Thursday 22 September 2016

Books, Books, Books...and a Magazine

I seem to be having a literary interlude in my wargaming at the moment. My painting and making projects are minor and don't have much priority for the time being. And so I've been settling down to read some recent purchases. Prepare yourself for a long post with no pictures of toy soldiers...

Tabletop Wargames: A Designers' & Writers' Handbook, Rick Priestley and John Lambshead 
(Pen & Sword, 2016, 157 pages)

This title has just been published, and retails for £14.99. Probably the most straightforward thing to say about the book is that it does exactly what it says on the tin - it provides a guide to designing and writing rules for wargames using miniatures, although it should be emphasised that naval wargaming hardly features and air wargaming is not mentioned at all. The fact that it is authored by Rick Priestley pretty much guarantees a good and informative read - if (like me) the name John Lambshead means nothing to you, he is a pretty prolific current rules author himself, working for Osprey and Warlord Games on many well-known sets.
There is plenty of solid information here - data on probability and how to calculate it, some basic technical concepts around rules design, a discussion on scales, and sound advice about the process of writing and layout. Self-opinionated waffle is largely absent. Even if you don't really want to write rules in any serious way, this book represents a sound guide to the factors influencing the rules you buy and use, and will give you some objective guidance for telling a good set from a bad set. It will also shed some light on the reasons why you might like one ruleset and not another. The book is a well-produced softback with colour photos of various wargames figures for those who don't like stories without pictures.
I found only one section I disagreed with (strongly and with considerable justification, as you will see), when the chapter on dice and probability summarily dismissed average dice as 'pretty well obsolete'. Pah! To add insult to injury, the text continues 'no doubt somewhere there is an extant rule set utilising them but offhand we can't think of one'. Yeah, and screw you too, guys. For a final twist of the knife, the 'Warhammer' series is presented as an example of the 'more elegant' solution of rolling more D6s to 'smooth potential outcomes'. I myself had the misfortune of playing several games of Warhammer 40K before my 2 sons grew out of it (around the age of 12), and I found the rules clunky and old-fashioned. If 40K is more elegant a rule system than Honours of War, then I'm a Dutchman. Nevertheless, I feel I should set aside my feelings of bitter personal antagonism. Enough!
I read this book with considerable pleasure, and it was quickly apparent that it will come in very handy for any future rule writing ventures. One of the best wargaming books of recent years.

Tackle Model Soldiers This Way, Donald Featherstone (Stanley Paul, 1963, 128 pages)

I got this one from Abe Books for £17.99 including postage. Tackle Model Soldiers This Way was written after the seminal War Games of 1962, for the same publisher, and is a book I have not bothered with up to now as it is really about making, painting and collecting model soldiers rather than wargaming. However, when Stuart came up with some ideas for our ancient rules project that he had drawn from the book, I became aware that there was some wargaming content within. From there it was a short step to feeling the need to add it to my collection.

I'm glad I did. I don't think it's too much to say that the book will have little or no relevance to most modern-day wargamers, but I read this work from cover to cover with immense pleasure. It takes you back to the days when our hobby was just getting established and the whole business of creating an army and the terrain to play a game over was just so much more demanding. The author's enthusiasm for the whole process of making, painting and collecting model soldiers, whether or not one ends up wargaming with them, shines through and produces a charming read. 

The wargaming content is basically in one chapter, which includes about the briefest and simplest sets of rules for ancients, horse and musket and WW2 you are likely ever to encounter. Nevertheless, it was surprising and interesting to find that the WW2 rules were based on 'sections' of infantry mounted 3 to a base, a thoroughly modern concept which one suspects Mr Featherstone found in Joseph Morschauser's 1962 book How To Play Wargames In Miniature. Certainly it was fascinating to discover the cross-over in influence between the two authors. In fact, this little set of WW2 rules, set over 5 small pages, had me itching to try a game with them.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this work unless you reckon you share my attachment to old wargaming books and the need to have a collection of them on your shelves. But if you do, don't overlook this volume.

Battle Notes For Wargamers, Donald Featherstone (David and Charles, 1973, 174 pages)

This volume will probably be much more familiar to readers, and has formed a gap in my old school book collection for quite a while. I found a copy in practically new condition on Amazon for the ridiculous price of £0.83p plus the usual £2.80 p&p.

Following a fairly substantial, but admittedly rather dated, introduction covering the various wargames concepts involved in re-creating historical battles, the book examines 15 well chosen and interesting actions from ancient times to the Korean war. Each has worthwhile analytic sections on such subjects as rating of commanders and terrain, and has both an historical and wargaming map. I thought the content stood up very well for a book that is over 40 years old, and the book remains a useful source of historical wargaming scenarios and ideas for bringing them to the tabletop.

Certainly, for this price, a no-brainer.

Wargames, Soldiers and Strategy Magazine, Issue 86 (Karwansaray Publishing, 82 pages)

With Miniature Wargames apparently destined to become a sci-fi/fantasy/steampunk magazine with the sad departure of Henry Hyde, WSS will definitely be a magazine to keep your eye on. I bought this one because my recent reading of War and Peace, and my subsequent interest in Napoleonic wargaming, made the theme of Napoleon's campaign in Russia a tempting one. And I almost always find the columnists have something interesting to say, which is hardly surprising considering they include Rick Priestley and Richard Clarke.

As for the themed content, it was fine, although as so often in WSS the articles on historical battles were let down by poor maps, which featured some muddy graphic design, insufficient detail and were often presented in a ridiculously small size. But my main reason for writing about this issue was the column from Colin Philips.

He was rebutting a column from a previous issue which had apparently claimed historical wargaming was inherently superior to sci-fi/fantasy/steam punk. Now, although privately and personally I agree completely with this conclusion, it has little justification outside the world of personal prejudice. Colin accordingly produced a well written, polite, and sensible article demonstrating the untenable nature of the previous opinion. However, a few of his statements caught my attention as things I was uncomfortable with.

First off, he writes, "all those little metal miniatures represent men who have died, but we use metal miniatures and rules to provide a level of abstraction to make it a game [...]. We are, in effect, playing toy soldiers." Well Colin, I reckon we aren't 'in effect' playing toy soldiers; we are just simply 'playing toy soldiers'. Playing toy soldiers is what we do and that's it and all about it. Anything else and we are just weird blood-thirsty warmongers. I should say here I reject the view that we are likely to learn anything about warfare from playing wargames, apart of course from when the hobby makes us read proper history.

Colin develops his point by noting games he has played with his grandfathers, both war veterans, and also noting that the occasionally expressed distaste for fighting wars that are still on-going or very recent doesn't seem to be shared by those involved. He mentions Afghanistan veterans with whom he has played his own Skirmish Sangin game. All I want to say here is that, at a personal level, I find this a little odd. Why anyone who has actually experienced war would want to take part in a game about it beats me, especially a game about a war they had actually been involved in. But of course, such a person was Donald Featherstone. This is just a conundrum I am going to have to live with, I reckon. It is an interesting point that Colin is right to bring forward.

However, Colin does succeed in conclusively shooting himself in the foot towards the end of his article, unwittingly giving ammunition to those who favour historical wargaming. Arguing that the the previous writer "has the cart before the horse", he goes on to say, regarding historical gaming, "I'd argue people don't need to know about the history when they play a game, but it'll spark an interest which generally makes them learn more about the period. History is not the requisite to having fun playing a game, but it will fire the imagination and enhance your enjoyment".

I reckon it's pretty obvious that Colin is the guy with the horse and cart the wrong way round. Playing a game in an historical period of which you have no knowledge must ultimately be pretty pointless - you cannot really understand what is going on and why, and furthermore you can have no idea as to whether the rules you are playing are any good or not. History does indeed 'fire the imagination and and enhance your enjoyment' when playing historical games, which is why you need to do your research first. Knowing the period must precede buying rules and figures, and not bothering with the history is one of the reasons old buggers like me decry the 'spoonfeeding' approach of the more developed commercial companies, with their one-stop shops of figures and rules. You cannot get history from a rulebook. Hence it might be possible to argue that historical wargamers occupy the higher intellectual ground, as other gamers have no history to refer to. However, this I do not actually believe.

Thanks for a fine and thought-provoking column Colin.

Having got that off my chest I'll conclude by wishing WSS the very best. The fate of Henry Hyde, as well as that of my new found friend Stuart Asquith and his experience with Practical Wargaming back in the 90s, has confirmed for me what a cut-throat and heartless business the world of magazine publishing can be, even in the supposedly gentlemanly world of wargaming. I don't envy Guy Bowers in the slightest, but he produces a pretty good magazine.

Thanks for reading. 'Till the next time!

Monday 19 September 2016

'The Battle Of Trimsos'

When I write 'The Battle of Trimsos', I somehow feel I should add © Donald Featherstone, or maybe ® Tony Bath. For me this is a trademark of early wargaming, and very much a classic encounter. As Mr Featherstone's War Games (1962) was the first wargaming book I ever read, and Trimsos is the first battle described in that book, it follows that this was the first wargaming battle report I ever read. As such it holds a special place in my heart. So when Stuart revealed he had a collection of ancient figures and suggested a re-fight of the Battle of Trimsos, using the original rules, I answered 'yes' immediately.

On arrival at Stuart's, he first showed me a couple of flats which he was given a while back, and which he believes belonged to Tony Bath. Quite something to have.

The map below, scanned from the book, shows the original battle setup. Stuart's dining table is 6' x 3', and so exactly matches the dimensions of the table as used in the book.

And below we see how Stuart had set up the game. The figures are basically 20mm plastics, mainly Airfix and HaT, whilst the horse archers are Tradition 25mm and the generals are Hinchliffe figures. The river is from Pegasus Hobbies, with 'New Bridge' being a Bellona model and 'Old Bridge' a find in a garden centre, originally destined for a fish tank! The wall is a bit of Britain's terrain. The elephants are adapted, in true Old School fashion, from Schleich 'baby elephant' models. The palm trees are from Poundland - another typical Stuart find. The hills are home-made MDF shapes.

The keen eyed reader will see that the units are a bit under strength - 12 figures in the infantry units, only 4 in the cavalry units. And here our problems began. To cut a long story short, we found ourselves discovering that not quite enough figures meant that the original rules didn't work properly, and so we embarked on an 'in game' adaption of the rules that quickly meant we spent more time pontificating than playing. Thus the game was not the nostalgic success we had hoped, but did set us off on the path of developing a set of simple old-style ancient wargaming rules, which promises to be an interesting project. Anyway, a few photos can't do any harm...

The Hyrkanian war elephants thunder over Rat Hill. Hang on a minute - could that be
Roman legionaries co-operating with Ancient Britons in the foreground? Sacrilege!
The 2nd Imperial Archers prepare to defend the New Bridge.
General view of the action after 3 moves.
A close up of the Imperial Archers.

Stuart and I share a high regard for the inspiration that Old School wargaming provides, regardless of any nostalgia value. One great thing about this project will be that it will be designed for the use of any ancients one might have - in fact, being able to mix favourite units from any part of the ancient world into one's army is part of the attraction. So I guess you might call this an imagi-nations project, along the lines of Tony Bath's original Hyperborea and Hyrkania. Our basis will be the rules from War Games, as well as the even more basic rules in The Don's Tackle Model Soldiers This Way (1963). Sounds good to me...