Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The passing of legends

We often hear of the graying of the wargaming hobby. Ancillary to its graying is its dying. I know, I know. I'm bordering on the morbid again. Most of my friends and acquaintances in the hobby whom I've lost were still pretty much in their prime. Occasionally, one of the legendary warhorses goes the distance.

I heard from my friend Rick today that an old friend from our San Jose, CA days had passed last week. Al Tilley was almost 88 when his heart gave out (today would have been his birthday). He'd suffered from ill-health for a number of years mostly due to the effects of his being a lifelong chain smoker. (Kids, don't smoke.) I was saddened by the news. I've generally had a happy life, so it's hard to experience the loss of people and things that contributed to that happiness. Memories are no substitute for the friendships of which they're the remnant.

I met Al way back in 1977 through Rick, who was part of a group that met in Al's garage every Wednesday night to play Judge Fernandez' Square Ancients. He pulled me into the group where I played occasionally for the next few years. Square Ancients was probably my first prolonged experience of miniature wargaming. From there, Rick and I went on to playing Al Margolis' Legion rules, which for me were the gateway drug to WRG 5th edition Ancients.

Still, the old, formalized Square Ancients game we played with single-mounted minis on a 1.5" square grid remained a fond memory. I still have a mimeographed—yes, mimeographed—copy of the rules that Al wrote out in his meticulous engineer's hand on some old Lockheed graph sheets. That's old school.

Al loved the regularity of a square grid game. Measuring with rulers was a bit too fudgey for him. I remember him giving his impression of playing Legion with Rick and me. He told me he liked the rules except for—and then he picked up a ruler and shook it making a face at it, his wordless disapprobation of Legion's means of spatial calculation. He also disdained dice, preferring a precision random number generator he'd put together from electronic bits he bought at Radio Shack. You couldn't put some English on the random number pull like you could a dice throw, but it didn't make the results more palatable. I can still hear Bob Turner, one of the Wednesday night stalwarts, crying out, "I can't believe these pulls!" whenever a undesirable number came up.

I had a project not too long ago where I started painting some figures for a Square Ancients revival. I used Al's hand-scribed pages as my starting point and fleshed out a bit of the lacunae that had always just been filled in by memory and tribal custom. I also adopted his experiment in using a hex grid instead of squares.

I managed to complete only a few pieces: 8 single-mounted peltasts and a 6-figure phalanx block. Apart from phalanxes, all the figures for Square Ancients were single mounted. I also have the rules I drafted in Adobe InDesign—except I used fonts that I lost in the Great Hard Drive Crash™ earlier this year, so it's kind of a mess until I can find a way to restore them or buy new copies.

A phalanx and a peltast—with a busted spear

I last saw Al on a trip I made to San Jose in 2012. I hadn't seen him in a very long time before that. We had a good chat and caught up on the intervening years. Al's mind was always sharp and he was always interesting to talk to. Talking to Al always left me wanting to talk more.

Apart from wargaming, Al and I shared some other things in common. Al was a cat person and cared for the local ferals as well as his own. He was also a Korean War vet, serving aboard USS Henderson (DD 785) at Wonsan Harbor. My dad was also a Wonsan vet, serving aboard USS Blue (DD 744).

There are a handful of adults from my youth (Al was 30 years older than me) who stand out as highly memorable. Al is part of that crowd. You don't realize at the time how much someone you look up to subtly influences you with the things they say, the way they say them, how they express their interests, etc. I haven't inventoried the memories or anything, but I can think of a few a few brain-seeds that Al planted that matured to become part of my own thinking. Al thought a lot about Winston Churchill's Life of Marlborough, the big, sprawling, four-volume version. I made it my quest in my 20s to find a set, which was no easy task before the Internet. I still have the set I found. It's as good a read as Al said it was. Al was a sci-fi fan and I picked up some of my interest in H. Beam Piper from him.

I'm sorry I didn't manage one more get-together with Al before his death. But I can still relive those Wednesday night trips to Orange Blossom Drive long ago: The anticipation of well-planned game played on a 4' x 4' square grid (marked on a board painted chalkboard green) with the terrain carefully drawn in with colored chalk, a fridge stocked with every variety of soft drink, an inexhaustible bowl of candy, and setting up a perfect attack only to be foiled by the random number generator spitting out 01. (I can't believe these pulls!)

Ave atque vale, Al. You had a positive effect on those who knew you and you'll be remembered by them as long as they live.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Into the wilderness (don't mess with Corporal François)

Kevin Smyth, Dave Schueler, and I played a first game of Song of Drums and Tomahawks this Saturday down at The Panzer Depot in Kirkland. It was also the debut of Kevin's and my Flint & Feather armies. It was a fun little foray into the North American wilderness ca. 1640.

This has been a serendipitous project for me. I'd been looking at the Flint & Feather range since early in the year, but held off buying. The website listed several packs that weren't yet available and I wanted to wait to order until they were. Then Bob Murch came to Enfilade! this year with minis to sell—including the ones that showed as unavailable on the website. What could I do? I came away with 29 minis, which is enough to be getting on with in a true skirmish game (i.e., actual 1:1).

I painted the lot by the end of June, which is pretty fast work for me, especially when I'm not under the gun to get minis painted for a game. Kevin got a later start on his because he didn't buy in time at the convention and had to wait three weeks for his order from Crucible Crush to arrive. By then, he was preparing for a cruise around Eastern Canada. Despite all this busyness, he managed to complete five figures to get into the fray.

We originally planned a game for four at Meeples in West Seattle, but the West Seattle Grand Parade nixed those plans and only three of us could get to The Panzer Depot. I set up a 4x6 table that was very woodsy with some hills and river bits.

Field of battle

I made up three forces of 8 figures each. Two with all Indians and a third that was half Indians and half Europeans. I took the mixed force, Kevin had his five figures plus three Mohawks with Muskets, Dave took the others. Each of the all-Indian forces included a hero figure, who fights and activates better. The mixed force had Corporal François, who had the Leader trait, which I pretty much forgot to exercise the whole game. The other Europeans, Pierre, Jean-Louis, and Etiénne, had muskets and swords. All the Indians had the Woodsman and Scalper traits. The latter requires them to spend an action scalping any foe they kill.

I thought it would be a game of cutthroat 1:1:1, but it wound up being me against two. Dave and I came in from opposite sides at one end, Kevin came in from the far end.

Some of my boys at the start

My Frenchmen, not being woodsmen like the Indians, could only move a short distance. But I trundled them up to musket-range and prepared to blast away.

Corporal François encourages the men forward

I quickly got entangled with Dave's forces. He had two musket-armed warriors and several other with bows.

Old school Indian warfare

Newfangled warfare with Dutch-supplied muskets

While I slowly positioned my musketeers, Corporal François rushed out to meet the foe head-on. His impulse in this was matched by Dave and his hero. Soon we were locked in dire combat.

Corporal François, with an Indian ally, takes on Dave's hero

Combat in Song of Drums and Tomahawks can be alternately frustrating and lethal. Many times it seemed that you'd have someone at your mercy only to have them escape. Dave and I both managed to get an advantage over each other at times only to blow the attack with a bad die roll. At this point, a lot of the action revolved around the big rock that dominated the center of the battlefield.

Ring around the rock

Ironically, in the fight between Corporal François and Dave's hero, it was one of my Indians that gave Dave's hero the killing blow. Dave managed to extricate himself from being outnumbered and then rushed in to attack my non-hero Indian ally. Unfortunately, he rolled low and I rolled a natural 6. In Song of Drums and Tomahawks, a figure armed with a Primitive Weapon, as mine was, always kills on a natural 6 if they win the combat—even if the result would normally be fallen or pushed back. Thus ended Dave's hero.

His scalp adorns my lodge-pole

Because my Indian ally had defeated him, he had to spend an action taking the obligatory scalp. Big medicine!

Dave and I kept up a desultory exchange of gunfire and bowfire. Shooting had a few successes (or maybe just one), but otherwise seemed pretty futile. For musket-armed figures, there was the added inconvenience of needing to reload.

Gunfire in the wilderness

It takes two actions in the same activation to reload. That requires rolling at least two dice for activation and thereby risking an end to your turn. There was a lot of dice failure in the game. In Song of Drums and Tomahawks, a figure can activate by throwing 1, 2, or 3 dice. Every result that is equal to or greater than the figure's Quality rating (4 for everyone except the heroes and Corporal François) allows an action. But if two or more rolls fail for an activation, the player's initiative turn ends.

Mostly, we just tried one die to activate figures. If that fails, you can just move to the next figure. We didn't want to risk double failure before we'd moved a lot. Sometime figures just never managed to pass an activation. Which brings us to Kevin.

Kevin started at the far end of the board, so he had farther to travel to get into the fight. He was plagued by bad die rolls and managed to get very few figures moving towards the sound of the guns. One figure managed only two activations for the entire game.

Chief Stands and Waits standing and waiting

He survived the fight, basically because he never got into it. As for the rest of Kevin's force, because it managed to come in only piecemeal, it didn't have the impact it might have. Being outnumbered 2:1, I never really felt overwhelmed. Nevertheless, Kevin's warriors slowly crept in to make my right flank a bit dicey.

Kevin's troops come on

Spearheading the advance was Kevin's hero. Before long, we had a standoff on the other side of the big rock, which eventually erupted into more of a fight.

Standoff at Standing Rock

I was beginning to take a toll on Dave's forces. The death (and scalping) of his hero, deprived him of a major asset. His other troops kept falling prey to the same fate as the hero: Attack and die after being whacked by a big Primitive Weapon. Before long, he was at half strength.

The fight against Kevin was getting hotter. His hero was making his presence felt, having killed one of my Indians. I had to pull Corporal François away from fighting Dave to deal with the new threat.

2:1 again, but no win

Dave managed eventually to kill off three of my force: 2 musketeers and an Indian. Kevin managed to kill off one of my Indians. Both Dave and I needed to take morale tests, which sent most of our surviving forces running back for a turn. Corporal François, however, remained firmly locked in combat with Kevin's hero.

Then the worm turned, despite being abandoned by all, Corporal François and his death-dealing halberd (which counts as a Primitive Weapon), clove Kevin's hero in two. Thus another enemy hero dispatched to the Great Spirit.

Smyth, last of his tribe

Corporal François hadn't been long enough in country to pick up the Scalper trait, so Kevin's hero went to the Great Spirit with a full head of hair.

The fight continued a bit longer after Kevin's hero went down. After Dave and I mutually fled, I only had one musketeer on my left. My remaining two Indians and Corporal François were facing Kevin.

The fight moves to my right

After a bit more sparring, I managed to kill four of Kevin's warriors, provoking a morale check, which sent all of his remaining four scurrying back.

The last kill

Dave's three remaining warriors were just creeping back, Kevin's force was potentially still potent, though in disarray. I'd managed to hold off against 2:1 odds and get a better than 2:1 kill ratio.  We called the game at that. Corporal François was the stand out champion of the game. He moved back and forth between the 'fronts' and managed to dispatch at least four of the nine casualties I inflicted against Kevin's and Dave's forces.

Among my native allies, one figure stood out, having killed Dave's hero and taken at least one other scalp. He didn't have the Hero trait, but he wore wooden armor and wielded a Primitive Weapon (plus a fearsome bearskin on his back!). That Primitive Weapon came into play more than a few times when I rolled natural 6s in combat.

Heroic, though not technically a hero


I really like the Song of [X] system from Ganesha Games. Song of Drums and Tomahawks is an adaptation of Song of Drums and Shakos done by Mike Demana et al. He tailored the available traits for the period, though there were some omissions. Several Indians wore wooden armor and/or carried shields. Mike does include a trait for Cuirass, which give an armor bonus to figures with metal breastplates, but otherwise doesn't account for the Indian armor and shields. To address this, I grafted in some rules from Song of Blades and Heroes. I gave figures wearing wooden armor the Armored trait (+1 to combat result if defeated, thus lessening or negating a loss) and figures with shields the Block trait (loss result lessened by one degree on a roll of 5 or 6). However, I only allowed them against native weapons. Against bullets and steel, they had no effect.

Muskets are potentially deadly, though I think we had only two musket kills in the game, both inflicted against my French musketeers by Dave's musket-armed Indians. The +2 to combat within the first range band and the potential for a -1 to the opponent for an aimed shot (requiring 2 actions instead of the normal 1 to shoot) mean that a shooter with a Combat value of 2 shooting an opponent with the same Combat value could have a net +4 versus +1 before the dice roll. Even without the aimed shot, a +4 to +2 is good odds. We just kept rolling badly. Plus, the need to reload reduced the amount of firing by how many times we could manage to get 2 actions for a musket-armed figure to reload.

It was a fun game and I'm glad we had a chance to get our new minis into battle. Kevin and I agree that they were a pleasure to paint. I hope to see a lot more coming from Crucible Crush/Pulp Figures for this range. We'll be running a game of Song of Drums and Tomahawks at our Fix Bayonet! game day in September. In between, I'd like to get another few games in. I think I may need to look into getting a stockade and some native longhouses...

I just received reinforcements from Crucible Crush: another 24 Indians to paint. That'll give me a total of 53 plus my Europeans. I have 12 of those (10 musketeers, 2 officers) and have another 8 I could bring in. The minis are from The Assault Group Thirty Years War range. I started several minis a while back, some of the first I painted using the Miracle Dip™, with the intention of making some units for Pike & Shotte. I still want to complete that project—and have many more unpainted and partially painted minis—but I'm sorely tempted to add more Europeans to the mix.

I also just received an order from Galloping Major Wargames: Some Candian militia and some Hurons plus a few free figures. That'll give me 24 milita, 25 Hurons, and 3 sailors. I'm not sure how the sailors will figure into this. They're very nice minis, but bare feet and blunderbusses didn't often find their way onto the wilderness frontiers of New France. I'll base these individually so I can use them for a variety of rules: Song of Drums and Tomahawks, Sharp Practice, Patriots and Rebels, etc.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Tank you very much

We had a great game day on Saturday down at Dean Clarke's house in Bonney Lake, WA. We played Too Fat Lardies' What a Tanker! using 15mm Flames of War tanks. The game was set in France 1940.  I have lots of bits and pieces of 15mm WW2. Among them are some Quality Castings Pz IICs and StuG IIICs in dark panzer grey. I needed to do just a bit of finalizing to get them game-worthy and off I went to Chez Clarke. I have a couple Pz IIIEs, a Somua S-35, and a Char B1 bis in progress (well, actually, so far I've just opened the blisters to inspect the parts), which I'll get into a game in the near future.

Mike Lombardy and I were the Germans. We each ran two Pz IICs. Dean and Troy Wold were the Allies. They each had one British A-10 and one French Somua S-35. A few turns after we started Paul Hammerschmidt arrived and started playing a single Pz IIIE.

The game started slow, but then got bloody. With early war tanks, the guns don't have a lot of punch. Even if the armor is weak, the chance of killing a tank outright (3 unblocked hits) is low, so instead, there's a lot of temporary damage being done. In our case, our Strike value (the gun punch) was lower than their Armor and their Strike was higher than our Armor.

The Pz II is a pretty puny tank overall. Its Armor value is a mere 2. Its 20mm autocannon is just barely an AT gun with a Strike value of 3—but it has the Rapid Fire characteristic, which means that in a single turn, it can shoot multiple times without reloading in between. It also has the Small characteristic, which makes it harder to hit. These characteristics helped, since were were out-gunned and out-armored by the Allies' A-10s and Somuas.

We played the Longball scenario and entered on opposite short ends of the table. Ranges are generous in WAT!. It's unlimited, only shooting past 48" incurs a +1 on your hit number when shooting. We could have started taking pot shots immediately, but terrain factors in. The only blocking terrain were several buildings, but there were several hedgerows as well that require extra effort when acquiring a target and hitting it when shooting.

Scene of action
WAT! uses a ingenious command dice system. Each tank rolls six D6 for their activation. The results can be used for specific things: 1s let you move 2xD6 inches, 2s let you acquire a target—basically spotting, 3s let you aim at an acquired target, 4s let you shoot, 5s let you reload, 6s are wild dice that you can use in place of any of the other five—or bank them to use in your next activation.

There are a lot of subtleties also. For example, acquiring a target may require no 2s or multiple 2s. If your target is in the open and your tank is unbuttoned (i.e., TC and/or crew poking out of open hatches), acquiring is automatic. If you're buttoned up, then one 2 is required to spot. Intervening things that obscure (e.g., hedges, low walls, bocage, burning tanks, etc.) will require additional 2s to acquire your target. If the target is a tank with the Low Profile characteristic, an additional 2 is required to acquire. At some point, acquiring a target might require a whole lotta 2s.

We engaged each other pretty soon after starting. One of my Pz IIs got a pile of 1s on my first activation and I was able to speed up and take position behind a hedgerow. Dean's Somua was soon taking shots at me, but being a small target and obscured made me hard to hit. His A-10 was slow out of the gate with few 1s to get him moving and low D6 rolls when he did move.

For a while, Dean and I stood off and took mostly ineffectual shots at each other. I suffered some temporary damage, which I recovered. Recovering temporary damage is another thing you can do with 6s. Damage reduces the number of command dice you can throw, so recovering temporary damage is important to stay in the fight. Once you lose all your command dice from damage, your crew bails out.

Mike and Troy sparred on the German left flank. Mike made use of the buildings to sneak about and get flank and rear shots on Troy's tanks. These shots give extra oompf to your Strike dice. Against a targets front, 5s and 6s are hits, with 6s being critical. On a flank 4s - 6s hit with 5s and 6s being critical. On the rear, it's 3s - 6s with 4s - 6s being critical. Things can go bad quickly. I think most of the kills in the game occurred from flank and rear shots. Mike eventually brewed up Troy's Somua, but lost one of his Pz IIs to Dean's Somua.

Troy's A-10 burning brightly
At this point, Mike took out Troy's A-10 with a rear shot with his surviving Pz II and started stalking Dean's Somua while Dean was stalking one of my Pz IIs.

Taken out by a Somua
I had one Pz II get shot up early by Dean's A-10. Both my Pz IIs found a nice spot behind a hedgerow. I was loth to move, but found myself suddenly under fire to my flank.

Me brewed up by Dean's A-10
I got my other Pz II moving against the A-10's flank while Paul was engaging him to the front. I think I managed a few hits, but most of the damage was Paul's. After a few shots, Dean took out my other Pz II with a flank shot and Team Dave was out of the game.

Das Ende
Mike took out Dean's Somua and Dean's A-10 was reduced by damage down to having just one command dice available. Paul just drove past him on to the Meuse!

It was a great game day and included an excellent lunch provided by Dean's wife and some fine single-malt Scotch, of which Dean is a connoisseur. Slange var.


What a Tanker! is a fun game. At first it seems that a game entirely devoted to tank v. tank would be dull or simplistic. However, the dice management keeps things interesting and it's harder to kill a tank than it seems. We went through several turns before the first tank got brewed up.

There is also a lot more moving around than you'd think. Getting flank and rear shots is important, while sitting in place trading frontal shots can be ineffectual. Movement also help to force the tanks shooting at you to re-aim and/or re-acquire. Aim is always lost when one or the other tank moves; acquired status is lost if the target is no longer within the shooter's 60° vision arc or has gone behind blocking terrain.

I'm digging through my lead-pile to see what kind of tanks I have partially completed or as unbuilt kits. I'm also looking at the Flames of War website

I'm dashed!

To keep track of tank status, What a Tanker! uses a dashboard for each tank in play. You can download dashboards from Too Fat Lardies in PDF to use. I almost printed some in color and got them laminated at Kinkos, but I figured Dean would have dashboards and I just needed to bring my tanks.

To our delight, Dean gifted each of us with a nifty MDF dashboard produced by DarkOps in the UK. He'd picked up a bunch at his recent trip there. (Dean's an expat Brit and knows pretty much everyone in the wargaming industry over there.) They need to be built—and can be niftied up in camouflage colors 'n' stuff. They come plain. He had a few finished on hand and Mike had a couple also.

I'm so taken by it that I ordered another five from DarkOps when I got home. I'm now regretting that I didn't order the 8-pack, where you can get eight dashboards for the price of seven. I don't think I'll ever need more than six, however.

I'm thinking through how I want to finish them.

Adventures in GPS

My Kia Soul has Apple Car Play, so I can use Apple Maps on my iPhone as a GPS system for driving. I haven't used GPS before. I usually look at a map and then trust to trial and error. But Dean lives in an area of new construction Southeast of Tacoma. That's pretty much terra incognita for me and most of the human race. The current Google Maps satellite image of it still shows a gash of excavated land, so I figured I'd never find it without GPS.

Satellite photo of installation site under construction
I got there, but there were a few stumbles. Just south of Renton on I-167, I stopped for coffee. When you turn off your route, the little tin GPS gods become confused or angry—or maybe it's me who gets confused because they're angry. The GPS immediately starts telling you to turn here, there, anywhere to turn you around whenever you deviate. Obey the machines.

Part of my reason for stopping was to reset my route. I initially set it as a link from an email where Dean provided his address. The link opened Google Maps, which provided audio guidance, but didn't display onscreen. Stopping for coffee gave me a chance to switch over to Apple Maps and get a screen display of my route.

But switching to Apple Maps didn't shut down Google Maps GPS—though I thought I'd shut it down—so I had both systems giving me instructions. I guess Google Maps wasn't finished pushing me around. I wound up going the wrong way and was guided by two voices through a strange roundabout trail to get back on I-167 South.

Once on my way, I was good for several miles until I got off I-167 in the Sumner/Bonney Lake area. The roads twist and turn, which isn't—or shouldn't be—a problem with GPS. Except that in some places the roads have a funny way of changing names when they twist. A very slight bend in the road was being announced to me as an instruction to turn, but there was no actual turn. I felt a bit disoriented and wondered if something had gone all glitchy. I U-turned, which only got the dueling GPSes grumpy, and retraced my route back to see if I could re-find my way. I stopped to figure things out and saw on the map that there was a long stretch of road. I guessed that it was doing the turn instruction because of the name change and plowed back through until the instructions started making sense again. The Sirens of GPS were luring me onto the rocks, but like Odysseus I overcame them.

Going home, I also used GPS—only the one this time—not because I don't know where I live, but because I needed it to work like Ariadne's thread to get me back out of the Bonney Lake labyrinth.

Thus my first adventure with GPS. I won't use it much because I mostly know where I'm going, having been almost everywhere by now. However, it's nice to have when I need to navigate to someplace off my beaten path.