Friday, 17 November 2017

'Old' Doesn't Equal 'Old School'

I have recently invested in a couple of issues of Miniature Wargames, specifically nos. 413 and 415. I bought 413 because it had the first in series of articles by Jon Sutherland, supposedly concerning his overhaul (or 'reinvention') of a set of 1980s rules called Hoplite Warfare. The particular attraction here was the tag that Jon was intending to 'breathe new life' into a set of old school ancients rules. This is exactly the kind of thing I am currently involved in, so I reckoned seeing how someone else did it would be a good thing.

No! Definitely not Old School.

I was to be sadly disappointed. The problem can be easily summarised - the rules Jon was working on were not 'old school' to begin with (they were plainly over-complex and brain numbing), and Jon's development of them, whilst simplifying them a good deal, inevitably wasn't at all old school either. Jon, along with editor John Treadaway, had mistaken 'old' for 'old school', a sad mistake for two such experienced wargamers.

Hoplite Warfare was published in the 1980s. The alarm bells should have rung straight away, because of course no old school rules were published in the 1980s. By this time, the simple 'playing with toy soldiers' approach of genuine old school rules had been replaced by the foolish idea that complication approaching the barely understandable (and occasionally going beyond this into the la-la land of the unplayable) was how sophisticated wargamers did their thing. This process had been started in 1969 with the publication of the 1st edition of the WRG's War Games Rules 1000AD to 500BC ('WRG Ancients' to you and me), and it gathered momentum through the seventies, eighties and into the nineties. Only in the 21st century have we mostly come back to our senses, a process ironically started by the good old WRG with their DBA rules (1990). So note: just because a set of rules was published in 1969, that doesn't necessarily make them old school.

It is actually pretty easy to define what old school rules are - just open a copy of Featherstone's War Games, or Grant's The War Game, or Terry Wise's Introduction To Battlegaming, or Young and Lawford's Charge!. Old school rules are very simple, with a simple structure that is usually move - fire - melee, combined with IGO - UGO (or in other words, players take it in turns to move and fire, but usually melee simultaneously). Abstraction is minimal, the rules are intuitive and easy to understand, casualties are recorded by removing figures. Six-sided dice are used throughout. Modifiers to die rolls are minimal, morale rules likewise, command and control practically non-existent.

The really interesting thing here, at least from my perspective, is that no matter how nostalgic some of us get about these old rules, playing with them in the here and now generally leads to unsatisfying games. One major problem is that they tend to be too simple. They lack the subtlety and granularity of successful modern sets; that is, the ability to bring out all the important aspects and nuances of a particular period whilst remaining fundamentally straightforward, a quality which characterises the best contemporary rules. This emphasises the basic mistake Jon Sutherland and John Treadaway are making - 'breathing new life into' or 'resurrecting' old school rules for our present times would generally mean making them a bit more complex, not reducing their complexity as Jon is doing with Hoplite Warfare

Interestingly enough, I bought issue 415 for a very similar reason to that which tempted me to purchase issue 413 - an article on an 'old school' project, this time by Andy Copestake. The editor chose to call this a 'Retro Project', but fortunately Andy quickly demonstrated he had the right idea about all this old school stuff. At the epicentre of 'old school' stand the toy soldiers, and what we do is play with them. The main rules Andy mentioned were Charge!. And Andy started his article by noting that old school seemed to be back in vogue, which is hardly surprising as most wargamers these days are proud to announce that what they are doing is 'playing with toy soldiers'. 

If old school wargaming is back in vogue (which it most certainly is), it would be best to have the right idea about what 'old school' actually means. I hope I have at least partly put the record straight in this post.

More proper wargaming soon!

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Instant Celtic Warband

Being very pleased with my HCH Figures war elephants, I was immediately interested when HCH started doing a '30% off' sale for a selection of their painted infantry and cavalry packs.

A Celtic-style warband was one of my current 'must haves' for the ancients collection, and I had been intending to purchase the Warlord Games plastic 'Celtic Warriors' set, which offered some very actively posed figures at a good price - not much more than 50p a figure. But then I noticed the HCH 'Celtic Infantry' offer (currently 30% off), and began to be tempted. This set would cost £2.50 per figure, but that would be painted and ready to go. The standard of painting looked very good in the photos.

So I took the plunge, and am very happy that I did. Ordered late morning, arrived next day by Post Office 'signed for'. Thirty-six hours from ordering, my new figures were ready to go. That's the way to collect an army!

Neatly and individually packaged. No damage in transit whatsoever.

Most weapons and shields come separately to aid postage. Assembly was easy.
I was astounded by the quality of the painting for the price charged.

Looking good in 3 ranks. The draco standard I added from the spares box.

How do you hand-paint a shield to that standard? Way beyond my abilities.

Plaid clothing very neatly painted. Even the backs of the shields have some detail.

So, a 24 figure painted unit for £64 including p&p. OK, with the Warlord Games plastics you get 40 figures for £22. But then it would take me a month to paint them, probably longer. With the Tin Soldier unpainted infantry figures costing around £1, you're getting excellent painted figures for an extra £1.50, which is a cracking deal IMHO. Some may feel the Tin Soldier figures lack the animation or elegance of more modern sculpts, but as with the HCH elephants I like the chunky, old-school charm of these chaps. Love the helmets, guys.

There are plenty more to choose from on the HCH site, and not just ancients. Well worth a look.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

'The Ancient Battle of Trimsos'

Well, it's almost exactly a year since I kicked off what I called 'The Trimsos Project' - and now I can claim to have achieved my initial goal. I have the armies and terrain I need to stage a full-blooded re-fight of Donald Featherstone's 'Battle of Trimsos' from 1962, along with some rules that I have developed myself from the Featherstonian originals. The rules are still a work in progress, but they are at least at the stage where you can fight a decent battle with them. This I have now done, staging a re-fight as a solo game the other week, then using my old gaming buddy Paul as a guinea pig for a second game this week.

If by any chance readers are interested in how things have developed over the preceding months, older posts covering the project can be found here, here, or here. As you might have guessed, things took rather longer than I first expected (I had hoped to get to my current position by late summer), but my worst fears of partial or total failure have not been realised. Getting into the complex world of Ancient Wargaming turned out to be a thoroughly absorbing journey which has involved much very enjoyable reading and many hours of modelling. The latter was really rather fun to start with, and although the novelty of turning out units of ancient figures has rather palled recently, overall the painting experience has been good. Now the (self-imposed) pressure is off, I can proceed to expand my armies at a suitably leisurely rate. And when I say expand, I am not going to do anything silly like aim for a large ancients collection. An extra half-a-dozen or so units should suffice to allow plenty of interesting games in the future.

Before continuing with the story of my first Trimsos battles, I should acknowledge that the inspiration for the project lies with my near-neighbour Stuart Asquith. His original invitation to re-create Trimsos over a year ago sparked my interest both in the original game, and also in a concept of ancient wargaming that avoided getting into a specific period but rather involved the creation of imaginary, Tony Bath-style armies that could be composed of any ancient figures you liked. That original game with Stuart, where Ancient Britons shared the table with New Kingdom Egyptians and Roman legionaries, opened my eyes to a more light-hearted approach to wargaming that offered me a refreshing change, compared to the rather serious task of getting the historical details of the Seven Years War straightened out for my Honours of War rules and associated armies. Whilst the ancient rules I have been developing ended up a long way from Mr Featherstone's, it was that easy-going concept of collecting whatever ancient figures took your fancy that has really kept the project alive.

The previous posts already flagged up will suffice to give an idea of how I conceived and then worked through the project. Here I will simply show how I finally put the game on, giving an idea of what I kept from the original and what I altered.

The original 6' x 3' table was extended to 6' x 5', which would make for a less cramped set-up and allow the use of full moves, rather than the half moves used in the original game. My table can be seen in the first photo below.

I picked an S&A Scenics 'Dried Earth' felt cloth as the basic playing surface, which cost £34 for an 8' x 6' cloth. I used the Flames of War river I already had, and created the three contoured hills from 18mm MDF. This was a particularly fun part of the project, involving the purchase of a cheap electric jigsaw for cutting out the shapes, which worked like a dream. These were then painted in emulsion and varnished. I did buy some palm trees as well, but in the end substituted some small model railway trees I already had, which better suggested the arid but not entirely desert landscape I was trying to create. A handful of light green scenic scatter randomly sown across the landscape completed the picture.

The structure of the two armies followed the original orders of battle quite closely. However, I dreamed up two new countries for my combat, not wanting to follow Tony Bath too slavishly, and so it was the armies of Paphlagonia (Hyperborea) and Latium (Hyrkania) which took the field. The back story for these two imaginary countries is limited - I imagine Paphlagonia to be the possessor of a modest Anatolian 'empire', which the Italian-based Kingdom of Latium covets for its own. The initial battles between these armies will imagine an invasion of Anatolia by Latium at an unspecified point in ancient history.

Army of Paphlagonia, under General Aristodemus Zephyros

The Blue Shields Infantry (24 figures)
The Yellow Shields Infantry (24 figures)
The Zagora Archers (16 figures)
The Companion Cavalry (12 figures)
The 100 Suns Mounted Archers (12 figures)
3 Heavy War Chariots
1 Catapult
1 Bolt Thrower

The only slight innovation here was the replacement of the 3 original heavy infantry regiments (1st and 2nd Gwalur Infantry and 1st Thurn Infantry) by 2 larger units, which would together have the same number of figures as the 3 regiments of heavy infantry in the opposing Army of Latium. This was purely to add a little personal flavour.

Army of the Kingdom of Latium, under General Maximus Decimus Meridius

1st Kingdom Infantry (16 figures)
2nd Kingdom Infantry (16 figures)
3rd Kingdom Infantry (16 figures)
The Na'Arun Slingers (16 figures)
The Auricomus Cataphracts (12 figures)
The Medjay Light Cavalry (12 figures)
3 War Elephants
1 Bolt Thrower

Note that both armies use slightly smaller units than those in the 1962 battle. This was simply to make creating the armies a little quicker for a gamer with limited painting abilities. Both sides had two sub-generals to increase the command possibilities.

Scenario Tweaks
The most important of these was to make the River Trimsos crossable. This meant that the Paphlagonian forces west of the river were not cut off from their comrades, with the unwinnable task of crossing New Bridge as their only offensive option. I felt this was acceptable as the area was described in the book as 'the arid region around the River Trimsos', which suggested a river of limited flow which might be relatively easy to cross.
The change in table size has already been mentioned. The final arrangement of the terrain had to be a compromise between the original map and the photos of the original battle, as these two differed. I favoured the terrain as shown in the photos, as this gave enough space east of the River Trimsos for the army of Paphlagonia to be deployed as in the original game.
For victory conditions, my rules use the time-honoured technique of defeat following the loss of half of one's units. With each elephant, chariot or war engine counting as a single unit, this gave each army 10 units, so the first to lose five would suffer defeat.

The Games
So, two games were fought to formally complete this initial phase of the project, firstly a solo one to iron out any gross problems followed by a second 'proper' game with two players. I had envisaged doing a blow-by-blow account of the two-player battle, mimicking the original book, but readers will be relieved to know they will not have to work their way though such a trial. In the end, creating such an account was simply too much work, and would involve extensive explanations of the rules to go with it.

Suffice to say the games were very enjoyable. It was of course particularly satisfying to see the battlefield finally set out after a year's work, and I was happy with the look of the thing as well as how the games played. The solo game saw a winning draw by Latium (both sides lost their 5 units on the same turn, but Paphlagonia had lost a 6th unit in addition to the basic 5), whilst the second battle saw Latium (controlled by myself) given a thorough beating, ending up with seven units lost to Paphlagonia's one! Thus, it would seem the scenario is reasonably well balanced and can go either way.

The photos below give a further flavour of how the figures and terrain looked.

Solo game - the Paphlagonian Companion cavalry set about the enemy's elephants.

Solo game - combat around New Bridge.

Two player game - the doomed cavalry and elephants of Latium advance over and around The Pimple.

End of the two-player game. The Paphlagonian chariots and light cavalry have penetrated
into the enemy's rear. The Blue Shields triumphantly occupy the peak of Rat Hill.

And For My Next Trick...
I have already started work on some new troops, commencing with a couple of units of light javelin men and a unit of Celtic Warband (of which more in a new post to follow shortly). Then it will be time to move away from the Trimsos scenario and fight some new battles. I'll be sure to keep you informed.

'Til next time!

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The Goldilocks Cataphracts

I have set October 31st as the target date for completion of my Trimsos Project - that is, all the units and terrain needed for a re-fight of Donald Featherstone's 'Battle of Trimsos'. The rules I have been developing are quite playable as they are, but of course will continue to be altered as play testing continues.

I know, never set targets for a hobby project. But I reckon I'm nearly there. One of the reasons for optimism is that I have been helped over my painting wall by a bit of sub-contracting. Stuart has been waxing lyrical recently over the painting he's doing for some of his new projects, and so I caught him in a good mood and asked if he might find time to paint something for me. A good humoured but slightly sideways look resulted, but soon a price was agreed. The guy really is on a roll at the moment - in about a week I was able to collect the figures from his house - a 2 minute drive instead of paying P&P!

Now, painting standards for wargames figures can be a delicate subject. We might look at some figures and think they are a bit underpainted (or even, perish the thought, badly painted), though we would probably be polite enough to say nothing. My own painting standard I would assess as at the better end of underpainted. I have also stated my personal opinion, in a post a while back, that wargames figures can also be overpainted, an opinion which was vociferously challenged in a number of comments. 

Well, let me just say that the unit of cataphracts I now have in my collection is what I would describe as just right. Colourful but not garish, detailed but not pointlessly so, impressive whether seen at wargames ranges or picked up and examined. Oh, and Stuart's suggestion to paint the kontos red was inspired. Note that no two figures are the same - here is a unit that looks elite and proud of it.

For the record these are Warlord Games Sarmatian Cataphracts, in 28mm of course.

Can't wait to get these guys into action. Do you think 'The Goldilocks Cataphracts' might be a bit too whimsical a name for these chaps? Not quite martial enough perhaps? 

Anyway, enthusiasm re-kindled!

Edit: 'Goldilocks' in latin = 'Auricomus' (masculine). 'Auricomus Cataphracts' has a certain ring to it, I think.

Friday, 1 September 2017

The Bridge At Staruchy - September 1939

And so good fortune presented me with a free morning to set up and fight out the airborne assault scenario I had developed, with the intention of trying out the rules for glider and parachute landings recently published in Battlegroup Tobruk.

Now Battlegroup (like most contemporary rules, especially the WW2 ones) benefit from being played regularly. Whilst basically simple, there are quite a few fiddly bits to get the hang of, and if you haven't played for a while there can be some time-consuming searching through the rules for re-familiarisation. Such was my experience for this game, with the added problem of using the completely new rules for airborne landings.

The new rules I found pretty good. They seem to have the right balance of frustration and 'feel', which gives a good impression of the things that can go both right and wrong during an opposed glider and parachute assault. What was particularly interesting was that my modest game (platoon level, about 400 points per side) was resolved in just three moves. They were three quite lengthy moves (about 45 minutes each) due to my rusty Battlegroup skills, but nevertheless the relatively high Battle Rating of the Germans was rapidly eroded as gliders crashed, Fallschirmjäger dropped into the river, and Polish fire took its toll.

The scenario as described in my original post provided a pretty tight game, with the Poles exceeding their Battle Rating in German turn 3, whilst the Germans themselves had lost 34 of their original 35 BR. One surprise was how quickly the 2 pillboxes fell - with a cover save of 2+ for the occupants, these are usually tough nuts to crack. But some intense small arms fire linked to a run of 1s emptied one pillbox, whilst the other was silenced by placing a very handy 'ammo low' card on top of it. Flamethrowers are really fearsome weapons in Battlegroup, provided you can get them into range, and a Polish squad was quickly wiped out by such a discharge. They would have been ideal to clear the pillboxes, but in the end weren't needed. The counters taken for being under flamethrower fire and being under air attack were very useful in eroding Polish strength.

Below are a few pictures to give you a feel for the terrain - 15mm miniatures of course. The only changes I would make to the scenario as presented in my previous post would be to give just 20" of trenches to the Poles (more isn't needed), and reduce the number of HS-123 strikes to 1 to balance the points. I would also restrict the 'Alarm' special rule to 2 turns in this particular case. I didn't use the 'Red Shines The Sun!' special rule either. With veteran and elite Germans facing inexperienced Poles, the superiority in German morale didn't need extra boosting. 

The overall set up and the position after German turn 1.
One glider was destroyed, and of the other 3 only 1 made a perfect landing.
Polish positions around the bridge.
The only glider to land exactly as planned. I mistakenly marked the occupants as 'pinned' at first, as you can see.
In fact they were entitled to receive orders straight away.
The HS-123 strikes were effective in pinning some of the Polish units around the bridge.
Polish reinforcements arriving on turn 2 advance past an abandoned glider.
Final positions. A 'drop canister objective' has been captured by a German squad (bottom right), which won the game.
This particular rule is a clever abstraction of the critical nature of paratroops (especially German ones) having to retrieve supply canisters after a drop.
I'm looking forward to giving these rules another try, perhaps in a bigger game featuring air-landing troops. Perhaps this project from 2013 would be a good one to resurrect. 

In the unlikely event anyone is interested, I would represent transport planes landing under fire during a Battlegroup game in the same way as glider landings, but make them a bit more likely to land safely. So the dice rolls become 1-destroyed, 2-3 rough landing, 4-6 perfect landing. Thus the better chance of a good arrival (due to being powered aircraft using an airfield or prepared strip) is represented.

Thanks for reading. 'Til next time.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Bargain Basement 2

Just as no horse and musket wargame is complete without a windmill, no ancient wargamer could possibly think his collection finished without a temple building amongst his terrain items. The problem I had was that the wargame temples I found online were extremely expensive, like this one.

Luckily I had the guidance of a veteran wargamer. Stuart advised me to search out aquarium ornaments, and sure enough there were several to choose from online. I ended up choosing this one, but at the bargain price of £11.95 (an offer that seems to have been suspended for the moment). As with my previous bargains, I was pleased with my purchase, which you can see in the photos below.

No painting required, and some suitably exotic bushes have taken root in the ruins. Perhaps I might have preferred a temple that wasn't ruined, but beggars cannot be choosers. I just hope there aren't too many readers out there thinking, "it looks too much like a fish tank ornament for my money". Well, you pays your money...

Monday, 7 August 2017

Battlegroup Tobruk And The Return Of The Fallschirmjäger

I believe I hinted in my previous post that the ancient-period painting mojo was fading a bit. I'm sorry to say that shortly after penning those words, the mojo packed up completely in the face of a 12-strong unit of Parthian horse archers (hardly a challenging task for most wargamers, I guess).

But as so often happens in our hobby, as one door closed another one opened. Idly browsing the internet, I was reminded on the Battlegroup page of the Guild Wargamers forum that I had been neglecting my WW2 gaming, and that one of the last things I had been considering in that period was the purchase of Battlegroup Tobruk, the latest supplement in the Battlegroup series.

Shelling out £25 on this book was a tricky one. I no longer game this particular part of WW2 (click on the 'WW2 Desert' link at top right for my old exploits), and my sole interest in the book was the rules for parachute and glider landings included in the Crete section, which I wanted to use for some fictional airborne assaults set in the 1939 Polish campaign. Unfortunately no one I knew had the book, so getting photocopies of the appropriate section was a non-starter. I considered a cheeky post appealing for details on the forum or Facebook page, but this seemed rather too cheeky (not to say ungentlemanly). I had previously bitched (justifiably, IMHO) that the rules for Fallschirmjäger should have appeared in the 'Blitzkrieg' supplement, or even better in the original rulebook, so pride was at stake as well. But I had a whole stack of Ju-52s and DFS-230s sitting idly in a storage cabinet, plus a platoon's-worth of German paras purchased ready-painted some time ago. And of course my wargamer's consumerist itch couldn't be ignored forever.

Battlegroup Tobruk
So I bought it - you can get it on ebay for £24.95 post-free at the time of writing, but no cheap deals on Amazon for these guys. Was it worth it? Objectively, not really. Yes, I have the rules I wanted (amounting to about 3 pages), which are provided as part of a Crete-inspired 'Airborne Assault' scenario. They are neat and interesting rules which look like they should play well. Missing are rules for air-landing troops arriving under fire, a situation which featured significantly at Crete, but a simple adaption of the glider landing rules will be straightforward to write.

In addition to the rules, I have the army lists for German paras and glider troops in the early war period. These are important for Battlegroup because you need the points values and Battle Rating numbers to balance the games - or at least, such information is very useful to one's understanding of the game. But together with the rules this still only constitutes around a dozen pages from a total of 200. The extra set of Battle Rating counters and a new pull-out quick reference sheet will come in handy. Nevertheless, most of the book is of no use to me.

But to be honest I don't regret the purchase. These Battlegroup books are always nice to own, being well produced and including some good background reading. Anyone who knows me will be aware I am not really a fan of supplements as a concept, but Piers and Warwick have always struck me as decent guys who are dedicated wargamers and who believe in what they do. A minor criticism here is that no map or maps support the account of the Battle of Crete - the story of any battle without an accompanying map is always incomplete.

So I've paid £25 for a dozen pages of information which I reckon should have been in the basic rulebook anyway, and some air-landing rules are missing - but I'm actually pretty happy. Hmm. I guess that's wargamers for you!

The Bridge At Staruchy, September 1939
Time to check out the new rules in a modest scenario. Although the airborne assault rules were developed for the Crete operation, they seem to me to be perfectly suitable as a representative set for any opposed airborne landing. One of the unique rules for airborne assaults in Battlegroup involves placing 'drop canister objectives' before the fighting starts, and I had to knock up 3 of these from some old oil drum and jerrycan models, which I placed on 3cm square bases (this is 15mm scale):

The scenario is a simple one, for a 4' x 4' table. It is of course entirely fictional - there is no bridge (that I'm aware of) at the tiny Polish village of Staruchy, which was only chosen because I liked the name and it was easily pronounceable in English. The bridge is, of course, to be seized by a small but elite force of German glider and parachute troops, and is defended by a Polish infantry platoon.

The numbers at the edge indicate the die throws for the random locations
 through which Polish reinforcements will arrive

Polish Forces

Forward HQ in PF508 25pts 3-r BR

Infantry Platoon 124pts 9-i BR (including light mortar and ATR team)

2 x MG Pillbox 108pts 2-i BR

1 x AAMG 16pts 1-i BR

Off-table 81mm mortar battery with observer team 70pts 1-i BR

Defences: trenches/foxholes for 3 infantry groups and 20" of barbed wire. 50pts

Total 393pts 16BR 

German Forces

2 x timed HS-123 strikes 20pts 0 BR

1st Wave (4 gliders)
Fallschirmjäger Sturm Platoon 212pts 16-e BR
(including 3 x flamethrower, 3 x demolition charges and 1 x light mortar team)

2nd Wave (parachute)
Fallschirmjäger Platoon 137pts 16-v BR (including light mortar team)
Forward Headquarters 25pts 3-e BR

Total 394pts 35BR

I'll be conducting the game in accordance with the rules in the book, and we'll see how I get on with them. Further interest is added by the asymmetry of the two sides - although equal in points, the Germans have more than twice the BR of the Poles. This is a rather clever and quite subtle aspect of Battlegroup which I enjoy seeing in action, and this is probably the strongest contrast between points and battle rating I have seen in any of my games.

The assembled Fallschirmjäger Sturm Platoon. Platoon command squad of 4 men, 3 rifle teams of 4 men,
3 pioneer teams of 3 men with flamethrower and demolition charge, and 3 MG teams, plus light mortar.

I'll probably play this one through solo - I'll try and post a report on the resulting game. But no promises!