Saturday, June 13, 2015

Bolt Action Again (or is it Column, Line, and Square?)

After a long hiatus and rescheduling due to illness, convalescence, and assorted other evils, we finally  got together this afternoon for a Bolt Action game set in North Africa. Phil Bardsley had an idea for a scenario he wanted to try, so we carted in our toys and set up a game.

Dick Larsen and I were the British, Phil and Bill Stewart were the Axis. The figures used in the game were Phil's DAK infantry and tanks and his Italian M13/40; Bill's DAK infantry, sandbags, and craters; and my British infantry, tanks, and French Foreign Legion infantry (Les Kepis Blancs). Dick supplied the "gerbils" or "dust bunnies," "tribbles," etc. that represent the dust clouds raised by moving vehicles in the desert.

The Axis mustered the following:

  • 4 x DAK infantry squad
  • 1 x Italian infantry squad (dug in)
  • 1 x DAK MMG
  • 1 x DAK mortar
  • 1 x DAK command squad
  • 2 x Pz III (long 50mm gun)
  • 1 x Pz IV (long 75mm gun)
  • 1 x Pz IV (short 75mm gun)
  • 1 x self-propelled sIG 33 (Pz II chassis)
  • 1 x M13/40

The British Mustered the following:

  • 3 x British infantry squad
  • 1 x Foreign Legion squad
  • 1 x British command squad
  • 1 x British MMG
  • 1 x British mortar
  • 1 x 2 pdr AT gun (w/Bren carrier transport)
  • 1 x M3 Grant (75mm/37mm)
  • 1 x Crusader tank (2 pdr)
  • 1 x Valentine tank (2 pdr)
  • 1 x "Honey" tank (37mm)

The scenario is set in the aftermath of a sandstorm that's scattered everyone. An Italian group is laagered in on a small rise (with a bit of support from their German friends). The remaining troops from both sides are converging on the Italian position with the objective being possession of the Italian position at game end. The converging troops enter the board on turn one using random placement.

The Italians all snug in their laager
There was no shooting on turn one, but with turn two everything started happening quickly. I got the first activation and shot my 2 pdr. right into the side of Phil's self-propelled sIG 33 and propelled it into a ball o' flame.

First kill
And there was much lamentation on the Axis side, especially from Phil who had just finished painting it only to see it knocked out in the first shot of the game.

Phil moved his panzers (which came in across the board from him) against the British armor, which all came in on the far end of the table.

"Panzers vor!"
His first shots knocked out our Grant tank, the only good tank we had. Bill started his tanks in against our tanks from the other side of the table from Phil's.

Dragging a "gerbil" through the desert
My infantry got in with Bill's DAK squads and started getting the worst of it. However, I managed to chew up his two squads a bit in the exchange. Dick's shots against Phil's tanks were disappointing.

In the next turn, my 2 pdr, fresh from knocking out the sIG 33, managed a long-range shot against the rear of Phil's M13/40 and knocked it out.

Getting warmer in the laager
Dick moved our tanks up to try to close the range against Phil's tanks. Having only light tank guns now, we had to get close to avoid being outranged by the German medium tank guns.

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward
Our "Honey" was quickly knocked out, but after that point, Phil and Dick's tanks swapped shots to no effect.

Tank battle
Bill's far tank had been heading toward the tank battle, but got way-laid en route by Dick's Kepis Blancs who charged in to attempt taking out a Pz III with bayonets and pluck.

Men against tanks
The attack failed by a hairsbreadth. In the contest of science vs. pluck, science generally wins.

Phil turned his infantry against my infantry, joining in with Bill. Bill moved his other tank forward with the intention of joining in the fight against our tanks.

Bill advances past the burning wreckage
However, the temptation to machine-gun infantry took over and Bill turned his tank in and moved against one of my infantry squads, getting into close range. I took some damage, but being within 12" of Bill's tank—and inspired by the example of Les Kepis Blancs—I felt compelled to make my own charge against a tank. Besides, the only other thing to do would be to sit and get mowed down by spandaus.

I didn't succeed; nor did I expect to (though I hoped). Dick tried another attack on Bill's other tank, which by now had turned around to machine-gun him, but failed the check to go in. Bill soon gave me another burst from his tanks MGs and I was left with two intrepid survivors for my squad.

Fewer men against tanks
With no targets in range, I needed to change ground with my heroic 2 pdr. Like an old-time horse battery, I limbered up and charged to the sound of the guns.

Changing ground
But by this time, the possibility of British success was beyond likely. My three infantry squads were badly shot up. One had two-figures left, another had four, the biggest had about six. Phil's two squads were nearly intact, and Bill's two were shot up, but not as badly as mine.

Our tanks were outclassed and outnumbered to start with, but more so now. Phil managed to knock out the Crusader on the last turn, leaving only the Valentine standing alone.

Endkampf im Wusten
The Italians were untouched, apart from their tank, and still held the position. Dick's Kepis Blancs looked menacing, but were unlikely to ever take out Bill's tank that was still machine-gunning them with no place for them to hide.


It had been so long since we played that we had to recall, dimly, what all the Bolt Action rules were. We've all been playing war-games for so long that we have rattling through the empty corridors of our brains a lot of rules that are like (or we think are like) the rules we're using. Whenever a question arose, there was much quotation about this rule and that, which could have been from Bolt Action, but more likely from On to Richmond! or Column, Line, and Square.

We tried a new method of activation for this game. Instead of activating one unit at a time, we activated groups of unit. For example, my three infantry squads were one activation. Each could receive orders on it's own independently and took hits, morale, order tests, etc. separately, but activated on a single cube.

My appreciation of this method is mixed, though I remain pretty much a skeptic. On the one hand, it seems to move the game along because you have fewer activations, but you still have as many orders. In effect, the method just elongates a single activation. We only played three full turns, I think, and it took us more than two hours. If we really want faster-moving games, we should use fewer units.

I also think that basically it skews the sense of how the rules are intended to work. Activations by pulling order cubes out of a bag is to randomize the order of units doing things. If you make larger groups of units, you get less randomization and can overwhelm a single unit by shooting at it with several units at once before it has a chance to do anything. That may happen anyway in a game if all your units get an activation cube before the other unit does. But, the probability of having three activations before the opponent gets one is low, but it's an even chance with this method.


In the post-game retail moment, I picked up some more Beyond the Gates of Antares figures. I've already completed 2 regular Algoryn AI squads, 1 AI assault squad, 1 MAG support gun, and 1 command team. I have a third regular AI squad in the works.

The figures I picked up were an AI infiltration squad, an X-launcher, and a pod of targeting drones. I've been making good progress on the figures I've done so far, so I expect to get these done in time for a first game (maybe) later this month.

Friday, June 12, 2015

La Gloire Est Bannie (The Glory Has Departed)

Yesterday, I found buried among my various quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore a 24-year old issue of Empires, Eagles, and Lions. I thought about the era of amateur wargames newsletter publishing it represented and the words of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach came to mind:

      ...Now I only hear
      Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
      Retreating, to the breath
      Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
      And naked shingles of the world.

Long out-of-print, Empires, Eagles, and Lions (EEL) was a nifty little bi-monthly newsletter put out by the, apparently now defunct or disbanded, New Jersey Association of Napoleonic Wargamers. It had a run of 118 issues being published by RAFM in Canada over a period of 20 years. After that, The Emperor's Press in Chicago took it over in 1995, gave it a cosmetic makeover, and restarted at issue #1. It soon fell into a bit of disrepair, nearly died, revived again, but after just 13 issues, it ceased publication for good.

It was a labor of love by a group that was devoted to gaming the Napoleonic era, the quintessential wargaming period—quintessential regardless of whether one considers it the apogee, nadir, or "black hole" of the hobby. As such, it was a beautiful example of a dead genre: the hobby newsletter for, by, and about hobbyists and their hobby.

EEL was mostly the product of Jean A. Lochet, who was the managing editor and a notable authority on all things Napoleon. The illustrator and "Misc. Subjects Editor" of EEL was Mike Gilbert. Back in the 70s and 80s, Mike illustrated several rules books for Fantasy Games Unlimited (including Down Styphon! which he also authored and about which I have blogged in the past). Mike's playful artwork graced many pages throughout the newsletter and included section and article headings.

As well as regular comic features.

I've enjoyed Mike Gilbert's art wherever I've encountered it (see below). He had a distinct style that was simply fun. Sadly, Mike passed away in 2000 due to complications during heart surgery.

The EEL issue I found seems to be the only one I have left, though I never had many to begin with. I discovered EEL around 1993 and managed to get about a half dozen issues or so (older and newer versions). At the time, I was much involved playing Napoleon's Battles and imagining that I would be a dedicated Napoleonics gamer. Silly me.

Mulling over my serendipitous find, I couldn't help but think that some kind of shift has happened over the last quarter century. The genre represented by EEL has died out. Sure, there are a lot of wargaming magazines, perhaps too many, but the current crop of available publications has lost something. They're a new genre unlike the old genre, which has died, is dying, and shall die.

The great example of that dead genre was Hal Thinglum's MWAN. It was first issued, I believe, by Dave Arneson (of D&D fame). I'm not sure when Hal took it over, but it became the finest example (but maybe the only example) of a one-man operation that had a very large international distribution. MWAN was a 5.5" x 8.5" (8.5" x 11" folded and stapled) format that grew and grew. By the time I started reading it, it was a fistful of paper held together by a few groaning staples (though it soon went to a perfect bound format). The articles were uniformly good and Hal, who had a real day job, did a masterful job getting it out regularly. Reading MWAN, even though one wasn't a member of the Midwest Wargamer's Association, felt homey. Hal was everybody's friend and because of that, MWAN was your local newsletter, no matter where you were.

The Courier came out in 1968 as the newsletter of the New England Wargamer's Association. It started out as a thin 5.5" x 8.5" booklet. I recall D&J Hobbies having a small stack of them on hand in the mid-70s. I'm sure I picked up a few now-lost copies back then. I wish now that I'd kept them, but like so much ephemera, they're made to be discarded, so they were. The Courier had a makeover in 1979 when it became a truly national bi-monthly publication and restarted with Volume 1, Number 1.

The Courier had a good run for a number of years. The articles were good and inspired more than a few projects (and the desire for starting even more). I picked up several copies over the years and Bob Mackler bequeathed me his collection of every issue up to the early 90s. Eventually, I got rid of them. The problem with magazine collections is that they take up so much space and the urge to purge takes over. The Courier releases became more and more sporadic. They stopped the whole volume/number system in 1992 and just went to issue numbers (and theoretically a quarterly output). If you had a subscription, you got four issues, which may have arrived over three years of intermittent publication. Dick Bryant eventually sold the magazine to Legio X publishing. Legio X kept it going until 2005, when they published the last issue (#91) and melded the magazine into Historical Miniature Gaming, which is now defunct as well.

Wargamer's Digest started in 1973 and ran until 1985, when it made a name change to Military Digest (for legal reasons, I recall), and then continued on to 2000. I cut my wargaming teeth on Wargamer's Digest (WD) all through the 70s. The articles were always enticing and they had a WW2 gaming series that I enjoyed immensely. The series featured a lot of scenarios and tactical problems that would make the basis of a nice game system. WD had their own set of rules that were a bit fuzzy. They gave glimpses of the mechanics over several issues, but never actually published them as far as I know. I had a nice stack of WD at one time, but again, the need to purge was greater than my desire to horde, so I sold them off some time back (I think, or maybe they're in a box in my garage...).

Seeing the pictures of miniatures units, like on the cover above, I'm tickled by the bare-bones basing that was de rigeur for the times. These days every base is meticulously terrained with some kind of putty to build it up and ballast, flocking, etc. to simulate the ground covering. Back then, you painted the figure base green and mounted them in multiples on balsa wood painted the same green. Some things do improve over time.

Another lost gem from our bygone era is Wargaming: The Magazine of Fantasy & Historical Simulation. The magazine debuted in 1977 and was published by Fantasy Games Unlimited. It wasn't, however, a house organ for pumping FGU games. In fact, a browse through the four issues I have doesn't show much mention of FGU at all. Apparently, there were only four issues ever published. So it goes...

The articles in Wargaming came from various contributors about many aspects of the hobby. Most were about historical miniature gaming with a minority about fantasy and sci-fi minis. There was a smattering of board game articles, mostly reviews, and a lot of advertisements for figures, rules, games, etc. all circa late 70s. Each issue also came with a little boardgame stapled inside.

There was also a lot of clever art, again contributed by Mike Gilbert (he was more ubiquitous back then than I knew), but also some cartoons by José Neira (who also contributed to The Courier) and Dick Bryant (who edited and published The Courier).

Wargames Illustrated was, for a while, the premier glossy magazine of the hobby, something referred to by some as "war-porn." But its origin in 1987 was a bit humbler. It always had a full-color cover and a color section inside, but most of it was black and white pages with hand-drawn art. The feel of being a hobby mag for, by, and about hobbyists was there.

The magazine got glossier and glossier until it was all gloss. Battlefront Miniatures took it over in 2009 and made it much more of a glossy advertisement sheet for Flames of War and Warlord Games. They even changed the magazine logo. I haven't been able to generate any enthusiasm for WI for many years, but I can always call on Phil Bardsley if I need to consult an old issue (as I have done). He has every one.

Miniature Wargames came out in 1980-something touting itself as The new monthly magazine for the discerning wargamer. MW, like Wargames Illustrated, had color covers and a color section inside. In fact, MW seemed to be almost a mirror image of WI for a long time.

They had a great series by a young Guy Halsall on wargaming early Medieval battles that came out over several issues (all of which I retain). MW is still with us and better, I think, than its near neighbor WI. MW became slicker and more professional over time, but never devolved into someone's advertising sheet.

I've also picked up over the years some issues of Gorget & Sash: The Journal of the Early Modern Warfare Society. This was a nice little magazine for a niche market. Aimed at wargamers, though not exclusively a wargaming magazine, G&S wanted to present the background historical information to gamers interested in the period 1500-1800.

G&S published its first issue in 1983. The idea was a bit of an experiment, as the editorial in the first issue states. As it turned out, the experiment didn't pan out. After 12 issues over three years, G&S folded. The production values were generally OK, not slick and glossy, and the typesetting looked to be mostly just typed. The covers of the first issues were on better stock with 2-color printing. Inside, the printing was all black and white. Later covers were black and white only, though some were printed on colored stock, which gave a tint to them.

The articles were pretty good. However, the 300 year span of focus rather than being narrow, seemed too broad. An interest in Swiss phalanxes does not necessarily translate to an interest in the American Revolution or the Seven Years War. I think that if yer gonna go niche, go niche. I would have focused on only the later 16th c. through the Nine Years War, but that's me. In any case, I'm still looking for issues in order to complete the set.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't reflect back on my own contribution to this departed genre. Starting in 1992, I collaborated with Kevin Smyth on publishing The Citadel - The Quarterly Journal of the Northwest Historical Miniature Gaming Society. The newsletter was begun by Rich Knapton back in the 80s and taken over later by Kevin who became editor and publisher with Bill Stewart performing the tasks of production, mailing, and "guilty conscience."

When I moved out from Chicago, I started working for Aldus Corp., producer of the then-mighty DTP product Aldus PageMaker. PageMaker was a perfect tool for getting a bit better polish to our production, though that polish was an evolving thing. My initial amateur design got a little better as time went on. Kevin was editor, I took over publishing, and Bill maintained "midnight production" with the City of Seattle's printers and then collated, folded, labeled, and stamped every issue that went out. (The US Postal service then took over and made sure that several copies were mutilated before making their way to subscribers.) It was a great time, though I'm sure that Bill's tongue must have revolted every quarter at all the stamp-licking it was being asked to do.

Eventually, I took over editing too when Kevin became President of NHMGS after Dick "President for Life" Larsen stepped down. For quite a while NHMGS offices and roles revolved around a few people who stepped up to fill the needs and do the things no one else would do—except for stamp-licking, that role stayed with Bill to the bitter end.

I have a stash of The Citadel issues started with April 1991 through the time I stepped down from being editor. By that time I was getting more involved with producing the NHMGS website ( It's quite a nice diversion to read through the articles from yesteryear. Kevin and I seemed to do the bulk of the writing overall (being wordy types with little compunction about holding forth), but there are several nice articles from other NHMGS members as well.

Doug Hamm, then VP North for NHMGS, wrote a regular column called "Cry of the North." He also debuted Larry Leadhead in The Citadel before pairing with Eric Hotz (who is actually an artist) on the more polished version.

Other contributors read like a who's who of NHMGS in the 90s: Wes Rogers (who also wrote some articles for The Courier back in the day), Bill Stewart (when he wasn't licking stamps), Mike Pierce, Bill Cooper (The Beast from the East), Charles Sharp, Russ Bauder, Lance Runolfsson, Chris Leach, Dick Larsen, Steve Walker, Bryan Booker (who provided a couple articles about his nifty self-published ancients rules Warriors of Antiquity), Phil Bardsley, etc.

Closing Thoughts

The thing that stands out from The Citadel and several of the other publications, like Empires, Eagles, and Lions, is how much fun they expressed. The contributors were not professional writers, but their creativity and enthusiasm for the hobby was obvious and infectious. The more tight-knit a group, the more likely its publication will reference inside jokes and local lore. Even though that's mostly opaque to outside readers, it still provides an expression of the pure enjoyment that the hobby brings.

I'm not totally down on the current crop of magazines available. They're well-done professional publications with high production values. But maybe that's what sets me back. By becoming more professional and publishing for profit, today's magazines have lost that essential quality that made the older, home-published, hobby newsletters so endearing. They've replaced community with business and gamers seem to have gone from being participants to spectators in regard to all that's fit to print about their hobby. That's a shame.

Of course, blogging has filled that gap to some degree, but blogging lacks editorial control. So many blogs are hit or miss as far as well-developed content goes. It's also hard to find things on the blogosphere. The sheer number of blogs is overwhelming.

I also think it represents or goes hand-in-hand with tendencies in the hobby to spoon feed games to customers. The older magazines really brought out the adventure of the hobby with articles on things like terrain building, figure conversion, figure reviews, scenario planning, etc. The Games Workshop and Battlefront/Flames of War approach is to remove from the gamer any need to research and be innovative, which is, or was, a big part of the hobby. Younger gamers playing Flames of War or Bolt Action have no idea about the history of WW2. They have a nice system where everything is supplied for them and they just build their army lists from preset unit types. The available magazines are bound to evolve to become attractive to that gamer and not the crusty older grognards who recall fondly the time they converted several boxes of Airfix ancient Gauls into Napoleon's Imperial Guard using just an X-Acto knife and hot needle.

The gentleman researcher/writer who birthed the amateur magazines of the 60s to 80s is a dying breed and his ilk won't likely come again. The glory has departed (1 Samuel 4:22).