Wargamer’s Notebook 7

This column contains elements from Notebook 3. There was some editorial overlap. MS

Let me run something past you. Trundle down to your local library, or to your bookshelf if it’s well stocked, and have a look at Dorling Kindersley’s Ultimate Horse Book, or similar. Check carefully through the shapes, proportions and colours of the horses and then tell me if you recognise any of those on your figure shelf. No? Neither did I. What I’d be interested to know, from the experts out there, is what type of horse is closest to, say, that ridden by the Scots Greys at Waterloo or (insert unit and period of your choice here). Then armed with that information, we could go away and try to model them. I think 15mm (and smaller) horses get away with murder because, well, because they are so small. 25mm’s vary from the almost there (Foundry), the good (some Gilders, a few First Corps), through the passable (Front Rank, Elite) to the downright weird (Dixon, Old Glory, Redoubt, Suren, and almost everything else) and the worst ever (Minifig fatbums). The solution? Well, call me a francophile, but I think the best horse models around are 54mm Historex. As you may know, these are sold as around twenty different body halves and heads, which can all be mixed and matched giving a huge variety of poses. They are also anatomically excellent – good proportions (if slightly ‘narrow’), detailed musculature, perfect heads and thin legs in the right trotting/galloping positions. So what I’d like, from an enterprising manufacturer, is an equivalent range in 25mm scale. I know they’d need more work on cleaning up and filling, for all I know they might need a stiffer metal to do the legs properly, and they’d be expensive, but I’d still buy some, and I’m sure others would too. By Christmas would be nice, if you don’t mind.

I suppose one might say the last series of Sharpe was a huge disappointment. Unlike the previous three years, I couldn’t find anyone offering a positive assessment and the scripts seem to have quickly drifted off into the desperation zone – a bad case of Croft & Perry Syndrome, which in its worst form might see Harper dressed up as a cantiniere, with canned laughter. Whatever, we can expect three more programmes culminating with Waterloo, doubtless portrayed with around 30 troops a side. So having come to a natural end, and let’s face it they have excelled themselves given the flimsy plots and dire characterisation they had to work with, my thoughts turn to a replacement. Personally, I have always thought the estimable Harry Flashman a logical successor. Passing quickly over the disastrous ’60’s films, the books are excellent – immeasurably superior to Sharpe – and still in print, the Victorian subject matter is unsurpassed, and there is plenty of love interest in the shape of Elspeth and his many paramours to ensure a post watershed screening. But who to play the starring role? Certainly not Sean Bean, nor Daniel Day Lewis, but perhaps Ralph Fiennes would suit, or a dubbed Kevin Costner, since his film career seems all but over. Your thoughts are welcomed by Mike Siggins, c/o Gandamack Productions, La Jolla CA, but you should probably be advised that, after a hellish selection procedure, I have already cast Emmanuelle Beart as Elspeth.

If, like me, you use boardgame systems either for ideas, campaign play or tactical battle systems, then you will certainly be interested in the latest release from Charles Vasey. Some of you may remember his excellent King’s War issued through the Pike & Shot Society, and the designs are always structured with an eye to the miniatures market. To my mind Charles is virtually the only publisher of truly historical boardgames and his latest release is no exception. The new one covers the battle of Flodden and plays superbly within an hour or so. The game can be played using any of several historical models, and with a little ingenuity the counters can easily be replaced with figures. Highly recommended, and while you’re writing, ask for a copy of Perfidious Albion, his excellent historical design magazine. Flodden can be obtained from Charles Vasey, 75 Richmond Park Road, East Sheen, London SW14 8JY for £9 inc p&p, Perfidious Albion £2 extra.

Do you remember the detective in Blade Runner who left the little folded paper models wherever he’d been? Quite a neat calling card, all things considered. Imagine my surprise (and no little scepticism), when I came across a gamer on the Internet who builds his armies using origami figurines. Oh, yeah right, I thought. Very practical. But I was intrigued, so I dropped Wayne Ko an email. Following a rapid discussion (he can do horses, guns and infantry, they take him around an hour each, he started when he found he couldn’t paint quickly enough) and a delay of around a week, an airmail envelope arrived containing a slightly squashed 20mm Grognard, Scots Grey and French 8 pounder. And they are absolutely incredible pieces of work. They stand up on their own, have all the different colours built in and are anatomically just right. In the mass, they must look fantastic. The workmanship is stunning, the dexterity required beyond belief. So, when I next hear about yet another example of the ingenuity and skill of the miniatures hobby, I won’t be quite so sceptical….

It seems to be a flag day. At the York show earlier this year, I came across B&B Flags who have taken the logical step of putting their PC and graphics package to good use by turning out a range of pre-coloured flags. They are good for two reasons: firstly they have had them professionally litho printed so the colours and material look right (unlike Revo) and they also understand the requirements of those who use ‘big’ 25mm figures – the flags are correspondingly large. The range is already extensive and even covers specific Napoleonic campaigns. Recommended. However, dwarfing even this achievement, and making me wonder quite why they have no UK distributor, are Signifer. Now this is what you call a range. The periods covered include Napoleonics, ACW, Franco-Prussian, Crimean, Renaissance, SYW and more. Most are available in 15mm and 25mm, with some in 6mm and 10mm. The quality is superb – you can even make out the little diamonds on the 6mm Bavarian flags. I have made up a few samples and they go together very well. A little careful glueing, painting of the edges and matt varnishing is all it takes, and frankly, for the smaller scales, you probably don’t need to do anything more. A superb range, growing all the time, and likely to save me hours of painting with my Austrians. Signifer can be contacted at 2001 E Lohman, Suite 149, Las Cruces, NM 8800, USA. and a UK distributor is being sought as we speak.

However, if you are of the opinion that pre-printed flags can never look quite right and insist on painting your own, you may be interested in the following technique. It may well have been done before, but I certainly haven’t seen it written down. I came to re-invent it because I can’t paint sheet metal flags without a ‘paint by numbers’ line guide, and because I am deeply envious of Mark Allen’s efforts. The drawback is that unless you can draw, you too will need access to a PC and graphics package (I use Corel Draw), which means the flags work out at around £100 each, plus labour. The idea is essentially to create a black and white flag that has all the necessary detail in place ready for painting. The flag will be pre-shaped on the staff before painting, which allows you to mould it into those great billowy shapes (and to throw it away if it goes wrong), and to be able to identify the shadows and highlights as you go. This is how I made all the six flags for the 1815 Brunswickers, but the technique also worked well for my Swiss cantonal standards and lancer pennons. There are more projects in the works.

So, here goes. 1. Using white 55gsm paper (typing copy paper – your local stationers will have it), reproduce the flag design to exact scale size using the graphics package, or hand draw using technical pens. Make sure the ink (or toner) is black or sepia and, importantly, water resistant. NB Leave a 1.5-2mm section between the two sides to allow for wrapping round the pole. 2. Carefully cut out the flag from the paper and gently fold it in half. 3. Using PVA glue sparingly, completely cover the inside of one half the flag. 4. Working quickly, fold the flag again around the pole, and align the edges. Squeeze the flag so that both sides and corners are firmly stuck. Remove any escaped PVA, taking great care not to get glue on the flag faces. 5. While the glue is still wet, gently mould the flag around fingers, pencils, cocktail sticks or brush handles to the desired shape and ‘flappiness’. It will take quite severe shaping, far more than the pre-printed ones reviewed above, but still beware of ‘creasing’ the paper or tearing it through extreme contortions. 5a. You may wish to make more than one of each to allow for unrecoverable errors while painting. 6. Leave to dry overnight or longer if possible. 7. Either coat the whole flag with matt varnish before painting and shading with acrylics or enamels, or leave as is, and use watercolours. The latter isn’t as daft as it sounds as the PVA shields the other side of the flag from water and colour penetration. However, keep the washes relatively ‘dry’, using the paper’s natural colour as highlights. Spray with fixative when you’re done. And that’s it. They look good, they’re quite tough, and you don’t have to paint without guidelines. Now for those British regimental colours….

Like many of you, I have piles of books and magazines on each of my favourite periods – histories, uniform guides, formations, rulesets and so on. It was only recently though, when I came to make up some terrain and buildings, that I realised how few I have on these important subjects. Given the effort we all go to make sure the troops look just right, I can’t be the only one to wonder if the terrain is historically correct as well. Yes, I know many of us are happy with some vaguely European style half-timbered houses, a few bits of walling and hedges and a plastic tree, but did walls look like that, were those hedges there, what shape were the fields, what sort of trees were growing? I don’t know the answers, and short of looking at period paintings (Constable is good here) I have no idea how to find out. I have tried Wood’s Historical Britain and Rackham’s History of the Countryside, but neither really gives enough information or pictures (not much demand for Ektachrome in the 1800’s), and of course they are specific to Britain. Does anyone know of a good book or two on European and American rural history? And when do we finally get access to a time machine?

Of course all this faffing around with tree varieties is just one symptom of perfectionitis. This vile disease can afflict the gamer in various ways: constant pursuit of historical accuracy and the ideal figure pose, or scale, or period; the quest for the holy grail of rules; whether to paint in oils, enamels, acrylics, gouache or even watercolours; black or white undercoat?; constantly evolving techniques for basing and flags; making buildings and terrain that wouldn’t look out of place in an architect’s office. The upshot of all of this is that you take literally years to get anywhere and when you’ve done it, it’s time to redo the first unit you produced to those then exacting standards. I am not moaning though, because I will readily admit that I too suffer from this ailment. After a little break from the hobby, I re-started my Napoleonic armies around four years ago. As of last month, I have at last finalised the unit sizes, basing approach, scale of terrain and, importantly – thanks to the excellent Finity acrylics I mentioned – the painting style I am happy with. So all it will now take is to apply the techniques to the couple of hundred undercoated Foundry figures, base them, build the terrain and design the rules, and I’ll be ready for a stunning demonstration game in, oh, around 2002. As long as my mate finishes the French by then, and of course there will be the inevitable diversions into Sassanids, Sikh Wars and Sea Peoples en route. Which makes it all the more depressing is that people like the Perry Twins can do what they do in the time available, and put on a show each year at Newark with figures still warm from the moulds. But since they are evidently not of this earth, they’ve probably got a machine to provide fifty waking hours a day anyway.

You may remember my recommending Talonsoft’s Battleground: Gettysburg? Well, the Waterloo game in the same series is now available (Empire Interactive, £44.99) and continues where the ACW edition left off. Almost inevitably there are a few niggling errors (Lowland Scots in Kilts, Riflemen in red…) but in the main they have done a good job. And as we now add squares and cavalry charges to the mix, the game has gone up a notch tactically while retaining its previous outstanding playability and aesthetic qualities. It is only in the grand tactical area in which it is weak, having no command and control to speak of – a shame since it would have been easy to add, even as an option. Whatever, the game plays quickly, and we were able to complete a Waterloo scenario (the whole battle, mind you) in around five hours, with two players. This was fun, and actually quite lifelike, but left a lot of down time for both players. A better option, also provided in this latest package, is play by email – complete your turn at your own pace, save, mail it to your opponent (anywhere in the world) and wait for the response. Again, recommended.

For those players of ASL, either with miniatures or counters, who are sick of waiting for Close Combat (Squad Leader) on the PC, may I commend SSI’s Steel Panthers. This isn’t ASL, but it is about as close as they could get without the thrills of a lawsuit. You get lots of scenarios, top down views of tanks and infantry and an exacting, but ultimately usable, movement and combat system. This in many ways represents the current pinnacle of WWII design on computer and is notable for having, at long last, cracked top notch graphics, fog of war and ease of use in one package. But you’ll still need a fast PC to get the best from it. What it hasn’t sorted is any historical fixes to the ASL system so we still have units doing exactly what you want them to, when you want it. Just like it was in real life. Sort of.

I suppose the mark of a really good figure range is that it has you itching to try a new period. The Foundries, both Guernsey and original flavours, manage this about four times a year and I have to be forcibly restrained by my bank manager on each occasion. So the very last thing I need is another talented sculptor, marketing machine and colour adverts tugging at my credit cards. Or, indeed, yours. So it is with some sadness that I cannot recommend Gripping Beast, whose rather good ranges of Saxons, Normans, Vikings and sundry hairy types should definitely not be bought in their hundreds, partly because of those superbly sculpted heads (Copplestone and the Perries in sleep loss scandal), but mainly because of the extravagantly tempting pose variety and quality of the animation. And that exotic, must-have livestock. So, no sale guys. I am not doing Stamford Bridge, let alone Hastings, and no Viking raids either. No. Definitely not. Well… perhaps a couple of huscarles to be going on with.

While I’m happy to travel quite a way for the better shows, I always equally enjoy those closer to home. Sort of rooting for the home team, you might say. This month has seen two, Broadsword (now with a new venue in Walthamstow) which was a little dispappointing, and Rampage at Ilford. The latter show has settled comfortably into the calendar and now draws a respectable crowd – no doubt seeking that unmistakeable ‘club’ feel that the big boys have long since mislaid. Whatever, the traders are rather less numerous, but considerably more varied (and less rushed) than your typical show and the demonstration games are okay, but usually not up to the standard of the ‘majors’. This year, that changed. There were several good games, but two were very good: Loughton put on a small section of Waterloo depicting just D’Erlon’s attack using Partizan’s new General de Brigade rules and some rather tasty 15mm figures, but my Game of the Month goes to the Hornchurch club who put on a wonderful Fire & Fury ACW game using Hexscape terrain. Huge table, lots of troops, but the space ratio and the presentation were spot on. And they didn’t mind answering questions and appearing enthusiastic – key elements missing from so many demo games. Excellent work chaps.

For years I have read Empires, Eagles and Lions magazine, interested, if not enthralled, by its mix of haughty editorial policy, erudite articles and tireless research into the vagaries of the era as applied to wargaming. But now that has changed; partly for the worst, partly for the better. E,E&L is now named Napoleon, and is published by the all-conquering Todd Fisher at Emperor’s Press. Issues one and two were bought recently and I have to say I’m impressed. Matt DeLaMater (he of Legacy of Glory fame) is at the helm, and promises a steady stream of interesting articles commencing with a fascinating analysis of Grouchy’s actions during the Hundred Days. The rest of the magazine is packed with a mouthwatering selection of interviews, books, adverts, reviews, colour pictures and general chat. What I really miss is Mike Gilbert’s excellent wargamer’s column, which seems to have fallen by the wayside, but what I liked was the pervasive Napoleonic flavour. The articles are well written, the content fine for the price, and it looks wonderful. It is however a mite straightlaced at present, which will doubtless soften as time passes and confidence grows. Highly recommended.

Book of the Month is Tulard’s L’Histoire de Napoleon par la Peinture (Belfond). French, yes, but as this one is mainly pictures it hardly matters. And what pictures. About a complete a pictorial reference as you could hope for on Napoleon, his court and his battles. An incredible book and one to return to time and time again.