Animal House

Well, well, well – it seems that animal ardor, creature craze, fauna frenzy or even zoological zeal are rampant, at least among my mates, as Sigur and Virago have both bought the new Osprey rules-set Burrows & Badgers. How could I resist? Especially since I’ve already got a set of Oathsworn animals, which I bought about two years ago. I’ve occasionally painted the odd figure since then and now have a collection of ten anthropomorphic animals awaiting adventure.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to do with them, but now that Burrows & Badgers has arrived, they might see the gaming table yet. It’s not that I need another set of small-scale skirmish rules – there is still Songs of Blades and Heroes, which I really like – but Burrows & Badgers is a lovely book with great illustrations by none other than Gary Chalk. And there are some interesting ideas in there.

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I haven’t played it yet, so I can’t tell you more than that, but I will keep you posted if I do. And I will definitely paint the rest of my animals – this is one of my favourite line of miniatures and painting them is a real pleasure.

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Make it so!

Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather, so there was not much gaming (or even painting) going on. However, a couple of days ago, we had some friends over and decided to try a game I’ve had lying around for a while: Space Alert.

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It’s a cooperative game with two unique features: First, it comes with an audio-CD, which provides the instructions for the different scenarios. Second, the main part of the game runs in real-time. Basically, you play the crew of a starship and have to make sure the ship survives before heading into hyperspace. The computer voice, which is provided by the CD, gives you information on threats you have to counter. You can either shoot at them or transfer energy to the shields. However, energy is a limited resource and somebody better be in engineering to make sure that enough is available where it is needed.

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During the second part of the game, all the things you have decided in the real-time environment (and ‘programmed in’ with cards) are resolved and you can see how you have done and whether the starship has survived.

The game is great fun and demands real team work. This is not as easy when a countdown is running and information is coming in all the time. During the first game, which was a training mission, everybody was running around the ship and doing his or her thing, resulting in comical scenes were people were moving past each other without coordination. 

As the game is short – the real-time part of the training missions takes 7 minutes, after which you will need about 15 minutes for the resolution phase – we tried the training mission again. We managed to survive in the end, but considering that this scenario did not use the full rules yet and there are several more different kinds of threats to come, advanced missions are not going to be a walk in the park!

I really like the game. Real-time planning definitely adds to cooperative gaming and the experience is very thematic – it’s a game that really gives that Star Trek experience.

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Currently Reading

For our Gettysburg Battle Day, I read a couple of books on the battle. One of them was Edwin B. Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign. A Study in Command from 1968.

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This is, in some ways, a book that shows its age. Published eight years before John Keegan revolutionized military history by writing about the experiences of the common soldiers in The Face of Battle, Coddington firmly concentrates on the higher levels of command and on the decisions of the commanders. He is also quite judgemental, voicing his opinion about who made which mistake and how it could have been avoided. However, it still is a very good and rewarding reading. Coddington presents a clear narrative, making it easy to follow the action and his analytical approach helps to clarify many decisions.

The one thing that impressed me most however, was the ending, specifically the last sentence of the book. Usually, you expect from an ending a wrapping up of the whole narrative, a closure that gives the whole thing a meaning and makes you feel that something has been achieved. He describes how General Warren, after Lee had crossed the Potomac back into Virginia, sent a message to the War Department ordering maps of the Shenandoah Valley. And then he ends with the sentence: “And so the war went on.” No closure, no wrapping-up or bestowing meaning – instead the sobering, even bleak reminder that Gettysburg, something that today is remembered as a highly significant turning-point, at the time was just one episode in a war that was far from over.

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Ronald S. Coddington’s African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album is a very different book. It presents 77 photographs of African-American soldiers from Coddington’s own collection. Each image is accompanied by a short biography of the soldier depicted. This is quite an achievement all by itself, as it is not easy to get biographical information about men who, in many cases, had been illiterate slaves who left no written evidence by themselves. One of the great things about this approach is that it puts the individuals, their choices and their actions into the foreground. This provides a much-needed contrast to the stereotypical description of African-Americans even by well-meaning white officers like Thomas Higginson. All the variety can’t, of course, conceal the common experiences. Most of the men were scarred by slavery and the war and few grew old. But one of the saddest thing was their treatment after Reconstruction: time and again, you read how in the late 1870s and 1880s, when white suprematist groups crawled back out of their holes after Union occupational forces had left the South, African-Americans were driven from political offices and terrorized, many of them ending in an abject state of poverty.

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Touching on the subject of African-American experience, Brian McGinty’s The Rest I Will Kill is a short and dramatic retelling of an astonishing event that happened early in the war: In July 1861, a U.S. ship was captured by a Confederate raider. The prize crew wanted to sail the ship to Savannah, where it would be sold off. The ship had a free black cook named William Tillman, whom they planned to sell into slavery. What happened next took them by surprise, though: Tillman, aided only by a German sailor named William Stedding, overpowered the prize crew and single-handedly sailed the ship back to New York. At the time, Tillman became a celebrity and was hailed as a hero in the Northern press. The book is an easy read, telling an exciting story while also providing background on the political situation as well as on the biographies of the people involved. It clearly shows the desperation, but also the courage African-Americans showed in the face of a regime that treated them as chattel.

And now for something completely different, as they say. I’ve also read a lot of science-fiction and fantasy lately, but most of it left me rather disappointed. I have to say that I’m wholeheartedly sick of the whole ‘dark and gritty’ thing. Not only is this a childish view on life (it’s laughable how people think it is ‘realistic’), it’s also full of rather disturbing torture porn – seriously, what is it with those people and sexualized violence?

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Fortunately, I hit upon some real gems. The first pleasant surprise was Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld. Imagine a classical D&D-like fantasy world where adventuring parties are treated like 80s rock bands. This is basically the analogy Eames bases his story upon and to my surprise, it worked really really well. It’s the well-known story of an old hero and the effort to, one last time, get the band together. It seems Eames couldn’t decide if he wanted to write a funny book or a tragic one, but both facets actually work equally well. Of course it’s overdone and sometimes corny and a bit of a lad’s story, but hey, so’s glam rock! Certainly the most captivating, most original and most fun fantasy novel I’ve read for a long time.

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For science-fiction, the same is true for Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I know I’m late to the party with this one – I’ve seen it before, but I was always a bit apprehensive as I usually enjoy action-oriented sci-fi. Now I finally started reading it and wow, it’s good. There is almost no shooty stuff, but the story is still captivating and exciting. A lot of original ideas and about as far away from dark and gritty as you can get. It’s a feel-good novel about community and tolerance and living together despite being different. Highly recommended!

Small Figures, Big Battles

As you might have noticed, I was quite taken with the 6mm Altar of Freedom game I saw at our Gettysburg Battle Day. I’m usually not interested in big battle games, but this one really impressed me. So naturally, I wanted to do something similar. At first I thought about buying 6mm figures, but I immediately broke sweat when I realised how many figures I would have to paint. However, it then struck me that I already have small figures – namely the Irregular Miniatures 2mm blocks I painted for Battle Cry!

It was easy to stick four of them to a thin cardboard base with Blue Tack. The great thing is that this actually looks like a brigade! 

Now those bases are a bit smaller than the base sizes recommended in the Altar of Freedom rulebook – by 1/3, to be exact. So I decided to reduce all distances by one-third (this is something I have done with so many rules now it’s become almost a reflex). The great advantage is that this also reduces the playing field, meaning I can play Gettysburg on a kitchen table while still keeping the ground scale of the rules.

I also bought one of the Altar of Freedom scenario books, namely the Western Theatre one. I soon realised that I still need loads of figures. There are, however, two battles I can play with what I have: Fort Donelson and Pea Ridge. I decided to use Fort Donelson as a field for experimentation and try out some ways to make terrain.

With small scales, terrain is actually more important than figures. Instead of making modular terrain, I decided to make a custom mat for this scenario only. As in this case the playing field is only 2’x2′, it was easy to get cheap artist’s canvas, which provided me with a convenient area to work on.

I started by copying the scenario map unto the canvas.

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As you can see, caulking acrylic was used to model the outer field works of the Fort. The whole thing was then painted, using a mixture of acrylic paint and sand for the surface of most of the board. The fieldworks were drybrushed with brown paint to suggest fresh earth, while the roads were done without texture. It is important to go easy on the texture, as 2mm figures really are small and the slightest bumps look like huge rock formations.

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For the village of Dover and the farm, I quickly made houses out of balsa woods and glued them on a base.

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I also wanted to have woods under which figures can be placed. Again, as the figures are much small than 6mm, the technique has to be adapted. Pieces of felt provided bases which were flocked with Woodland Scenics clump foliage. I glued thin pieces of sponge material (the stuff used to store figures in) on the underside to achieve a bit of height.

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This is how the whole board looks:

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The whole process wasn’t too much work and it was actually quite fun to work in a completely different scale with completly different requirements. My aim was to achieve an almost map-like look, giving the impression of a birds-eye view unto the battlefield.

Shortly after I’ve finished, we managed to play our first game. We both like the rules a lot – the Command & Control mechanics are great and the games moves along at a brisk pace.

Coming from skirmish gaming, it’s interesting how different the game feels – it really feels like you are an army commander ordering divisions around.

I’ve already ordered reinforcements from Irregular Miniatures and will definitely continue with this project!