Saturday 7 March 2015

Two Piles of Wargaming

Having, as I have, perused wargaming blogs and websites for a while, I can see that there are, usually two piles of things that wargamers suffer from, usually gladly.

The first pile of things is what the estimable Mrs P. refers to as ‘grey armies’. We have, I imagine, all got them. Ghostly ranks of unpainted toy soldiers crammed into cupboards, drawers and other nooks and crannies in our wargame dens, whatever form they make take. It seems to be a natural part of being a wargamer, this hording tendency. Perhaps we are concerned that our favourite figures will go out of production, although that seems unlikely. Perhaps we simply decide that a new period of wargaming is nigh, and buy figures for that, forgetting all the previous projects which have remained unfinished and now languish in a box somewhere. Perhaps we do not make any sort of conscious decision, but simply buy because we live is an acquisitive society.

In my case, of course, I Have boxes of unpainted figures. In part, it is because I am a very slow painter. Again, it is much easier to buy figures than to paint them. Hence grey armies accumulate. I dread moving house because then my indolence is exposed. I suspect that, to use an old adage, a wargamer’s eyes are bigger than his mouth; we always tend to bite off more than we can chew. A forty base wargame army sounds simple in principal, but in the actual lead is much bigger than we might have thought. And, of course, any army is infinitely expandable. I mean, I know the Romans only had one lot of camel mounted cavalry, but I have bought enough to mount the whole twenty something legions. Or maybe I just like camels.

On that subject, of course, there is the issue of personal preference. For my English Civil war armies (in whichever scale) I have vast quantities of artillery, so much so, in fact, that they would put Napoleon’s grand batteries to shame. They all have crews, limbers and, if deployed properly, would leave no room at all on the table for any other troop type. The fact is that ECW generals happily abandoned their guns when they needed to move a bit more quickly. Artillery was not very effective or efficient and had little influence on any battle that I can think of. But I like it, and I have bought the guns, so there.

To some extent this is just a factor in our hobby. I can do what I like. If I want to deploy a tableful of guns and call it the Covenanter army of 1644 I can. I am not hurting anyone by doing so. It would not be a practical army, or a good representation of the original, but aside from the damage done to historical repetition I am not harming anyone. I could also deploy Tiger tanks against the Roman legions. I am not sure what I could achieve by so doing, but I could.

The point is that while I do feel guilty about my grey army masses, I am not hurting anyone by having them, except, perhaps, the foundations of the house. Nevertheless, I suppose that the guilt spurs me on to do a bit more painting.

The other pile wargamers seem to encounter a lot is a pile of books. I was encouraged recently by a fellow blogger and wargamer who confessed that he was having a book buying pause, while he got his unread book pile back under the one hundred mark. And I thought I had a problem.

My ambition for this year is to get and keep my unread book pile under forty. That said, of course, my ambition last year was to get the said pile under thirty, something which is singularly failed to do. Add to this the fact that the said pile only in fact relates to the unread books on the top shelf of my bookcase. Other unread books lurk on other bookcases, and are strategically placed around the room and around the house to deflect attention from their quantity.

Now, of course, I intend to read them all. They were all acquired expressly to be read. Books are not just decoration, they are there to be used. As with toy soldiers, however, so with books. I suspect that I will never manage to conquer this pile, as I will probably never get around to painting every toy solider I possess. The human mind is restless and moves onto the next project before the present one is finished.

Put another way, we are all, at heart, flibbertigibbets.  A new range of soldiers is produced and we all cry ‘Ooh! Shiny’, spend our money on them and, a week or two later, cram them into a cupboard (unpainted) along with all the other projects, while we flit on to the next interest. So it is with books. We are happily reading something when we notice that another volume of interest has appeared, so we move on. The pile of unread and semi-unread books simply increases.

I am not entirely sure that this behaviour is unhealthy, but often, I think, we feel that it is. I have finished a number of armies, over the years, and I have spare soldiers. Is there a law which states that I have to paint them all? If not, why do I feel guilty about them? Do they represent failed hopes, dreams unrealised, or simply over consumption? I am not sure. But however much I might feel bad about them, they are not in fact hurting anyone.

As with toy soldiers, so with books. I am interested in the subjects. If I could just find a few more hours a day (about 24 would be fine) I would read them all. I intend to do so. I just do not, and buy another one, perhaps to cover over the original guilt.

But then, if I did not, perhaps the world economy would grind to halt, and that would probably be a bad thing.


  1. All very true - I sat and nodded wisely throughout, but I would take issue with your comment that it seems unlikely that one's manufacturer of choice will go out of business. That exact sadness has been the outstanding theme of my numerous decades of wargaming and collecting soldiers - Les Higgins, Qualiticast, Hinchliffe's 20mm all vanished into the night long ago, and were sorely lamented - more recently NapoleoN figures went belly-up and their compatriots Falcata entered some strange alternate universe where the normal rules of time and movement do not apply. Maybe I picked the wrong suppliers - I certainly picked the wrong scale. My various sabbatical periods from the hobby were, as often as not, finally clinched by the disappearance of a supplier. eBay has helped a lot in recent years with supplies with OOP figures (and other things of which fashion disapproves), but that familiar fear in the pit of the stomach still encourages over-ordering - and, though the grey armies persist, there is always some vanished exotica, something that you just can't get any more, something that I miss so much it hurts.

    Speak not to me of unlikely...

    1. I think that it is unlikely that we buy figures because we fear the manufacturer is about to go; we just buy them anyway. we can never, it seems, have a sufficient number.

      Now, of course, with your examples of many producers disappearing, you have got me worried, which will make me buy more...

    2. I wound up hoarding Two Dragons Vikings, Saxons and Normans after they disappeared from production and then briefly resurfaced. Fortunately they are now readily available from Caliver Books, but at the time their disappearance was devastating for my early medieval wargaming habit. That's the only range that I have ever worried about going out of production. For the rest, I am happy that I can find compatible figures from many other ranges. The thought that a range might disappear does not enter my head when I start a new project, but I mainly game in 6mm and 15mm, both of which sizes are readily available from enough suppliers for me to be secure in my purchases.

    3. I suppose compatibility is a bit in the eye of the beholder, as well. Some 15 mm figures are more like 20 mm (but bulkier). some of my '28' mm figures are more like 35 mm +. are they compatible with my true 25 mm Asgard Greeks? Not a chance, nor can I find any that are.

    4. Yes, some ranges are inherently incompatible with other ranges that are nominally the same size. You can make allowances for people being different sizes to some extent, but there is a point beyond which it looks ridiculous.

    5. I do recall somewhere a scale of compatibility between manufacturers, which suggested that the specific manufacturer and the two each dies could be in the same unit, the next two in the same army and so on.

      But I wonder at what point we decide it looks silly.

  2. I certainly get distracted too easily by new projects, hence my overly large Unpainted Lead Pile. I would really like to reduce it to nothing and use what I have more instead of buying into new shiny things all the time. The problem is that my regular opponent suffers from Ooh Shinyitis just as much as I do. I do wonder if this need for new projects and novelty is a symptom of a consumerist malaise, but it may just be a result of that same unending curiosity and need to know everything I possibly can that affects my reading habits.

    Speaking (writing?) of reading habits, I find that the books I buy these days are primarily reference works. I have no intention of reading them cover-to-cover for the most part. Instead they are there for me to dip into when I need information. When I do try to read such books from front to back, I usually get a couple of chapters in before the dense text defeats me and I must rest for six months while I rally and prepare to defeat the author's deathless prose. I should note that I rarely buy fiction at all now, so my purchases are almost all textbooks. Furthermore, books provide insulation and can be used in place of wallpaper by arranging them in pleasing colour schemes.

    An extra 24 hours in each day and the energy and enthusiasm to make best use of it would come in very handy.

    1. The problem with most text books is that they are so badly written as to be unreadable, no matter what levels of enthusiasm we bring.

      As for others having ooh shinyitis as well, it is another reason for being a solo gamer, although of course you then have to buy both sides...

    2. Good point about text books, and don't even get me started on trying to read academic German. I still wake up screaming in a cold sweat because of it.

      I usually buy both sides even when I have an opponent. It's easier to get them hooked if you start them with a game rather than with buying and painting an army. In the desert years without an opponent, my gaming largely consists of working on existing projects and occasionally buying new projects. Solo gaming holds very little appeal for me, probably because I treat gaming as a social event, but also because most solo games seem a tad sterile and lacking an essential unpredictability. Programmed scenarios are a pretty good way of getting round it, and the TwoHourWargames books provide decent engines for solo gaming, but really my gaming needs that element of playing your opponent. The best rules are those that are simple enough to learn so that you can focus on thinking about how your opponent will play, instead of exploiting the minutiae of the rules. Wargods of Aegyptus is a good example of this. The players place order counters for each unit at the start of the turn, roll for initiative and then each player takes turns nominating any unit from either side on the table to activate. As a result you are always thinking about what your opponent might plan to do, and are working towards ensuring that your opponent's activations are ineffective. Solo gaming lacks this element of reading your opponent.

    3. I do remember reading some German papers for my research project. I just about managed to decipher the (one) word for 'low pressure mercury spectral line lamp'. the German word spread across two columns of the journal article. I had to have a lie down after working out what it meant.

      Solo gaming is also, I suppose, a matter of taste. There are plenty of ways around the issues you raise, some more artificial than others. Alternatively, you can just develop a split personality.

      On the other hand, we could argue that many wargames are fairly predictable, as are, in fact, many battles. ECW battle (at least the bigger ones, for example, seem to have been rather stereotyped in terms of deployment. One of the best solo systems I worked out (it was one of few, so not that exciting) was based on putting playing cards wherever the enemy might be (battle line, pieces of terrain) and then rolling for number and type of bases.

      I had quite a few good an unpredictable battles with the system. Then it beat me heavily.

    4. I've played a fair few solitaire board wargames and still play solitaire Advanced Squad Leader every so often. Playing the system is fine, if there is a decent system to play against. I have a selection of Featherstone, Asquith and Grant books on playing solo too, so the mechanisms are known to me. Apart from Grant's programmed scenarios which I like, I just don't get on with most forms of solo wargaming.

      I agree that some battles are fairly predictable, and an opponent is also fairly predictable once you get to know their play style, but humans also have the capacity to surprise you by doing something exceptionally stupid or brilliant every so often. With a solo system you are likely to know the odds of things happening and the system will only do what you permit it to do, so the outlying actions will not happen because they tend not to be included in simple random tables or card decks.

      I'm just not a solo kind of guy, I guess.

    5. I guess it just depends on the people, the games and the context. I'm a solo player by default - if there were a Diogenes club for wargamers, I'd probably be (the only?) member. Plus the fact that most wargame groups don't meet on a Friday morning, of course, which is when I do most of my gaming and painting.