Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bocage hedgerows the easy way

Battlefields through the ages have always been criss-crossed with all kinds of obstacles. No matter how well the commander chose his battlefield, it rarely was as flat and empty as many of our tables. 

Since centuries many rural sites have been crossed by hedgerows to mark terrain borders or herd cattle. Hedges are therefore one of the most generic terrain types possible. I made some many years ago but they were too few (and too ugly, to be honest) so I decided to take a second stab at it. Quick and dirty was again the motto. I have seen some real works of modelling art used as bocage, but I had little time and limited resources, so what I had, had to do and be finished in a day. 

I based my design on the French bocages of Normandy fame. But they can be found all over Europe.  A low earthen wall, topped with sturdy hedge plants left relatively uncut forms the basis. The hedge plants are often woven back into the foliage, producing over the years a nearly impregnable organic wall, ideal for keeping cattle in its place. As Normandy proved, it worked relatively well for tanks too! 

I started with simple materials: Sorbo cleaning pads, glue, sand and grit and flocking materials.

I cut the bases from plastic sheet (some sign I had lying around) and made crude earthen walls from cut styrofoam. On top of those I places the cut cleaning pads, cut with an irregular top to represent the wild growth of the average rural hedgerow. I used a hot-glue gun for this part of the assembly.

As you can see below I made most of them the same length, which makes it easy to build up the table. I made some corners and shorter pieces to fit the odd ends. I equipped some of them with trees to break the monotony and one piece showing a gap to pass through.

For the next step I mixed several grains of sand and grit for the covering of the earthen base. Birdsand, playpen sand and aquarium bottom covering are perfect for this and can be had cheaply in large quantities. 

I covered the base thickly with glue (Heki flocking glue in this case) so the sand would stick well and would protect the styrofoam from the spray paint I planned to paint them with. Just drag the piece through the sand a few times and leave to dry. Left on the picture a finished example.

This step is essentially repeated with the flocking material. I dabbed big splotches of glue onto the cleaning pad hedges and just pushed them into the flocking stuff. This resulted in irregular sides that reinforced the wildly growing image of the tops. Once dry, I spray-painted the hedges olive camo green to get a uniform green color.  

The I painted the earthen base drab brown (cheap acrylic hobby stuff) and added highlight and some grass flock to blend the hedge parts in with the Battlemat I usually use for a playing surface. A acrylic matt varnish spray to finish and fixate everything and it was done!

Below some pictures of the final result, shown next to some Foundry Home Guard and a Warlord Matilda II.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Design a wargame in an afternoon!

Over the last years I made quite a few demo games based in some way on a thrilling scene from a movie or a book. These make great participation games because they are very recognizable and even players without any wargaming experience easily connect to them. 

Urged by some friends I finally decided to try my hands on a workshop aimed at designing such a game. So on a scorching hot Saturday we gathered in my FLGS Subcultures (whose subterranean abodes were pleasantly cool!) to see if we could create a playable wargame in just one afternoon. 

I had decided on a scene from the -much maligned but nevertheless quite entertaining- movie King Arthur. The movie had a lot of "historical" pretensions most of which are quite silly but does have a few memorable scenes , the best of which is arguable the battle on the frozen lake below. 

I picked the scene primarily because I liked it and always wanted to play it on a tabletop, but also because I owned suitable figures and the terrain was extremely simple. Just a frozen lake hemmed in between shorelines and cliffs. That way we could concentrate on designing the game without having to spend much time on building an elaborate table. 

So we started out at 12:00 with some cardboard and other odds and ends to build the table and no idea whether or not this would work.

We started with watching the scene on a laptop and recording all the things that made the scene thrilling and exiting. Was it the suspense of the cracking ice, or the shooting? Or actually the great horde of Saxons so clearly outnumbering Arthur and Guinevere and his knights? Whatever the case, the things that struck us most would have to be incorporated in the rules.

Finally we agreed on a number of aspects that the game would have to have. The ice would have to be untrustworthy. The more people were on it, the more likely it would be that it collapsed. Arthur and his crew would have to be deadly shots just like in the movie. Saxons hit by arrows would cause their neighboring figures to cringe away from them, thus making it possible for the Arthur player to bunch them together on the ice. Saxons would have archers too. Ice could be damaged with axes and weakened in this way. Movement, shooting, fighting and command were all very straightforward. Knights hit on a 3+, Saxons on a 5+. Moves were 6+d6 and you had to move all the way because of the slippery ice. We decided on d6s for everything just to keep things simple. Limited command range would oblige the Saxon to keep his force together somewhat.

We divided the ice first in 20x20 (too big!) then in 15x15cm squares and gave them values. The more to the middle you moved, the weaker the ice became. The weakest ice square was 25. When figures stood on it, you had to roll below the difference of Ice value minus number of troops with 3d6. So 20 Saxons standing on a 30 point ice square would require a 9 or less to keep standing.

At this point, around 13:30, we built a first prototype of the table and played the first test. It was time to kill our darlings, as this is the time when you discover which of your fancy ideas actually work! If it doesn't, it will have to go! Here we changed the playing sequence to:

- Saxons check for command (15cm command range gives a 3+, outside required a 5+)
- Saxons move (or not)
- Arthur moves
- Arthur shoots or fights
- Saxons shoot or fight
- test for breaking ice

Other minor adaptations were made. For example, we originally used different weights for heavily and less heavily armed troops, but it was too cumbersome and required too much counting and calculating. Out it went!

There was much pondering and discussion and we quickly started a second test to try out the innovations. Now the game ran much better, more fluent and with great suspense. We discovered that hacking on the ice to weaken it was a viable, but dangerous tactic for Arthur.

There was discussion whether the ice was too strong or not, but with Arthur going at it with axes, the chance to break it was still quite real.

Playing time was about an hour, so that was good.
So after the second test we decided to Beta-test it! We built a new table that looked a bit better and invited two people from the shop to play. So at 16:00 hours we had our first real game! 

The players went at it with a vengeance. The Saxon player decided to split her force to reduce pressure on the ice and trusted on the dice to get her troops forward.

The Arthurian player adopted the tactic of shooting the Saxon archers as much as possible with her two long-range bows and using her other knights to weaken the ice.

It turned out to be a surprising and still exiting game! The Saxon player rolled incredible command rolls so her troops managed to cross the ice even while split up. Arthur severely weakened the ice en-route but lost most of his men to Saxon arrows. Mid-game 10 Saxons went through the ice and died, but the rest managed to get through.

In the end even Guinevere succumbed to Saxon arrows and Arthur decided on a final gamble. He threw himself forward and attacked the ice square on which the Saxon leader was standing. With a mighty blow from Excalibur the ice cracked and Arthur, the Saxon leader and all Saxons on the square went into the deep!

Just one, leaderless group of Saxons remained. Would they -hesitant and unsure as they were- be able to overtake the refugees? Who knows? Maybe this was the time to invent a rule about a draw?

It was great to do this. Producing a playable game in an afternoon was a great ambition and it was marvelous to see it succeeding!

Of course this isn't a full wargame and was only made possible by the limited scope we adopted but  it was a fine achievement nonetheless! Even the final game yielded suggestions for improvement: less sturdy ice, random ice strengths and ice strengths hidden below overturned counters that only reveal the true strength of the ice when you have to test it for breaking.

We could also really go on a roll in making the table. Plastic ice squares that can be lifted off the table, revealing black water below, cliffs and shoreline lining the lake, winter style basing for the figures et cetera all make this table much better looking and would actually make a great participation game! Who knows? One of us might still build it one day....

Many, many thanks to Tim, Niels, and Edwin without whose enthusiastic and open-minded involvement this would never have been possible, to Edwin's Lady and Nicky for playtesting and of course to Subcultures for hosting us in the first place!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

GW: guilty as charged?

No  wargaming blog would be complete without referring to Games Workshop.

The company has as many fans as detractors, but it can hardly be denied that GW has had an enormous influence on the wargaming hobby. Many current wargamers started with GW games, even if they no longer play them. And a large part of the "new batch" still enters the hobby through GW's products. Still any topic dealing with GW in general terms, their products or their policies risks erupting into bitter disputes very soon.

There are as many reasons why this is so as there are people discussing GW, so I will not attempt summaries and analyses. Instead, I will just examine my own opinion. It's a blogger's privilege. 

My first real wargame (as in playing with figures on a tabletop) was a GW product. If I skip Spacehulk, which was a boardgame after all, the game Necromunda was the first tabletop wargame I played. And I played it with all the gusto of a GW noob, buying White Dwarfs, rulebooks, Citadel miniatures and rulerstm  where I could find them (and if I had the money for them) and painting and building away on my "gangs" and terrain. It was a lovely game, full of athmosphere and supported by great background fluff which I did not even connect with Warhammer 40K all that consciously. We played campaigns against each other for years, or so it seems. I had never played Rogue Trader or 40K so it all looked pretty original to me. 

And before that I enjoyed games like Talisman, Spacehulk, Dungeonquest and Mighty Empires. In later years, when historical wargaming drew my attention, I had uncountable hours of fun with GW Warhammer Ancient Battles and later historical offspring from that game.

So what drove me away?

It was not the periodical re-styling of army lists for Warhammer Fantasy Battles or 40K, always a rather thinly veiled way to get people to buy new rulebooks and miniatures. I never played either WHFB or WH40K because the rulesystem did not really appeal to me. I always considered it a rather simple min-max game that drew a lot of very competitive players, who were not my preferred company. So I never stepped into those but still enjoyed the rest. Price increases are connected to any hobby and when the price becomes unacceptable to me, I just stop and start looking for alternatives. I don't like the sculpting style that much anyway, so it was an easy choice.

Neither was it the "We are The Hobby" approach that attempted to exclude all non-GW influence from any GW game ("kill the mutants!" is not just 40K fluff, apparently) since, well, in the age of Internet it is really very hard not to find other sources for the hobby and even before that I never paid much attention to people who told me how to experience my hobbies. I am in it for the fun, so it is only logical to do as I like playing with the people that I like who also like to do what they like.

Rather, it is a case of murder, committed by GW. Murder, you say? Yes. Murder.

GW was founded in 1975 and I encountered them around 1984 when I joined a RPG group that regularly read White Dwarf and used Citadel miniatures in their games. Around 1986 a game store opened shop in my hometown and I stepped on the Yellow Brick Road and have been on it ever since. It was a halcyon time, where everything was new and fresh and a new and totally innovative game seemed to be published every two months or so. GW appeared an everlasting source of fertile creativeness that just kept on producing great gaming stuff! But over the years that source slowly began to dry up as management gradually took over from game design.

GW started to turn inward. Cost cutbacks started to exercise their influence on the design process. The board games and RPGs disappeared near the end of the 20th century. White Dwarf turned from a more or less general hobby magazine into a GW commercial ad collection. Still the range of tabletop wargames was impressive. But then these too, started to dwindle. More cutbacks slowly pushed them into limbo through the status of "Specialist Games" which increasingly turned out to be a euphemism for "nearly out of print". More and more resources were poured into the WHFB/WH40K lines, reinforced with the Lord of the Rings franchise, which was essentially a simple WHFB-variant with different miniatures. All at the expense of the "non-core lines" as it turned out.

During the first decade of the 21st century GW killed off the Specialist games one by one. Profit maximizing "transferred" them to Forge World where they were very sparsely supported and eventually just disappeared. Gone were Necromunda, Warmaster, Mordheim, Bloodbowl and many others. The entire Historical branch was scrapped in 2012 when GW simply tossed away WAB, one of the most successful historical tabletop rulesets ever produced without even attempting to license it, because it did not make enough profit. It took all the historical games with it into oblivion.

From then on GW completely focused on the WHFB/WH40K/LOTR lines, which were essentially branches of the same game engine-tree and served to sell ever more rulebooks and figures. Or, in other words, GW made a business policy out of endlessly re-hashing variants of the WH engine and the miniatures associated with it and has been doing so ever since. Something not immediately apparent to new players, but painfully clear to all of us who have been around a while.

Remembering their beautiful origins and the many, many remarkable games and game accessories that sprang from the original GW-source, the gradual and total decline of this growth and realizing that nothing really new has been produced by GW for over a decade, leads to the conclusion that GW has murdered Creativity sometime around 2005.

So yes, I proclaim GW guilty as charged. Not for taking our money, not for making a profit, not for attempting to monopolize the wargaming hobby and not for developing devious (well, what's in a name?) marketing strategies.

But guilty nonetheless for developing that vast potential for creating for us so many lovely games and then murdering that potential for the benefit of the shareholder, robbing all of us, old and new gamer alike, of what could have been.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Safe and sound storage boxes: review

The other day I had the privilege of hosting my Indiana Jones game in my LFGS Subcultures in Utrecht. While talking between games I received a storage box from Safe and Sound. I had never heard of them and thought it proper to put a little review on my blog.

The box I got was a sturdy rectangular white cardboard box. It comes complete with a foam interior ready for 40 28mm human-sized figures. As you can see in the picture the box itself is not invulnerable and my specimen has at some time been dented at one corner. The thick foam however has not been impressed by this.

The box (see below) is equipped with two insert-tab-and-velcro locks and closed quite securely.

The box itself weighs next to nothing but nevertheless guards your miniatures quite well against unwelcome dents and scratches. Multiple boxes would be easily stackable. Safe and Sound also sells bags to pack multiple boxes.

Certainly a nice surprise was the price. Being a stingy Dutchman even I could find no objection in 8 Euros per box. I am quite impressed with this product and thought it good to share it with you.

The (Polish) company has boxes available in several sizes on their site, most of which is in English. Price range from 7 to 15 euros, S&H not included.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Wargames, beer & Witchfinder General!

Another Wargames-and-beer day took place on the premises in Zutphen. A small gathering this time, perhaps due to the approaching holidays. We played Chain of Command  and Witchfinder General. I ran the latter game.

As the intention was to let two new players get to know the WFG ruleset and system I chose the Summoning scenario. It has lots of figures, but is relatively straightforward and has some interesting dilemmas.

The Witchfinder player is in a hurry, as he has to stop the witches from summoning the Great Beast in Ye Olde Creepy Temple. However, the witches have trouble using all their power to defend themselves as they have to hold themselves ready from turn 3 onward to hold the Summoning as soon as the sun sets (on a die roll). Only then can they fight the Witchfinder's men, aided by the Great Beast. This however is a mixed blessing, since the Beast is fast and strong, but may die in a fight, making the Witchfinder player the winner!

Above, players tense as they ponder their strategy. Below a lively firefight has developed.

As is traditional we played the game twice, the players changing roles for the second game and the winner being the one who won both games.

In the first game the witches managed to Summon the Beast despite one of the witches being shot by a desperate witchfinder. The witchfinder then attacked the Great Beast in an al or nothing bid to kill it, but bit off more then he could chew. The Beast however, did not.....

Unfortunately for the witch, the Beast was then killed by a mass attack of the dragoons.

We fumbled some things with the Thunderbold Grenadoes, which might well have won the first game for the witch had we done it right. Careful reading led to the conclusion that it is a 4" template weapon instead of one that hits only one model or terrain feature. Once we had that figured out, the witch player missed every To Hit Roll with the grenades that he mad. Thunderbold Grenono indeed.

Several excellent pictures made by Jelle, especially of the flying witch!

In the second game the Witchfinder rushed to the attack against well-entrenched Blinders. Nevertheless the Beast was Summoned. And then proceeded to hide behind walls while the witches whittled down the Witchfinder's forces! Despite this despicably cowardly behavior (well, they are called the Forces of Evil for a reason...) this won the Witch player his second game, making him the winner. A tough game for the Witchfinder I think, but enjoyable in any case!

Many thanks for Christy and Jasper for hosting us and providing us with superlative accommodations and food!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Like God in France....

After my first week of vacation, spent in Rome with my son, my Lady and I retreated to a somewhat remote but VERY comfortable chambre d'hote in the middle of the Morvan in France. The Morvan is a big natural park laying somewhat North of the middle of France and forms the Western part of Burgundy. It is rich with history, both modern as well as ancient.

We started our trip with a visit to Mont Beuvray, the site of the ancient Aedui capital Bibracte. Bibracte was an Oppidum, a fortified town. Here Julius Caesar reputedly wrote his De Bello Gallico and the site offers a beautiful walk, a fine museum, numerous archaeological dig sites and a terrific view from the terrace of the mountain overlooking the lands beyond.

The restored main gate of Bibracte. Massive rock walls, fronted by a deep ditch and topped with palisades. It grows some respect on you for the Roman legions that attacked places like this. 

The next day we visited Autun. This city dominated the area from late Ancient times onward and was actually founded by the Aedui after leaving Bibracte. It is a pretty town with a large and beautiful cathedral, famous for its sculptures.

It only makes you wonder how illiterate medieval peasants, coming into town for Mass, must have experienced such an awesome structure. Even knowing it is made of tons and tons of stone, the roof seems to float weightlessly above the pillars.

 Walking around we found this lovely patchwork house, taken straight from a wargaming table and very similar to the houses I built myself for gaming, like the Tavern. To our surprise the house had a history to match its appearance: it was a notorious gambling den in 17th century!!
When in Autun, visit the Musee Rollin with its eclectic collection that ranges from ancient times to the French impressionists and Moderns. 

In the meantime I even got some painting done and finished the final section of the Walmington-on-Sea Homeguard platoon. Painting pad was graciously donated by le patron Ed. 

The following day we treated ourselves to a visit to the town of Vezelay. This is the archetypal medieval town. Copy it on the gaming table and you have the perfect background for fantasy or medieval gaming. It is Mordheim in the flesh, or the stone, to be more accurate. 

Vezelay traditionally is a starting point for the pilgrimage to Santiago. The shells of St. Jacques figure everywhere in roads, walls, doors and what not.

We visited the basilique of Vezelay, a much more austere church than its counterpart in Autun. Built in the 12th century this might easily have been the oldest standing Christian building  I ever visited. Entering the 900 years old crypt beneath the church is an impressive experience.

Vezelay looks for all the world like a 1:1 scale Elastolin castle. Mazelike streets wind uphill toward the cathedral and everywhere there is charming and ancient detail to be seen. We took loads of pictures to serve as inspiration for future projects!

The monument for the fallen in Vezelay. The poppies form a poignant background 100 years after the start of the Great War and 70 years after D-Day.

On Friday we drove into the heart of the Morvan over narrow and winding roads that took us way up into the hills (driving a car there is NEVER boring I can tell you!) and visited the Musee de la Resistance in St. Brisson. It seemed like a fitting way to commemorate D-Day. It is a small, but pretty museum with a lovely collection of WW2 memorabilia on the Maquis. Because of the rugged terrain, there were a lot of French resistance cells active in the Morvan and the Germans were loath to enter the dense woods and mazelike hills to chase them. The museum has an excellent audio tour in all main languages and expands on the Maquis, the history of the WW2 in France, the Vichy regime and what it meant to live in occupied France under the Germans. Weapons and equipment are exhibited as well as documents and maps. 

 A paratrooper of the SAS.

Numerous sites remained unexplored for next visits, like the castle at Bazoches where Vauban wrote important works and built defenses. Hopefully we will be able to return next year and visit more. In the meantime, I hope to have shown you a bit of one of the most fascinating and enjoyable areas of France. We visited in early summer, which seems the perfect season to us. But if you don't mind a little sun and heat, the summer months are spectacular as well! Remember, Burgundy is a wine region, so it features lots of sun. 

The title of this blog refers to a Dutch saying: "living like God in France" which is supposedly living REALLY well. Well, we did. We stayed at Les Hirondelles, a fine establishment run by José and Ed, which is really recommended for couples who like comfort, spectacular views and excellent food and wine.