occur and c) covers horse genetics and yet is actually understandable – by way of a summary, each chapter offers a set of ‘colour rules’ which are fascinating. I doubt you could require more information, or find better reference images for those unusual and elusive coats anywhere. So, no more browsing horse encyclopaedias for the odd glimpse of a chestnut taffy or a peach dun, it is all here, even including ‘paint horses’ for we Wild West fans. Doubtless experts will say this is all far too modern and breeder-centric, and doesn’t apply at all to historical horses, but it will do me for now. It is worth it for the picture of a beautiful blue roan, and the grey horse pictured at 1, 4 and 8 years of age – and I thought I had gone grey quickly! Of course, it also stands as clear proof of the theory that, however strict you may be on book purchases, there is always a killer, must-have title coming along to ease open the wallet. A wonderful book.

So, painting. Not a bad month. I have been working on Moors and Dark Ages figures. No aim in mind, just fancied painting up a few after reading about the opening of the National Trust Sutton Hoo burial site, which I intend to visit as soon as possible. That and the Gripping Beast Arthurian and German Tribes figures always pleading with me for re-housing from their cramped storage box, where in fairness they have lived for some years. So they finally got to experience the paintbrush, a base and the shelf – surely any decent figure’s ambition in life?

In fact, I seem to be in something of a Gripping Beast phase generally at the moment, and am very much looking forward to their tempting new ranges: Hiberno-Norse types for Clontarf, Carthaginians and Late Crusades – I’ll manfully resist the Punic Wars, but can’t wait to see the Crusaders, which should be out for April. Anyway, Dark Age troops have filled most of the time, with me trying hard to emulate the Patten pastel ‘detail creation’ painting style – so important (essential even) to get the best from these figures which, I politely suggest, have the widest gulf between ‘as bought’ and finished article, yet offering great results if you can get them right.

And finally, a blatant plug for a new boardgames convention I am supporting. DiceCon 2002 is at the Central Hotel in Glasgow, on Sunday 25th August. Games featured will mainly be of the German variety, including a Settlers tournament, but nobody will be turfed out for playing ASL, or anything else within reason – the day’s emphasis being on fun, meeting gamers from the area, and trying out new games. It is being organised by the Scottish Boardgames Association, of which Ellis Simpson is a leading light. As Ellis is the man who gave me my first big break in games writing, at the very least I owe him one (and you can berate him for creating such a monster). Details at www.dicecon.com, and hopefully I will see you there.