Friday, March 21, 2014

A New Priority for My Miniatures Hobby

So in my last post I mused about ditching WWII skirmish gaming for WWI skirmish gaming. I laid out a wide variety of compelling reasons as to why this was a good idea, from personal interest in the period to the aesthetic appeal of the figures. And I left off the post promising that I'd think about it, but, in reality, thinking that I'd already made up my mind.

Here I am, a couple weeks later, however, and I've decided not to go through with the switch. But I'm glad it came up, that I posted about it, even talked it over with a couple friends. Because that whole process ultimately led me towards a moment of clarity regarding my approach to minis gaming.

See, here's the thing: over the last decade-plus, I've moved around a few times, and I've moved out of the orbits of the folks I used to play miniatures games with. We still keep in touch - quite a bit, in fact - but it's been years since we were all in the same town and able to get together for games. So I've gotten in the habit of building two armies simultaneously whenever I get into a new game or genre. I've got Undead and Amazons for fantasy gaming, British and Germans for WWII skirmish, Space Orks and Titan Legions for Epic 40K - I've even got two little factions for Ronin samurai skirmish games.

The thinking here was that, if I met someone who was interested in minis gaming, I'd have a "loaner" army for them to use and see if they liked the experience. The problem with this approach has been three-fold:

  • First off, this scenario rarely happens. In the same time period, I've been able to introduce a rather significant number of people to RPG gaming, but hardly any of them expressed any interest in minis gaming. Most people have heard of D&D; far fewer have heard of Warhammer. Of those who had, they perceived it to have a much, much higher buy-in cost in terms of time and money than RPGs. (And they're right, frankly.) The presence of a "loaner" army was not enough to sway them to even give the games a try.
  • Secondly, it makes building a miniatures collection a lot tougher, buying two factions at once. Inevitably, it slows the process way down and prevents me from picking up some of the cool stuff that I might otherwise have gotten right away. It dilutes the collection, in the end.
  • Thirdly, and most importantly, when I'm collecting only for myself and without any outside feedback, it tends to create a rabbit-hole effect where I find myself collecting increasingly obscure periods or sub-genres. This had happened to me before with WWII, where I eventually ended up building Romanian and Soviet armies based on the fighting around Odessa in 1941. What the hell? I mean, it's a fascinating and little-known part of the war, but how the heck was that supposed to act as an embassy to the hobby? Clearly, I was starting to go down the rabbit-hole again with this WWI skirmish idea.
So I've made a resolution. From now on, I'm only going to collect single factions initially. Furthermore, I'm going to make an effort to target games that are actually being played in my community, and play those games with (gasp!) other people. (It helps that, currently, those "other people" happen to be people I know and like.)

For example, I've decided to stick with WWII because Bolt Action is a really popular set of rules right now. Sure, there are other rules systems out there, but I've taken a look at BA in the past, and it seems perfectly suited for my current goals. (Plus there's a points-based army building element to it, and I like points-based army building and I don't care who knows it!) But I'm going to sell off half my collection (the Germans) and focus on my Brits; I'll probably be selling off most or all of the Brits, too, actually, so that I can get a fresh start on the collection, but I'm still going to model them on Normandy-period forces.

Hmmm, maybe I could split the cost on this with a couple local players and they could take the Americans and Germans, and I'll keep the rulebook and terrain?
I'd already inadvertently started this process last month when I picked up a single faction for Malifaux. One of the above-mentioned "other people" heard me talking about wanting to get into the game during a wargames-focused episode of a podcast I contribute to, and she called my bluff. So now I have a single faction for that game and a potential opponent. My plan's already in motion!

I'll also be using some of the proceeds from my WWII sales to finally get into Warmachine/Hordes. I found a faction I really like, and it's quite popular in my neck of the woods, with active groups in my town and neighboring communities - one of the more popular WarmaHordes video blogs even "broadcasts" from Albuquerque, about an hour south of where I'm living.

I'm also giving serious thought to starting up a bi-monthly wargames club via a local tabletop gaming Meetup group I admin. This would be a great way to grow the hobby in my town and meet some new opponents. My "single-faction" approach kind of forces me to this, which is a good thing. No more sitting on esoteric collections of miniatures that just gather dust and never get played! The only trick will be finding a good space to host the meetings. Hmm, George R. R. Martin lives in my city, and he's a big miniatures wargaming guy - maybe he'll let us use his basement?

(For the record, I will be keeping my double-faction collections for Ronin and Epic 40K; the former takes up hardly any space on my shelves, and the latter is just pure nostalgia for me. Plus, it never hurts to have a couple loaner armies. . .)

Saturday, March 08, 2014

"A New Period - Really, Man?"

I dunno, Rhetorical Self, I'm thinking about it. I'm just throwing some thoughts up here, gonna see what sticks.

I'm currently recovering from a minor, outpatient surgical procedure. This has given me time to catch up on some back issues of Wargames Illustrated that have been sitting next to my bed for too long. Today's issue was from January 2013, and was dedicated to the theme of World War One.

Here's the thing: when I was a wee lad, I was fascinated by World War One. The rhomboidal tanks, the gas masks (on both man and horse!), the churned earth of no-man's land, the colorful biplanes. Loved the whole thing.

In high school, along with my gaming buddies, I was pretty much a Games Workshop guy when it came to miniatures gaming. Eventually, we got burned out, as often happens. Too many price hikes, too much corporate BS. Historical miniatures had always appealed to me (I was just getting started on my eventual BA in History), and I pushed my friends to start exploring that end of the hobby. Since I had made the initial push, I left it up to them to pick a period that appealed.

They picked World War Two, and the rest, for me, was history. The irony, of course, is that WWII was never really my thing. In fact, I remember being somewhat taken aback when my friends suggested that as a period (this being many years before Flames of War) - I thought to myself, "Do people even play that period?" The historical minis I'd seen on display at the local game store had all been Greek phalanxes and Napoleonic divisions and Civil War regiments, that sort of thing. Twentieth-century wargaming? Really? But I went along with it and educated myself on the period and the different scales of engagement.

After many years, I've settled on skirmish as my ideal for 20th-century wargaming. Larger engagements seem better served by boardgames or computer games, and I like injecting a level of humanity into the giant mill of industrialized warfare. And I've immersed myself pretty deeply in World War Two miniatures gaming over the past, gosh, 18 years!?

Another amazing Lonely Gamers table.
But as I perused that Wargames Illustrated issue, I started to cogitate. One of the articles quite reasonably pointed out that the war wasn't just about static trench warfare, that the opening and closing phases of the Western Front were actually quite mobile and open, and that other theaters never got bogged down at all. I was also reminded that there are a handful of skirmish-scale WWI rules out there, including a set of rules from one of my favorite publishers, Iron Ivan Games. I'd been aware that people gamed WWI, but I'd always assumed it was large-scale games featuring regiments and battalions and divisions. The idea of gaming WWI at skirmish scale just like my WWII games sort of hit me like a brick upside the head.

Nowadays I pretty much carry the WWII torch for myself. The people who initially suggested the period long ago grew disinterested in historical wargaming in general and, besides, they now live 1,000 miles away. My local minis gaming community (such as I'm plugged into it) is more focused on WarmaHordes and 40K. So, as far as 20th-century skirmish-scale wargaming is concerned, why not switch to a period that is a little more authentic to my interests anyway, I says to myself? The Great War still holds the sort of morbid fascination that drew me in so many years ago, and I'm excited by the prospect of being able to game it at an engagement scale I'm comfortable with.

And, to be perfectly honest, the fact that this is the centenary year of the opening of the war just adds a certain appealing synergy to the whole thing. In fact, I've been mulling the idea of starting my collection with early war, 1914-era troops. Uniforms were still colorful and old-fashioned, and it's the clash of the old and the new that's long been part of my fascination with the period. Visions of French cuirassiers, Scottish highlanders in kilts, cavalry lancers, and Germans in pickelhaube helmets are now dancing in my head. (And, as those links attest, I'm also finding that there are tons of great figure options available.) If I end up having fun with the period, I could see adding more units from later in the war as the years go by, perhaps branching out to cover the mid-war years in Palestine and Arabia, and finally adding Stosstruppen and A7V tanks in time for the 100th anniversary of the March Offensives in 2018.

I dunno, it's fun little gimmick, I guess.

So what are the cons?

1) I've already got 2-3 other ideas in the offing for projects in the coming months and years: an 18th-century Imagi-Nations project, a third army for my Armies of Arcana collection, a new fantasy collection based on Joe Dever's World of Magnamund... So it's not like I'm starving for projects or inspiration.

(On the other hand, those are all big projects that I've resolved to put on the back burner until we can get moved into a slightly larger living space that will allow for proper display of the painted minis. The appeal of skirmish scale is that you can get a game-able, displayable collection together pretty quickly and easily.)

2) This would probably be my farewell to WWII for the foreseeable future (unless I get suckered into joining a Flames of War club or something, god forbid). And that's kind of sad to me. I've got a good nucleus of a collection going now, I'm happy with the chosen period, the manufacturers, everything. But I have to wonder how much of this is just inertia? I like the period well enough, but I didn't really get into it until someone else suggested it.

(I suppose I should explicate that I'd sell my WWII collection to purchase my WWI collection. I guess I could hold on to my WWII collection and put them ice, but that would slow down the new project quite a bit and...really, I'm not enough of a hardcore hobbyist to keep a collection that I only intend to play once in a blue moon.)

3) Speaking of my WWII collection, I've got enough painted at this point to have small games of Operation Squad and such. So starting over from scratch would mean no "modern" wargaming for a bit. (My goal would be to have something ready to go by the August centennial.) On the other hand, I've got my Epic 40K, Malifaux, Armies of Arcana, and samurai skirmish forces to occupy my paintbrush and tabletop time, so again, it's not like I'm desperately lacking.

I'm going to ponder this for a few more days before making a final decision, but it should be pretty clear which direction I'm leaning towards, here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Some Thoughts on Basing

Last August, I wrote a bit about my grumpy-old-man syndrome regarding changing standards in what's considered "acceptable" basing techniques. Since then, if anything, I've gotten even grumpier about the topic.

This is largely due to me dipping a toe into a couple of the skirmish-scale fantasy games that are currently enjoying a wave of popularity, namely Warmachine/Hordes and Malifaux. Both games seem to exemplify the extremes of "diorama" basing that is so trendy these days.

Now, I certainly don't shy away from tarting up my bases a bit with some static grass and a flowering shrub or two, but some of the stuff I've seen (particularly for Malifaux) has been pretty extreme. I mean, when your base is as big as the figure that stands atop it...I'm just not sure what that's supposed to accomplish.

The thing is that, for me, I look at a wargaming miniature as a smaller component of an overall whole. All the miniatures on the table should, ideally, complement the scenic layout (and vice versa) such that, when you're looking at the whole panoply, it should seem almost like an organic diorama in its own right. I've made no bones in the past about my aesthetic snobbery when it comes to minis gaming, and this is simply part of that overall philosophy: that I play miniatures games as much for the visual appeal as for the tactical challenges it presents.

In fact, I really don't have any objective objections (heh) to overly-elaborate basing in its own right. If these fancy bases were simply being used to further a goal of painting one's miniatures purely as display pieces, then going nuts with the basing makes perfect sense. It's only once those same figures are placed on a gaming table that I cock a Spock-like eyebrow of judgment.

The thing to consider here is that my emphasis on aesthetics does sometimes border on the neurotic. As I wrote about in the above-linked post, I miss the days of simpler basing in part because today's standards add a lot more work per figure, and I'm lazy. But I'm also a bit down on today's more elaborate bases because - and I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit this - there's a part of me that inwardly winces when, say, a miniature with a classic "grassy turf" base moves into an area of the table with a noticeably different type of ground surface, like a watery marsh or cobblestone street.

Enter transparent plastic bases...

I've been particularly arrested by the increasingly frequent use of these guys as a method of basing. This seems to be the polar opposite of the elaborate base, both in terms of work and aesthetics: a base that you literally do nothing to other than affixing the figure, and a base that, by definition, matches whatever terrain the figure is standing on. Looking at those points, transparent bases would seem to be ideal for my tastes. Yet I don't want to abandon scenic bases entirely. They still have their place, aesthetically.

But I'm definitely going to base my Malifaux figures on clear bases as a sort of test case - see how they look in person, and how they look on the game table. Plus, and this is just the contrarian in me, I love the idea of going hyper-minimalist with figures for a game that features so many overwrought bases.
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