Back to basics

There comes a time in every wargamer’s life when he has to make some critical decisions. These are often prompted by such statements of the bleedin’ obvious such as, “I’m not getting any younger”, “I have umpteen unfinished projects”, “My eyes aren’t what they used to be”, “The rising price of lead is scandalous”, “What’s that funny smell?” and, not least, “Isn’t this supposed to be fun?”

In my case, the scenario has been somewhat ironic. As author of one of the most highly publicised fictitious campaigns, I’m ashamed to say that the miniature soldiery for representing the Wars of the Faltenian Succession have been in a bit of a parlous state. Over the course of the 20-odd years that Prunkland and Faltenland (and assorted belligerent neighbours) have been battling on the pettiest of pretexts, I have made use of several sets of rules, various sizes of miniatures and have enlisted the help of at least five wargaming opponents, as well as playing solo. 6mm, 15mm, 25mm and 30mm figures have all had their turn; the Grant rules, Charge!, the Newbury 18th century rules, WRG 1685-1845, Bruce Quarrie (amended), and then my own concoctions, have all conspired to test the nerves of such bold warriors as Von Eintopf, Luzian Marcklenburg and the great King Ludwig of Prunkland himself. This was all exacerbated by the purchase of someone else’s collection of old and brittle (but painted) plastic Spencer Smiths a couple of years ago. They are nice, but not quite nice enough, and the unit sizes just aren’t right at all.

I’m 47 later this month, and I’ve reached the point where I want to clear out the clutter, and make some bold and (this is the important word) permanent decisions about my collection, and the rules I’m using for the few periods and scales I’m settling on. And core of all the projects is my fictitious 18th century imagi-nation campaign. If I can’t sort that, I asked, then what can I sort?

It’s curious how a visit to fellow wargamers can provide the fuel for change in unexpected ways. In the last twelve months or so, I’ve trodden paths to the doors of John Ray, John Preece, Phil Olley and Charles Grant. Each of them, in their own way, has an impressive collection that reflects a certain single-mindedness which I cannot help but admire. Heck, I’m a Gemini, so most days I don’t know if I’m coming or going, and in the creative maelstrom I inhabit, I’m interested in everything and pretty good at most things. Well, that’s great for dinner party chatter and idle flirting — even for designing, editing and publishing a magazine — but it sure doesn’t get the painted figures on the shelf.

I looked long and hard at Phil Olley’s stuff in particular. His Pils Holstein campaign is a near-perfect rendition of an imagi-nation based heavily on historical precedent. He uses Front Rank figures, many of which are professionally painted, together with wonderful basing that is his trademark. As a project manager, Phil is peerless, and his advice is rightly sought by many gamers (not least, me!) when they find themselves wallowing in the no-man’s-land of loss of focus.

Phil, of course, will be the first, in turn, to pay homage to the great John Ray, whose magnificent, self-sculpted AWI collection is now being swollen by his European armies of the late third and early fourth quarters of the 18th century: this is his Fulda campaign, evidence of which is also being hosted by Phil. If you want absolute proof of one man’s vision being translated into miniature reality, this is it, right down to the little individual vignettes and personalities that John has created, based on tiny sketches prepared for him by miniature architect and artist Brian Rigelsford. To be able to sculpt unique miniatures to this quality is something I envy hugely, and I am filled with admiration for John’s work every time I see it.

Now, without question, these are oeuvres of the highest order. For quite some time, I hesitated to continue my own core project, questioning the worthiness of my efforts, lured by the sumptuous detail of the Ray/Olley mould. I looked at my Spencer Smiths and was torn inside, loving their simplicity, but desperately unsure of whether they would provide me with the satisfaction I craved long-term.

But then, something happened. First of all, I became heavily involved with a project being put together by Charles Grant. I was honoured to be asked to contribute in certain ways to his forthcoming The War Game Companion, which has just gone to the publishers. In the course of this work, I was privileged to be asked to edit certain sections of the book, and whilst I cannot reveal the contents, I can tell you that the effects of reading Charles’ recollections of campaigning with his father were completely restorative. The adventures had by father and son, as they commanded the forces of Die Vereinigte Freie Städte and the Grand Duchy of Lorraine, make for enthralling reading; anyone who loved The War Game will want to have this tome alongside it on their shelf. In essence, it made me realise that, for 18th century gaming at least, what I first read in Charles Grant senior’s book back in 1971 IS wargaming for me. Simple, elegant figures, marching in serried ranks, organised into big battalions and squadrons, on an equally simple terrain. Virtually nothing is literal, and there are acres of space left for the imagination. THAT, I thought to myself, is what I want for the Wars of the Faltenian Succession. For me, personally, anything else is compromise.

But at the same time, there is no point me slavishly copying what the Grants did, any more than I would find originality in aping the Ray/Olley ‘realistic’ approach. I’m a graphic designer, and as such, need to achieve my own ‘branding’ on the project. I was already happy with the figure painting style I had used for our Sittangbad game at Partizan a couple of years ago, so now I needed to fix what would help me achieve the ‘look’ I wanted in short order.

Regiment von Eintopf's regimental coloursWell, it just so happens that I’ve been a heraldry nut for as long as I can remember, and even did a stint as official shire herald in the medieval recreation group I used to be involved with. Over the years, I’d done loads of sketches of ideas for Prunkland’s and Faltenland’s flags, and had even hand-painted a few in both 15mm and 30mm sizes (the latter on tin foil at the time — I still like the folds that medium can give). But now, with my knowledge and some wonderful graphic software at my disposal, the time had come to put the power of Freehand and Photoshop to the test. And, at long last, after several days of trial and error, the final product emerged. What you can see on the left are the regimental colours of Regiment von Eintopf, complete with battle honours. That, in itself, provided hours of fun, sifting through the old campaign diaries and battle reports to see just which units had acquitted themselves honourably at each encounter. One unit — you’ll have to wait to find out who — had even disgraced itself! (Amazing how selective one’s memory can be: my recollection had been that every Prunkland unit had covered itself with glory…) The King's Colour of Von Eintopf MusketeersThe next picture shows the King’s Colour for the same unit. Whereas the ground of the regimental colour will change according to the facing colour of each unit, the King’s Colour will remain the same, except for the name of the unit on the scroll below the lion. The heraldic description of this flag is lozengy gules and argent, a lion passant regardant or, and crown or and gules. Beside the crown are the initials L[udwig] R[ex] and on the scroll beneath the lion’s feet, “Am 1.Regiment zu Fuss”. Both flags have had a slightly ‘billowing silk’ effect applied in Photoshop, and the gold embroidered parts have been given a very slight embossing and metallic effect. I can’t point you at specific filters here — it’s the result of nearly 20 years experience with computer graphics which tells me what is ‘just enough’. Better to be somewhat restrained than to overdo the effect.

Along with the flags came the decisions about basing. Those Spencer Smiths just don’t go with fancy, terrained basing. Look back at The War Game: originally, they were used completely unbased, and they looked perfect. Charles Grant has his father’s collection mounted on individual card bases (see the photos in Battlegames issue 8). But the fact is that in the early 21st century, none of us have as much time to shunt around monster battalions any more, requiring perhaps 70+ repetitive movements per unit. This has to be cut in half, or even better, quartered. But at the same time, I do want to be able to remove individual casualties from my units: I don’t want to have to keep roster sheets, or put chits behind the unit, or slip coloured whatnots over my muskets that will detract from the purity of the look.

And so the answer evolved from this quest. Each company of 12 figures has a six, a three, a two and a single. This makes it easy to line up the bases nice and neatly, cuts the number of repetitive movements to 16 per battalion, plus the command stand (colonel on horseback, two drummers, two ensigns and the Regimental Sergeant Major) and, given the very thin nature of the 0.8mm ply bases, does not detract from the figures at all. The cavalry will be given a similar treatment, based in threes, pairs and singles. The artillery will be based using a system similar to that adopted by my good friend Phil Olley, which seems to me an idea I cannot improve upon, a neat idea from a very clever man. See his Pils Holstein pics to see what I mean.

And so, last night, Das Erste Regiment zu Fuss (Von Eintopf) went on parade, with their grenadiers and other supernumeraries in support, resplendent with flags and bases. The final additions were some finials bought from Front Rank, painted to show the gold tassels and ‘royal’ red ribbons, tied on by His majesty King Ludwig himself during the Grand Review of January 1746. I have also converted the unit from three companies of 16 figures to four of 12, so some quick tricorne pom-pom revision was carried out to create ‘green company’ (the others being red, blue and yellow). A final spray of varnish overall for protection, and voila!

Regiment von Eintopf on parade with its brand new colours flying

Close-up on the colour party.

An overhead view of Von Eintopf Musketeers, with their grenadiers emerging from the new Zollamt.

Another view of Von Eintopf. The archway on the right is part of the Vauban fort previously in the collection of Phil Olley.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that a few paragraphs ago, I wrote, “First of all, I became heavily involved…” So, what is the “secondly,…” that should follow?

Well, being a businessman and someone who is open to new ideas, I read quite a lot of self- and business-improvement books these days, and without going all pseudo on you, it is a fact that a great many people — myself included — go through periods of doubt that can leave you almost paralysed, like a man who suddenly realises that he’s stuck in the middle of a minefield. This is as true of life in general as it is of wargames projects. And I guess I had started to look at my Wars of the Faltenian Succession collection (though, curiously, not the campaign itself, which has by and large been resoundingly successful as a project) in the same way: as a series of aborted, dead-end non-starters, resulting in a disparate and jumbled collection of styles, scale and so forth. When confronted with the singluar visions of a Ray, an Olley or a Grant, it’s very easy to feel like a failure in comparison.

The secret to unlocking all this? You are not your mistakes. Just because you made a mistake yesterday, or the day before, or last month, or last year, does not mean you will necessarily make the same mistake again tomorrow, so go easy on yourself, relax, think things through calmly, and move on, with today being a brand new start. People are constantly surprising, and can turn around their lives almost ‘out of the blue’. And, after calmly going through the process I have described here, I know I’ve found my new beginning. I just had to focus on my own goals, not worrying about what anyone else might think, and proceed from there.

Phil Olley is not just a very decent bloke, he’s also a bit of a guru, and managed to put into words in an email (if I may crave his indulgence in quoting from it) the perfect summing-up of where this process has got me:

“When settling on your major project so much “wargamers’ muddle” falls away like a weight off shoulders.

  • No longer need to think about basing; the decision is made.
  • No longer need to think about unit compositions; the decision is made.
  • No longer need to think about what figures to get; the decision is made.
  • No longer need to think about terrain style; the decision is made.

And so on.
It is a feeling of great relief that, at last, one can just now focus on carrying out the plan.”

Amen to that.

Now, Von Renscher Musketeers are next, and a hefty load of aborted projects to sell on eBay and WargamesMarket. Bring it on!

13 comments for “Back to basics

  1. May 20, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    Great Article Henry. Love those flags. Great photos of those Spencer Smiths too. First time I saw those photos I thought I was looking at Mollwitz again.

    Focusing on goals is a good thing no matter what you are trying to do whether in wargaming or real life. As for wargaming projects, they’re your projects. There’s nothing better than seeing a project right through to the end.

  2. battlegames
    May 20, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Thanks to everyone for your very kind comments – and especially Andy, who has encouraged a small edit to disguise my date of birth! (No, I’m not ashamed of my age, he was sadly, but rightly concerned about identity theft.)

    I’d also like to mention that one person very kindly emailed me direct to enquire about my rates for accepting private commissions to design fictitious flags. I believe he’s out of ER now, and recovering well. 😉

    Seriously, though, the design and execution of fictitious heraldry is a very involved process, as I’m sure you can tell, and I can only base my rates on what I would charge for any other professional design work. Even with an “aw, okay, because you’re a fellow wargamer…” discount, you are looking at something like a day’s work as a minimum, depending on the complexity of your ideas. Heraldic beasts, visual flourishes and other ‘twiddly bits’ all take time to execute to the standards I demand of myself – I’m afraid I don’t do ‘rough and ready’!

    It just so happens that I have an article lined up in the next issue of Battlegames that deals with a piece of software that can easily be used to create your own flags – and it’s free! So if you can hang on for a while longer, and are prepared to put in a little work, you may find just what you need…

  3. Andy Mitchell
    May 20, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Super article, catching just the right spirit. There’s always a certain ‘slog’ factor involved in building up a wargame army – especially one with large units – and so anything like this that radiates its enthusiasm for the task is pure gold. My only criticism is that revealing your exact date of birth is always hazardous in these days of identity theft.

  4. May 17, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    I do know exactly what you mean by goal diffusion. I’m in a similar position, exacerbated by the prospect of emigrating within the year. This had led me to take a good, long hard look at my collections, the mounds of unpainted lead, heaps of raw materials for scenery, books galore. What to ship out, what to sell, what to give away…

    In the end I decided the figure collections for my 18th century ImagiNation of Hetzenberg were the ones I want to retain and develop. I do love to read accounts of battles great and small, fictional or not, and there’s a great deal of charm in the 18th century way of life.

  5. May 17, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Henry – the figures are magnificent, but I would say that the more happy message is that you have found wargaming equilibrium and a way forward… here’s to tens more regiments… :o))

  6. May 16, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    Very well written, and I agree with Stokes, I never get tired of looking at troops like these. Delightful job on the flags, even if you are officially evil for thereby implanting in my head the idea of adding battle honors to my own flags.

  7. May 16, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    What a great article, Henry! And I never tire of gazing at photos of your Von Eintopf boys either. Thanks for the updates. Those new standards and finials look lovely.

    Best Regards,

    Stokes Schwartz

  8. May 16, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    Absolutely GREAT!
    So many thanks for starting this series of posts.
    Looking forward to see the Von Renscher Musketeers – all the regiments involed in the WFS, actually.
    Cheers,
    Jean-Louis

  9. meadowsboy
    May 16, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Great advice all! Though I am still searching for my core period!
    cheers

  10. May 16, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    At 52 I have found myself in a state of high goal diffusion.

    Similarly, Grant’s The Wargame is wargaming for me.

    My wife bought me two regiments of the new Spencer Smiths for Christmas that I am currently painting. I want to be single minded in my pursuit of this project; I did well with my 42mm RTW project. Now I need to harness that energy and move forward exclusively with my SYW project as well. I’m glad you’ve found the motivation and discipline to do this yourself.

    The flags are magnificient, any chance of a detailed how to in BattleGames?

    best wishes,
    Donald~

  11. May 16, 2008 at 11:56 am

    Nice to see you on the interwebs again, Henry.

    Power to your (painting) arm!

    That nice Mr Olley talks a lot of good sense, doesn’t he? I’ll probably ignore it in a good natured way (but, heavens, he does good work) and bumble about from this to that as the mood takes me however…

    All the best,

    Greg Horne

  12. Andy Pattison
    May 16, 2008 at 11:52 am

    Figures, flags and table look great! I know this is busy but please keep this blog going.
    Cheers
    Andy

  13. May 16, 2008 at 4:12 am

    Fantastic article, gorgeous flags, and useful advice. Good luck!

    Ed

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