Saturday 8 June 2013

In Praise Of Wargames Magazines

I'm sure I'm not the only wargamer who has wondered whether wargames magazines are still relevant in the age of the internet. We can all keep our fingers on the pulse of the hobby quite happily by using our computers, tablets and phones. I was always surprised that the hobby could support 4 commercial magazines, and even though that number is now 3 I still find it fairly remarkable to see them in W H Smith's, jostling for attention amongst Classic Tractors and Woodworking Monthly.

Wargames Illustrated is easy to resist: its glossy corporate world feels alien to me. Wargames, Soldiers and Strategy and Miniature Wargames are much more homely. I picked up the latest copy of each of these recently (WSS 66, MW 362), and was quickly reminded how relevant and useful magazines can be. They remain the main source of considered and extended writing on our hobby, conveying ideas from some of the sharpest wargames minds around. Their photos and graphics (especially the maps) are consistently excellent. Even the articles I don't really like tell me something about my own prejudices, and can sometimes surprise me with an interesting map or tip. 

As for the internet, there are far too many trivial posts and comments out there that contribute very little to our hobby, and which fail to communicate very much in terms of ideas or inspiration. Indeed, some forum posters seem to have quite a lot of trouble spelling words properly and grasping the basics of punctuation, let alone having anything worth saying. Far too many blogs make do with battle reports featuring no maps or scenario outlines, thus giving no idea of what's going on, and support this thin fare with a series of badly lit and/or out of focus photos.

There are, of course, many notable exceptions to this sad trend: blogs which are worth revisiting time and again, and wonderful information sites like Kronoskaf SYW or the PIBWL Military Site (that deals with the Polish forces of 1939). And then there are the sites of the various manufacturers and sellers, which of course are always worth trawling. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a lot of wargamers dabbling on the net (me included) are going to have to raise their game before the magazines feel the threat. 

So let's see what the latest WSS and MW got me thinking about.

Wargames, Soldiers and Strategy 66
For me, it's a problem that 2 out of 3 of the wargames magazines use 'themed' issues. As soon as I see that the theme is of no particular interest to me, I'm reluctant to buy the issue. WSS 66 had Gettysburg as its theme. I nearly walked away, but then, reflecting that the ACW at least counted as horse and musket, I flipped through the content. Hmm... some interesting looking battle maps linked to a series of Gettysburg refights. And a couple of interesting looking comment columns. I'm glad I took the plunge and bought a copy.

Regular readers of this blog will know I'm always after scenario ideas, and the Gettysburg articles were an excellent source. Check out these 2 maps for example:

Reproduced with the kind permission of WSS magazine. Copyright remains with the magazine.

Reproduced with the kind permission of WSS magazine. Copyright remains with the magazine.

I have long held that real battles confirm the idea that lining up opposing forces on opposite sides of the table and just plunging forward is not only unimaginative but doesn't represent most actual battles. Here are 2 cases in point. The upper map shows a situation where one half of the blue army is deployed forward defending a wood and river line, whilst the other half is well to its rear on the table baseline, half overlapped by the forward troops. The grey attackers must cross the stream/river to get at the defenders. This is an interesting set up: I am thinking a square 6' x 6' table would emphasise the distance between the 2 halves of the defending force and make the deployment even more interesting. The lower map has the interest of the 2 opposing lines not being parallel. Indeed the angle between them is about 60˚, which will straight away make for a stimulating engagement involving some thinking by both sides and some absorbing manoeuvres. The waterways interrupting the Confederate battle line also add interest, as does the gap on the left of the Union line where the isolated Pennsylvanian brigade is deployed. Again, a square table might work well here.

As for those comment columns, WSS has managed to get some significant wargaming names to write regular pieces for them - namely Rick Priestley and Richard Clarke. Whilst I enjoyed reading these items, for me they were rather bland and forgettable: in the arena of 'think pieces', Miniature Wargames won hands down, in my opinion. Perhaps being a prominent figure in the hobby inhibits any tendency to be outspoken or controversial: another example of the dead hand of corporate wargaming.

Miniature Wargames 362
My attention in this magazine turned first to the 2 longish articles delving into wargaming concepts. I like a good read that makes me think about the hobby. William Haggart argued convincingly that rules writers need to include solid information about their design decisions and historical sources as part of their rules, and explain and justify why said rules came to be how they are. This would allow users to more accurately judge both the designer's intentions and whatever claims to historical accuracy are made. Such informative designer's notes would indeed be much more useful than the pages of fluff and potted history bloating recent rule sets. Then Tim Beresford argued in another article that excessively detailed painting might well be an enemy of actually getting some battles in, and that we should start with the terrain for our chosen period rather than the figures. He also commented more broadly on the need for proper planning of wargames projects, including a much needed blast against the senseless accumulation of lead mountains.

Both provided good reading, with ideas that stayed with you much more than the articles by the well known personalities in WSS. Unfortunately both the writers in MW took rather longer to make their points than was really necessary. Tim's article in particular was rather meandering and unfocused, a point picked up in this TMP thread. Oxford wargamer Dillon Browne showed the way to good writing in his charming piece on attending Salute 2013.

I was, however, much obliged to Tim for confirming what I have long thought - that dedicated figure painters have much to answer for. The move to anatomically incorrect and over-detailed figures was obviously made to please the painter's need for more detail: hence all those hands like shovels and rifles the size of bazookas, as well as all those bloody buttons that you just can't ignore. The emphasis on painting creates a distraction from the task in hand, which is of course to get some wargaming in.

Now, those who love painting are always writing articles that purport to pass on their 'secret' of producing wonderful figures in record time. Tamsin Piper had such an article in this very magazine. Unfortunately, amongst all the tips and wrinkles, one does not have to read between the lines of such articles very much to discover that the real 'secret' is to spend every waking hour painting figures, often with as much shading and general fiddling about as possible. Let me step into the ring here, then, and give my own painting tips. When a soldier's coat is to be painted 'prussian blue', choose a paint of that shade (like Vallejo 70965, which is helpfully called 'prussian blue') and apply it to the coat. Then move on to the next area. If this is to be painted white, paint it in white paint. Then, move on to the next area to be painted. You get the picture. In other words, when painting, stop f**king around. Or even better, get someone else to paint your figures for you. This is much more affordable if you avoid using crazy figure painters who charge £10 per foot figure for some pointless 'work of art'.

I think that disposes of figure painting enthusiasts. MW 362 also takes the trouble to include specific rules ideas in no less than 5 articles, such as the ECW campaign piece. This is excellent: even when the period is not your thing, rules ideas can be transferable and have a habit of sending one's mind off in useful tangents. To be fair to WSS, this magazine also has significant rules content in one of its articles, not to mention all the scenario specifics in the Gettysburg section.

What Was I Saying..?
Ah yes. My overall point here is that both magazines gave me a number of ideas and directions that are not that easy to find online. I will probably return to them over a number of days and weeks to come, and for me this represents good value.

Unfortunately, the next issue of WSS (67) appears to have 'warfare in feudal Japan' as its theme. Oh bugger...


Steve J. said...

Another thought provoking read from you Keith. Craig and I were talking about the latest WM issue yesterday and the article regarding painting and terrain was discussed at some length.

I must say I was not intending on buying either magazine this month, but may check both when I get chance to pop into WH Smiths. The maps look very good with interesting deployments which as you say, can easily provide ideas for other periods.

Steve-the-Wargamer said...

Excellent - there's very little to disagree with there... the three shade merchants have done more to turn away potential new wargamers than anything else other than the grammar in DBA I think... the guys who run army painter however, should be given medals... paint them as you describe, dip, admire, game, done......

Pierre le Poilu said...

A very interesting read. Thank you. I have recently retired and, with time on my hands, I have returned to painting figures after 35 years away. I was surprised to see so many different ideas on what is 28mm and hands like shovels. The biggest surprise was so many painted figures had striped trousers and jackets until I realised these were not stripes but were meant to be painted shaded folds in the cloth. Hmm. No, I am not convinced, they still look like stripes or in some cases like the figure has p****d his pants. I will stick to (what I understand to be called) block-painting.

Keith Flint said...

Pierre, this is good. Some guy has spent hours getting the shading on those trousers just right (as he thinks), but really it just looks like stripes resulting from a loss of bladder control.

Thanks for a good chuckle on a Sunday morning.

Jur said...

Well said, Keith. I will need to rethink how I can provide more real content to my blog.

Although I still think that a blog is a more personal medium and combines the article with the anecdote, many blogs err to the latter side.

themself said...

Spray paint them khaki (or field grey) and then add a little flesh to make them look like people. If you like detail then some brown, black and metal colours make them more like soldiers. The joy of post 1900 war gaming is that they all look the same in camouflage gear!

arthur1815 said...

Keith, As one who finds painting a chore - possibly because I have no great talent for it, middle-aged, vari-focal requiring eyes &c, - I couldn't agree more with your comments on painting wargame figures. I see no point nlavishing such attention to detail upon a playing piece that, in use, will only be viewed at arm's length from above and behind. If one enjoys painting detail, then produce military models for display, and keep toy soldiers for gaming simple and functional.
To my mind, a Napoleonic figure should look like the engraved aquatints in contemporary books such as Jenkins' Martial Achievements of Great Britain &c., &c. - lots of colourful soldiers, but no great detail or sublety of shading on each individual figure.
Wargaming has suffered from the tyranny of the modelling brigade for too long, and I'm sure the high standards apparently required put many youngsters off.
Well said, sir!

Jeff Knudsen said...

Your statement of the case for hard copy in an internet world is timely and compelling.

You are correct, as well, that many wargamers focus all their energy on elaborate miniatures to the detriment of terrain and scenario design. A successful wargame involves much more than just pretty miniatures.

Thanks for making the points so eloquently.

TamsinP said...

Hi Keith,

As you mention me by name, I thought I should leave a comment, if only to give some background on my painting article.

Firstly, Henry asked me to write it about 6 days before the issue had to go off to the printers as he needed something that would fill 3-4 pages. He was/is planning to do linked articles for 6mm and 28mm pikemen. Was I the best person to ask for such an article? Maybe, maybe not.

Secondly, I'm not sure if you were lumping me in with the 3-shade method painters. I'm definitely not in that camp - life is way too short, especially when you're mainly painting 15mm. The technique I described is actually pretty much what you describe - block painting then do the shading with dip or similar.

Did painting 256 pikemen in 3 weeks (including figure prep time) mean sitting down painting/prepping for several hours a day? Yes, but I had taken a few days off work in the middle and was working to a tight (self imposed) deadline. I don't normally paint like that - usually a couple of hours in the evening and not every night.

I do think you are right about the amount of detail demanded by some of the "top" figure painters influencing the size, proportions and level of detail of figures produced by sculptors. For skirmish gaming with just a few figures per side that is OK, but for "big battle" gaming it is unnecessary.

Take care,


Keith Flint said...

Jeff, thanks but don't forget I was just paraphrasing the articles in question.

Tamsin, sorry if lumped you in with painters who I consider go a bit too far in terms of detail. I have to say that attempting 256 15mm figures would take me about a year. Just thinking about doing it in 3 weeks gives me a headache.

As you have clearly understood, I was exaggerating my opinions for humorous effect. Thanks for taking it on the chin, as well filling me in on the article background.

Keith Flint said...

Make that 2 years.

Itinerant said...

Keith - awesome post. This coming from one of those bloggers guilty of having a blog like you mentioned.

Anyway, I'll have to read Tim's article on preparing for a project and not so much collecting a lead mountain.y best and most productive period was when I was prepping for a convention game. Very focused efforts.

Oh, and feudal Japan is just a project I've been considering for some time. So thanks for the heads up! Speaking of that, I better learn some of these fast painting techniques in order to get a samurai on the table before 2018.

Which leads me to painting services - I wish they (the reasonably priced ones) were easier to find in the US.

Keep it up.

Mike Siggins said...

I am puzzled. I don't see the point in being proscriptive here.

YOU may find a painting style overwrought, or even unpleasant, but it is the painter's choice. You take it or leave it. Some beginners will love to paint, most will be average, others will struggle, but I bet very few bail out altogether.

In the same way, discursive, humorous, personal or conversational elements in a given column or article are, again, what the writer enjoys and perfectly valid as a form. Certainly if one is reviewing then I feel it helps the reader identify with the writer's tastes and outlook.

As for "modelling tyranny", come on.

Pete said...

Definitely with you on this article, Keith! Before the internet came along and ruined my day (in more ways than one), I was blissfully happy with my basic painting techniques. Now I seem to change my painting style from one paint job to the next just from what I have seen someone else do and think it looks better than what I've done. Oh well, I can always turn the PC off and go and do something more constructive.


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