Wargamer’s Notebook 47

The house move is done. Well, half of it. I am out of my house and into storage, and looking (with some urgency!) for a place to rent. So traumatic was the packing of figures, books and furniture that I can say no more on the subject, which will doubtless please many of you. Within a day of committing 99% of my life to big wooden boxes, my electronic organiser failed terminally, so this column is written largely from memory, and there is a good chance I have forgotten items I promised, and added a few items that seemed like a good idea at the time.

I was chatting recently to my regular foil, Rob Santucci, and we got to discussing the gentle art of compromise. To what extent are the figures we envisage in our mind’s eye, when they are proudly announced by a manufacturer, anything like the finished product? In other words, do you have a vision of what you want, yet often buy something that falls short? I know I do, although I can be happy with the level of compromise – with the top sculptors it is not too big a gap, it is closing all the time, and often they come up with a surprise treatment. This also sounds like an arrogant stance – I know exactly what I want, and I am waiting for these sculptors to come up with it, while not personally having the talent to sculpt so much as a brick. But it isn’t arrogance; it is merely a desire to see better and better figures. There can’t be many people in the world with more respect (indeed, awe) for our top designers. So what do I want to see? I want to see figures on horses that look like a Rousselot or Meissonier painting. I want to see anatomy and posing that would not shame Leliepvre or Griffing. And I want animation to match Detaille and Troiani. Perhaps as Chris Peers pointed out recently, it is a false hope to expect such figures to appear in 28mm, and that I am really a frustrated model soldier collector. There may be truth in that analysis, but I live in expectation that the next 28mm masterpiece will edge closer to my ideal of perfection.

On which subject, I suppose it says a lot when you finally come across the range of exquisite figures for which you have been waiting all your life, see them painted in a spectacular new style, mentally plan the mail order (almost all of them!), neatly sidestep the guilt of yet more lead, and happily await their arrival on your doorstep. The figures in question were a sort of Arabian Nights in Graphic Novel style, with the forthcoming temptation of steampunk Victorians and robots. The painted samples were beautifully (and originally) done; highly stylised, cleverly blended and with a strange translucent quality – rather like some of Tenniel’s Alice watercolours I spotted at the Tate recently. The sculptor, unknown to me, looked as if he had trained with Rackham (of France, not Arthur). So this was it, what I had been waiting for all these years. The only slight hitch was that a couple of days later I realised the whole sequence had been a cheddar cheese-inspired dream. I was not amused.

At present I am trying to resist buying more of the Perries’ Samurai. Mainly because the thought of all those unpainted figures still looms large in my mind, but also because they are not my ideal period – I really prefer the samurai from about 300 years earlier (give or take). But they look so damned good in Dave Thomas’ cabinet that I have to say I am wavering. A few more samples can’t hurt, can they? They will go right up against Kevin Dallimore’s Jack the Ripper conversions, Crocodile’s Aegyptus range, Mr.Copplestone’s Big Game Hunters and the latest Indians from Redoubt in a fight for this gamer’s dollars. Painting meanwhile has gone firmly on hold since, with the move, I have neither paints nor figures to hand – a completely undesirable first since I started this hobby all those years ago. This leaves me with new project planning, prioritising existing painting and, yes, badly missing access to the workbench.

I’ll hold my hand up and say I am a magazine addict. I get far too many, and always seem to have a small pile waiting to be read. But I love them, and enjoy the spread of images, news and ideas that one picks up. By far the best selection of hobby magazines is still at www.magweb.com, who now have 105 magazines on line at a nominal charge. But for those who like paper, and the ability to read in the bath or on the train, the hobby still offers several top-drawer publications (not top shelf, but there are exceptions!). Modesty forbids me to include WI, so at the head of the list is Vae Victis. Your O Level French will help greatly, but even a smattering of Franglais will get you through the main highlights, while the English rules for the boardgame in each issue usually appear, in due time, on the web thanks to hard working volunteer translators. This bimonthly magazine is amazingly good, and it remains hard to credit how it is produced for the price (about £4). It covers history, boardgames, miniatures, books and computer games, all in full colour. And while other titles take the exclusively miniatures route, the all inclusive approach seems to work well enough for Vae Victis. The new figure pictures alone are worth the price of admission, because they are the only magazine to get well painted, timely shots into every issue. If your tastes lean to fantasy or SF, you will be equally well served by Ravage, VV’s sister publication. Highly recommended.

From nearby Italy, we have Dadi & Piombo (Dice & Lead). This has a lot more monochrome pages than VV, and concentrates more on miniatures, but it still has boardgames and re-enactment coverage too. It reeks of quality, has that lovely glossy paper and striking, undeniably modern layout. The colour pictures are also top notch. Importantly for one of the smaller world markets, there is a strong shops and clubs section, backed up with articles specifically for beginners. And I do like the look of those 15mm Venexia figures… Before you ask, no I don’t read Italian, but I can work out what is going on; a Rapid Fire scenario is much the same in any language – squadroni corazzatti ‘regular’ indeed.

The Courier, meanwhile, is still around. Pronounced clinically dead more times than I can recall, it lurches zombie-like back to life every now and then. The resurrection seemed like an annual event at best, but that phase is apparently behind us, and I have seen two issues in three months, which is proof enough of life. Sadly, this zombie hasn’t changed its clothes, and looks like a Seventies throwback. The sad truth is that it is deadly dull, from the tired layout, through the washed out greyness of the pictures, to the earnest historical articles. There is no colour (literally and figuratively) apart from the cover pages, the ads are uninspiring, and the paper is not at all pleasant. All of that could be offset by good content, but I found just one article in two issues that was interesting – and that was the late George Jeffrey’s VLB system revisited. What is good (and there had to be something) is the comparative reviews that feature in most issues, and the figure reviews which are well illustrated with decent images, which I think is virtually essential these days. Your mileage may vary.

Dadi & Piombo is available in most Italian hobby shops, or at http://go.to/dadi&piombo. The Courier and Vae Victis, together with many other exotic titles like the excellent MWAN and SteelMasters, are available from Caliver Books who attend most shows, and have a prompt mail order service at www.caliverbooks.com.

When I started out in the hobby there was a strange phenomenon in figure lists. All infantry were, say, 10 new pennies each, while a drummer or officer might be 12p. This price loading seemed to die out, and for years I can’t remember anyone trying it on in the historical market, except perhaps AB (The Foundry of 15mm!). Now, it is back, if sometimes operating undercover. Take Redoubt’s increasingly impressive French and Indian range, where the book characters are twice the price of the ‘line troops’. I am pretty sure this is not because pensions are being paid to the character’s descendents, or to Mr. Fenimore Cooper’s estate, or that they represent twice the work, or the metal content. On quizzing a few people it seems the logic is that fewer officer and character figures will be sold, but require the same amount of work to master, so they are priced higher to compensate. Now I am not going to come down on one side or the other, because I have never run a miniatures company, but it strikes me that this argument is outdated generally, and completely invalid when the range is clearly intended for skirmish or ‘collectable’ status. I concede the figures have to be made, but step one would seem to be to structure your mould making and production to account for the difference in sales? And, since they are essential, perhaps to do your costings across the board rather than figure by figure?

But more importantly, I think we have seen enough drift towards a ‘collector’ mentality in the market (buy one of each figure, buy the officers/cool characters, or buy only the diorama suitable ones) to think that these characters are, just perhaps, the figures everyone wants. Surely this results in sales of greater numbers? In which case, is there any justification for higher prices, or is it just a cynical cash in? I’d love to see the respective sales figures, if only to happily be proved wrong and see that there are still Real Gamers out there, buying lots of rank and file and building units. My suspicion is that this is not the case. Of course one cannot suggest that manufacturers can’t charge what they like, but it leaves a bad taste if this is what is going on. My gut feeling is that we are pushing very close to the ‘limited edition’ or bonus/premium figure scam here. You will recall that I don’t care for that particular marketing ploy, and ask that if a figure is listed in a range, that is available without subscribing for life, jumping through hoops, buying another 60 figures to get it, or paying twice the price of a grunt. The customer should be king here, and the manufacturer can work out his own supply issues. I am wondering if I should have applied to work on Watchdog!

Steve Barber has been busy. While adding steadily to his excellent Mythology and Settlement ranges, including a superb Glyptodont, and launching a Zulu project, he has also set off on an unusual tangent: 42mm Samurai from the Sengoku period. My first question to Steve, after buying most of the range, was why 42mm? Steve feels that this was the smallest size of figure he could make while properly conveying the amazing detail of samurai armour, and as the range is intended for skirmish gaming, the terrain needs were easily covered by a few big trees and perhaps a single building. I can’t argue with the logic. The period is perfect for skirmish gaming, and as long as the range is complete and self-contained (rules are coming soon), the concept works for me. The figures are excellent, easily some of Steve’s best anatomy work, are solidly made and perfectly able to withstand game handling. And of course many have the sashimono, which after the Osprey on Samurai Heraldry are a joy to paint – even if it does make me think of English Elizabethans running around with a big flag on their back! There are a dozen samurai and ashigaru available now, and five ninja (what range is complete without them?) with more to come.

I suppose one has to say that, as with HLBSC and North Star, we are now a lot closer to 54mm figures and being true ‘model soldiers’, and, metal content apart, one starts to question why the jump to that bigger scale is not made – certain enlightened souls in the hobby (Mr Blake for one, and the excellent Saving Private Ryan games) have already embraced this figure size as ideal for skirmish gaming. Certainly the range of subjects available at 1/35th or 1/32nd, and the supporting vehicles and terrain, is not to be sniffed at. And if WWII is your thing, or you don’t mind plastic figures, then you are completely spoilt for choice. Of course where Steve’s figures score is that they are very reasonably priced, at £2.50 to £3.00, compared to £10 or more for a 54mm metal. It will be interesting to see if the hobby drifts any closer to the traditional 54mm scale.

The Two Towers rolled onto our screens with the enviable job of filling the sandwich. In the end I returned for seconds and thirds, so I suppose it succeeded well enough. There is much that is very good, balanced by some disappointments, specifically in some occasionally weak computer graphics. But if that effort and budget went into getting Gollum to work convincingly, which he did, then it was well worth it. Other elements also sparkle. I was much taken with the retrospective Balrog scenes, the sneak peek at the Haradrim, the sheer brilliance of the massed armies and siege, and once again the beauty of New Zealand shines through. But the Easterlings were poor, the Ents would appear to have been pollarded and thus confused, or perhaps they represent a new bonsai species, and those wargs were ‘unusual’. But more seriously, there are some diversions from the book that will make your hair stand on end. I am no Tolkien purist, ready to fall on my Elven sword at a mispronounced hard c, so can see why some of the changes make for a better cinematic experience. But many don’t, and one or two ‘enhancements’ are just unfathomable. It strikes me there is a marked arrogance on display, a bit like reading a Shakespeare play and making a few editorial snips and additions here and there. I don’t see the need, and it will be telling to see if the third part actually demanded the changes or if it was merely whim. But for all that it is a very good film. Not great, but good. And it somehow left me with a sense of something missing, but what I could not tell you! I take comfort in imagining quite how disappointing it could have been. My film of the year then? No, that goes to Donnie Darko, followed by Minority Report and Road to Perdition. But still well worth seeing.

So, another year passes. A traumatic one for me, with no sign of the hassle lifting, though we live in hope. But the hobby is always there, providing me with disengaging painting sessions, enjoyable days out at shows or with fellow gamers, products to admire, and no little enthusiasm, even if I have very little time to put it all into practice. Of course what should also be mentioned here is gaming. I think it is true to say I played about four figure games in 2002, an all time low. Lots of reasons, mostly unavoidable, which I hope to rectify this year.

The lowlights of the year were some cynical marketing ploys, figure pricing in general, and Amazon’s truly dreadful Guns & Girls, which is the sort of puerile rubbish that has no place in this hobby. As ever though, the highlights were legion and there was much to be excited about: H&C’s continued publishing triumphs; Zulu and Sharpe on DVD, and Ran due soon; Heroclix; Gabriel Mykaj’s Waterloo dioramas; Horse Colour Explained; the re-issued Airfix Robin Hood and Sheriff of Nottingham sets; Joe Videki’s website; Shieldwall; Zvezda’s multipose hard plastics; Games Workshop’s superb Lord of the Rings range, Necrons and Tomb Kings; Stephen Lloyd’s Waterloo project; and a steady flow of excellent new figures from the usual suspects and some newer faces: the Perries, Mark Copplestone, Gripping Beast, Workshop and Rackham were joined by a rejuvenated Redoubt with their French Indian range; Bob Naismith’s excellent Superfigs; the amazing Empire Miniatures; two outstanding ECW launches from Renegade and Bicorne; by Force of Arms’ tanks and guns; Lead Boiler Suit’s 1/48ths and the abovementioned Steve Barber samurai, and then there are the many Aussies who continue to impress. And even Foundry put on a spurt towards the end of the year. Not bad eh? My game of the year would be, just, the Crimean game put on by David Imrie and Dave Andrews at Partizan, which retains its lead in the show stakes without breaking sweat. Perhaps it is time for a handicap?