Wargamer’s Notebook 46

Dead Weight

I am about to move house. A daunting prospect, this, but unavoidable. Not having had the guts (or muscles) to tackle the books yet, I have packed up all but a few figures that are being worked on. And that meant, after 25 years at this address, that I was finally forced to face the cleverly dispersed, but very real, Unpainted Lead Mountain. Things didn’t look too bad at first. I pulled out the many boxes, bags and blisters, and packed them away. That was easy, I thought. Then I remembered the ‘deep storage’ items – a veritable warchest of flats, 20mm plastics, tank kits, Connoisseur Napoleonics and horses, Pirates, Darkest Africa, Space Marines, and more Cowboys than you will see in a lifetime of westerns. They too were dug out and neatly filed. I then spotted the flat boxes, containing the National Gripping Beast Reserves, hidden under the workbench. Bums. Add the little black boxes of Perries and Copplestones, and the shoebox of Rackhams. Oh, plus the hundreds at undercoat stage, waiting patiently to cross into the land of colour. And finally the partly painteds wanted somewhere to sleep as well, and demanded bubble wrap to lie in.

The net result was frightening: close on 120 litres of lead, or four large packing crates. I hate to think what they weigh, as I can only lift one at a time – the removal men will be due a large tip. So, I faced the music, sat down, and worked out roughly how many unpainted figures I have. At a conservative guess, it is 2,000. I reckon that will last me till the grave, but will that stop me buying Mr Copplestone’s Big Game Hunters? Bicorne’s ECWs? Or the Perries’ and Gripping Beast’s Saracens? Will it heck. But there is a strong case, in Pontoon terms, to decide to ‘stick’ in the very near future.

In my (rather flimsy) defence, there is an element of investment here, as I have bought most of them at well below current price levels. I intend to ‘paint for sale’ a couple of hundred. I have also consciously stockpiled for a couple of years, knowing that I may not be able to buy in the future; as my mum used to say, “they don’t eat anything”. But it is a daunting number to consider cleaning and priming, let alone painting. Not to mention the ongoing storage, but at least I can use them as a fallout shelter. In a rare rational moment, I considered selling off half of them. But how to choose which ones? So, like a coward, I have deferred the decision, but when I try to fit into my new place, I may yet concede defeat.

Anyway, being the worrying sort, until about a week ago I felt very guilty about this effectively unassailable backlog. But then, a kindly chap on The Miniatures Page suggested a poll to see how many figures people had squirreled away. Of the respondents, 39% had 250 to 1,000 unpainted, 25% had 1,000 to 5,000, 3% over 5,000 and 2% over 10,000! I know manufacturers and retailers who have fewer figures. But even allowing for 6mms or plastics, these are seriously big numbers and there must be a lot of house subsidence around the world. And thus the guilt duly passed. I was among friends, and normal again! Well, almost.

Rising Prices

I started off last time on a small moan about 28mm figure prices. As soon as the column went to print, it was evident that the non-Foundry ‘barrier’ levels I suggested (£1 for infantry, £2 for cavalry) had already been breached, and in some style. Renegade announced their ECW cavalry packs at £7.50 for 3, and Crusader Miniatures’ Normans are 3 for £8. At the same time, I was told that Foundry have ‘reorganised’ some of their historical ranges (notably Perry and Copplestone sculpts) into 6 or 7 figure blisters at the same £8.50 level – at worst, now £1.42 per figure instead of £1.06, an increase of 33%. Worse still, many appealing or key figures are now only available as giveaways with the £60 deals. Nice tactics. And don’t get me started on the postal charges or the ‘precast’ silliness.

I suppose the answer here is simple: subtle or unsubtle price rises are a fact of life at the moment, from house vendors to restaurants, with many (but not all) out to grab what they can while the U.K. economy has some legs left in it. They are also a core feature of capitalism, and market economics will decide if they are sustainable. Ironically, it also may validate Bryan Ansell’s infamous observation that figures are too cheap – and if we keep buying them at these prices, his case is sadly proven. As has been pointed out to me, nowhere is the price for 28mm figures set in stone tablets; that is for the seller and buyer to establish, and it seems we are firmly in that ‘definition’ phase right now.

Whatever the causes, I am struggling with the effects. For me, some figure prices have passed the pain barrier. A while ago I conceded that 28mm armies were beyond my budget. Now, I am thinking that even 30 man units, at up to £45 each (£80 for cavalry!), are as well. Getting excited about, and buying, new figures is enjoyable for me and, on a wider level, this mass enthusiasm is a key foundation of the hobby market. If people are put off from buying in volume, rather than the odd pack, or have their temptation squashed totally by pure economics, then where will the next big period come from? Or the income for the myriad companies now competing for our cash to support their livelihoods?

While we still want figures from these companies, and enough of us vote by opening our wallets, my argument is moot. For that reason, until something major changes, I propose to shut up now [distant cheers] about rising prices, Foundry and the Foundry wannabees. For clarity, I readily concede I may be a minority of one on this, and thus welcome your input, and that I do not for a minute begrudge these talented individuals a living – especially those making a go of it on their own. What I do object to is being overcharged or manipulated, and having my hobby (and buying is a part of that hobby) made less enjoyable as a result. Fortunately, I still have ‘The Lead Mountain’, the sheer joy and value for money of 20mm plastics, and a wide choice of quality metal figures, at lower prices. For these alternatives alone, capitalism gets a pat on the back.

Redoubt Indians

Still on prices, I have never really understood Redoubt’s scale of charges, except possibly that the more senior the figure, the more it costs! Reminds me of Workshop, where one can seemingly pay for the in-game benefits as well as the metal and design. Some Redoubt foot figures are well priced, at say 6 for £4.50, yet others are £2 each, while Ajax (from the excellent Trojan range) is £3.50! I know he’s a big lad, but it must be that cool dendra armour we are paying for. It makes buying something of a lottery, and one of the reasons that I buy so little from Redoubt. Another reason is that the quality remains inconsistent within ranges, with a few figures outstanding and the rest, well, variable at best. The same applies to the horses, to greater extremes. But those concerns are partly behind me as I look at the new Woodland Indians from the French-Indian War range. So far, they are very impressive indeed. These are ‘big’ models in the vignette style, effectively 30mm for we oldies who remember Willie Figures, and look as if they will paint up really well. The canoe group is excellent, and the ‘scouting’ poses among the best I’ve seen. They make my Old Glory war party look rather bizarre. One hopes that Last of the Mohicans characters, film inspired or otherwise, will appear in time. Again though, there are some curious price tags – why are two rowing Indians the same price as three Indians and a canoe?

Battle Honours

No such pricing issues with Battle Honours, a company I have always found slightly confusing as a brand. I still think ‘top quality 15mm Naps’ as an initial reaction, but they have an awful lot more going on these days. For starters there is the excellent 15mm WWII range, previously known as Quality Castings. The armour is superb, and always induces pangs of anxiety about having chosen 20mm as my modern scale. Then come the 28mm WWI and II figures, including a growing range of vehicles that are still pretty rare in this increasingly popular scale. And last but not least, they are also now European distributors of the entire Old Glory 15mm line, and that is a range and a half – ancients, Napoleonics, and of course the famous ACW bags, of which there must be thousands in circulation. Hard to imagine that you won’t find something of interest amongst that lot, and in a rare gesture of confidence these days, they have just opened a new shop in Evesham. I hope to visit soon. More details on 01386 45875 or www.battlehonours.co.uk

Zvezda

Zvezda are already well known for their 20mm plastics, but in a new departure they have released two sets of multipose figures. They are unusual in that they are true 28mm, and are moulded in hard plastic. I can hear the cries of ‘At last!’ from here. The figures, all infantry thus far, come on Airfix style sprues, with almost all body parts interchangeable. The first set, which consists of undead Roman legionaries (truly ‘late’ Romans), may be of limited interest to the historical gamer (!), but should be snapped up by the fantasy fans. The second set, the human ‘Royal Army’, is spot on – they are knights and men-at-arms of the late 1400’s, in sallets, so will mix well with War of the Roses and similar. In quality, the standard is very high in both sets. Detail is excellent, faces are good, and while the sculpting style and undercuts are ‘smoother’ than metals, the overall effect is very pleasing. The resulting figures are similar in size to Front Rank, but of course allow a large variety of poses, many of which (I guess) would not be easy with a whitemetal mould, even one using separate arms. For instance, I made one archer holding his bow forward horizontally, while his other arm reaches behind him to grab his next arrow. If nothing else, these will make great ‘individual’ figures, or add variety to a unit. An added bonus is an A4 sheet of superb Russian-style pennants to cut out.

The drawbacks are the price (one I find hard to believe as a Russian product), which is £20 for 24 figures – 20 rankers, 4 officers. If they intend to present an alternative to Workshop, or indeed metal figures, or even to make an impact at all, then this figure needs to come down substantially. The second problem is that some figure combinations end up looking slightly oddly proportioned – and I stress slightly. Legs might be a little short, the neck a little long, and an arm just off of ‘looking right’, and you have a figure that looks a little dwarfish or gawky, and prompts a second, critical glance. But this is only because they are otherwise so good that one notices the shortfalls. And finally, if I were nitpicking, the equipment should be less exaggerated, and there could have been even more variety in body parts than we are offered, especially heads. Nevertheless, being shown these figures was a real treat, and I have not been so keen for a delivery to arrive in some years. I was not disappointed, and greatly enjoyed making them up – hard plastic is so easy to work with, and conversions will be a doddle. Let’s hope they are a commercial success, because I find this approach to figures potentially the most exciting. Especially if we get two part horses!

Workshop GamesDay

There has been a flood of letters (well, six) on my purely Games Workshop piece last time. 50% were in agreement and in favour; 50% had reservations; all offered interesting comments. The sharpest counterpoint likened me to a 1930’s intellectual travelling to Germany or Russia, returning full of positive stories of smiling faces, exciting rallies, and smart uniforms. That is a little harsh on GW, but it made me smile anyway. But even so, there is an element of taking home what you find appealing, and seeing if it fits. If I am guilty of any crime, it is not that I spent a whole column on one subject (and a subject not at all appropriate to WI, according to Mr. Angry of Stowmarket), or that I got carried away, but that I failed to come up with any conclusions or answers as to why we are different as a hobby, yet so close to GW in many respects. And importantly, what GW’s latest entry into the historical field meant, and could yet mean.

The most telling answer was that our hobby does a poor job of selling itself. Individuals and shows might do it well, but we have no image, no brand, no presence, and no profile at a national level. And of course very few shops… In fact we may generate purely negative messages in the big wide world. We don’t even have a beginner’s policy, or literature to balance the disapproving views. So, no group effort, no unified vision of the hobby, no co-operation. Just distinct groups of traders, clubs and gamers – further divided by period, manufacturer, rule and scale loyalties – some of whom come together at shows that suit everyone involved. But which, I suspect, do little to advance the hobby (however that is to be done). And that assumes that any given gamer really cares, unselfishly, about the future. One toys mentally with the idea of an organisation being the solution, but then one remembers the BHGS (who one wouldn’t want leading a conga) and the HMGS (who never seem to stop fighting among themselves). Committees are not the answer, I feel, and I don’t think we are partial to being organised.

The really hard hitting responses concerned three main areas. Firstly, that inviting GW into our shows was unlikely to be reciprocated by them allowing hobby traders and games at GamesDay. A good point, but never say never. Secondly, that Warhammer Historical was a species of Trojan Horse that would allow GW to check out the market from the inside, and foster any further expansion plans. And thirdly, and by far the best point made, was that contrary to the common view that GW provides a ready source of new gamers for our hobby (a theory which is hard to find much evidence for), instead they have in fact deprived the hobby of potential recruits, largely because of the effective cloaking of the historical alternative. It may be true that GW exposes youngsters to the miniatures gaming hobby, that they otherwise may not have discovered, but it may also be true that, eventually, their hobby is left behind and deemed childish in later life, much to our cost.

The two hobbies obviously also have different goals. Perhaps for the historical hobby, this may be choosing not to maximize profits but instead to offer other ‘value’ (in terms of historical content, or innovation, or aesthetics, or game mechanisms) to the customer. That decision may in turn restrict the size of the target market. I have lost count of the times I have heard the phrase, “I could do it to appeal to more people, but I wanted to do it my way”. This point I can understand – it certainly explains why we have 6mm, 10mm, 1/48th scale and42mm figures – albeit not so understandable if combined with gripes about low turnover. This is all possible because we are a wilful, cantankerous bunch. I don’t see some future ‘Big Brother’ entity being able to say, “Any scale apart from x mm is no longer acceptable, and our figures are best. These are the periods you will play. You will use this set of rules, and buy all the revisions and supplements. Here are your special dice and rulers. Chaching.” All else becomes a minority interest, or dies. But the right company at the right time, or a very popular ‘standard’ rule set, might achieve a similar result unwittingly, or through stealth, or power. How close was WRG to pulling it off? Or Foundry?

As an example, WHAB is hugely popular I believe, which I think means it has identified and ridden the zeitgeist – right period, right figure scale, right presentation, points and army lists, fewer figures, better painting, nice terrain, fun game, historicity as a secondary concern. Plus it is good for competitive gaming, even for people who don’t normally bother. But that diluted historical element seems, well, at least ‘acceptable’ for many. Sadly, as an advocate of history, this is what I hear people saying. It may only be a gut feeling, but is it possible only a very few of us are striving for good history and good fun? And how many are questioning rules on a historical level, WD excepted? I sometimes think this may be the great myth of the hobby – for most, it long since stopped being about history, if it ever was, and the game is very much the thing. Yes, evidently there are people who buy history books, and are keen historians, and play historical rules (or try to), and embrace unbalanced games. But I see them as a minority of gamers. Even some of those people who clearly do know the history can undergo a transformation at the table. At which point, I should stop generalising! Anyway, I hope the subject was at least thought provoking.