Wargamer’s Notebook 6

I have made no secret of the fact that the Partizan shows at Newark are my favourites of the year. Clearly, this has been gaining currency with the hobby since the most recent episode, at Kelham Hall in late May, not only had the usual range of excellent games, but also the biggest crowds I’d ever seen there. On the Thomasometer (a rough and ready guide to crowd density based on the jostling at the Foundry/Elite stand), there were Salute-like readings until very late in the afternoon. It was getting a wee bit difficult to move, so it’s time to open that extra hall chaps. And if they’d sort that lighting out, we’d have a near perfect venue.

To my mind, there was also a better overall standard of game here than I’d seen before, with only one or two failing to make the grade. Given that there were twenty odd games in the two halls, this is pretty good going. Some we’d seen before, like the ACW Ironclad and the Charles Grant style Seven Years War game, some were quickly recognisable in style, like the immense Sekigahara put on by the redoubtable John T Tuckey, and still others were very impressive just by their presence – a massive fantasy labyrinth was drawing favourable comments from even the most steadfast historical gamers, and rightly so.

But the games that really caught my eye were Adler Tag, an remarkable piece of terrain modelling showing the English Channel and a patchwork of fields as in those high altitude photos. The effect was stunning, spoilt slightly when the game became rather cluttered with too many, too large, planes. Neverthless, a contender. Next up were the Perry Twins with their Sikh War game, featuring a superb selection of figures and what looked like most of the Games Workshop crew in attendance as helpers. More on this one below. But Game of the Month, and featuring some superb modelling, presentation and helpful gamers was Battle for Rots put on by Justin Lowe and Andrew Martin. I have seldom seen such a well done WWII battle, and even though this is far from my favourite period these days, one couldn’t fail to acknowledge this was an outstanding and eyecatching game. The key aspect was that although the table was huge, the terrain was realistically close and the hardware suitably sparse – no duck-shoot lines of tanks here. And, for once, the Germans looked as if they were hard up against it with a ragtag of equipment and taking advantage of every nook for cover. The atmosphere was spot on and one could almost imagine the Typhoons flying overhead. Excellent work and a deserving winner.

I left the Perry’s Sikh War till last as while it is a magnificent sight, I didn’t think it conveyed the period and location as well as the S.O.D.S. game mentioned last time, which was also present at Partizan. Why? Well, it’s the old terrain chestnut again, but therein lies a story. The Perry game, without the figures, looked something like the 14th hole at Augusta – rolling green grass interspersed with sandy patches and trees. Lovely generic terrain, but, for me, not really India. Conversely, the S.O.D.S. game is barren, arid and sun baked and conjures up images of mad lancer charges, dust, thirst, and women with pots on their heads. However, and the point of the story, is that when the figures went on (and both game had similarly exquisite troops), it all changed. The S.O.D.S. figures merged into the landscape and gave a harmonious, unified feel. The Perry figures stood out, emphasing themselves above the terrain to the extent that the terrain was secondary, and therefore worked better than when naked. Now personally I still prefer the homogenous look, but many were saying no that’s all wrong, we want to see the figures as the stars. And if you look in any issue of White Dwarf (and if not, why not?) you will see a similar approach. I think this is a case of horses for courses, and each to his own, since neither approach is better, just different. Either way, they are both outstanding games and I was pleased to have the chance to identify this technique.

Why would I mention White Dwarf in a sane, upstanding historical gaming magazine? Because if you are anything like me, it is still a treasure trove of superb painting and modelling techniques and instruction, most of which puts the hobby to shame, and a constant source of enthusiasm, inspiration and recruiting verve. If you can’t handle the snotlings and chaos orks, just imagine them as historical figures and look how they are painted. Indeed, most of the Warhammer Empire range is ideal for Renaissance armies, and will soon be featuring in my Swiss pike columns. However, despite all this, you don’t have to go far in this hobby to find someone who will give you chapter and verse on how GW have put everyone out of business, charge £5 for a figure or have forcibly abducted their daughters. But this is all exaggerated tosh. Apart from perhaps the figure prices. I suspect the truth is these critics are hugely envious of a company that has spotted a lucrative market and exploited it with skill and business sense to the extent that they are now one of the fastest growing corporates in Britain. Games Workshop didn’t ruin the gaming industry, nor retail outlets, they simply went into (slightly hard-nosed) competition with them and won. They are very good at what they do and it is a tough old world. In the main I admire what they’ve done, even enjoy some of the products, can see that Warhammer is an generally good thing, and the irony is that I can still go back to the historical products with no permanent damage. Weird that. My, what a long paragraph.

Of course, having stated that 20mm plastic sculptors were at least the match of their metal counterparts, and bemoaned their use of soft plastic material for the umpteenth time, there were seemingly queues of hurt designers lying in wait at Newark to put me straight. It turns out that the soft plastic is nothing more than an understandable toy safety ruling so that kids don’t kebab their eyeballs on Robin Hood quarterstaffs, and that plastic figure masters are in fact made around 12 inches high, and reduced by some sort of 3D pantograph gizmo to any height they fancy. Now whether this is a trade secret or not, I had never heard of this feat of patience and skill. Indeed, the mind boggles as to how it is done. This also explains how Airfix and others made 54mm models strangely similar to their 20mm cousins – they were simply scaled up using the original proportions. Well, I for one am a lot wiser and my estimation of the likes of the Perry Twins has gone even higher.

I am not sure how many of you might even be bothered with this, but I was wondering how many of you had tried the sunlight test. No, not a “swap your cheapy washing up liquid” stunt, but a simple test to check your figure painting. Once painted in the gloom or artificial light of indoors, take them outside on a bright day and see those flaws in their horrible reality. It’s amazing, not to say disheartening, and the colours do all sorts of weird things. Of course since they are intended for indoors use, this matters little and the answer is probably to paint them outside in the first place, but this is a mite tough on drying times while in the sun, and not exactly practical in February.

I seem to have been swamped with new rulesets (you’ve probably been writing them all winter, rather than painting), such that it is becoming tough to read them all, let alone play them, but I will get to them eventually – hopefully one set per month with a short diversion off into computer rulesets in a month or two. Unlike some of my colleagues in the reviewing field who implicitly state, “I never let actually playing a ruleset get in the way of my opinions”, I’ll try to give them all a fair crack of the whip. Indeed, since I am a huge fan of innovative, but workable, systems (NB,WD) and extending the gaming envelope, this is is not exactly a chore.

You would, however, be surprised at just how many rules claim huge great quantum leaps of innovation and historical simulation (usually in the gung-ho foreword) and then proceed to repeat all the same old stuff we’ve seen for the last thirty years. Naturally, this is tweaked here and there for personal preference or to up the stats of those riflemen of which we are all so fond. I have a variety of names for such rulesets, many printable, but usually they are termed 6 Inchers – since that is how far infantry move in column. It is as if this commandment were passed down on stone tablets and read to the gamers by St Donald and St Scruby and we’ve religiously stuck with it ever since. My reference point is a set of Napoleonic rules written in 1965 which if repackaged would doubtless sell well today. I sometimes compare these with the elements of ‘radical, new, biological’ rules and see how they differ. Most don’t, but boy do they think they do!

Such criticism cannot be levelled at Shako which is the latest ruleset from Arty Cunliffe of Tactica and Armati fame. We have jumped forward in time to the SYW and Napoleonics, but the same clean, original design ethos is still easily discerned. When you think about it, this is a logical extension of the system, though if I were a betting man I’d have gone for ACW as the most likely next incarnation. Anyway, I am not going to moan about another fastplay Napoleonic set and the quicker we get a historical and workable equivalent of Fire & Fury, the happier we will all be. That will keep the gamers happy, and then we can have a look at the more historical aspects after that. Shako comes in two flavours; tactical and grand tactical. Both are included in the book along with a SYW supplement and army lists for both periods.

The basis of the game is a straightforward set of planning rules which mean you have to sit down and draw out a sketch map of the battle before play, onto which you draw command arrows showing where and when your attacks will come. The actual result is a little simplistic, but since it is a command system that works to a point, whereas most rules neatly sidestep this requirement, it is good enough for me. And the flank marches are quite a nice touch. The actual combat and movement mechanisms are pretty standard, workable fare, but the main selling point of these rules is that they are quick. We played a small corps level game in around 3½ hours to a finish and felt that we had both learned the system and played enjoyably in that time. Add in the fact that you don’t need to rebase your troops (surely a required factor in all forthcoming rulesets) and we have a set of rules that should make quite an impact at club or group level. I think my only gripe is that the rules use a pretty archaic ‘beaten zone’ approach for artillery, one of the surefire ways to promote arguments, or shall we say heated discussion, as to whether a unit is in or out of the affected area. But more on this subject in a later column.

Shako isn’t a bad set of rules. Not too strong on historical accuracy, they are neverthless easy to assimilate, well written, logical and provide a good, fun, fast game. In fact, I would also say they are ideal for beginners. I found them a little short of period atmosphere, and rather pro-French, but I did like the command rules and the general mechanisms that were clean and relatively modifier free. And the sequence of play is mercifully short. In conclusion, I think we are still awaiting the ultimate fast play, historic and flavoursome Napoleonic rules, but these will do well enough until that fanciful ambition is realised.. At the last count, I had 93 examples of those that have failed thus far, so we must be getting close. And no, I’m not joking.

As far as I can tell, apart from the latest Guernsey Foundry Prussians, there has been little in the way of decent new releases in the figure department. So, it might be worth backtracking to briefly sum up what must be some of the nicest figures in the hobby, but which seem constantly undervalued, low profile and lacking publicity. And what are they? The very popular 20mm WWII ranges from SDD, FAA, Drew’s Militia and Britannia. Now as you might expect, these ranges overlap somewhat, but each has its strengths and of course it means they are also largely interchangeable. I have always been somewhat envious of modern gamers who can, simply by mixing ranges, deploy quite large forces of individually different figures with next to no effort. Anyway, each of these ranges can be considered excellent, and complete luxury to someone like me brought up on Airfix plastics, but to my mind the better figures are produced by FAA and SDD which are so close in quality they are hard to split, with Drew’s a close third. Worth a look when you are next passing their stands.

If you’d said to me in January that the trendy period this year would be the Sikh War, you could have knocked me over with a feather. There is, quite simply, no accounting for the weird and wonderful tastes of the gaming public, and it is also testament to the power of the figure ranges that create these highly enjoyable fads. Just you wait till the inevitable waves of Wild West games start appearing!

I have been sent a review copy of Battlefields magazine which is now up to issue 4. I think the idea of this magazine is a good one, to provide ready to run scenarios and campaigns with all the required information, and now that it is over the honeymoon period, it is starting to hit its stride. Where it falls down for me is in the wide spread of periods, not all of which the reader will be interested in, the inadequate orders of battle, and the ‘one book willies’ who write some of the historical background without inspiring confidence with their short and generic bibliographies. Where it scores, in spades, is in the enthusiasm, utility and ideas departments. The campaigns are well considered and actually have some good ideas for those who spend so much time on buying and painting that they need the slog of organising a game done for them and the magazine is written in such a way that it quickly gets you off your bottom with wild plans afoot. Recommended, available from Partizan Press and newsagents.

Book of the Month is the start of what could well be a quite fascinating small range of reference works. The Cambridge Illustrated Atlas of Warfare: The Middle Ages 768-1487, and Renaissance to Revolution 1492-1792, are quite superb. At £25 each they should be, but the price is not excessive for the spread of information, maps, battle summaries and historical insight on offer. I have thoroughly enjoyed these two books, particularly since they give you a fascinating overview of each period and also cover the more exotic areas – eg the struggle for 18th century Persia – but like many I will be waiting for the forthcoming volumes, which I hope will bracket these two – 1792-1900 and ancient warfare. Highly recommended.