We take a look into the mind of the prolific games creator Matthew Hartley in his exclusive regular Orcs in the Webbe column, Tankard Tales.
If you tolerate this, then your children will be next
Manic Street Preachers, from the eponymously named song, 1998
Blackadder: “Have you ever been to Wales, Baldrick?”
Baldrick: “No, but I've often thought I'd like to.”
Blackadder: “Well don't. It's a ghastly place. Huge gangs of tough, sinewy men roam the valleys, terrorizing people with their close-harmony singing.”
Black Adder the Third, Amy and Amiability (1987)
As my mind turns towards an Easter holiday climbing Welsh mountains, so I consider a much lampooned land of leeks, rain and sheep… and, in fairness, a rather good rugby team.
Men with oddly shaped balls aside, Wales has given the world a not insignificant number of talented voices. Lyrical Welsh have performed both on the political and the musical stage, and in the case of the Manic Street Preachers, both. Their song “If you tolerate this, then your children will be next”, from their 1998 album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, is a case in point.
The song's theme is taken from the Spanish Civil War, and the idealism of Welsh volunteers who joined the International Brigades fighting with the Spanish Republic against Franco's Nationalists. The song takes its name from a Republican poster of the time, a photograph of a young child killed by Nationalist bombs is shown under a sky of bombers with the warning "If you tolerate this, your children will be next" written at the bottom.
The Spanish Civil War, its origins, course, and consequences, is still a live and divisive issue in Spain and one which should not be entered into lightly by incautious tourists, no matter how much military history they might think they know. In wargaming terms the conflict is one of those Cinderella periods which flit in and out of fashion as enthused players and, critically, figure manufactures discover and rediscover the exotic, and sometimes frankly weird, units present.
The Alternative gaming world has transported the exotic and weird from the 1930’s to the UK through A Very British Civil War (VBCW) from Solway Crafts and Miniatures. The game received extensive coverage in the glossies, helped by some very pretty display games which have toured the show circuit in Britain. As an alternative gamer, I know I really should like VBCW, but I have to confess I just don’t get it. Redressing the Spanish Civil War in British clothing just doesn’t do it for me. I suspect it is the lack of a fantastical element that has something to do with it. Throw in some Aleister Crowley (aka The Great Beast!) or even a handful of Welsh Druids and I’d be happier. As it stands if I want to do a 1930’s Civil War, I’d prefer to shoot fascists to Liverpudlians.
Whilst the Manics are one of the music industry’s more cerebral bands, and Brains do produce a very passable Cardiff Bitter, brains are more commonly associated amongst the gaming fraternity, and the wider public, with zombie food. Zombies are at the bleeding edge of the teenage zeitgeist in my particular corner of Lincolnshire at the moment. For an end of term test on the topic of “the Geography of Diseases”, I set my 150 13 to 14 year old students a strategic planning exercise to outline measures to be taken, and who to prioritize for vaccination, in the event of an outbreak of Necrozombosis (a disease whose symptoms you can well imagine). The test was only supposed to last an hour but the students were enjoying themselves so much they demanded to be allowed to continue the exercise at break and lunchtime over the next TWO days. In the end, opinion was evenly divided on the merits of saving the Royal Family and the Archbishop of Canterbury, although consensus was reached that anyone else who was “old” (a rather, any worryingly, loosely defined term amongst the students) had definitely had it. Freeing up the school curriculum at Key Stage 3 (11 to 14 year old) really has had a profound effect on teaching in some schools, truly “if you tolerate this, then your children will be next”.
Success is not measured by what you accomplish, but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.
Orison Swett Marden
What is a true test for a wargamer?
Triumphing in equal-points battles at some ludicrously over-hyped “World Championship”? As if playing with toy soldiers was an Olympic sport and participants prowess with dice (and rules) put them on a par with athletes whose view of their own feet was not obscured by an expanding waistline? Surely not.
Scenario-driven games over an alluring alternative. An opportunity to beat “the game”, despite inferior forces and/or unfortunate initial disposition is surely a worthy test. Yet these games, though superior to equal-points slug-fests, can still suffer from nonsensical Victory Point chasing (unless well- written) and “last turnitess” as units are thrown in pell-mell as the game concludes.
Historical refights at least offer the opportunity to see if you could “do better than the real general”. Sadly such a conceit requires a frankly religious faith in the simulative qualities of the chosen rules set, and a wonderful disregard for the benefits of both a God-like overview, and, critically, hindsight.
As I have mentioned in earlier Tales, I have the pleasure to be part of an on-going Napoleonic campaign game, with the campaign aspect handled via a website but battles fought over the table top at our normal Wednesday night gaming sessions. The campaign is based in the Peninsular, and I have the role of Beresford, supporting Wellington and , in this case, leading the brave (but few) British cavalry, the Light Division and some not entirely dependable Portuguese. Our role is to defend Portugal and then strike out to join up with rather diffuse elements of the Spanish army and guerrilla forces to rid the region of the loathsome French (ablely controlled by 3 other players). Full details of the Campaign can be found at the Port Royale Blog. The blog is run by Gavin (a different Gavin to that of Alternative Armies fame), who is co-ordinating the campaign and hosting and developing the engine which runs it. From a players perspective, the great advantage of the campaign game is that it gives context and meaning to battles.
The first, and so far only, battle of the campaign has revolved around my attempt to relieve the garrison of Cuidad Rodrigro besieged by the French. I approached the battle with very limited information on the numbers I faced. I had sent my light cavalry off to conduct (remarkably successful, I learned) actions against the French lines of supply, which in turn drew all the French cavalry away from the 2 Corp they were supposed to support in a fruitless search for me across the Spanish Plains. Still my forces were strung out and fatigued having crossed Portugal by various mountain roads. As the forces lined up on the first day, the weather broke and rain descended, I spied French forces against me that outnumbered my few by at least 50%. With much more artillery. Knowing reinforcements would arrive tomorrow, as the rest of my force came on, I resolved to fight a defensive battle and hope to hang on to nightfall. In a normal game, the French would have formed attack column and had at me, but to my amazement, they were concerned to maintain their siege and they too were awaiting reinforcements (interdicted that day by my hyper-active light cavalry, I discovered). The French refused to attack and we stood and watch each other all day. Both sides stayed on the field that night – further tiring out my forces.
As the day dawned, the rain continued to fall, and both sides lined up again. The battle began with a French division launching an ill-coordinated assault against the exhausted Light division. The 95th held off the assault columns, supported by a heroic uphill attack by the British Heavy cavalry brigade which seized the French guns and broke a hastily drawn up square . Reinforcements were fed in over the day, but neither side could force the issue. Neither side could push for a total victory, and as dusk descended both side withdrew to lick their wounds. The French had a very badly mauled division, and the Anglo-Portuguese faced further exhaustion as they withdrew to Fuentes de Onoro and the safety of Wellington’s newly arrived reserves.
Context , drama, uneven sides and strategic decision making. Campaign games have it all. They are hard work to set up (just ask Gavin), but they ARE the test for a wargamer.
"A.D. 793. This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery, dragons flying across the firmament. These tremendous tokens were soon followed by a great famine: and not long after, on the sixth day before the ides of January in the same year, the harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in Holy-island, by rapine and slaughter. Siga died on the eighth day before the calends of March.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" said L.P. Hartley in his novel The Go Between. Although not a relation of mine, oddly Leslie Poles Hartley died very shortly after I was born and lived very close to where I now reside. I certainly share his sentiment as well as his surname. My interest in history is entirely because “they do things differently there”, I guess this is why I teach geography too. And “doing things differently” is exactly what Alternative gamers do.
As I mentioned in my last Tales, I think there is much unexplored mileage in adding an Alternative twist to regular historical games. Obviously, Flintloque and Pazerfaust have added rather more than a twist by reimaging the Napoleonic and Early C.20th wars through Tolkienesque fantasy races. But gamers do not have to be this radical to be Alternative. I’ve included a simple game with this Tankard Tales (see below) to illustrate what I mean. At one level, the game is a straight-forward “historical” recreation of the Spanish Armada expedition against England in 1588, however if you look at the special abilities for each character you will see the cross-over into fantasy . All these abilities are historically sourced, that is these claims were made at the time by or about these individuals. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle quote at the start of this piece illustrates, wild claims are not restricted to the Elizabethans, nor are they things of the distant past. Peruse the Fortean Times (available in all good newsagents) and you will find an abundance of WWII and latter weirdness that could be easily and painlessly be incorporated into your games. If you are looking for a rules set, there is always Geheimkrieg...
Currently I’m participating in a rather excellent on-line computer moderated Napoleonic campaign, details of which can be found at http://www.britishforces.org.uk. Painting wise I’m stuck in the Dark Ages with a load of sheep – a few paltry sheep just don’t cut it in a skirmish game, ewe need a herd (sorry).
Plans are afoot for some unexpected interventions in the AWI. More anno.
Out of clutter find simplicity;
From discord find harmony;
In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.
The final straw was the Anglo-Saxon village. A dozen scratch built 15mm dwellings based on the Saxon Village reconstruction at West Stow, Suffolk and bought at the Bring & Buy at Partizan many years ago. I’m not sure why exactly they were in the airing cupboard, hidden behind the beach towels, but there they were when my wife discovered them. The ensuing “discussion” of my wargaming material revealed quite a few if not exactly forgotten, then, well, not remembered, gaming items lurking around the house. “Clutter” can be such a cruel word when applied to a Norman army of uncertain manufacture. Suffice to say, it was clear that my collection(s) had outgrown the house and Something Must Be Done. Much pondering ensued.
The timely demise of a wealthy relative, and subsequent fortuitous bequest, is a favoured deus ex machina of the 19th Century English novel. Where, you may ask would Jane Eyre be without the timely demise of her West Indies slave-owning uncle? Without Mr Rochester, for sure. My own bequest didn’t result from human bondage, although I understand things can get quite rough up in Scunthorpe on a Friday night, and my Mr Rochester would be in the hansom form of bricks and mortar. Thus The Shed was conceived – six months later, a two story, 72 square meter “outhouse” emerged from the mud of my back garden. Furnished with a workshop/painting station, a microbrewery, a shelved attic for fiction, comics, RPGs and re-enactment gear, and a 30 square meter games room with ….a permanent games table, wifi, coffee maker, TV, radio and under floor heating! Truly, Victorian romantic heroes pale in comparison to the wargaming luxury that is The Shed!
You may have guessed, the above is an extremely long-winded explanation for the disappearance of Tankard Tales from this site for the best part of a year. My apologise, but the banishment of my entire collection of books, games and sundry wargaming gear to a storage unit for over six months, with another couple of month to sort it all out afterwards (to say nothing of a damaged back from all the lifting) placed a serious impediment on my gaming in 2011. I haven’t been entirely idle, I’ve help my good friend Gavin with his web-driven Napoleonic campaign system which will go live very early in 2012 (more details in subsequent Tales) , and I’ve written a few scenarios, both for games at friends, and for this site’s advent calendar. Again with Gavin’s help, I’ve learnt some scratch-building techniques and produced some creditable fields and marshes for the games table.
I’ve also thought a good deal about gaming projects for 2012. I read with interest in the latest issue of Miniature Wargames (Issue 345) that Trevor Holland of Coritani believes that wargamers are drawing down their lead mountains of unpainted figures and are finishing existing projects rather than just adding to the lead pile. This certainly conforms to my experience of late, and that of those I game with, with much talk (and some action) to finish off existing projects. If this is a wider trend in 2012, expect a good year for paint, brush, and basing material sellers and a rough year for figure makers.
For myself, I’m looking over all my existing collections and looking to fill in gaps (mostly from the lead pile, but some, small, new buys). One thing I’m planning to try in 2012 is to “fantasize” my historic armies. Got a Viking raiders force? Add a monster for Grendel or a Troll (Troll Hunter is now available on DVD!) and you have a great fantasy game. A Dune-esque sand worm will spice up any WWII Western Desert game. A Shoggoth is just the thing for the Flanders trenches. A few very small purchases add a wealth of possibilities to existing forces.
Normal Tankard Tales service will resume later this month, see you then !
The hearts of our despised, deceived, hundred-times-swindled
nation were overcome by bottomless despair and greatest sorrow
Slovenec on 12.11.1920 in a commentary on the Treaty of Rapallo
I write this Tale, as befits this blog’s title, on a Serbo-Croat keyboard in a bar in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, with a flagon of mulled wine on one side and an unidentifiable, and certainly unpronounceable, local dish on the other. It has been raining for the last 36 hours, however the temperature has suddenly dropped below freezing and snow threatens to extend my stay, both in this hostelry and in the country.
Slovenia is the state at the extreme west of the former Yugoslavia, and borders both Austria and Italy. In many ways people, place and history are similar to Wales. Slovenia has been around for an awfully long time: the excellent Slovenian History exhibition in Ljubljana Castle acknowledges settlements from 200000 BC but suggests things really got going with the Celts around 500BC. General celtishness was soon subjugated by the arrival a century or so later of the Romans, the first of many, many oppressors of the good Slavonic folk. Indeed the litany of oppression includes pretty much every nation in the near vicinity with a few passing oppressors, such as the Turks, thrown in for good measure. As the exhibition , and quote from Slovenec, makes clear, “we was robbed” is a prevailing sentiment and it is only the restraining hand of the EU that prevents the Slovenes exacting a bloody and terrible revenge on all concerned (and particularly the Italians, who started the whole farrago and were also the last invaders of note thanks to Mussolini). An Englishman on a Friday night in Bridgend will note the same chippiness. The exhibition is in fact superbly good, with excellent, detailed displays with full English text. Moreover, and so unlike British museums, the authors of the text assume readers actually want to know some history rather than be entertained by “history lite”. Younger learners are catered for – and this is the first time I’ve seen this - with touch screen flash games at each section. Games included an oppressed Slovene factory worker running round a platform game repairing a rich capitalist’s factory and being rewarded with a half-eaten sausage; a Slovene patriot running around a town street maze defacing posters of Mussolini whilst being pursued by Italian soldiers; and Marshal Tito driving a car trying to collect the flags of the Yugoslav republics and avoid the flags of other nations! The vandalism game is begging to be converted into a tabletop game.
Physical historic military hardware is a bit thin on the ground in Ljubljana. A quick survey of those museums I found open revealed a Roman helmet, Turkish war hammer, a Hotchkiss MG, a WW2 rifle (can’t remember the make), and an AK47. I also discovered a 9cm breech loading rifled gun date stamped 1891 lurking forlorn and unsigned in a dark corner of the castle. There may of course be a whole military museum of goodies I have failed to discover, but if so, they are like the gun, well hidden.
Gaming has not been forgotten during my sojourn in foreign parts. Selectively Plagiarised Napoleonics (SPN for short) that I am co-writing with my friend Gavin with a successful day long playtest and a series of emails to iron out some definitions. As the name suggests, these rules borrow heavily from other sets and as such are unlikely to see the light of day as a commercial set themselves. As this set is put to bed, my thoughts are turning to Welcome to Helmand and my offerings for this website’s Advent Calendar. More anon.
Now, where’s that barman…
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
Proverbs: Chapter 22, Verse 6
Parenthood is not an unalloyed blessing. Those of us with children may look back on the time when our progeny were but babes in arms fondly, but our memories are great deceivers and a brief reminder of night after sleepless night of feeding and changing an infant will soon set the record straight. Parents should however look back and remember well those brief and fleeting moments of joy that a child can bring, perhaps the first time they rode a bicycle unaided, the enthusiastic if tuneless murdering of a ridiculous song at a school concert, or an Olivier-esque performance as third sheep in a Nativity play. On such slim supports are the burdens of parenthood borne. With this in mind I took my 5 year old son, Levi, to Rauceby War Weekend WWII Living History display at the end of August.
Amongst stalls selling interesting WWII memorabilia, a truly alarming collection of reproduction SS uniforms (very popular in south Lincolnshire, I’m told), and a huge collection of tat, Levi discovered a rather forlorn little biscuit tin containing elderly 54mm plastic cowboys and Indians. Two years previously following a visit to the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo the suitably impressed, but barely verbal, son convinced himself that the proper term for all armed warriors was “Hoffa Ho”. To my delight, at Rauceby, Levi pestered my to buy the cowboys and Indian “Hoffa Ho’s” for him– a delight because this was absolutely the first time he has shown the slightest interest in toy soldiers. He has a veritable arsenal of toy swords (plastic, wooden and, after nearly breaking my fingers, foam), bows (long and recurve (made in China and lethal)) and assorted dark age and “Robin Hood” costumes and armour. However this was his first voluntary foray into the wonderful worlds of miniature warfare. Truly a proud parenting moment. The die is now cast, and having trained my son well, I feel I’m set to fulfil a French proverb “a father is a banker provided by nature”. Oh well.
Rules sets are also troublesome children, although fortunately ones you can set aside for awhile without getting a visit from Social Services. “Welcome to Helmand” has been temporarily put on hold for a month or two whilst I’m helping my good friend Gavin finish his new corp-level Napoleonic’s rules (as yet unnamed). With one base to a battalion they offer an eclectic mix of rules liberally “borrowed” (and referenced) from other sets (at least 4) but rearranged in such a way as to create something rather good. I’m not sure these will ever see the light of day commercially. It’s been fun helping out someone who has many years of playing experience but has never put together a set of rules before, particularly in learning that when trying to recreate history you should try to replicate the rule and not the exception – just because something may have happened once in 20 years of warfare, a rules set is not a failure if it cannot happen at all under the rules. This particular “child” has been an education.
They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance.
Last words, Major General John Sedgwick, 9 May, 1864
Elephants are good for quotes, and military images. Hannibal pachyderm ‘s crossing the Alps is a striking vision of heroism (or craziness) in warfare, whilst poor Gen. Sedgwick’s last words are used to ridicule the officer class (indeed I remember Gen. Sedgwick being transposed to World War One and becoming British to be mis-quoted by my ill-informed English teacher whilst mis-studying the “war poets”). Gen. Sedgwick’s eternal memory has been ill-served by his final words, which is a shame as his fighting career is worthy of study.
However enough of Sedgwick and more on elephants. I know an Ancients gamer who collects armies with elephants, and he has quite a choice, from Carthaginians to the armies of ancient Burma and many in between. He also has a WWII German force with….yup, Panzerjäger Tiger (P) Elefants! Now, the funny thing is, under most rules sets, elephants, at least the animal kind, aren’t all that good. Rules writers get all hung up on accounts of elephants trampling on their own troops (as some Carthaginian elephants did at Zama) and the poor beasties become less of a wonder weapon and more of a liability, or dare I say it, a white elephant. I know that the elephant is seen in many cultures as a symbol of nobility or kingship, so maybe they were just military bling for the great and the good, and their lack of prowess was, at it were, the elephant in the room. Personally I find it hard to believe that all those ancient warriors, who’s lives depended to getting these decisions right, would have employed elephants (let alone taken them across the Alps) if they were not in fact any good.
The question of how to treat monstrous creatures is one more frequently asked of fantasy games writers. Interestingly, often such creatures – giants, dragons, or whatnot – behave in a similar manner to the rules treatment of historical elephants. I remember fondly the giant who appeared in the Warhammer second edition scenario pack “Bloodbath at Orc’s Drift” arriving drunk to the battle and collapsing on two units of his own orc allies. Not very different from an out of control elephant at Zama really. I guess it’s kinda fun have such powerful and unpredictable troops and it is a poorer fantasy set that gives such creatures all the advantages of size and strength but none of the downside.
Another saying about elephants is “Question: how to you eat an elephant?…Answer: one leg at a time”. I’m in this very position now. My personal elephant is my new set of rules, “Welcome to Helmand: Afghanistan 1979-2010”. The rules are in their second draft and have survived a couple of playtests. As I’ve mentioned before, playtests are key to developing a set of rules. Suddenly I am faced with my cunning ideas failing miserably on the table. This has happened in the last playtest. I had a mechanism for randomising command ; each side split their forces into two groups and each group was given a card suit (hearts, diamonds etc.), each turn two playing cards are drawn and units with those suits are activated. Sounds good eh? But it doesn’t work! It is impossible to tell on the table which units (there are up to 40 or so on the table) has which suit, at least not without lots on on-table markers which are visually very unappealing. Back to the drawing board for that mechanism. Oh well…one leg at a time.
Here's a little bit of advice, you're quite welcome, it is free.
Don’t do nothing that is cut-price, you'll know what they'll make you be.
They will try their tricky device, trap you with the ordinary.
Get your teeth into a small slice, the cake of liberty.
Ian Dury, Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, 1977
I’ve always wanted to be a rock star. This despite neither being able to sing or play any recognised musical instrument.
I have had a fleeting pass at musical fame (on the Show of Hands single “Crazy Boy”), although not in a performing capacity. Still, I now find myself in a position comparable to that of a rock legend.
I don’t mean the rock n’ roll, or the drugs, or even the rapt attention of teenage lovelies. I mean the returning to and reissuing of games from my past, my wargaming discography if you will. Those mighty artisans of song, when getting on a bit, review past works and issue a “digitally remastered” rendering of the same or, if they can still sing and play an instrument, do an “unplugged” acoustic version. Under the watchful gaze of Wessex Games own Svengali, Steve Blease, many of my early works are coming back into print, or at least “digitally remastered” in colour and with better pictures as PDF’s available from Wargame’s Vault. My “Tusk” mammoth (and dinosaur) hunting set is already there, and variously other sets including Élan (a divisional-level WW1 game) are heading that way soon.
I am of course delighted that material I wrote almost two decades ago still has value, however I have somewhat mixed feelings about this process. Partly, I guess, this comes from an innate loathing as a player of “nth editionitus” amongst wargames rules. You know the story, you just get happy with a set of rules, have your armies built up and based to the arcane specifications of the author, and then the blighter issues another edition, making half your army useless and the other half “illegal”. Also I can’t escape the feeling that a quickly released next edition just covers up for the fact that the first edition hadn’t been playtested properly and the author was trying to make me pay twice for a product that should have worked first time. Fortunately, neither situation is the case with my reissues, my games have been long out of print (very long in some cases) and nothing core has changed. Where new material has been added it is in the form of more or different scenarios or minor optional rules chrome. Still as I look over these venerable offerings I nostalgically wonder why I wrote a particular rule the way I did, and would I solve the problem the same way now.
I’m not the only one engaging in the old rule set business. Phil Barker’s WRG Ancients 6th edition rules have just been reissued as part of John Curry’s “History of Wargaming Project” along with many other ancient sets (in both senses). There are some absolute gems here, and not just for so-called “old school” wargames. Remember all those sets that were ahead of their time? Well, now their time has come.
As I hinted at in my last Tale, I have been busy at work on new projects. The core of this new work centres on try to solve the problem of asymmetric (counter-insurgency) warfare on the table top. There are lots of issues to tackle, including hidden movement (never yet done well in a game); difference in force strength and/or technology; and different aims and objectives of the parties involved. My aim is to produce a toolkit set with all the basic core rules which I can then adapt out with period specific rules chrome, a bit like the Aeronef system and its adaptations to create Land Ironclads, Aquanef, and Astronef. Current applications for the counter-insurgency tool kit include an Afghanistan 1979-2010 set, Aliens (and Predators) vs colonial marines and colonists, and Apache wars (with a VSF twist).
I’m currently experimenting with using playing cards to set objectives. Dominoes also feature (a great under-exploited resource, the domino). One big idea is the use of area movement (as featured in the Geheimkrieg rules). I’ve found that liberating the players from the tyranny of the measuring stick vastly speeds up the game and allows players more time to concentrate on the action and spectacle on the table rather than the minutiae of measuring. I’ve also come up with a novel approach to forces – players can bring along as much as they like – a platoon or a brigade, or anything in between. However the victory conditions automatically adjust to reflect the ratio of forces between the players. If you vastly outnumber the opposition you are going to have to wipe him out to win, if you are vastly outnumbered, giving the enemy a bloody nose will be enough. All these rules are being playtested right now and I will report on progress in the next Tankard Tale.
Educate men without religion and you make of them but clever devils.
Arthur Wellesley, The Duke of Wellington
It’s an extraordinary but true fact that 100% of the wargaming Church of England vicars I know have armies of Orcs. Granted, 2 priests from rural Lincolnshire is hardly representative of the worldwide Anglican community, but what leads these men to take the side of the green skinned hooligans portrayed by Games Workshop? True, the 40K Imperium has more than a whiff of High Church Catholicism, but space Orcs are hardly the agents of a Protestant reformation. Orc ideology has more in common with some of the antics of medieval millennialists, perhaps the Drummer of Niklashausen or the Munster Anabaptist. Perhaps the Bishop should be told. You can read Norman Cohn’s “The Pursuit of the Millennium” for more on the proto-David Koreshs of the Middle Ages, lots of wargaming potential here and one ill-armed mob of fanatical religious peasants is pretty much the same as another. Pendraken even do figures in 10mm.
You might find the idea of rustic prelates siding with the forces of chaos somewhat disturbing. This said Jesus was pretty big on sinners, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" he said (Mark, 2:13-17). Still I don’t think the religious in question are actually trying to convert their lead horde (the Lincolnshire Fens are weird, but not that weird). I suspect the answer is that their sons play Space Marines and they need an opponent. It has often troubled me that people play the “bad guys” in wargames. I find enthusiastic supporters of the Waffen SS particularly hard to stomach, especially those with “Adolf Hitler European Tour” T-shirts. Of course, we need active opponents like the vicar’s, playing the bad guys. I just wish they wouldn’t enjoy it so much.
My own gaming this month has been somewhat shorten by the mad rush that is the end of the school term. A weekend of 42 hours gaming and 6 hours sleep at the Conference of Wargamers (COW) over the weekend of the 3rd and 4th July has left me physically exhausted by mentally fired up for a summer of games design. Some old games are going to have a (major) makeover and some wholly new projects will be born.
More of which next Tale.
But then I sigh, and, with a piece of Scripture, Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy With odd old ends stol'n forth of holy writ,
And seems a saint, when most I play the devil.
The Tragedy of King Richard the Third (King Richard act I, iii)
William Shakespeare has been a good source of villains, or if you are of a Jungian persuasion, villainous archetypes. We all like a good villain on stage or screen. Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham stole the show in the otherwise dubious “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”.
Perhaps Robin Hood is were it all started to go wrong, the hero is after all merely a mythologised villain, stealing from the rich (because the poor have nothing to steal) and bribing the poor to keep him hidden. We took a dim view not so long ago of our elected representatives stealing from the tax payers and redistributing wealth to poor misunderstood purveyors of duck houses and moat cleaning services. I don’t recall anyone praising them for this particularly piece of redistribution.
Personally I blame the schools. My wife tolerates my hobby. As long as it is conducted in the shed (it’s a big shed) and “guns and bombs and dead people aren’t left around the house”, I can do much as I please. She drew the line however at toy soldiers and weapons for my now 5 year old son. For him the world would be a blissful arcadia of country walks, pony rides, ice cream and football. But then he went to school. The village school is an excellent institution, staffed by a dedicated and far-sighted team intent on fostering excellence in their charges. They also did a terms unit of work on pirates. My erstwhile innocent now thinks drinking rum, burying treasure, swinging a cutlass and making fat boys walk the plank is an acceptable, nay desirable, career choice.
Wargamers are just as culpable of making thoroughly bad people look good. Blinding oneself with the (alleged) combat efficiency of the Waffen SS is only at the expense of ignoring the horrors they perpetrated. Taking a morally neutral or post-modern view of the actions of those we represent on the table top, or worse, shrugging our soldiers and lazily saying “it’s just a game” rather misses the point. If we are to learn anything from studying the past then surely it is the errors which are not to be repeated.
As I write this, Wessex Games have been the victim of piracy with a number of our PDF’s rules sets appearing for free on download sites. Most of our rules cost less than a Happy Meal at McDonalds, and all our “profits” are ploughed back into new sets or moulds for figures to support our sets. The exception is when we offer a set of rules and donate proceeds to charity, as we did with our recent Aeronef supplement. Lame excuses for this theft do not carry weight. We are not big companies (not that it would matter if we were) and those who steal from us are not Robin Hoods helping the poor. Theft is theft and it makes us less able to do the things we want to do as gamers writing rules for gamers. As a hobby we should not be condoning, supporting or indeed mythologising this villainy.
I had discovered, early in my researches, that their doctrine was no mere chemical fantasy, but a philosophy they applied to the world, to the elements, and to man himself.
W.B. Yeats, Rosa Alchemica
Alchemy is derived from the Arabic word al-kimia , and is, as Yeats points out, both a philosophy and an ancient practice focused on the attempt to change base metals into gold, investigating the preparation of the "elixir of longevity", and achieving ultimate wisdom.
I am an alchemist, and so are you. I regularly perform the transformation of wine into water myself. I like to think pickling myself (albeit slowly) is in some way investigating the "elixir of longevity", despite the warnings of the medical profession. Like all good wargamers, I also indulge in the transformation of gold into lead with my purchases of little men and tanks, and the fruitless search for the perfect rules set may be likened to a quest for ultimate wisdom.
Whilst on holiday in Ireland earlier this month, accompanied by wife and 5 year old son, I moved a step closer to alchemical enlightenment. We were based in the former Viking settlement of Cork, a charming city with many excellent (and child friendly) restaurants. The weather was less than fair one day and I pointed out to my nearest and dearest that the Prince August figure manufacturers were, according to tourist information, a short bus ride away in the small town of Macroom and open to the public (courtesy of an EU tourist development grant). So off we set by the bus, ostensibly to show the son and heir the manufacturing process at work. On arrival in Macroom, and a phone call later, we discovered that the factory was in fact in the hamlet of Kilnamartyra, a 4 mile trek way. When we explained our lack of transport to the nice lady at Prince August, she got in her car and came and collected us! Truly, going the extra mile (or four) for a customer! A very pleasant couple of hours were spent looking around the factory and trying our hand at casting. Older readers may remember Prince August self-casting kits from the 70’s and 80’s. These are they, and the range has grown! Needless to say, Euros changed hands and I am now the owner of some rather nice 40mm Vikings and Skraelings (native Americans) moulds from their Viking Discovery of America range. Although I bought some metal there, my plan now is to recycle all those unwanted extra figures from half used packs that I’ve accumulated over the years and produce a whole new skirmish game. Prince August have an intriguing range of moulds and a brilliant attitude to customer service. Check them out, and turn your lead into lead (again).
Somewhat to my surprise, and after a mere five year delay, Wessex Games have released my Geheimkrieg rules set as a PDF available from Wargames Vault. The rules are WWW2 (Weird World War 2), so expect zombies, werewolves, and assorted odd science. Unlike other sets of rules for this genre, Geheimkreig is designed to accommodate big (company sized) battles, not just half a dozen figure skirmishes. The game also uses area movement from foot square area to area, so you don’t even need a ruler, and you can put on the board as much terrain as you like without slowing up the game. So if you want to face off a hundred strong zombie horde, without the rules turning you brain dead, give Gehiemkrieg a go. The rules also include and extensive (and impressive) background written by Steve Blease.
Finally Steve and I will be running an (all-new) Aquanef game; “Raid of Le Vengeur” at Salute 2010 this Saturday (24th) at the Excel Centre, London. There is a fiendish French plot to sink the British surface fleet with an undersea assault. Can a plucky Royal Aquanef squadron save the day, or will the Fleet be in the merde! It’s a participation game, and we will always try to accommodate players. We’ll be at stand GA 21 (the SFSFW stand), so feel free to drop by for a chat, a game or to buy us a beer!
[It is] voyeurism embellished with footnotes.
Lord Skidelsky is Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick. His three volume biography of the economist John Maynard Keynes (1983, 1992, 2000) received numerous prizes, including the Lionel Gelber Prize for International Relations and the Council on Foreign Relations Prize for International Relations. He was made a life peer in 1991, and was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1994.
Skidelsky was born on 25 April 1939 in Harbin, Manchuria. His parents were British subjects, but of Russian ancestry. His father worked for the family firm, L. S. Skidelsky, which leased the Mulin coalmine from the Chinese government. When war broke out between Britain and Japan in December 1941, he and his parents were interned first in Manchuria then Japan, but released in exchange for Japanese internees in England.
To the best of my knowledge Skidelsky has never visited a wargames convention, his on-line biography is certainly silent on the subject. Yet he described a convention’s essence wonderfully in the quote above.
Wargamers at conventions are thrice damned as voyeurs. We gain an unseemly pleasure from the actions and reactions of toy soldiers on the table top, doing what many of us would (thankfully) never do.
Then we meet together to ogle through breath-steamed glass at the delights of finely cast miniatures (and I don’t just mean GZG’s “Gentlemen’s Collectables”) painted and presented for our pleasure yet tantalizing out of reach (of our bank accounts or brush skills, it matters not which).
And conventions hold a third voyeuristic attraction, or at least guilty relief, that we are not as fat/ old/poorly dressed/ unhygienic as many of our fellow gamers.
So as the show season in the UK once again gets into swing, we lead-addicted degenerates emerge once again to pursue our vices up and down the country.
See you there.
Field trip season has plagued my game design output since my last blog. Tracking dog biscuits as they float downstream does not put me in the frame of mind to consider the finer points of rules design. Fortunately my good friend and co-writer Mike Baumann has just sent me the 3rd version of his soon-to-be-published Pulp Sci-Fi Dick Garrison rules. I look forward to playtesting them over the Easter break.
If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the War, it’s Workshop.
Kingsley Amis, Jake’s Thing
The wordsmith extraordinaire Amis was not, of course, referring to the Workshop that most impinges on the world of wargamers. Although having been to a few workshops in my time, I heartily agree with Amis’s sentiment with regards to them.
The Nottingham-based Workshop that we are all more familiar with has been dividing gamers (of various hues) for the last 20 years. First came the Great Betrayal, when White Dwarf ditched its loyal Role Playing Games audience (at the time, including me) in favour of blanket coverage of 40k, Warhammer, and spin-off games like Bloodbowl. Despite many valiant attempts over the years , no paper-based RPG magazine has filled the black hole left by White Dwarf, most lasting only a dozen or two issues.
The subsequent history of GW took the company at its (version of the) “Hobby” to world-spanning dominance, at least in the sphere of fantasy and Sci-fi miniature gaming, and introduced more children and young adults to wargaming than any other company in the history of the hobby. Many new players (and their parents) fell out of love with the hobby as a result of a seemingly ever-changing line up of rules and modifications, expensive figures, and a perception that the latest army was given overly favourable treatment by the rules. However, GW deserve the gratitude of wargamers for raising the profile of the hobby in the public mind in a broadly positive manner. True, say you play wargames down the pub and the uninitiated will assume you have something to do with Orcs (or Orks), but pre-GW you’d have faced a blank stare and an awkward conversation beginning “well, it’s a game you play with toy soldiers…”
GW forays into historical gaming have been no less controversial. WAB has in the past caused some heated debate in the letters pages of the Society of Ancients magazine Slingshot. I must admit to loathing the rules myself, but I recognise that many find their combination of antiquated mechanisms, mini maxed army lists and competition play just their cup of hemlock. In fairness, dodgy armies maxed out for ahistorical competition play are hardly a unique feature of WAB. Indeed the whole ancients competition scene seems rather more geared to fantasy encounters than most traditional Fantasy games ever manage. Whilst I regard WAB as the spawn of the devil, Warmaster Ancients is an altogether finer beast. Whilst somewhat caricatured , it is at least fun to play and has a jolly clever command mechanism, which has been used to great effect elsewhere, notably in Peter Jones’s rather superb Blitzkrieg Commander, now available in a second edition. I know Warhammer Historial have produced historical games in other genre although I have to confess to not having played them. Clearly they too have their advocates, although WAB and WA seem by far the most popular lines.
Despite its having spread a trail of disappointment through my gaming life, I still look fondly on Games Workshop and recognise that their contribution to the hobby, in terms of broadening its base, goes far beyond the limitations of its rules and the frustrations of its pricing policy. So from me, as from them, there are no cheap shots.
My own writing has resumed after the winter break with some playtests of a new set of Pulp sci-fi rules from Mike Baumann (more of which in future tales), a return to the Aeronef Campaign system for some further detail, and as if this wasn’t enough, some amendments to my hopefully-released-this-year alternative WWII rules to accommodate popular historical figure basing conventions. Not much concrete to report in detail but 2010 looks like it is shaping up to be a good year for new products from me.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
From In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina G. Rossetti
“In The Bleak Midwinter” is one of the UK’s favourite carols, according to the BBC. I have to say it’s one of my favourites too. “The earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone” is incredibly evocative, and conjures up images of the 17th Century Flemish landscapes of Pieter Brueghel the Younger . Check out Brueghel’s "'Adoration of the Magi'" or “Hunters in the snow” and you’ll see what I mean. I also like “The Holly and the Ivy”, particularly the lines “O the rising of the sun, And the running of the deer”, for the same reason.
Christmas has now passed, and my CD of favourite Christmas carols has gone away for another year. Yet, for those in northern climes at least, the bleak midwinter is still upon us, indeed with some one-to-one scale snowdrifts forecast over the coming days, I’m rather hoping for some school closures and some extended time at home for lesson preparation. Oh, and I might get just a bit of time to paint that F15e Strike Eagle my wife bought me for Christmas.
As readers of this column may recall, I had planned to get myself a ECW sword for Christmas, and I do indeed now have a fine blade residing in my wardrobe just about out of the hands of my easily-impressed 5 year old son. As my wife put it, as mid-life crisis go a sword is cheaper than a sports car and less divisive than a mistress.
My son got the best present – a Playmobil Roman Trireme with extra Romans. The Playmobil range offers some really fantastic stuff for children interested in the more physical aspects of history. For more go see their site here. The Romans haven’t really got much in the way of opponents, just a handful of Gauls, but ultimately I plan for him to have two DBA armies, Romans vs Gauls, in Playmobil figures to introduce him to the finer points of the hobby, or rather to teach him about numbers and measuring…
My own writing output has been pretty bleak over the last few weeks with little new emerging since I penned “May Contain Nuts” for this very site’s advert calendar. Fortunately others have taken up the burden and Paul O’Grady and David Crook have co-authored an Aeronef campaign pack, ‘Wrath of the Syren’. I was fortunate to playtest this set, and have to say it is a well-balanced campaign and an excellent addition to the Aeronef universe.
So as I prepare to gathering some winter fuel for my fire (Though the frost is cruel), I bid you farewell until the next Tankard Tales in fag-end-of-winter in February.
Probably the reason we all go so haywire at Christmas time with the endless unrestrained and often silly buying of gifts is that we don’t quite know how to put our love into words.
What do you want in a Christmas stocking? If the answer is Sigourney Weaver c. Alien or Ghostbusters, I’m sure Ground Zero Games can provide something suitable from their Gentleman’s Collectables range. Remember all that flesh paint would cover the faces of a division of 6mm Napoleonics.
If, on the other hand, you would prefer a genuine Crimean War balaclava helmet over-flowing with gaming goodies, what wargaming goodies would you wish for? Personally I encourage my wife to shower me with “endless unrestrained” gifts but trying to avoid “silly” (i.e. not gaming) gifts. My parents are notorious for eccentric gifts, but fortunately Amazon.com’s wish list can counter their worst excesses.
So should I leave out a handy list of books? Well, no, the stack of unread books on my bedside table reached such epic proportions that my wife, in fear of being smothered by falling tomes in the middle of the night, insisted the tower be moved onto the floor by the bed. It now stands with three others in a miniaturised reconstruction of the Manhattan skyline (1/300 scale, or Dubai in 2mm). To add a further stack with Christmas volumes would ruin the effect.
Toy soldiers then? Well, having seen the light and reduced my lead mountains to mere roches moutonnees I am unwilling to burden myself with project-less lead.
Terrain? Already covered. In most scales. I have to worry when I can produce a range of North African villages in FOUR different scales. I only actually game in TWO.
For me, this year’s gift of choice will be a English Civil War cavalry officer’s sword. Not a real one, a real fake hand crafted in the late C20th forgery. Why? Well, for the fun of it. I have half a mind to improve my physique, which is expanding awkwardly towards middle age. My local college offers sabre and foil classes, and cleaving into someone somehow appeals to me far more than looking puny and desperate at the gym. In my heart of hearts I know I am more Oliver Reed than d'Artagnan, but I’m a wargamer, I can dream.
Recent writing has been limited to producing a scenario for this very website’s Countdown to Christmas Advent calender extravaganza. Lots of fun it was too. I will leave the announcement to Craig in due course, but I trust you will enjoy the trip…
A leader is a dealer in hope.
Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.
George S. Patton
Is a game designer a leader? Not obviously so, although he certainly fulfils Napoleon’s criteria as a dealer in hope. Perhaps a dealer in delayed disappointment is more accurate. My merry little band of gamers have decided that our collective energies for recreational gaming will be focused on Napoleonic warfare for the coming year. Despite my experience with Flintloque (the raison d’etre for my appearance on this site, after all), the collective view is that they don’t want to play an experimental set from me but would prefer someone else’s commercial efforts (the barbarians!). So we’ve spent a few hard earned groats on a variety of rules sets to see what appealed to us.
The initial games have proved something of a trial. We’ve had all sorts of problems with unclear rules and bizarre outcomes. It is quite amazing how badly written (and proof-read) commercial rules are. At this point I will admit that not all of my sets have passed before the critical eyes of the game-playing public without queries being raised. However, despite having a number of Yahoo groups to support my rules, I don’t have even as many as one query a month between them. Now this could be because frustrated buyers have given up all hope for the sets once they have read my rules and are unwilling to invest the time in complaining, but I would hope not. As I’ve noted before, wargamers are a pretty surly bunch and not backward in coming forward with negative comment.
Perhaps Patton has something for frustrated wargamers with his observations. Perhaps we all gain a better understanding of what it is we want out of a game as a result of figuring out what we wanted to do and then figuring out our own way of doing it. Ultimately though, this is a positive spin on being sold a slightly (and in some cases more than slightly) duff product.
As I write this I’m coming to the end of a half term beset by ill students and ill colleagues, so playtesting of new rules has been somewhat limited, although working through fixes for other people’s rules sets has been rather more apparent. I do however face a week of homeworking – the popular misconception that teachers have long holidays should be discounted immediately – where perhaps the Astronef campaign system will finally be laid to rest and I may be writing a new scenario for Flintloque for Craig’s Countdown to Christmas Advent Calendar 2009. Hopefully neither will be a source of disappointment, however long delayed.
The times they are a-changin’
According to Wikipedia, in the Coptic Orthodox Church, the New Year, called Neyrouz, coincides with 11 September in the Gregorian calendar between 1900 and 2099, with the exception of the year before Gregorian leap years, when Neyrouz occurs on 12 September. Autumnal equinox day (usually 22 September) was "New Year's Day" in the French Republican Calendar, which was in use from 1793 to 1805.
Coptic Christians and revolting French share a September New Year with a third group – students. Schools and colleges the length and breadth of the country resound with the dull tread of the unwilling , shuffling back from their summer breaks to the grind of autumn term. Just like at normal New Year, resolutions are made by the students (albeit at the behest of the teachers) to work hard, hand in their homework, tuck their shirts in, and sit down and shut up. Just like normal New Year’s resolutions, the promises wither and die with the autumn leaves. Strangely, for me September is also time for my New Year’s resolution for my wargaming projects.
For the last few years I’ve developed an unwargamerlike trait of planning ahead with my wargames projects and carrying them through to completion. The unpainted mountains of lead are a thing of the past, now each year at this time I plan next year’s project. Which period I’ll play, which rules I’ll use, whose figures and what scale I’ll be gaming in . Why in September? Well the first stage of “project design” is to read around the subject. Not just a couple of Ospreys, but at least half a dozen “big books” on the subject. It becomes pretty clear after the first couple of books if I’m really interested in sustaining that project for the next year. This strategy has led over the last three years to refighting Operation Compass in the Western Desert of 1940, the US marine battles of the 2nd Gulf War, and the three battles for England in 1066. The likely project for next year is the Prussian view of Napoleons’ Hundred Days Campaign. Probably in 6mm (those Baccus figures are just wonderful), probably using the Polemos rules (also from Baccus).
You’ll note that I use other people’s rules for my project games. This has been a deliberate choice. If I’m writing a new set, I find the distraction of another project really helps the creative process. Particularly if I’m stuck on a part of the rules – currently some of the complex numbers that need crunching for the campaign system in Astronef – playing a set of rules by somebody else, particularly a set of rules that actually works, reinvigorates my rules writing.
Hastings 1066 – a view from the shieldwall - the game I outlined in my last blog, is progressing well. My playtesting has been greatly enhanced by the discovery of vast numbers of useful colour paper figures at the juniorgeneral.org. This is a great resourse, check it out, it’s free!
As you brew, so must you drink.
It may come as a surprise to you, but despite my hectic gaming schedule I have an Other Hobby. The Other Hobby, less expensive than an Other Women but equally distracting, is the ancient art of brewing. The sweet smell of hops mingles with the less pleasant odors of paint, varnish and white spirit in my painting shed, whilst the monastic silence of the book shed is broken by the stygian, nay chthonian, sounds of fermentation between the stacks.
Bad Taste Brewery, as the venture is known, is a recent undertaking and with the wild-eyed enthusiasm of the recently converted I extol the virtues of home production to any who care to listen. Audiences have thus far proved willing, no doubt aided by copious samples thrust upon them. Still this year I have created over 60 liters of very creditable “Tyburn” London Bitter, somewhat less “Ypres” Belgian Trappist-Style Double, and over 150 bottles Italian mixed grape red (“Monte Cassino”) and white (“Anzio”), Californian white (“San Andreas”), French Merlot (“Bastille”) and Spanish Rioja (“Guernica”). Ingredients for two different German lagers are in stock for my own mini-Oktoberfest this autumn. Rum and chilli vodka fermentation begins in September.
What, you might be thinking, has this to do with wargaming? Well, in education we are given to talk about “transferable skills” as if in some way a skill that can be used in two jobs is necessarily better than one with only a single application. I maintain that under certain circumstances my transferable ability to word process is rather less use than knowing the untransferable skill involved in unblocking my drain. Anyway, the planning and organization skills I have developed through long years of building and painting armies, along with the ability to read and follow complicated instructions, have proved invaluable in the production of ales, beers, lagers, wines and spirits.
Similarities and skill transfer does not end with the organisational practicalities of brewing and gaming. Brewing involves short intense periods of activity followed by a lot of waiting around with the occasional inspection to check all is going to plan. Likewise game design is, for me at least, a process of doing nothing very much for weeks (sometimes months) followed by one or two days of feverish writing.
At the beginning of this year I had in mind that I wanted to “do a 1066 game”. Nothing beyond that, no idea of scale or unit size, whether I wanted to refight battles or skirmishes or both, or on whom I wished to focus. Anyway, in January I inflicted considerable pain on my credit card to buy an assortment of texts, primary and secondary, along with conducting a review of the books and magazines in the book shed. Months of reading, interspersed with other projects, followed. Then in early August the fermentation process yielded an idea and I “knew” how to do “Hastings – A view from the Shieldwall”, a small unit game were players fight a tiny portion of the entire battle. Some refinement is needed – even my best brews need filtering – but I hope to present the game fully matured at next year’s Conference of Wargamers.
So raise a glass to fermentation, good things come to those who wait.
Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (1843)
Perhaps Kierkegaard’s dim view on humanity owes something to long Scandinavian nights and coming from the land responsible for possibly the worst alcoholic beverage ever – Gammel Dansk, a concoction so vile even the Danes reserve it only for special events. Sometimes I suspect the Vikings were merely Real Ale fans in search of a good pint. Richard Fletcher in “Bloodfeud”, his superb book on Anglo-Saxon England, shrewdly observes that historians are prone to underestimate the effects of boredom on human history. Games designers often serve their audience poorly in this regard.
A good game requires all present to be involved and interested in the events unfolding on the table top. It is a poor game when one player sits slouched in a chair, or worse wanders off to the bar, whilst his opponent takes an age over the minutiae of moving his vast army. Yet so many games still employ an I go / you go turn sequence that almost guarantees boredom, albeit boredom evenly shared, for the players. I go / you go can work, and work well, with small numbers of units on each side, say when a player has no more than a dozen pieces/units to move, but element based games with near a hundred (or more) moving units per side is just too much. The PIP system used in the DBx games (and others) seems to allow large numbers of units and swift game play by limiting the number of units (even if “brigaded” together) to move each turn. My experience is that players using this system merely take an age deciding which of their blocks to move with their precious few PIPs and tedium sets in. Various card driven activation systems exist, including some rather excellent ones from the Too Fat Lardies stables, and these have great merit in severely limiting what one player can do in one “go”, thus keeping decision making to a minimum, and keeping all the players focused on the rapidly approaching next card turn. This system can lead to some units not actually doing much all game, and to units not reacting, as they might well do historically, to immediate threats or opportunities as their cards do not come up. Also, this system tends to favour those whose cards are drawn later, as the player whose cards are drawn first has to “waste” his cards moving within range whilst the late drawer can use all his cards for combat. This problem can be overcome by regularly reshuffling the spent cards into the draw deck, but this in turn can perpetuate the problem of certain units cards never appearing. For my money though, some form of random activation beats I go / you go for banishing boredom in big games.
Fortunately I had no chance to be bored at the Conference of Wargames event I attended from the 3rd to the 5th of July at Knuston Hall, Northamptonshire. The event, organised by Wargame Developments but open to anyone, is an experimental gaming residential held in a stately home with beautiful grounds, excellent food and a bar! Unlike other wargames weekends players do not all participate in one epic battle. Instead delegates present their own innovative games each of which must conclude with a one to two hour time slot. From Friday evening to Sunday afternoon I played 12 full games, including assassinating Mussolini; refighting the battle of Solferino; commanding a Churchill tank in Normandy; attacking on the first day of the Somme; thrashing the Napoleonic Spanish; refighting Gettysburg; suppressing bolshie Africans; and bombing insurgent Afghans. The program included lectures on the history of wargaming, and games design and application. Full reports and rules for the games played are published through the following year in the Wargame Developments journal, The Nugget.
In my absence, Wessex Games has not been idle. Steve has almost finished PDFing my ancient (in every sense) Mammoth hunting rules set, Tusk, for sale via Wargames Vault. Still published in paper format by Irregular Miniatures, these rules launched my rules writing “career” back in 1994. Revisting these rules after a long absence was a massive nostalgia hit for me. I was pleased to discover that they are still a good little set that does what it says on the cover, and I’m glad that they will now be available to a wider audience through the web.
Craig, my editor for these monthly tales, tells me that you are interested in the progress of Astronef and would like to see pictures!
Firstly you should know that I actually do all my playtesting with various bit of card cut from artists mounting board rather than wait until I’ve scratch built and painted up appropriate models. If I did that you’d never see a game out of me! Somehow I suspect photos of bits of card would not inspire, or illuminate. I will put together more details for the next Tale, but for now be satisfied with knowing that simple mechanisms are proving difficult to grasp in practice for some players. One of these mechanisms is that of planet-launched Interceptors, which have a speed which decreases when the interceptor turns. Interceptors start with very high speed which sees them zipping all over the board, but loose it fast, and have no means of regaining it, when they try to target attack runs on enemy vessels. Players have exhibited an amazing ability to totally misjudge their speed and either fly off the table with gusto or stall helpless amongst the enemy.
Oh, by the way, we hope to get Aquanef out in the not too distant future… or recent alternative past, if you prefer.
During the battles [of the Hundred Years War] the English built up there (sic) strength and therefore had a great amount of energy during longer battles… But the main reason that the English lost [the war] is because the Kings got younger and younger.
Year 7 student (aged 12), name withheld to protect the guilty.
In the real world I have the privilege (for that it is) to work with young people, although I am not responsible for the lesson that resulted in the essay extract quoted above. Kids generally get a bad press, mostly undeserved. On the whole, they are a fair reflection of the general population – no better, but no worse. So whilst it would be easy (if rather hypocritical) for me to take a cheap shot at the youth of today, I will refrain from doing so. The young student quoted above was missing the point somewhat, had failed to grasp the essentials of medieval battle, and had some difficulty expressing the effects of the early death of Henry V on the English position in the latter part of the war. So what? Well, I guess it comes down to your view of what wargaming is all about and why you play it.
I’m sure a lot of you reading the quotation above thought something along the lines of “stupid kid. Don’t they know any history? What are schools coming to? Back in my day we could recite the kings of England backwards whilst being thrashed to within an inch of our lives” and other useful lies that age and grumpiness generate. Yet are our games really so much more accurate? It is easy for us to chortle at the apparently supercharged HYW English keeping going like militaristic Duracell rabbits. Yet many are the games, encouraged by popular rules sets, which have players fielding a single Waffen SS division with what appears to be the entire German war production of King Tigers. Is a mini-maxed “competition” army list-generated force really superior to the bad history of a 12 year old?
We mock at our peril. If we are serious about our games being a fair refection of history we should at least make the effort to portray realistic forces.
My own work with bad history continues apace. Recently I’ve taken a break from Astronef playtesting to do some blind playtesting for Mike Baumann’s forthcoming pulp sci-fi epic The Amazing Interplanetary Adventures of Dick Garrison, to be published by Wessex Games and supported with a range of wonderfully camp Flash Gordon-esque figures from Wargames Supply Dump. It is very refreshing for me to work out of genre and to go through the nit-picking of playtesting on someone else’s rules. As I said in my previous blog entry (Searching for Jerusalem), writers, consciously or unconsciously, all borrow from the same intellectual toolkit, and occasionally contribute a new device to the collective bag. Playtesting gives me a great opportunity to get inside the mind of another designer and learn from that experience to improve my own games.
Astronef’s campaign system is due for playtesting over the summer. Of course being a campaign system, it will require a campaign to playtest it on. So whilst the sun beats down on you, think of me and my gallant band of testers plotting the colonisation of Mars, with pith helmet, Martini-Henry, and of course the common cold…
No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestine, particularly Jerusalem.
To some, the disappointment is heart-sickening.
Is the desolation of the land the result of the fatal embrace of the Deity?
Hapless are the favourites of heaven.
Herman Melville, Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land
Herman Melville knew a thing or two about searches and bitter disappointments. He is better known as the author of Moby Dick, a subject just crying out for a mini-game in one of the re-launched (sic) glossy magazines that grace WH Smith’s shelves. Having tackled Verne’s octopod in Kraken (available free from here), I should perhaps give it a go.
How would I go about doing this? Well, first of all, I’d read the book. Ok, maybe not the whole book. A quick visit to the library whilst writing this paragraph has revealed that the actual story is 544 pages long (Wordsworth Classic Edition). Not that I’m put off by big books, but I’m in the middle of another 500+ page epic (on Generalship in the Great War) and I have a stack of unread books on my bedside table of giant redwood proportions (assuming the popular 25/28mm scale). So no reading the whole book then. Two choices remain; deploy my Googlefu to find the action sequences on the net, or buy a DVD. The Gregory Peck version (110 minutes) of Moby Dick can be had from Amazon for a mere £4.98, or the Patrick Stewart version (178 minutes) for a tantalising £0.01 plus P&P. For the time-poor game designer both look an appealing prospect. However the whole point of research (for this is what it is) is to capture the essence of the original piece. So Google it is:
Ok, so now we have the key elements for our game. A scene – for each game we play is just that, a scene, like in a play or film – and the protagonists. So sea, sailors in boats and a great big whale it is then. We also have a narrative for them to follow; the moving of the boats, the attempts at hitting the whale with harpoons, the reactions of the whale. The key elements of a game are here in the narrative - movement and violence.
So how would I turn this into a game? I reread Kraken. It is a good little game that is fun to play and had some neat mechanisms in it. Game design is NEVER about reinventing the wheel. Thousands of man hours of effort - much of it, thankfully, someone else’s effort - have gone into providing the game designer with a toolkit of functional and familiar mechanisms for handling the key parts of a game. If games seem similar in their structure it’s because they all draw, consciously or unconsciously, from a common tool kit of devices. For example, units move either a fixed distance each turn or a variable distance. If they move a variable distance, there are only so many ways of creating that variation, and you can bet that they have all been used before. Don’t misunderstand me, we aren’t plagiarists. Like musicians, we riff on a theme, use a set of notes and just arrange them in different ways.
Next step is to look at the mechanisms and work out what tweaks are needed to make the mechanisms fit the narrative. This “chrome” is vital to give character and uniqueness to the game.
Then comes playtesting. You can never, ever, playtest too much. Be assured that situations you had never imagined WILL crop up. It is a good test of the flexibility and simplicity of your rules if you can “bolt on” a patch to cover the gaps.
Go on, give it a go. But, back to Melville, don’t be heart-sickened if your first effort disappoints. Continue your search.
The abominable old bap Russell duly returned my manuscript with an economic
note in the third person, the whole in a considerably understamped envelope.
Samuel Beckett, From Beckett’s Letters by Gabriel Josipovici
The rejection letter, with or without understamped envelope, is an indignity often heaped upon the prospective rules writer. It can be a hard lesson to learn that others will not venture their hard-earned cash in publishing the product of your labours and fruit of your genius. Since we are a hobby for would-be Napoleons, it is perhaps not surprising that such a Waterloo moment can be crushing. I wonder how many perfectly serviceable sets never make it past the author and his immediate friends for fear of such rejection.
Even if you can persuade someone to print your rules, the trials of the writer do not end there. For certain, he will not be retiring to a life of luxury anytime soon on the back of the profits from sales. Speaking as someone with over 20 sets in publication at one time or another, I assure you that there is no money in rules writing. All the money in this hobby goes on miniatures and the wherewithal to paint them. The humble scribe seldom sees the glitter of cold hard cash. Even the advent of the £20 hardback rulebook does not mean great income for the writer. I’m guessing that Osprey have done their numbers carefully with their Fields of Glory (FoG) ancients rules, but, I suspect, can only turn a profit from selling army list books in tiny sub-divisions of the period. Compare their books to the DBMM tomes from Caliver Books, which, granted, don’t have the artwork, but do have a truly awesome number of entries per book. Even the FoG system will not be paying the author’s bills. If you want a second income don’t write games, get a night-shift job at Tesco.
If you’re not writing for money, then surely you can write for fame? Not a bit of it! Name recognition for authors isn’t that great. Phil Barker, Chris Peers and Rick Priestly can be fairly sure of a name check amongst most gamers, but I doubt any of us could name the authors of even a quarter of the rules we own without checking the covers. And you can forget about face recognition. As a hobby we train our cameras on little toy soldiers and their environs, but authors remain faceless, I have no idea what Phil Baker and Chris Peers look like, and only a vague image of Rick Priestly, due to his appearances in White Dwarf and other GW material.
As fame and fortune are elusive, surely the adulation of players for your creation will be enough. Sadly on the whole we are pretty bad at saying we like something and pretty good at finding fault. I don’t think this is just a wargamers thing, or even just an English / Anglo-Saxon thing. People just like moaning. Sometimes queries can be valid, we can all improve the way we get our rules across to the readership. Sometimes players create situations in a game we hadn’t imagined. Sometimes we get things just plain wrong. Most working drafts for my games will go through at least 20 versions, albeit with mostly minor alterations after the first 3 or 4. It really is easy to leave a redundant sentence in final version that has slipped through from an earlier effort. Our own failings aside, I reckon brickbats to plaudits from the author’s public are in a ratio of 20:1.
So why write a set of rules? Well, I write rules for myself and to play games with my friends. That some people also want to play my games is a bonus.
If you have a set of rules you want to share with the wider gaming public, then get them DTP’d and PDF’d and give them away through the internet. If you want to cover your production costs and, maybe, buy yourself a couple of beers, try to sell your game through sites like Wargames Vault.
I am currently playtesting my latest addition to the VSF genre, Astronef. The basic structure of the game can be described as a “bomber stream” game, although the transports shot from a planet carry Land Ironclads and troops not bombs. The “attacker” has to get his transports and escort craft across the length of the table, entering at one end and exiting at the other, whilst the “defender” has to prevent them or at least inflict sufficient damage to make the landing difficult (if you are playing the game in conjunction with Land Ironclads and Aeronef). The defender has various different craft types – Astronef, fighters fired from the planet, Iron Moons (“space stations”) solar-sailers and Cavourite-powered nef – each with their own movement and firing abilities (and restrictions). The basic concept seems sound but the devil is in the detail, particularly in the relative strengths of the different craft types.
Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity
is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.
H.P. Lovecraft in Supernatural Horror in Literature
Lovecraft was talking about the nature of horror writing, and to be honest, engaging in some special pleading for his own eccentric prose style. He does, however, make a pertinent point for rules writers.
There is a myth that a rules writer, like some Renaissance alchemist, is engaged in some quest to discover the perfect formulation for a rules set. In truth, this search for the wargamer’s Philosophers’ Stone is a handy marketing tool for us. We can claim that each new rules set is, if not quite gold, then at least a very interesting new form of lead.
In fact we rules writers are stage magicians, who through the use of interesting props and strange incantations (but a notable lack of beautiful assistants) attempt to create the illusion of command and control, chaos and confusion, crisis and calamity that is warfare as we perceive it. It is not the actuality of combat – in Lovecraft’s case, his dovetailed plot – we seek, but the creation of its emotional sensation.
"The vault to which I refer is of ancient granite, weathered and discolored by the mists and dampness of generations. Excavated back into the hillside, the structure is visible only at the entrance. The door, a ponderous and forbidding slab of stone, hangs upon rusted iron hinges, and is fastened ajar in a queerly sinister way by means of heavy iron chains and padlocks, according to a gruesome fashion of half a century ago. The abode of the race whose scions are here inurned had once crowned the declivity which holds the tomb, but had long since fallen victim to the flames which sprang up from a stroke of lightning. Of the midnight storm which destroyed this gloomy mansion, the older inhabitants of the region sometimes speak in hushed and uneasy voices; alluding to what they call 'divine wrath' in a manner that in later years vaguely increased the always strong fascination which I had felt for the forest-darkened sepulcher. One man only had perished in the fire. When the last of the Hydes was buried in this place of shade and stillness, the sad urnful of ashes had come from a distant land, to which the family had repaired when the mansion burned down. No one remains to lay flowers before the granite portal, and few care to brave the depressing shadows which seem to linger strangely about the water-worn stones."
In the above excerpt from Lovecraft's first work, 'The Tomb'; the emotional journey is intense due to the narrative but the end result is simply the description of a door with a small piece of the family history to set the scene for the following story.
To my mind, one of the best games at creating this kind of of illusion for a wargames' 'reality verses rules' example is Jon Tuffley’s Sci-Fi space combat game Full Thrust, available as a free PDF download at Ground Zero Games website. If you don’t have a copy go and download it now.
My own interesting new form of lead, Astronef, is progressing to the playtest stage. This is still “first run” playtests, where the core concepts are tested. I worry about the chrome at the next playtest stage, assuming I don’t find any huge problems at this stage. My mind is also turning now to what to put in, and more importantly, what to leave out of Aeronef 2nd edition.
Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871
The 12th February marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the man credited with the theory of evolution by natural selection. Despite Empedocles the Greek suggesting natural selection in the C.5th BC, and the idea of the struggle for existence formulated by Muslim theologian and resident of Basra, al-Jahiz, in 776AD, to say nothing of the work of Scots William Charles Wells and Patrick Matthew in the early C.19th , it has been Darwin who has won the plaudits (and brickbats) as the father of evolutionary theory.
It occurred to me that the principles of evolution by natural selection can apply just as well to the wargaming world as to the natural kingdom. Don’t we try new mechanisms with rules to see which best fits our purposes? Rules which aren’t fit for purpose wither and die, whilst those cunning mechanisms that enhance our gameplay survive and are replicated in other sets? Look at the growth and development of the DBx series, and the move away from single figure to multi-figure bases, at least for scales below 25/28mm, for example.
However the comparison with the natural world could go deeper still. The late evolutional biologist Stephen Jay Gould made clear that evolution isn’t going anywhere. That is, it’s not moving along some pathway to “better” creatures. Today’s animals are not better or worse than the dinosaurs which preceded them, they are merely fit for this environment, and have thus far avoided an unpleasant encounter with an asteroid. Are wargames heading towards a specific goal, a “perfect” set of rules? I wonder whether we gamers are under the illusion that that is what new sets offer. Well, if not a perfect set, then at least a move towards it.
In fact all we are getting is a set that (hopefully) is better suited to the type of game we want to play at a given point in time subject to the environment created by the fads and fashions of the hobby. Enjoy your new games by all means, but remember, we aren’t going anywhere.
My own efforts to entertain, amuse, and part you from your cash continue with further work on Astronef, the VSF Ether game and sister set to Aeronef and Land Ironclads. Like all the sets in the series, the rules draw heavily upon period fiction from the C.19th and early C.20th.
I’m currently grappling with a cunning mechanism for replicating the effects of Cavorite, an anti-gravity material from HG Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. Cavorite generates a force rather like magnetic repulsion when near a large object like a planet and can be used to power ether craft by using shielding to block the material from the large object. Unworked it can be a bit troublesome as the fictional account of it's discovery shows:
"The chimneys jerked heavenward, smashing into a string of bricks as they rose, and the roof and a miscellany of furniture followed. Then overtaking them came a huge white flame. The trees about the building swayed and whirled and tore themselves to pieces, that sprang towards the flare. My ears were smitten with a clap of thunder that left me deaf on one side for life, and all about me windows smashed, unheeded.
I took three steps from the verandah towards Cavor's house, and even as I did so came the wind.
Instantly my coat tails were over my head, and I was progressing in great leaps and bounds, and quite against my will, towards him. In the same moment the discoverer was seized, whirled about, and flew through the screaming air. I saw one of my chimney pots hit the ground within six yards of me, leap a score of feet, and so hurry in great strides towards the focus of the disturbance. Cavor, kicking and flapping, came down again, rolled over and over on the ground for a space, struggled up and was lifted and borne forward at an enormous velocity, vanishing at last among the labouring, lashing trees that writhed about his house.
A mass of smoke and ashes, and a square of bluish shining substance rushed up towards the zenith. A large fragment of fencing came sailing past me, dropped edgeways, hit the ground and fell flat, and then the worst was over."
The level of detail and description in Well's text is one of the ways in which working with original source material can be a challenge, but ultimately I have found that the game gains a unique flavour from remaining true to its sources.
Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.
John F. Kennedy
I look around at the numerous and diverse Alternate History and Alternate Fantasy games and models available to gamers now and I see a victory. And, whilst not claiming paternity for all these offspring, I admit to being a frequent visitor to the bawdy house of their birth.
Not so very long ago, non-historical gaming was limited to medieval high fantasy, in truth a pale imitation of the worlds of Moorcock and Tolkien, and with much the same fare served up as Science Fiction. There were of course a few notable exceptions, tied in to popular television shows and films, but in truth the Fantasy gaming landscape was rather barren and, ironically, lacking in the vitality and imagination which surely defines the genre in its written and visual form.
Then things changed.
Independent companies such as Steve Blease’s Wessex Games and Flintloque’s own Alternative Armies started taking stock fantasy races and putting them in non-medieval settings. Irregular Miniatures published Tusk, my dinosaur hunting set, where the beasts could be hunted by cavemen and eminent Victorians. Two further Tusk sets followed, taking dinosaurs into space and to Waterloo.
Rules and miniatures from many sources appeared. True, some were still (poor) knock-offs of Games Workshop’s universes, but others developed into new and exciting genres; Victorian Science Fiction, Black Powder Fantasy, Pulp, Alternate World War II. And gamers bought, and clubs played, these games and now fantasy and Science Fiction gaming is at last achieving its rich potential.
I’m still writing, or rather co-writing, Alternate History games. My current project is Astronef, the fourth instalment in the Victorian Science Fiction quartet published by Wessex Games and including Aeronef, Land Ironclads, and the soon-to-be-published Aquanef. When finished, the quartet will allow players, if they wish, to fight Victorian Science Fiction battles in the ether, in the sky, on the sea, under the sea, on the seabed, underground, and on land simultaneously on the same board, using common (and relatively simple) rules mechanisms.
More on this, and the mysteries of Cavorite, in the next instalment of Tankard Tales.