Thursday, 30 September 2010
The draft of my proposed "MEP" (grand tactical) rules is already pretty substantial, because I've been thinking about this for a while, but there are areas where the bits don't hang together too well yet. As a random example, it occurred to me just this morning that, since I am using alternate moves and the bounds are long (1 hour on the clock), I'd better have both sides firing artillery simultaneously at the end of each player's movement - similarly for skirmishers. This is different from my main Elan game, and comes about simply because, intuitively, an hour seems an awful long time for the non-moving side to sit without doing something hostile. That sort of thing keeps cropping up.
One big given is that, whatever I produce for MEP, it will have to fit with my existing Élan rules, and have to fit with them well enough to share army data on the computer and integrate with a single campaign system. This means that, to the guys who say to me, "Why are you messing around with your own rules? - you should just buy General de Brigade (or whatever)", I have to say that, in most cases, I have bought them. I buy rulesets regularly - mainly to borrow ideas. I haven't got enough time left to start all over again, and I am too old and sad to throw away the accumulated experience (and labour) of all those years. It doesn't mean these guys aren't right, of course!
I have read (though never played) the Polemos rules. Like most commercial sets, they are thorough - maybe too fiddly for me. The feeder games for my own rules are many and varied - I probably can't even remember where some bits come from! Most recent influences have been The Big Battalions (for combat mechanisms), Le Feu Sacre (mostly for the use of blinds and scouting), Grande Armee and it's Fast-Play offspring (for ideas on command rules and all sorts of things, but mainly for the realisation that rules don't have to be super-detailed to give sensible results) and, most recently, Howard Whitehouse's Old Trousers for general inspiration and for the elegant idea of having a single number associated with each unit which is used for everything. I have also, I must remember to mention, come up with the odd idea myself, but this collection and blending has been going on for so long that I now have difficulty sorting out where the ingredients came from.
It is possible that our favourite recipe for treacle scones is the one that Grandma got out of the Housewives' Friend in 1932, but it actually doesn't matter now - the recipe is just the one we use. This is too folksy to be one of Foy's formal laws, but it has the same sort of weary resonance!
In a week or so I'll start setting out some basic concepts and some of the mechanisms I have sketched out this far. I will - sincerely! - be very grateful for all views on them. If I can fathom how to use Google Docs without forcing everyone to have an account (or, alternatively, find some other file sharing service which will work reliably), I'll store the developing MEP draft in some form that you can download from the blog. As it shapes up, I hope it provides some interest and - at the very worst - it will give a collection of ideas that you might wish to avoid in your own games!
One final thought, before I forget - I am not a big fan of multiple morale tests, they can slow things down to a disastrous extent. I have a fond memory of my cousin (who, sadly, is no longer with us) one night at about 2am, after half a bottle of wine, slowly shaking a dice cup with a vacant grin on his face, trying vainly to remember which of the endless, bewildering stream of tests he had been about to carry out this time, and why. Having said this, I also must put in an apologetic reminder that the ultimate form of MEP is to be computerised, and the computer will happily slap a morale test on the end of any action you like, without any fatigue at all, though the players may get tired of being asked whether there is a general fighting with the unit, whether they are in cover, etc. The point is that sometimes a computerised game can handle stuff in the background which would be onerous otherwise.
Tuesday, 28 September 2010
The MEP Effect: a French brigade, with skirmishers, before and after Defence cuts.
I'm becoming conscious of the fact that this blog mostly consists of elderly reminiscences about how things were, or how I think they were, which is not necessarily the same thing. Since the subject matter is a hobby which I have been involved in for around 40 years, that is maybe understandable. However, I read many fine blogs which tell me what guys are thinking about this week, or doing at this actual moment (or, very commonly, not doing at this actual moment, and why). Intuitively, this seems more exciting - you know, reportage - I'm cutting the blue wire now - boom. Immediacy seems a natural state for a blog - sharing views, doing stuff. Right this minute.
Apart from oddities such as my fleeting views on bananas, there is not much of that in here. I feel that's a bit of a shortfall. I mean, it's not as if I'm not doing anything. So, if you can bear the excitement, I'd like to pull the wraps off something I'm working on at this very moment. Naturally I will be pleased to get advice and/or guidance - even abuse, if you must. I need to develop a decent grand-tactical variant of my in-house Napoleonic rules, to handle battles which are too big to work well with the current version. Then, once they are working and reliable, I need to get them (like the main game), programmed on to my computer, but the first step is to get them drafted out in a dice-&-paper version for play-testing.
That's it. If, at this point, you feel a little disappointed in my choice of exciting development, I can only say that it's the best I can do at the moment, and in any case I really do need these new rules, so there is an element of immediacy, if only by implication.
Foy's Fifth Law states:
If something bogs your battles down, then automate it or simplify it or get rid of it.
My rules are called Élan. They occasionally get a radical revision, but otherwise have been evolving for many years. The problem with Élan, the thing which gets me bogged down at present, is if the games get too big. This is a bit of a sore point, because the rules were specifically designed to work well with large battles. The use of the computer greatly eases the record keeping and keeps the turn sequence ticking along, and the game mechanisms have been tuned and rationalised to run quickly. There are two chief areas where the size problem shows up:
Firstly, and the less important one - the time taken to deploy and fight a unit may not be very much, but if there are a lot of units then it all adds up. You can have multiple players, which does help, but often my games are solo.
Far more seriously, on the current ground scale, unit frontages are correct, but the depths of the units are well out of scale. A battalion in column looks very nice, but it takes up far too much space, front-to-back. When the reserves come on, everything can grind to a halt because there is no room to manoeuvre.
As it is, Élan works fine up to maybe 20 battalions a side plus cavalry plus etc etc. At that point major traffic jams can set in, especially if the terrain is hilly. OK - easy - keep the battle smaller. Well, that's a bit of a heavy constraint. Particularly so since quite a lot of my games come from campaigns, and it seems unreasonable to outlaw battles over a certain size just because the rules and the available table can't cope. The Emperor wouldn’t care for that.
It would be possible to use a bigger table - I have a fantasy about putting a 30 foot x 8 foot table in a marquee in the garden, but at that point we are probably getting silly. I also have a rather worrying thought that the neighbours might catch glimpses of me fighting a solo action in such a setting. Hmmm. Another solution is needed.
No, I believe the answer is just to have an alternate set of rules which allows bigger actions. I have a preliminary sketch for a big-battle variant which is provisionally titled Élan MEP. Reluctantly, I have to admit that MEP comes from "moins est plus", which started life as a joke. As sketched out, MEP uses double the bound length (one hour of real time), double the ground scale (one hex becomes 500 paces, or a quarter of a mile) and FOUR times the figures scale (which means that a 750-man battalion will be a single 6-figure base rather than a formation of 4 such bases). The effect of this is that a brigade, instead of being a collection of battalions each of which occupies a hex on the battlefield, will occupy a single hex in total.
Much of the tactical deployment will be simplified, and thus some rules will have no place in the new game. For example, Élan’s fixation with unit formations will largely disappear. I have a feeling that it will still be necessary to be able to place an infantry brigade in square(s) for special occasions, but otherwise we should assume that the brigade commanders (who will no longer appear on the table) will look after battalion formations and all that. Once again, the game is getting more and more like a boardgame, but that is what happens as your helicopter-view gets higher and higher - the individual soldiers become less significant.
When I started thinking about this, I was quite excited to realise that I could, at last, do a re-fight of Salamanca if the big game works properly. Why on earth I would choose to do this, and what it would prove if I did, I haven't thought through yet. But the idea that I could if I wanted to was strangely appealing.
That's really all I want to say about this at present. I am hoping that the rules from Élan which deal with command, weather, concealment, army morale and a few other things will just drop into the new game with some minor tweaks in the arithmetic. Other bits will be trickier - my guess is that some of the nippier elements will be decisions about stuff to leave out. I have a strong fancy for borrowing some of the combat and morale mechanisms from Howard Whitehouse's Old Trousers game, which is elegant and, most importantly, simple. Anyway, you get the idea. More of this another time.
Monday, 27 September 2010
Many of the readers of this blog will be familiar with TPN's Napoleon Podcast, and if you have heard it, or follow it, then you will have your own views on it.
For those who have not heard it, I must explain that it is an extended series of podcasts presented by (and produced by) an Australian, Cameron Reilly, and co-hosted by the American Napoleonic historian, J David Markham, author of Napoleon for Dummies. They have been doing these shows for some 3 or 4 years now, and the latest episode I am aware of is #57 in the series.
You can download all the shows, free, from their website - here. Shows last anything up to an hour and a half, so I hope your broadband download speed is rather better than mine..
I came across the TPN shows by accident, and, initially, I regret to say, was not impressed. I hasten to add that I have dramatically changed my opinion, but I'll get to that.
These podcasts are not the same as radio broadcasts - this is probably obvious to anyone else, but I had to get the hang of it. There is much more of a homespun quality, presentation style tends to be conversational, and you have to listen to them in an appropriate frame of mind. Of course, I ran the first show sitting in front of the computer as if I were watching BBC2, thinking "Right - impress me, then".
Wrong attitude. I was quickly turned off by the informal structure, by Reilly's grating inability to pronounce the name of any person or place which is not English, and by Markham's long-winded and rather rambling avuncularity. The pronunciation thing is of passing interest, by the way, since it reflects on me rather than anything else. I confess I come from a long line of petty intellectual snobs, and we have always rejoiced in the things which we knew better than others, glossing quickly (of course) over the much larger number of things about which we knew nothing at all. With more appropriate exposure to the podcasts, I have seen the error of my ways, and have very much warmed to the whole idea - I am suitably ashamed of my early prejudice and have become a big fan.
Reilly, in truth, is well informed on the subject, organises and threads together the podcasts skilfully (they are recorded live via a Skype link, with Reilly in Australia and his collaborator in the USA), while Markham is a treasure - an expert who is knowledgeable but also an extremely amusing speaker. The trick is to understand that a podcast is not a formal lecture, it is your friend, and should be regarded as such. I spend a good portion of a week in each month distributing a community magazine in a very rural area, and I walk miles in all sorts of weather. This is podcast territory - with my little Zen mp3 player I can pass the time quickly and pleasurably - and I have also learned a great deal recently.
If you have not heard TPN talking about Napoleonic history, I recommend that you check them out.
Sunday, 26 September 2010
Miniature Figurines. As long as I’ve been involved in wargaming, they’ve been around. Trying to say anything about Miniature Figurines Ltd is a bit like trying to say something significant about the Ford Motor Co – mostly, it’s been said before. They have frequently been on the receiving end of criticism, their products are not usually regarded as shining examples of anything in particular, and they are generally an easy target for abuse.
The one thing they certainly do not get is a fair show of respect. MF have, in their unspectacular way, put miniatures wargaming within the grasp of anyone who became interested during the last 40-something years. Whatever your likes and dislikes, they are a major part of the history of the hobby. If you take a look at the current movement of wargame figures on eBay, you get a feel for how they have dominated the market for years. In the periods and scales which interest me, I reckon that some 75% of current eBay listings are for Minifigs, and more than half of those are from the current ranges of figures, which have survived pretty much unchanged for 30 years.
My start in the hobby was too late for the early 20mm figures; S-Range was what they were selling at that time. They were readily available in local model shops, the range was vast, the quality of the castings, somehow, was always pretty good, and - if you liked them - they represented good value for money. Unusually, in a hobby full of suppliers who were enthusiasts and well-intentioned dreamers, they were always commercially sound - good marketing, good supply to the retailers, and constantly aware (and supportive) of trends and fashions in wargaming.
I confess that I really cannot understand the early history of the marque - which figures were Alberken, which were the figures which got them into trouble with Hinton Hunt - all that stuff - too complicated for me. You can get good background from VINTAGE20MIL, from the Old Metal Detector and related blogs, and from Lazey-Limey - there are areas of debate, but that is where to look. I prefer to group them under the general heading of “20mm”. The earliest such figures appear to have been a bit crude , but they very quickly became very similar in style and quality to Hintons. I am especially taken by their OPC 20mm generals and personalities.
By the time I started wargaming, this was all in the past, and they had moved onto the famous S-Range. These are regarded with a deal of affection by collectors. They have a style of their own, deliberately different from HH. The proportions of the figures are distinctive – slightly-built men with rather short, slim legs, and a tendency for oversized hats, plumes, swords, bayonets. The French troops in particular have coal-scuttle sized shakos. The S-Range generals are nice figures - I have a few. I also have a good number of French infantry officers, eagle bearers and drummers, with Higgins heads grafted on. I even still have in my collection a throwback to the days when no-one made French Line Horse Artillery (well, HH did, but I'd given up on them some time earlier) - I made up a crew from MF French infantry officers, gave them Higgins heads and PMD artillery implements - you may shed a gentle tear at the thought of my cutting up PMD horse artillery figures to provide parts for MF hybrids... Whatever, I still have them - I'm fond of them, and have kept them long after I cleared out some of their contemporaries.
Recently, I developed a considerable appetite for Spanish infantry, SN1s – no-one else apart from Hinton Hunt (undersize) and Warrior (oversize) makes 1812-style Spaniards in British-type uniforms. I have a number of units of S-Range Spaniards now, but am always keeping a wary eye open for more.
After the S-Range came what I call “Intermediates”. Some of these are very nice – I have a number of British infantry units, and most of my British artillery are from this range. I still had a problem with the big hats on the French troops, so always avoided them or re-headed them. I also have a unit of British dragoons with saddles attached to the riders – they are still with me after all these years, ao I guess I must like them.
And then, as lamented elsewhere, in 1978 or so the figures became bigger, fatter, and mostly I lost interest. Still nicely manufactured, and they were always friendly and helpful people to deal with – I have no personal experience of the new owners, but have heard good reports of them, too, so that tradition appears to have been maintained.
The real parting of the ways occurred for me when I was putting together a Brunswick-Oels battalion in polrock coats, suitable for 1808-9. I had seen a very nice Minifigs unit of exactly the sort I was looking for, and ordered them up from my hobby shop. When they arrived, the officer and the drummer were lovely, but the rank and file had been remastered in the then new “chunky” style, and I was really very shaken by their appearance. These guys were as wide as they were high – nicely engineered and manufactured, but grotesque. Gnomes. If I had had a firm making miniature soldiers, and my master-maker had approached me with prototype figures like these, I think I would have asked him to go back and try again – and to drink less coffee.
Whatever, I choose not to use MF’s current ranges – they do not match my armies, which is really the only thing that matters. I know for a fact that there are huge numbers of wargamers out there whose armies consist entirely of exactly this range, and I’m certain they look marvellous, but for me you can’t mix them.
Respect, though. Fair enough.
Tuesday, 21 September 2010
Thanks very much for reassuring comments about the blog template - it seems to be OK, so I've removed the emergency posting. This is a small ad for the Big Battalions rule book - Jason Monaghan tells me that they still have stock left. I am not on commission (heaven forfend!), I am merely a fan, and I really do recommend these rules, as a thoroughly entertaining game and as an erudite and amusing discussion of Napoleonic warfare - a good read, and lots of great ideas.
I have no idea of price, but am certain it will be a fraction of the cost of some of the big glossies coming out now (come on - be honest - how do you feel when you are looking for melee factors in a hurry and all you can find are posed art shots of a battle you aren't fighting?). If you are interested, contact Guernsey Wargames Club. Tell them Foy sent you - that should keep them guessing.
Saturday, 18 September 2010
This will be the last in this mini-series of posts on my protracted ramble through the jungle of wargames rules. I intend to do something soon on my use of computers in miniatures wargaming - which may well alienate anyone who has not already taken exception to my use of hexes! - and I'll try to blog my progress with the development of the grand-tactical version of my game, which is in something like a beta-test state at present.
Hexes. Over the years I have often been surprised at the amount of adverse reaction they have generated. Not by people taking part in the games, more as a point of principle. I guess hexes may seem a little inconsistent with the otherwise Old School appearance of my battles, but in fact they are not that big a deal - the underlying game is still recognisable, though there are two important aspects which come directly from the use of the big hexes, which I shall attempt to describe. Bear in mind throughout this that I am always looking to fight pretty large battles - much of what follows would not make sense for a skirmish or very detailed tactical game.
If you are interested and you can get hold of a copy, I recommend you have a good look at Doc Monaghan's The Big Battalions Napoleonic rule book, which came out of the Guernsey Wargames Group. The rules are out of print now, I think - I have the 2nd edition, dated 2000. In parts they are themselves recognisably related to the TooFatLardies' Le Feu Sacré, which is no bad thing, but one central innovation (to me, at least) is the use of "Bands" to measure all distances. Bands can be changed to suit the size of figures, and also to suit the scale of the action. A band on the tabletop represents 250 paces - for 6mm-10mm figures, this is 3 inches; for 12mm-15mm it is 4 inches; for 20mm-25mm it is 6 inches. These measurements are all halved for very big battles. The bands introduce a sort of granularity into all measurement in the game - everything is expressed in terms of bands, so ranges and moves are rounded to the nearer band. This is not really so revolutionary - your own tabletop games will have everything rounded to the centimetre or inch, so there is an implied granularity already. If you think about it, the further step of drawing formal hexagons around the band-sized spaces changes very little. Doc Monaghan's son, the historian Jason Monaghan, described Big Battalions to me as being "a hex game with invisible hexes".
One area in which boardgames score heavily is speed of play. I have seen too many tabletop games where the movement was so slow that the players could hardly remember where they were up to or what they had been intending to do. The time-and-motion realism nerds in the 1980s broke their games down into short turns (sometimes as little as 30-seconds of "clock" time), so 2cm moves were not unknown, and we had the slightly embarrassing conundrum that a complete evening of labouring away at Quatre Bras or similar might actually be found to have ground through a grand total of 10 minutes of real time. Now, apart from the fact that I find 2cm moves tedious in the extreme (and this is, you will recall, all just my personal view), most self-respecting wargamers of my acquaintance are likely to fudge the moves in their favour by a little, and this "scentific error" margin is likely to be of the order of 2cm anyway, so you'd better have an umpire and a team of checkers handy! My big hexes remove this problem immediately.
Next - in my game, the hexes are assumed to be 200 paces across. Since the maximum effective range of muskets was rather less than this (and since officers normally forbade long range fire as a wasteful and disruptive distraction), this means that infantry can only fire into the next hex, and not very far into it, either. In common with Big Battalions and Sam Mustafa's excellent Grande Armée (and its Fast Play Grande Armée variant), I have taken the heretical step of making volley fire part of the Close Combat phase of my game, so it does not appear as a separate element. Artillery can fire, as can skirmishers, but actual formed musket volleys are simply abstracted as one of the unpleasant things that formed bodies of troops could do to each other when they got close enough to fight (or run away, as they frequently did). Yes, this is boardgame-like, and does represent a total lack of respect for the traditional Move-Missiles-Melee framework that is central to the Old School approach, but it doesn't actually change the game very much, apart from speeding it up - oh, and also removing the problem of deciding exactly when and how often in a bound the troops can fire. The combat effectiveness of troop formations in my rules reflects the amount of fire they can bring to bear, so that, for example, a battalion in line gains an advantage in combat for its greater firepower (especially when it is defending) - an advantage which can be reduced dramatically in wet weather, by the way.
Having reached this topic of using a gridded terrain in a tabletop game, there is one important development which is coming soon and which I'd like to mention briefly. Part of the perceived resistance to hexagons in tabletop games comes, I think, because it blurs what has become a potentially emotive divide between boardgame players and miniatures enthusiasts. I don't see why there have to be camps, but camps there appear to be. GMT Games are very successful market leaders in board wargame publication, and one of their biggest selling games is Commands & Colors: Ancients, which has many enthusiastic fans. Because of the form of the game, quite a few people use miniatures instead of the supplied unit blocks. Now this is getting really blurred - so much so that one poor soul in one of the GMT fora said "blocks are elegant and miniatures are for children - if the game was sold with miniatures I wouldn't buy it". So there! - rather sweet, actually.
GMT have been threatening to launch Commands & Colors: Napoleonics for some time, against a background of considerable excitement - and quite rightly so - it will surely be a splendid game. I understand that they are now hoping to issue it in November. There will certainly be many who wish to use it with miniatures, and I believe that this could be a significant moment in the development of our hobby - invaluable cross-pollination between boardgames and tabletop games, and - maybe - the widespread adoption of a handsome, tick-tock, best-of-both-worlds game of exactly the type I have been promoting for years. There are a couple of nice recent postings on the forthcoming game in one of my favourite blogs, Joy and Forgetfulness, which set out what one miniatures wargamer expects it to be like.
So - before I end - don't be too fixed in your ideas about hexagon-gridded miniatures games - in a couple of months you may be the only kid on the block who doesn't have them!
Having reached this stage, I propose to slow down the rate of publishing of posts on this blog. In my enthusiasm to get the thing going, I have been keen to create a solid foundation of material for people to have a look at, and also to attempt to give an idea of the style and range of subjects I hope to cover. If you have read any or all of what I have done to date then I offer my best wishes - if you like any of it, or even if you disagree, please do drop me a comment - I am always delighted to get them. I will continue to introduce new posts, hopefully at a rate of one or two a week, rather than the faintly hysterical stream of consciousness which I've produced to date!
Friday, 17 September 2010
I have always found it worthwhile to have an occasional sanity check. Not, you understand, because I have particular concerns about my sanity, but because it helps with understanding and prioritising things. If you take some everyday facet of your life from the shelf and have a look at it, and ask yourself "why do I do this?" then a couple of things may result - you may be comfortable with what you find, and you can gently dust it and put it back, or you may find something doesn't quite stack up, in which case you have learned something and you can decide what to do about it.
In the days when I was paid to work for someone else, there was a period when Time Management was the answer to everything. It didn't matter what the question was, the answer was probably Time Management. Like all panaceae exposed to too much light, it faded, once people realised that you can be as organised as you wish, but the rest of the world doesn't actually care what your priorities are - they expect you to answer the bloody phone when they choose to ring you. The theory is still sound, however.
One of the most interesting things that came out of the TM classes we used to run was the mismatch between what people spend their time and effort on and what they feel is important. Guys would regularly tell us that their families represented about 75% of everything that mattered to them, and yet they worked out that they spent less than 10% of their time on them. Without fail, attendees at the classes would be surprised at the analysis of their own lives, and would determine to do something about it - an intention which had normally been forgotten by the following week, by the way. Without any pretence at science or Great Wisdom, it can be instructive to use the same technique to look at (for example) what you get out of your hobby, whatever it might be, and try to attach some weights to the bits and pieces. The results will be very personal to you - a psychologist would have a field day with the results, no doubt, but that is not the point. You may then, if you wish, go on to make a list of things about the hobby which displease you, or which you would prefer not to have.
In my own pursuit of Napoleonic wargaming, I guess my personal breakdown is something like:
- Insight gained from tabletop battles, as an extension of my study of the period 26%
- Collecting, researching, painting & organising the armies 21%
- Writing & programming rules 12%
- The look of the thing - battles & collection 14%
- Setting up & running (experiencing?) the battles 17%
- The social side - battles & discussion 8%
- Winning & personal glory(!) 2%
- The guilt (yes, I think it is guilt) resulting from always being behind with figure painting schedules
- Battles which run out of time before reaching a conclusion
- Rules which are fiddly, or don't work, or waste time, or give me a headache
- Clutter on the tabletop - spurious equipment and SHEETS OF PAPER (aargh)
From which I guess a profile emerges of a fairly solitary wargamer with anal tendencies. Your own numbers will probably be very different, that's fine - in my heart, I know that your numbers will somehow be better than mine...
Eventually, someone invited me to his house to play an ACW board game he had obtained and wanted to try out. I think it was Chancellorsville, and I think it may have been issued with a copy of Avalon Hill's house magazine, "The General". Anyway, it was a game of relatively modest size and complexity and, a bit hesitantly, I went along to see how awful it was.
Well now. It did not offer the same visual pleasures as the miniatures stuff, and I wasn't too impressed with the badly punched counters or the rather flimsy paper map (for God's sake, don't sneeze), but the game itself was an eye-opener. The rules were straightforward and unambiguous, they used alternate moves, but you could see the movement and the strategic development right in front of your eyes, and all the things you had to remember to do had a little dedicated track on the board - the game ran like - like - like clockwork - yes, that was it. Like chess. The size and effect of terrain was obvious and intuitive. The game was capable of being completed in an hour, even if you were a novice.
I went home with my values shaken up and my mind whirling. If you could somehow develop the beautiful miniatures game so that it ran with the logic and the precision of the boardgame then you had the best of all worlds. Tick-tock, tick-tock. I think I have spent the subsequent 30 years or so with pretty much the same objective, and I still know that I am right. I looked at the gridded miniatures game of Joe Morschauser, which previously I had seen illustrated in Featherstone's books almost as an eccentricity, a fringe area. The game was interesting, but the appearance was too quirky, too chess-like, and in any case square cells are tricky. You can either ban diagonal movement, which seems a peculiar thing to do, or else you have to come to terms with old Pythagoras - diagonal distances are multiplied by the square root of two, which is not a handy thing to work around.
Boardgame style hexagonal cells seemed a much better way to go. Pythagoras was banished, and imposing a sort of crystalline structure on terrain did not seem to distort things very much - or at least the distortion introduced far more benefits than disadvantages. I painted hexes all over my tabletop (carefully preserving a plain side as a contingency!) and I was up and running. I chose 7-inches-across-the-flats, entirely because a based unit would fit comfortably into that. In fact 6 inches would have worked as well - sometime I may repaint the table with 6-inch cells (that's about 15cm), which will enable me to use commercially-produced scenic tiles and is generally more convenient. The disincentive is that I am stuck with a stock of hills and stuff to the current size, but they are probably due for renewal sometime anyway.
I was unaware of Jim Getz's "Napoleonique", which used hexes - if I had been aware of it, I would in any case have been put off by the clunkiest dice-rolling mechanism of all time. More recently, NapoleoN Miniatures produced their own rules, which use hexes, and which you can still download from their otherwise dormant website. Also, the little-known but interesting "Big Battalions" rules by Doc Monaghan, while there are no actual hexes, present all measurements in terms of "bands" (which vary according to your figure scale and the size of the battle), which is effectively the same thing as explicit hexes.
So that is why I use hexes. The implications for the game and its rules constitute a topic for another time.
Thursday, 16 September 2010
Like everyone, I try to learn from my mistakes. My earliest attempts to fight miniature battles were, at best, well intentioned. They were fun, surely, but quite a lot of the interest was in trying to fix the bits of the game that didn't work - not unlike Stone Age man attempting to build a pocket watch. I found very early that the simpler games were often a lot more fun than more complex ones, that the more detail you tried to introduce the more you got bogged down in trying to cope with someone who wanted to do something you hadn't allowed for in the rules, or who had found some loophole you had accidentally left open.
This is a general problem, both in historical warfare and its tabletop simulation. The literature of war, especially its fiction, is full of cunning and the unexpected - bold strokes of improvisation which left a more traditional opponent floundering. If there had been a rule book, then a loophole would be just the thing. Wargames replicate this, and the position is made many times more complex in competition games, or in situations were the participants are determined to win.
I would be struggling to put a date on the evolution of Competition Rules. Probably around 1978 I bought a new Napoleonic rule book (Halsall & Roth, I think) which had been used for the British championships, and found it far too dense to actually play. We tried these rules a couple of times, and then ran crying back to the bosom of our Charlie Wesencraft games for comfort and reassurance - and aspirin.
At the time, wargames magazines were full of alarming stories of people turning up for games with armies consisting entirely of artillery, or camels (or whatever) - they had found a loophole, and had used their army points allowance (or whatever) to field an army which could not be defeated, but which gave a historically nonsensical game.
And good for them, I suppose. If Frederick the Great had one day turned up with an army consisting entirely of camels and swept his opponents off the field, this would be commemorated as a great victory and a stroke of genius. Frederick, however, was only interested in winning - he would not have cared that it would make a stupid game, or that Halsall & Roth would have to produce a new edition to specifically outlaw this latest horror.
So part of this, from the wargame point of view, depends on why we are playing. If we are mostly interested in winning, then either the game mechanism has to be dead simple, like chess, so that it runs like clockwork and gives no scope for working outside the rules, or else we have to have an umpire.
I am really quite a fan of Howard Whitehouse. His "Science vs Pluck" Colonial game (which I have never played, by the way) has simplified rule sets for the players, who also have only as much information as they need to know. There is a much larger rule set for the umpire. Now that is interesting. Kriegsspiel operates in a similar way - the umpire's word is all. If you try fielding only camels then the umpire says "No, don't be silly" and that's an end to the matter.
So this is certainly a viable approach, but the snag is getting hold of a suitable umpire, or even having the manpower available to nominate one. What about the clockwork rule set, then - can we move in that direction as an alternative?
I am not really a chess player. I can play, but I do not - like the definition of a gentleman accordionist. I realise chess is clearly not a miniatures game as we know them, but they are related somewhere along the line, and I believe there are some aspects of chess that wargamers can learn a great deal from.
Time for a short anecdote. Ho hum.
A long, long time ago, when I was at university, I shared lodgings with a guy whom I shall call Andy, who was an excellent chess player. By any normal standards he was extraordinary. As a schoolboy he had been a national champion, and he now played first board for the university team. I went with him a few times when he did exhibition games at local schools. I once saw him play two simultaneous games - blindfolded. I can't recall if he won the games, but I have to lie down for a bit when I think about that.
At the time I was an enthusiastic, if unaccomplished, player, and was excited by the possibility of improving my own game (by osmosis, maybe?). Forget it. Despite his commendable patience and his attempts to coach me, our games were just humiliating, and they stopped quite quickly. Indeed, I have played very little ever since.
For chess is a beautiful game, with an ancient dignity, and elegant, perfect rules, but it is brutal, and it affords no hiding place. No-one ever lost at chess because he was unlucky. If you are beaten in a series of games, your opponent is better than you. You are a plonker - live with it.
Simplicity is the key. Apart from the playing surface and the pieces, and a clock, there is no kit. There are no tape measures, no casualty tables or order sheets, no shellburst templates, no command chits, no dice. No-one argues about how the rules are to be interpreted, no-one is in any doubt about where any of the pieces are standing, or how far they can move. The rule set is simple enough to be carried in the players' heads - quick reference sheets would be regarded as a source of hilarity. No-one has ever cheated in a chess match - it can't be done. Actually, come to think of it, I think my dad used to cheat when I started beating him, but in general, at any level, it is played absolutely straight, without ambiguity.
The rules have been fixed for longer than anyone can remember - I have never heard of anyone complaining about them, or asking for changes. No-one has ever attempted to field a King and 15 Queens. Obviously it is very stylised, and whatever form of conflict inspired it has been abstracted beyond immediate recognition. It has a gridded playing area and alternate moves, and pieces which are considerate enough to move one at a time. Real warfare isn't like that, but these mechanisms work tidily and efficiently, and they deliver a crisp, watertight game which is robust enough to withstand even extreme, high-adrenaline competition. World championships, no less.
I am not – repeat, not – claiming that miniatures wargames should be like chess, or even that they should be more like chess; I am merely observing that chess is impressively free from many of the problems which beset wargames (so is table-tennis, I hear you mutter), and that there may be some aspects of it which we can usefully borrow.
Wednesday, 15 September 2010
The sniper in the tower of the ruined church tried to ignore the discomfort from his cramped legs, as he took precise aim, watching for his moment. Two hundred yards away, a German officer walked into the village square, close to the fountain, a pistol in his gloved hand.
I was an eye-witness to this actual event.
As you will have guessed, it was a WW2 skirmish game. It was one of the featured demos at a pay-at-the-door public exhibition put on by my local wargames club, on a damp Saturday sometime in the early 1970s. I was a new and very enthusiastic wargamer, and this was the first skirmish I had seen. I was really quite excited. There were about 2 dozen guests in the hall, and the game looked spectacular – like a movie. 54mm figures, and a complete French village in perfect detail.
The four club members who were running the demonstration game now proceeded to measure things and leaf through a hefty, typed sheaf of rules, and to argue animatedly about which of the many possible adjustments to the dice throw were needed, to determine whether the sniper hit his man. This required a lot of sarcastic banter, a lot of rather nervous giggling, a lot of comments that started with “I think you’ll find that...” – the guys were having a whale of a time. Because I was intrigued, I kept a note of the elapsed time. After seven minutes of this they had finally agreed that the dice throw needed to be 5 or higher. It was a 2. There was a roar of contempt from the “German” player, and the surprising amount of echo drew my attention to the fact that by this time I was the only spectator left in the room. Everyone else had moved off to watch the medieval battle in the next hall, or possibly to try to arrange a quick dental appointment, or just anything, really, to get out of there.
Because I was the last to leave, I was spotted by the team.
“You got a problem?” I was asked by a stout fellow in a black tee-shirt, camo trousers and Doc Martens.
I mumbled something fairly lame about being surprised that something as commonplace as a single rifle shot required this amount of debate. The expert sneered.
“If you are going to do this, you have to do it right. I don’t imagine you know much about wargaming, then?”
And, of course, I didn’t. I saw this with absolute clarity. What’s more, I wasn’t sure that I ever wanted to.
Tuesday, 14 September 2010
Recently I was on holiday in Italy, which was terrific for a lot of reasons, but one day we bought some bananas from a market stall.
Fantastic. I was suddenly reminded how bananas used to taste when I was a kid. That banana flavour that you get in sweets and banana ice-cream, you know? Banana. It's been so long that I'd forgotten.
Now the thing that puzzles me is that they don't grow bananas in Italy, either, so presumably their market stalls are supplied by the same sort of refrigerated articulated wagons that we use in Britain. And - presumably - their bananas are also grown in the same parts of the world as ours.
So what is going on? This is not a trivial matter - bananas may never be the same again for me, and moving to Italy is probably not a possibility - I just need to understand why...
Sunday, 12 September 2010
Foy's Fourth Law is:
Rebasing your wargame armies is a miserable experience, so try very hard not to do it very often.
Some wargamers do not base their troops at all. The classic Old School picture is a black and white photo of Seven Years War Spencer Smiths, arms shouldered, with no movement trays or collective basing of any sort. It looks good, but I have attempted some of that in the past, and, for me, the sheer physical labour of making moves and keeping the lines straight, not to mention making the little beggars stand up, was almost as much of a pain as the paint-and-bayonet handling damage to the figures.
The rest of us end up with a basing organisation which is mainly a legacy of some rule set we no longer use. In my own case, my starting point was probably the system in Charlie Wesencraft's first book (now available again, I am delighted to say), but I rationalised it to suit the Wargames Research Group's 1685-1845 rules. This first change was dead easy, since originally I used the simple but unpleasant double-sided Selotape approach. Increasing elegance, more permanent and more expensive basing systems make changes much more of a trauma.
A couple of quick digressions, as they occur to me...
(1) does anyone still use double-sided Selotape? - for anything? It is nasty to use, and the real irritation is that very soon the sticky stuff turns yellow and non-sticky. Yet I remember it was everywhere once (well, not exactly everywhere - that would be silly), and we always had rolls and rolls of it in the house. They must have had good marketing people.
(2) why the WRG rules? I did use these rules for a while, but found them over-fussy and tedious - though they were much less so than the previous WRG set, I really can't be doing with casualty tables or sheets of paper on the battlefield, and the flinch rules never seemed very natural to me. I think I stuck (literally) with their base sizes because it was too much of a hassle to change them, because sticking with them might slightly increase my chances of meeting someone else who used a compatible system, because it seemed likely that the authors had worked out frontages with relentless accuracy, and - I admit it - because the WRG always managed to express themselves in such a way that it was obvious that only a complete idiot would do it any other way. [Faint paradox alert: if the WRG had changed their minds about the rules, did that mean that they themselves had previously been complete idiots? - and, if so, why should we trust their latest rules? - I used to worry a bit about this stuff...]
(3) still on the 1685-1845 rules - the cover picture is a strange sketch of a cannonball apparently shattering - I think that is the word - a flag. Two points here. Intuitively, I would have expected the flag to wrap around the cannonball and tear - all in an instant. I'm not sure what it would look like, but the picture provided seems unlikely. Secondly, it reminds me very strongly that this was a period when all wargames rules were adorned with the sort of artwork which you now only see on boxes of Odemars plastic soldiers. I have no idea why - presumably everyone had a strong-minded mate who thought he could draw, or maybe they were the results of a little-known project by Miss Bentham's class at Beaconsfield Primary School. Another of the great mysteries. You might argue that now we have swung the other way - easy access to desktop publishing means that we now have glossy booklets with a famous painting on the cover - Detaille or David or Lady Butler are popular - though the rules themselves may be written by budgerigars.
Back to the plot. Times change. In what I believe is a gradual acceptance of Foy's Fourth Law, modern rule writers usually start off with assurances to the reader that they will be able to use their existing basing system, whatever it is, with the new rules. I guess this increases the chances of someone actually using the things. This is definitely more sensible than the old style, in which the author would go on at some length about how he was very sorry, but you were going to have to rebase everything if you wanted to fight proper tabletop battles.
In passing, it would be interesting to know what proportion of sets of rules which are purchased actually get used - I estimate I have bought (or nicked) upwards of 50 Napoleonic rule sets over the years. I have borrowed bits of, or been influenced by, many of them, but how many have I given a fair trial to, in their unaltered state? - maybe three. How many am I still using? - erm - none. Another marketing success, then.
Then there was the dreaded Our Wargames Are More Realistic Than Yours period, when we got into National Characteristics in a big way. Yes, there was a point to it, but it all went way over the top. If you have your units of French organised and based differently from your Russians then you have my respect and admiration. Personally I use a common vanilla organisation for all nations, though they do behave a little differently in action. This probably has something to do with my preference for large battles - I do not believe that Corps commanders cared an awful lot whether their lines were 2 or 3 deep, as long as they were still there and still fighting. I managed to get through National Characteristics without a rebase, though my vanilla organisation did mean that many of the WRG-sized bases were now stuck on top of little card sabots to ease the handling of the battalions and keep them tidy.
But a rebase was coming. The final argument which clinched it came from an unexpected direction. I had always really liked the Grand Manner style pictures of infantry with mounted colonels - especially the colour plates in Charles Grant's "Napoleonic Wargames". I started putting colonels with a few infantry units when 20mm figures became available again (around 2005), and was so pleased with the results that I decided to make it a general standard. Since the card sabots had been working well for a while, I decided a proper re-org was due and set about rebasing all the infantry and artillery.
To flock or not to flock? Current state of the art, I guess, is shaded, highlighted figures on textured, flocked bases, and I regularly see examples which look absolutely fabulous. Humbling. I gave this much thought, and eventually decided to persevere with plain bases. Partly this was to avoid re-doing the cavalry, partly because it made the job a lot easier. Also, I have never been convinced about troops travelling around with their own portable hearthrug of cat-litter and green sand - it is especially hilarious when they are marching along roads. If you like them then, great, they certainly don't look any sillier than my rows of toy soldiers on exposed bases. The Old School view might be that the individual rectangular bases are just part of the fact that they are, in fact, toy soldiers, while flock is an add-on, an attempt to conceal their toysoldierness.
It is just a personal choice, obviously. I think that my final decision had a lot to do with the many disgusting nights I had spent scraping henhouse-green Tetrion off eBay-sourced vintage figures. In many cases the figures themselves had been excellently painted, but a subsequent re-base had resulted in them having this gloop applied with a large brush, sometimes up to their knees. The lesson was learned - Foy 4 in action. It might just be that one day I may change my mind about my basing rules, or - and let's suddenly introduce a chill draught here - some future owner may wish to re-base them (jeez - I wish I hadn't thought of that). The job will be ever so much less heartbreaking if they are not flocked.
So I use plain bases. Sometimes, especially for stuff with a big footprint like crewed artillery, I use 3mm MDF. Otherwise I use 2mm plywood. Since I needed a whole load of bases, I got the nice people at Litko Aerosystems to laser-cut me a load of custom size ones - this has been a terrific boon - well worth the money. A word of caution - if you are in the UK and you purchase from Litko, make sure you buy small amounts at any one time - Litko put a full invoice on the outside of the package, and the jobsworths at Royal Mail will hit you for customs duty plus an outrageous handling charge if your bill is over $18. I think I paid £11 extra charge for 20-something dollars worth of kit last year. I guess the people at Royal Mail who handle international packages don't like their job very much, and wish to punish anyone who has the temerity to buy something from the US, even if no equivalent product is available here.
I stick the troops on with PVA (which will come unstuck again cleanly and without damage if you need it to), and I use a constant brand and shade of green emulsion to match the main battle board. I started off using Robbialac's "Tapestry Green", which is long defunct, but a close match is provided by Dulux's current "Crested Moss #1" - that is the pea-soup shade you see in the photos. It shows up the uniforms nicely, and I'm stuck with it now anyway!
Sizes? In my rules, infantry are mounted 6 to a 50mm x 45mm base (with one base having a mounted colonel and 4 foot figures). Four of these bases make a battalion in my standard game (for which the ground scale works out at 1mm = 1 pace, or 25 paces to the inch). 6 figures represent 200 men (for infantry, anyway). The 4 bases can be positioned to denote line, column by divisions, march column or square, and can be placed higgledy-piggledy to denote "unformed".
My skirmishers are mounted in 3s on 80mm x 30mm bases. My cavalry are based 45mm deep with a 25mm frontage per figure for heavies, and a 30mm frontage for lights - don't ask me why - this is handed down straight from the WRG, so it must be right. The cavalry are mostly based in pairs (which is a cop-out - I probably need to think about this). Artillery are on 60mm wide x 80mm deep bases for each gun - I use 2 gun models for a battery, so the figures-to-men scale is clearly very different from the infantry. But it looks OK, which is an important point.
This post has gone on far longer than I expected. It is not a particularly novel topic, but it is kind of fundamental to the organisation of an army, and there are lots of different approaches. I'd be very pleased to get views on this - I would almost certainly learn something, though I run the risk of having to consider a re-base if your argument is particularly persuasive!
Friday, 10 September 2010
Anyway - all I have left are my bold Chasseurs Britanniques, shown here. The officer on foot and the drummer are both re-headed Minifigs, the mounted colonel is a Kennington figure on a NapoleoN horse, and the standard bearers are by NapoleoN. A motley crew indeed.
Quick nerdy note about the Chasseurs Britanniques: you will read in various places that they were a light infantry unit. Not so. The colonel, Eustace, apparently had pretensions of turning them into glamorous light infantry, and in late 1812 he sent the colours and (some of?) the drums into storage in Portugal, and some companies received new uniforms, but the process was never completed. Since they were not allowed to perform outpost duties (because of desertion rates) for much of the war, they would have made dodgy light infantry anyway. My guys are depicted (correctly, I maintain!) as line infantry, circa 1811, the regimental colour being an exercise in creative licence based on a rough sketch someone sent me showing an early flag incorporating the arms of Conde. As ever, if you have a better flag, please get in touch!
Thursday, 9 September 2010
Yet this is the right time to talk about HH. Once I started putting together armies using Higgins as the principle maker, I had to source all the things which Higgins did not make, which at that time meant drummers, staff officers, highlanders, Portuguese and - well, cavalry, since Higgins had not started their cavalry yet. Hinton Hunt were an obvious supplier. They had a vast range, they were very highly regarded, and some of the figures were very attractive indeed.
Since then I have bought and fettled and painted and fought and sold a great many Hintons over some 30-odd years. I do not regard myself as an expert, but I am certainly well acquainted with them, and the pounds and the hours I have invested over this time must surely earn me the right to express myself honestly. So I shall attempt to be fair but realistic.
My problems almost certainly stem from the fact that, though 1973 does seem like the Dark Ages now, I suppose I was actually fairly late on the scene as an HH customer. Many of the moulds - especially rank and file of popular nations - were knackered by this time. Further, since no shops (at least no shops near me) stocked the things, you couldn't sift through a tray and choose good ones. This was mail order of an extremely risky nature - orders came back incomplete, or incorrect, they might be months late, quality control was negligible, and the castings and the flash content were often really poor. Also they were expensive. If I hadn't somehow felt it was a privelege to be dealing with them at all, I would have been sufficiently impressed by all this to have given up on them.
This was 11am on a Thursday, and I couldn't.
I once treated myself to some factory-painted general staff figures which were even dearer, took even longer to arrive and were so badly done that I still get angry when I think about them. I repainted them.
And yet - and yet....
So I have some HHs in my armies - I very much like the OPC French general - I have a number of these - it is a simple, elegant, useful little figure. I have a unit of highlanders (though it does have Art Miniaturen command figures) which I like - they have been with me for a long time. I have a unit of Brunswick hussars - again OPC. I have a unit of Portuguese cacadores - they are OK - if I could get something better I would replace them, but they are fine for now; since I cannot get HH command figures, these cacadores are led by Kennington Rifles figures, which appeals to the inverted snob in me. I have HH eagle bearers in my Higgins French Guard units, though I have provided them with paper flags. One or two (dismountable) generals. That may be about it now.
I had a brigade of Portuguese infantry, but I replaced them. Broadly speaking, the infantry are a little small for me, and I do not care for their weasel faces or their awkward posture. As for the dismountable cavalry, I really do not like the stumpy little legs, so have gradually sold and replaced what I had. True enthusiasts distinguish between original HH and later, David Clayton reissues - I accept that this may be significant, but I am unmoved. Clayton owned the rights and was the licensed manufacturer, so I am not sure why his figures should be regarded as in any way inferior. I am sure someone will put me straight!
Wednesday, 8 September 2010
Now I have to make it clear that this post also includes the Napoleonic products of Phoenix Model Developments (PMD), which the firm morphed into after Higgins himself died. A proper history of the company can be gained from VINTAGE20MIL, but it is necessary to understand that Tim Richards became chief designer after Les died, and did a very good job of continuing to produce masters in a style and to a quality consistent with their traditions, albeit with a touch of upward scale creep towards the end.
As I have written elswhere, I have the overriding impression that (to put it a bit bluntly) Higgins himself was a sculptor who turned his hand to making military models, while most of his contemporary competitors seem to have been military enthusiasts who had a go at mastering figures. The difference is subtle but distinct. Les’ figures, apart from the lack of animation, are faultless as miniature representations of humans, but he made a number of howlers in the uniform department which a proper Napoleonic nerd would have avoided – the range initially included some infantry figures which would never have existed. A good example is the British light infantryman (in firing, advancing, kneeling and “at the ready” poses, no less) without shoulder wings, offered as a sort of battalion company LI figure – there was no such thing. These particular figures were suppressed fairly quickly, though – rather irritatingly – the range was also further simplified by dropping the battalion company British line infantry figures (without wings), which definitely did exist, and would have been very useful. Eventually all British line and light infantry figures available had shoulder wings – you just have to leave them unpainted if you don’t want them.
Another quibble is that the Brits wear Waterloo-style Belgic shakoes, yet all have their hair queued in a manner which is more appropriate to 1808 than 1815. And there are a few other niggles – the bayonets are much too fragile, for example – but the figures are lovely. Not quite as lovely as the Marlburian and ECW figures, mind you, but still lovely.
I do have some problems with the Napoleonic cavalry. First off, the horses are awful. Why on earth do these nice little figures have to ride horses from a carousel? Something odd happened here – presumably connected with Higgins’ demise. The cavalry were a later addition to the range and, apart from the initial KGL hussar figure (which is not great, and has a poorly-cast sabre) and maybe the Polish lancer (which is better, though you have to provide your own lance), the riders were all designed and mastered by Richards, I think. The PMD Napoleonic horse is closely related to the rather poor horses from the company’s Colonial range, and looks like it was a rush job, which is a pity, but it is all part of the legacy. I have painted hundreds of the beggars, and I guess I love them in spite of their ugliness!
Richards’ cavalrymen mostly have an odd sideways stance – presumably to simplify the mould seams – but are generally very fine. The French dragoon figures are special favourites of mine. The cuirassiers are also excellent, though there is a conspicuous lack of an officer (you can, however, use the dragoon trumpeter for cuirassiers). It is a little incongrous that the infantry are so static yet the cavalry are performing synchronised galloping reminscent of the Television Toppers (come on – you must have heard of them). No matter.
I have a great many Higgins and PMD figures – wherever they are suitable they provide the bulk of my armies, and they find themselves painted as Italians, Spaniards, and all sorts. I particularly like the gun crews (big chaps, mind you...) and the lovely British command pack. I vaguely remember seeing a photo of masters of a French infantry command set, but can’t remember where, so maybe I imagined it. Whatever, it never appeared. Perhaps they were just lost in the final sunset of the Higgins/PMD wargames ranges as their moulds began to break up and the world moved on to 28mm.
Happily, much of the Higgins/PMD catalogue is available again. Less happily (and my sadness is not helped by the fact that I had a hand in the deed), the Napoleonic range is currently not – it flashed for an instant and then fizzled again. The Spanish concern, NapoleoN Miniatures, bought the masters and moulds of the Napoleonics, with some matchmaking by me, but found that the moulds were in too poor a shape for proper modern production, so they made new moulds. The figures were announced and put on sale. I bought quite a few, but you had to be quick to catch them before NapoleoN entered the twilight period of non-delivery, false promises and general shambles which seems to be the inevitable White Dwarf stage of all failing wargame figure manufacturers.
They did invest a fair amount of time and money in the Higgins project, so I assume the moulds are still around – we can only hope that the enthusiasts who formed NapoleoN will eventually get themselves organised and either sell them or put the figures back in production. It is worth mentioning that NapoleoN were thinking of offering PMD cavalry with an option of PMD horses or their own excellent horses, which would have been a mouth watering prospect.
Like so much of the history of 20mm wargames figures, we are left with a great many what-ifs.