Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Early Social Gaming and the Minifigs ‘Incredible Hulk’ period

More self-indulgence.

I’ve just remembered whilst reviewing the draft of this post (yes really, I do check them!) that one Christmas my brother got Waddingtons Battle of the Little Big Horn. I seem to remember it a tough and challenging game for the Cavalry to win. As it should be. Maybe that’s where some of the initial rules ideas came from that I referred to in the last post. 

I can’t remember the order in which more ‘authoritative’ rules crept into my games. At this point I thought I was still an oddbod wishing to play with toy soldiers, albeit in a ‘serious’ way. Gradually facts like ‘Edward Woodward is a wargamer’ came to light. Some years after the Battle of Little Big Horn arrived in the house, I got the Airfix Waterloo Wargame for Christmas. https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/31537/waterloo-wargame

The playing surface was a ‘vinyl’ map of the Waterloo battlefield about 2 feet by 3 from memory.  Units were variable strength (1cm frontage = 1000 troops) on plinth-like hard plastic stands on which were mounted Airfix Waterloo horse/foot/gun figures (again in hard plastic). The rules were simple but I had good fun with it. It introduced me to the idea of games where casualties were not removed from units until the whole unit was removed.

Not long after my eldest sister* bought me The War Game, edited by Brigadier Peter Young. 
This was it! This was validation. And my first exposure to wargaming eye-candy. Brilliantly written accounts of 10 battles, illustrated with fantastic photos of model soldiers in carefully sculpted terrain. Some battles I knew of or had heard about, others were totally new. Thermopylae, ah yes, so that was the battle seen in the 300 Spartans. Agincourt I knew about. Edgehill, I’d heard of the English Civil War, Roundheads and Cavaliers, even Marston Moor, but not this specific battle. Blenheim, yes, that’d been in a book on decisive battles I’d read from the junior school library. Lobositz - the SYW was known to me in the context of Wolf and Quebec, and some vague notions of redcoats fighting the French on the Continent (Minden?) - again a totally new battle (and whole theatre of war) unknown to me. That set off a future debate whether to ‘do’ the War of the Spanish Succession or the SYW. Lobositz is a battle that has become legendary amongst some warmers thanks to Charles Grant (senior and junior).  And there were 5 more battles, 3 of which were new to me. And crucially, there were ideas for rules in an appendix. It made wargaming look something serious and complex, and something to be mastered to my young mind. Fantastic!

* The same sister took me to my first ever football match at Blundell Park (a Lawrie McMenemy-inspired 4-3 victory over Doncaster Rovers), then got me this iconic book, and later with her husband introduced me to real ale. She has probably been the most responsible for cementing my three longest-standing pastimes. I owe her a lot!

The appendix to the War Game introduced me to the idea that figures could represent more than one real soldier. And that ground scales could consequently be shrunk so that at last my 6’x4’ board could become a (small) battlefield. Companies reduced from 100+ figures to 6 at full strength.

Then I discovered, around 1976-7, that there was a wargames club at school and that I knew one of the lads in it. What’s more he was one of the cool rebels, not a geek. So I joined and ended up having a few years of very enjoyable gaming. There was a rulebook in use at the club, a thin book with a green cover which had rules for ACW, WWII and a few other periods. What’s more it chimed with the ideas I’d got from the War Game. 1 man = 20. You kept a unit ledger in which you wrote down casualties in men, only removing another figure when the next multiple of 20 was reached. Orders were handwritten and had to travel to units from the commander at courier speed. There was even one lad into the then new scale of micro-armour. One of the boys had WRG ancients rules and having set out to convert (and paint!) Airfix Romans into classical Greeks) we got together to fight a Greco-Persian War battle in his partly converted loft. My phalanxes (including my red-cloaked ‘Spartans’) didn’t get close to his line, being shot up by archers on the way in. Most disconcerting! It didn’t seem to work out that way in the history books I grumbled to myself, and I didn’t return to ancients.

In 1978 I bought  WRG 1685-1845 rules. Some people are not keen on these rules now but they were like a liberation (from written orders and keeping tally). The original retro ‘old school’ rules in a way - back to rolling a dice and ‘bang you’re dead’. The army lists in the back particularly pushed Marlburians and SYW - something I’d wanted to do for a long time (proper soldiers in tricornes and mitres). I was torn between the two. I’d need an opponent. Fortuitously, the same lad who I’d had the ancients game with already had a collection of Minifigs SYW Austrians. I have never figured out why he’d bought these - he clearly wasn’t the sort of person who only buys the ‘best’ army (to our level of knowledge then, that clearly would have been Frederick the Great’s Prussians). So that made the decision for me, I would get SYW Prussians (I’d be that kid who chose the ‘best army’). For me the best thing about the Prussians was that I’d be able to build up a points based army cheaper! Being generally elite and veteran, I’d need fewer models to get to 100, 200 or 500 points. Thus started a 40 year interest.

We had a game at the school club and it took off from there.  I think we had 150 point ‘armies’ (probably a battalion and a squadron of cavalry, plus commander). The game attracted a lot of attention at the club, and from 2 interested boys we grew to 5 SYW regulars. Games grew from 100 point armies to 1500 point armies! Great games were had and I can still picture the other lads and the funny things that used to come out of our mouths (intentional and non-intentional).

Inspired by the Charles Grant classic, the Wargame, we plotted an Imagination campaign. Five rival states were created (conveniently based on Britain, France, Prussia, Russia and Austria), backstories developed, and 4th year English lessons (Year 10 in modern parlance) saw a flurry of secret diplomatic correspondence (a lot of it scurrilous, concerning the ‘drug-addicted Tsar of All the Russias’). Sadly the campaign never got off the ground and over the next few years, 5 whittled down to 2 over the years.

Building up my army was a case of the excitement of deferred gratification. Pocket-money and cash from odd jobs was saved up for weeks ready for visits to Toynes in Grimsby. Orders were placed via the shop for Minifigs (Ancients and Napoleonics seemed to be the popular periods so little or no stock of SYW was held). More weeks of waiting was ‘endured’ before being able to get your hands on shiny shiny metal. It did give you time to get units painted! Also by time they arrived you had saved for the next order.

At some point in the late 70s in a magazine (Military Modelling or Airfix?) I read an article about single stand units by what was then already a vintage set of American rules. I guess it was Morschauser, but I can’t honestly remember for sure now. I experimented with an ungridded version of the game (solo) but left it at that. I’ve never returned to gridded miniatures gaming, but who knows.

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