Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Enigma Variations....Part 3

The Airfix polythene Tiger 1 - much coveted 'back in the day'

I am experiencing that circular kind of feeling, you know, that Deja vu kind of thing. Way back in the early 1970s when I first dabbled in wargames my resources were very limited. My family circumstances were very modest and money was never plentiful. My mother was bringing up three of us on her own with yours truly being the eldest so hobby 'stuff' was low on the list of our budgetary requirements.. Figures and models were rarities and limited to birthday presents and Christmas, with the odd acquisition as the result of my paper round. The Isle of Sheppey, located in the Thames estuary(where I come from), did not have a model shop although there were a couple of toy shops that stocked Airfix kits and figures, not to mention a gift shop at Leysdown that did the same. The nearest model shops were on the mainland at Sittingbourne. The only magazine I was aware of was Military Modelling and so I used to buy that when I could. 

The Airfix Pontoon Bridge Assault Set - complete with British Commandoes assaulting early war German Infantry ably assisted by Patton and Centurion tanks and that rather mysterious SP Gun (I never did find out what it was based on)

In order to wargame then I needed to eke out my finances and make do with what I had to hand. In short, I needed to improvise. I can remember using Lego bricks as troop blocks and scratchbuilding tanks and buildings for my games from a combination . The results may not have won any awards but they served a purpose. In the games I fought they were real enough. The release of the Airfix polythene vehicle range was a major boon for my WW2 games – even if the range was initially a little odd. I happily used vehicles as whatever was needed so the Patton tank served in most armies until the Tiger and the T34 made an appearance. The SP was used by everyone and the 25pdr with tractor was used for pretty much any type of towed artillery or anti-tank gun. I never used the tank transporter or the landing craft though. The point I am trying to make is that I was happy enough using models for things other than what they were as I had little choice. Did the games suffer for this? Absolutely not! In fact it was quite handy as it meant that a particular vehicle could serve in any army – rather like Hollywood in a way. I was reminded of this when I recently watched The Battle of the Bulge for the umpteenth time - M48s as King Tigers anyone? 

Gradually as the finances improved through a variety of pocket money jobs and so I was able to add into the mix some ‘proper’ models and other equipment. Sadly this came at a price as with this new found ‘maturity’ came the gradual descent into 1980s ‘rivet counting’ rules. 

Fast forward to the present day and after I have divested myself of my rose-tinted spectacles I find myself on the brink of doing something vaguely similar but with the benefit of over 40 odd years of wargaming ‘experience’. I have abandoned the rivet counting of yesteryear and so for my 20th century games I will use the blocks and make do with what models I can get to use alongside them. This would not work for many people but suits me to a tee as I generally fight most of my games on a solo basis. It will also make battle reports a little easier on the eye. 

It does not mean I am abandoning figures and models entirely – it is just that in order to satisfy a certain requirement this is the solution I shall adopt. 
An example of some painted Axis and Allies game pieces

The pieces included in the Axis and Allies series of games also feature a number of ships. Each of the major powers fields a carrier, a battleship, a cruiser, a destroyer, a submarine and a merchantman. These are not consistent in terms of scale but are quite obvious as to what they represent. There also a number of nation specific types available from a couple of suppliers which are useful to fill some gaps in the range. In fact one could build up a navy with the 'correct' ships being used as intended via these suppliers if desired as long as one bears in mind they are not scaled in anyway but are designed as gaming pieces.
Another supplier of gaming pieces for use with Axis and Allies - the website is on the pictures should you want to take a quick look.

The Soul Searching bit....
If I am honest with myself I believe that I have been pursuing a wargaming blind alley for years now. I am unlikely to paint great armies of figures - it has little appeal to me for a variety of reasons - or huge fleets of ships (I have tried both) and it many ways this has held me back from my enjoyment of fighting wargames. I do not believe you need to use figures or models to have a good wargame - all you need is a little imagination and a gaming medium that works for you. I want to fight table top battles using whatever I need to - be it detailed models, cardboard counters, wooden blocks or gaming pieces with the proviso that if any models are used then they should be painted.
So there you have it.


Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Enigma Variations....Part 2

The playing pieces from the current 1942 edition of Axis and Allies. For more details check out the link below.

As is my want I briefly mentioned in my last blog post about the potential solution I may have for 20th century games using my block armies. It is rather unconventional but then probably no more so than using blocks with 3D terrain is!

There is no doubt that our friends across the pond are very well served in respect of spare parts for board games. From counters and variant counters, extra maps, dice, play sheets and rules the chances are you will be able to find someone that can supply spares if required. The same is also true of playing pieces - both for the 'official' versions and any of any of the myriad variants that a popular game will inevitably spawn.

Axis and Allies is lightweight WW2 grand strategy boardgame originally produced by MB Games and more recently under the Avalon Hill label as part of Wizards of the Coast (who in turn are owned by Hasbro). The game typically features a substantial quantity of fairly modestly detailed miniatures depicting the playing units. Infantry aside there are vehicles including tanks, various artillery types (usually field and AA). a selection of naval pieces and aircraft. These are modelled to look nationality specific and are fairly generic looking. From a scale perspective they are not consistent and are made from soft plastic. More detailed models that are far more readily recognisable are available from Historical Boardgaming and are 3D printed in a harder plastic.

So here is my idea. I will try and pick up a cheap second hand set of the game - I doubt very much if I will ever play it as is - and will use the miniatures to support the blocks. There are a number of examples of painted pieces in use on the net and they look very effective. This means I will wargame using a combination of blocks and miniatures.

I did say it was unconventional....

The ship pieces are very intriguing and I have something in mind for them as well - especially when one makes use of some of the variant pieces that are available.

Lets be honest, when fighting a 20th century naval game one does not need to use models at all. In fact, using models rather fudges the issue as they are hugely over scale for the average tabletop. We use models because we can and because they look good and even I will admit to enjoying painting them (as long as they are plain grey that is....). The ship models from Axis and Allies (NOT their collectible naval game but the one above) tick a number of boxes for me as they are functional game pieces that can be used in a relatively generic way. I should point out that I am fast becoming a generic naval gamer rather than a rivet counter - simply because stressing about minute differences between ship types is a fairly pointless exercise. Major differences should be reflected for sure but this can be tackled easily enough and without the angst-ridden soul-searching I have usually undertaken.

Visually there are certain design features that serve to reflect the national identity of a warship and as long as these are present on the model in some way that should suffice for gaming purposes. Virtually every set of naval rules I have used makes use of a ship record card for damage and performance so in reality (and in my opinion) this is the main focus of how well a ship is (or isn't doing) - not the model on the table.

At this point I can hear the sharpening of pitchforks and piling of logs taking place....

I will post in full about this last heretical point in due course.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Enigma Variations....*

Not one of mine (you can thanks Google Images for this) as the blocks in use are Kriegsspiel types. Mine are far more basic although I have the same buildings!

It never ceases to amaze me how spending a short while organising a part of a collection can suddenly turn into a full blown project. I recently decided to revisit the block armies - more as a way to pass some time than with any coherent plan in mind - and lo and behold, I am now moving them into pole position in order to realise a few ideas I have floating around. In truth recent events have made me think about a number of things and so extracting the maximum mileage out of one part of the collection has assumed greater relevance than before.

In respect of my block based wargames I have fought games on both maps and a tabletop. I have used both 2D and 3D terrain and even a mix of the two. All have much to commend them and if I am honest using any variation is fine by me, for my own use it really does not matter. I have also seen games using Command and Colours Napoleonic troop blocks on a tabletop – I have tried the same using Hexon but did not really enjoy the experience as the hexes were too large and the units looked a little lost – which is something perhaps I should also explore.

Command and Colours Napoleonics in action - with the British about to have a challenging day...

I guess the point I am trying to make is that it does not really matter whether you are using blocks on a 2D or a 3D basis as long as you make sure in the latter case that the terrain ‘fits’ from a visual perspective with the size of the blocks you are using. As my blocks have a frontage of 30mm and are around 11mm high then terrain from 10mm and smaller is ideal (not 15mm as I originally thought – most of this is too large). Using a 2D map is fine although I would tend to use this for more 'open' games - scrunched up contour lines or an intensive road network with lots of urban development strains the use of blocks in my opinion, we are closer to boardgames at this point.

The biggest challenge - aside from the use of the appropriately aesthetic terrain - with using blocks remains the need for a clear narrative of what the action is actually representing – the same of course is equally true when reading an account of a battle supported by a map. Again this is something I have touched on before as previously my battle reports ranged from highly detailed to bare bones like. The latter meant that the in game pictures were a little tricky to follow. From my perspective they all made perfect sense but I freely concede that the supporting narrative should have been a lot clearer.

These are my basic block types although I have added 'heavy' and 'light' to the cavalry, artillery and infantry blocks. 'Heavy types have a thick black bar along the bottom edge whilst 'Light' have a white bar. I am still not sold on the middle and bottom row though.

I want to take the blocks to the next level in terms of how they are seen when used in a game setting. I am thinking that perhaps using some digital wizardry on any in game pictures may help – movement direction arrows, damage inflicted, that kind of thing. Coupled with text that is closer to the point of action will also help.

So there is still much to think about with this collection and if I am honest it is currently dominating my thoughts. I will have a rather novel solution to the 20th century angle though - this will form a post later in the week.

* The use of blocks rather than figures is of course an 'Enigma' and I am discussing 'Variations' of the same. Edward Elgar would understand....

Sunday, 14 January 2018

A Portable Wargame Table

The table deployed - it measures very slightly under 2ft by slightly over 3ft and is about the height of a coffee table

The same table ready to pack away as the legs are not fixed - they merely slot into the corners on the underside when fully extended. The table currently lives down the side of the freezer in the utility room!

Many years ago - by my reckoning at least ten - I acquired the above table from a boot sale for the princely sum of two pounds. It was had been built by the chap I purchased it from and was originally designed to be used as a card table. It had been covered in green baize that was very tatty around the edges so I duly removed this and recovered it with a model railway sticky backed grass mat from a model shop. I had always intended to use this for wargames but for some reason never got around to doing so. The table has however, seen a lot of action as it is the family gaming table so comes out for cards and boardgames at Christmas whilst SWMBO and I use it for our occasional Scrabble battles.

I had been debating about gridding the table on and off for sometime now but am going to leave it as it is. I have a number of plans for the type of games I will use it for and reckon that the block armies will be making an appearance on it in the not too distant future. It could readily be used for a DBA/HOTT style game or even for some non grid based Portable Wargames. If I really needed to have a grid on it I would probably go for the sticky paper dots one finds in stationers or possibly some carefully placed terrain. The blocks do look good on it though....

Saturday, 13 January 2018

2D or not 2D, That is the question....Part 1

Using blocks on a free table - not a grid in sight!

Examples of block types from Kriegspiel

The more traditional use of Kriegspiel blocks on a map

One of the main reasons I went to the trouble of making my block armies was to enable me to fight games covering a variety of periods without having to invest time and money in multiple ranges of figures. I am an avid student of military history but a reluctant painter of figures so tackling new periods would usually mean a lot of time and effort which is frankly beyond my fickle nature. The blocks were successful without a doubt and fulfilled their intended use beyond my expectations. They are not perfect by any means - I am quite sure someone who is a better with graphic design software than I could produce far more readily attractive labels - but they hit the spot for my needs.

Traditionally Kriegspiel blocks would be used on a two dimensional basis using a map or a hand drawn layout. Indeed, I have received suggestions along the lines of using board game terrain tiles for my games on a flat playing area - a good idea but not quite what I want to do. 

If you look at the top picture you will see a game that someone has set up using troop blocks and three dimensional terrain on a normal playing area - essentially off the grid so to speak. I really liked the clean lines of this approach and the terrain gelled with the use of the blocks in a very pleasing way. Mind you, I also rather liked the action being fought in the bottom picture as well.

I believe that by using a careful selection of representative terrain - I am thinking of the 'Town in a Bag' buildings or my holiday collection of Greek buildings - I am thinking that my games will capture that all important '3D Map' look I am aiming for. It will also mean that I can use a far greater selection of rules than currently as everything I have been gaming has tended to be Command and Colours or Portable Wargaming based.

I intend conducting a few experiments using my block armies 'off the grid' so to speak and will be exploring using blocks on a map and also with 3D terrain to see how they look. I will also be drawing maps to fight over and this will certainly take me back to my early days of wargaming. The hand drawn maps though will certainly have an advantage in terms of practicality as they will be very easy to store and will be instantly reusable.

Something else to think about then

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

And now for something completely different....

The Old Guard in MDF no less....

I came across something rather novel being produced by a company called Commission Figurines which, inevitably, got me thinking. Essentially, as well as a very nice selection of terrain pieces the company have launched a range of 6mm MDF figures. That’s right – MDF. At present Napoleonics and ACW are available and the first of an Ancient range is being launched. These are quite intriguing to look at and certainly give the whole ‘wooden poses’ concept some mileage. Presumably due to limitations of production the figures are fairly static looking but that rather adds to the charm in an old fashioned way. The figures are laser cut from 2mm thick MDF and have detail etched into the surface of the figure which adds to the ease of painting. These are for all intents and purposes ‘flats’ and therefore are a whole lot easier to get ready for action (no offence intended for the ‘flat’ painters amongst us….). 

The poses are quite rigid which works well for certain periods, in fact they put me in mind of the Histoire and Collections uniform plates. Cost wise they are fairly cheap - £2 will get you around 96 foot including command, 30 odd mounted or 6 guns and crews with limbers. 

Curiosity has gotten the better of me and so I have placed a small order for some, just to see how they paint up. The thought crossed my mind that you may well be able to get away with a black wash undercoat and then blocking in colours with ink or paint pens rather than using a brush.  

En masse they look pretty impressive and I believe a review appeared in the January edition of Wargames Illustrated.
Sigh....something else to think about....

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Eric Knowles - Resting in Peace

Yesterday, January 5th 2018, we said farewell to Eric Knowles. The funeral took place in the Holy Trinity Church at Tattershall, a short walk from where Eric and wife Ivy had retired to in Coningsby, Lincolnshire.

My travelling companion for the day was John Abbott, a former denizen of the Newham Wargames Club and, as I found out during our six hours on the road, responsible for painting a rather large amount of figures for Eric for the famous Madasahatta campaign. I have known John for almost as long as Chris, Neil, Dave and a host of others from the late 70s and early 80s and we crossed swords over the gaming table on a number of occasions - primarily fighting ancients using WRG 6th edition (of which John was an avid fan).

I must confess that I have never driven further north than Norwich so this was going to be an adventure and no mistake. I should point out that I am a non Sat Nav driver and prefer to navigate by that rather old fashioned method of using a map. I was however very fortunate in that John is far more technologically inclined than I am and so we made use of an app on his phone for the trickiest final part of the journey.

 John is very talkative and quite forthright in his opinions and I value his insight immensely. We shared many memories of the club and Eric and the impact him and Ivy had on our respective lives. It was all to the good and for me anyway, almost a cathartic experience. They say that true friends can be apart for years and when they do eventually meet up it is like no time has passed at all. It was certainly the case with John!

We arrived at Tattershall a good hour and a half before the service was due to start so opted to have something to eat beforehand. John very generously purchased a very nice lunch (there seemed to be no shortage of rather charming looking inns in the area - no doubt the close proximity to an air base may have something to do with it!) and we continued with our respective reminiscing of Eric and the old Newham days. We arrived at the house of Eric’s daughter, Alex, in time to meet with Bill (his son and a former gamer from the Newham days) and the rest of Eric and Ivy’s close family. Alex’s house reminded me of the old haunt in Seven Kings where we had so many Wednesday evening games as it is a homely jumble of Knick-knacks, pictures, strange ornaments and endless cups and mugs of tea. The kind of welcoming place you immediately feel at home in, unpretentious and without ceremony. I had not seen Alec for some thirty years or so but she was just as I remembered her from the old days.

The funeral was in three parts. Firstly there was a service at the Holy Trinity Church which was simple yet moving. There was no fuss or flam and paradiddle - although the organist dropped a few notes (I could imagine Eric having a good chuckle at that - his sense of humour could best be described as irreverent....) - but their were a number of very appropriate touches. As a long serving guide to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Eric was accorded a guard of honour by the fellow volunteers and received a fitting eulogy from Squadron Leader Ian Smith from his days when he commanded the Battle Of Britain Memorial Flight. ‘Smithy’ (as he is known) was able to describe many things about Eric and his life as well a number of amusing anecdotes of his time as a guide in the BBMF. He cheerfully acknowledged the fact that EVERYONE knew was really in charge....I also learned about some of Eric’s war service in the Far East which served as a poignant reminder of not only the debt we owe those of his generation but also of the cost they themselves bore.

The second part of the service was at Boston crematorium and this was originally intended to be for family only. Bill extended the signal honour to both John and I of insisting that we came along as being old and longtime family friends. It was a touching gesture and one that we both appreciated. The service and commital was brief - I should mention that the music we entered by was ‘A modern Major General’ as Eric was a great fan of Gilbert and Sullivan which seemed hugely appropriate. It certainly raised a smile.

After the commital we headed off to a local hostelry for the wake.

The whole thing went well and in truth it really was a celebration of Eric’s life - it was not noticeably sad and everyone had an amusing anecdote or two to tell. His was a full life and I, like many others I know, consider ourselves fortunate to have been even a small part of it.

It was a long day and a tiring one but both John and I were honoured and proud to have been a part of Eric’s send off. 

Our grateful thanks to Bill and the family for allowing us to be a part of the day and my personal thanks to John for his technical ability with an IPhone Sat Nav!