Wargamer’s Notebook 44

So here I sit in the ‘searing heat’ of a British August, wondering where the year went, and quite how the previous column could have been written six months ago. The explanation is that I am changing job and possibly career, about to move house and area, swapping in some old ‘friends’ for new ones, trying to get my year old close focus problem sorted, and recovering slowly from a bad fall. Predictably, the hobby has been nothing more than a distant dream for much of this time, but somehow the occasional finished figure and terrain piece has struggled off the workbench. And while I don’t need a crystal ball to see that the coming weeks are going to be a little fraught, I will try hard to keep the column and website going. Please forgive the diary entry, it helps to explain the staccato and somewhat telescoped nature of what follows.

While my hobby activity has been much diminished, the hobby proper seems to be going great guns. I am absolutely swamped with new, appealing figures to consider (there are plenty of unappealing ones as well, neatly maintaining cosmic balance) and the shows have been even more rewarding than usual, purchase wise. This contrasts distinctly with the views of a famous terrain trader, who feels that not only are the figure manufacturers currently lacking direction and failing to fill the new release void left by Foundry, but that they have failed to come up with a big hit period for some time – ‘near future urban violence’ was cited as the last decent surge. Ignoring the difficulty of identifying a hit period before the figures are launched, I suggested The Crusades looked to be a possibility for a while, but that has got off to a bit of a false start, and that the ECW seemed to be riding high, boosted by the new Perry, Renegade and Bicorne ranges, and the Warhammer rules. Otherwise, in part, I am tempted to agree with him.

As a side issue, the market prices for figures are an interesting watch at present. I suspect we can all work out where the drive to seven or eight figure packs and an £8+ price tag has originated, and how many companies are hunkering down out of the firing line behind the leading tank, hoping we won’t notice their price creep. So what remains to be seen is if this price point is sustainable for those who are trying to continue the trend, compared to those like Elite, Front Rank, Old Glory, Perries and Gripping Beast who happily undercut the ‘about a quid’ mark, to varying degrees. And who will be the first to try and push beyond the psychological £1 inf/£2 cav level? Meanwhile at the upper end of the market, it never ceases to amaze me how many start-up companies believe they can come in with Games Workshop pricing levels, despite poor adoption rates, and a completely new game system from which the figure sales are meant to miraculously spiral.

While it is everyone’s commercial prerogative, we still seem to be struggling with sculptors who start and don’t finish a range, but feel completely able to move onto some other project without so much as a by your leave. Not that this is a new phenomenon, and the definition of ‘finished range’ is often hazy and debatable. Not all are guilty – the Perries are proving both prolific producers and pleasingly completist, while getting better all the time (the horses especially). Old Glory and Front Rank always seem to cover the bases, and Elite and the underexposed Calpe Miniatures too are all firmly sticking to their guns. Mr Copplestone is excused because he laid out his terms from day one, the packs are often self-contained, and we like his stuff a lot anyway. But others are, umm, testing the patience reserves. And, I suggest, putting off buyers looking to buy a complete, matching army for fear of never seeing the cavalry, or even officers. And how can one realistically invest heavily in infantry packs before one has seen a single example of a horse?

No one could ever accuse Games Workshop of lacking direction. The Lord of the Rings range continues to expand, creating a fascinating momentum as we approach the second movie. The Two Towers should feature a lot more battle action and, for me, unfamiliar scenes – I have read the first book more than the other two! I therefore expect to enjoy it more. So yes, I shall be happily queuing up again in December. Meanwhile we are still seeing figure releases from the first movie, including an excellent pair of trolls and of course Sauron himself. Sauron is a big, tough lad, coming in at about 50mm, and captures perfectly that atmospheric ‘Previously in Middle Earth…’ section at the start of the film. Add in the support material in White Dwarf, including a stunning Amon Sul scenario, and you can see why the game remains as popular as it is. Elsewhere, in the world of WH40k, I have a new interest. I normally content myself with Space Marines, but the new Necrons have really pushed my buttons, probably for the same reasons – I can paint them just about any colour, and they look great weathered. And I really like the scarabs as well – they fit my liking for mechanical insectoids – just don’t ask me to explain why!

As intended, I have been to fewer shows this year, but all have been top notch. Perhaps I am just getting better at the selection process. York, Tunbridge Wells, Alumwell, Fantizan, Rampage and Broadsword were well up to their normal standard, while Partizan maintains its lead and just keeps getting better. Yes, I know – an old record playing, but just listen a moment! At the May show, there were upwards of ten outstanding games. And I mean outstanding – I just don’t know how they do it year in, year out. This fact, combined with an unusual amount of chat and ‘trader liaison’ (okay, buying), meant that I actually ran out of time. So while it would be unfair of me to single out one game, especially as I failed to take proper notes, it would be very hard to top David Imrie’s and Dave Andrew’s Crimean joint venture which was quite superb. As was the spectacular Space Marines vs Orks display at Ilford.

Another of the better games at Partizan was Barry Hilton and Phil Olley’s micro armour display. Using GHQ’s Terrain Maker hexes, 1/285th tanks and infantry, and even their new rules, this was an inspirational demonstration, tipping me over the edge into yet another mini-project. I went straight home and started making hex terrain and painted up some GHQ Panther IIs and Shermans that had been lying in my spares box for probably ten years. I think this was a mistake. They turned out brilliantly, if I may be immodest just this once, but the credit goes mainly to the manufacturer. The detail on these tiny little tanks is incredible (I’d love to know how they do it), and they also capture the sit and look of just about all their subjects perfectly. For casting quality they are right up there with the best in the industry overall, and way better than most larger scale wargame tanks – with clever photography, they can look like 1/76th. What resulted (inevitably) was the purchase of a Stug battalion from Chiltern, to which I even added side armour (!), continued pleasure at how well these tiny tanks paint up and preliminary plans to resurrect my Squad Leader with Miniatures project. The drawbacks? The cost per tank, which is heart stopping compared to the rivals at Heroics, compounded by the requirement to buy five models at a time – fine for Panzer IVs, less so for those essential one offs.

Not content with creaming us at every sport under the sun, the Aussies have been steadily building up an impressive array of manufacturers, all producing high quality figures. They probably have an Academy of Excellence for this as well. You will know of my admiration for Mark Fenlon’s work on the ACW, and for Eureka’s wide range of original figures which seem to grow by the week – the latest ‘normal’ Victorians and Pax Limpopo are even better than the first batch, with the women being very well done. They are joined now by Castaway Arts, who I found while looking for decent 28mm camels. It turns out the camels are more than decent, and they do colonials, FPW, ancients and individual weapons as well. I have now seen examples of their Samnites, Hebrews and Colonial British, and while not all cutting edge quality, there are some little gems spread across the ranges.

I thoroughly enjoyed Dave Brown’s piece on Napoleonic cavalry in the latest issue, and it was a pleasure to see him managing the closing moves of his massive Waterloo refight recently held at the National Army Museum. This was quite an undertaking: three long days, thousands of 15mm troops, several commanders per side, some very nice terrain and buildings, and Dave’s own General de Brigade rules running the whole show – surely proof of their solidity, as the whole thing came in bang on schedule. It was a stirring sight, and both well timed and marketed. Media interest was duly piqued – Sky News and several national newspapers had coverage, and some of them were even respectful. The result was a PR coup for the N.A.M, and a winning draw for the French, who managed to storm the ridge and secure La Haie Sainte while the Allied commander prevaricated. The Prussians appeared on cue. A good, if tiring, time was clearly had by all, and were it not for the fact I saw something very similar in 1975, and it seems we have not moved on too far as a hobby, I would have been entirely convinced. Either way, this was an impressive piece of organisation and staging.

But something I have certainly never seen is brewing in the mind of Stephen Lloyd. His gloriously mad plan is to recreate Waterloo with 54mm figures, using Grand Manner rules and unit sizes. This means 120 guns, 7,500 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and the scenery to match. Just imagine that for a moment – mind boggling in 15mm or 25mm, let alone 54mm. Because of the many unavailable troop types in this scale, most of the figures are converted, and poses within each unit are all different. And having seen the paint jobs and based units, I can tell you that no corners have been cut – they look fantastic. Goodness knows what the final spectacle will look like. Needless to say, this has involved a protracted search for the base figures, from Britains, HaT, Timpo, Italeri, Historex, Calder Craft or anyone else that can assist with a cannon wheel, a helmet crest, or horse pose. This massive game is still a couple of years off, and it is planned to fill a 40 feet by 40 feet floor at a suitable venue, probably in the Midlands. Broadband webcams and perhaps even television coverage should allow the event to be viewed worldwide as it is played out. If it isn’t clear by now, I am in awe of this project. And it is a real, viable venture, rather than a pipedream – there are ‘just’ 500 cavalry to go, and he is home and dry. I wish Stephen every success, and if there is this much activity around my favourite battle now, I can’t wait for 2015.

My current paint projects include the ongoing Moors/Southrons, a number of the excellent SuperFigs and re-paints of HeroClix, and of course the above mentioned micro armour diversion. I have also been painting some, erm, fantasy figures. Perhaps I have been subliminally inspired by the recent flood of dodgy WI adverts! – “Welcome to Siggins World, where Emperor Thrak is eyeing up Pongduria”. It seemed that wherever I went or looked around the hobby in the last year, I bumped into someone’s Mordheim warband – fifteen or so nicely painted figures (eminently achievable, and arguably ‘rightsized’ as a project for my over-ambitious nature), full of character, with a connecting theme. I kept seeing them and thinking, mmm, nice but no. Then perhaps. And then I thought why not, no need to play with them, just choose the figure mix, paint them up and stick them on the shelf. So I am half way in. Aiming for a vaguely Sherwood Foresters feel, I have a couple of Empire warrior monks, a hunchback, the Citadel Robin Hood trio, a Bretonnian sorceress, an archer/ranger type, an Elven assassin that fell off a White Dwarf, a jester, a moor, an Old Glory Swiss hornist, and a handler with HLBSC’s rearing bear on a chain – though the latter is just a bit large and scary, and may be replaced by a suitable mastiff. I’d also like a dwarf, but most of those on the market seem to be Spacehoppers with Beards, so I am drifting towards Gimli from the Workshop Lord of the Rings set. I’ll put them all up on the web site when they are finished.

I have spent altogether too much money over the years on ‘unfocused’ resin terrain and buildings. I don’t think, apart from a respectable cluster of half timbered buildings, I could do anything worthwhile with those I have acquired, but if anyone needs a watchtower for their border reivers, or a terrace of Egyptian houses, an African mud hut or three, or an impressive range of idols, menhirs and statues, I am your man. Many of these purchases have come from Steve Mussared’s Monolith range, and the latest purchases are well up to his usual standard. I got the grain silo, which will probably see a lot of use, a couple of tombs, and the excellent Sphinx statues. And if you spend £100 or more, you get a free temple – and it is a serious temple, ideal for your Greeks and a fitting centrepiece for skirmishes or larger battles. Available from Monolith’s website or from Shaun McLaughlin at most shows.

There are way too many interesting figure releases at the moment to do them all justice. So, here is a brief round up: Lead Boiler Suit’s 1/48ths: Finally out, and well worth waiting for. A splendid range of individual figures, looking to expand to skirmish ranges. Napoleonics, Pirates, Cape Wars and even a Mountain Man, and much more besides. Wonderful. Cromwell Combat Ready: the Hummel and Nashorn are out – and they are the best yet. Not inexpensive at £14.50 each, but just look at the mouldings, and you can’t easily get them anywhere else anyway – the Milicast ones are great, but a little fragile for the table. Xyston 15mm Greeks: very nice indeed. Had I not already bought the Foundry Spartans, I could have easily cracked. Like AB, worth the premium asking price and have the look of 25mms. Gripping Beast: Some good figures among the Crusaders, but perhaps too uniform for maximum enthusiasm. The horses still disappoint, and those cloth bardings may need some movement. Saracens and Rus to come, which should be irresistable. Crusader Miniature’s 1940 French: excellent figures, full of character, and paint up really well. I am a little worried about the officer’s uniform accuracy though, and would like more variety in the eight man packs, which are often just two lots of four. WestWind’s Samurai: very tempting infantry, but the packaging means buying figures you don’t need, and the horses are big and rather weird. Old Glory’s French in Egypt: Another range that should prompt immediate purchase, but didn’t. The French are strangely lacking in detail, especially facially. I like some of the Mamelukes though, and the Middle Eastern peasant mob look great. Front Rank Dutch-Belgians: Highly tempting, but I am waiting on Alan Perry’s renditions. Rackham: Too many gorgeous figures to buy. Available in the UK, at last. Renegade ECW Infantry: Very, very impressed. So much so, I bought a regiment (and I swore I would not). SuperFigs: Almost all the range is excellent, the main problem is getting hold of the more popular items. HeroClix: Surprisingly good standard of sculpting, and only the collectible marketing ploy (spit) counts against, as with the equally impressive Mechs. Has anyone managed to strip the paint? I am considering a blowtorch. Battle Honours 28mm Finns: An original and well sculpted range, very appealing. Copplestone’s Back of Beyond: The character packs have some great figures, and I have secured all of them! Force of Arms 28mm vehicles: Have to be seen to be believed. The FT17 makes up into a beautiful little tank model, and the artillery pieces are ground breaking. Lots of Vietnam stuff too. Baker Co’s Vietnam 28mm: Not my period at all, but some of Rob’s best work. I-Kore’s Celtos, and Renegade’s Celts: what is with the cricket bat swords? Brooks Miniatures 28mm Modern British: A new company, offering an authentic 20 figure range of present day infantry, complete with dysfunctional SA80 rifles. Taliban and SAS to come. Very promising start, the sculpting is better than many of the established companies.

Book of the Month is an easy choice. Many years ago Games Workshop published annuals covering the best miniatures of the year, and specifically those on display at the Golden Demon competition. And now the idea has been revisited in the shape of Fantasy Miniatures 2002. This is a marvelous, full colour overview of the last few years of figure painting, and I have to say it contains some of the best work I have ever seen – much of which I was seeing for the first time, as it originates from the European and Australian Golden Demons. I have said it before, but everyone can learn from the techniques on display here, for historical, SF or fantasy subjects. At the very least it is an inspirational volume. A fantastic book.