Over the Hills…

As far as I know, Games Workshop (back in the day when they still used the Citadel brand) has produced three pieces of terrain that are useful even if you are not playing one of their games. There is the Gaming Mat, a large grass mat that goes for crazy prices on ebay. Going for even crazier prices is the Realm of Battle Gameboard which was recently used by Richard Clarke to great effect (after he covered the silly skull pits). And then there is the Modular Hill.

I’ve wanted a large modular hill for some time now and although there are some good tutorials for making one, I wasn’t sure they would work for me. Maybe I was just lazy. Fortuntately, I managed to get two of the Citadel hills for a very reasonable price.

This is how they looked when they arrived. One pair was painted and flocked, the other was completly untouched. Naturally, I wanted them to fit in with my terrain, so I soaked the flocked one in warm water and rubbed the flock off with a brush. This worked ok, albeit not perfectly – I couldn’t get the layer of glue off. Nevermind! All four parts were then primed and painted in the colours I normally use for terrain: beige brown with a greyish drybrush for the ground and several shades of grey for the rocks.

This is how the hill looks now:

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Although made for 28mm, it works very well with 15mm figures. And for my small table, it is really massive: If put together, the hill is 80cm long and 40cm wide. As my gaming mat is 80cm x 100cm, it can be used to block the whole table. It can also be taken apart and used to make two ridges at the edge of the table, so one could play a holding action in a valley. Or one ridge and a hill protruding into the center of the table. As you can see, I really like the possibilities.

I’ve already found scenarios in the Grant volumes and in Neil Thomas’ book for which this hill will come in handy. Looking forward to trying it out!

Review: Zones of Control

Zones of Control. Perspectives on Wargaming is an ambitious 800-pages volume published last year by MIT Press. It is a collection of 60 essays by a great variety of authors which covers a lot of ground. Hobby and professional wargames, board games, military simulations, computer games and miniature games are all discussed. Articles from designers are paired with articles by historians and people from the humanities who investigate the cultural impact of such games.

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Coming myself from the humanities, I found those articles the most fascinating. The historical overview on the development of hobby wargames by Jon Peterson is an excellent read. Bill McDonald’s vindication of Toby’s garden wargames as described in the novel Tristram Shandy is great fun, while Ian Sturrock’s and James Wallis’ short history of Games Workshop is quite enlightening. Unfortunately, it’s also the only text dealing explicitly with miniature wargames.

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Cpt. Toby Shandy, the original wargamer!

I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that the book’s emphasis definitely lies on board wargames of the hex-and-counter variety – not something I’m particularly interested in. Most of the designers’ texts are by people working in that area and many of the scholarly articles also cover them. This leads to a bit of tunnel vision, as the development of board wargames is treated as a pretty closed tradition. I’m sceptical about the claim that the concept of the ‘scenario’ (in contrast to ‘monographic’ games dealing with one specific battle) was invented by Avalon Hill in 1970 – the idea that rules are ‘War Engines’ which can be applied to different situations has been a part of miniature wargames since H.G. Wells’ Little Wars.

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Not really my cup of tea…

The book gives the impression that the most important innovations happen in board wargames design. However, while there is a lot of discussion about combat mechanics and Combat Resolution Tables, there is not that much on command and control. Concepts such as friction, which have become central in miniature wargames, are barely mentioned. It would have been nice to read a contribution by, say, Richard Clarke of TooFatLardies and get some discussion of innovative rules design in miniature wargames.

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C&C, Lardies style.

Still, due to the sheer amount of information in it, reading and browsing through Zones of Control is a rewarding experience. It’s fascinating to get so many different perspectives on wargaming and there are lots of surprising and inspiring discoveries to be made. Also, I felt like I could glimpse something like a big picture in the end. One thing I found especially interesting is the repeatedly uttered observation that there is a “strong manual and tabletop ethos” in wargaming – even in professional wargaming. Several authors stress that despite the availability of computers, tabletop games offer many advantages. One of the most important is that they are not black boxes: Design choices are immediately visible and can be discussed while rules can be changed and tinkered with – and all this without spending lots of time and money on employing programmers. The tenor of the book is that tabletop wargames still have a future – something I find rather encouraging.

Battle for the Pigsty – Sharp Practice AAR

Last weekend we had another game of Sharp Practice with the Naval Landing Party. I’ve put a pdf of the Force List we used in the Resources folder – feel free to try it out, I’d appreciate any feedback!

To spice things up, we also used a mechanics for secret objectives. We’ve used this system before for other games and it always provides an exciting experience – there’s a lot of second-guessing as it enables the attacker to makes faints and forces the defender to keep a reserve.

For this game, I made up three cards which would thematically fit with the background. The attacker (the Landing Party, which turned out to be K.) drew one of three cards – this would be her objective for the game. I didn’t know which card she drew, of course, so I had to watch every move and be prepared to rush in quickly.

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The cards…
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…and the set up.

The judge was located in the big house on the Northern edge of the table, the livestock were in the pigsty and the telegraph line went along the road on the Western table edge.

The game started with K. deploying her sailors. For the first couple of turns, the Leader commanding the Marines didn’t come up, but in true navy spirit the impetuous sailors rushed forward nevertheless.

One group ran towards the judge’s house, so I deployed one group of skirmishers there. The ball was opened by those groups exchanging some shots.

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However, the bulk of the Union sailors ran towards the small homestead with the pigsty and took position behind the farm-house.

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Could this be the Union’s objective? Better save than sorry, I thought, and deployed a line of my regulars to cover the farm. The others I deployed on the table but kept in reserve in column formation so as to be able to quickly react to any threat.

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K. also deployed her Boat Howitzer on the hill and shot at the skirmishers on my left flank. However, we forgot two important artillery rules (round shot reduces cover and canister gets a +1 to hit), so it didn’t do much damage. Perhaps the powder got wet during the landing…

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On the right flank, my guys at first kept the sailors in check, but then the Marines arrived.

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Here they come!

I still feared some kind of ruse but had no other choice than to commit the rest of my regulars to my right flank. Normally, K. is a pretty cunning player, but this time she went for a rather direct approach, trying to force her way to the pigsty by bludgeoning my troops head-on.

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The Marines positioned themselves behind a fence and began a withering fire. The firepower of a skirmish formation is quite formidable, especially if it is hidden behind an obstacle, which enhances its cover bonus even more. Having spent their first volley, my regulars kept up a ragged fire which didn’t make much of an impression on the Marines.

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There was, however, a fierce struggle for the pigsty, with sailors heading into the muck only to be driven away by charging Confederates.

As always with Sharp Practice, melee is risky for both sides and the best way to drop Force Morale fast. K. also neglected to withdraw her broken sailors, so they came under fire from my skirmishers, which made them rout off the table. This was enough for the Union Commander: despite his Marines still being in good shape, he decided to pull out and call it a day. No pork for the crew of the USS Sasquatch today!

Another great game! The secret missions were fun and contributed to making the game more exciting. Forgetting the artillery rules was an embarrassing mistake – my skirmishers came under artillery fire a couple of times and probably would have been severely mauled if we had played it right. Also, if K. had pulled back her broken group, I couldn’t have dealt her the finishing blow. Her Marines were still strong and might have pulled off a victory by overwhelming me with their firepower had they had more time.

All in all, I think that the Landing Party works well. Our next plan is to play a campaign using the new supplement, Dawns & Departures.

On the Painting Table

Not only am I a lazy painter, I’m also conservative and don’t normally change a technique if it works. Nonetheless, I have recently become a bit dissatisfied with my very limited set of skills. Basically, what I do is apply two layers of basecoat, paint the details, apply a wash, varnish. That’s it. This works ok for 15mm, but with 28mm figures, it tends to look a bit sloppy. However, reading about all this fancy shading and highlighting stuff always left me intimitated and being a bit colourblind, I often can’t even tell the difference between photographs of different stages of the painting progress as seen in glossy magazines!

Fortunately, my mate Sigur is a real wizard with the brush – in fact, he’s so good he runs his own figure painting studio, Battle Brush Studios. Two weeks ago, he offered to drop by for an afternoon and give me some basic hands-on introduction into miniature painting. He ended up spending several hours showing me how to layer the colours, how to apply highlights and shading and how to do tricky bits like black surfaces or hair. I have to say that several lights dawned on me when I watched him! Things are so much more comprehensible when someone actually shows and explains them and when you can ask questions. Sigur is a great teacher – maybe he will start to offer workshops. I for one would certainly attend.

This fox from the fantastic Oathsworn Miniatures range was started by Sigur and finished by me. The tunic, the bow, the quiver and the arrows were my first attempts at painting highlights and I think it looks ok.

I’ve slowly started trying the new techniques on some spare Mexican figures. It’s slower than my usual routine, but it’s also fun and rewarding, even if the result is not always as good as I’d wish it to be.

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I’m also going to try it on some 15mm figures – there are some more crewmembers for the ship I want to paint.

I’m a gamer at heart and my primary objective has always been to get stuff ready for gaming. I certainly have no ambition to become a first-rate figure painter. It is, however, nice to add new skills to my repertoire and to be able to actually choose what to do (instead of having to default to the one thing I’m capable of). I don’t have to paint highlights, but now I feel I can if I fancy doing it.

Thanks again Sigur for showing me some techniques. Sometimes, old dogs do learn new tricks!

Apart from the painting, I’ve done some quick terrain building for our ACW games. I’ve made two decrepit huts and started to build an emplacment for a large gun guarding the coast or a river.

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