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Friday, 17 October 2014

One Hour Wargames

Neil Thomas is becoming quite a prolific wargames author these days. The subtitle to his latest offering is 'Practical Tabletop Battles For Those With Limited Time And Space'. Sold, then. I think most wargamers these days (and probably since time immemorial) have had limited time and space. This was definitely a book for me.

I took a photo because the cover you see on Amazon isn't the cover you receive.

This 150 page softback can be got from Amazon for around a tenner. None of your colour pictures or high-end production values here, just a normally printed book with a set of black and white maps (to which we will return) and no photos. After a quick introduction, we are into the meat of the book - rules for nine wargames periods from Ancients to World War Two (not eight as the jacket blurb states). As regular readers of this blog will know, there are actually only three wargames periods, but Neil has decided to give us:

Ancients (500BC to AD100)
Dark Ages (Western Europe 600 - 1000) 
Medieval (1100 - 1300)
Pike and Shot (1450 - 1650)
Horse and Musket (Europe 1700 - 1860)
Rifle and Sabre (Europe 1860 - 1900)
American Civil War (The name is the clue here)
Machine Age Wargaming (1900 - 1939)
Second World War (You guessed it)

I suppose most gamers will have their own thoughts about this periodisation. My initial thoughts were that the Battle of Hastings appeared to have disappeared from history, and that the Second World War section should have started in 1936 with the Spanish Civil War. The latter opinion was confirmed when I read the rules in detail - Machine Age Wargaming is really WW1 (and doesn't include tanks).

Each period receives three pages of explanation of both the period and the various rules rationalisations, then a set of rules which take up around two and a half pages. After the rules there is a section of 30 scenarios followed by short (and I mean short) sections on campaigns and solo wargaming.

The rules for each period have essentially the same structure: Neil forms his 'armies' (which have a maximum of 6 units) from 4 troop types, which vary from period to period, and the rules for each period are basically tweaked from those for other periods to reflect the flavour of each epoch. To say the rules are simple is a gross understatement - they are brutally simple, not to say Extremely Basic. My reading brought me to the conclusion that Neil had been very clever in picking out some essential facets of each period, and making adaptions to the various sets to bring these out. The book does indeed bear the evidence of a very analytical and disciplined mind setting out to produce a very specific product - games that can be played in a maximum of one hour on a 3' x 3' table.

I did note a few downsides before I had played any test games. The Wargame Campaign section (2 pages) is really nothing of the sort - even calling it a 'tournament' section would be extravagant. Neil simply suggests you might like to play the best of three games (or five if you have the time), and might like to link them by, for example, allowing the winner of the previous game to pick his preferred side in the next game. The Solo Wargaming section (a little under two pages) is a bit better, but not much. Providing thirty scenarios must have been a real effort, which is much appreciated, but they are let down by maps which are frankly a bit sad. They bear the unmistakable stamp of maps produced by someone in a rush using Microsoft Word. Black and white is fine, but in this day and age something a little more inspiring and imaginative (or at least a bit less amateurish) is to be expected. And despite the emphasis on using 3' x 3' tables, each map has unaccountably been squashed so it is actually a rectangle. In my opinion, Pen & Sword must bear the blame here - as a well-established military publisher they should have made sure a decent standard was achieved. 

I should also have payed more attention to one final point before I set up some test games. In his introduction Neil makes the point that complex rules don't necessarily provide realism (a fair point), but that 'simplicity is at least guaranteed to produce enjoyment'. This is not true, as I was about to find out.

I played out five solo test games, two in the Seven Years War period (i.e. Horse and Musket, troop types infantry, skirmishers, artillery and cavalry) and three in WW2 (troop types infantry, mortars, anti-tank guns and tanks). I chose one of Neil's scenarios at random for each game. The rules do have the advantage that anyone with a modest collection in any scale for a particular period will probably be able to get forces together to play these rules. For me, trying them out only meant another tenner spent on acquiring a 3' x 3' square of 12mm MDF. 

The SYW games were OK. Fair enough, these were only solo test games so I didn't expect nail biting entertainment. But I did get the feeling that the games, which are supposed to run to 15 moves if using the scenarios, started to run out of steam after 6 or 7 moves, as units tend to be destroyed quite quickly. Still, I thought, an uncomplicated evening of 'the best of three' with a live opponent would be worth trying. Then I moved on to WW2. Frankly, the resulting games were dull exercises in die rolling, where the winner was usually obvious halfway through the game, or else so many units were destroyed that the final moves became pointless fight outs between lone units, usually a mortar unit on each side as these tend to be the last to fall. Never mind an hour: the games I played were essentially over in 20 minutes. As an example of how the game mechanics failed, I played a scenario based on a surprise flank attack. But as all units in the WW2 section have a 360° field of fire, and there is no disadvantage for being fired on in flank, the defenders didn't need to re-deploy or manoeuvre at all against the flank threat. It was back to a die rolling exercise again. Maybe it's just the case that these rules work better for the earlier periods.

I also found that the period feel introduced by the tweaks to the rules tends to be cancelled out by the common basis that all the rules share. Setting out my WW2 infantry units and anti-tank guns on a hill, it felt like I could just as easily have been setting out some SYW infantry battalions and smooth bore artillery.

I very much wanted to like this book, but I learnt that most wargames rules have a certain level of complication for good reason - they provide the required period feel, and also provide games that are interesting to play because you have to think about detailed tactics, as well as simply having a number of things you have to constantly bear in mind if you are to be successful. For my taste, Neil has taken simplification several steps too far, and has conclusively thrown the baby out with the bathwater. To be brutal, I would say the rules are just rather boring to play. I will also say that I have encountered 'one side of A4' rule sets for periods including WW2 which gave much more subtle and interesting games than this book provides. If you have ancient or medieval armies, DBA is a far better option for a quick game, with much more play interest. However, one area the book might be of value in is as a starting point to get young kids into wargaming. They will certainly enjoy the no-nonsense simplicity.

There is perhaps one further point to make. The rules in the book are obviously sitting ducks for those keen to make their own amendments and additions, and Neil indicates that this is fine by him. In the past I might have already been busy working out 'improvements' so that the rules worked better for me. But these days I tend to think that, having paid out for a rulebook, I want to be able to use it more or less as written. Spending time amending and altering is messy and frustrating. And I also want to feel that I am giving the author the chance to convince me about his ideas - I've bought the rules, so I should give them a chance to work on their own terms. I therefore won't be spending time making Neil's book work for me. His approach doesn't suit me, so I will leave it at that.

I should add that I do not regret buying this book. Reading it and playing the rules therein has helped me clarify in my own mind what makes wargaming intellectually satisfying. And those three page sections written for each period which give a potted explanation of how warfare worked during that time, and how Neil proposes to reflect this, made me think about my own assumptions for the periods I play. Despite the maps, those thirty scenarios will probably spark some game ideas in the years ahead. A good feature of them is that Neil notes which real battle or classic wargames scenario has inspired them.

Despite the mostly kind reviews on Amazon, I doubt these rules will catch on. But the book was worth writing, because I feel Neil has explored the limits of rule writing for miniature wargames with a brash originality. Even if  I find the results disappointing, the attempt was worth making.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Consumerism Gone Mad

Yes, it's me again. Not satisfied with spending out on a bunch of painted RSM95s (see previous post), I've just bought 'Marshall Saxe in his Coach' from Crann Tara Miniatures.

Now why would that be? Well, I've always fancied the idea of having a SYW army commander in a coach - it just seemed like a pretty cool idea. But the appropriate model never really came up, until I spotted this delightful sculpt on the Der Alte Fritz Journal. Now it's available from Crann Tara for around £20 plus postage. Of course, Marshall de Saxe never fought in the SYW, but why let that stop me? The figure in the coach can become any fictional general I choose, and I can paint him in any uniform I like. At the moment I'm considering making him Swiss, with a nice red coat, and available to command any army for the highest bidder.

As you'd expect, the model is of very high quality. The kit of parts that you receive needs just about no cleaning up.

The kit seems a little daunting at first, but actually goes together 
easily once you check out a photo of the completed coach. 
And so, a quick evening's work and I had a great model ready.
Believe that and you'll believe anything.
This is the beautifully finished model in a photo courtesy Jim Purky and Crann Tara Miniatures.

I have plenty of wargaming jobs outstanding at the moment - a bit of painting, a review of Neil Thomas' One Hour Wargames to put together for the blog, plus playtesting of Honours of War. When this coach will finally see action I'm not sure. But such a tempting model won't stay on the workbench for too long, I think.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Latest RSM95s

Having given up painting full units recently, I have had a few figures painted by those lovely lads at the Dayton Painting Consortium over in the US of A. A couple of small cavalry units, an Austrian Grenz battalion and some Prussian grenadiers. Not exactly a massive order by some people's standards, but including the cost of the figures, painting, postage and customs fees, it still came to £122.65. Counting the cavalry as 2 figures, that's around £3.23 per figure, all in.

Even taking into account that the style is my favoured block painting that may not satisfy some gamers, that's still very reasonable. But think how much you'd need to spend to get off the ground with a few hundred figures! I think this is the next big challenge for the wargames industry - providing ready painted figures at cheap prices. I know a lot of you love your painting, but what a boost to the hobby that would be. As I don't particularly want to benefit from the output of some foreign sweatshop, maybe technology will one day present the answer - how about pre-coloured plastic figures?

Anyway, a few photos for you. I kept the figures unbased in the photos for the Old Schoolers amongst you:

On the left, Prussian Hussar Regiment no.6, 'The Brown Hussars'.
On the right, the colourful Austrian hussars from Regiment no.36, the 'Palatinal Hussars'.
My usual regimental strength is a decidedly modest, 'non old school' 8 figures. These latest chaps can act as
small units of 4 figures (2 'squadrons'), or be combined with standard units into 12 figure 'large' regiments.

Carlstadt Grenz Regiment Oguliner.

Grenadiers from 3 separate Prussian regiments.
These will make up the rest of my Grenadier units from 16 figures to 20.

I have a few artillery guns and crews to add, and then that will be about that for my SYW armies. I think it will soon be a time for an 'all toys on the table' battle so I can get the whole collection out at once.


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Honours of War - Cover Art

Well now. I fully expected Osprey to draw on their wide range of already available images for the cover of my rules. But instead, they have gone ahead and commissioned a piece of original artwork. Nice. Very nice indeed. 

Men of Prussian IR18, Prinz von Preussen, charge into combat. The snow suggests Leuthen to me - the regiment was present on the Prussian right flank. The artist is Giuseppe Rava. I have always admired the rose pink facings of this regiment. Marvellous!

The playtest feedback I have received from the Yahoo group has been invaluable and has resulted in a large number of positive changes to Honours of War. I have 2 or 3 new playtesters still up my sleeve for final checks, but overall I'm pretty happy with how the rules are. Waiting until next November for publication will be a bit of a pain, but that's the world of publishing for you. At the moment, my two great fears are:

First, the obvious one - the rules are trashed by reviewers and players on publication, no one likes them, and I find I have let Osprey down. Oh, how I fear the wrath of TMP!

Second, having submitted the final manuscript in January 2015, I find that by November I have discovered any number of glitches in the rules, or thought of several ideas or improvements which I would love to include but can't. We all know that by the time Donald Featherstone had published War Games, he no longer used the rules that were contained within it. I am hardly in the Don's league, but you get my meaning. I guess there's really no way out of this one.

I am heartened by Osprey's decision to provide online support for their various rules (at least, that's my reading of the current situation - don't quote me). But if they don't, I will. This will allow me to address any problems and pass on corrections. And it will probably help sales as well.

Regardless of my fears, the whole process continues to be full of interest and enjoyment. I suppose in a way it's work, but it certainly doesn't feel like it. Thanks again to Phil Smith, Games Manager, Osprey Publishing, for giving me the chance to do this.

Friday, 5 September 2014

BKC Breakout Scenario

It's always great to renew old friendships. I was recently contacted by a gaming buddy I had only previously met during the weekend of MadFest 2012. Adam had worked out that my new address was reasonably close to his, and was kind enough to contact me to renew our acquaintanceship. So we decided to have a go at some Blitzkrieg Commander chez moi. I decided to try the Breakout scenario as it is a little out of the ordinary, with a defending force on the centre third of the table being squeezed between a break-out force on one side trying to escape to the far table edge, and a break-in force on the other trying to help their comrades. The setting of course would be Poland 1939.

This is a tricky scenario for the defender to win, particularly with a defending force like the Poles which tends to lack motorised units and mobile armour. But we gave it a go. Forces involved were:

German Forces  Regimental CO CV9

Artillery Battalion FAO CV8
3 105mm artillery units, 6 assets

HS-123 Staffel FAC CV7
1 HS-123 unit, 2 assets

Breakout Force:
Panzer Bn HQ CV8
4 PzI, 2 PzII, 1 PzIII, 1 PzIV

Recce Bn HQ CV8
1 Sdkfz221 (recce), 1 Sdkfz222, 1 Sdkfz231, 3 m/c infantry units, 1 mg unit (truck), 1 75mm IG (truck)

Break-in Force:
Panzer Bn HQ CV8
2 PzI, 4 PzII, 1 PzIII, 1 PzIV

Motorcycle Bn HQ CV8
6 m/c infantry units, 2 m/c mg units, 1 mortar unit (truck), 1 37mm ATG unit (truck)

33 units, BP = 16       (All infantry units have ATR upgrade)


Polish Forces  Regimental CO CV8 

Artillery battalion FAO CV6
3 75mm artillery units

Trenches for 8 units, gun pits for 2 units

Tank Company HQ CV8
2 7tp (37mm), 1 7tp (mg)

Infantry Battalion x 2 HQ CV7  (one battalion has 1 75mm artillery support unit+truck attached)
6 infantry units
2 mg unit
1 mortar unit (truck)
1 37mm ATG (truck)

24 units, BP = 12        (All infantry units have ATR upgrade)


The Battle

This shows the table set-up. The white dice indicate the centre third -
I sent this photo to Adam (Germans) so he could plan his scheduled fire.
Now there's interesting - Adam brought over some Litko smoke screen markers which I was very taken with.
Here the game gets underway with some smoke being fired by the Germans.
The Polish flank on the far side from the hill was the weak point in their defence, which Adam quickly spotted.
This is the now famous 'charge of the motorcycles' which was to successfully unhinge this flank. Note suppressed Polish command unit, and that 2 of the dug-in Polish units are about to be assaulted in their rear.
Oh dear - all those Polish units appear to have been replaced by German ones!
A wide open escape route - German support fire units on hill at right, breakout force gathering itself at left.
Overview towards game end. Polish tanks in the centre (on the road) are being ground down.
Some close-ups. These are the leading armoured car units of the breakout force.
Light tanks of the breakout force lurk in cover, awaiting their opportunity.
The defending Polish infantry battalion in the centre, between hill and village, was not really tested.

This was a very different game from my last BKC outing at the Oxford Wargames Society. It was much more the kind of gaming I am used to - working carefully through each move to make sure the rules were used correctly. As a result I re-learned a lot about the detail of how BKC works. I was particularly distressed to find that units close assaulting in transport dismount automatically from their vehicles (in this case motorcycles), making an attack by motorcycle infantry just that bit more likely to succeed. Blast!

A very absorbing game, and great to find that suddenly I have a new opponent to enjoy wargaming with. Thanks for getting in touch Adam!

Monday, 25 August 2014

Playing With Toy Soldiers

I did think of calling this post New House, Old Magazines 2. I have been reading through the old wargames magazines which I unearthed when moving house. The main result was the realisation that I was keeping most of them for old time's sake only - there was nothing in the majority of them that really interested me, and I would never read them again. So most of them went in the bin. But I did keep a select few with thought-provoking or useful articles inside.


Particularly thought-provoking were a series of articles on the use of toy soldiers in wargaming. Now, I think of my hobby very much as playing with toy soldiers, though I suppose 'miniature wargaming' or 'wargaming with miniatures' is more like the official title. So an article entitled 'The Case Against Toy Soldiers' (MW 13) was bound to jump out at me. Some of you (those of a certain age, shall we say?) may even remember the article. Basically, it was Paddy Griffith being deliberately controversial by making the point that those looking for any sort of realism in their games would be better off trying some other sort of wargaming than that variety which uses model soldiers. Paddy rather patronisingly lets wargamers such as me off the hook early in the article with this statement,

Please note that the points I want to make apply only to games which are aiming at some sort of historical realism. You can ignore them if your aim is just to have a bit of knockabout fun with your toys, or if you are into fantasy.

Yeah, cheers Paddy. Though having 'a bit of knockabout fun' does describe my attitude to wargaming reasonably well. What really struck me was how firmly Paddy completely missed the point about the hobby.  Model or toy soldiers are not peripheral to some practical attempt to recreate the warfare of the past. They are the central factor in a lighthearted pastime that at most aims to create 'historically plausible results' (to quote Henry Hyde). Paddy reckoned that around 50% of wargamers were 'informed members of the wargame hobby' (thanks again) who were seriously into realism in their games. I don't really think that was true when the article was written in 1984, and I'm sure it's not true now. Thankfully, whatever tosh people used to believe about recreating or researching warfare through recreational games has faded into the past. Indeed, how Paddy got to thinking that that was what the hobby was about after reading Donald Featherstone or Charles Grant is beyond me. 

What his article pointed up is, I think, an aberration (or, more accurately, a dead end) that surfaced as wargaming began to develop during the late 70s and 80s: the aberration that we really were trying to research past warfare through gaming, and/or that realism was the holy grail of the hobby, and in particular the holy grail of its rules. This seems to be confirmed by the 3 articles in reply to Paddy that appeared in  MW 17, one of them by Phil Barker. None of them makes the obvious point that Paddy was just barking up the wrong tree. They all try to justify how toy soldiers really can help you out in your simulation of warfare, or how said soldiers really aren't such a problem as Paddy makes out. I won't bore you with the details of the arguments. They were all rather unappealing I'm afraid.

A little later, there appeared a three part article in three consecutive issues of MW (21, 22, and 23 in 1985) entitled 'The Wargame: Game or Simulation?'. This was by another member of Wargame Developments called George Jeffrey. I remembered these articles as soon as I found them - I had read them with considerable care in 1985, thought about what George was trying to say, and finally concluded he was talking bollocks. Again, summarising the arguments would be tiresome, but after assuming that a move towards 'simulation' was the goal of all serious gamers there was some largely inexplicable stuff about games moving from 'decision point' to 'decision point', and what happened between being calculated by applying known casualty and movement rates. Known casualty rates? Fat chance, I thought, even in 1985. How all this could be made into a workable set of rules was unclear, and certainly not laid down in any examples. Most tellingly, nothing along the lines George was suggesting has ever appeared in any published set of rules, at least as far as I know.

Thankfully, this kind of thing then seemed to die out. We all know the results - rules started to get simpler, easier and faster to play, and wargamers began to return to what the hobby had started out as - a bunch of grown men (and the occasional woman) playing with toy soldiers. Unfortunately, those articles coloured my idea of what Wargames Developments was about. Apparently they were a bunch of wargamers who looked down their noses at people like me, and wrote patronising articles pointing out what the rest of us were doing wrong. But they certainly weren't the only ones thinking along those lines. 

I don't know a great deal about what WD get up to, even now, but good luck to them in their quest for new ways to play games, with or without toy soldiers. They deserve more publicity. However, I know which branch of the hobby I'll be sticking with.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Down At The Club (2)

Club wargaming has never been a big part of my hobby. In the past I have been happy to do most of my gaming at home or at other people's homes, within a small circle of wargaming friends. But I appreciate club gaming can add a lot to what one gets out of the hobby - it's just a question of finding a club that suits you and is within a reasonable distance.

In the Bristol area, I was lucky to be steered towards the Portbury Knights club, which at the time I joined was a thriving club with both boardgaming/fantasy and historical players hard at it during most meetings. Such a meeting was the subject of my original Down At The Club post from 2010. Unfortunately the club seems to have fallen on hard times, having zero web presence now as far as I can tell. Rumour has it that historical gaming has more or less stopped. 

On moving to the Oxford area, joining a club was an obvious way to meet new wargamers, so I ended up at the Oxford Wargames Society one Monday evening not long ago. I was lucky in that club members focus mainly on historical wargaming, and I found I was quickly welcomed and invited to join in. A particularly refreshing aspect of the club was that a number of members focus on developing their own rules and trying these out at club meetings.

Anyway, for my third evening at the society I was asked to put on a Blitzkrieg Commander game for some interested players. This I managed to do, using an adaption of my Race To The Vistula scenario from a good few years ago. I am not much used to acting as an umpire, so my guidance tended to be a little lacking in timeliness and accuracy as the evening progressed. Parts of the rules ended up being forgotten or badly explained, but a hectic game ensued with everyone seeming to enjoy themselves. A few photos are shown below:

The initial Polish defenders were set up east of the river,
allowing the Germans to make rapid progress across the table.

"AFVs may not close assault other AFVs".
No point in trying to ram that Panzer I with the armoured train then.

Despite the various random arrivals being mainly Polish, and some of the German command rolls being rather unfortunate, it was obvious by the end of the game that the Germans were going to get enough armoured units off the far side of the table to win.

Umpiring? It's a mug's game if you ask me.
Oh the endless questions, the pressure to get things right, the constant banter.
But on the other hand, with four nice guys like these fellows...

So What's The Point?
Club gaming? Of course, you have to be able to find a club that suits you, that covers your interests and has like-minded people attending. But in my limited experience, club gaming can offer a great deal. On a practical level, it gives you a physical space much greater than any normal home environment, so those big games are a possibility. It also offers an environment away from the pressures of home - you can concentrate on the gaming without interruption. And if you find the right club, those big club projects can become a reality, whether you join in with what's already going on or maybe start your own.

But, as was pointed out to me by one of the members of the OWS, the most significant difference from home wargaming is the social aspect. You encounter new wargamers and are exposed to new ideas and new perspectives. And club games tend to have a different character, especially if more than two of you are involved. Of course, one could just do what one does at home but do it at the club. However, this might be missing the point. The game of BKC I played at the OWS was very different from the game as I would play it at home. The poring over the rulebook, the quiet, concentrated effort to make sure the game correctly included every rule aspect, was replaced by a much more rough and ready approach where what mattered was keeping the game moving as rapidly as possible. Both approaches provide enjoyable wargaming: experiencing both is well worthwhile.

Plus, of course, if you pick the right club you can go down the pub afterwards. No photos of the latter event are available.

Many thanks to the chaps at OWS for making me welcome. Soon it will be time to get them playtesting Honours of War. I just hope they'll be gentle with me...