Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In need of a reset

Tomorrow is September 1st, and it makes almost a five-month of long sabbatical from posting. This has been, indeed, a fairly frustrating year, hobby-wise. As I briefly mentioned in the past, for more than six months I were not able to purchase much needed miniatures, because of a long and unfortunate sequence of events including the demise of GFI/Minifigs, the supplier of my much beloved Minifigs 15mm miniatures, and the collapse of the relationship between Essex Miniatures and its U.S. distributor Wargames Inc. To say the least, these situations were very annoying, and left me rather jaded in respect of the professionalism in the hobby, or lack thereof. All I wanted was spending my money on toy soldiers, dude. It was indeed frustrating not being able to succeed in such an apparently elementary task, and to deal with counterparties that were less than straightforward in addressing some basic customer request.

Fortunately, things are improving. A two-year baby boy makes very difficult to find the time to paint of play games, but it doesn't deter dad for continuing the build up of his forces, nor to plan ahead future campaigns and new directions where to direct my hobby interests. At the end of spring, I finally succeeded in getting the much desired figures; thus, I am glad to report that a rather massive order of British, French, Bavarian troops, plus some additional Austrian and Prussian complements, is at Fernando, my miniature painter of choice who did marvels on my previous order. I have already seen some previews of his work on the current batch, and I am very excited about it. A few other units are getting completed by yours truly, slowly but steadily -- hopefully pictures will follow soon. In the making, new plans for scenarios, new plans for my long dormant Imagi-nation campaign, new plans for additional WAS/SYW units. Wargaming is slow, but life is good. I feel I am ready for a much needed reset, and I look forward blogging more frequently.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Experimenting with terrain

I have always had mixed feelings with felt as wargame terrain. Yes, it is cheap, and I cannot quite put my finger on it, but I always perceived it as being... cheap, in fact? Compared with the precious miniatures we deploye, and the often beautiful buildings and structures on our tables, felt never looked quite right to me.
Or maybe it was just a matter of execution. Some friends seem to be very easygoing and not too concerned about the silliness of some of their felt patches on the tabletop. But, after all, it is not the material, but what you make with it, right? So, I decided to experiment a little bit with felt myself, and I am glad to report that I am very pleased by the result.
I started with patches of brownish ochra felt, in order to recreate the effect of a summer field. Here's how it looks like.

Happy with what I see, I push the idea further, working with patches of dark green felt in order to recreate the effect of woods. I need more trees, and some bushes to do justice to the concept, but I was also pleased by the first stab in this direction. I am not a fan yet of the thin stripes of dark green used to underscore bushes along a road, or maybe a little countryside creek running across the ope fields, but overall, I am confident I can improve on that front, too.

Since I was on a roll, I embarked in the most ambitious project: to use thin stripes of green felt, of the very same type as my background terrain, to model the banks of a small river. Here the goal is to show some roughness and three-dimensional effect around the edges of the flowing water, something that I have never been able to accomplish in the past. I need to do better work with some glue here, but I was again very pleased by my first attempt.

This is a very rough first stroke at the whole idea, but I am won over. I think felt will become a recurrent trick out of my terrain bag. I just LOVE the effect on the river banks. I thought the corn fields were nice, and they did not feel cheap at all. And I see some potential is the dark green patches for thick woods and forests.
Overall, a productive evening.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Die Fighting, part II: a preliminary review

As anticipated in my previous post, Die Fighting is the latest set of rules by Bob Jones for the Horse and Musket period 1700-1900. These are tactical rules, in the sense that the basic unit is the battalion, unlike Bob's previous set "Repique: Zouave" which was more of a grand-tactical game based on brigades and divisions. In this respect, Die Fighting takes a more traditional approach to wargaming scale. The game has been out for about ten days, and there is already an excellent online review by Scott Mingus at the Charge! blog.

Scott does indeed an excellent job at reviewing the book and the basic mechanisms of the game. I hope my comments here will not result in much redundancy, but I still want to share a few of my reactions at a first reading. I have not had an opportunity to play the game yet, but several business trips over the last ten days (and the resulting idle time sitting at airports) gave me the chance to read the text a couple of times, and start some work on an order of battle for my future first playtest. So, here's my take on Die Fighting.
  • Quality of product: very good. It is a nice softcover booklet of 54 pages, including two sets of cards and one Quick Reference Card. The quality of the printing is very good, the text is well organized and easy to read. I would have liked a few more examples, but examples are indeed included and are helpful to get a better understanding of some subtler points in the rules. Overall, the feel is that of a "simple" game, almost with an "Old School" flair-- but definitely not simplistic!

  • Core concept. Units in each opposing army have a basic "type" (guard, elite, regular, irregular, etc.) Based on this "type", each unit contribute a certain number of "resource dice" (six-sided dice) to the army common pool. Actions like movement or combat cost resource dice. When you run out of dice, you've lost. Simple, isn't it? In reality, this whole "game engine" appears to create rather sophisticated trade-offs for the player. You need to spend resource dice to execute your plan, but you must be cognizant that the leadership resources that dice represent are not unlimited. Excess spending of dice and lack of discipline in staying focus on the task at hand may result in costly waste; sudden opportunities can be exploited, but you must keep in mind that resource dice are not infinite, and an action now might come at the cost of an action later.

  • Other dice. The rules add two additional sources of dice: leadership dice, depending on the quality of commanders and sub-commanders, and "free" dice, that depend on specific game circumstances as dictated by a Free Dice Table (which has mostly to do with terrain and combat factors.)

  • Sequence of play. True to his philosophy of game design, Bob did not write a I-go-You-go game; yet, unlike Piquet, the cycling of activities through the turn can be more or less structured. The game revolves around six very straightforward phases: specialized actions, officer actions, infantry actions, cavalry actions, artillery actions, rally restore and reload actions. The actual order in which they are executed depends by the period that is being played, and/or the players' personal preferences. Players can choose between three basic phase orderings: "Fixed Synchronous, " "Fixed Asynchronous," and "Variable Asynchronous," which, approximately refer to a same fixed sequence for both player, a individually-set fixed sequence (that may differ between players), or a more chaotic variable sequence. Additional options add some randomness that would be particularly suitable to solo playing.

  • Movement. It depends on a roll of up two resource dice, plus or minus other dice depending on leadership and terrain factors. If you are familiar of The Sword And The Flame, the mechanism in Die Fighting reminded me of those movement rules, with a few original twists added.

  • Combat. In firing and melee, attacker and defender roll their dice, and a variety of consequences (from "no effect' to "retreat," "disorder," "rout," and losses in resource dice) will depend upon the difference between the total score of the dice rolled by the attacker and the dice rolled by the defender. The game does NOT require stand removal as losses accumulate. Disordered or routing units can be rallied during the "Rally, Restore and Reload" Phase.

  • Basing. Some recommendations are included in the rules, but as long as the two opposing armies are based in a consistent manner, the rules will work for any basing scheme.

  • Period flavor. The rules include specific provisions for the "Linear Warfare" period, with two subsets of tables for the earlier War of Spanish Succession and the later War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War; the "Revolutionary Warfare" for the American and French Revolutions; the "Napoleonic Wars"; and the "Wars of Transition" (ACW and FPW). More templates will be freely available online at a later time (see below about "game support.") A Colonial expansion is already in preparation.

  • Game support. Die Fighting is fully supported by the Repique website and Bob Jones' Zouave blog; furthermore, Bob is very active in addressing general and specific questions on the game at the Repique Yahoo forum, which, in the files section, includes FAQ and the inevitable Errata.

Of course, despite our bad habits as wargamers, rules are not made to be read, but to be played, and every preliminary review can only offer a limited taste of the game until units are deployed on the battletop, and a battle takes place. That's exactly what I am planning to do, and in the meanwhile I will make note about the actually preparation of the game (preparations of OOB, rating of units, organization of sub-commanders' battle groups, etc. etc.) in order to share in additional posts on Die Fighting. For the time being, let's just hope that "real life" will cooperate letting me having the time to follow-up on my plans, without throwing surprises or unplanned business trips on my schedule.

Die Fighting, part I: Bob Jones' implicit theology

I received in the mail the latest work of Bob Jones, of Piquet fame. It's Die Fighting, a ruleset for the Horse and Musket period 1700-1900. Before I write a review, which will probably take a separate post, and after, as a full disclaimer, I mention that Bob is a good friend, companion in several good meals and sparking chats, I have to say a few words about Bob Jones' implicit "theology." By that I mean the views about wargaming, rules writing, and combat that lie at the heart of a rules writer's work. In the "Die Fighting" Foreword, Pat McGuire offers many interesting remarks about Bob's style, and in the very same spirit I want to add one though or two to the excellent points made by Pat.

There are at least three core ideas that shape Bob Jones rules:
  • he writes games where players face several crucial decision-node points. In this respect, Piquet was widely and wildly misunderstood. In Bob's games, you have a chance to act on your own turn, phase or card, but you also need to consider opportunities to act at any other moment, oftentimes directly challenging the actions undertaken by your opponent.

  • he writes game that reflect the chaotic nature of the battlefield, where you seldom have a clear picture of the whole situation, where circumstances change suddenly and radically, and where your seldom have control of the events when the battle unfold.

  • he writes games where leadership is fundamental, but it is also a scarce resource. Either in the composition of a sequence deck, a' la Piquet, or in the tally of Resource Dice, as in Die Fighting, Bob's rules provide you some latitude for action, but a latitude which is not unlimited. Doing something now usually means that you will not be able to do something later. Maddening, for those of us used to linear, I-go-You-go sequences of play: but a mechanism which is a wonderful engine of excitement and uncertainty in the game!
On this backdrop of gaming "philosophy", on to Die Fighting: any fully successful creation that delivers exactly what it promise to accomplish! In the next post, a preliminary review, following a reading of the rules before my first playtest.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The strength of my cavalry squadrons, and the sad state of the miniatures business

I spend most of my 2010 working on my Seven Year War project: shopping for miniatures in the spring, painting and getting miniatures painted by Fernando in the summer, and basing my armies in the fall. So, it was with a certain disappointment that later in the year I realized I made a mistake.
I built my cavalry squadrons at a strength of twelve miniatures (on six bases of two miniatures each), under the assumption that a six-base squadron will look good next to six-base infantry units (each with four miniatures per base, for a total of twenty-four miniatures per infantry unit.) Wrong! Once I deployed my squadrons on the field, it became apparent that they could look even better if they were sixteen miniatures strong. You can judge by yourself by looking at my Austrian cuirassuers.

A linear formation of eight miniatures wide and two deep looks good, and for larger games I can split it in two, and deploy two squadrons of eight miniatures each. It sounds like a win-win arrangement. And also in plain march line the impact would probably be better than the current six bases strength, although the impact in this case is already pretty good.

So, no big deal, you'd think. Go out, but four more miniatures for squadron, get them painted, and voila’, all my squadrons upgrade in strength. Instead… wrong again! I made the big mistake of ordering my missing miniatures to GFI/Minifigs in November, and I found myself entangled in the sad story of the near collapse of their business. After nearly two months of wait, I ended up cancelling my order – fortunately, I didn’t suffer a financial loss thanks to the reimbursement by the excellent Paypal: nonetheless, what a waste of time! Not good. But then I proceed with my next best alternative, i.e. ordering from the US stockist of Essex Miniatures... and I ended up stuck in the back-log of their inventory restocking, which apparently takes biblical times these days because of security delays at the U.S. Customs! Definitely, not my luckiest streak. Bottom line: I have been waiting thirty-six miniatures to complete nine squadrons since mid-November 2010, and tomorrow is March 1st 2011. Ordering miniatures should not feel like root canal.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

I am back

I am back. I went five months without an update on my blog, but believe me, it was not for lack of ideas, projects, or progress on my miniatures and terrain. Rather, it was a complete lack of time; it didn't help, either, that I am now blogging for professional reasons. Quite frankly: if you spend many hours at the office thinking about blogging and writing for a blog, a blog is not exactly what you want to do when you come back home at night.
But anyway: I am back now. The goal is to post here at least once a week. Take it as my New Year Resolution. And if I will not deliver, feel free to come and poke at me in the comments!

In the meanwhile, as a teaser of things to come, two pictures from my SYW project now fully under development. Pandurs (above) and Austrian infantry (below).

And, oh, yes, progress also on the terrain front, as you see!