Wargamer’s Notebook 5

Well, another Salute has been and gone. The crowds, at what remains one of the top three ‘big’ shows, seem to have picked up, but with at least some of the regular traders exiled to a neighbouring building, it was difficult to say for sure. What was noticeable, and I wish I’d counted before to see the trend, was the preponderance of science fiction and fantasy games. They accounted for well over half those present, and while it would be churlish to bemoan their presence, when they ascend to the majority it is a little galling. Why? Because while they don’t appeal to me, they so easily could. They don’t because the games are of such a low standard and, especially considering the subject matter, largely unimaginative. I can quite happily live the rest of my life without seeing another Mad Max/Car Wars clone, and however biased this will sound, I am always acutely aware of the research these people haven’t done. And whatever the subject matter, isn’t there a more appropriate keepsake from the organisers to the gamers than a mug?

Striking a balance were two excellent historical games that caught my eye for superb modelling, capturing their subject perfectly and having the all important enthusiastic presenters. Good, but still the runner up, was the wonderful naval game, Gibraltar. The water effects and the ship models just had to be seen to be believed, and the overall effect was stunning. Shading even this outstanding game by a whisker was my Game of the Month, The First Sikh War, displayed by Paul Trickett and Dean Whitehouse – a couple of talented S.O.D.S. ably assisted by the Stockton Godfather, Dave Thomas. This was one of the first demonstration games I’ve seen, outside of the Nottingham coterie, to use Foundry figures in the mass. And what a sight it was. Top notch painting, individualised units, fitting scenery, an elephant and a feel of Indian heat and dust. Marvellous stuff.

I recently spent a few days in Paris, sadly not for the European miniatures show, but for the Salon des Jeux, a boardgame and miniatures event that rides in the sidecar of a huge model engineering exhibition. Compared to the Reuilly event in May, there were very few miniatures on show, the crowd being more attuned to boardgames and Vae Victis magazine. Anyway, far from disappointed by the other models on show, I spent a pleasant few hours there and then headed off to do some shopping at Champs de Mars (Rue Sevigny, in the beautiful Marais district) to see what I’d been missing. The result was like entering a time warp. A quaint little shop, packed full of figures, books, rules, games and even Wargames Illustrated. It is exactly the sort of dusty, enthusiastic, enigmatic shop that used to exist in London before they all died, one by one. The fact that Paris supports three or four of them may say something. I don’t know what, but they are still there, fighting.

Apart from quickly realising that Paris is now painfully expensive, the other thing I learned was that, generally speaking, French modellers seem not to use the same paints as we do. I looked around in vain for Humbrol or Revell, or even Citadel, and in the end concluded that they must all be using the little 17ml puffer bottles I’d seen at the show and in the shops. I’d never seen these before, but I can reveal they are acrylic, and manufactured in Spain by Vallejo. They are sold under two trade names: Model Colour, and Prince August – the latter of cast your own troops fame. Whether they are available in the UK I don’t know, but they are excellent paints. Really matt, smooth, good coverage, quick drying and available in a wide range of colours – especially those suitable for modern uniforms – including five greys. In fact, they have all the benefits of both enamels and acrylics. As you’ll have guessed, I picked up some sample colours and now would like to get some more.

While this may be deemed a little serious for this column, I can’t think of any other suitable forum, so here goes. My current concern is with the safety issues surrounding the hobby. This is partly prompted by a newly acquired sensitivity to enamels, non-PVA glues, Miliput and various thinners, and partly because I have heard of one recent case of lead poisoning, another of airbrushing affecting breathing and a pessimistic report on the dangers of inhaling solder fumes. To add to this, the perils of MEK (Liquid Poly) are now well known as a brain rotting agent. Without wishing to put a damper on the hobby, just how safe are the materials we use? Personally, I have reverted to non-toxic acrylics and odourless materials wherever possible, but since then have been shocked at the warnings on certain putties (forceful enough to consider burying them in the garden) and spray paints – ‘Harmful or lethal if inhaled’. Cripes. Now I know there are some tough old hobbyists who sprinkle iron filings on their cornflakes, ‘lip point’ their turps-laden brushes and chew epoxy filler as if it were Wrigleys, but I do have a nagging doubt that anything with an aroma that blows your head off just can’t be good for you. So, can we get some hard facts on this? Is airbrushing safe with a mask? Can prolonged exposure to enamels or cadmium yellow do lasting damage? Is New York State right to ban lead completely?

A couple of issues back I printed some wild speculation on Guernsey Foundry’s plans for the future, involving shops, 10mm figure ranges and all sorts. This will teach me to listen to rumours, but since I have now heard the truth from the horse’s mouth, I can report (more accurately) as follows. Bryan Ansell’s basic idea is to publish a range of books, rules and related figures that will give you everything you need to start and play in a period – at all levels from skirmish to strategic, if possible. The first period is obviously Wild West, to be followed by Eighteenth Century and, in time, Colonials. The figures will be 25mm, compatible with the existing Foundry ranges, and sculpted by the indecently talented Mark Copplestone. The embryo rulesets and early specimens of the SYW figures are just appearing, which I am lucky enough to have seen, and they look great – real characters, with a sense of being just right for this fascinating period. Of course I need a new army or two, just to finally sink my house into its foundations, so I’ll have to strongly resist these for at least a month or two. Meanwhile, the 10mm SYW red herrings may not see the light of day (the figures exist, they just may not come to market) but I also have a perverse liking for these little beauties – you could quickly paint up enough bases to have really big armies, while retaining enough uniform detail to distinguish the 3rd Foot from a Frenchman. As they say, we shall see. And as for shops, that is some way down the road – but we’ll still be holding our breath.

I have belatedly discovered an excellent ranges of figures this month. They are ancient, 15mm, which would normally be two strikes against for me, but the quality outweighs any reservations. Xth Legion produce a wide range of little masterpieces, primarily covering city state Greeks, Macedonian and Punic Wars, and Indians, that I suspect will see extensive service in DBA and DBM, but deserve a better fate. Unlike most figures of this scale, they have both detail and individual animation, and come in a range of poses that with clever painting will look superb. They are so good, they had me itching to do that 1:1 Spartan Phalanx project I’ve been toying with for fifteen years. Xth Legion can be contacted at 2 Percy House, 44 Mount Sion, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 1TJ.

Compared to Toy Story or Pocahontas, the Sharpe merchandising machine is a tame animal indeed, but they have still managed to produce Sharpe’s Story, the book of the series, and a soundtrack CD. Now you can listen to Over the Hills on repeat play until you go quite mad. But if you like that sort of thing, it isn’t bad value and it will doubtless suit those seeking period flavour in all dimensions. The book is actually pretty good, giving an overview of the eleven programmes so far and hinting at another series culminating with Sharpe’s Waterloo. Cor. There are biographies of all the participants, including pictures of luminaries such as Liz Hurley, and a good write up on how, why and where the films were made. Recommended.

The Internet is rapidly becoming an interesting place to be. Once you have survived the first few weeks of fumbling with software, endured the massive phone bills and ultimately found something you’re interested in, it settles down to be a useful tool. No more than that, but definitely useful. Once you have got used to Email you’d have to be dragged back to letters and faxes, the Web pages have some very good miniatures resources, and many of the American companies are already on-line and available for queries, sales and general abuse. But the best part for me is the newsgroups, which have recently enjoyed some fascinating discussions on where the hobby, rules and command & control mechanisms are heading. And it’s updated instantly, just in case you are at a loose end at 2am. Worth a look, especially if your firm is paying. If not, I’d recommend AOL who offer a rather good, inexpensive all round package – feel free to mail me on msiggins@aol.com.

An unexpected by product of this column has been a number of letters and phone calls from, shall we say, hobby personalities. This is fine as it gives me a chance to chat to some famous names and listen to their viewpoints, but most of all bounce some ideas off them. One such call, from the infamous John Tuckey, made me strongly consider my credentials for writing the Notebook, in the nicest possible way. If I am enthusiastic about the hobby, John is ten times keener. If I thought I was active hobby-wise, John is (literally) a full time proponent. If I thought my 22 years experience acceptable, John was there when Scruby, Featherstone and Bath were mere novices. If I thought I had some reasonably sized armies, John has the odd 80,000 figures. If I thought my views were strident and forthright, John equates to Richard Littlejohn. At one point I almost made the mistake of revealing I preferred small units, only to remember just in time that John identifies 2,500 Samurai per side as a ‘small skirmish’. But, despite all that, I have to say I have seldom had a more interesting couple of hours on the phone, and were all hobbyists even a shadow of John, we’d have a hobby thriving out of control. Keep the calls coming.

One of the many fascinating subjects John raised was the size of the miniatures hobby, a number I have always assumed to be quite large, but it would be useful to know what it is, and whether or not it is shrinking. Given that there is some blurring at the edges, in terms of crossover boardgamers, Warhammer, and occasional or ‘theoretical’ figure gamers, we tried to pin down a figure for just the ‘hard core’ historical gamers. Bryan Ansell, who has done some useful market research in the field, also offered his views. Between us, we came out with a figure for the UK of between 15,000 and 25,000, the consensus pointing towards 20,000 members, with about the same again in the States. To an extent, with the absence of hard data, this is finger in the air forecasting, but this sounds about right to me. John’s view, naturally enough, was that of this figure only 3,000 attained the Tuckey Hobby Activity Kitemark and that a small percentage of those were ‘drivers’, or leaders. I know exactly what he means. Does anyone have any views? Especially on the US figures and Europe?

One of the side effects of Avalon Hill’s recent troubles was that they lost their computer development team and some talented graphic artists. Fortunately for us, many of them are now working at Talonsoft who have produced one of the best tactical computer games in recent months, or possibly ever. The game is Battleground: Gettysburg (imported by Empire Interactive, £44.99) and it comes as close to a miniatures game on screen as I have yet seen. Forget Fields of Glory with its bugs, madcap units and ridiculous computer opponent – this is of an altogether higher order. The terrain graphics are outstanding, looking rather like a GeoHex set-up, and the game offers either the entire battle or a range of interesting, shorter scenarios. The game itself gives you every historical unit, a huge detailed map, allows changes of formation and facing, clearly shows unit strength, uniform, experience and fatigue, and even runs little sound and video clips of ACW re-enactors whenever the guns fire, or there is a melee. And these video clips are different each time. Incredible stuff, and highly atmospheric.

The difference between Gettysburg and countless other efforts is that this has a decent system underpinning all the chrome, a rather good interface and even offers a fog of war option – so often missing from rival games. The only slight downside, and one likely to stay for a while, is that the game offers no editor to permit what-if scenarios, but that is hardly a major drawback since there are hundreds of hours of play on the CD as is. All the above comments also apply to the previous title in the Battleground series, Ardennes, with the obvious exception of period. I look forward with great interest to the next title in the series, Waterloo. Highly recommended.

Book of the Month this time goes to Brent Nosworthy’s Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies(Constable, £25). Following on from his quietly received Anatomy of Victory, this is likely to enjoy a much higher profile, partly thanks to its period but mainly because it is destined to become a seminal work. This is a marvellous book, full of new interpretations of facts considered incontrovertible, excellent analysis and staggering research while still managing to be highly readable. If you have any interest in this period, or those surrounding it, Battle Tactics is a must buy. Runner up is the latest in the excellent Osprey- killer Montvert series, this time on the Sassanian Armies – didn’t they used to be Sassanids? Anyway, this is another well researched volume by the prolific David Nicolle, and has a feast of colour plates by the master, Angus McBride. These troops have always been among my favourites, being a real ‘painter’s army’, and accordingly my first ancient forces were Hinchliffe 25mm, levies, elephants and all. This book is so good I was itching to start building them up again. But I resisted. Just.