Sunday, March 18, 2012

So why Murat?

On gaming message board I frequent a friend posted the following regarding the title of this blog:

“Murat's closet and Lady Butler's painting of the Scots Greys, surely a mismatch.”

Indeed it is. Murat was, after all, one of Napoleon’s Marshals, a member of the new nobility of France – about as far from a British trooper as you can get. So why “Murat’s Closet?”

I’ve found that miniatures wargamers tend to identify with their armies. Hex-and-counter and computer-based wargames come with “both sides.” You punch out the counters (or click the mouse) and select who you are going to play as when the game starts. Sure, you may well have a preference, but there isn’t as much commitment to an army.

Building and painting a miniatures army requires dedication. They’re pricey, even in these days of plastic line infantry. And, more to the point, building and painting them takes a large amount of time.

When I set up this blog it was my intention to build a French army. Back in the day my 15mm Napoleonic army was French. I’ve painted more than my share of mustachioed Guardsmen in my time, so why switch?

Making that jump from French to British wasn’t a lightly made decision, but my main opponent had already started his French army. Thus I started picking up books about Wellington’s army and investing in tiny redcoats.

I haven’t posted much about the progress of my British lately because I’m still cleaning horses. I’ll have some visible results soon, once I start basing them and airbrushing them. But as of now I’ve sunk a lot of hours into my cavalry, with nothing to show for it but have bare metal horses which are not exactly exciting to look at. (And, of course, I’m still finishing up those WWI Germans, painting tiny bayonet knots in appropriate Kompanie colors…)

But even though I’m working on the British I still can’t turn my back on Joachim Murat entirely. He’s such an interesting and colorful character that I had to keep the blog’s name. Murat seems to sum up the flair and style of period perfectly.

He was a seminary student who was so enamored with military pomp that he dropped out of school, beginning his military career in 1787 as a common trooper. He was almost immediately expelled after a scandalous affair; he claimed that he was discharged because he had displayed too much revolutionary zeal. But luck was on his side; he soon reentered the army and was the man who brought Napoleon the cannon on 13 Vendémiaire. After this Napoleon appointed him as his chief aide-de-camp, and his place in history was assured. He soon became Napoleon’s brother-in-law and in 1808 he was crowned King of Naples and Sicily. Throughout Napoleon’s campaigns he had moments of glorious triumph as “The First Horseman of Europe,” but he also experienced dismal failure, leading Napoleon to refer to him as a “bewildered idiot.” After Waterloo he attempted to regain the throne of Naples through insurrection. King Ferdinand IV put a price on his head, and he was caught and executed on October 13th, 1815.

For all his flamboyance, personal courage, and ability to lead men, Murat was by no means a great military commander. He was too selfish, too impetuous, and too treacherous to be trusted, and only really performed well when Napoleon had him on a very short rein. – Quarrie, Napoleon’s Campaigns in Miniature, p. 130.

If there is one thing that Murat is remembered for by wargamers, it is his sense of sartorial style. Murat was an outrageously flamboyant dresser in an age known for excess. During his military hiatus in 1789 he worked as a haberdasher’s clerk at Saint-Ceré. He later designed his uniforms himself, and some of his creations were astoundingly outlandish. Here are three portraits, the first two by François Pascal Simon Gérard, the third by Antoine-Jean Gros.

So even though I’m building a British army, I can’t turn my back on Joachim Murat’s sense of style. Those British redcoats seem dour and drab in comparison…

Friday, March 9, 2012

Projects lead to projects…

 One possible problem I’m facing is finding a convenient place to play. Denver used to be blessed with two really excellent game shops that had open tables, “Valhalla’s” and “Attactix.” You could bring an army and play whenever they were open as long as they were open. Sadly, both closed last year.

There are still a couple of good venues in the Denver metro area, but none is close to my house. I don’t particularly like transporting miniatures, as I always seem to break something in transit.Sure, I use foam-lined "Sabol" cases, but there's always a broken bayonet or two no matter how careful I am.

I hate playing on bad tables. I know this is silly, but a huge appeal of wargaming is how it looks; playing on a table-tennis table with soda cans and books for terrain just doesn't work for me.

And, let’s face it, playing on a well-built table in my own basement (or backyard, weather permitting) could be great. There’s a refrigerator in my basement for snacks and beer – you can’t beat that for convenience. And nothing beats a game on a sand-table in the open air.

So I’m tossing around ideas for construction projects, working on possible set-ups in AutoCAD.

I think the way to go is to use modular boards. If I use relatively little permanent terrain I could use them for Napoleonics or other eras, like Ancients or WWII. After all, an open field is an open field. This would also give me a chance to build my own terrain over time, perhaps a couple of hills, some trees, and perhaps a farm house or two for the troops to fight over.

I think the way to go is with 2’ by 4’ sections. I’m thinking in terms of building four “open” boards for field battles and two “trench” boards that could work for WWI. By making the boards so that they all can match up with each other I could come up with many different configurations. I could set up three boards lengthwise for a 6’ x 4’ Flames of War or Warhammer table, four for a 4’ x 8’ table, and I could swap in the “trenches” into either set up.

I’ve been looking over materials at the local hardware stores and I think that the way to go is to have a ½” think MDF/fiberboard base for each section. I’ll put 1 ½” foam over this, with plenty of screws and "liquid nails" to keep it in place, then sculpt the top a bit for some terrain relief. I’ll also cut trenches into two of the foam boards with a foam-cutter. Dress up the top with a thin layer of spackling compound for texture, paint, and I’m done enough to play. I can always go back and add detail, particularly in the trenches. It won’t be quick work, but once I’m finished I’ll have a great table.

Any comments or suggestions on building a terrain board are welcome.

Storage is a consideration, but I have room in my basement to stack them on their sides on shelves in my furnace room – most of my wargame stuff is stored in there anyway.

But first I have to clean out that room. If I tidy up and reorganize I’ll have enough space to start construction. So guess who is cleaning out the basement this weekend?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

So, why Napoleonics?

That is, why is the Napoleonic era popular with wargamers, and why would I recommend it to others?

I’ll admit up front that it is an era I am only recently re-entering. I’ve played games based in the Napoleonic era in the past, but haven’t in a while; my attention has been elsewhere. But I find myself dragging out my history texts and starting an army.

It’s a subject that has maintained a hardcore following with wargamers over the years while others have faded. Here are a couple of my theories as to why this is.

1: There are lots of participants. From France, England, and Russia, to tiny city-states and even the USA, there are plenty of "factions" to choose from. Back in the hex-and-counter days a wargamer didn’t have to invest much time in an army, you’d just punch out the counters and play. In a miniatures game you need buy the models, then sink a lot of time into building and painting them. As a result, you’d better select an army that appeals to you. In the Napoleonic era there are plenty to choose from.

2. An intriguing strategic situation as a result of the above.

3. A sprawling war that lasted from 1792 to 1815 (although most games start in 1805), so you aren't stuck just focusing on a single campaign or battle.  This may seem an odd assertion as I am focusing on Waterloo, but the point is that this is not a limitation of the era – you can cover anything from Valmy to Austerlitz to Borodino.

4. Tactics that are easy to understand but hard to master. From the rock/scissors/paper interactions of infantry/artillery/cavalry to "line vs. column" it is possible to learn the basics quickly, but it is still a challenge to pull off a good plan and win a game against an opponent.

5. There are lots of cool and interesting units, from Hussars and Highlanders to Cuirassiers and Cossacks.

6. None of the nations involved are the clear bad guy. No one gets stuck playing as the Nazis. Even the Revolutionary fervor of the French had dimmed considerably by the time Napoleon took over.

7. Uniforms that are colorful and fun to paint. How can you say no to this?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Cleaning horses.

In the last post I mentioned that I had started cleaning up my horses. What does this mean?

Painting wargame miniatures is not unlike painting a room in your house, in that applying the paint is only part of the work. Prep work is a big part of the job.

When you buy wargame miniatures they come to you straight out of the mold. This means that they’re pretty rough, covered with “mold lines” and other little bits of metal that need to be removed before you paint them. This is a painstaking process which takes quite a bit of time. Here’s a photo…

On the left is a horse and a cavalryman. See that tab of metal between the cavalryman’s feet? That’s an example of the spare metal left over from the casting process, and it has got to go if we want him to be able to sit on the horse. Unfortunately that’s just the start, and there are many other bits of metal that have to be filed off.

One of the biggest hassles with horses is cleaning the metal from between the reins. A real horse's reins are thin leather strips, but on a metal casting they’re a single big chunk. In the past I've tried the shortcut of leaving the metal in place and painting it black in the center, but it never looks right. As a result I need to remove the metal between them with a grinding bit. Other areas that need work are between the legs and across the saddle. Often the sides of the saddle need filed down so that the rider sits naturally on the horse. I'll describe "pinning" the riders later.

Horses in running poses sometimes have little strips of metal connecting their legs to the ground. Sometimes I’ll remove them, but often I’ll leave them in place. The added strength helps a lot. Wargame models are handled a lot over the course of a game, so they need to be a bit sturdy. Horses in a precarious running pose can sometimes end up leaning over after a few games, and I’d like to avoid this. I’ll cover that strip of metal with something during the basing and painting steps to make it look more natural.

In the middle is a horse that has been “cleaned.” I’ve cut off the molding tabs with an X-Acto knife, then filed or ground away the excess metal, then polished the casting with a wire wheel attached to a Dremel tool. This takes a while – on a good night I can finish three or four horses...

After the prep work is finished the horse is glued to the base, primed, and painted. On the right is a horse that has been mostly painted – we’ll cover basing, priming, and painting later posts, but I’ve put this one in here so you can see the end result of a good clean-up.

This prep-work is one of the worst parts of building a wargame army for me. It’s not as fun as painting, but if you don’t do a good job it can ruin your work. I’ll be cleaning horses for a while…

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Still in the boxes...

So, what am I going to build? I hinted at Highlanders and Scots Greys in my first post; let’s look at the models .

Here’s a photo of what I have on hand.

On the upper left are the boxes containing my British infantry. I have two boxes of Victrix “Waterloo British Infantry Center Companies.” Below that is a box of Victrix “Waterloo British Infantry Flank Companies.”

What’s the difference?  “Center” and “Flank” companies use slightly different models as these units used slightly different uniforms.

A British Battalion during this era would usually consist of ten Companies. Eight companies would be “Center” Companies and two would be “Flank” companies. The “Flank” companies were designated “Grenadier” and “Light.”

The Grenadiers were to be the strongest and tallest men of the regiment, burly fellows who could hurl grenades at the enemy. Although the grenades themselves had vanished long before the early 19th century the elite status of Grenadiers remained. Light Companies were made up of the best marksmen, and could be deployed as skirmishers.

During the era of the American War of Independence these different types of infantry wore different hats to denote their status. Grenadiers wore tall mitre caps, Light Companies wore a low jockey-style hat, and the line infantry wore tricorn hats. These distinctions disappeared with the adoption of the shako in (roughly) 1799. After this the “Flank” companies showed their status with different colored pom-poms on their hats (white for grenadiers, green for light infantry) and “wing” trim on their shoulders. The models should represent these differences – the “Flank” infantry should have tiny ridges on their shoulders to represent the “wings.” We’ll look at these in detail later.

All told I have 104 “Center” infantry and 52 “Flank” infantry. That is enough for this project. I also have 80 Perry “Line” infantry that I’ll mix in so as to add additional poses, as I find the idea of having hundreds of little soldiers in exactly the same pose to be off-putting. Even though they’re toy soldiers I like to have some variation, as it makes them look a bit more natural to my eye.

I have a comparable number of Highlanders on hand as well. Somehow I ended up with 180 “Center” infantry and 60 “Flank” infantry. The prospect of painting 240 plaid kilts gives me nightmares...

There are also two boxes of Victrix “British Napoleonic Foot Artillery,” enough to give me six guns. Real British brigades (the word “battery” was adopted later) of the era consisted of six guns, five cannons and a howitzer, so this should work out fine.

Next we have the cavalry, roughly forty tiny pewter horses and forty tiny pewter cavalrymen from Perry Bros. These didn’t come in boxes with pretty pictures on the front and I already have started cleaning them, so what you see is what you get.

Finally we have a packet of little standards from War Flags. There are a few in this package, and I’ll describe them in an upcoming post.

How am I going to organize all of these little toy soldiers into an army? What will they represent? Stay tuned and I’ll tell you…

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Peter Cushing, wargamer.

Yes, the veteran actor from Hammer Films who played Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars was "one of us," a Napoleonics wargamer. Here's some wonderful archive footage of Cushing's army. I'd be very curious to learn what rules he was using.

Looks like he played French...

Friday, March 2, 2012

Let's get started...

Grognard: “A Grumbler,” after Napoleon’s elite Old Guard Grenadiers, who openly spoke their minds in the Emperor’s presence. Also, a cantankerous, old-school wargamer.

Why do we play tabletop wargames? For many, myself included, it is for the visual appeal.

Computer-based wargames offer many possibilities that conventional wargames do not, for example, they do a great job of handling limited intelligence regarding the map and enemy forces, and the ability to “save” games or play against people in other parts of the world is very helpful. But no matter how good the game is, it is hard to beat the appeal of a beautifully made table covered with well painted toy soldiers.

Few eras can contend with the Napoleonic Wars here. Often-outlandish and brightly colored uniforms were the order of the day. Battles were huge, involving tens of thousands of soldiers. If I had to summarize a Napoleonic era battle in a single word it would be “spectacle.”

I’ve been drawn to this era for a long time, ever since I read my father’s copy of Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon. I’ve played hex-and-counter wargames from Empires and Arms to War and Peace to Wellington’s Victory. But I haven’t had a miniature Napoleonic army since I sold my 15mm French over a decade ago. There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the biggest is that I hadn’t found a rules set that really worked for me. Until the release of Waterloo, that is…

If you want an excuse to play big Napoleonic era wargames Warhammer Historicals’ new Waterloo delivers. The hardcover book is 288 pages long. Of this, 82 pages are devoted to rules, the rest to historical background, scenarios, orders-of-battle, painting guides, and beautiful, beautiful artwork.

The game covers the “Hundred Days” campaign. By 1814 Napoleon had lost his war and was forced into exile on the island of . In March of 1815 he escaped and returned to France. The nations which had defeated him previously declared him an outlaw and raised armies to oppose him. Napoleon quickly struck, attacking the British, Dutch, German, and Prussian armies in Belgium. After an intensely fought campaign the allies united and defeated him at Waterloo. There’s plenty of wargaming to be had in this campaign, and Waterloo covers it beautifully.

Normally I would be leery of a wargame rules-set with such a tight focus, wanting it to cover more. But the Hundred Days campaign and the battle of Waterloo is possibly the best known and most studied action in history. It occupies a unique position in our cultural history, appearing everywhere from the names of train stations and towns to songs from 70’s Swedish pop bands. If you know anything about the Napoleonic Wars you know of Waterloo.

In addition to the standard “Warhammer-esque” point-buy games the book contains scenarios and orders-of battle for the campaign, presented both in linked-campaign style and stand-alone games. The game provides rules and lists for the French, British and Allied, and Prussian armies. There are also rules and lists for the Peninsula campaign, including the Spanish and Portuguese. I strongly suspect that this is because many of the new plastic 28mm figures from Victrix and Perry include optional parts to make Peninsula-era troops.

Unfortunately the game doesn’t cover other armies. Russians, Austrians, Poles, Bavarians, and Ottoman Turks aren’t in the game. Earlier versions of the French, British, or Prussian armies are also absent. The game promises future expansions will cover these – normally the grognard in me would have been skeptical, citing the delays of Over the Top and other promised expansions from Warhammer Historicals, but Over the Top lived up to every expectation, so I’ll be charitable. Still, I can understand the grumbling of a player with an extensive Austrian army in this case.

The game itself is similar in some ways to GW’s Warhammer or Lord of the Rings, but there are many significant differences; it is a very well designed game. The standard unit of the game is a “battalion.” Each “battalion” is made up of several “companies.” This has caused some grousing amongst the grognard set, as it isn’t an exact representation of the historical organizations – a real-world British battalion would consist of ten companies, but in the game it uses 4-8. A British artillery battery consists of three guns in the game, while a historical battery would be five guns and a howitzer. However, it is worth remembering that all wargames make abstractions, and this one is no different.

Each infantry company is made up of six figures for regular infantry, or three for skirmishers or light infantry.  Cavalry has two figures per base, and artillery uses a cannon with crew. Basing is flexible – for example, the standard infantry unit of six figures can be made with figures on 20mm x 20mm bases (Warhammer standard) set up in a 3x2 rectangle, but other basing systems are easily accommodated. Basing systems can be quite contentious amongst the grognard set, so this flexibility is very helpful.

Artwork? The rulebook is absolutely beautiful. If you are familiar with the Warhammer Fantasy 8th edition rulebook you know how lavish this sort of production can be, and the Waterloo rules are simply astounding. There are photos of tabletop games, photos of historic artifacts, and pieces of historical artwork, from Henri Philippoteaux’s panoramas of Waterloo (a favorite of mine) to smaller vignettes.

Waterloo is a great game – hopefully les grognards will put aside their aversion to Warhammer and try it. If you have any interest in the era it is a worthwhile purchase, even if only as a reference work. It is a beautiful book. Even if you never play the game it is worth every penny as a work of art in its own right.

There are also, of course, numerous photos of beautifully painted wargame miniatures. At this point I must admit to my bias: while many of the photos are of miniatures from the collection of the game’s authors, there are also several vignettes from the collection of Scott Merrifield. Scott is a friend and opponent of mine. In fact, his beautifully painted French army is one of the inspirations behind the army that I will highlight in this blog…

So, what is this blog about?

Waterloo has motivated me; I’m going to build a British army in 28mm scale for this game and describe it in this blog. I’ve bought the figures already, now I just need to build and paint them. Don’t expect this to be a fast project - there are lots of little troopers, from Scots Greys to kilted Highlanders - and it will take me time to do them. It won’t be strictly Napoleonics, either. I’ll also put up posts on my other projects as well, from my WWI Germans and British to my Imperial Romans. I'll also post some book recommendations, some historical commentary, some reenacting photos - pretty much anything I want. And don’t expect consistent updates...

In the near future I’ll put up some more information on the army itself. I’m going to use Victrix and Perry Bros. figures, both metal and plastic, and I’ll also use some of the gorgeous flags from Flags of War to give my regiments even more visual appeal.

I look forward to the day when my “thin red line of heroes” finally runs that beautifully-painted French infantry to ground and forces Nappy to run to the Bellerophon and exile...

Over a beer in my basement, of course…