Wargamer’s Notebook Issue 63

MS: This time we see another reader, Jonathan Ward, come forward with his views. My comments are in italics.

I’ve just read the latest Notebook and decided to drop you a line with my own ramblings on the state of our hobby. First a little background. I’ve been gaming since I was nine, roughly about 24 years. My main interests include ancients and WWII, as well as fantasy and sci-fi. Although, to be honest, I will play just about any period if it gets me a game. The only period I won’t play is post 1945 which for me is just a little too close for comfort. I couldn’t help but feel a little disturbed by one company who is offering 28mm Iraqis and Taliban. The idea of wargaming the War on Terror while watching it played out on the television just doesn’t appeal. Anyway here are a few of my own opinions on some of things touched upon in your Notebooks over the years.    Games Workshop and Fantasy Gaming

I’ll hold my hands up and admit I’m a fan of GW, I know in some circles that would be enough to have me burnt at the stake, by some who still see GW as some sort of corporate bogey man out to wreck wargaming. To be honest I think many peoples attitude to GW has softened over the years and I know a fair few gamers who can find room for both historical and GW gaming in their hobby lives.

MS: The two hobbies are so distinct, and disparate in size, that the only thing we have to look at is WAB and its later period spin-offs, and possibly Warmaster. If WAB was in fact a Trojan Horse, it has been pretty much accepted, fed, watered and in some cases married into the family. Do we still expect the evil GW stormtroopers to emerge from within? I doubt it. Most gamers are hiding behind the Pavise of Hope that says, “They can’t trademark history”.

Sales of the WAB basic rules must be well into the tens of thousands, the supplements add yet more presence, it seems to have reached epidemic proportions, and as I said before it has clearly hit a game/history sweet spot where so many rules have failed. Not my sweet spot, by the way. Was it a calculated attempt to move in on the historical market, a predictable development, or just a fortunate coincidence that it originated from the GW camp? I think we can look at it the benefits it brings to the existing hobby. Would Gripping Beast, Artizan, Crusader or LBM be selling as much as they are without WAB? I doubt it.

I too think attitudes towards GW are softening, but you will still find hundreds of nutters with copious bile for anything GW does or says. Primarily, it seems to be pricing policies and alleged treatment of existing hobby stores that raise the hackles. Or perhaps it is just envy turned to anger because they are very successful at ‘our’ hobby? The breaking down of barriers was I think WAB, but helped by presence at shows, Warmaster, LotR, and perhaps even Five Armies, which was somewhat more acceptable to many historical gamers. And who could resist those LotR figures? – surely among the best ever produced in that scale.

I remain here: I like a lot of what they do, and have gone for LotR in quite a big way. But I don’t care for WAB, or what it stands for. In fact, apart from perhaps Warmaster, I am not that taken with GW rule systems generally. I love some of their 40k figures, but on going to buy them I do find the prices off-putting and almost always this prevents purchase. The same applies to LotR – £20 for six White Council figures? Or £5 each? Beautiful figures, but hand me down my bible. However, it does not seem to put off the 10 year olds and their parents, which I guess is the point – they are charging what their core market will bear, not what a 40-something selective old git wants to pay. I believe we have been here before!

I still remember fondly in my youth, when I was a regular member of a wargaming club in Southampton, the looks that ranged from mild disapproval to abject terror on the faces of the club veterans whenever my regular opponent and I brought anything of a fantasy or sci-fi nature to the club. Judging by the content of Wargames Illustrated these days (dinosaur hunting, journeys to the centre of the earth, etc.) I would say fantasy is a much more accepted part of the hobby than it was in my youth.

MS: You will still find the odd conservative who speaks out, and there are quite a few more that hold unspoken views against ‘fairy gaming’. But yes it is here to stay, and much more accepted. Part of that is that as an ageing hobby we need to take what we can, when we can. Such a recruit may never leave behind SF/F but they might just switch – although I can see exactly why they wouldn’t. Another factor is that I feel there is still vibrancy and innovation in the SF/F area, certainly this is almost a requirement in new role playing systems, and any little part of that is welcome in a historical hobby that has very much stagnated. Though that said, if I see another SF fleet game that doesn’t break the mould (because they are almost all the same), I shall be forced to scream. And in space, no one would hear me.

Going back to GW I would say that they have a lot to offer the historical gamer even if you never play their games or buy their figures. Their terrain making and painting guides are full of great ideas, and my own painting style is very heavily influenced by GW.

MS: Absolutely. I always recommend the terrain book. A superb piece of work, and also good value. They can do good value, like the 24 plastic Haradrim or Uruks, for £15. I am, as ever, looking for great value. Or wherever possible, completely free.

They also produce the best paints and modelling tools I’ve found.

MS: This is surprising. The paints are okay, but I find some colours dry to an unappealing satin finish and all are somewhat “slimey”. And I have never yet got the inks to perform. And at £2 for a tiny pot, I’ll stick with Vallejo. But yes, there are several really nice colours and I like the metallics. Brushes are very good, the tools I could find in a model or tool shop cheaper. Sand and terrain is massively overpriced – my local model shop has the GW rubble and the exact same product over in the model railway section at 1/3rd the price, for more rocks!.

As for their prices, yes they are expensive but then their overheads must far outweigh any historical manufacture I can think of. They have hundreds of staff to pay and shareholders to keep happy.

MS: I don’t think that matters greatly to someone handing over £5 for a figure. They either think the price is fair, or they whinge like a lot of us do. Whether it is one man, or a mom and pop operation, or a multi-million pound operation, the end result is a figure. The question maybe whether the GW figure is better than anything else I can buy and thus, as a must have, is worth the extra? Often the answer is yes, mostly it is not – but you need to be aware of those better, cheaper alternatives. GW does a great job of hiding them. What I do object to is paying extra for the ‘powers’ of the figure in the relevant game when I only really want it to paint.

Overall I think GW’s approach to the hobby is laudable. They get youngsters interested and they support them (teaching them the hobby, giving them a regular place to play, etc.) until they’re ready to go it alone, as it were. There’s just nothing comparable in the historical hobby. Would the GW approach work in the historical hobby? Probably not, I think paradoxically historical gamers tend to be more of a bunch of free spirits than many GW hobbyists who are much happier to go ‘Chapter Approved’.

MS: Well there are obviously many different factors at work here, not least the fact that recruits seem to be much more easily obtained for fantasy, sci-fi or LotR than they do for historical subjects – Flames of War’s success notwithstanding. Or perhaps the ’club’ or ‘creche’ methods GW employ are just so good, it merely seems that way. I suppose one could look at a big show like SELWG, Triples or Colours, where there is a selection of everything, and see what numbers of new recruits are drawn in by topic. I doubt anything analytical has been done on that subject, but it might make for interesting reading.

Shows       

I must admit that I’m often shocked at just how many shows you go to. Personally I feel lucky if I get to two shows a year. I would probably go to more if a) my life wasn’t so full and b) I could drive a car. Being a non-driver I find most shows are just too much of a journey. For example to get to Colours at Newbury this year I had to catch three different trains, despite living near Winchester which is only 30mins from Newbury by car up the A34. However I do have a couple of regular shows. First is Milton Keynes, aided by the fact that my in-laws live there. The wife and mother-in-law go shopping around the city centre and I get to indulge my hobby for a couple of hours. The first year I went to Milton Keynes it was held in a sports hall (much like Warfare at Reading) and then they moved it into a shopping centre which sadly seemed to affect the show quite badly but the organisers have hung in there and the show seems to be going from strength to strength, this years being the best I’ve attended so far. My other show is Warfare: hot, overcrowded, horrible toilets and terrible food [and such small portions!] yet I still enjoy it greatly. This year I made it to Colours which has gone straight to top of my best show list and will become a must visit every year I think.

MS: Well I have a pretty full life and I don’t drive either, so I know what you mean on both counts. I have said many times before that going to a large number of shows is linked to the column (it helps me provide pulsating, up to date and relevant content – many would dispute this!) and because I enjoy the renewal of enthusiasm that each show provides, That I need a boost every now and then may be cause for concern, but there you go. That’s me. Even so, I have cut back on shows, to perhaps half a dozen ‘musts’ per year (Tunbridge Wells, Partizans, Milton Keynes, Salute, SELWG, Warfare) plus others as the whim takes me or as a treat (Claymore, Triples, York, Colours  etc). As a replacement I find I am attending more model shows, which can offer a better mix of interests for me. So I will go along to IPMS events, MAFVA nationals (though at £15.50 entrance fee,including Duxford IWM,  never again), Trucks n Tracks and Euro Militaire. I also do three or four model railway shows per year, but again this is much reduced. 

Why the change? Largely geography – moving from London kills mobility. I have also admitted defeat to the trains (cost, reliability and frequency), unreachable venues, and Sunday travel. Cost is definitely an issue – I turned up at To The Redoubt in Eastbourne recently having spent £30 before I started looking at the stands! To be honest I would rather spend the money on figures. Plus, there are only so many shows that are actually worth attending, and other gamers seem to feel the same way – Redoubt and Woolwich were virtually empty this year. It is possible that there is a Darwinistic contraction going on, which we have long discussed, with notable ’fixture’ shows dying (Colchester and Walthamstow spring to mind) and others clearly in trouble. The decisive factor may be the traders. As more and more transition towards internet sales, and they find cost, time and hassle of attending shows mounting, they will decide if we have anything to look at. So, if we end up gravitating as a hobby to ten major shows a year, with Internet sales filling any gaps, are we really in any worse position than we are now?

I suppose the big question about shows is what do we go for? Is it the traders, the display games or the chance to hang out with lots of other like-minded individuals.

MS: All of the above. But without the traders, is a show viable?

For me I think it must be the chance to shop. There are no wargames shops in my neck of the woods and while Internet shopping is viable these days, there’s no substitute for handling and inspecting the goods at close range before you buy. The display games at shows are just something nice to look at in between trade stands for me, they are also very good at showing me the sort of games I would like to play (great figures, great scenery) but probably never will.

Wargames Magazines

This is one area of the hobby I can see changing. I wonder with the advent of the internet how much longer wargames magazines can/will continue to function.

MS: Well at the last count there were about seven or eight pro publications jostling for position, so either the market is bigger than we thought, or there will be tears before bedtime. I honestly don’t know which is true, nor do I know the size of the overall market or its likelihood of buying one, two or all the magazines available. Time will tell. Certainly the potential (thus far unfulfilled) is for the ‘Net to provide enough quality and quantity for people not to bother with paper, and for many that state has already arrived – who can read it all? Not me. But there is still a sizeable population who like to collect magazines (I wish I wasn’t one of them, storage wise) or read in the bath.

Adverts in magazines, one of my main reasons for buying magazines for a long time, seem pointless these days when I can go direct to a company’s website for up to the moment information on their products. Magazine articles seem in the main to have become poorer over the years and I seem to draw less inspiration from them than I did in my youth. The last reason to buy magazines, for me at least was the eye candy pictures of wonderfully painted armies on fabulous terrain. I can now go on the web and pull up dozens of websites full of eye candy whenever I want, so why do I need to buy magazines anymore? To be honest I still by both the major publications at the moment, but I can see me buying them less and less in the future if the current standard of articles doesn’t improve. Of the two majors I prefer Miniature Wargames. Yes the photos and figures in them suck big time, but the articles have always been a cut above those found in Wargames Illustrated. Wargames Illustrated to my mind is a bit like having a fling with a supermodel: beautiful to look at, but once you get past the looks there’s not much else going on.

MS: I have never flung a supermodel, though I have tossed a dwarf . But I’ll take your word for it. I also think Heidi, Kate and Elle seem pretty sharp (except for that troublesome bloke from The Libertines). But enough Heat editorial, and back to reality.

Since I have been writing for it for the last eleven years, it would be predictable for me to defend WI. In fairness I think there was a phase, post Foundry perhaps, when, yes, it seemed to be lacking something. I often heard gamers say they had given up on it. However Duncan has really pulled out the stops recently with full colour and burgeoning page count, and I think it is much better as a result.

On articles, you have a good point. I don’t really want to read another lame history piece, wherever it is printed. And, as time goes on, we will have seen almost everything before. But I come back to my oft stated explanation. To an extent all editors are restricted to what they are sent by keen contributors. My belief is that this is what keeps the overall standard of article low, but there are obvious exceptions – and these outstanding, or thought provoking, pieces are the ones that people talk about. How many people, as a hobby percentage, write an article? Minuscule numbers. How many can write? I have had many conversations with people politely telling me how easy it is to write a column, or discursive piece. I cheerfully agree and look forward to their contributions, which oddly never appear.

The other argument is that there is no or little financial incentive. Personally I have purchased two racehorses, a Maserati and a mid-sized Tuscan villa with my earnings from WI, but then I’m careful. I suppose until there is a formal payment system, and it is ‘worthwhile’, then it will be difficult to commission top quality articles. I suppose worthwhile remuneration is different for everyone. Would you read a history piece by Dr. Christopher Duffy?  I certainly would. There are too many wargamer-historians about. Meanwhile, we live for the pictures and the ads and the monthly boost they provide. Don’t we? Perhaps a free cover DVD of Kingdom of Heaven, or Alexander?

WW2 and figure scale 

I’ve watched with interest your comments on WW2 and what scale is best, I’m glad you’ve settled with 20mm. As for myself it’s an ongoing problem. My rule set of choice is Rapid Fire. Not everyone’s cup of tea I know but it suits my style of gaming. As a dyed in the wool 25/28mm user these days I love the ranges from Artizan and Crusader but gaming in this scale is not easy for WW2. Many pieces of kit are hard to get hold of and ranges are rarely complete. Add to this the cost of tanks in this scale and the problems of what is the ‘right’ scale (1/48, 1/56 or 1/60) for tanks. It all becomes a bit of a nightmare.

MS: Exactly, but lots of people are disagreeing with us. And they are armed with bulging wallets. Talk to Barry Hilton at a show and try to resist! But in fairness Barry has worked long and hard at pulling his amazing collection together. At the other end of the scale, 15mm is also booming. I don’t know how micro-armour is doing, but you’ve go to love those GHQ models. Personally, I don’t actually see an issue here. Apart from perhaps wishing to cross-deploy terrain, the only appeal of 28mm might be the figures and hefty tanks. But even that doesn’t work for me, and I actually prefer the look of a 20mm figure, tank and overall game.

I also have to say that in 28mm, a scale that sees some true anatomical horrors, WWII seems to come out looking worse than most. I don’t know why I would settle for stubby guns and stubby men when I can choose from a beautiful 20mm selection of AB, SHQ, Elhiem, HaT or Revell figures and acquire just about every tank or truck that was ever made, in all their versions. I don’t want to get too divisive on this, I am just puzzled at the rapid rise of 28mm when we had a perfectly good scale as it was, of which I owned a lot already. Here’s the simple answer: if 20mm WWII is good enough for Dave Andrews, it is definitely good enough for me.

At the moment I’m wrestling with whether to plump for 15mm or 20mm. Mostly it’s coming down to a cost versus aesthetics issue; do I want more toys or better looking toys? The final result of all this soul searching is three different WW2 collections in three different scales but not enough of anything to play a proper game.

MS: Focus man, focus! Later….

When I first wrote to you I had just about given up on using 28s for my WW2 games and was trying to decide on 15s or 20s as my scale of choice. Now, further down the line I have quite a large force of 28s for the eastern front. So what changed? It’s hard to point the finger at one thing, as several factors came into play at the same time. First a wargaming friend of mine purchased a load of Artizan British paras. I’d seen pictures and thought they looked good, but in the flesh they really inspired me. Secondly my attempts at painting up a 15mm German panzer grenadier battalion had not gone well at all. I’m a 28mm gamer at heart and have developed a painting style that works well in 28mm but very badly on 15mm figures. Thirdly I found the League of Augsburg site; Barry Hiltons WW2 collection was awesome and made me look at 28s in a whole new light. Last but not least I discovered Bolt Action Miniatures (BAM). These guys are working really hard to push 28mm WW2 gaming – they release something new almost every month. The discovery of BAM made me aware that there was a lot more stuff out there for 28mm WW2 wargaming than I first realised.

In truth at the present time I don’t believe that 28s can compete with 20s for wargaming WW2. 20mm has been accepted as god’s own scale for WW2 gaming for so long that 28s have years of catching up before they can hope to even rival the scope of ranges and models available in 20mm. Cost is also a factor, for the cost of one 28mm Corgi Sherman I could buy three or four Matchbox plastic ones. Again, 28mm looks like a bad deal. For me personally 28mm scores in two areas: one they paint up much better than 20mm (or a least I can paint up 28s better than 20s) and two the visual impact is much greater than 20mm when laid out on the table top.

One last comment on sculpting, the charge of poor sculpting on 28mm WW2 figures is a common one. Fans of 20mm are quick to hold up AB Figures as evidence of 20mm’s undoubted superiority in figure design, yet they are quick to forget the horrors that are Britannia or Raventhorpe. While I’ll agree that some 28mm WW2 figures are pretty bad (1st Corps springs to mind) many are in my opinion first class sculpts. Paul Hicks of Bolt Action Miniatures is a top sculptor on par with the Perry twins. While Artizan, Crusader and the Assault Group all have first rate figures in their ranges.

Figures

As far as figures are concerned I’m basically a 25mm man (or whatever they’re called these days). Anything bigger are just fads in odd scales (36mm and 40mm – why?). Anything smaller hurts my eyes and gets lost on my wargames table, although I’ll probably make an exception for tanks. As far as figures are concerned I really think this hobby has hit its golden age. Almost every period is covered, and now we have got past the period of total Foundry domination there are just so many good companies out there with great figures. These days there are very few companies out there who don’t have some figures that will tempt me. Luckily unlike your good self, I’m very good at resisting temptation. Years of wargaming on a budget (for one reason and another) means that I’ve got quite good at buying only the figures I need for my latest army and nothing else. Of course I’m not perfect as can be witnessed by the WW2 debacle above. As for my favourite companies well Artisan, Renegade and Crusader are top of my list. Wonderful models throughout their ranges.

For gaming on a budget you can’t do better than Old Glory and Newline Designs. Both do some nice figures but their ranges can be a bit variable at times (especially Old Glory). Foundry are up there of course but these days they seem more interested in naked elves and gun toting prostitutes. Okay I suppose but GW have already cornered that market (and better too). Also Foundry’s inconsistent packaging policy and mega P&P rates really tick me off. I would probably list The Perries and Mark Copplestone too, if their ranges were in my areas of interest (which they are not yet).

I won’t go into prices of figures except to say that I’m still buying figures and the prices haven’t gone high enough to stop me yet (although that day may come). Finally plastics. I’ve had a few goes with plastics over the years but none have ever gone that well, still the ranges these days are huge and these new painting techniques have got me wondering again. To be honest what I would really like would be 25mm hard plastic figures like GW plastic regiments only cheaper and of historical subjects. Not sure it will ever happen but I keep hoping.

MS: It could be happening, but ask yourself this: would the manufacturer of hard plastic figures, with all costs and investment that entails, go 25/28mm, or 20mm to tie in with the existing plastic ranges? And if they went 25mm, what subject would they do? How much of a discount would you expect for a hard plastic figure compared to a metal, or would the ease of working and conversion options offset this?

Rules     If anything will start an argument among wargamers, it’s rules. The whole realism vs. playability issue has been going for years and I doubt we will ever see a set of rules everyone likes.

MS: I think that is a given. There is no better way to start a ruck on the Web than by saying Rules A beat Rules B, or even this is my Top 5. Each gamer is looking for something different, and often it is very different. Even within my group of opponents, who broadly like all the same things and have a common interest in history, we differ on rules, and how to game, and even terrain standards!

For myself personally I want playability. I gave up on the notion of realistic rules years ago. No set of rules no matter how good is going to realistically represent war at any level. This doesn’t mean I’ve given up on history in my games – I try to build historical armies and play historical scenarios (no Assyrians vs. HYW French for me, thank you very much). What I want from a set of rules is easy to remember mechanisms and rules that give me a flavour of the period I’m trying to play. These days my rules of choice are WAB and Rapid Fire. My reasons? Well both are simple and easy to pick up and both give me a flavour of the period I’m gaming, everything I want from a set of rules. Are they realistic? No, but then I defy anyone to show me a set of rules that is.

MS: I often see this statement and I think it is misleading. It is not that a set of rules is expected to be the height of realism, it is just that some gamers (though less than I had imagined) want a game with more realism than those on offer. Simplistically, I still think we are looking at a linear spectrum between playability  and realism but I am not wholly sure there needs to be a trade off for more realism. Nor am I at all convinced that realism implies increased complexity – elegant design could and should get round this.

Anyway, after a few games and some reading, we set ourselves down on the line where we feel comfortable (a historical/gaming mix), and search for a set of rules that works for us. This may take years and a lot of money, rebasing, and frustration. Generalising horribly, most rule sets are pitched to the left of the scale; perhaps they clump around the WAB Golden Mean. Some are more realistic, some less, and some think they are more realistic but aren’t. Because we don’t function in a perfect market, with rules to suit all tastes, there may be an element of compromise (you use WAB but don’t like the saving rolls). Or, you strike lucky (you love WAB and want its children). Or, you write your own. For some of us there are simply no rules available that come close to where we want to be.

It seems to me that many gamers still equate realism with complication; the more unplayable the rules the more real the game – personally I say crap. I want to play a wargame not struggle through two hours of unreadable rules to work out how to shoot my bowmen. I figure that considering the popularity of WAB a far few people feel the same way I do. On the subject of WAB, I think you’re being a little unfair on their supplements. Yes, I will agree they are expensive but compared to other company’s army list supplements I think they are very well done. Yes, the history in them is potted and basic but a least it’s there to get people started. I can think of a fair few army lists were no history is given at all leaving you to try and work out the authors motivation behind his lists. They are very well presented unlike many lists which are just lines of text with no pictures. And finally they concentrate on small chunks of history and encourage historical match ups between armies – something many other rulesets and army lists don’t.

Well, I’ve waffled enough so I’ll sign off by saying I enjoy your notebooks very much – keep up the good work, I don’t always agree with everything you say but you’ve always got something  interesting to say. Oh and thanks for the website.  Its one of the better ones on the web (so much so, that it now resides in my favourites section) and the links are brilliant (usually the first place I look when I’m searching for gaming stuff on the net).

MS: Thanks Jonathan.

Mike Siggins
 

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