Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Thoughts of a Toygamer

As an appropriate foreword, here is a clip from a thread on (of which I am a fairly regular reader) which I offer as an example of something I have struggled with for a long time – including a few heart-searchings on this very blog, I believe.

The author of the clip has published this on the Internet, where everyone can see it, and appears even to be quite pleased with his idea, so I see no reason to change any details of it or protect his ID. Everyone is perfectly entitled to express their views (subject to moderation, of course), and it is only reasonable that everyone else is entitled to a free opinion of those views (without moderation), and of the sort of people who express them, and why they feel moved to do so.

Respect all round; fair is fair.

I don’t have a problem with this view – it seems a tad bitchy, maybe, but it’s quite amusing. Equally, I don’t have a problem with Martin’s most recent instalment of his serial emails to me on the subject of the evil that is Commands & Colors, and how it will never replace proper Old School wargaming. Martin has probably never thought of himself as a Toygamer, but he appears to be just that, and will probably be proud of the fact now that he knows.

So what is all this about? What is it that makes us (all of us, including me) pay lip-service to the enrichment which diversity brings to our hobby, while still taking every chance to stick pins in some “other lot”, because they offend some fundamental ideal which we’ve held so long we can’t remember where we learned it?

I don’t feel I ever got close enough to the human race to have a valid view on human nature – whatever that is – so I’ll spare you some embarrassment by grasping the opportunity to keep quiet on that one, but I had a couple of thoughts while shaving.

(1) Is it, in fact, a single hobby? Is a single hobby too straightforward? Do we all need some imagined opposing faction within it, to which we can feel superior?

(2) Are we all a bit defensive anyway, because of the traditional (imagined?) contempt felt for wargamers by the rest of the world? Is it easier to take out one’s touchiness on near relatives?

(3) I’m on shaky ground trying to produce unqualified generalisations about the hobby and its disciples – my own preferences and areas of interest are much too limited for that, and I do not have as wide a general understanding as I sometimes like to think. I can only have a go at analyzing where I am myself, and how I came to think the way I do.

(4) …and, because he deserves it, I’ll have a go at Martin.

As briefly as possible (not least because I have written all this numerous times before):

* I was originally excited by the same books as most wargamers of my age
* I’ve spent a great many years since then trying to make the games as enjoyable as I expected them to be when I started
* I’m still trying, but I’m more pragmatic about it now
* I love little painted soldiers in neat rows – the more colourful the period the better; this love is out of all proportion to any sensible reason for it, but it is a major influence on the types of games I like to play
* I was deeply shocked by board wargames; it took a long time before I would try one, but I was amazed at the clarity and completeness of the rules, the speed and logic of the play, and by the almost total lack of arguments
* However, I found the visual spectacle less satisfactory, and I missed the little men, so I spent the next 30 years looking for some satisfactory middle ground that combined the best of both worlds
* Commands & Colors (played with miniatures, in my case) has gone a long way to filling that hole for me; it doesn’t suit everyone, and it doesn’t provide absolutely everything I need either, but I wish the game had been around many years ago

At which point Martin appears and tells me I’m mistaken and that I have sold out to the enemy. He does it pleasantly and amusingly, of course, and his reasoning has an orthodoxy that I have come to recognise.

You see, my friends (whisper it) – Martin has also struggled with the disappointment which much of his wargaming has generated, but he has dealt with this by going back to the original books and starting again – back to the time when he was still excited. I can see a flaw here – it is something to do with failing to learn from history. If I were to go back 30-odd years – good heavens, it’s 40 years now! – I would recognise all the holes and shortcomings in the game which led to all the blind-alley tweaks and improvements and the eventual realization that boardgames had something which was useful and (more whispering) sometimes better.

I’ve got them all here – Featherstone, Wesencraft, Young, Morschauser, Grant. I really enjoy them – so much that I have actually replaced a couple of them that I had sold on eBay in a rash moment. But this is nostalgia, for the most part. Particularly Wesencraft’s Practical Wargames, which was the biggest influence on my developmental years – I sometimes have a mad urge to play a game using Wesencraft’s rules, but when I stop and consider how it will be – all the morale testing especially – I usually go off the idea.

So do I play a lot of board wargames, then? No – I own a good few, but seldom, if ever, do I play them. I recently bought a decent old copy of Ariel’s The English Civil War on eBay, entirely because it is considered an excellent instrument for conducting solo compaigns as a framework for miniatures battles. I haven’t used it yet. By the time I had checked that all the (rather dull) cardboard counters were present and correct I couldn’t face it. All those counters – all that effort to sort them out, change a 20-point cavalry counter for a 10 and a five and 3 ones after each action – as a solo experience I find this, I regret to say, dismal. I live in hope that I shall shake off this lack of fortitude and get on with it, but I find that handling large numbers of cardboard counters is a great chore, while – strangely – I will happily arrange cupboards and boxes and tables full of painted toys all day long.

Discuss. I also have to point out that the attraction of the cardboard squares is not helped by my dwindling eyesight, nor the fact that my fingertips appear to be changing into elephants’ feet.

Martin, meanwhile, is feverishly setting up games which look exactly like the photos in the original Charles Grant (Sr) books, and even fighting those same battles, in his rush to recapture the thrill. Good for him. He knows he is right, too.

As ever, I haven’t really got anywhere here, other than confirming that there are a lot more questions than answers, but often the consideration of the questions is useful. Or at least it passes the time until I can’t remember why I was doing it in the first place.

Which reminds me that my original intention was to say a few words about a book I am reading on my Kindle. It is Simulating War, by Philip Sabin, and I believe I was prompted to purchase it by a comment on one of the blogs I read – I can’t remember exactly where I heard of it, but if it was your comment then thank you.

I’ve not really got very far through it yet, but have found it fascinating. Sabin discusses many aspects of the theoretical modelling of warfare, and compares the approaches and relative success of professional strategists, educators and hobbyists, and the various strengths and weaknesses of paper layouts (which we might describe as boardgames) and computer games, which, briefly, he considers to have been less successful than expected, since they are market and technology led, and tend to be designed bottom-up. The criterion for success here is not commercial profitability, but Sabin’s central theme of the optimal balance between realism and playability – a subject which we could all bore the legs off donkeys with for many years.

I offer no kind of review here, other than to recommend the book if this is the sort of thing you find interesting. I did notice, however, that occasionally I found myself pleased because he had expressed something which I feel myself, but rather more skillfully and convincingly than I could have managed. If I am honest, I was especially pleased at the occasions where he was criticising some “other lot”. At other times I found he was sticking pins in my lot, at which point I would say to myself, “ah, he doesn’t really understand that”, or “that’s true, but it doesn’t really apply to me…”

That other lot have much to answer for.

Friday, 18 April 2014

C&CN - Barrosa Scenario

Barrosa starting position (almost untweaked), from behind the French right
Yesterday I fought a Commands & Colors: Napoleonics battle with my friend Jack, who has no prior experience of wargames. Since this was primarily a social occasion, I gave some thought to what would provide a suitable game.

C&C is a pretty obvious game for a beginner, since it is straightforward, capable of being learned quickly (and as you go along), moves along briskly and is of short duration.

I made a mental note that I must take care not to frighten off my friend by being too enthusiastic, and I seriously considered an ECW game using my own variant of the rules – the ECW, after all, has a pleasingly ancient, other-worldly charm, and the funny costumes and quaint “Chaunce” cards all add to its potential appeal.

Eventually, I decided that the Napoleonic game has less fiddly bits (squares and combined-arms attacks notwithstanding) and involves less risk of someone being injured by a unit of pikes. Further, it seemed a good idea to use a published scenario, since these are pre-tested and should give a balanced game and – importantly – start from a position where the armies are lined up and ready to go. If it seems odd to justify using someone else’s scenario, I must explain that I normally do not use them.

I chose the Barrosa scenario from the 1st (Spanish) expansion set, and made a few other decisions for the day:

(1) Use the C&CN rules as published, without my usual house tweaks (the Barrosa scenario does not involve guerrilleros, nor use of the guerrilla rules)

(2) Take care to use the unit sizes and strengths as published, rather than my own variations on these, so as not to distort the game balance

(3) The only tweak was to add a couple of units of cavalry to each army, to give a better spread of troop types for an instruction game

We adopted the approach of jointly examining the cards of both sides and agreeing the best moves on each turn, taking the opportunity to reinforce the way the rules work and consider the available options. The game went well – we were, I suppose, running it as a joint facilitation rather than as a match – Jack didn’t get too confused, and seemed to quite enjoy himself, and we finished in round about the standard two hours.

The narrative of the battle is quickly presented. The French set about the big hill on their left front, drove the Spanish infantry from it, and were then stopped dead by the British Foot Guards (who are a very serious proposition indeed), and by the (largely unauthorised) British cavalry, who made very short work of their French opposite numbers. The Allies won 7-5 (including the extra victory point for having most of the hill), the French situation not being helped by the spectacular failure of their light cavalry and the demise of General Ruffin. The wooded plain opposite the French right did not feature very much in the action, though it served to limit the effectiveness of their artillery.

The Spanish General Lardizabal, in passing, was the true hero of the day, leading units into action in a manner which would have astounded everyone back in 1811.

Anyway, an interesting afternoon. My liking for the un-tweaked rules is renewed, and I have another candidate opponent for future games. I have decided that the Short Supply command card is such a silly one that I may drop it from the pack in future - it is difficult to come up with a justification of what it involves (one unit selected to drop back to the baseline). I also have a new respect for the published scenarios, though I have to say that the Barrosa scenario is not awfully similar to the actual battle…

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Hooptedoodle #129 - ECW - MacGonagall on Montrose

The Execution of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose
A Historical Poem
‘Twas in the year of 1650, and on the twenty-first of May,

The city of Edinburgh was put into a state of dismay

By the noise of drums and trumpets, which on the air arose,

That the great sound attracted the notice of Montrose.
Who enquired at the Captain of the guard the cause of it,

Then the officer told him, as he thought most fit,

That the Parliament dreading an attempt might be made to rescue him,

The soldiers were called out to arms, and that had made the din.
Do I, said Montrose, continue such a terror still?

Now when these good men are about my blood to spill,

But let them look to themselves, for after I am dead,

Their wicked consciences will be in continual dread.
After partaking of a hearty breakfast, he commenced his toilet,

Which, in his greatest trouble, he seldom did forget.

And while in the act of combing his hair,

He was visited by the Clerk Register, who made him stare,
When he told him he shouldn’t be so particular with his head,

For in a few hours he would be dead;

But Montrose replied, While my head is my own I’ll dress it at my ease,

And to-morrow, when it becomes yours, treat it as you please.
He was waited upon by the Magistrates of the city,

But, alas! for him they had no pity.

He was habited in a superb cloak, ornamented with gold and silver lace;

And before the hour of execution an immense assemblage of people were round the place.
From the prison, bareheaded, in a cart, they conveyed him along the Watergate

To the place of execution on the High Street, where about thirty thousand people did wait,

Some crying and sighing, a most pitiful sight to see,

All waiting patiently to see the executioner hang Montrose, a man of high degree.
Around the place of execution, all of them were deeply affected,

But Montrose, the noble hero, seemed not the least dejected;

And when on the scaffold he had, says his biographer Wishart,

Such a grand air and majesty, which made the people start.
As the fatal hour was approaching when he had to bid the world adieu,

He told the executioner to make haste and get quickly through,

But the executioner smiled grimly, but spoke not a word,

Then he tied the Book of Montrose’s Wars round his neck with a cord.
Then he told the executioner his foes would remember him hereafter,

And he was as well pleased as if his Majesty had made him Knight of the Garter;

Then he asked to be allowed to cover his head,

But he was denied permission, yet he felt no dread.
He then asked leave to keep on his cloak,

But was also denied, which was a most grievous stroke;

Then he told the Magistrates, if they could invent any more tortures for him,

He would endure them all for the cause he suffered, and think it no sin.
On arriving at the top of the ladder with great firmness,

His heroic appearance greatly did the bystanders impress,

Then Montrose asked the executioner how long his body would be suspended,

Three hours was the answer, but Montrose was not the least offended.
Then he presented the executioner with three or four pieces of gold,

Whom he freely forgave, to his honour be it told,

And told him to throw him off as soon as he uplifted his hands,

While the executioner watched the fatal signal, and in amazement stands.
And on the noble patriot raising his hands, the executioner began to cry,

Then quickly he pulled the rope down from the gibbet on high,

And around Montrose’s neck he fixed the rope very gently,

And in an instant the great Montrose was launched into eternity.
Then the spectators expressed their disapprobation by general groan,

And they all dispersed quietly, and wended their way home

And his bitterest enemies that saw his death that day,

Their hearts were filled with sorrow and dismay.
Thus died, at the age of thirty-eight, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose,

Who was brought to a premature grave by his bitter foes;

A commander who had acquired great military glory

In a short space of time, which cannot be equalled in story.

Though you might feel that you have once again identified the distinctive style of Miss Bentham’s class at Beaconsfield Primary School, this is, of course, the work of William Topaz MacGonagall (1830-1902), variously regarded as Scotland’s worst ever poet or Dundee’s favourite son. Yes, of course it's rubbish, but personally I admire his bold disregard for accuracy of rhyme and meter, and his overriding, earnest enthusiasm. Spike Milligan was a huge fan.

Was MacGonagall, I sometimes wonder, taking the mickey? Was he an early version of the off-beat Scottish humorists of whom Chic Murray and Ivor Cutler are more recent examples?

I've attempted to include an embedded YouTube clip of suitably improving tone - I had some difficulty getting this to work, which may simply be a problem with the version of Flash I have on my iMac. Here it is anyway - if it doesn't run, try clicking here to link directly.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Hooptedoodle #128 - Nose-stalgia? - not what it used to be

When I was a young chap, my grandfather (who lived in Paris at the time) once sent me a bottle of Chevalier d'Orsay after-shave lotion as a Christmas gift, and a fine big bottle it was, too.

In those days, Paris was a lot further away and a lot more exotic than it seems now, and this after-shave was fantastic stuff. Maybe fantastic isn't the word - maybe fantastic is not what we (or the copy writers) are looking for in after-shave - but it was the best after-shave I ever had, anyway. It was a very fresh, lemony scent, with sort of herbal things in it - don't expect me to start using words like "notes"…

Anyway, I was as frugal as possible with this, my very-best No.1 after-shave, and it lasted for years, but eventually it was gone, as was my grandfather, and I never managed to get any more. So I moved on, and I forgot all about it.

After that I suppose I must have gone through the Brut years, the Lynx years, the Ralph Lauren years, the Calvin Klein years and eventually found myself back at the Boots'-own-brand, £5.99-a-bottle years, as one does. Not having thought about it for decades, one day recently I suddenly remembered Chevalier d'Orsay, the Contesse looked it up online, and - merveilleux! - found that it is still made, and someone in the UK sells the stuff by mail order.

Not a big deal, admittedly, but my life is less glamorous than it once was, and the prospect of having the postman deliver an instant trip back to my 20s was at least a little bit exciting. There is nothing, I contend, more capable of firing up memories than one's sense of smell, so I invested in a little olfactory time travel - black magic and wicked spices, just for the hell of it.

The package arrived, and I have been using it since that day. It is, of course, eau de toilette in a modern sprayer rather than splash-on after-shave, and it really is very pleasant, but - you know what? - it doesn't smell the same. I did a bit of poking around online, and I understand that Parfums d'Orsay withdrew the old stuff, and relaunched it in 1995, using more modern ingredients (I quote from their website).

Using what? Why in Purple Hades did they change the ingredients? If they wanted to change the ingredients, they should have changed the name, you would think, in case they disappointed some ancient former customer who had been hoping for an authentic, soul-tugging whiff of his long-dead past. Even the world of pongs, gentlemen, appears not to be what it was.

Anyway, it's very pleasant, so one mustn't grumble.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Regimiento de Africa

And so it starts. The first 2-battalion regiment of the new 1809 extension to my Spanish army for the Guerra de la Independencia is based up and fitted with magnets, and waiting for its colonels and flags. Super paint job by Lee, as ever.

I'll set up some better pictures of this army as it develops. I hope to have mounted colonels ready in a few weeks.

An odd moment occurred as I was putting these chaps away in one of my box files (light blue for Spain). I have more files on order, so they are temporarily housed with the irregular cavalry, which may cause some outrage in the ranks. When I put them in this file, I was astonished to see that the magnets didn't work. A slow motion film would show me, stupidly, trying a few times to see if the properties of physics would suddenly start working again - like Eeyore putting his burst balloon in the honey pot. I even started to have some wild ideas that it wasn't working because it was the wrong box, and somehow the magnets knew. Eventually, of course, I realised that I must have run out of steel paper at some time, and this particular file was only half floored with the stuff, so all I had proved was that magnets don't stick to cardboard, which the world already knows. Except maybe Rod (private joke)...

In my own defence, I have to point out that it was pretty early in the morning, and I now have the kettle on for some coffee. It's good to have these experiences from time to time.

Anyway - Regto de Africa. I think the next up will be De la Reina. Thanks again, Lee. Oh yes, the figures are by NapoleoN (now OOP), and the colonels will be conversions.

As a complete digression, I was intrigued by this photo - does anyone understand this?

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Help! - World Flag Paper Shortage

This is a sort of cry for help (possibly more of a bleat?). I print my own flags, and for some years I’ve been happily using a single-coated, photographic quality printer paper in 80gsm weight, which is heavy enough to take glue but light enough to be shaped a bit. Because it is single coated (i.e. on one side only) it is distinctively cream on the reverse side. The single coating keeps the weight down.

Anyway, I’ve run out of the stuff. The people in the shop I got it from last time look at me as though I were insane if I ask for it – they have no idea what I’m on about. Even my local print shop – who have done a lot of work for me in the past – can’t get any.

Time, once again, appears to have moved on and left me stranded. Anyone got any brilliant suggestions? All advice will be most welcome…

Monday, 7 April 2014

Hooptedoodle #127 - The Loft Legacy

Lords of the Nursery wait in a row,
Five on the high wall, and four on the low;
Big Kings and Little Kings, Brown Bears and Black,
All of them waiting till John comes back.

from "Forgotten" - Now We are Six - AA Milne

This post follows from a couple of recent discussions with friends – my apologies if you recognise extracts from a personal email in here – especially if you wrote it…

I’m not feeling particularly unhealthy or anything – in fact it is my intention to live forever – but I’ve had a number of involvements recently with the unmentionable issue of what happens to our toy soldiers when we are finished with them. I mean really finished with them – as in dead or demented. It is a matter worth thinking about, I think.

This is not unique to toy soldier collections – there must be countless model railways, record collections, radio-controlled model aircraft, motor-cycles-in-bits etc etc (make up your own list) which will be a source of puzzlement to our survivors. To some extent this is a time-of-life thing. There is a very large cohort of fellows who were young and enthusiastic (and usually penniless) some 30 to 50 years ago, who have persevered with (or come back to) their hobbies when spare time and money became less of a problem, and when there was a fresh need for something to stimulate their interest. I shall gloss over the social trends which may have influenced this, but the garden shed and the garage and the painting room have become icons of our time distinctive enough to feature in jokes and TV sitcoms.

We might hope that when the time comes our prize collections will be rare and valuable, but it is likely that supply will rapidly outstrip the demand. The nerds are dying out, my friends.

I recently bought a load of secondhand ECW figures - they had belonged to some chap who, sadly, died quite young, and he left an enormous collection of figures - all sorts of periods. You might say he was a dabbler, except that the numbers of soldiers were very large. He clearly had both sides for all the conflicts he was interested in, so - like me - he probably was a solitary kind of fellow - not a club member. After his death, his wife had no interest in, nor understanding of, his hobbies, and the problem of getting some money for them was tricky, so she just gave them all to a charity shop, who stuck them on eBay at cheap prices.

Should he – should I, should any of us – have done a little succession planning?

I also had the sobering experience a couple of years ago of helping a widow make sense of her late husband's vast collection of models and militaria (including a mass of Historex, which I put on eBay) and try to find someone who could help her get rid of it.

The world must be full of elderly guys with attics and cupboards full of painted lead which - ultimately - is just scrap. Collections come on the market occasionally, but it will become more and more common as time passes. An insightful (if irreverent) friend of mine once told me that Hinton Hunt figures may be hard to get and very expensive nowadays, but if you hang around a while there will be more of them than anyone wants; the regulars that buy old figures from each other on eBay are all getting old together. He then went on to point out that I would be long gone by the time this happened (bless him). It is a thought, though – since our toys are likely to be around longer than we are, what will become of them?

Another friend of mine (I must have two, then) was recently at East Fortune Sunday Market, not far from here - a traditional flea-market, where you can get everything from secondhand reading glasses to oak dining tables - and there was a fellow selling hundreds and hundreds of painted metal 54mm knights out of cardboard boxes - I didn't see them, but apparently they were beautiful. The seller knew nothing about them - where did he get them? - he found them in a skip – they were scrap - no-one was interested in them. I wonder how many cherished collections just get thrown out if no-one can be bothered getting expert help to sell them, and how this will develop over the next few years.

I think that is probably quite enough of that.