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


Thursday, 2 November 2017

Going... going... gone; Peter Gouldesbrough and the 5mm Blocks

Recently, someone made a jocular reference to the old Minifigs 5mm troop blocks, which, for me, come under the general heading of Did This Really Happen?

I'll come back to the 5mm blocks in a minute or two, but for me the strongest recollection is that they remind me of Peter Gouldesbrough, one of the better known of the earlier Scottish wargamers - who for a while was a great enthusiast for these blocks - and of a brief period when I spent some time with him, so let's start with Peter.

The General from the Braid Hills

Peter was retired when I met him. We were introduced by a mutual wargaming friend, who had mentioned to Peter that I had been working on some pioneering solo wargame projects involving microcomputer programs. Peter had just been given one of those newfangled Sinclair Spectrum thingummies as a present, so that must mean 1982 at the earliest. Since my first wargaming sabbatical started in 1985 (major dose of Real Life for some years thereafter), this dates things pretty accurately.


Peter was friendly with a number of the leading post-war lights of the hobby - Peter Young and Charles Grant for a start - and he is quoted in a couple of Featherstone's earlier books. He was a complete gentleman, always - I never saw him without a suit and tie, as far as I can remember.

When I met him he had recently disposed of his 20mm figure collection, and had converted to the Minifigs 5mm block system. He had redrafted his own wargames rules to suit this new scale, and this is where he wanted my help with some programming, so he could use his new Spectrum to do the record-keeping and the calculations. I was invited to participate in some of his new Napoleonic "microgames" at his house - his home and his games were every bit as dignified as I had expected. 

We made some good progress with the automation of his rules, though I learned the hard way that he could be a dreadful bully, albeit a gentlemanly one! I found a number of arithmetical errors in his rules, but when I drew them to his attention I had a hard job getting him to admit they were wrong, never mind getting agreement to correct them!

5mm blocks - picture borrowed from the Wargame Hermit's excellent blog. One reason
why these were short-lived, I think, was the poor quality of the casting - the moulds
were breaking up very soon after they were launched. Also, it is only now that I realise
that these blocks were introduced circa 1972, and withdrawn in 1976, so they were
already long-OOP when I was introduced to Peter's game!
The games themselves were visually interesting, though for my taste Peter had re-engineered his wargames in the "wrong" direction; a move to 5mm gave the opportunity to stage colossal battles in a compact space - this is what I would have done - but he had gone the other way. For example, he had French battalions consisting of 12 blocks of 3-deep infantry. His rules had very detailed instructions on the deployment of these half-company sections, so that changing from column to line, or sending out skirmishers (and the skirmishers were cast on tiny strips, which were exchanged for the close-order blocks as required) was a very precise, not to say painstaking, operation - as I recall, his game used 30-second bounds, to make sure we did it all properly. I also remember a couple of hilarious incidents when we lost some of the tiny troops on his battlefield. His wargames room was upstairs, on an attic level, and was rather dimly lit; add to this the fact that his table was a very dark green, like a table-tennis table, with Plasticine hills to match, and it was little surprise that the soldiers used to disappear from view. On a couple of occasions the French "lost" a regiment of light infantry on the hills, simply because we failed to spot them in the gloom. The skirmisher strips would gradually disappear, too - occasionally a couple would turn up behind the clock on the mantelpiece, one was found on the floor (fortunately before it was stood upon), one was spotted hanging from the sleeve of my sweater (wouldn't have happened with a suit), and on one occasion we found one embedded in a hill when we were clearing up.

Peter's thoughts on 5mm - despite what he says here, his interest in
manoeuvre resulted in his sticking with the 30-second moves!
When it was tested and reliably stable, I was roped into helping with a demonstration of the 5mm-block+Spectrum game at a wargames show one weekend in Edinburgh's Adam House, at the foot of Chambers Street, in the old University territory. This was a very long day - I was involved in the transport and setting-up, which wasn't helped by our being stuck in a quiet backwater of the basement, and thereafter I was the computer operator, gaming assistant and general gopher, helping out with numerous runs through a suitable set-piece battle. I recall that Peter had hand-painted a poster for his game, with the legend, "GOING... going... GONE", with appropriate pictures of British Napoleonic infantry gradually shrinking into invisibility.

I regret it was not a terrific day. The weather was dreadful, the show was poorly supported (at least our bit of it was) and we had maybe a dozen casual visitors during the course of the entire day. Peter, understandably, was rather miffed after all his hard work, and became somewhat grumpy. At one point an acquaintance of mine came over and chatted with me for a couple of minutes. Peter was furious - I was not there to chat to my friends, etc. I fear that, though we didn't actually fall out, the day ended on a low note.

Ancient, appropriately grey photo of Adam House
I was unwell for a while with glandular fever, but a few months later my wife and I were invited to a party at Peter's home - a very pleasant evening, and everything was very friendly, but after that I lost touch with him. Eventually, as these things tend to go, it was so long since I had spoken with him that it became awkward to make the effort to phone him up. Thus, I am ashamed to say, I never met with him again. Mind you, it might well be that he was extremely relieved to be rid of me!  

Peter told me a number of very entertaining tales of his experiences in WW2 - since I am not a family friend I am reluctant to recount any of these at the moment.



I don't really know what became of Peter - this post is prompted really by my wondering whether anyone would care to contribute any tales of the Minifigs 5mm blocks, and in case anyone can provide any more information about Peter himself. I am very much indebted to Clive, the Old Metal Detector, for providing me with some clippings about him from Wargamers' Newsletter. Also, if anyone remembers the Edinburgh wargame shows at Adam House (must have been 1984 or 85, I reckon), please shout. I guess there was some more serious stuff going on upstairs!   

34 comments:

  1. A very interesting post.

    I'm afraid my own experience with the 5mm blocks was fleeting. Somewhere around '74, curiosity caused me to add 1 block to an eclectic order of 25's including a gatling gun. To my disappointment they didn't seem to be in the box when it arrived but there was an odd block of what looked like shells which I suspected was related to the gun though I wasn't sure how. I was sure that it wasn't little men.

    It was in 1977 that I had my first short posting to Halifax and attended a club game involving a land and sea game using sailing ships and 5mm blocks of Napoleonic figures. It was when I picked one up for a closer look that I realized the truth about my odd little block.

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  2. I remember a chap by the name of Mick Allen that used to own a painting company called Miniature Masters using Minifigs blocks - they looked really good. This would have been around the mid 1980s about the time as I recall that Irregular Miniatures first produced their blocks.

    There is certainly potential for using them and I am sure I recall reading that Tony bath fought some of his Hyborian battles using them.

    All the best,

    DC

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    1. I don't know much about the Irregular blocks - weren't they 1mm? Not only would I be unable to paint these, I would struggle to find them in the packaging. Minifigs at one point produced an ad which suggested the 5mm blocks would make your games look like Vernet prints - I guess that's right, though Peter's plasticine hills and fiarly relaxed figure painting didn't really show that off to advantage. He also did not mount the blocks on anything, so that they used to roll down the hills in moments of stress, and were frequently found standing on their heads, simply because it wasn't always easy to tell...

      The casting quality was a major discouragement, otherwise the idea was terrific. If the Perry's had produced them, the world would never have looked back.

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    2. Irregular Miniatures produced blocks in 2mm and have also produced some in 6mm. there was a manufacturer of 1mm blocks - Knight Designs as I recall - but as a rule of thumb if the base is thicker than the model is tall then it is probably best to steer clear...Having said that I am working with Tumbling Dice 3mm or 1/600th scale blocks which are also produced by Peter Pig for their Hammerin' Iron ACW naval rules.

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    3. Interesting - agreed - if the base is thicker than the height of the troops then the units become like a smear on a microscope slide. You must have a pact with the devil to paint 3mm.

      Something odd philosophically about vast regiments of tiny men. If I have a wargames unit of 2 dozen 20mm figures then it's representative - a playing piece. It's attractive, but it isn't realistic in a model railway sense - the regiment didn't really look like that. If I replace my wargames unit with a dioramic 6mm job, then the nearer I approach 1:1 figures:men scale the more it becomes a problem that the numbers aren't exactly right, the sergeants aren't standing in the correct place, the end man in the back row should have a red moustache etc. The blocks get you round that problem. The other issue with dioramic-style wargaming (which looks terrific, don't get me wrong) is that the ground scale distortions become more awkward - it looks right, but it isn't, whereas the 24 x 20mm unit doesn't look realistic anyway.

      Thanks fro the info on manufacturers - I'll have a look at that.

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    4. Ian Kay of Irregular Miniatures producded and probably still can produce 6mm blocks. I had a lot of wonderful Imperial Romans legionaries from Ian which I sadly sold a couple of years ago. He also made some excellent French, English and Prussian Napoleonic 6mm blocks. They were well cast with good detail.I have quite a few in my 1813 Prussian army and a few French blocks in the respective 1813 armies....

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    5. Thanks for this Robbie - i thought I'd replied to this comment already, but it seems to have fallen down the Bloghole. I shall check them out.

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  3. Oh, this is great stuff! You ought to consider writing your own History of Wargaming book.

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    1. My own tastes and experiences are probably a bit alternative, though I do have the length of service qualification!

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  4. This is a really interesting piece of hobby history! While I do not recall coming across Peter Gouldbrough's name before, I certainly have seen brief mention of the 5mm MiniFig blocks in a magazine or two from the early 1980s. It would be great to learn a bit more about them. They predate Ros and Heroics 6mm figures by some years I take it?

    Best Regards,

    Stokes

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    1. Hi Stokes - I think so, though not by much. The blocks were smaller - definitely 5mm tall, including hats. My experience with the blocks was such that I was very sceptical whether 6mm castings would work - now, of course, I know that there are many 6mm armies which are much better painted than my 20mm daubs!

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  5. I knew of Peter, though I'm not sure if I ever met him. That's not very impressive is it? Apologies. He was a friend of Allan Gallacher ("Algy", Biggles' pal?), and Allan was a good mate of mine. I think Peter knew the guys in the clubs, but avoided them like the plague. He was also regarded as a bit exclusive sine he was pally with Eric Knowles and Tunstill and so on, but I think he was simply older than most of my contemporaries. He was famous for having sold his boxed childhood collection of Britains soldiers for thousands of pounds through Christies or somewhere. This may be another urban legend. The war stories sound like a good idea. Peter was famous for saying that any set of wargames rules which could not be written on a single postcard were really an Act of Parliament. It sounds like his own rules wouldn't qualify!

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    1. The stories are harmless enough, and they are his stories, so I might set something up as a late edit. You reminded that "Algy" used to refer to Peter as "Peejie", the implication being that Allan must be related to royalty, if they were brothers. Peter was a heavy academic, really - he was Top Man at the Scottish Register House - if you look him up on Google you will find endless references to his work on ancient Scottish documents. Many of his social (i.e. non-wargaming) friends were scholars and writers. I had heard about his Britains toys, but he kept very quiet about them. Act of Parliament! - his own rules were full of typos, and he would completely retype them, thus generating even more typos each time...

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  6. I remember when the those 5mm blocks were launched because I ordered samples of everything and yes it must have been 1972. I thought they would be the answer to my ponderously slow accumulation of 20mm figures and I excitedly told my wargaming school chum that we could now refight Waterloo. He wasn't too keen and having painted my samples I wasn't too keen either. Amazingly even though my collection of Hinton Hunt figures disappeared I still have those blocks!

    I've never understood why people attracted to micro-wargaming seem to want to produce huge units rather than having lots of regular sized ones so that big battles can be fought. This is the route I took when I dabbled in 1/300 ACW and it worked very well.

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    1. Agree - big battles on a tiny scale seems a better way to go, but Peter became fascinated by drill manuals! Now then - I don't suppose you could be bribed into taking some pics of your 5mm block collection, could you?....

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    1. Thanks Ray - in some ways, I always felt Peter would have been more comfortable in the previous century! A real character.

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  8. I remember a show in Adam House, which must have been in the early 80s. I can still remember a big Pacific naval game, with aircraft on stands and a huge area of sea and islands - it made a big impression on me. Our history teacher at school got hold of a lot of the 5mm blocks for the school club - I often wondered what had happened to them all as, in the memory anyway, they seemed like a very promising idea. I don't remember any of us ever painting them though!

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    1. Thanks for that, O Left Handed One! - good recollection! I don't really remember much of what else was on show the year I was there - they stuck us in a dark corner where no-one came near us!

      With modern centrifugal casting techniques, and better quality alloys, maybe some decent samples of the originals and it would be possible to produce some "tributes"!

      Maybe checking out Irregular would be a more practical option - must have a look at that.

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  9. Interesting posting! My own ventures into the 'Geez you must have good eyesight' scales have not ended happily, but I do recall buying a job lot of H&R 7YW Austrians once. I had a vaguely similar notion that with these I could form really large battalions. When that notion was swatted aside as 'ridiculous', I rather rapidly lost interest, though I admit the reason had more to the strage game system we were using at the time.

    One isn't as a rule pleased to be rid of one's soldiery, but that lot was one of those rare occasions.

    Your Peter Gouldesborough sounds like one of those real characters of the game...

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    1. I've convinced myself years ago that I do not have the skill to go anywhere near these insect scales. They do look good though when they are well painted - I was knocked out by Lee Gramson's Napoleonic and ECW efforts a couple of years ago. If I could paint like that I'd - well, I'd - well, I'd paint some little soldiers, that's what.

      Footnote to this post is - yes Peter was a character, but his friends used to worry a bit for him. I've had an email from Ray Randall, who apparently came along to see Peter's "micro" game at Adam House - I don't remember Ray being there, so maybe it was a different year (Jeez - did he get to do it again?) or maybe I'd nipped out for a sandwich, or a quick dental appointment. Ray was a friend, and very supportive, but he says that, as he recalls, Peter's dark green table, invisible armies and primitive home computer may have been the most wretched spectacle ever seen at a wargame show. Add this to Peter's pursuing people to force them to listen to his spiel, and Ray reckons visitors would be leaving at a brisk trot. Hmmm. A day well spent then. I think the ideas on show were acceptable, but the exhibit was less than wonderful! I was just the roadie, man.

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  10. Prof de Vries pointed out that Peter's friends must all be in their late 90s now - not quite true. I'm not, for a start. Ray Randall (see previous comment) was a college student in 1984 - his dad drove him to the Adam House show from Dalgety Bay, in darkest Fife. Strictly, it was the dad who was Peter's friend, I guess.

    The Prof also wanted to know more about the Spectrum. Not much to say - I had one, but mine had expanded memory and a "proper" keyboard - Peter's was the standard issue with the rubber membrane pads. Used within their limits, these were great little machines - they were slow, and they were clunky to use, but they were hugely educational as a starter computer. My main recollection of the Adam House day is that I was terrified that the program wouldn't load from the cassette player - it used to average about one successful load for every three attempts, and if the wind blew the wrong way (or you didn't have faith) it could be very awkward indeed. I think it went OK on the day. Another recollection is that, since his block-based units used a figure scale of about 4:1 anyway, Peter was interested to have the computer test for every single shot (including an estimate for misfires, based on troop quality) - instead of half a dozen dice or so, get the computer to simulate 650 men firing twice. That was an interesting idea to start with. The Spectrum ran so slow that I had to write a machine-code routine to get the arithmetical processing to run quickly enough, and when I had got it working the results were dire. It was (or should have been) obvious before we started that the greater the number of individual "events", the nearer we could expect the outcomes to tend to the average. So we would set up the volley, situation, two rounds per man and all that, start the calculation, and after some seconds the machine would tell us (on a portable TV screen, remember) that the result was pretty consistently the same as last time - very little variation. This meant you could do without the random element altogether, which was not very pleasing or realistic anyway (deterministic wargames), but mostly it forced us to realise that our estimate of the underlying probability was useless! The big lesson - never forgotten - is that a small number of dice will give you more interesting, "lumpier" results - in many ways the viability of the game depends on that kind of inaccuracy.

    I was something of a computer snob at the time, since I had an ACTUAL IBM PC on loan from work - the truth is that the PC had no hard drive - everything ran from two big floppy discs, including the operating system. It was a "proper" computer though - no good for transporting to Adam House since (a) it wasn't mine and (b) it weighed about a ton and a half...

    One reason I have always felt bad about deserting Peter is that he never got the hang of running his games by himself on the Spectrum - if I wasn't there he was a bit stuck. I have to assume that he went back to his dice and his casualty tables, and started enjoying his games again!

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  11. The Professor is also interested to note that the smaller of the two text clips identifies Don Featherstone's "War Games" as being a crucial step in Peter's rediscovery of wargames after the war. I'm sure this is true, though it is worth pondering the fact that the clip is taken from Wargamer's Newsletter (circa 1972, if Peter's son was 11, I guess) and was written by... that's right - Don Featherstone.

    Credit where credit's due, mind.

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  12. I remember him (I think) around SESWC in the late 1970s and recall Claymore well in Adam House. The heat and aroma of wargamers rose through the oval gaps in the floors to make the end of the day rather memorable...

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    1. There was a time when I sat exams in Adam House, so my memories are a bit mixed up! Adam House was quite a decent venue in its day, but the parking would be a major hassle now. Peter was quite an argumentative wargamer (for a gentleman), so how he'd get on with George Jeffrey would be interesting. He was friendly with Mario Boni, I think.

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  13. I don't know M.Foy. I quite like the idea of 'big' units of little men. I've never tried it (not since I discovered 'troop scales' in the appendix to the War Game - what a revelation!) but I figure that low troop scales would give you a better appreciation of the difficulty of unit evolutions......nar but it'd look good though.

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    1. Chris - absolutely agree - it is an exciting idea, but my experience of the reality was disappointing. If you wish to try out the tactical manoeuvres then I guess it gives a good way of making it real. If you wish to play through some kind of battle scenario then it very quickly becomes a lot of hard work - it's probably just my exposure to Peter and his drill books (complete with a 6-inch ruler to check no-one moved too fast), but it was jolly heavy going. Also, though I'd be hard put to explain why, at this level of detail the blocks themselves become too inflexible - maybe individual 6mm would lend themselves better to a sort of huge skirmish, but you'd need tweezers!

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  14. Martin S sent me a useful link to a blog post - this post and the following 2 or 3 give some nice photos of troop blocks on the market in 2009. (Nice blog, by the way)

    http://steelonsand.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/small-scale-figure-comparison-234mm.html

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  15. Claymore '84 at Adam House was the second wargames show I ever attended and it firmly set me on the path of wargaming. I had managed to persuade a friend to come along and the very next day, armed with a set of newly purchased WRG 1925-1950 rules, we played our first 'proper' wargame with our Airfix tanks and hurriedly based soldiers. Napoleonics was what I was really interested in, though. I have no recollection of your 5mm game - I'm not sure I would have understood what it was - but, from your description, I can now recollect seeing the poster! Even at the time I wondered why you would want to shrink your beautifully uniformed figures so that you couldn't see them! Thank you for reminding me of some very happy memories!

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    1. Excellent - great to hear from you - thanks for getting in touch. Apart from anything else, it proves I didn't just imagine it (I must tell the nurse)! I think if we'd had more time, Peter and I could have produced some sort of presentable layout for a demonstration game, but as I recall it was all a terrible rush - I only knew a week or so before that I was required!

      If that was a lightbulb moment for your wargaming career, I think it's always good to remember exactly where and when you were when such-and-such happened. Now - I've put a cup of coffee down somewhere - better find it...

      Regard - MSF

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  16. I remember the game as well - it's the poster that stuck in the memory. I think we put on a Vietnam or WW1 dogfight game that year. Adam House was a great venue for a show, for me they killed Claymore when they moved it to the Meadowbank dungeon.

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    1. Good man, Doug - more conclusive evidence that it happened...

      I would have been the miserable-looking bloke dressed entirely in black. I think I went once to Claymore when it was at Meadowbank, but it was such a wretched barn of a place that it just seemed natural to be sent along there - whatever the event was, it was as though it was all we deserved - 5-a-side football, the Jazz Festival, vote counting on election night, whatever - I'd find myself at Meadowbank yet again, relishing the noisy ventilation and the smell of armpits and athlete's foot. Ah yes, I'd say - Good Old Meadowbank - why am I here, again?

      Back to Adam House - for a while I used to be a member of the University Staff club, about 4 doors up the hill on the same side as Adam House - they had an excellent restaurant, a very cheap bar and a reading room where you could sleep for hours. Unfortunately it was completely wrecked when a tenement block in Guthrie Street (round the back) went up in a massive gas explosion (1989). Only reason to go to Chambers St in recent years was the Warmer Sounds hi-fi shop, and I can't really be bothered with that now, either. [Yawns]

      The current Claymore venue at Granton is not bad, I think, though I don't get to go very often now.

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