Monday, 19 May 2014

Did you ever know that you're my hero?

One of the low points of being absent from any particular scene for a period of time is finding out all the significant things that you've missed.

I've just learned that wargaming pioneer and titan Donald Featherstone passed away last September.  Arguably the primus inter pares of the UK wargaming boom of the 60s and 70s, Don was a prolific author, covering all aspects of the hobby, and in later years focussing more on general military history.  In the days before the commercialisation of the hobby, his books were an absolute treasure trove of rules and ideas that wargamers could dive into and harvest for things to improve their own wargames.

I can't credit Don with introducing me to the hobby.  That honour goes to Charles Grant with his book "Battle: Practical Wargaming" which I found in the local children's library when I was about ten.  But the quest for more of this strange new hobby led me to the "grown ups" libray where a selection of Don's books lay waiting to be discovered.  Over the following fifteen years many of those books spent more time on my bookshelf than the library's, and when the 21st century world of internet trading, coincided with me having a healthy disposable income, tracking down my own copy of Solo Wargaming became the first "money is no object" quest I'd ever undertaken.

(Ironically, after securing a copy for a sum that would make my frugal father weep, the book was republished in inexpensive paperback as part of John Curry's History of Wargaming project.  I regret nothing however - the original hardback is a thing of beauty, and occasionally browsing it brings me great joy, whereas for day to day practical reading I can hammer the paperback guilt-free)

I think it was the fact that Don Featherstone and his contemporaries brought me into wargaming that has kept me from fully embracing the modern commercialised hobby.  The idea of buying big glossy rules tied tightly to a particular range of figures, where everything is strictly regulated and spoon-fed to you by the creator, is entirely anathema to me.  In the world of the wargame as commodity, who actually owns your game?  When a new army codex or rules edition automatically triggers a buying spree so you can "stay current", who's playing who?  How much real creativity are you able to bring to the wargaming table?

Featherstone's books come from an era before you could simply go out and buy a set of wargames rules, much less a matching range of figures.  The reader was expected to take the frameworks the books offered and build on them finding their own inspirations.  There are still a number of gamers keeping this spirit alive, such as the 18th century "imagi-Nations" crowd.  In fact, I'd consider many of you who read and comment on this blog to be part of this independent-minded tradition.

So while belatedly saluting the passing of a wargaming great, let me also raise a glass to you, the inheritors of Don Featherstone and his ilk.  Throw down the green cloth over some books on the dining table, grab a selection of figures.  Remember infantry move 6", cavalry 12", muskets hit on a 5 or 6 at up to 6", or a 6 at up to 12".  Fill in the rest of the rules as needed in the spirit of fair play and common sense.  Then come back and tell me that somehow wasn't as much fun as playing from a big glossy £40 hardback rulebook with full colour pictures?

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Lend me your ear and I'll sing you a song, and I'll try not to sing out of key.

Thanks to everyone for the kind words of support.  I see I'm not the only wargamer in this particular circle to be visited by the "Black Dog", which by the way is an absolutely perfect description for the benefit of those of you lucky enough not to be familiar with that particular bitch.

To answer a couple of your queries and comments - I am still "under the doctor" for the after effects of the January flu, so the physical health side is slowly being taken care of.  Seeking professional help for the depression is more problematic - we don't have the same "therapy culture" in the UK as the US, and I know that the local NHS Mental Health services are overloaded with people with far worse problems than mine.  I'm confident and determined that I can sort myself out "with a little help from my friends" as the song says, so that's the path I'm choosing to try first.  That said, I'd be the first to tell anyone else in my situation "talk to your doctor."  Just like any other faintly embarrassing symptom.  Blood in your stool?  Talk to your doctor.  Coughing for three weeks or more?  Talk to your doctor.  Feeling like you want to just lie down and wait for the end?  Talk to your doctor.  Nine times out of ten it's overwhelmingly the right thing to do.  For me, right here right now, it's definitely Plan B

I'm lucky enough to have a great network of friends who I know will give me a ton of support.  For example in his comment r1ckatkinson made reference to one of the reasons the Big Birthday Bash didn't happen last year - a group of friends clubbed together to buy me an hour's "discovery flight"with the local flying school, which became the focus of the birthday weekend.  Or how about earlier in the year when a different subset of friends turned up unannounced on my doorstep bearing meat and charcoal for a surprise barbecue.

But with that all said, I want to reassure everyone that this isn't going to turn into a mental health blog or a general "dear diary".  The focus at the Axis of Naughtiness is going to stay firmly on wargaming, more specifically the highs and lows of being a grown-up, non-commercial wargamer.  Part of that is that sometimes other real-world things get in the way of rolling dice, and that's something we have to contend with.

So on with the gaming news, and this evening when Mi Hermano Cartero Jonesy arrived for our weekly "Boys' video night"* bearing a huge and suspiciously heavy box.  Dave, our mutual friend (and reader of this blog) had been downsizing his wargame collection in preparation for a house move, and was forced to find a new home for his old England Invaded collection, which he very kindly gifted to me.  If you haven't heard of it, England Invaded was a wargame and figure line from Wessex Games that was essentially a steampunk World War I .  I'd used some of their early war Germans as Zeptruppen for GASLIGHT, and on the whole they're rather nice and very inexpensive figures.

Dave had already passed on some odds and sods to me, some half painted sky pirates and some plastic toy vehicles, but the box tonight held the motherlode.  Over a hundred assorted figures, British and German, fully based and painted. About the same number of unpainted Turks, Arabs and Boers intended for an ANZACS type game.  Three plastic vehicles, resembling GW Rhino APCS though I suspect they're copies from the ill-fated Havok wargame from Bluebird Toys.  And finally ten... count them TEN of the Havok "dreadnought" style mecha - the same type that I've used in GASLIGHT as Professor Pondsmith's Perpendicular Perambulating Powersuits (or P5s for short).

Although Stahlhelms and Brodie helmets don't mesh well aesthetically with the Pickelhaube and Home Service helmets of my existing VSF armies, my mind's still buzzing at possible ways I can use these figures.  The khaki-clad British could easily be matched against my regular VSF Germans in Prussian Blue.  Either side could work well against the Fenians or the Evil League of Evil and many of my Victorian civilian figures will be quite usable as Edwardians.   On their own, the England Invaded figures would give a different feel of game to the "Victorian techno-fantasy" I normally aim for, with man-portable heavy weapons and machine guns.  I've also somewhere got a bag of plastic "Mutant Chronicle" figures, whose uniforms were inspired by WWI British and Germans, which should make for decent "shocktrooper" types.  Beyond all that, the Havok  mecha are worth their weight in gold by themselves.

Needless to say Dave, if you're reading this, thank-you, thank-you, thank-you.  Rest assured these figures are going to be put to good use, possibly sooner rather than later.

As if that wasn't enough, as he was leaving Mark also handed over another box, this one containing what looks like a Lego ghost pirate ship, possibly modelled after Davy Jones' ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  Another princely gift, which will join the half dozen other ships I have stockpiled for a future conversion project "one day".

Finally, the wargaming gang are going to Sheffield Triples on Sunday, and I'm tagging along with them.  There's nothing I particularly want to see or buy there, having more than enough of every kind of hobby-related "stuff" to keep me busy.  But who knows what might turn up there, or where inspiration may strike?

(*I still call it that, though both of us are well on the leeward side of forty summers!)

Thursday, 1 May 2014

I ain't got nothing but the blues.

Has it been so long?

I've been on the receiving end of some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) prompting in the last ten months to blog again. The truth is that I just didn't have anything to say. The man-cave lies empty and unused, primed figures lined up on the painting table awaiting detailing that never came. Resin vehicles lie in pieces. Last year's Big Birthday Bash failed to happen, and I think in all this time I've rolled dice in exactly one wargame (which was a rather entertaining skirmish in which my Redcoats came within a hair's breadth of capturing Bonnie Prince Charlie as he fled for France).

It's an uncomfortable truth that for many of us, our passion for our hobby runs in cycles. I think that as gamers it's important that we not only understand why we play (war)games, but also why we don't. As a matter of fact, the blogosphere is the perfect place to observe this phenomenon, Prolific posters go silent like I did all the time. Sometimes it's down to other "real life" matters taking up too much time (also known as "MyWifeOrderedMeToStopPlayingWithToySoldiers Syndrome") Sometimes one hobby is supplanted by another, pursued with an equal depth of passion.

Sometimes you just stop.

For me, it's been a mix of all these things (apart from the wife bit). In the 16 months since I lost my father and, at the time, my reason for living, I've been battling an ever increasing sense of... apathy, I suppose that's the closest word to describe it. In some ways I've been making progress to return to the "real world", such as taking a temporary contract at my former employer covering for someone's paternity leave. I became involved with a local cancer charity, and made moves to become a volunteer. I've also dabbled in another media - that of making YouTube videos, but that too has fallen by the wayside.

I've also had a significant health issue - a bout of flu early in the year. And not the "really bad cold" that most of us call flu, but the "kills 20-50k people per year" influenza that had me bedridden for a week, unable to work for a month and still dealing with follow-on issues three months later.

Through all that time, wargaming just never quite made it onto the list of priorities, at least not enough to do anything about it. The sheer hassle of digging out figures and terrain and setting up a tabletop seems daunting at the moment. The Bonnie Prince Charlie game came about as a long-term project of Bruce the Scot's, all I had to do was turn up, move miniatures and roll dice. No effort required, and still it took the effort of a few friends to literally drag me out of the house to go and play.

And yet curiously, at the same time, I've still considered myself a wargamer throughout. I took part in the Empire Of The Dead kickstarter which netted a really nice batch of VSF/Steampunk miniatures. I've bought several kits of airship frameworks in laser-cut MDF, with a view to extending the GASLIGHT games into the third dimension. All with exactly ZERO motivation to actually use any of these things.

By now some of you are no doubt putting two and two together. And yes, I think you're right. Were I to seek diagnosis, I'm almost certain it would come back that I'm suffering from some form of clinical depression, something that's no stranger to many of us. I don't want to do anything. Anything. At All. Worse than that, I feel bad about not wanting to do anything, which plunges right into a vicious circle of apathy. And in turn that's leading on to a form of borderline agoraphobia.

Luckily, even without the benefit of professional diagnosis or therapy, I can see this pattern of behaviour and recognise it as being Double-Plus-Ungood. So while I feel like I want to do nothing at all, just sit alone at home curled up in a corner waiting for the end, yet I know that's the worst thing I could possibly do. Of all the activities I've participated in in the last few years, wargaming is by far the most social, and has the potential to be the perfect tonic for what's ailing me. What's more, I know from past experience that having a semi-regular gaming session is great motivator for doing housework, something else that's fallen foul of the growing apathy in recent months.

So I'm determined to set myself back on track towards where I was 2-3 years ago. The time and effort required to setup a game feels like a great barrier wall, but it's one I'm determined to climb over, demolish or otherwise get past.

I *will* get some figure painting done.
I *will* setup the big table and have a 6'x4' scale wargame somehow.
There *will* be a Big Birthday Bash this year.

We *will* rise again.