Saturday, 31 December 2011

I have a clever friend

I wanted a T-26 with the "washing line" aerial. I tried to do this with a Peter Pig T-26 to turn it into a command tank but it is very fiddly.

A friend of mine (you know, the one who did the Garford Putilov) kindly offered to do the conversion for me.

Here are some photos of Phil's efforts before I ruin it with a classic Trebian paint job:

Friday, 23 December 2011

Count Beli-halfcock

I’m ashamed to admit that I couldn’t wait until the army was finished, so I drafted in some ringers from my other armies to make up the numbers and set up my annual Christmas game with Phil.
Belisarius' boys....with a few friends from elsewhere

Phil has a Totilan Gothic army, so as mine are Belisarius’ Italian Army it’s a perfect match up. In theory.
Phil's Goths, pre-deployment. Nioce, aren't they?

Actually they do provide an interesting pair of armies, but what the game showed us was that if you play with an army regularly (Phil had taken his army to Britcon) then you probably have a better idea of what to do with it than if you’ve just thrown it together from some bits and pieces.

A further problem for me was that I hadn’t played Armati for 12 months, I think, and I struggle to remember all of the nuances and I lose my eye for distances on the table.

All of which is way of saying that I got beat fair and square by 5 units to 4, (I had an army break point of 5 and Phil had a bp of 6). Even if we’d played a couple more turns I’d have struggled to get to 6, whilst my broken units would have gone past 7. Ho hum.

The thing with a Byzantine army is you don’t get a lot of units for your points. Apart from your Skirmish Infantry/Psiloi types which you can have by the bucket load the rest of your stuff is armed to the teeth, in armour, with bows. All of this means units cost a lot of points. Of course if you have a cunning strategy that means you get your archery well deployed and turn your opponents into pin cushions it’s points well spent. If you get them all tied up in knots, blocking each other’s way so they get off one (completely ineffective) shot at most then you’re better off having the extra unit.

Still I had a plan. I was going to use my Kataphractoi to disrupt the Gothic line (although they’re not true cataphracts, but they do have bows) and then exploit any gap with my Gothic Heavy Cavalry. What I hadn’t worked out was that the key to breaking Phil’s army was to get round his front line and pile into his ex-slave  rubbish infantry he’d hidden at the back. What I did instead was put my Goths too close to the front line so I couldn’t deploy them properly until it was too late. In fact I had to wait until I lost one of my Kataphractoi before I could get them in the game. Add to that the fact that I got some of my heavy horse archers too close to a chunky block of heavy foot and it all looked pretty horrid by the end.

Having said all of that it was quite a tense game and if Phil hadn’t had a stunning run of sixes on his Peter Pig dice once the armies had locked together in hand to hand we’d have gone on for a couple more turns and we may have finished even closer. I was a turn off ploughing my (admittedly exhausted) veteran Kataphractoi into Phil’s dross units and then it would have been really nail biting.

So I need to think a bit more about how to use the army, and I need to paint up some more units. I think, as well, that I’d prefer to play with slightly larger armies. We were using 75 points, and you can go up to 100 on the basic list which I think will give a better game. At least I won’t have to compromise so much on what I chose and it’ll look even more like a Byzantine army when it’s deployed.

Perhaps we can get that in for next week sometime.

Otherwise Merry Christmas to all of you out there.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011 what?

So I’ve finally got round to reading DBA v3.0. It’s taken me a couple of goes because I tried to print it out as a booklet at first and the print was really small and I couldn’t read it so I had to print it out again full size.

So much for economising on paper and ink.

Any how, what have the Barkers done to this much loved set of rules? I say the Barkers as this is clearly a collaboration between the two of them and no one else, as only their names sign the introduction. Of course, in line with Phil’s methodology, this has been play-tested “on three continents”, which I assume means that they were in communication with gamers on other continents, not just that they were playing the game on their holidays.

I’ve known the Barkers for nearly 30 years now (through WD) and whilst I wouldn’t say we’ve grown to love each other I am aware of Phil’s idiosyncrasies and I have some admiration for the way he works and the care he expends over his rules. I’m also aware he is very well read and very opinionated. (Sue on the other hand tends to be quiet but is clearly the much smarter of the two of them). Phil’s never been backwards in putting his opinions in his rule writings, but there are some odd bits even by his standards in these.

He’s obviously not happy with the way some people have been playing with his system, - he wants the boards to be 24” x 24”, but some people use 30” x 30” even though this gives “longer games and more draws”. Bases sizes are fixed, so figure manufacturers responsible for “scale creep” need to sort themselves out, rather than Phil adjust the size of bases to allow for what is becoming more normal. Grudgingly we are allowed to expand the base depth to allow for our over sized figures, which is a relief as the alternative is to chop one of their legs off. In fact there are several instances where the sub text of the writing seems to scream out “Will you just leave my rules alone!!!”.

There’s another odd window into someone’s secret pain in the section on Dice. This reads:

“All dicing uses a single ordinary 1 to 6 dice, which should be used for the whole game to avoid suspicion of malpractice. However, as a concession for the superstitious, a dice that scores 1 in six successive throws may be junked and replaced.”

Suspicion of malpractice???? Keeping track of the number of 1’s rolled? As I said, there’s some secret pain there. Me, personally, I like to have several dice on the table, as sometimes I’m in a green die mood, and some times I’m in a red die mood. I can be impulsive. I hope my regular opponents will be able to forgive me this foible when we play.

A lot of the changes to the text are further explanations rather than new rules, but they don't do anything for Phil's reputation for dogmatism. However they do help you understand where he's coming from.

I'm not really in a place to comment on the rule changes yet. The change in measuring to use Base Widths is to be applauded as making the whole system more internally consistent and I'd be in favour of it a lot more if I hadn't bought myself a special DBA v2.0 ruler last year at Derby. There are big changes in the effects of recoiling units which strike me as a good thing, and also a variation of blade factors if being shot at,

Finally there's more stuff about Built Up Areas. I've never understood these rules and I understand that they are not universally liked elsewhere either. All I would point out is that each turn in the game is approximately 15 minutes, and within that time it is possible to seize a town and install a puppet government.

Yes, in less time than it takes to watch a Simpsons' episode you can have a full political revolution.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Joy of Set (pieces)

Our group has sort of had a misfired Christmas Special game. Partly my fault as I can’t make next week’s session and so I asked for it to be brought forwardto this Thursday.

Phil obliged, although he hadn’t finished all of his planned work for the game, so it was sort of a play test as much of a game.

The game was a multiplayer scenario using the original “AK47 Republic” mechanisms to drive movement, combat and morale. The scenario had a four or five cornered situation with two warlords, a President-for-life, the UN and the press all coming together for the President’s birthday parade which was coinciding with the UN’s attempt to dispose of a thinly disguised WMD.

The UN and the "Dangerous Package". Please ignore the unfinished bases

Now this is a lot of stuff going on and we had to extemporise some of the details as Phil hadn’t been given enough time to write out the full briefings and we were a few rule mechanisms short. In my experience the best way of dealing with this type of game is to use Matrix game techniques (particularly Politics By other Means) which have been used in similar scenarios set in Zambola featuring the infamous President Jog-Jog that have been played at CoW. On the other hand it is a bit of a cheat as you don’t need to think things through properly and rely on the players to fill in the gaps. However the matrix game is not to everyone’s liking and our group has fallen out over them in the past so a more structured game is probably the answer.

The highlight of the evening was Phil producing all of his AK47 kit that’s he’s been working on over the last few years, so you’ll have to excuse me if I post a bit of eye candy. As I’ve indicated before I’ve got a fairly functional approach to my armies. I want armies I want them painted. Therefore I paint them. I adopt a minimalist approach to what I do to ensure I get the most stuff done in the shortest period. Gone are the days when I altered figure poses for the fun of it.

Phil on the other hand just loves producing beautiful stuff that also tells a story. Lots of his kit falls into the “mini diorama” category, with little set pieces or vignettes littering the battlefield. Have a look at his overloaded Hummer and Landrover for example.

Sometimes he’s just showing off, like he does with the airstrike marker. I think I’m doing pretty well if I produce laminated cardboard counters.

We only managed to get in about 3 turns before we packed up, but we’d had a fair amount of action by then (I’d stolen a speed boat for example and caused the heavy lifting crane to have a problem).

Let's just finish off with a picture of Phil's airfield and Presidential convoy:

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Return of the Invisible Man

After a week or two of blogging silence I’m back at the keyboard for an update. My absence has principally been due to a whole load of Real Life going on allied to a resounding bout of end-of-year war-weariness that has reduced me to binging on episodes of the X-Files in the evening in lieu of doing anything constructive.

Having said that I’ve finished another 3 units for the Byzantines (a couple of light border troops and another unit of armoured horse archers) so time hasn’t been completely wasted. And I’ve downloaded the latest version of DBA v 3.0. For those of you who don’t know it’s available free on the DBA yahoo group, and the amendments are very helpfully highlighted in a range of different colours. Sue L-B is working on a book called “Start Wargaming with DBA” which is promised to be a real treat, - a cornucopia if you will. I may even buy it when it comes out if I can’t blag a free copy from somewhere. There are no army lists yet, but hopefully our little group can get on and do some playtesting in the New Year.

I’ve not always been a fan of PB & his DBx games but you have to admire his openness and his willingness to engage with his wargaming public, if not his inability to write clear English.

Following what was a gruelling slog through the SCW history I discussed in my last book I’ll admit to taking on something a bit less heavy as bedtime reading. I’ve just finished the latest Iain M Banks “Culture” sf novel, “Surface Detail” - obviously I’m way behind the times as the hardback was out last year and this version has taken a while to get to the top of the reading list.

I love IMB’s Culture novels. I used to read a lot of sf, especially space operas, but Banks has rather ruined the genre for me. He is just so damned good. There’s been some mixed reviews of “Surface Detail” but on the whole it is stunning. I’d agree that it probably isn’t as good as the earlier novels, - it is hard to chose between “Consider Phlebas”, “Player of Games” and “Use of Weapons” as my favourite. Or “Inversions” perhaps. Actually it would have to be “Phlebas” as it just blew me away when I first read it, and the final chase sequence in the underground tunnels is brilliant.

Alas I think the Culture universe is un-wargameable, unless you cheat and do one of the low-tech interventions. That differs from “Against a Dark Background” which is one of his non-Culture SF novels which has a terrific background for a modern-type era campaign. I’d recommend you to read that if you haven’t. I’d also recommend the Culture novels, but make sure you read them in sequence.

So in the run up to Christmas I’m left with the obligatory present wrapping and the hope that all that should have been bought has been. I’ve been a little light weight this year what with all the running around after increasingly infirm parents (spent an evening this week filling in an assessment form for care home fees and assembling all the supporting documentation. Goodness knows if I’ve got it right, as it isn’t obvious).

My regular wargaming also seems to be disrupted by office Christmas dinners (yes, we have more than one for all the different groups I am in / responsible for) so I missed last Thursday. This week, however, I’m free so hopefully lots of chances to blow things up in a pre-Christmas AK47 Republic multi-player extravaganza.

Old style rules, of course.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Contemporary History

I remarked in an earlier post that I'd been looking for some contemporary accounts of the Spanish Civil War. I managed to pick up what I thought would be a nice matched pair, - "The Civil War in Spain" by Frank Jellinek the Manchester Guardian's foreign correspondent in Barcelona, and "March of a Nation" by Harold Cardoza, the Daily Mail's Special Correspondent.*

I have just succeeded in finishing Jellinek's book, and I have to say it was interesting if a bit of a struggle. It is in many ways one of the most..."worthy" book I have read for a long time. It was written in 1937, so before the war had finished. Whilst Jellinek was not a Communist he is certainly a Marxist historian, and the book is written in the Marxist scientific-history style. All the elements of the lead up to the war and the war itself are shown as part of an inevitable struggle. The Workers, the Bourgeois and the Petty-Bourgeois all follow the lines that Marx indicated they would. Lenin's views on the elements of the class struggle are quoted with admiration.

Of course when the book was written no one knew what Stalin was up to so the USSR is seen as the most modern and progressive state, so the Stalinist attack on the POUM is fully justified in this book.

Was it of any use to me? Well it certainly helps you to understand the frame of mind that people were in at the time. It isn't a memoir looking back, - it is genuine contemporary history with no knowledge of the outcome. It is fairly light weight on the military aspects (except for one thing - see below) as these are merely the backdrop to a class struggle. It is also much, much, stronger on the struggle in Catalonia than it is on anywhere else in Spain. It's handling of the political contemporary background is also informative as it plays up what was in the news at the time, - for example the abdication crisis in Britain.

Where it is good is the coverage of the rising in Barcelona. There's lots of good detail written with a reporter's eye and even if it isn't completely accurate the colour and feeling it portrays is excellent. Alas he is fairly liberal in the use of the word "tank" and seems to feel that Spanish factories were actually turning them out. I suspect he means armoured cars, although he refers to these as well.

It is also, obviously, very pro-Republic. The Popular Army is described at one point as "one of the finest fighting forces in the world". The Moors and the SFL are mere mercenaries, and all military successes are attributed to the Italians, who achieve these despite being cowardly and running away. The Popular Army was "entirely" successful at the Battle of Brunete, unlike the Nationalists who may have captured some important towns but "had not one any major battle" except for the unequal struggle in the Basque country.

So some of it is, in retrospect, quite amusing to read, but it is tremendously hard going, with massive slugs of quotations from speeches and meeting resolutions quoted verbatim (and the stuff about collectivisation is very, very, dull).

I'm glad I read it and some of the detail from the Barcelona accounts will turn up in a game at some point, but would I recommend it to any of my friends? Not if I want to keep them, I suspect. I was going to read Cardoza's book back to back with this one, but frankly I can't face it, so I'm reading an Iain M Banks sf novel instead.

* For my non-British readers the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian) was and is the broadsheet of the left, although not socialist. The Daily Mail is the paper read by the right thinking middle classes. Its favourite targets are benefit scroungers (especially single parents) and asylum seekers.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Can you tell what it is yet? (8)

Some more light infantry to add to the lads. Looking at the army list this is one of those Armate armies where you bury your key troops in a cloud of worthless rabble, armed to the teeth with every type of missile weapon you can imagine.

So these are Isaurian Archers.

Like the Isaurian javelin men before them they suffer a little bit from having very big heads, either that or they're using some seriously volumising hair-care products. The paint job is based upon the pictures in Boss' Montvert publication that I've referred to before, although I've livened up the shield patterns a bit.

Here they are from the other side. Bit concerned that the quilting type design down the front is a bit "busy", but otherwise pleased with them.

Friday, 25 November 2011

The Fast Play Myth

I used to do pub quizzes. One of the people who used to organise them had a saying that there was no such thing as a hard question, just stuff you don’t know. There is an element of truth in this. If you haven’t ever read anything on the Taiping rebellion or if you don’t watch Coronation Street you’ll suffer in those areas. However being asked “What colour is my jumper?” is pretty much a gimme, unless you’re colour blind.

I sort of feel this way about fast play wargames rules. Well, let’s get some perspective. Pretty much every set of rules ever published is suitable for fast play with vast armies. Very few advertise themselves as “gives turgid play with two units a side”. There are some outliers in this analysis. FoG doesn’t claim to be for vast armies in its pure form (neither does DBA) and Megablitz is not intended for skirmish games.

In my experience there are few rule sets that deliver what they promise from day one, - except perhaps DBA. It’s like the quiz master. There are no fast play rules, just those you know really well and those you don’t. I’ve written on Black Powder quite a bit. They do play quickly, - if you know how they work. If you have to stop to look at the rule book at any point then the game just stops in its tracks. Some rules you think are fast play, then they trip you up. An example of that would be Armati. I play them less frequently than I used to, but I could play them without reference to the playsheet or the rule book, mostly. It was those odd, rarely used, rules that would trip me up if my opponent invoked them. Although I suppose the game did go quickly as my plans unravelled.

I re-read Tony Bath’s Ancient rules recently and I have to say that starting from scratch they looked like a pig to learn, although they probably gave a fast moving game. On the other hand Neil Thomas’ “Ancient and Medieval Wargmaing” had us up and playing in a very short time, with little reference to anything except a few data tables.

Of course fast play isn’t just down to simple mechanisms, - they’ve got to give you a result. Much as I love Armati some of the infantry v infantry melees can go on for ever. So the claim “you don’t need to look at the playsheet” or “no playsheet required” isn’t really a guide. If you’ve got a mechanism that requires one side to roll a double 6 when the other is throwing a double 1 to get a result you’re going to be there a long time. It may be realistic, but it isn’t fast.

Which sort of brings me to this week’s game. We did something from the US/Mexican War of the 1840s, where the USA started to stamp its manifest destiny all over the continent. For rules we were using Arty Conliffe’s “Shako II” Napoleonic rules as basically both armies were still armed with muskets and fought in lines and columns.

I was quite excited by this as I have a lot of time for Arty Conliffe as a game designer. I like Armati, as I’ve said, and Crossfire is a game I’d like to play a lot more. So, Shako II which was both by Arty and featured “fast play” seemed to me to tick most of my boxes.

It was a simple game. Lots of not very good Mexicans marched across the battlefield to take on the small, yet perfectly formed, Yankees. As the Mexicans my colleague and I formed a simple plan, - we had everything in column and just put our heads down and went for them. It nearly succeeded, but we were undone by the rather too simple destruction of our cavalry by some Texas Ranger – Rough Rider types. These put our lancers to flight, despite us having lances (with pennons) and nicer, neater, brightly coloured uniforms.

The infantry columns had mixed success. The Yankees shook out into a firing line and we charged into them. Sometimes we got shot off, sometimes we lost the melee and sometimes we broke the line. Alas the first two outcomes outweighed the latter one by a bit and our army broke and fled. It was satisfying seeing some of the Yankees heading for home and I think they got a much bloodier nose than normally expected.

So what about Shako II and its fast play credentials? It took about 2 ½ hours for my two divisions to march across a four foot deep table and fight themselves to defeat. There was no hesitation, no fancy tactics. There was a bit of fussing about with the cavalry, and a bit of flicking through the rule book, of which we only had one copy, so we weren’t moving as fast as we could.

The rules don’t seem as complicated as old favourites such as Bruce Quarrie’s rules published by Airfix, all those years ago (lent my copy out, never got it back) but are they fast? I’m not convinced. And the rule book layout isn’t good. There’s a lot of text crammed into the pages, - although there are some nice diagrams, which are helpful, and some pictures, which are not – and there’s an odd desire to put grey backgrounds to some of the text boxes. I mean dark grey, thus rendering the text almost indecipherable. I’d obviously need to sit down for an evening or two to get the hang of them, but compared to Armati and Crossfire they're not as clear nor is the layout as visually appealing (and that doesn’t mean put in glossy pictures).

I think we should give them another go, and I’d like to spice up the scenario as I’ve had as much fun as I’m going to get out of just marching in a straight line.

So all in all, I think Shako II proves my original thesis. There’s no such thing as fast play rules. There’s just rule sets you know, and rule sets you don’t.