Wargamer’s Notebook 56

7/7/2005

I am posting this a day after the tragic events in London. As a traveller on the tube for over thirty years, I can only imagine the horror of yesterday morning for those involved, and those waiting for news. I know I don’t understand the inhumanity of these actions, but as the Americans have oft stated, we are at war so must expect such atrocities. My thoughts are with the dead and injured, and their friends and families.

Buzz

Sometimes writers have to ask the reader to take things on trust. How else can I assure you that the first half shows of the year, especially Tunbridge Wells, Milton Keynes, Partizan and Salute, were pretty much buzzing with enthusiasm. New products, keen buyers, happy traders and some fantastically good demonstration games. Okay, so balancing that there is also a sense of too many scales and too many periods fighting for attention, and several traders mentioned seeking the ‘next big thing’, but generally, apart from a moribund show or two, the hobby seems in fine fettle. It wasn’t only me, people I spoke to were positive about a hobby in a state of furious output and seemingly creative overdrive. There is just so much good stuff about. Long may it continue.

Plastic Fantastic

One of the most encouraging aspects for me is the inexorable rise of the plastic figure, partly on the back of HaT’s remarkable efforts. Like many, I started out in games with a couple of tatty library books (Terry Wise and Charles Grant), awful club rules, a unit of Airfix British Hussars, the 11th Foot and the Gordon Highlanders (damn, I still remember them with pride) and a cupboard under the stairs in which to paint. And boy was I happy. For various reasons I drifted off to ‘better’ rules and metal figures for decades, occasionally toying with plastics and building up quite a pile of boxes, but now, well, they seem to appeal more than anything else I see. I get thoroughly enthused when I see the latest Perries or Copplestones painted up, but a box of Zvezda Cuirassiers, HaT Mortar Teams or Caesar Partisans takes me straight back to a better time, a time when figures weren’t chunky, and gaming was the most important element. The sweet spot is hit by Napoleonics (big shock there), SYW or WWII figures, which complement my ever growing collection of tanks and softskins.

That golden age of gaming has long since gone, replaced with a painter/very occasional gamer role, and as discussed previously, I know I am not alone. I don’t see many letters from readers – I always take this as a tacit evaluation of perfection (!) – but I am corresponding with four people who are leaving behind metals and show standard painting for rapid deployment games with basic rules, block paintjobs and 20mm plastics. In at least two cases, the figures are unpainted. And before you scream ‘blasphemy!’, I should state that my last three games were played with a large number of plastic figures, with both sides sprayed white. And very enjoyable games they were too.

We all know, deep down, the reasons we snub plastics. 1. Their size does not give the visual impact of 28mm, unless one looks closely to appreciate the fine detail. 2. Importantly, they have a poor heft factor – no plastics are ever going to match that ‘six metal figures on a plywood base’ feel. I think this is a bigger aesthetic issue than most of us admit – heft obviously suggests quality. 3. The fact that they always shed paint (though this is much reduced these days with PVA). And frankly, well, they are plastics. At this point the irrational snobbery, born of almost thirty years gaming, really kicks in. I can’t deny it is still there, if virtually eliminated now. Why is this? Part of it is stigma. Back in the early days we aspired to metal troops; it was almost a natural progression. Other club members looked down on us with our Airfix regiments, and rather than standing firm and proud, we simply adopted the same Minifigian values. I can’t see my hero Terry Wise doing that. It was downhill from there – a little assuredness might have seen a very different gaming career! Another reason is me. I have always made a point of buying ‘the best’ (a misguided approach to life, if ever there was one). It just seemed to be a case of why use the Zenith when I can afford a Nikon? Or Fairy Liquid vs Two Cheapies, if you prefer. I am realising that, for gaming, metals may not be ‘the best’ after all.

Nevertheless, value for money is a major plus, but as I have said before the not only are they cheap, the figures are better. The best figures are superior to anything else available in small scale. And the range and quality is remarkable. At one end they form a quality adjunct to my 20mm metals and tanks, at the other I can go out and buy a complete samurai army for little more than the cost of a few packs of 28mm – cavalry, for instance, work out at roughly eight times the price of plastics. That is quite a multiple. Finally, the plastic sculptors can usually make a decent horse, which is more than almost all metal sculptors can achieve.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not about to throw my lovingly chosen 28 and 40mms into the bin or onto eBay. I still love to paint, and for me it remains the best way of relaxing – Rilo Kiley, Laura Cantrell or choral works on the headphones, a nice cold German wheatbeer and some Montgomery and crackers, and I am all set for a few hours bliss. But perhaps I will paint more one offs for painting’s sake and abandon the increasingly distant goal of building units or even armies from these figures.

The Silent Invader

Another emerging pattern is the presence of Games Workshop. It is clear now that Warhammer Ancient Battles (with all the peripheral issues these rules raise) not only has a decent grip on the hobby, but may also be moving in for the stranglehold. Just make sure that you know where we are, and that you are happy with the situation. Why? Because even compared to my assessment of a couple of years back, the penetration is now considerably more widespread. Don’t come running when all you can buy are Warhammer based rules for all periods, and figure prices have eased up by another 50%, because I will just smugly point you to this column and hand you a box of plastics!

Joking apart, and whatever my views, I simply can’t argue with the fact that an awful lot of people are playing, and enjoying, these rules. At Partizan, it became a bit repetitive. Just about anyone I spoke to was buying an army pack, gaming this, building that, shield transferring a unit, writing a supplement, and always with WHAB as the base level. Sure, there are a number of detractors and those like me who can see the gaming benefits but are trying to preserve that old, near forgotten part of the hobby – the history. But the gamers, not the historians, have the whip hand at the moment, and I suppose I put up or shut up. I know which you would prefer!

On the plus side, the rules, like DBA before them, are engaging gamers’ minds, and making ancients (and more interestingly Dark Ages) the in period again. Armies can be built quickly, and then extended, and games and campaigns are eagerly planned. Everything is laid out in the army lists, figures are readily available from Foundry, Gripping Beast, Vendel, Artizan, Crusader, the Perries and many others. LBM will happily sell you their excellent shield transfers, and there are some lovely banners on the market these days. All there, on a plate. As Phil Olley said last time, it is an interactive, balanced, manageable format that gamers are buying into. As for negatives, you know what I am going to say. The system is 1970’s vintage, and dice heavy, while the historical content is little more than a thin veneer. I don’t think the battles bear much relation to anything, and the tactical coup stories are those of game mechanics, not history.

In fairness my analysis is that it is simply the set of rules many of you have been waiting for, offering the right balance of speed, visual appeal, simulation (and stimulation), flavour and gaming challenge. All rules reflect necessary compromise and a varied mixture of the above. WHAB are clearly a recipe that works for many. It is also a logical successor to DBA, with 28mm winning out over 15mm. I am just slightly disappointed that this panacea emerged with those rather staid and dated systems, and ultimately from GW, rather than from one of the pioneering or innovative companies that have come (and often gone!) over the last 30 years. Indeed, perhaps it is only a company with the clout of GW that could establish such a popular standard these days. Let’s take a popular rule set – say Armati. It is certainly widely played, accepted and appreciated. Is it in a position to dominate? Does it have the marketing, level of penetration and the desired qualities to ‘win’?

Certainly all those people who were moaning long and hard about American rule prices think little of shelling out for a new supplement. If nothing else, WHAB is probably the most expensive ruleset most of us own. The supplements are coming thick and fast now, with hobby luminaries commissioned to write on their area of interest. One doesn’t need the supplements, but one often does want them! The latest contains my beloved Sassanids, but buying an £18 supplement for a couple of colour pictures and some potted, and often amateur, history doesn’t make much sense at the moment. So I haven’t cracked as yet. This month also sees the release of Warmaster Ancients (the inevitable conversion of the popular mass battle, small scale figure rules) and an expansion for Legends of the Old West. I would appreciate your comments on these.

Partizan I

Although I am cutting back even further on shows this year – £100 or more to attend is just too much compared to a foregone mail order of goodies – Partizan I will hopefully always remain on the calendar. The show was a good one and, as I alluded to above, it was noticeably full of enthusiasm. After a six hour wander around some of the best games you will see anywhere, my hobby cup was full to overflowing. Gaming highlights included Bruno Allanson’s brilliant Lost World set piece, with Schleich dinosaurs, a pygmy village on stilts and many details to spot and enjoy. Dave Andrews and friends put on an exquisite WWII game, and are still flying the 20mm flag. Hurrah! Dereham Club put on a huge, impressive Vietnam game, and threaten to return in September with a alternative WWII game using Graven Images figures and custom terrain. Should be good. Doug Robinson presented an unusual game, depicting a few tanks on an Iraqi highway – minimalist, realistic, very ‘CNN newsreel’ in feel, capturing the look perfectly with precise modelling, posing and detailing. Morris and Jones reprised their excellent Vortigern dark ages game, notable because the battle lines were set on the diagonal which made all the difference. As ever, every unit revealed a feast of painting and modelling skills. North Hull, always a reliable fixture of this show, put on an imposing Russian Civil War game that had every conceivable type of unit.

Developments

As an addition to the above comments I want to take a closer look at two, very different, games I saw at Partizan. Firstly, Skirmish Wargames put on a remarkable 54mm Boxer Rebellion game which for some reason made a lasting impact on me. Of course most of these figures, while harder to source, are also plastic and so echo my comments above on 20mms. They are easily converted, and while different techniques apply, they are also easy to mass paint. And usually, you don’t need as many. The choice is growing all the time, and for a fleeting moment I knew that this was my next project. It took me a full week of looking at the excellent website, investigating figure sources, and planning an ECW game before I remembered that historical skirmish games, for me, depict the least palatable face of wargaming – 1:1 individual figures make for distressing visualisation for this gamer.

Timecast, Baccus and the Shrewsbury posse combined to present an innovative 6mm game on Trebbia from Suvorov’s 1799 campaign in Italy. From any sort of distance, this game looked very impressive and the gamers were not slow in identifying their inspiration – those excellent terrain pictures presented in the 1870 ruleset. Suprising how often they come into the conversation. So, how did it work? The units each had a large number of 6mm figures and were all based, diorama style, on 100mm square bases, so essentially you were moving a big boardgame counter with very nice figures instead of graphics. Even more interesting was the battlefield. Imagine a grid of representative terrain tiles (villages, trees, open, olive groves etc) into which the units moved. I say ‘into’ advisedly as terrain was simply moved out of the way – I call this ‘rippling’ – and replaced by a unit base (of the same standard size) after movement. Further, two areas on the board were designated ‘key terrain’ and these were not moveable, so units deploying there were taken off board. I think this approach makes a good stab at combining visual impact and useful grid systems. The rules used were Sam Mustafa’s highly regarded Grande Armee, the excellent terrain was by Timecast and figures were Baccus and Heroics & Ros.