Wargamer’s Notebook 55

I was chatting to Bill Gaskin at Partizan last September. Amongst the pleasantries, he came out with the earth shattering statement that his hobby was dead. Anyone who has seen the latest Gaskin Napoleonic pictures in WI will know without doubt that it is very much alive, and is in most respects what many of us are aiming for in life. But Bill can be excused his viewpoint. His concern is with the figures currently available, what we are likely to see in the future, and that his style of gaming (big units, big figures, free flowing rules, conversions, set pieces) may have permanently gone the way of VHS recorders and cotter pins. By way of confirmation, only Elite attended that Partizan show, though some stands were selling Renegade which could be considered spiritually linked to the cause, if only they could keep on track. We also await Redoubt’s new manifesto – can they finally put out a consistently range? Will we ever see good figures from Old Glory again? But what of Bicorne, who also carry Connoisseur? And Ellerburn? I see them once a year. Is there anyone else in the frame? Or has everyone gone to 40mm?!

Just recently, to illustrate the point, I was browsing Phil Olley’s excellent new website, eagerly looking for pictures of his Sassanid army. I found them. They are awesome. But (and I take nothing away from Phil here as I am thinking in a similar way), there aren’t really that many of them. The army is built for Warhammer Ancients, and is intentionally mean and compact, using ‘high value’ figures to make up 2,000 points. The net result is that the cadre (armoured cavalry) comprises 32 figures in four units, and the whole force numbers less than 60 cavalry. Oh, and one pachyderm. Is this an army? Does it look like an army? I leave that to you.

The irony here, and the link back to Mr Gaskin, is that Phil mentions Peter Gilder’s legendary Sassanids (Miniature Wargames 4) as the inspiration for the army and the style. They certainly inspired me in the same way. If the great Gilder were around today, he might reasonably ask when Phil’s army was going to be finished. That is of course a large assumption. Gilder may well by now be an aficionado of WHAB, as it seems to have grabbed the rest of the hobby by the short and curlies and, perhaps, it is just Bill Gaskin and I out of step. But I guess not. I think Gilder would still be building several units of 24 or 30 clibanarii, of 20 cataphracts, a dozen heffalumps and innumerable hordes of levy spearmen. And not worrying too much about points, while building spectacular terrain to play upon.

I have cleared this piece with Phil, and I mean no disrespect, I have just picked him out as a high profile example. I think his army looks great, and he has done the great man’s memory justice, but it is more like a detachment or scouting force, with representative troop ratios. This started with skirmish gaming and DBA and it now has gained such currency that I think the hobby has undergone a paradigm shift. We simply don’t mentally picture larger units, unless you are Peter ‘Baccus’ Berry. Interestingly, the usual excuse for such forces is that they let you get gaming quickly, and allow for competitive or tournament play. I have to say how surprised I was at Warfare to see the large numbers playing tournament WHAB, including our esteemed editor. I combine this with the rapid and impressive sales of each and every Warhammer Historical supplement and question, not for the first time, where this hobby is heading.

At that point, Phil kindly responded so I thought it might be interesting to hear his side, and comment as we go.

PO: Firstly, of course delighted you are giving the site a mention. And I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment about the hobby changing. At the risk of this turning into one of those turgid topics on one of the web forums, here are a few additional points worthy of note:1. Massively improved sculpting over the past 30 years means that to do justice to a figure we feel we need to paint in high quality (or as high as possible!).MS: Definitely the case. Julian at Chiltern, no mean painter himself, observed that as the Perry 40mm figures got better, there was more and more work to do on them, almost to the point of frustration.  2. A seemingly infinite availability of figures, ranges, periods, armies has produced a wargaming fast food syndrome. We want it now… and we know that in a few weeks we’ll want (and be able to get) something new, fresh, different…. a new project to get excited about.MS: Fast food has got me into enough trouble, now I know why.3. I painted close on 650 figs last year (as well as bringing up a family, running a business, writing my second book, etc), and I bet I’m no different to so many wargamers in that respect. Interestingly I approached this differently for different projects… For example, for the Wargaming Nostalgia project [MS: Phil has gone all Charles Grant recently, and very cool it looks], I painted 300 figs in 5 weeks (in one and a half hours per night, plus 3 hours per day at weekends). I painted them in mass production to give a particular look to the thing. And, that’s one of the most commented upon areas of the site! How? By using only old style figures (Tradition, Spencer Smith, Minifigs, Hinchliffe), and not getting hung up on the ‘Dallimore style’ of painting. The difference between painting a single figure, sculpted in modern style, in approx 2 hours, and painting an older-style figure in 20 minutes, is enormous.MS: I have to say that when Phil described this project to me at Partizan, in a sort of ‘Back to Basics’, Hal Thinglum, 48 man Spencer Smith column type of way, I was intrigued. I always loved those pictures of the Regt. von Sigmaringen advancing on the deadly, but always gentlemanly, muskets of the Fusiliers de Chablis. It rather made the war element of wargame seem distant, unreal, and more acceptable. It is an interesting grey area to explore, and I am convinced that fantasy gamers (however close their units to historical counterparts) seldom have crises of conscience that some of us have. 4. So, where has that got us? There is more kudos in magazines, web forums, and dare I say it “notebooks” [MS: Gasp!] to beautifully painted figures rather than big games. When was the last time a game got mentioned for its enormity?MS: Well enormity in games always makes me think of John Tuckey’s Herculean efforts, but I think he has retired. There was the ginormous 6mm 1:1 ECW game last year, and Peter Morbey and the Mosborough lads always seem to have an awful lot of figures on the table. Yes, you are right, there is an emphasis in the press and parts of the web on painting, terrain and to an extent on ‘trendyism’ – new period, right figures, or cool idea overshadowing the game. This is balanced by the large numbers of gamers who, rather than pontificating or procrastinating, just get armies painted and onto the table for regular play. The plastics fans, again, are a good example of this. It brings us neatly round to the merits of WI’s ‘eye candy’ versus MW ‘readers’ wives’ approach. What do you want to see in your magazine? Figure painting you will never be able to achieve? Or troops looking much like your own?5. People feel that smaller armies/forces are more achievable… and we know we will be tempted into new projects so the scale of our ambitions in terms of volume is psychologically regulated. The aspirations for quality, on the other hand, are not regulated as we are bombarded with images of beautifully painted figures.MS: Good point. The ‘small steps’ approach doesn’t preclude expanding the army later, but you still get to feel as if you have ‘finished’ a project, and ticked that box.6. The generation thing… in general terms (and looking around the shows), the bulk of wargamers are of a certain generation. We are relatively time poor, and would be cash rich if it weren’t for the wonderful wargames products which we keep being tempted to buy! So we are inevitably going to be able to paint only a figure or two per evening, giving us a quick fix. It also means we achieve a finished piece…  more instantly gratifying than simply achieving all the white crossbelts on a 36 man unit of  Napoleonic infantry in one night.MS: I may be mistaken here, but this is also a ‘cash poor’ issue for  many. I think armies and scales are shrinking because of the increase in prices across the board. As I have said before, a single unit of 24 or 30 28mm cavalry is not a trivial investment, and an army using that scale is prohibitive for many. This is why many are looking to very small scales, or plastics – they offer both economy and quality. In the case of plastics, as I have said many times, the quality usually exceeds metals. Those 28mm traders I have talked to have confirmed that the ‘buy one of everything’ customer is very real, and that they look forward to the days when the old fashioned big army buyer rides into town.7. If you paint two figs per night, for 6 weeks, that’s a WAB army … and therefore playable as an entity, and knowing you will be up against a similar force if someone says “Tell you what, I’ll bring my 2000 points of Late Romans and we’ll have a game”.MS: Yes, I see this point. It was where DBA scored. I didn’t want to play it, but I could easily see the appeal of rapid development, army wise, and the feasibility of owning several armies rather than several units. I once painted two DBA armies for a friend in Germany in a couple of evenings. Once you have your Greeks, you can do the opponents, or perhaps some Sumerians. And on a representative feel basis, what you do have is armies.8. As a final and very interesting point… On the original picture of Peter Gilder’s Sassanids, guess how many figures were pictured…  just 57 cavalry, plus 4 elephants. Not only do I now not feel quite so outnumbered (and inadequate!), but isn’t that interesting! This, of course, doesn’t take away from your underlying point about the hobby changing. But I couldn’t believe it when I counted… my recollection was of a huge mass of wonderful Sassanid cavalry. Of course, in 1983, as far as I was concerned that was a huge mass, and they were wonderful. Perhaps therein lies part of the answer, though I am now not sure what the question is! You know, presumably, the final irony:  the esteemed editor now uses the Gilder Sassanids… in WAB tournaments! Hark, the sound of the great man turning in his resting place.

MS: Well, well. I never knew that. But surely the picture was just a section of the main army? I seem to recall a cabinet of these figures at Model Engineering exhibitions in the 70’s.

PO: I think you are right, the picture was part of the overall army which was probably HUGE. I was inspired by the pic though, and found when I checked last night that my recollections of volume, etc were way out of kilter with the reality! Not suggesting we have a tendency to view wargaming in years gone by through rose-tinted specs. But imagine if in 1980 there had been the hobby as it is now, and that we were here in 2005 with the hobby as it was then. I think Bill would be right… the hobby had died!MS: Thanks Phil.

Reckless Profligacy

To my eternal shame, I have bought the first three issues of Cry Havoc!, the gorgeous magazine from Rackham. Forty five quid, squire; nice doing business with you. I have to stop, or I am going to go broke. But it is truly superb. Inspirational, even. Aside from having immaculate layout, the best painters, and tips, they have terrain articles, scenarios and game variants that make me all excited, in much the same way White Dwarf used to. The third issue has a basing article that just leaves others coughing in the dirt. Okay, I think I am turning into a FanBoy. I am also sorely tempted by Ragnarok, their new fantasy mass battle game, which at £37 for two rulebooks, cards and counters (no figures!) is also in the realms of financial madness. Even GW might blanche at these prices. Or perhaps not. Someone help me and send me a negative review of Hybrid or Ragnarok that saves me from buying these evil, evil games. The same applies to Mongoose’s new Babylon 5 space combat rules – £30, and £5 and upwards for a ship. This is a rich man’s hobby these days, or at least for those with no willpower.

BrettSpiel

Many people ask me what military boardgames I can recommend, and to be honest I have not been able to answer helpfully. I have been out of the loop for a quite a while, and the games with suitable themes have just not been coming through. Now, that is changing and of course they attack from two flanks these days: old style wargames, almost all from the US, and Euro games that occasionally stray into military themes. Both sources have been productive in the last few months. I have already mentioned War of the Ring and Wallenstein, both excellent games, which continue to get play here. Joining them are Friedrich (Histogame), Napoleon at War (Phalanx), Revolution (also Phalanx), Hammer of the Scots (Columbia), Monty’s Gamble: Market Garden (MMP) and Wings of War (Nexus).

I can recommend all of these to you, most  definitely the miniatures-like Wings of War, but am especially enthused by Friedrich. This is a strategic game of the Seven Years War in Europe, with the forces of Prussia, Russia, France and some minors fighting for dominance. This is an easily learned, cleverly asymmetric game, full of subtle manoeuvring, supply train management and ferocious and epic battles. It uses some Euro style systems, and some traditional, on an attractive point to point map clearly marked with objectives (I like that simple addition). Time ticks until the death of the Czarina, and there is always plenty to consider. The game lead me to where I felt I knew what to do, why I was doing it, and as a result I actually did some strategic stuff I was pleased with. The feel is rather baroque, the situations presented are flavoursome and challenging, and it is without a doubt one of the best wargames I have ever played. Unusually, it requires 3 to 4 players and only 3 hours to play. Highly recommended. All of these games can be referenced at the BoardGameGeek.com web site and purchased from specialist outlets – see www.czapska.com for links.