A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 12 September 2010


I was asked about bases, and it is a subject I was going to look at anyway. Bear in mind that my approach to basing is deliberately minimalist, so you are not going to find much of a discussion of techniques here!

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!


  1. Don't sell yourself short. The topic actually IS very interesting, and you write about it in a lovely, amusing way. I really enjoy the "old school" appearance of your basing, which keeps our focus where it should be. . . on the figures!

    Best Regards,


  2. Hi Stokes

    Thanks very much for that. It's a kind of critical mass thing - there have been a number of occasions over the years when I thought seriously about changing the style of the armies, but if you put it off long enough then eventually the task of refurbing all the existing stuff to match the new stuff is too daunting, and it's easier to just carry on making the new match the old. Old School by default!


  3. Hi Tony,

    I think your basing style is perfect for your figures. Bearing in mind your somewhat unique (commendably so!) approach to the hobby, and the age of the figures, I think any other style would not look as 'right' as yours does. Further, you use a classic green gaming surface, and flocked bases would look decidedly strange.

    My Higgins figures are on flocked Litko bases, but we use a flocked playing surface. Unless you are planning to radically change your table, leave the little chaps in peace.

    As for rule-sets written by budgerigars, I couldn't agree more!

  4. Iain

    To tell the honest truth, if I was starting to build up an army now I would flock them, because it does look better if its nicely done.

    Since I don't feel terribly strongly either way, the choice that involved least work won by some distance when the big rebasing job came along!



  5. Tony,

    thank you for including the Nyudrev Chronicles in your blog list. As I've already commented, I think your basing style matches the miniatures perfectly. I know have an example of what to aim for when starting painting my napoleonics (I'm still using unpainted 35 year old Airfix, would you believe it).
    Maybe -if you find the time- you could make a short factual list of availability (manufacturers?)and compatability of miniatures you use and/or have discarded (and save me the trouble of buying samples from different companies).
    At this moment I'm thinking about Warrior miniatures...


  6. Pjotr

    Wow - let's think about this. I'm happy for people to read my satirical ramblings about this and that, but if someone is looking for a sensible, authoritative view, that may be different!

    The key word is "compatible" - the implied question being "compatible with what?". My armies are built around Higgins figures, so that is my standard size. I will post a list of the makes of figures I use (and will eventually do individual postings for), but I can give a quick summary of sizes and stuff now, I think.

    Perfect match with Higgins: Garrison 20mm (recently re-issued, though manufacture seems to have stopped), very early Lamming (though they vary - occasionally seen on eBay), Falcata (gone out of business), NapoleoN Minatures (ditto - hopefully temporarily).

    A bit small but OK: Hinton Hunt (eBay only), Der Kriegspieler (ditto), Kennington (still in production from SHQ - invaluable for command figures), Douglas (oop, but being reintroduced gradually by John Cunningham, I believe), some Scruby figures (still made by Historifig, but purchase process is laborious); Rose figures, made by Garrison now, are simple but pleasing.

    Variable: Minifigs - a whole posting coming up on Minifigs - the earliest 20mm and Alberken are very like Hinton Hunt, the s-range are OK but they tend to have overscale hats; "Intermediates" similar, though I use a lot of their Belgic-shako British artillery and some infantry, which are a good fit; the current (post 1978) series are big fatties which really don't match.

    Too big: many makes are called 25mm but are really 28mm and well out of scale - Hinchliffe (who started it), Front Rank, Wargames Foundry, Old Glory, Connoisseur, Elite, Perry, Victrix etc etc etc.

    I've said this elsewhere, but will say it again here: if I was starting from scratch now and was looking for a sustainable supply of figures I might do plastics (unlikely in my case, but the supply of figures is excellent, so they are worth thinking about), or I might look at small 20mm like Newline or RSM (do they still make RSM?), or I might go for 15mm - Fantassin or AB look very good, but I think there are various views of what 15mm means, so you'd need to do some sampling to find compatible 15mm. As in so many subjects, I am not very knowledgeable here.

    Warrior - attractive figures, and readily available (and inexpensive, I think) - slightly wild animation and the sculpting is a bit basic at times, and the hats tend to be big, so, though I have a few, they are not a convincing match with Higgins etc.

    Hope this is some help


  7. Tony,

    very, very helpful indeed.
    RSM is still available: http://www.dpcltdcom.org/.
    I'm planning to buy several of the 7YW range for my project.
    One of the reasons I would go for metal models is to avoid the silly poses you get in boxes of plastics (I love my soldiers advancing and marching in step), but I see the point you're making.
    Thanks for putting together this overview.


  8. The basing situation was a challenge for me also.

    I wanted to create armies that could be changed to shift from rules set to rules set and be able to match those that others I gamed with had.

    In the end I ended up creating something unique, that I have been able to use most flexibly.

    In a matter of a few hours I can re-base my entire collection into snow pattern or return back to the summer system that they spend most of their time in.

    Recently I have also been able to re-base to a different rules set, and by using the bases and magnets in a creative way, create a new base stand that matched the different requirement of the FPGA rules set.

    LINK to Article in MurdocK's MarauderS