Friday, 30 November 2012

An old favourite

Following our day’s fun and games in the tank shed and taking weapons apart we had dinner in the mess before returning to the bar for a drink and to play a game or two.

I knew there would be about a dozen of us but not having any games of that size I put in a few six player games, one of my own design and one minor classic.

The minor classic was my 15mm version of Ian Beck’s Chariot Racing game. I’ve had this game since…well I’ve had it a long time. Probably nearly 40 years. It uses the first 15mm figures I ever bought. They’re Minifigs Egyptian chariots which I got because they were the only ones that the stand had six of when I went to buy them (I know the Romans only used to race 4 chariots, but you can't have too much of a good thing, can you?)

I first played the game at the Nationals in Sheffield in the early 70’s. At that time the Halifax club were running it in their 20mm scale arena, - the one with the full crowd made up of every Airfix figure you can imagine in scratch built plasticene togas. My mate Derek & I each picked up a copy of the rules, printed out on a Roneo/Gestetner duplicator in that odd blue ink colour with diagrams in pink. How sophisticated.  I’ve still got them, carefully folded up in my chariot box.

The chariots should take up and area of 3x3 squares on the game board, but I drew the board out before I got the chariots and scaled it down from the sizes given for 25mm models. This meant that when I got the chariots they were too big for 3x3, so they are mounted on 3x4. Can’t say it has ever been an issue playing the game. I suppose I could have redrawn the board but it was quite a challenge drawing up the corners and if I’d enlarged the squares they wouldn’t have fitted on the piece of wood I had (which incidentally was the top of a play desk I had before I went to school).

Building the game not only required me to buy my first 15mm figures but also my first percentage dice. Still got them.

That's all I can recall of the construction. I can't remember where I got the mustard-yellow paint for the board. I did this before the invention of "matchpots" so it must have been a colour used to decorate a room in my parents' house but which one I can't remember.

So off to the races then. I was slightly surprised that given the ages of most of the participants no one seemed to have played the game before, but it is really easy to play so everyone picked it up really quickly.

Unlike the multiple laps of the arena in its historical prototype this game only requires two laps and the final straight, which is a good thing. In common with the games we played all those years ago players were soon going round corners too fast and flipping their vehicles over. The photo shows one wrecked on the inside of the first corner.

Tactics in the game split into two camps. Firstly go as fast as possible as close to the spine as possible and hope for the best. If you are lucky you can be half way down the back straight whilst others are cornering. Alternatively you can play it cautiously at the back, avoid crashing and hope to overhaul your opponents in the final corner and straight as their chariots increasingly fall apart. In this case  the latter tactics were ultimately successful with Rob turning in a narrow winner.

After the chariots we played "The Elephant in the Room" which needs no further explanation here. Suffice it to say it was a classic running of the game with three out of six velites a bloody stain on the sand and the elephant crashing to the ground one square from the hastati.

We rounded off the game with Munchkin Cthulhu, which went to prove that there's no such thing as an easy game when everyone has had a skin full. One player kept lamenting that the game was playing him rather than the other way round, which I think is unfair. On the other hand if you're a semi-mad cultist, who's to say?

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Stripping an AK47

Following on from “Guns, guns, guns” I thought I’d share with you these few photographs.

The Armoury as remarked before has a lot of different guns including the iconic AK47, - probably not the most difficult one to have got hold of. I walked past it at first and didn’t realise what it was as it didn’t have the magazine in place. Shows what I know about firearms.

Anyway the curator went off and found a magazine and we were soon passing it round because doesn’t everyone want to hold an AK47 at some time in their life. From the photos in the paper and the pictures on the news don’t you sometimes wonder if you’re the only person in the world who hasn’t got one tucked away somewhere.*

Having passed it round Tom showed me how to take it apart. It is as easy to take apart as its reputation. There’s a button just above the stock that you press in and it slides apart. The firing mechanism is very simple and safe so even for an amateur and butter-fingers like myself it comes apart quite easily but without the danger that it’ll simply fall apart in combat.

Stage 1,  - removing the magazine
Stages 2-4 - all the pieces removed and laid out

And back together again.

After that Tom handed me an SA-80. The merits or otherwise of this weapon have been hotly debated. Personally as a left hander I’m not a fan. I have shown myself unable to shoot straight left handed so with a weapon that makes me fire from the wrong side or get hot metal stuck up my nose my effectiveness woul;d be reduced even more. (For those of you interested in the political correctness debate and discrimination I think I should point out here that left-handers are the last hidden minority that is routinely discriminated against without anyone complaining).

Taking the SA80 apart was much more involved and isn’t something you could do in a hurry if you aren’t properly trained or maybe even at all if you have below average manual dexterity. Eventually between us I took out about one piece and Tom did the rest, and here it is laid out for inspection.

On the other hand I am a fan of the optical site on the SA80, and it is a nice size and weight to cart about. With the sling attached it fits snuggly under the armpit and doesn’t hang down far enough to trip anybody up. As was remarked, compared to the SLR it is a positively unobtrusive and manageable weapon.

What I didn’t realise (again, shows what I know) is that it suffers from the light-weight bullet syndrome. I think that it fires a 5.56mm round, compared to the 7.62mm in the SLR (equivalent to the .303 in the Lee-Enfield). When you consider that the Martini-Henry fired a .45 round this is quite a reduction in weight of shot and comes with a commensurate lack of stopping power and accuracy at longer ranges.
Good job our lads aren’t firing at Zulus and Dervishes any more.

*Whenever I see parts of the world where the AK47 is this year’s de rigeur fashion accessory I am reminded of a comment by an economist at UBS when asked what to invest in should the Euro look like it was going to collapse. His reply was “Buy precious metals, - and that includes guns & tinned food”.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Guns, guns, guns

For someone who has wargamed most of his life I'm pretty poor on the hardware side of things. I can identify most of the major armoured vehicles that Airfix made into kits, and a few others in specific situations. I can get obsessive at times when something is truly important (such as the Garford Putilov in RCW armoured car tactics) but mostly the information doesn't stick.

I'm worse with small arms. A rifle is just a rifle, isn't it? I find weapons only interesting when they have a real impact or are game changers. The Enfield rifle at the time of the Indian Mutiny, the Martini Henry with its bullet that can stop an on rushing Dervish, the SMLE and since the Second World War the AK47.

Anyway, I got more than my fill of the real thing last weekend at the Heavy Metal day as we were allowed into the armoury, with its 1400 working firearms starting with the 18th century tower musket and coming right up to date with guns that don't even look like guns.

Given my level of ignorance, the photographs are fairly random. They're also fairly dark as the lighting wasn't functioning on the day we were there.

What made this particularly interesting was not only that the guns were all functioning, but also that you could take them down and have a really good look at them, as long as you didn't cock them (damages the spring if you forget when you put it back).

I have fired black powder muskets and shot guns on a number of occasions, but I had not realised how heavy some modern weapons are. We looked at a modern sniper rifle that I swear was heavier than a Lewis Gun. On the other hand the SA80s of this world and equivalent are light and handy in comparison.

This wall has a wide variety of various British magazine rifles from the last century and as such would be the weapons both my father and grandfather were trained to fire.

As you can see from these two pictures they don't just have rifles but a fair number of crew served weapons from a wide variety of jurisdictions. Same with the rifles and SMGs, - any one we've fought we've obviously brought back trophies. I understand that the WW2 German weapond are still fired from time to time using contemporary ammunition.

The pistol room had a good selection, including one of these:

It's rather small, Mr Bond.

The main pistol wall has an odd aspect to it. Almost like a collection of metallic butterflies pinned to the wall.

And who wouldn't want one of these?

Mortar the point (!) what about one of these? Surprisingly short I don't think this is the standard model.

This array is interesting for the anti-aircraft mounts. The far left corner has all of the muzzle loading muskets and rifles, including not just the Black Bess, but also the Baker Rifle. All complete with original ramrods.

The visit was enhanced by the presence of the curator who has fairly robust views on a range of firearms realted subjects, particulalry around design and selection for service. And of course our host who had practical experience of a number of them, - although I was surprised when he remarked that the weapon he had most experience with was the AK47, due to his service in Iraq.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

I so do not do this....

I don't do computer games. I wargame to be with other people, to discuss our mutual interests as well as to explore my interests in military history. Computers have never really done it for me, - where's the fun in simply beating a machine? It doesn't care.

I don't think I've changed my mind, but this last weekend I did play in a computer moderated game that was one of the most enjoyable wargaming things I've done in the last few years.

I was down at the Defence Academy near Swindon this weekend. A wargaming friend of mine works there and every so often organises what he calls a "Heavy Metal Weekend" where we can get to crawl over the vehicles in the tank shed and also play wargmaes using the establishment's facilities. This means purpose built PC/server set ups amongst other things.

In the past we have played "America's Army" and other first person shooters or tank simulators that try to convince you that hitting the left mouse button whilst simultaneously holding down the Z key or similar is a reasonable approximation of combat. I play these but I'm afraid I'm not very good. My reactions aren't quick enough and I can never remember the key strokes. Ultimately I can't be bothered to practice to get any good either.

This time we were promised the Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator, a multiplayer game that looks like the starship Enterprise.We warmed up with some first person shooter team game using VBS2, the British Army's combat simulator. We had two teams running the same mission, a hostage rescue in a small village. We crawled and shot and re-spawned our way to eventual victory, the body count of about 18 rescuers more than being made up by killing 50 insurgents and freeing two captured pilots.

Then on to Artemis. The twist for one of the teams was that we got to play the game in a Piranha APC. Yes. One of these:

It may not know it, but this is the starship Artemis

Artemis interior
Yes, - it had proved possible to set up 6 laptops in a network in the back of an armoured vehicle such that it could function as a command centre. The Piranha seats 6 people in the back facing out, and has a driver and commander seat at the front. The Captain of the ship sat in the front with his monitor installed on the commander's seat, looking back down the vehicle towards the rear doors. The right hand side of the rear compartment held the Helmsman, Communications Officer & Engineer. The other side had Weapons and Science officers. With the doors closed it became a very atmospheric setting, as I think the following pictures show.
Looking inside through the portal - the "spacewalk" view

Helmsman, Comms & Engineering stations

The Helmsman prepares for action

The crew of the Artemis discuss what order to get on board

The crew "in situ" at the end of another succesful mission.
So what of the flights of the Artemis that have now passed into legend? We played three games of increasing complexity. The first flght was done on the simplest settings and we were a crew man short so I ran both Comms and Engineering. We happily flew around and destroyed loads of invading ships with very little personal danger.The experienced players suggested that Engineering was a full time job, so for the second flight we added an extra crew man and swapped roles.

I can't give a blow by blow account of the second mission. I can say it got a lot more frantic as we went up to a middle setting of difficulty with what was still largely a rookie crew. What we had learned from the first mission was to get all the Deep Space station supply points to build nukes and then fire as many of them as you could at the enemy as often as possible. It may not have a lot of finesse but generally speaking it's very effective.

The game climaxed with a concerted assault on DS2 by massed hordes of alien ships. We were across the quadrant at the time when the message came in and had to warp back to save the day. Accounts of what happened next are unclear, although the Captain was videoing the entire mission using his laptop wecam. I think the key exchange goes like this:

Comms: "DS2 reports it is under attack2
Captain: "Helm - set heading to DS2, maximum warp but don't overshoot. Weapons load nukes"
Weapons "Nukes loaded"
Comms: "DS2 reports shields down to 20%"
Captain: "L:ock on to enemy ships and fire nukes"
Comms "DS2 shields down to 20%"
Captain "Fire Nukes"
Comms: "DS2 asks why we're firing at them"
Science " All enemy ships destroyed"
(General cheering by the crew)
Comms: "DS2 destroyed"
Captain "If anyone asks, it wasn't us and we tell the court martial we were somewhere else"

After that we mopped up the remnants of the alien scum and headed back to the surviving DS for RnR.

Biggest learning point of the mission, - don't fire nukes near space stations, especially those with weakened shields. Alledgedly.

For the next mission we upgraded to the Excaliber (which has four nuke tubes instead of two) and ratcheted up the level of difficulty again.

The flight of the Excaliber was equally nail biting. We stuck to our previously appointed positions and off we flew. The main feature of this flight was the engineer's increased finessing of the power and system configurations to make us more effective. Or as the captain put it "Who's turned off power to the long range scans AGAIN!!!"

We started to learn a few tricks as we went along, - the comms scan is better at picking up how many ships are out there than the science scans, although less useful for example. Knowing when to quit and resupply is crucial. Getting the space stations to make the right supplies helps a lot, as does keeping track of what is where. Having torpedoes is handy as you can convert them to engine fuel. If you don't have any you can end up drifting in space after a hurried fight and flight.

At the end of the final succesful flight we repaired to the main lab to fly in a fleet game with the other crew. That was fun, but really a big anti-climax after life in the Piranha.

So, yes, I really enjoyed a computer game. Would I do it again? Difficult to say, and the opportunity is unlikely to present itself again anyway.

But mostly I think I'd like to leave the memory as it is.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Oh No!

Just tried to post a blog on my weekend activities and been told I can't upload any more pictures as I've reached my free limit with Picassa.

Apart from spending money on Picassa or deleting a load of older pictures anyone got any suggestions?

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom

I've just finished this recent modern account of the period of the Taiping Rebellion. It mostly covers the Taiping from its height to its eventual fall. It also tries to put it in a wider context and so covers the Arrow War (or Opium War II if you prefer) as well.

It is written by an American academic which means it is pretty neutral on the wisdom or otherwise of the European interventions although it stretches its thesis to draw parallels with the ACW and the influence of that was on British policy. Nice try, but our ancestors would have tried to open up trade in China regardless of the loss of markets in North America.

Otherwise it is a thoroughly enjoyable book and although written as general history it has a lot in it for the wargamer. The progress of the campaigns is well laid out and there's enough to give you the feel of what is important in the period. It puts the efforts of the Chinese government into their proper context and gives some decent perspective on the Ever Victorious Army (whatever we may want to think the Taiping were brought down by the massive Hunan Army commanded by Chinese officers, not a handful of mixed mercenaries lead by Westerners).

The book pulls off the trick of being both a serious historical monograph and also enormously readable. Mrs T picked it up and read the first few pages and expressed an interest in reading it as well. It is a lot like Orlando Figes' "People's Tragedy" on the Russian Civil War, - for all his faults and the omissions in the book it is well written and really enjoyable. The narrative propels you from page to page towards its inevitable conclusion.

They also share a selection of names guaranteed to confuse any casual reader.

(Since I wrote this I've also finished "The Arrow War" by Douglas Hurd. This is a diplomatic history of the second Opium War, although it does a pretty good job of arguing why the name is wrong and why the war wasn't about Opium. It was written in the 1960s and to some extent it shows its age in the attitudes and views expressed by the author, who later became a Tory Cabinet minister.

I have mixed views on this book. It is well written and does a very good job of navigating the reader through the machinations that started with the seizing of the lorcha "Arrow" and ending with the destruction of the Summer Palace outside Beijing. There are sizable quotations from parliamentary debates and correspondence and these illustrate what was probably the golden age of parliamentary debate in the UK when a well honed speech and argument could turn the House. However the military detail is cursory, which is odd for a book about a war. It is annoying as it is clear that Hurd knows more than he has written down, and the illustrations reproduced in the book mainly cover the military aspects such as the storming of the Taku Forts.

I picked up my copy from the USA via Abe books, second hand ex-library stock so it didn't cost me much. Would I recommend it? Not if you just want military detail but for me, as someone who studied the period in the deep and distant past, I found it enjoyable and informative. )


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Shed Update

An update on where we are with the shed. I think the project management on this is driving Mrs T a bit nuts, but we're making progress and she's pulling the final bits together for me.

Last week the builder came and put the insulation panels in. He hasn't lined it yet as the electrician is coming on Wednesday and he's going to put the cabling in the walls. Then the builder can clad the interior. Then the electrician can come back and put in the fittings. Then we might be done.

I spent some of the weekend double glazing the windows with light weight acrylic sheeting. I think it would have been a good idea to have had this done by the shed company but it wasn't an offered option. Still, attaching plastic sheeting to a wooden frame, - how hard can it be?

Well, you have to be careful with this stuff as it will shatter. The recommended way to cut it to size is to score it and then snap it along the cut line. Make sure you score it good and deep or you'll find you need another sheet. At least I did. I'm not the world's best diy'er by any stretch, but I will have go and after three hours I'd glazed two out of nine windows and at least one of them may be preventing condensation in the shed.

Either I get the builder to do this, or it's going to take a while.

On the positive side I ran a cable in from the garage and put on a small fan heater and it was soon up to a really comfortable temperature so I was working in just a shirt. I then turned the fan off and it retained the heat really well, even with two or three windows open for ventilation.

On a final note Bob Cordery recently posted the view from his wargming room on his blog. It's a good view and I can't really compete, but this is my view.

That's a summer house at the far end of the garden, or as it may become at some point, the battlaion command post.Alas it does have enough room to open up a map properly.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The alternative proper wargamer

Actually, this is more a collection of...."You're not a complete wargame until......."

You've read at least one book by Donald Featherstone(1)
You've tried to game a period for which there are no figures.
You've played in a game using two way radios or field telephones.
You've taken part in a games day or tournament(2)
You've called down fire on your own forces.
You've done at least one plastic kit conversion(3)
You've written a set of rules that have been played by people without you there
You've started to amend a set of rules two turns into a game (or less).
You've completely misunderstood at least part of a set of rules.
You've built your own wargames table.
You've submitted at least one wargames magazine article that wasn't a battle report (4)
You've at least tried to play one of those enormous SPI games (Campiagn for North Africa, for example)
You've run a participation game at a wargames show.
You've won a wargames campaign by doing something completely different (5)
You've helped to run a wargames club.
You've dogmatically insisted you're done with a period....then gone back to it.
You've played in a command post exercise game without enough space to unfold the map (6)
You've been stiffled at least once on TMP
You've taken part in  mega-game
You've umpired in a mega-game
You have your own blog

I sometimes think we can get overly focussed on toy soldiers and rolling dice. Whilst I love both of these there are other ways to game some subjects, and they're often better.

And if you've never played a command post game in an improvised bunker with a map that's too big for the space, you really should.

(1) Although in truth some of them aren't very good.
(2) Just to see if you like it or not.
(3) Airfix T34 to SU85
(4) Didn't say anything about being published
(5) In my case a modern Africa campaign that I won with a "Hearts and Minds" approach*
(6) Ideally in a car or under a table

* I'm actually really proud of this. Whilst eveyone else was buying weapons and shooting people up I started digging wells for clean water.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Am I a proper wargamer?

There’s one of those questionnaire things going round where someone’s prejudices (mainly around toy soldiers and table top games) are assembled in a list for us all to measure ourselves by.

Looking at it the late Paddy G might not score above half on the list, and he was a proper wargamer.

As for me, I haven’t scored myself, but I’ve ploughed up half my garden to put in a purpose built wargames room.
£500/$500 on figures my a*se.
Who’s a proper wargamer then?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Just another worry

Hopefully all of you will have enjoyed the photograph of the shed, which is being insulated today. With a bit of luck I get power in next week.

If you refer back to that picture you’ll see on the right hand side the trunk of a tree. That’s a fully grown ash tree that gives the location of Trebian towers its name. So much so that it is covered by a Tree Protection Order (TPO) which means I need to get planning permission to cut any bits off it.

We love that tree. It has its downsides, - the leaves in autumn are a major job to sweep up that never seems to end. It also sucks a lot of the nutrients out of the soil and grass and blocks the light into the kitchen

On the other hand it provides shade in the summer and somewhere to sling the hammock and swing chair we bought in Costa Rica. And you shouldn’t forget the whole oxygen/carbon footprint thing either. Plus it is a thing of beauty.
I wonder how many of you can guess where this posting is going?
Well it's worrying news. The disease chalara fraxinea, known as ash dieback, has probably been diagnosed within 5 miles of where we live. The fungal spores are carried on the wind and if they can be blown into East Anglia from the Netherlands I fear a few miles of English countryside may not be a sufficient barrier to save us.
All you can do is cross your fingers and hope. Being vigilant is of little use, - even if you spot the tree up the road has the disease before it hits yours it's probably too late by that point anyway.
So we sit and wait. That tree is older than I am, and together with others that mark the old hedge row, is a feature of our village.
To say nothing of the cost and difficulty of having it taken out if things turn out for the worst without dropping it on the shed.

Monday, 5 November 2012

More from the Far East

Having a pretty good run on the painting front recently, finishing another Chinese unit.

Here they are:

Again these are Irregular from the Colonial range, being the Chinese Lancers. The photo is a bit dark, I'm afraid.

The design of the figures is a bit of a mix. They're supposed to be Bannerman or regular Qing cavalry, I think (ie not Mongols). The have the right sort of tunics, mostly, and many of them have the chest roundel with name and unit designation on them. Ideally they should have a bow and a matchlock but I think leaving them off may be a wise decision or the figure may look overloaded. Ian also makes a mounted archer figure to go with them.

I'm quite pleased with the look of them now they are done. I'll need to find another supplier for my Mongol cavalry. These'll probably be Museum Miniatures, - I asked about height comparisons on TMP here:

I'm afraid to say that the biggest problem with them is the hair. They have side pig tails but long flowing hair at the back. Qing troops all had pig-tails and shaven foreheads. Taiping's didn't and hence were known as "long hairs". The archer figure seems to have his hair tied in a queue so I think these should have as well. In fact they have side pigtails as well as hair at the back.

None the less I shall persist with them. They have a suitably business like air about them and have proved surprisingly easy to paint, whether that is design or my chosen colour scheme I don't know but I've knocked these out in a week, which is a good rate for me at the moment. Their basing alos marks a departure for me as I've gone for two figures on a 30mm square base, rather than the normal 3 on a 30mm x 40mm. Phil has been talking about this for a while and up until now I've ignored him, but this looks right. it gives me the same frontage as the foot, but with half the figures.

Having got these done I've cleaned up and undercoated a unit of the cavalry archers plus some foot archers and halberdiers as well. Progress is being made.