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


Saturday, 2 October 2021

Wargames which Turned Weird - (1) The Surprise Railway


 This follows from an email exchange with a friend - we have got into a discussion of the strangest wargames we've been involved in. His suggestions have been generally more entertaining than mine; most of my own involved grandiose projects - often with multiple participants - sometimes organised by established clubs - for which the average budgerigar could have accurately predicted disaster. Games which could never end, games which were scuppered by the non-arrival of a key participant, one game which was stopped by a burst water pipe in the flat above. You know the kind of thing - all this must be small beer to you veterans.

One game I still remember with trembling was my first attempt at staging a proper miniatures battle. In a big rush (I was looking for a new hobby), I read Featherstone's War Games from cover to cover, plus various magazine articles, and decided that Airfix-based ACW would be just the thing. I had no modelling skills, no knowledge, no idea. I bought the First Bull Run volume from the Knight's Wargame Series, and pored over every word [when you have a minute, count the ways in which this was a very silly approach].


Whatever, I was too busy to do much thinking - I spent about six weeks daubing paint on hacked Airfix troops - boxes of the beggars. In the pub, I spoke of my new project to my downstairs neighbour, Ken, who was very enthusiastic about the idea and offered to help me to get started. He seemed to be coming from the right sort of direction, since he had a large model railway stored away in his cellar, and also had an enormous dining table in his apartment.

Since my own model railway scenery was stored away in a box in a cupboard in my parents' house, in a distant city, I let him persuade me that he would be just the man to host a trial battle - he had plenty of HO-scale trees and stuff, even exotica such as papier-maché hills. If I just brought along my armies and a working knowledge of some rules or other, he would set up the field, and would stock up on beer.

We had some discussion about a suitable scenario. It was obvious that Bull Run itself was well out of scope, but I found a scenario in a magazine which involved a fight around a railway depot. Ken was very excited by this; we scribbled out a rough map, with a little railway and all that, and we arranged that I would bring my soldiers, rulers and dice down to his flat on Friday evening, and Ken would have the battlefield set up, ready.

When I arrived, on the Friday, I was dumbfounded to find that he had totally ignored our sketch-map and constructed a complete loop of railway, with a station and a tunnel, and a couple of little (modern) trains which were going round and round. Have you ever had a moment when the Universe slips a little? My armies were obviously irrelevant in this setting; I realised that this nice man who had invited me to look at his etchings had an evil plan.


I pointed out - diplomatically - that this was not at all what I had in mind, but it got rather nasty very quickly. He was obviously as disappointed as I was. Storming out was easy, but he was my neighbour, and he snubbed me for the next two years every time our paths crossed. Fair enough - I snubbed him too. In fact we got into a sort of running contest to see who could get his snub in first. Snub Wars.

My wife and I moved away to another house about 4 years later, and some time after that I bumped into him at a friend's wedding. He was quite affable, and asked me was I still doing the "toy soldier thing"; I admitted that I was, and he said he would like to come to one of my games sometime. Gave me his business card. I flushed it down the toilet approximately 15 minutes later. 

I never go out with men who do model railways on a first date.

I still laugh about this. The wargaming context is almost incidental, I suppose, but it rates as one of my classic Tricky Moments - I was young and awkward enough to be upset by it. Nowadays I'm just awkward, so such things don't bother me. 

Anyone like to offer any horror stories?

20 comments:

  1. In what was my late teens, early twenties I was still living in a rural backwater. My only opponent had been a school friend who had moved away. I wrote into Military Modelling where they had a section for pen-friends and suchlike enquiring whether there were any wargamers in a wide radius ( at the time there were no wargames magazines nor internet). Time passed, when out of the blue I received a letter, from someone who lived about 12 miles away. I must have replied and we arranged to meet (I don't recall if there was any telephone contact). I duly turned up at his house in the largest town near me. I remember it was all very odd and awkward. I remember he lived alone and that I was struck by the general untidyness with boxes everywhere and a large bag of cement in his (unfinished) kitchen and asked if he had just moved in. "No; I've been here two years" . At some stage we must have started talking about wargaming. He had not seen my advert; his brother had told him about it. He had moved to the area for work. He may have brought out his figures. All I remember is he got more and more animated in an odd way about some obscure ancient army he had and how it won lots of games. I seem to recall mentally backing away if unable to physically do so, and made my excuses after a decent interval and left. I don't recall making any plans to meet again; I may have been planning to move to the nearest city and used that as an excuse. I have a vague memory he may have been called Colin; if he wasn't it's a fitting name.
    All I remember at this remove is how uncomfortable it all was; these days it would have been even more sinister given our age difference and his domestic circumstances and the nature of how we met - it has all the hallmarks of a murder mystery - but shows we live in more cynical times.
    Now of course, being much older and having met many such men, "Colin" is just one of those socially awkward odd people that you frequently find in wargaming, who engages you in enthusiastic conversation at conventions while you nod and smile pleasantly, backing away as soon as you can. At least I haven't seen him arrested in connection with the disappearance of young men.....so I'm assuming the former was the case rather than him being a sociopath or anything sinister....
    As a postcript, I did move to the nearest city and joined a club, where I met some "normal" people who just happened to play with toy soldiers . It turned out that "Colin" had turned up at the club previous to my joining. I seem to remember there was something odd about his figures - it may have been they were unpainted or all represented something different to what they were - in any case he had played a game which culminated in his forthright opponent getting angry with him and calling him a "weirdo" - he left and never returned. The general opinion was that he was definitely a bit odd.
    It was some consolation to know that it wasn't my imagination and there had been some basis to what I'd felt.
    Of course now I can't help wondering what he had that bag of cement for and whether I just had a lucky escape.....
    Neil

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    1. Superb Neil - that's a great story. We have to set this up as a movie - in the movie there will all sorts of gamers under Colin's kitchen floor. You'll have to have a think about casting - who should play the various roles etc. Thanks for this.

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    2. I think it would have to be Toby Jones playing "Colin" ; modesty prevents me from picking anyone to play me....I would have to ask my wife....on second thoughts perhaps not!
      After writing this I have tried to recall what it was about his miniatures that was odd - bearing in mind it was almost 40 years ago. I have a vague recollection they were (bad) Airfix converted Arabs of some description; this was the era of Hinchliffe or Minifigs 25mm armies carried in cantilever metal toolboxes (at least in the WRG 5th/6th circles I mixed in) with tremendous snobbery towards plastics (although I once saw a very impressive Atlantic Egyptian army....).
      Neil

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  2. Good story. I wager we all have a worthy Wargaming related story or two.

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    1. Hi Jon - hope things good with you. I'm hoping to spring a few fine stories from commenters here!

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  3. That's an interesting variation on the argument for solving the greying dwindling of the hobby argument that we should merge our exhibitions of toy soldiers, model railways and wargaming into one super exhibition for men of a certain age.
    Step back and then watch the synergy, territorialism, mutual incomprehension and misconceptions emerge.

    Exploring this a bit in my Sidetracked occasional blog on (model) railways and wargaming scenarios for example https://sidetracked2017blog.wordpress.com/2019/11/24/the-battles-of-saxby-or-lord-harboroughs-curve-1844-to-1846/

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    1. Mark - enjoyed the linked story very much. I'm a fan of your Man of Tin blog, but had not seen this offspring. Reading your post left me in a historical frame of mind, as in, "history of gaming". As a historical example of a game which did not work, I am always intrigued by the great fascination surrounding the 1965 Waterloo game at the Duke of York's HQ; there were a lot of household names present, of course, and the rules used must have represented the state of the art in 1965, but we are told that the game did not finish - in fact, I have been informed privately by someone who was there, they didn't even come anywhere near finishing. Games of such scope are less rare now - recent discussion here has revealed that a couple of friends and I could between us set up a more expansive re-enactment of Waterloo from our own collections, and we would try to find rules which would enable the game to be played to a finish in the time available, which is kind of important. My eye-witness source tells me that much of the slow progress of the 1965 game was due to the star players arguing about the rules being used. Doesn't seem ideal, but I guess the mere spectacle was worth the entrance fee, and some of these chaps would have been used to getting their own way at their own clubs!

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  4. Now I'm feeling like I've missed an important experience that ought to have been part of my becoming a wargamer but that soon passed to vague memories of new wargamers who came to see or join in a game and were never heard from again.

    Did they maybe have one of these stories to tell?....oh dear...

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    1. You mean someone my write in with a story about you? Formidable! I'm well up for that.

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  5. Perhaps Ken was trying to recreate the Buster Keaton film 'The General'.

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    1. Maybe. I think it was more like "The Railway Children".

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  6. Hmm, I'd be worried that any wargaming weirdo might happen to read a comment and recognise themselves. Could be dangerous.

    There was one incident many years ago when our club met at a Christian Institute a little out of town. The Church committee were fine with us but the caretaker didn't like us at all and did his best to be obstructive if he could. We turned up one Saturday to find that the storeroom where all the tables were kept now sported a shiny new heavy duty lock. Of course there was no key to be found anywhere and the caretaker had disappeared too. Fortunately one of the lads had tools in his car and the door hinges were external, so we were able to take the doors off and retrieve the tables. We put the doors back afterwards, of course, and made no comment. After a couple of weeks of this, we found he'd stopped bothering to lock the door anyway.

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    1. Excellent. Caretakers were always a race apart anyway. Particularly the guys who looked after music halls for Scottish local authorities, as it happens. The big perk of the job was the chance to spoil someone's day.

      I remember one hero at the Arts Centre in Paisley, giving a band who had just finished a 2 hour set and were knackered a load of earache because he wanted to get home to watch the football on telly. The drummer's name was Scrapper Munro - he was about 6'6", and he got fed up with this endless nagging, so he took the guy very quietly to one side, and spoke to him for about a minute. Not another complaint was heard. Scrapper refused to tell us the magic words he had used to achieve this. There must be a book of spells somewhere.

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    2. I suspect there may be a clue in his nickname......

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  7. I wasn't there myself but our mate Mark tells a couple of good wargaming stories, In one, a WW2 game was interrupted when the aggrieved recipient of some deadly accurate artillery fire demanded to know how the opponent could possibly see the target. Having had the FOO pointed out to him with the rather smarmy "He can see you perfectly well from here" added for good measure, our hero picked up the soft plastic Airfix figure (for twas many moons ago) calmly bit off and spat out the head and replied "Well, he wont be f***ng seeing anything now, will he?!"
    The second story involved a player whose bad dice rolling went above and beyond what any red blooded wargamer can reasonably be expected to bear. At the three quarters point of the game, having suffered several hours of incredibly bad rolling, the chap said in a very calm and polite tone "Excuse me one moment" went out into the carpark of the light industrial area in which his gaming group met, and hurled the offending dice as far as he could into the darkness......

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    1. Excellent. Thanks for these. I have winessed a few tantrums at wargames over the years - none quite as entertaining as these. Tantrums in my experience usually just spoil the game, since everything is edgy afterwards, and you get people avoiding eye contact etc, which is ridiculous.

      I heard a tale of a Newcastle wargamer who was so upset by the performance of one of his dice that he took it to his work and smashed it under a hydraulic hammer - not sure I believe that one!

      This stuff can very quickly develop into something that isn't funny at all. In a town near here, the Saturday afternoon "Warhammer for Kids" sessions used to be run by the chap who owned the model shop. He was famous for having a rather bad temper - subsequently, after he had disposed of the model shop, he was gaoled for stabbing someone in the neck (fatally) after an argument (over a woman, not a wargame). I'm very glad I never had a game with him! Good to think the kids were in such good hands all those years.

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  8. Neill's story quite freaks me out. I think it could be the plot for Season 4 of American Detective if anyone wanted to make it.
    I can't top it, except to comment on the age difference. During my military career I briefly dabbled in Warhammer 40K because I wanted to understand my teenage son at the time and it was one of the few things we could talk about. He invited me out to a games night at the local hobby store, and I went along. I found myself in a game with a young corporal that I knew vaguely from the local base, who was at least 20 years my junior. He insisted on calling me "sir" all through the game, which was very short, because he knew the rules intimately (I didn't) and demolished my little army in no time flat, saying "sorry, sir" every time a handful of my figures were removed from the table. It was all very awkward.

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    1. That's pretty funny, too - thanks for that Mike. A couple of years ago I dropped in on a club, where the big game of the moment was BloodBowl - they were lovely people, it was a great atmosphere, and I enjoyed my visit, but I was well out of my depth with the games. Mind you, I suspect it would have been disappointing all round if I hadn't been! I recall, 40 years ago, the young Turks at the Napoleonic Association deliberately set about antagonising all the established figures in British wargaming at the time, and there was quite a little Cold War for a while. Ultimately, the joke is that the old established figures are still remembered as household names, while the young Turks have been completely forgotten (apart from Hofschröer?) and are certainly not so young...

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  9. I was once playing Shogun with a friend and his brother. Half way way through the game but obviously losing the brother jumped up. Grabbed the board and tipped it up on the floor. My friend just carried on chatting as if nothing had happened. The same guy was showing me a newly painted figure once. When he dropped it, it landed in the cup of tea I was holding. I fished it out and gave it back to him and sipped the tea through my teeth to filter out the static grass.

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    1. This is also very good - another potential movie - essential not to react when things turn strange - just smile and offer everyone a cup of tea. Static grass in the tea is also good, though I find that concept a little uncomfortable, since I do my wargaming in the family Dining Room, and I have a lifetime ban on flock of any sort.

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