Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wargaming, Computers, and the Co-option of the "Gamer"

I couldn't decide whether to post this in my RPG blog or miniatures gaming blog, so I'm posting it in both. Furthermore, this is going to be a rather rambling post in which I spend a lot of time musing about things as they once were and generally feeling sorry for myself (while making a ton of sweeping generalizations), so consider yourself warned.

Since a very early point in my involvement in the gaming hobby, I've been a frustrated wargamer. When I say "wargames," I'm speaking of course about those boxed games that come with a 3'x4' map covered in hexagons and two or three sheets of punched cardboard counters with various NATO symbols and numbers printed on them. As I've written about before, I got into RPGs right at that cusp, that transition, from the last gasps of "old school" gaming (the end of the 80s--and yes, I know there are many out there who would argue that old school had died long before that, in much the same way that some would argue punk was dead by 1979, but let's just set that aside for now) and the "new school" as heralded by such games as Vampire: the Masqerade and AD&D 2e.

The end of the 80s didn't just herald the passing of a certain phase of RPG gaming, it also brought about the final effective death, I think, of an even earlier facet of the hobby, the granddaddy of them all, wargaming. The mass-market board wargame we know today was developed in the 1950s by Charles S. Roberts; his first game was called Tactics, and it sparked the creation of a whole new hobby that hadn't existed before (sound familiar?).

It was, of course, out of wargames and the associated hobby that RPGs and miniatures games grew, and it was the wargaming community that allowed folks like Gary Gygax, Don Kaye, Dave Arneson, Ken St. Andre, Greg Stafford, Rick Priestly, etc., etc., ad nauseum, to network and grow the nascent offshoots that later eclipsed wargames.

It's interesting and worrying to me that D&D and RPGs followed a similar trajectory to wargames: start with a small, self-published game that spawns an entire hobby; said hobby quickly grows from a small cadre of dedicated enthusiasts to a much larger phenomenon; phenomenon leads to all sorts of new blood coming in to hobby; said new blood takes hobby in strange new directions; hobby eventually shrinks back to its original size as the "grognards" keep carrying the torch forward and the new blood takes their new interpretations elsewhere, particularly into the world of computers, where the hobby is reborn in an even bigger fashion.It's that last bit I find a bit worrisome, and it's why I'm ultimately somewhat prejudiced against CRPGs and MMORPGs.

Like I said before, I was a frustrated wargamer. I bought Tactics II on sale at a mall game store (The Gamekeeper, if anyone remembers those places), and bought several more games over time for years after that. This at a time when you could still find wargames in a mall--hell, when you could still find gaming stores in a mall... It immediately spoke to me. It appealed to my interest in strategy. It appealed (very much, obviously) to my interest in military history, and my interest in "what if" scenarios. It appealed to that slightly OCD side of me that liked seeing serried ranks of squares and hexagons laid out like a military map showing main lines of resistance, breakthroughs, routs, and so forth. Yet, try as I might, I could not get my gaming friends interested in 'em. They just didn't see the appeal of pushing a bunch of cardboard counters around a paper map when computer wargames would do the same thing and offer better graphics and take care of all those fiddly rules for you. Now, my friends (Philistines that they are) aren't the best representatives even then, because they were never really interested in computer wargames either--they were much more of the "Warcraft/Starcraft" school--but I know that computer wargames in general sort of what put the nail in the coffin of the board wargame hobby (which had been in decline anyway).

This is why I'm a bit wary, as I said, of role-playing iterations of computer games, especially since the RPG hobby seems to still be following that wargames trajectory. Add into this the co-option of the term "gamer" by video game players (a huge pet peeve of mine), and you've got a recipe for a cranky young grognard. I know these are hardly new or revolutionary sentiments. And I know that wargames map to computers much more easily and readily than RPGs ever will (and even moreso for miniatures). But still, I worry--will I one day have to clarify what I mean by "RPG" ("Games you play in person with other people, involving dice and books...") like I did for "wargames" at the outset of this post?

I guess it comes down to the fact that, just like a feel a bit sad over the fact that I just missed out on the old school era of RPGs (as I define it), I also feel sad that the age of wargames had passed me by as well. Even sadder is the fact that I've recently come to realize that I simply no longer feel the urge to play wargames. I guess you can only carry a torch for so long. Like so many others, I scratch my wargaming itch with computer games these days.

(And for what it's worth, I have played board wargames online via the various "gamebox" applications one can access (VASL, Aide-de-Camp, etc.); it's just not the same as the real thing. Nor is solo play, which doesn't hold a candle to those few times I've managed to cajole a friend or two into playing. Also, interestingly, every time I've resolved to start playing more solo wargames, I've gotten a girlfriend or my social life has gotten suddenly much busier soon after, as if the universe is saying, "No, I won't let you go down that road--here, here's a bunch of stuff to keep you otherwise occupied.")

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Samurai That Wouldn't Die

I realized today that I've been working on my 10mm Samurai project for over two years. Now, I'm sure any dedicated minis enthusiast has one or more of these sort of crazy white elephant projects sitting on their backs, but this may well be a record for me.

The delay has been due to a lot of reasons, several of which I've addressed in previous entries. First, I chose a rather obscure scale for which it proved difficult to acquire miniatures. The fact that I went for a marginal genre in an already marginal sub-category (historical miniatures) of an already marginal hobby (miniatures games) didn't help. Nor did it help that this genre deals with an era of history that is not too well documented, but neither is it fuzzy enough to allow me to say "screw it" and do what I like (as I would be able to do with, say, Sumerians or Skythians, to name but two other "S" choices). Add to this the fact that it's an historical genre from an alien culture with a completely foreign language and writing system, forcing me to rely entirely on the relatively scanty secondary sources available...

Well, it's been an adventure, that's for sure. I do actually enjoy the research aspect of historical miniatures, and I certainly know tons more about 16th century samurai warfare than I did two years ago. But enough's enough! We need to actually play some games, fer Chrissakes!

Fortunately, I'm just about ready to do so, or at least closer than I've ever been. The breakthrough came last autumn, when I was horribly sick and took some of my convalescence as a chance to read up on some points I was still a bit fuzzy about. And that's when I stumbled across the indispensable Samurai Sourcebook. If you've come across this entry because you're interested in getting into samurai miniatures, then know this: this book should be your first purchase. Before you buy any minis, or rules, or anything. Read it, and go forth armed with the knowledge you will need to choose the rules and minis that work for you. And let you paint them well! Why? Because the Samurai Sourcebook contains, among a lot else, comprehensive lists of uniform, armor, and sashimono colors, by clan, both major and minor. I've seen nothing that even comes close in any of my other reference material, even other Turnbull books.

I started basing figures last night. That was another bugbear for me, settling on a basing scheme I liked. In the end, as so often happens, I settled on the obvious choice: actually going by the rules. In this case, Taiko! prescribes a half-inch base per figure, which always struck me as a bit too small for having multiple figures on a base, as I wanted to do. But I was flipping through the rules the other night and noticed that they mentioned that one could always mount multiple "figures" to extra-wide bases, as long as you had a way of keeping track of casualties. And it clicked for me.

So I'm mounting everything on "double wide" bases: infantry are on 40 mm by 20mm bases, cavalry's on 40mm square (a little wider than the 1 inch frontage a doubled stand should have, but that's OK). Yari-wielding ashigaru are 5 to a base, all others are 4 or (in the case of cavalry) less. Only commander stands are the "standard" 20mm square bases (just enough room for the commander and a couple banner bearers).

The system looks great, it's faithful to the ground scale of Taiko! (my old system would have had a unit of twenty lined up in ranks of five by four cover the area of a piece of paper; now it covers the area of an index card), and means fewer minis to paint (my old system would have required me to paint 54 yari for a regiment of six "figures"; now I only have to paint 15).

That last point, of course, leaves me with quite a surplus of figures, which is fine. We are, after all, modeling a provincial conflict and should not have huge armies moving about the battlefield (another reason I like the new-old system). But I'm left wondering now if I might have enough of a surplus to put together a third army. Say, didn't the Takeda invade the Matsudaira homelands at some point...?

ETA: Forgot to mention that another part of my plan is to do the "introductory scenario" of a contingent of Sakai retainers fighting outraged peasants using 20mm plastics and the Taiko! skirmish rules, which are almost identical to the "army" rules. Should be fun.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Why I love miniatures games

I was going through some old files on an old hard drive today and came across this picture:

That's a shot from a game of Baptism of Fire, a WWII skirmish game. My trusty Russian Naval Infantry is just entering the board and heading towards that shelled house beyond the trees. I love the composition of this shot. It conjures up in me the excitement that comes at the beginning of every miniatures game I play, that "what's going to happen" feeling of anticipation.

It also demonstrates ably the supreme aesthetic appeal of a good set-up. It takes time and a little bit of cash, sure, but the payoff for making the effort to produce a good-looking set of terrain is a one hundred-fold return. To me, it beats the best computer game graphics, the slickest Hollywood movie, and even the good ol' imagination, of which I'm usually an ardent supporter. I really do hope new generations of gamers keep taking the time to break out their paint, glue, Xacto blades, and flocking and put together games that would put my own layout to shame.

(In case you're wondering, I believe I lost that game, although it was a close one. My flamethrower OT-34 [not pictured] almost managed to burn that house down while it was still full of Germans, but it got taken out by a Pak 40 anti-tank gun.)

(That's the same modular terrain you can see in action in my Fantasy Warriors battle reports. I eventually sold it and invested in some Hexon II terrain, which I'm hoping to premiere some time this summer. Pics will follow, of course.)

(Lastly, that picture was taken in my old dining room. Dang, I miss that apartment. Moving from a two bedroom to a one bedroom really cramps your style when you're looking for space to play, you know?)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

::blows dust off blog::

Wow, it's been nearly a year since I updated this thing!

The reason behind the silence is, ironically, the fact that I've been painting miniatures. You see, the problem is that they haven't been my minis. Word of advice to anyone thinking of starting up a for-pay minis painting service: don't do it unless you're no longer interested in painting your own figures, or unless you have lots of spare time.

See, I don't have tons of spare time. Turns out I can only devote so much of that limited quantity to painting miniatures, and since I fired up Grubstake Painting that time's been eaten up with working on other people's projects.

I suppose if the pay was decent it would make up for it, but the fact is I'm not a fast enough painter to justify the money I get. Sure, I'm working on a batch of Civil War minis right now that will ultimately net me $1800, but that's over the course of what will be about 8-12 months. Not a great take for a year of work, no?

So I've decided to throw in the miniatures painting towel. The Civil War batch will be my last big one; I've got one client who sends me 1/300th scale planes in small batches, and he loves my work (::blush::) so I'll keep that kettle bubbling, but otherwise I've got to get back to my own projects!

Speaking of which, I've been sublimating for the fact that minis action has been rather thin on the ground by slowly amassing a truck-load of "projects". I sat down tonight and came up with a project list. Not a pretty sight. Here it is, listed in anticipated order of completion:

*Hexon II Terrain
Can't have battles without terrain, can we? I ordered a big-ass batch of Hexon tiles last year, and they're set to get flocked and detailed soon--I actually got started on them a couple weeks ago, then ran out of flock and couldn't find any at my local hobby joints, so I had to order some! What is this world coming to? I should be able to finish all that up in a couple days' work. Pictures will follow once the project is complete.

* 28mm Fantasy
This would be using Armies of Arcana. I've been slowly painting up a skeleton army about which I'm quite excited--skeletons hold a special place in my heart thanks to Ray Harryhausen and the fact that some of my earliest miniatures purchases were skeletons. Des has put together an Amazon army that rocks on toast, and my old friend Alex has put together a Dwarf army. Hopefully we can all take time out of our busy schedules to get these figures painted up and on the field of battle!

*20mm WWII skirmish
Two projects in one! I keep returning to this scale and period, and I've had two specific "theaters" that have consistently captured my interest for years now. The first in the Battle of Berlin, the second is the Romanian operations against the Russians in the first half of the war (41-43): the siege of Odessa, the invasion and later defense of the Crimea, etc. There have been some really nice plastic sets put lately, so I'm going all 1/72 plastic (with just a handful of metal figures thrown in to fill the gaps), and I've got plans to do the ruins of Berlin in paper and foamcore. Stay tuned for further developments on that.

*20mm French & Indian War
This was actually a bit of a lark, but I just picked up Iron Ivan's rules on FIW skirmish battles and a couple boxes of Indians and Colonists; Des is a fan of the period, and I figured it would make for some fun games. I downloaded some paper farmhouses and forts, and I'm getting all my trees together and rebased so we can have some battles amidst the wilderness of America!

*28mm Zombies
Technically this should be higher up the list--I ordered a bag fulla zombies last year and painted them up really quick, but I still need to download and print up some card buildings from World Works and just generally tidy up other terrain-related loose ends, and that bumps it down the priority list for the time-being. Planning on using All Things Zombie for the rules.

*10mm Samurai
I really wish this were higher up the list; I painted up a stand of yari-wielding ashigaru and they look fantastic, but there's just a ton of minis to paint up, and I want to tackle the smaller/easier projects first since I'm still finishing up work for clients. I'm really hoping I can get to this project over the summer. The good news is that this is pretty much the only project on the list that doesn't require any new terrain--I have a couple resin huts and some rice paddies ready to go, and the rest of the terrain will come from my general collection.

So that's the list! As you may have gathered, I'm putting an emphasis on cost-effectiveness and ease of assembly. Buildings will be almost entirely card and paper, minis will be plastics when possible.

What about Fantasy Warriors?
Excellent question! Why yes, I do have a perfectly workable set of miniatures rules and two completely painted armies. Why not use those? I don't have a really good answer to that question, other than after selling my terrain boards I haven't had any completed terrain to game on. I've considered "road testing" Armis of Arcana with our FW armies, but the fact is that Amazons and Skeletons really aren't that hard to paint and we should have brand-new armies ready to go pretty quickly, once we get around to sitting down and painting them. But if that doesn't appear to be happening quickly, once my Hexon tiles are ready to go I'll definitely bust out the Orcs and Dwarves for another round of mayhem.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...