Monday, 26 September 2011

If a picture paints a thousand words

What's your hobby?

As someone reading a wargaming blog, you might be tempted to reply "well wargaming, durrr" but things aren't necessarily so clear cut.

I was pondering this in response to the return to the blogosphere of Solo Wargaming in the UK. Carl, who I'd like to think of as a friend although we've never met or even corresponded, has been going through some tough times in recent months that we won't dwell on here, and in response took a step back from blogging and gaming while real-world issues played themselves out.

Now personally, based on my own experience, I believe that to be a mistake. It's exactly those times that put us under the most pressure, when it's most helpful to have a hobby to fall back on and help us unwind. My time blogging here has roughly coincided with a significant decline in my father's health to the point where we are now considering the worst. I've found picking up the wargaming hobby again to be a great therapy and playing around with toy soldiers a great way to decompress.

I'm pleased to say Carl has also come around to enjoy some "gaming therapy" but his postings along those lines were all about painting miniatures. Which got me pondering - I think pretty much all of the posts at Solo Wargaming In The UK have been about painting or terrain building or some other form of gaming prep, rather than any actual gaming reports. And there's nothing really wrong with that.. our hobby is so all-engrossing that one could keep oneself entertained for years without ever actually playing a wargame. There's research, which can not just include proper academic research but also reading appropriate fiction and watching TV and Films to help get into the mood. There's figure painting, terrain building, rules writing. And then of course there's blogging about the hobby, taking part in online discussion forums or even writing for one of the remaining wargaming print periodicals. And... dare I say it... Hats?!!

Now I'm a great advocate of the "Go Play!" fad that swept the RPG community online a few years back but sadly seems to have died out. You may still see forum avatars with small green "play button" symbols in them, like mine on this blog. The idea behind "Go Play!" is that gamers have a tendency to spend too much time discussing games, buying games, reading games, re-writing games... effectively doing all of the peripherary aspects of the hobby except the core crux of the hobby - actually playing and enjoying the games themselves. I think the same thinking can be applied to the wargaming hobby as well.

So while I may enjoy many of the other aspects of the hobby, at the end of the day they're really all just a stepping stone towards the real reward, which is putting figures and terrain on a table and having a jolly fun game of toy soldiers.

So the new regime of "Family Duty" has me retasked as a full-time carer for my parents. Fortunately that's not quite as onerous as it may sound, since in between preparing meals and medication and doing general chores, there's an awful lot of sitting around waiting, time which I've been able to turn towards the other aspects of the wargaming hobby. Here are the next tranche of steamtanks, assembled and awaiting primer. The front three are the Scotia Grendel dwarven steam tanks from the Leviathan fantasy range, the same as the "Thunder Hammer" mentioned previously. On the left is the heavily converted "Iron Drake" which used to have an exposed dwarven driver figure. I've removed that, filled the top surface with Milliput and added a turret from Ramshackle Games "Tridlins" catalogue. Removing the original driver and weapon proved quite an irritating challenge, so I'm electing to leave the original driver and weapon intact for the Rapier (right) which seems to be armed with some sort of harpoon launcher. Front and centre is the Ironclad, whose multiple rocket launcher is just crying out for some sort of custom rule in GASLIGHT to make it suitably random and chaotic.

At the back, and shown in greater detail here is the customised "Brass Coffin" from Ramshackle Games. An extra set of large wheels, the smokestack from the Huntsman Spider Tank and a turret (I think from the Liger) go together in such a natural way, I'm surprised Ramshackle haven't released this as an "official" variant model. I'd love to take credit for this design, but all plaudits have to go to Papa Midnight over at the Lead Adventure Forums, who did this first and, it has to be said, a lot better than I've done it.

So painting. I've developed a weird relationship with figure painting recently. Bottom line is that I'm no good at it. I'm colour blind (and yes, there may be one or two greenish horses in my collection), have shaky hands and in the last year have found that I'm totally incapable of actually focusing my eyes on paintbrush and figure close enough to apply any sort of controlled detail. In 25 years of gaming I've tried all the "how to paint figures" tutorials - used various techniques - black undercoat, white undercoat, grey undercoat, outline and fill, drybrushing, washes, shadow, colour and highlight..... really all of them. And I've practiced and practiced and practiced.... and I still suck ass.

So nowadays I've given it all up and settled on the "technique" that gives me the best results.... dipping.

I first read of the "magic dip" technique back at the turn of the millennium, where US gamers were generally using Minwax Polyshades
floor stain & varnish. I tried it with the nearest UK alternative I could find - the black "Tudor" stain didn't seem to be available so I went with the darkest brown I could. The result gave a better overall effect than I could ever hope to achieve with other techniques, and I could quite happily live with the high-gloss finish especially since it seemed to be well-nigh bulletproof.

Pause for eight years.

Army Painter came along and brought out their "Quickshade" range of varnish/stains aimed specifically at the wargamer. Now these are significantly more expensive than the floor products in the DIY stores, but you have to take Army Painter's word that these products are new formulations that are optimised for figure painting and not just the floor finish poured into new cans. Besides, used carefully a single tin can last a while (I've done all my GASLIGHT figures and Jonesy's Force On Force figures and are still less than halfway through my first can).

So these are the figures I've been painting during odd moments over the last week or so. I'm not quite sure why I started collecting unarmed Victorian Civilian figures - in fact I started before I ever had any thought of switching from 15mm to 28mm. A few scattered around a battlefield might add a bit of colour to proceedings. They are a mix of manufacturers (Foundry, Westwind, Eureka, Blue Moon, Parroom Station). In keeping with my own personal vision of the 19th century, I've gone for a slightly brighter palette than you normally see for Victoriana miniatures, but this matches the "toy soldier" look I use for the troops. The two sets of photos show the "before" with just the base colour coats and "after" immediately after applying the Quickshade. Personally I don't physically dip my minis, as the approved Army Painter technique of "shaking off the excess" seems to just be a recipe for wastage. Instead I take a size 8 brush and dip it about 5mm into the Quickshade, and apply that brushload to the front of the figure, then pick up a similar brushload and apply it to the back. I then spend 5 mins spreading the varnish and stain around, mopping up any excessive sized pools and generally neatening up the results.

The results? You often hear naysayers claim they could easily get the same results and better using ink washes and conventional techniques, so what's special about this "magic dip"? But they miss the point... I cannot get figures looking as good as this using those other techniques. And I certainly couldn't paint any significant numbers in a reasonable length of time. If you can, then bully for you, but if I want to get the painted white metal onto the gaming table, then this is the method that works best for me.

So there I am, wincing as I strain my eyes to focus on the figure, jerkily waving the brush in what I hope is roughly the right area for the part I'm trying to paint and hoping I'll be able to tidy it up later. I'm doing what most other figure painters would consider only a quarter of the job, and falling back on a speedpainting "cheat" that gives passable wargames-quality results. At no part in the process do I feel like I'm having "fun", and yet, overall, I'm finding it strangely enjoyable and relaxing.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

And if anyone should ask me the reason why I'm wearing it..

I haz a hat.

One of the things I particularly wanted to pick up from The Asylum weekend was a pickelhaube, and I was delighted to find one for a not unreasonable price - I could have had the same for £9 cheaper from eBay, but I'm not going to quibble.

I understand that the wearing of hats remains a deeply divisive issue amongst the wargaming community.

Some may consider it to cheapen or demean the serious competitive sport that is modern tournament-level wargaming. How can outsiders take our game of toy soldiers seriously, they say, if you're wearing a silly hat?

Personally, I'm not sure how I'm supposed to command my Germanic legions in the invasion of England if I don't have a nice spiky helmet to get me into character as General Manfred von Rumpelhoffen. That's just crazy moon talk.

Joking aside, there is something about wearing (in)appropriate headwear to a game that says "I'm here to have fun, first and foremost." I just can't imagine myself getting into a heated rules argument while wearing a pith helmet. If you're umpiring a game, wearing a silly hat can also serve to set you apart from the other players and through some subtle subconscious cues help reinforce your authority in some ways.

It doesn't need to be expensive. Unless like me you're cursed with a freakishly capacious cranium, fancy dress hats for as little as a few pounds can be useful. eBay is full of military surplus headgear in various styles, along with historical reproductions like my Pickelhaube. sells pith helmets in several styles, along with helmet badges for the 24th Foot if you want the full Zulu war look (mine has been adorned with a pair of carting goggles for less than a fiver). Remember you're not looking for something to satisfy the Historical Accuracy mafia, just something that makes you feel a little bit closer to the era of the game you're playing. My pickelhaube is based on an 1891 pattern, but that won't stop me wearing it for the next battle in my 188x invasion of England.

Which brings me round to the upcoming wargame calendar. The GASLIGHT game planned for last Sunday obviously got canned as I was tied up with family duty, so I'm going to try to re-arrange something for the next MAWS Sunday which will be in two weeks time. Whether it's GASLIGHT or another try at Force On Force (now that we think we understand what the authors were trying to say) is undecided.

PS.... I've just noticed something... see that photo above.. you know the one of the dashing fellow in the helmet. Look right... see the old guy talking to the girl in the black dress. See that old guy? That's Wilf Lunn, ladies and gentlemen, who was one of the guests of honour at the Asylum weekend in Lincoln. If you're British and of a certain age like me, you'll remember him from vintage children's TV shows like Vision On and Jigsaw, where he was always portraying the Mad Scientist demonstrating his latest inventions. Despite being... what he must be about nine hundred years old now... Wilf was still active and spritely when he appeared at The Asylum and I'm terribly sorry that I wasn't able to attend his lecture/presentation.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Message in a bottle

If anyone is wondering about the lack of posts... On my way back from a pleasant weekend visiting the Nineteenth Century, the time machine has broken down stranding me in the early Twentieth, in a savage and uncivilised time before blogs. Fortunately I have a plentiful supply of tea to sustain me.

Or put another way, my arrival home coincided with my Dad collapsing and being rushed to hospital, so I am currently drafted in as full-time carer for my Mum, with no internet access. Since there's a chance this arrangement may, to some degree or other, become semi-permanent, I'm ordering broadband for my parents home, but this will be a couple of weeks away at the earliest. In the meantime when free from family duties I'm assembling and painting some of the steam tanks I have in the queue, and trying to make inroads into the Victorian Civilians collection.

Chin up, stiff upper lip and all that!

Saturday, 10 September 2011

We got... steam heat.

Quick post - the Asylum weekend is turning out to be absolutely splendid. UK steampunks are an astonishingly friendly community who are just as welcoming to n00bs like myself with scraped together costumes. The weather is holding at a nice compromise between oppressive heat and a nice cooling wind, with only a few minutes of rain so far. Which makes for splendid promenading weather.

There will be more details forthcoming in a later post, including some pictures. Plus some vitally important hat-related news. Stay Tuned!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Over the hills and far away..

I'm writing this post from a B&B in Lincoln, where I'm attending the Asylum UK Steampunk Convivial. I must confess to being more than a little apprehensive at the prospect, as despite my love of VSF I'm not really much into the steampunk subculture, which owes as much to the goth scene as it does HG Wells. I'm afraid my humble attempts at the mandatory costuming look pitiful next to those more into the scene, despite having assistance from a self-styled Crafting Queen. The weekend's official programme seems to have absolutely no gaming content whatsoever, although I have been tasked with running a semi-impromptu RPG session tomorrow while we're waiting for the event to formally open.

We have a GASLIGHT game pencilled in for next Sunday at Manchester Area Wargames Society, this time open to anyone who wants to join in (with certain limits, one must keep the riff-raff out, you understand.) While it's going to be too short notice to get either the slum housing or the Fenians or Russians ready to play, I'm hoping to get at least a couple of new vehicles into play for the existing factions. The Brits have a couple of mini tankettes formerly made by Ground Zero Games, the Germans have the Scheltrum "Armoured Pullman" while the Evil Genius forces has the heavily modified Iron Drake from the Scotia Grendel fantasy line, augmented with a turret from Ramshackle Games "Tridlins" catalogue, plus hopefully the converted Brass Coffin model, based/blatantly copied from Papa Midnight's conversion.

As research for my upcoming Fenian army, I've just re-read the Stars and Stripes trilogy by Harry Harrison. It's an alternate history novel which diverges from our history early in the American Civil War. Through bad diplomacy and a sequence of unlikely events, North and South re-unite to give the British Empire a good kicking, pausing only to liberate Ireland before invading England and kicking out the monarchy in order to impose their version of democracy.

You'd think this story would be full of excellent inspiration for VSF wargames, but you'd be wrong. Harrison is reputed to be very anti-British in real life, and this comes blaring through in the books. Every single British character is portrayed as incompetent, bigoted, rude and completely unable to adapt to new ideas. Queen Victoria is portrayed as a drooling semi-imebecile, every British politician a jingoistic warmonger. The British soldiers stationed in Mexico are portrayed as completely unable to adapt to a hot climate, despite having redeployed there from India. I think it's accurate to say that in all three books there is not one positive adjective ever applied to a character from the British side.

Compare and contrast the Americans, who are all peace-loving but uber-competent visionary professionals, who instantly adapt to the new technologies of war that debuted in the Civil War. After promptly setting aside any "misunderstandings" over the whole messy slavery business, they instantly re-equip all their forces with repeating rifles, a seemingly unlimited supply of Gatling guns and a brand new class of nigh-unsinkable and surprisingly seaworthy Ironclad Monitors. Harrison sets up his scenario to give the Americans every single possible advantage, and as a result they steamroller the Brits in every encounter. USS Monitor meets HMS Warrior, the Royal Navy's most advanced ironclad, in a perfect storm of favourable circumstances.

What rankles a little is that Harrison seems to flirt briefly with some potentially meaty plot elements, only to quickly move on to more one dimensional "British bad, America good" ranting. The problems of the South reintegrating into the Union are teased at briefly, with a major plot twist in the first book, which is then instantly forgotten. The centuries of ill feeling between Catholics and Protestant in Ireland are steamrollered over once the Americans declare Ireland liberated and the complaints of the minority Protestants are mentioned then immediately brushed aside. The final pages of the book show the Americans in the conquered Republic of England (having also broken the union with Scotland) casting their eyes eastward to mainland Europe and speculating whether at some point they too would need "sorting out",
And then despite blatantly loading all the dice in America's favour and displaying a clear ignorance of some of the warfighting technology he describes (grapeshot being effective at a range of over a mile, in the first shot of the Battle of Hampton Roads, no less), in an interview included at the end off the first book, Harrison piously proclaims that his story is exactly how it would have happened.

The best way, I've found, to enjoy the Stars and Stripes series is to ignore Harrison's claims that he's writing Alternate History. He's not. He's actually writing a pastiche of the "Coming War" genre that was extremely popular in the late 19th century. In it, writers would postulate some new and revolutionary warfighting technology or method that would be used to finally vanquish the enemy. HG Wells' "The Land Ironclads" is one such story, as is "The Battle of Dorking". I've read a couple of other examples, one German and one American, in which the British were the enemy, their traditional-bound military completely unable to resist the new and scientific methods of warfare used against them, leading to a series of one-sided slaughters. The Stars and Stripes book match this tone down to the smallest detail.

The other way to get the most out of the Stars and Stripes books is to put them down and instead read Harry Turtledove's "How Few Remain", from a Harry who really knows how to write alternate history. After the South survives the Civil War intact, a second civil war flares up in the 1880s. Turtledove looks at the impact of a lot of the same new technology as Harrison, but does so in a much more convincing narrative. The fighting in 1881 becomes a grim foreshadowing of the trench warfare of WW1, which Turtledove would go on to cover extensively in the Great War series which follows on from events in this novel. But How Few Remain stands up well as a rollicking piece of war fiction in its own right, despite its intended role as an introduction to the three alt-history series that followed on from it.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin' glass

First off, thanks to Willie for becoming this blog's 14th follower. I'm not *that* superstitious, but seeing the blog stuck on 13 followers for so long did have me reaching for the lucky rabbit's foot.

As ever, the weekend took an abrupt left turn. Jonesy, (mi hermano paternal) came round on Sunday in what's evolved into a regular wargaming painting/crafting session and we decided to go to work on the victorian slum housing project, which sadly won't be ready for the next planned wargame in two weeks time, but will be ready for the game after that. We've settled on cork tiles as the building material of choice and decided on a couple of points that had me stalled. Jonesy made a start on two of the corner buildings (a pub and a shop) while I focussed on pavements and progressing the three terraced house blocks that were in various stages of construction.

Today is once again family duty, so I'm going to try to use the time to assemble the four base boards, covering them with cobblestone paper and painting them 0n both sides.

Next weekend is the Asylum, the UK Steampunk Convivial, and along with Jonesy and a large chunk of our gaming group I've been persuaded to attend. I'm not really keen on the steampunk scene, nor does my physique really lend itself to cosplay, but I have a rather nice plastron-style shirt and black trousers with a uniform-style red stripe, both crafted for me by one of our gaming group, plus of course it will be an excellent excuse to wear a pith helmet in public. If nothing else it will be an opportunity to enjoy the chap-hop stylings of Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer and Professor Elemental MC. Although those two rivals are playing on different nights of the weekend, one lives in hope that we might yet see the steampunk rap-battle of the (19th) century.

Friday, 2 September 2011

I hear you knocking...

Had a response at last from Peggy at Ambush Alley games. She's of the opinion that my application to join the forum got flagged as a spammer and blocked, and has asked me to resubmit.

Oh well, third time's the charm, eh?

I have often walked down this street before

Another week dominated by Family Duty I'm afraid, where wargaming was relegated to a back seat.

I'm still waiting for those fine fellows at Ambush Alley Games to approve my joining the AA forums so I can ask for confirmation that we're now on the right track with the rules. Since I first applied to join the forum back in March and still hadn't received confirmation that my account had been activated, I registered anew on Monday. Usually these sorts of things only take a day or so, but four days later and I've still heard nothing, despite polite emails to the forum administrator.

The modern 15mm/20mm debate still rages on. I've dugout the figures I ordered from Rebel at the start of the year (plus a few from Peter Pig, QRF, The Scene and the Irregular Miniatures figures I already had). Together they make a decently sized lead mountain. Combined with my old 15mm SF figure collection, all of which need stripping, rebasing and repainting, they make a sizeable lead mountain range.

15mm = I already have loads
1/72 or 20mm = I have a small selection of figures (bought as pedestrians for Hot Wheels-scale autoduelling games)... BUT

15mm = I'm collecting solo
20mm= I have another gamer nearby in the same scale.

15mm = cheaper and easier to assemble wargaming vehicles vs plastic kits
20mm = even chaper die-cast toys for civilian vehicles and technicals (there are more 1/72 compatible Matchbox/Hot Wheels than 15mm compatible.) Also 00 scale model railway scenery and equipment. BUT likely to be missing key vehicle types, which would need to be bought as more expensive plastic kits.

Brain still hurting......

In happier news, on my one free day this week I visited Lark Hill Place at the Salford Museum. It's a reconstruction of a Victorian street that I had the vaguest memory of visiting when I was a small child. With no knowledge of where it was, and looking for a bit of Victoriana inspiration, I decided to try to find it for a revisit. After finding numerous similar streets dotted around the country, I managed to find it, located on the campus of my old Alma Mater no less. So on Wednesday I trotted down there.

The museum itself has four galleries and a library in addition to the Lark Hill exhibit. There's not much in the way of exposition available - you basically walk onto the street and it is what it is, with no signs or information about what you're looking at. The lighting on the street is also kept very low, giving the impression of a murky, gaslit night. This makes taking photographs very difficult, as the light is too low for modern digital camera's preview screens to pick anything up without the flash, so you're reduced to point & pray. I've enhanced the photo attached to this post considerably so you can see some of the detail in the scene.

Finally the buildings are all copies of buildings from around Salford and Manchester (or in some cases, the actual building frontages themselves, salvaged when the buildings were being demolished). Because they are from different areas, you have a wide disparity of building styles - the polished Georgian stone of an upper-class townhouse right next to the crude brickwork of a blacksmith's shop.

Though I did honestly find it a bit of a disappointment, I did pick up some useful tips, like the way the guttering was fixed to the walls and how narrow the pavements are. I was also happy to note that the pavement was raised slightly above the road. Nowhere near as high as a modern kerb, but noticeable nonetheless, which makes my plan of having building with pavements resting on top of a cobblestone base a perfectly acceptable one.

Plans for the weekend - start painting the VSF Fenians that I undercoated last week, make a decision on the 15mm/20mm modern question and put together a couple of forces for the Paradiso army & rebels for Force On Force.