Sunday 29 June 2014

New House, Old Magazines

With the closure of Filton Airport in Bristol, this particular Air traffic Controller had to find a new job, and the brief search ended at Oxford Airport. I've been there nearly 18 months, waiting for my daughter to complete her 'A' Level course, but with exams over the new house is chosen and I've moved in, camping out solo until wife and daughter join me at the end of July.

It's time for some country livin' in the really rather nice village of Ascott-under-Wychwood, in the Cotswold Hills. But the important thing is that whilst I'm there on my own, there's plenty of room for wargaming. Oh yes, the toy soldiers were the priority items on the moving list. Even when I'm en famille, the new dining room will be less of a family room than the old one, so there will be the chance of setting up games and leaving them there for a few days. Or such is my fond hope.

Clearing out the cupboards in the old house revealed a stack of old wargames magazines, which of course I will be keeping. I find I am the owner of the first ever Miniature Wargames and the first ever Wargames Illustrated.

Flipping through these old magazines, some of them going back to the 1970s, raises some interesting comparisons with today's products. Generally, the conclusion is that magazines these days are a lot better - better articles, better photos, better everything. The old issues of Miniature Wargames that I have, edited by Duncan Mcfarlane, are really surprisingly dull in many cases, and Wargames Illustrated isn't much better. Some of the articles hardly seem to be about wargaming at all. An honourable exception are the half dozen or so issues of Battle magazine I still have. These are actually most enjoyable to re-read, and have many interesting articles by well known wargamers, notably Charles Grant and Terry Wise. The 'editorial director' is one R. G. Moulton, who I've never heard of. Anybody? He certainly knew his stuff. 

One thing that struck me is that the covers regularly featured actual human beings playing wargames. The two below are my favourites, especially the one on the left. A classic club game in progress, including cigar smoking, and after all these years I'm still itching to join in. Still, at least these days I do have my own windmill.

You know what, maybe I'll check out ebay. There might be more of these old Battle mags out there.

One thing I found out straight away is that the tension between historical gamers and sci-fi/fantasy/board gamers is an old one. The letters page of Battle in particular is full of good old fashioned, bad tempered sniping. And issues like complex rules vs. simple are also apparently as old as the hills. Nothing much new in this hobby after all.

Three Fords

With all the wargaming stuff now shifted to the new house, it was time to christen the Wargames Room (rather quaintly referred to by my wife as the Dining Room). My old chum Paul decided a nosey round the new place and a wargame in secluded surroundings would make for a good Saturday night expedition to the Cotswolds, so it only remained to decide a scenario. My new rules badly needed some homegrown playtesting after the hiatus of the move, so it had to be Seven Years War. By good fortune, I had just purchased Miniature Wargames 374 and an excellent scenario was provided within - on a plate, as it were.

Map © Henry Hyde and Miniature Wargames magazine. Thanks Henry!

Steve Jones of the Newark Irregulars had written the latest in the 'Command Challenge' series, and the article immediately caught my eye. Entitled 'Three Fords, Three Ways', it was basically the story of a fighting retreat, based on a real action in the American War of Independence. Supply wagons and the vital units of the Main Body had to be saved before the attackers overran the position. The table was dominated by a river crossable only at three fords, and force details were given for each of three periods (hence the title). Conforming with the Biffy Theory of classic wargaming, these periods were of course the Ancient (alright, Dark Ages), Horse and Musket and Modern periods. Horse and Musket for me, then.

The map (very kindly provided by Henry Hyde via email) tells the story. The Blue Force baggage and main body stand ready to exit the table from the designated exit point at the north east corner. A rearguard backed by cavalry holds a wooded ridge against the advancing Red enemy. A modest Red flanking force adds further interest. 

Overall, I thought Steve had produced an article in the finest traditions of Charles Grant's much-loved Table Top Teasers: presenting it for three different periods was a fine piece of added value. 

Now this was not to say that some tweaking wouldn't be required. The baggage position shown on the map was obviously (to my mind, and for my rules)) too close to the exit point. To give the attackers a chance, the wagons would need to be re-located nearer the centre of the table. I also had my doubts about the tiny flanking force (a single small unit of elite troops), but I stuck with the idea for my game with Paul. I was able to run through the game twice, first with Paul and then, taking advantage of my current solo existence and the temporary facility of a dedicated wargames room, a solo run through a week later without having to take everything down and set it up again. Luxury!

Unfortunately the first game went unrecorded by the camera, but it was generally a successful and enjoyable game, with the defenders winning. It was also an incredibly useful workout for the rules, as such slightly off-the-wall scenarios usually are. However, I did find my suspicions about the flanking force were confirmed, and I increased it for the solo game. So, my forces and special rules for the second battle were:

Prussians (Red, attacking)

Flanking Force (dependable commander)
1 grenadier battalion.
1 Hussar regiment.
Main Body
Advance Guard (dashing commander)
 1 large dragoon regiment (6 bases), 1 jaeger battalion (small, 3 bases)
Infantry Brigade (dependable commander)
2 grenadier battalions, 2 line infantry battalions, 1 medium battery.

9 units, Army Break Point = 4.

Austrians (Blue, retreating)

Rearguard (dependable commander)
2 Grenz battalions.
Cavalry (dependable commander)
2 dragoon regiments.
Main Body (dependable commander)
1 German line battalion, 1 Bavarian line battalion, 1 militia battalion (small, 3 bases)
Wagons (dithering commander)
4 wagons

11 units, Army Break Point = 5.

 Victory Conditions
The Austrians are trying to save their wagons and the regular units of their main body. If they retreat at least 4 of these 6 units off the table via the exit point before their force is broken, they have won. The wagons must exit first, before the units of the main body.
The Prussians win if they prevent this.
As normal, either side wins if they break the enemy before any victory conditions have been achieved.

Special Rules
Visibility in open woods is 30cm. Units may fire out or in through the edge of the woods provided they are within this distance.
The Austrian commanding general will not take charge of the wagons.

Those of you who have the magazine will note that the victory conditions are much simplified, to suit my rules. The rule about the Austrian commanding general not helping with the wagons is designed to make sure the uncertainties of having a dithering wagon-master are maintained. I figured the general would be concentrating on leading his fighting units.

The Battle In Pictures
(Sorry about the quality, my best camera had to be lent out to the female section of the family).

I reckoned the small size of the forces would be fine on my 'standard' 6' x 5' table, rather than the 8' x 6' Steve used.
After a fair amount of juggling of the available river sections, I managed a reasonable representation of the original map. Setup of the defending forces is shown, with the Prussian advance guard just entering the table on the right.

The Grenzers on the ridge prepare to sell themselves dear.
Operating in the wooded terrain, they did very well, seeing off the advance guard in a brief skirmish with some accurate fire. But the main body of the attackers were not to be so easily deterred, and the advance of the Prussian grenadiers was remorseless. 
Here the grenz infantry have been pushed off the ridge. What could the Austrian dragoons do to delay the enemy?
Not much, was the answer. The Prussian grenadiers cooly advanced to close musket range, conclusively seeing off a desperate charge by one of the dragoon regiments, which lost the Austrian commander his first unit destroyed.
The other dragoon regiment was also driven back, the grenzers falling back as well. The wagons have managed to creak slowly towards the ford and are slowly crossing.
The Prussian flanking force deploys onto the Austrian side of the river. One battalion (the Bavarians) of the Austrian main body has already been sent to the rear whilst the German infantry and the militia seek to buy time. The commanding general is present to give them some backbone.
Meanwhile, at the main ford, chaos reigns. Failed command rolls, some stinging long range musket fire and some shots from the Prussian gun battery bring panic and disorder as everyone tries to cross at once.
Overview as the game reaches its climax. The Prussian flanking force prepares to push forward, the Prussian main force also prepares for its final advance to the main ford, whilst the Bavarians (left) are forced to wait for the Austrian wagons to cross the ford and precede them off the table
The remaining units of the Austrian main body fall back, trying to avoid getting too involved with the Prussian flanking force.
But the vagaries of the command rolls spoil Austrian plans. The Prussian flanking force gets a double move, and the grenadiers charge and destroy the whitecoated infantry battalion facing them. The low quality militia unit is of little help, and is a sitting duck for the Black Hussars who will surely sweep them up next turn.
In the end, there was no next turn. The steady musketry of the Prussian main body destroyed three more Austrian units as they were held up at the crowded ford, and the Austrians had reached their break point. Only 3 wagons, a damaged grenz battalion, the unengaged Bavarians and the near useless militia unit remained. The Prussians had lost no units, though their supposed 'advance guard' was left shamefully in the rear for most of the game after the early set back.

This is a very interesting scenario to play, with lots of different situations possible. I still don't understand the placing of the baggage on the original map - maybe there was some kind of misprint, or maybe I'm missing something. Issue 374 of MW is thoroughly recommended, by the way.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Good Riddance

And so it's done. I have painted my last unit of wargames figures ever. A modest enough effort: just 8 30mm cavalry figures of the Prussian Black Hussars.

Hussar Regiment no.5, The Black Hussars ('The Death Hussars').

The history of their production explains why there will be no more. I started them so long ago I can't remember when it was; maybe a year, maybe 18 months. I have painted other bits and pieces during that period: some guns and their crews, the odd general, a building or two, a tank or two, some aircraft. The hussars themselves I ground out two at a time, sometimes pausing for weeks halfway through completing each lonely pair, sometimes pausing for months between painting one pair and the next. It was the usual story: lack of motivation, lack of interest, other things to do and think about, sheer laziness. But at last the final two are finished and I have decided: I'm not going through that again. I turn my back, and walk away with no regrets. I do not expect or want a renaissance of interest.

Hitting some kind of 'painting wall' is the common currency of any number of blog posts. On the well known Grand Duchy of Stollen blog, the grandly named Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke announced recently he was recovering from what he memorably called his 'painting funk'. I have had many of these and I don't want to experience any more. On the other hand, one can only look on in slack-jawed amazement at the output of some wargamers. Prominent amongst these is the painting force-of-nature known as Olicanalad (James Roach), whose recent efforts preparing for his Zorndorf demonstration game were astonishing in both quantity and quality. This is terrific stuff, but I no longer have the desire to emulate it. In fact, these days I find such efforts rather frightening.

I admit it hasn't all been bad. Like any wargamer, I've done a fair amount of painting in my time, and in the past there were many relaxing hours of peaceful endeavour, as I mentioned in this post from 2010. And of course there was always the pleasure of completion: it was satisfying to contemplate the finished article when it had turned out as good or better than you had hoped for. But in the last couple of years painting has just become a chore. Apart from being fiddly and awkward and time consuming, painting full units is, above all, just so repetitive.

My lead pile is modest enough, and my Poland 1939 and SYW armies are now as big as I want them to be (once the most recent painted reinforcements arrive from the Dayton Painting Consortium). So that's it, apart from the odd bit of dabbling to create one or two new artillery pieces for the SYW, and maybe a German 15cm infantry gun for my 1939 games.

There will be more units, in more periods, I expect; but others will paint them, either financed out of my wages or by selling off a current collection to finance the next. I feel a burden lifting from my shoulders. No longer will half finished units and unpainted figures ruin my peace of mind, making me feel guilty for each evening spent watching the telly or reading in the armchair. I think fellow wargamers will recognise such feelings. They might seem daft to those who are not hobbyists themselves; but never underestimate the significance and consuming nature of a proper hobby. And sometimes one needs to acknowledge that the obsession to perform is not healthy.

And this is where the multi-faceted nature of our hobby shows its advantages. Putting aside any painting ambitions leaves me more time (mentally and physically) for my own preferences: reading about my historical periods, writing rules, improving my terrain, and most of all, getting more games in. It's all good.

The hobby is yours: make of it what you will.