Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mapping the countries

After re-reading the chapter on campaign maps in Tony Bath's excellent "Setting Up a Wargame Campaign," I tried my hand a few times at sketching a map of Baden-Hundsheim and Formulgala. And some of them weren't bad.

But then I remembered Hexographer, a free Java app that, among other things, will generate a hex-based map for you, using terrain types you specify. It does this semi-randomly, using a random sprinkling of the various terrain types to seed the map, then filling in surrounding hexes based on what's already been decided, and how likely one terrain type is to be next to another.

After generating half a dozen maps and tweaking some of the parameters, I was left with something interesting and characterful, that divided nicely along geographic boundaries into two halves, with surrounding countries hinted at.

The next step was to use some logic to lay in river systems flowing out of the hills and mountains and down to the sea, then deciding on the locations of settlements and connecting them with a network of roads.

Naming the settlements was a challenge. I wanted puns and funny town names, but names deeply rooted in the culture of the country my own states draw inspiration from. So, Baden-Hundsheim should feel Germanic, with strong Turkish influences to the South (more on that later). Formulgala should have a vivid Russian streak. I zoomed in tight on the Austrian-Hungarian border, and on southern Russia using Google Maps to soak up some examples, and started playing with words that sounded right.

The results are shown here. When you're pronouncing the names of the towns and cities, try adopting a stereotypical Russian or German accent. I suspect they're funnier that way.

On creating a nation (or two) of my own

Ever since reading those early books about war gaming (see my previous post), I've had it rattling around in my mind to run a wargaming campaign set in an imaginary country, the defense and interests of which were maintained by large formations of toy soldiers in fanciful uniforms, like those of Peter Young, Charles Grant and Tony Bath.

I could have run such a campaign by setting it at any point in time, I suppose. Donald Featherstone and Donald Bailey both created rich imaginary worlds set contemporarily with the height of the British Colonial period. Tony Bath ran many, many campaigns over the course of several decades in his famous Hyboria fantasy world. But for me, the 18th century is, undeniably, the best choice for this escapade.

Brightly colored uniforms attract my eye and my imagination. I spent many happy hours as a child reading and re-reading well worn copies of the Britains and Prince August catalogs. One of my earliest wargaming purchases was the two-volume Funken uniform guide, "Arms and Uniforms of the Napoleonic War." I've painted many Napoleonic and American Revolution figures over the years, and still enjoy the sight of them on the table. So, choosing a period replete with dashing uniforms was a must.

When it comes to large wargames between embattled armies, I have a strong preference for the three-cornered stool of infantry, cavalry and artillery. I enjoy the interplay of unit tactics between the three arms. The rock/paper/scissors point and counterpoint of three arms (if you'll pardon the deliberate oversimplification). Infantry are numerous and must choose between the more effective firepower of a long, thin line, the advantages of mass and maneuver obtained by forming into dense columns, or the protection from cavalry afforded by square, knowing that either of the latter formations leave them far more vulnerable to the bouncing, spinning iron of cannon fire.

I could have gone back in time, and set my campaign during the Thirty Years War. But the artillery of the day was nearly immobile, and infantry tactics were too much about the push of pikes and too little about maneuver (again, painting with a VERY broad brush). I could have set my campaign further forward in time, during the Crimean or American Civil Wars. But the advent of rapid fire rifles and rifled artillery were changing the character of battle dramatically again and, while interesting in themselves, these changes were too far from what I was seeking.

Which narrowed my choices to the mid- to late-eighteenteenth century (roughly speaking, the Seven Years War and War of Austrian Succession) or the very early nineteenth century (the Napoleonic Wars).

The final considerations I used to narrow my choice were the dual and related needs for an invented land, and armies wearing invented uniforms. A nation unheard of before, but that could fit into the larger historical context without asking too much of the readers' (or my) willing suspension of disbelief. The nation had to be plausible. The uniforms should reflect the period, but avoid being easily identified as belonging to any particular real world nation of the time.

And that ruled out the Napoleonic Wars, for me. All that reading about those wars, over all those years, have left me very, very familiar with the period and cast of national characters. Adding another player to the mix of nations would have been possible...perhaps in the Balkans or a corner of the German states...but harder to swallow than the addition of one more Duchy amid the many, many nation states that made up 18th century Europe. A certain amount of anonymity is possible, that I found lacking in the Napoleonic period.

And the uniforms! I can tell, at a glance, a French shako from a British Stovepipe, and a Russian wide-topped shako from a Spanish grenadier's mitre. Yes, many nations adopted French or British uniforms in their own colors. Yes, I could have gone that route. But to me, my battalions would always evoke a reaction of "Oh, I see, those a French figures painted purple."

By way of contrast, the 18th century armies looked, for the most part, nearly identical. Nearly all wore tricorns of a cut so similar I can't tell them apart in 15mm. Nearly all worn long-tailed coats with turnbacks. Nearly all fielded cuirassiers and hussars and dragoons undistinguishable from each other until the colors of their uniforms could be discerned (and frequently even then!). Which left me with a blank canvas, when it came to uniforms. Choose a uniform coat color, design a national or regimental flag, and the army of the new nation is born.

So, for all of those reasons, my little nation state of Baden-Hundsheim, and their ancestral enemies to the North, the Principality of Formulgala, will reside firmly in the mid-18th century. I can't wait to get started painting the armies of these two new lands.

Monday, January 30, 2012


or, "what's all this about then?"

Years ago, while a student at the University of California at San Diego, I discovered that the campus library had a small number of books on something called "wargaming." These books, which I recall to be Donald Featherstone's "War Games Through the Ages" and "Advanced Wargames," Charles Grant's "The War Game," and H. G. Wells "Little Wars," introduced me to a delightful hobby that has kept me entertained and out of trouble (more or less) for well over two decades now.

My first foray into war gaming featured double handfuls of unpainted 1/72 soft plastic figures, hastily called into service and using simple rules cobbled together from a mix of ideas from those august tomes as well as a few of my own ideas. I dearly wish I still had the hand-written notes that made up that set of rules.

Between then and now I've collected miniatures and played games in just about every period and every scale, using many, many sets of rules. 10mm American Civil War through 54mm Three Musketeers skirmish. Ancient Persians through Vietnam. Fantasy and Science Fiction, too. And most points in between, beyond and in the creases. Any readers of my other blog will be well familiar with those travels of mine.

But there has always been something very magical about those first books and the world they introduced me too. Simple rules, without pretense, designed to give a reasonable blend of historicity and fun. Simply, brightly painted soldiers from kingdoms both real and imagined, wheeling and firing across a clear, bright green sward. Toy soldiers. Played for fun. Magic.

Recently, I've been examining my hobbies, in the context of the life I lead these days. A father of three who does his best to put family first. And a job I love, but which demands my full attention when I'm there and sometimes when I'm not. These things are important to me, but leave little time for my various hobbies. And, with three children, I'm quite pressed for space in which to store my toy soldiers.

So, I've been taking a critical look at the massive mountains of unpainted lead, pewter and plastic in my garage. And thinking hard about how much time I really have to paint and play games. And how much space all those armies, and all the terrain they imply (I would say require, but most of these armies are, as I said, unpainted and unplayed with as of yet). And I've made some decisions.

First of all, as to figure scale. While I would very dearly love to play all of my games with 40mm or 54mm figures, ranked in their hundreds, on huge tables full of lovingly built terrain, I simple cannot. I must economize. In space, in time required, and monetarily. And so, I've settled on 15mm figures and terrain for all of my games, whether they be 1:1 skirmishes or the affairs of massive armies.

Second, as to the style of game I prefer. Much of my wargaming, for some years, has been conducted solo. There is a very active, very friendly club that meets less than three miles from my house weekly. And I would love to attend. But family commitments make that a rare treat rather than a regular event. So, I content myself with painting and modeling, and with playing the occasional solo game on the dining room table when time permits.

And this focus on solo games has taught me to love games that help me tell a story. Much more on that in a later post. On reaction-driven games that take much of the decision making out of my hands and lead to scenarios and actions I could never have dreamed up myself. But what I want to focus on here is the genres I choose to game in.

Any period could be rich fodder for these kinds of games. But I prefer game settings with large heapings of creativity and narrative potential. And games supported by vendors providing figures I enjoy painting. So, here is the short list. Hopefully you'll see the theme that I presume is present, even if I can't easily describe it.

  • Science Fiction skirmish and small armed force battles. These are, lately, the subject of my blog "Ramblings of a Distracted Wargamer." The 15mm science fiction miniature market is positively thriving right now. It's never been this healthy. I'm spoiled for choices when it comes to characterful miniatures suitable for 1:1 skirmish games and platoon-level games featuring the odd mech or hover tank.
  • Old West skirmish games, fed and inspired by the terrific 18mm range from Blue Moon, and the excellent gunfight and character-based campaign rules "Six Gun Sound" from Two Hour Wargames.
  • Superhero skirmish games, inspired by my love of comic books when I was young, endless entertaining games of Champions in high school, and the terrific fun I derive from scouring 15mm figure lines for miniatures to use and convert. The fact that there are so very few dedicated 15mm superhero figures available is actually an attraction all its own to me, in this case. I do enjoy the hunt, and the challenge of converting and adapting existing figures for use as heroes, villains, henchmen and world-threatening giant robots. I haven't settled on rules for these yet, but I am a big fan of Scott Pyle's GoalSystem rules. SuperSystem looks to be a strong contender.
  • World War II company-level games, using a set of rules called "Sturm!" from Don Bailey. I don't know whether Don has ever made these rules available publicly. I learned about them from an excellent article in Historical Miniature Gamer #1, in which he laid out the reaction-based system behind the rules through a long and story-filled battle report.
  • Colonial wargames, particularly on the Northwest Frontier, using another of Don's rule sets, Pith Helmet 2. This one is, fortunately, available easily on the web. Don wrote an article called "Skirmish at Utla" for Historical Miniature Gamer #5, in which he describes the use of these rules very nicely.
  • And finally, the subject of this blog.
That is, 18th Century battles, large and small, set in a fictional imagi-nation of my own devising, following in the illustrious and pathfinding footsteps of Charles Grant, Peter Young, and their contemporaries.

This post has gone on very much long enough, however. So, until next time, when I will begin to describe this project in more detail.