Currently Reading

Summer’s coming, we’re getting settled in the new house and the whole family is working in the garden. What better time to bury oneself in books?

I’ve decided to start a small new project I’ve been thinking about for a long time now: The French and Indian War. Several of my wargaming chums have started collecting and painting FIW miniatures for Sharp Practice and, what’s even better, they are doing it in 15mm! How could I resist? So, apart from getting a couple of the nice Blue Moon figures, I bought Empires at War by William Fowler.

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Fowler aptly gives an overview of the conflict, setting it firmly into the context of European power politics while still dealing fairly detailed with the actions in North America and Canada. He outlines the quarrels between the different colonies, the role of Native Americans and even the impact of events in Europe, the Caribbean and in India. There are moments when his style almost becomes ironical, but considering some of the whimsical events of the war one can easily understand the temptation and it makes for an entertaining read. Highly recommended if you want a first overview of the FIW.

My main reading diet is still the American Civil War. Having recently finished Noah Trudeau’s excellent book on Gettysburg, I looked for other titles from the author. Trudeau writes very well, he builds up a narrative and tension without getting carried away by his subject. In Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, he manages to tell an engaging story while still keeping an analytical distance – not something that can be said from all authors writing on battles in the ACW…

 

Trudeau has written a couple of other books, all of which look interesting and most of which can easily be found at second-hand booksellers. I’m now finishing Out of The Storm, an account of the last weeks of the Civil War. Starting with a fairly detailed retelling of the events that lead to Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Court House, he presents several episodes, among them famous events such as Lincoln’s assassination and the capture of John Wilkes Booth as well as less famous but equally dramatic affairs like the sinking of the steamboat Sultana. The book is a bit episodical as there is no real overarching story. However, Trudeau manages to capture the atmosphere of an epoch ending very well, not the least because he is very apt at chosing quotes from contemporary sources – something he also showed in Gettysburg. I’ve already ordered his book on black soldiers in the Civil War.

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In contrast, Earl Hess’ new study Civil War Infantry Tactics looks like a rather dry and scholarly affair. I haven’t had chance to read it yet, but my cursory browsing nevertheless left me looking forward to delving into it. Being very much interested in how small units operated, I hope to finally learn all about the intricacies of infantry drill and formations.

I read most of my science fiction books on my e-book reader. Sometimes, however, I’m in the mood for a ‘real’ book. A trip down to the bookstore got me Andrew Bannister’s debut novel Creation Machine. Although I follow forthcoming sci-fi books on the excellent tor.com blog, this one seems to have escaped my attention. At the moment, I’m about two-thirds through and like it very much. The world-building is great, with some grand and at the same time whimsical ideas, and the main protagonist is engaging.

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The evil guys may be a bit too much over the top for my taste, but the story is developing nicely and I’m curious to find out what’s going on with the strange setting. In some of its ideas and in the general approach, it reminds me a bit of Charles Stross’ early space operas, which for me are still among the most imaginative of the genre. Highly recommended if you fancy a sci-fi adventure with an original background.

Playtesting Star Patrol

And now for something completely different. I’ve had the idea for a spaceship game that could be played cooperatively or solo about three years ago. I jotted down some notes and ordered a couple of ships from Ground Zero Games and Brigade Models. In my excitement, I even managed to paint up a couple. However, I didn’t like the GZG models very much as the casting was a bit bumpy and fuzzy. So I lost interest and stored the whole stuff away.

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About once every six or so months, I got them out again, painted one or two ships and made some notes for rules. I never finished enough to get down to doing some real playtesting though.

Well, two weeks ago the spaceship bug bit me again and this time, I decided to pull through. I painted enough ships for a small squadron, printed out some markers and sorted through my notes. Then I had a first game.

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Star Patrol is intended to be a simple game of spaceship combat which can be played solo or in teams against an enemy which is commanded by some simple rules mechanics. My initial inspiration to try something like this was the board game Pandemic, which impressed me very much when I first played it. Meanwhile, I have also played the excellent cooperative variant of X-Wing, which offered some more ideas.

The main idea is that there is a ‘threat level’ which rises each turn, making more enemy bogeys appear and making enemy ships react more aggressively. The games are scenario based, so you’ve got a mission you have to accomplish while the enemy tries to prevent that.

I’ve kept book-keeping to a minimum and this works fine. There are still three separate tables to consult for enemy reactions, but I guess less won’t be possible if I want to get a halfway decent variety of actions.

I’ve now played three games and had a lot of fun. I’m not completely happy; there are some issues with balance and I feel the whole game lacks a certain je ne sais quoi – something that makes it stand out and get you excited. I’ve been tinkering with a campaign system, but I still think the gameplay itself needs improvement.

Anyway, it’s always fun to tinker with game mechanics and perhaps something will result from this. If not, at least I’ve had some fun pushing spaceships around the table!

Rebel Scrum – Armada AAR

Virago has repainted even more Star Wars: Armada ships, so Sigur and I again donned our space suits and took command of two fleets.

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Sigur played the Imperials and fielded a Victory class Star Destroyer, a Gladiator class Star Destroyer (which I refused to acknowledge as a Star Destroyer because it has two points instead of one) and two Raider 2 corvettes. He also had Fighter squadrons galore, one of them led by a Major Rhymer who proved to be a major nuisance.

I had an Assault Frigate Mark II, two CR90 Corvettes and a couple of X- and Y-Wings. I also fielded one pimped out Nebulon-B Escort Frigate – this was to be my secret weapon, unfortunately it seems that even the Rebels weren’t in on the secret…

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I decided to ignore the Victory class Star Destroyer, as its low speed would prevent if from entering the battle during the first couple of turns, and concentrate on my right flank. The Corvettes were ordered to take out Sigur’s Raiders while my big guy accelerated straight towards the Gladiator. The Gladiator also kept a steady heading and for a moment, we had a game of chicken going.

I can’t remember who yielded first, but the ships passed each other firing from all barrels.

While this was going on, the fighter squadron coalesced into one huge scrum in the middle of the board.

Due to Major Rhymer leadership, the TIE pilots quickly got the upper hand and my X- und Y-Wings were dropping like flies. I never got the hang of using those tiny craft! But then I finally managed to get my Nebulon-B Escort Frigate into range. It has fearsome anti-aircraft guns and wreaked havoc with the Imperial fighters. I have to say that I myself was surprised at how effective this ship was – something to keep in mind for further games…

However, on my right flank, it took my two CR90 Corvettes a long time to finally bring one of Sigur’s puny Raider Corvettes down.

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And then the Victory Class Star Destroyer was close enough to enter the fray. The Nebulon-B didn’t last long, and the Assault Frigate also got pretty pummeled. The odds started to look very bad for the Rebels, and Admiral Snackbar decided to leg it into hyperspace.

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What a fun game! I made some grave mistakes during deployment and couldn’t bring my strongest ship to bear until it was too late. Sigur had me pretty contained, keeping my attention with his fighters and then steamrolling over my bunched-together ships with his Victory Class Star Destroyer.

Armada is a great game, although it is a tad slow – but this might be due to our over-cautious deployment: for the first turns, we had our ships’ speed at 1, meaning it took us some time to get into range. Especially for the Rebels, with their more nimble ships, it might be sensible to enter a bit faster. Let’s try that next time!

Currently Reading

While I’m normally pretty restrained when it comes to buying miniatures, my big weakness are books: I can seldom resist a visit to a bookstore and when I’m getting into a new topic, I tend to amass books on the subject. I’ve got an ebook reader and I do buy electronic books, but I ususally prefer paper versions, especially for historical stuff which I intend to consult more than once. Many of those books I buy second hand – platforms like eurobuch.com offer great prices, especially if you don’t mind to get copies discarded from libraries (which have some stamps, but most of the time are otherwise in a fine condition).

So what’s currently on my nightstand?

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I’ve just finished Mounted Raids of the Civil War by Edward Longacre. It’s an older book – it was published in 1975 – and I got it second hand. It presents twelve Confederate as well as Union cavalry raids, among them J.E.B. Stuart’s Chambersburg raid, the botched Richmond raid of 1864 and the famous Mississippi raid by Grierson. It is very well written and offers lots of inspiration for wargaming. In fact, I was so captivated by the story of Gierson’s raid that I intend to paint up a Union cavalry force for Sharp Practice – and I’ve already ordered some more books on the subject…

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I’m still halfway into Barbara Brooks Tomblin’s The Civil War on the Mississippi. Published this year, it tells the story of the Union effort to control the Mississippi. There are already several books on this subject, but Tomblin offers a comprehensive narrative that draws on the latest research and uses lots of sources. This leads to a view that is more ‘from below’ than the studies I’ve read before, so you get to know the perspective of sailors and commanders. This also means that overall strategies are neglected a bit, but those have already been covered in detail in other places. If you’re interested in Civil War riverine warfare, Tomblin’s book is a recommended read.

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I have to admit that I’ve started my Punic Wars project without knowledge of the subject. To change this, I bought Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146BC. Although I’m mostly interested in Hannibal, it was good to get a broader understanding of the rivalry between Rome and Carthago. The author is not only a good narrator, he also offers critical discussions of the sources. Most importantly of all, he clearly states when sources are contradictory or when we just don’t know enough about events to be sure of something – and there is a lot we don’t know about the period. This can be a bit unnerving, but it also offers some freedom for the wargamer, as no one can prove you wrong!

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I’ve also finally started to read Marko Kloos’ Chains of Command, the fourth novel in his Frontlines series. I’m normally not a fan of military sci-fi, but I really enjoyed his books. He writes in a relaxed style, the characters are interesting and the aliens are something different for a change – at least I’ve never before read a novel where grunts are up against kaiju. The latest book starts a bit slow but picks up pace and seems to head towards new revelations regarding the overall plot line, so I’m pretty curious where this is going…