Saturday, 30 January 2010

Friday Nights & Magazines

We meet most Fridays as a group and usually play a multi-player game. The multi depends on how many people turn up. Sometimes we play a multi-player game with just two people.

In the summer we mostly play in my garage. I have a 12' x 5' table that can stay up all the time so games can be carried over if needed. The problem with the garage tho' is the lack of any proper heating, so in winter we move inside. This usually means the large kitchen of someone's house (think the size of a farm kitchen in those cookery programs, only on a 1930's housing estate).

If we haven't agreed on next week's game the previous Friday we have a yahoo group to discuss what we want to do (it is called, for reasons not explained here, The Monday Night Group). Usually about Wednesday I realise I have no idea what we're going to do on Friday evening and float the odd idea on the group.

As indicated in the previous post (Real Life (part 7)) this week sort of got away from me, so I had nothing in mind to do. However I did have an unopened box of Wings of War that I got at Christmas so it seemed as good idea as any to give it a whirl.

Like everyone else I've seen WoW around for the last few years, picked it up and looked at it at shows. Played on the periphery of the odd game. Even tried to buy a copy last year in Italy (after all it is an Italian game) but couldn't find it.

No need for a full description of WoW here. Suffice it to say it is a cleverly constructed game with some clever mechanisms that enable something complicated to be learned and played quickly. On the down side as a system you can't combine it with a WW1 figure game as it has such a unique system.

We had four of us turn up (including me) and played through three games, swapping sides and planes. A fun evening was had by all.

The main thought that springs to mind is that it isn't easy to buy just the maneuver decks. I mean the box comes with several Sopwith Camel cards, but you can only fly one at a time as you only have one type C maneuver deck in the box. In order to buy more type C decks you have to buy more Camels. That is annoying. My second thought is that the game does actually play better without the model aircraft, but I'll keep that secret as apparently that's heresy.

As the evening closed the magazine buying member of our group produce some ripped out pages from February's "Miniature Wargames" with an article about WoW. This sort of brings me back to my main theme of last week.

There's nothing wrong with the article itself. It's an introduction to the WoW system, with some personal background from the author about why he plays it, and a description of how to repaint the pre-painted model planes you can buy to go with it. And apply decals. Then there's some scenarios and so on. In summary, a perfectly good article on the game even if, in my opinion, it's about two or three years too late. I'm pretty sure everyone in the hobby who buys Miniwargs must be aware of WoW. After all, I've heard of it and I don't take any glossies so officially I'm out of touch with the mainstream of the hobby. As WoW is a commercially sold "board" game, and probably one of the biggest sellers in the last couple of years it pretty much defines mainstream.

I think my gripe with the article is over the illustrations. First up there are some really nice artists drawings of WWI planes, which are really nice. No complaints there. We are also spared 28mm figures, but I suspect that is only because the Perry Brothers haven't yet released War Hamster Air Battles with multipose pilots and customisable biplane models.

What stuck out to me was the photo of the model planes illustrating the piece. They may be WoW models, but if they are then the stands that make them usable with the game have been photoshopped out. So in fact the one illustration of game components actually does nothing to help explain the game.

Now this is simply lazy. It wouldn't have been hard to photo the WoW game boards or show the cards in use. In fact I did it in about 10 minutes and posted the pictures on this blog.

Miniwargs isn't alone in this respect. I've seen several wargames books where the glorious 28mm figures in the pictures are clearly not being used for the game system described in the book. It's almost like you publishing a cookery book and publishing photos of recipes cooked by Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey because they're better than the ones you thought of.

Basically it's dishonest.

Any how, I hope no one thinks I have a vendetta against Miniwarg's editor. It's just that I think we deserve better.

On the painting toy soldier front you'll all be pleased to hear that I managed to make up the ground on the Highlanders, and they're currently sitting on the desk, waiting for the PVA sticking them to their bases to set. A dab of polyfilla Sunday morning and they're virtually done.

Which only leaves me needing to start thinking about a game for CoW. It's the 30th anniversary this year, so I expect everyone is planning something special. I'm getting no where. I had an idea for a Russian Civil War game done in the style of a Jog-Jog game using a big map, but I'm not sure now.

So I am strangely drawn to an old promise, - to do a game based around the Crisis in the Army and the Putney Debates after the ECW. If I'm going to do this I'll need to get on with the research. On the positive side, I just found my copy of "An Agreement of the People".

Maybe it's fate.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Real Life (part 7)

Where did yesterday go?

Up before dawn as I've got to attend a "development workshop" at the other end of the country, presented by a Famous Former Olympian (FFO). It'll be well worth it, thinks I, to hear a sportsman and a sports psychologist tell me how to be a better member of the business community.

In fairness you tend to get a fairly good class of anecdote on these occasions (if you ever have the chance to hear Martin Bayfield speak, take it. He is a very funny man*), but I don't know if the protracted drive through darkness and dawn's early light is a price worth paying. Oh well, I can catch up with some of the latest hot tunes recommended by Master Trebian and loaded onto the iPod.

Of course, to make it worse the workshop isn't first thing in the morning. However I have to time my drive to get where I'm going so that I get there early enough to get a parking space. Because of this I fill the morning with meetings and other events to make it worth while. There's only so much time you can justify reading the paper as "market research" in any given day. However the meetings only really do what could have been done by a couple of phone calls. Plus the mania for ensuring meetings are short and to the point means that we inevitably run out of time before everything has been explained properly and several people run off, firmly clutching the stick marked "wrong" in their hot, sweaty, hand. That'll take a week to unravel the damage.

And then I get lost driving to the conference centre. Those simplified maps on the back of leaflets are rubbish as a way of finding places, and I forgot my satnav. That's what comes of gedtting up before you're really awake.

Drive up farm road & through building site (asking tractor driver for directions on the way) and get to the event just as it has started. I get the last seat in a hall of 70 of my peers. Everyone turns to look as the speaker pauses. Well done. That made me look well organised and prepared.

The event meanders about with various business psycho-babble woven round the FFO's personal journey that ends with a video of his Gold Medal Winning Race having overcome various hurdles and so on.

We finish on time, turning us all out at 5pm to brave the drive across country during rush hour. Nice sunset tho'. Shame I'm driving straight into it.

Then I remember that we have a pub quiz (aka "team-building exercise") for the department this evening and I'm supposed to be helping organise it. I turn up there just in time to catch the buffet (good, - I'm starving) & to be told that they need my card behind the bar as security for the evening's drinks. This is a definition of "helping to organise" that hadn't been shared with me before hand.

So I spend the evening marking answer sheets and toting up scores whilst the quiz master mispronounces his own questions.

Finally finish just before closing time.

And that's why the yellow hatching on my Highlander's Kilts hasn't been done yet.

Real Life eh?

* Plus he's Hagrid in the longshots in the Harry Potter films. Not a lot of people know that.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Wargaming Magazines

Best laid plans and all that...after all it is Burns Night. I was intending to write up Friday night's ECW game, together with a few of the pictures that came out quite well.

However, as I indicated above and in my general description of this blog I'm easily distracted. As we were packing up on Friday evening one of our regulars handed me December's "Miniature Wargames" ("At the grassroots of the hobby" as it proudly boasts).

I used to buy all of the hobby mags, - Military Modelling, Wargames Illustrated, Miniature Wargames - but they just took up loads of space and it sort of became expensive and we needed to make a few cuts so I stopped taking them. Probably about 1985. I fully intended to subscribe again, but here we are 25 years on, and I never did.

If December's MiniWargs is a prime example of where the hobby mag has got to, then I can't say I'm sorry I didn't remember to start subscribing again.

The early MiniWargs / Wargills, whilst featuring coloured pics, were long on ideas. Many members of WD published articles and there was still a sort of DIY feel about them. I wrote several articles myself and, when I could track Duncan Macfarlane down, they paid for my figures.

Alas the current mags seem to have become overwhelmed by the 28mm mafia. One article goes as far as to say that Hard Plastic multipose figures are the best thing to happen to the hobby since H G Wells and Prussian Kriegspiel.

Well, that told you Phil Barker & Tony Bath. Forget anything about game design and setting up the Society of Ancients. What the hobby has been waiting for has been 28mm plastic figures. Peter Gilder & Minifigs move over. Before them the hobby was an empty shell.

This view is reinforced by every page of Miniwargs. Pages of 28mm monsters, except where 40mm Perry figures pop up*. The magazine also featured the results of a competition for subscribers to submit their own games. Dominated by heavily over-painted, over sized figures. Where mentioned rules used are mainly, if not exclusively, commercially available. This represents the "grassroots" of the hobby, and is supposedly a measure of the vibrancy of the hobby. In fact it's just identikit games all conforming to the same idea of a perfect standard. Originality is absent. We must all buy lots of big toys and paint them all the same way.

The centre piece article is a 10 page "advert" for Warlord Games' new "Black Powder" rules, which cover 1700 - 1900 (????). Another £30 glossy rule book with factor heavy mechanisms, illustrated by more pictures of 28mm figures. In this case the article featured a Crimean Wargame, fought between the authors and figure designers who make up Warlord.

This approach leads, in my mind, to the impoverishment of our wargame shows which now have massive areas of floor space full of tables groaning under masses of painted metal and plastic, standing placidly on resin-sculptured terrain, with hardly a person to explain to the punters what is going on. If you're lucky they may actually play the game, but explanations are few, and the chances to participate negligible. The message is that wargaming is all about painting figures and very little else.

*Although I did note in one article that the airfix Bamboo House had sneaked in, together with a Quad, Limber & Gun. Hooray!

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Rules I Like (part 2)

Time to return to this theme. The first set of rules I discussed have been about for a long time and whilst selling well have never really grabbed the wargaming public's imagination, which in my view is a great shame.

The next set of rules I'd like to write about do inspire a considerable amount of fanaticism and strongly held views. In fact I come to this blog following observing a fairly ill-tempered discussion on a yahoo rules group about them.

The rules concerned are RFCM's "AK47 Republic". In particular the original set published in 1997. They are intended for post-war conflict in a post-colonial Africa. They have spawned as many variants as any set I can think of, and still, when I play them, I get as much fun as when I played them first time round. Alas I no longer have my original set, - they were battered when I lent them to someone and didn't survive the loan. I have the later updated version, published in 2006 and they have to serve now. A picture of the cover adorns this blog.

They have a naive simplicity and a freshness that is rare in rules these days. In that respect they also have an energy like Slim Mumford's Medieval Rules, where the writer just seems to feel that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. They feel like they are written just for the fun of it. Whilst they are clearly intended to give a balanced game there is a wonderfully uninhibited feel to the design. They're full of loop holes, but the designer's belief that wargamers are jolly good chaps who wouldn't stoop to exploiting them seems to shine through.

The core mechanisms aren't necessarily anything clever, - however they have a minimalist elegance that solves the game design problems with a minimum of fuss.

So why do they work so well?

First up they have buckets of character and feeling of place. There's all the stuff that enables you to create a fictional "movement" with randomly generated country and description "Worker's Revolution Movement of Zambola" for example, together with the flag generator and the instructions to get your crayons out and draw it properly. You may only use these sections once or twice but you know exactly where you are and what is expected of you.

Then the army lists. Normally these irritate me as I'd rather produce my own force lists and balance a game that way. But these work in the game's character as they link into the pre-game sequence, the "Political Charts" which through a series of die rolls tell you what happened to your movement prior to the battle and the effect it has had on the force composition. When I first saw these being playtested at CoW - it must have been in 1996 - I couldn't believe how simply brilliant the idea was. This is still my favourite RFCM pre-game mechanism; it is simple, quick and manageable. It gets the maximum of effect for the minimum of effort.

Next the rules have very simple army deployment rules, - not all units start at once and those that do deploy are driven by the morale rules to huddle together for security if they are militia or spread out to cover more ground if professional.

The combat mechanism is just dice rolled with modifiers but the number of dice is restricted and the modifiers focus on what is important and so are easily remembered. There's no rivet counting for different type of tanks, for example. In this game what is important is that the tank turns up, not whether it is a T34 or an Olifant.

The morale system works on a catastrophe basis. Units hold together until they suddenly drop to pieces but it can't happen all in one turn, so if a player sees a unit wobbling he can pull it out of the way of trouble.

Finally the game length system and victory conditions are all nicely balanced to keep both players guessing.

The game has its faults - it is possible for one side not to turn up at all, and it can be prone to bizarre results from a few odd die rolls. But then again that's just about right for what the game is about.

When you break it apart most of the elements of the game are so simple it's easy to say "I could have thought of that", but the fact is that no one else did. I suspect that the designer doesn't know how he got this mix so perfect in every way, but so what, - we have the game to treasure forever, along with all the various spin offs.

I can't remember why I first came across it. I was a dyed in the wool pre-WW2 wargamer. I must have wandered into the CoW session by accident, but I remember being captivated by it and at the earliest opportunity buying as much kit from Peter Pig as I could. This lead to my on-going interest in modern African warfare and the continuing trials of President Jog-Jog.

Thank you RFCM.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Where have we got to?

This blog is turning to a weekly journal rather than a daily-ish log. Still, everyone else is blaming the snow, so I shall too, whether it's relvant or not.

First off let's catch up with the Phruti's tomb. Here's how it now looks with the overgrowing flock-ness. I'm happy with the look if it was to be in the middle of a jungle (where it sometimes doubles as an abandoned tomb), but I'm not sure about it being in the middle of the desert. Maybe global warming might make Eastern Zambola more overgrown. I may have to work on that as an idea.

Friday Night's game this week, - my first of the year - was a Vichy French v Germans in North Africa PBI. Well, I say PBI, - it's our version. There are bits of PBI I love, - it is the best shot at modelling the detail needed for a game at company level, and the mechanisms are mostly clever. However some of it is just plain annoying. If I get round to it I'll do a piece on what we changed and why.

Back to the game. It was the second phase of a game started a week or so ago that I missed, so I had to take over the German position as left by one of our group who couldn't make it because of the snow. I don't know if this often happens to you, but it is a by no means rare occurrence in our group where we often play interconnected multiplayer games over several weeks. Because we are all Grown Ups with Real Lives to attend to you can't guarantee who will be turning up week on week.

On this occasion I looked at the German position and couldn't work out what the plan had been up to that point. Still I had some nice bits and pieces (including a Heavy Pioneer section), so I made up my own plan. Actually it was my normal plan, regardless of period. Mass everything on one flank and try to blow the cr*p out of your opponent's position with every ranged weapon you have before going in with the bayonet or equivalent. Hey, - it's worked for me for nearly 30 years and I'm coming out at about 50% win percentage so I'll stick with it.

Phil was putting on the game so we were guaranteed some nice looking figures and terrain pieces. The picture above is one of Phil's, showing the overall table. If you enlarge it you can probably make out the detail on some of the stuff being used. Phil uses a painting technique that is the complete opposite of how I work. He bases up first and paints each little chap as an individual. He also modifies and animates a lot of his stuff so it looks great. I only know that if I tried to do that I'd never get finished. Ever.

The game had to end as I needed to get off for an early start the following day, taking Master Trebian back to university in the frozen wastes of the North. However, by the evening's close I had secured the airport and knocked out one gun emplacement on the left, - you can see the red smoke) and was gearing up to launch an attack on the final emplacement before seizing the port.

The Saturday trip up North went okay. The roads - once you get off the housing estates- were clear and you wonder what all the fuss is about at times. Still if it keeps everyone else off the roads and gives me a clear run I'm in favour.

And it was cold up there, as this picture of canal boats frozen in shows. This shot is taken next to the restaurant where we stopped for lunch. The car park was at the bottom of a hill, and it took a while to get out, - not because I had problems but because it appears some of the locals never learn to drive in snow and don't carry a spade. Oh, and the council don't fill the grit bins. Never thought I'd end up digging a local out.

That's enough for now. I've got a nostalgia project to go and work on this morning with a February deadline. More of that some other time.