Tuesday, January 26, 2010

New Campaign

So, now to the new campaign. What’s wanted now is a genuine break from the norm, no generic province in central Europe but a specific one with some character of it’s own.

Welcome to the province of Muckenmire, as ghastly a backwater of low-lying, rain-sodden, semi-submerged bogland as could ever be wished onto a hated enemy. The source of nothing but over-religious peasants, tastelessly rich merchants, moodily-lit landscape paintings, outrageously elaborate cheeses and innovative waterproof footwear. In short, no decent Luftberg gentleman could regard the place as anything other than a nightmarish hell-hole. And flat – so very, very, flat.

The province is heavily inspired by the actual Hapsburg holdings of the Austrian Netherlands (modern-day Belgium, basically.) Muckenmire was inherited by Luftberg through various treaties as a bargaining-chip. They never had a desire for it, have no interest in it, and aim to foist it off at the first opportunity onto some luckless counterpart. Spoiling the party, Aschenbach seek to take it.

A year has passed since the Spitzplatz war. Feldmarschall Krumper is now the ruling monarch of Aschenbach through succeeding to the throne, after the sad death of his senile and elderly father. It’s the role he was effectively doing anyway as the Prince Regent, but now he’s able to exercise full uninhibited power. Picking off a low-hanging fruit like Muckenmire should be a tantalisingly easy trick!

In Muckenmire itself Von Hentsch, semi-banished to the province’s governorship, fumes over events in the capital of Brederdam. He was side-tracked into a backwater, only to see it become the focus of Aschenbach’s latest agression. Now however, instead of being left to his own devices he is faced with a steady stream of his contemporaries (ie, rivals for glory) arriving as part of the Luftberg buildup.

The geography for Muckenmire is based on the Low Countries, plus – with a flagrant disregard for reality – turned thru 180 degrees just for the hell of it, to make things ‘fresher’. Distinguishing characteristics include the low water table, many small rivers, marshes, etc. One major river (the Schelve), plus a provinvial capital in it’s mouth. It has a largely urban population and most large towns are fortified, plus a few canals, a good road network, and some scattered woodland at the fringes. Actual tactical maps will be ‘in character’ and heavily favour marshes, fenland, streams, ponds, polder and dikes.

Next post I'll cover the military plans of the two old protagonists.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Black Powder: A Review

The postman has finally delivered my copy of the Black Powder rules, and so I thought I should post a review from my first reading:

First, the basics: Black Powder is a new set of rules by the Games Workshop old-hands Rick Priestley & Jervis Johnson, and is published by Warlord Games. It covers a period of a full 200 years, broadly from 1700 to 1900. (Readers of this blog will probably be minded towards the SYW themselves, and there is certainly lots of suitability.)

First thing is first: the actual look of the book is incredible. No stapled A4 booklet here! Hardback, nice illustrations, a colour picture on virtually every page, and usually of a ridiculously vast diorama. This is a genuine work of love by a set of enthusiasts, and easily the best-looking book I’ve ever seen in the hobby. Maybe standards are higher nowadays and this merely shows my ignorance, but this is surely excellent stuff in anyone’s eyes.

Language & Style
The actual writing is marvellously judged to suit the period, typically being rather over-polite and gentlemanly, shot through with a dry humour. For example, the Foreword advises it is “a game for militarily inclined gentlemen with straight backs, bristling beards, and rheumy eyes that have seen a thing or two … The library or billiard room will serve as our battlefield, or else some similarly spacious and secluded refuge. Ensure that children are safely put to bed and … secure the doors against the intrusion of womenfolk as yet unfamiliar with the conventions of war.” What’s not to like in that? Each topic in the rules is typically given a 2-page spread, so it’s all visible when laid open on the table for reference mid-game. There are no excessive bullet-points or quick summaries, but a discussive tone, with the same humorous style throughout. For example, when the rules mention marking casualties on units they advise using models of fallen soldiers, adding: “Some gamers will doubtless feel that this service can be provided equally well with pen and paper. This notion has a whiff of accountancy about it and can only be recommended to those irretreivably so inclined.”

The game itself is simple and has a no-nonsense straightforwardness. There is a standard and unvarying ‘to hit’ roll and a ‘save’ roll on all combat, and all modifiers merely increase or decrease the number of dice rolled – making it very easy to remember. Each generic type of unit has a profile stating the number of dice rolled for shooting or hand-to-hand combat, a morale value (the number of save dice it rolls) plus a stamina level. Successful hits leave casualty markers, and when they exceed the stamina level it becomes possible the unit can break and flee.
Orders are given from a dice roll, to individual units or a group, depending on a general’s ability and luck – if he fails to issue an order he must stop all other intended orders, forcing careful consideration and prioritising. Also, if he rolls very badly there is the possibility of a nasty blunder taking place!
That, in a nutshell, is it! The mechanics are remarkably close in style to Warmaster, in case any of this is sounding familiar.
For particular flavour there are pages of Special Rules listed, all of minor but telling tweaks which have quite an impact through the simple games system. Each one is not usually specified for where and when it should be used, but is accompanied by a small commentary discussing the impact it has, and the sort of rough style of troops it should be applied to. This makes the reader take up slack, judging for themselves whether they think Prussian Infantry should be given the ‘First Fire’ or ‘Sharp Shooters’ bonus, and so on.
As a final note, I should add that the book has advanced rules, covers unusual items like howitzers or rockets, personalities for generals, half a dozen played-through battle reports as extended examples, plus some appendices of advice for different scales and sizing of units.

The level of detail and specific instructions in Black Powder has been deliberately left low, with the writers taking long stride back from telling you how to do everything. They expect enthusiastic players to work things out themselves, and don’t spoon-feed you requirements. I would say this is as much a toolkit for wargaming as a ruleset - especially with the special rules mentioned above. It aims to point a way, accepts most wargamers rewrite things and use ‘house-rules’ anyway, and so puts much more emphasis on players to think right from the start. It’s actually remarkable to think of the ‘classic’ elements of rulebooks left out: There are no minimum force sizes, no setup zones, no army lists, and not even a points system! (Well, all right – they grudgingly and disdainfully include a “suggested” points system for tournament play, hidden away in one of the appendices. They encourage players to simply do it the historical way – fight a battle with a force you reckon is adequate to win the day against the enemy. In other words, the very thing that a points system just puts an arbitrary figure on!) This results in an Exhilirating sense of freedom and the aim is just as much – if not more – to encourage enthusiasm for wargaming. About a third of the book is example battles written up and played through, and combined with the whole book’s discussive style it is remarkably reminiscent of the 1970s books by Charles Grant or Donald Featherstone. In fact, I would suggest it is at least their spiritual descendant, owing them a huge debt.

Should you try it? If you want a detailed, scientific set of rules, I would advise “No.” If you want a playable and simple set with the emphasis on game rather than simulation, I would advise “Yes.” And if you liked ‘The War Game’ by Charles Grant, I would advise “Definitely!”

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's All About Personality

With painting proceeding apace on the 'lead mountain', I can turn my attention to the upcoming campaign. I am planning to have a more varied terrain than before, with the two armies scattered it into various smaller groups. This may make a big 'all units on the table' battle less likely in the campaign, but it should allow for lots of more varied fighting as various sub-commanders march around. I'm aiming to get a campaign focused more on Luftberg, and specifically the internal rivalries of it's characters. Fighting Aschenbach might be the day-job, but with your back-biting rivals all around you, this internecine fight is personal!

With this in mind, plus the upcoming chance of more independent action, it's probably a good idea to look over who our various personalities are - and consider how their standing has been altered by the conclusion of the Spitzplatz campaign.

Elector Ulrich Von Luftberg is top of the heap, absolute ruler of Luftberg in perpetuity, etc. etc. He did not take part in the recent Spitzplatz campaign, due to it being effectively being engineered and run by Felix Von Hentsch. However, his previous outing saw him win the major battle of Vogelhof, still the greatest battlefield defeat that Aschenbach have ever taken. In fact, he won the whole war and took over the whole province for Luftberg following a successful siege back in 2008 (well, whatever the imagiNation year-equivalent is!) He'll get brought out of his semi-retirement to command the national army again, putting personal reputation on the line once more.

Graf Felix Von Hentsch is the embodiment of supreme evil, coldly plotting to usurp the Electorate for the Von Hentsch family. As his own dynasty seemed like the only alternative to the ruling family, marrying into the royal house looked like a sure thing as long as no rivals appeared and Von Hentsch prestige remained high. Sadly for his plots, the Spitzplatz campaign came along. In the campaign, Von Hentsch aimed to loot the five cities in the province to ruin the newcomer Von Bitzhelm family. He only managed two of the five, which means that the Von Hentsch clan now has a rival to deal with. Plus, although he managed to snatch a stalemate at the end of the campaign, he lost several pitched battles to the Aschenbach army, rather tarnishing his self-proclaimed reputation as a military genius. Still plotting away, Von Hentsch is a man with enemies to destroy and a reputation to restore.

Graf Karl Von Bitzhelm is the dynastic ruler of Spitzplatz, and his family are famous for being vastly wealthy and ugly - the classic 'arrogant noble'. Although the campaign through his lands didn't kill off Aschenbach claims to it (and probably guarantees a later campaign will need to be fought,) his siding with Luftberg meant he is now highly politically favoured - much to Von Hentsch's annoyance. He's never taken the field before, but really - how difficult can it be? If that villainous Von Hentsch can do it while stealing off the Von Bitzhelms, then surely it can't be that hard!

Freiherr Tobias Ludwig is the most junior of the quartet, who shot to prominence during the Spitzplatz campaign. The great-nephew of the Tradgardland Duke, he arrived mid-campaign
and proceeded to give Luftberg's military some of it's best moments. He even led a semi-suicidal attack at the battle of Froschbach, and with the aggressive cockiness he's famous for, he doubtless believes that if he'd been given a more senior role he could've saved the whole battle for Luftberg. Clearly valued as a subordinate by Von Hentsch, it's unlikely that Ludwig sees it in quite those terms.

So, four various commanders for the upcoming campaign - all of whom like some but hate most. The summary breakdown runs as:

Luftberg likes Bitzhelm (rich, plus guarantees Spitzplatz to Luftberg); hates Von Hentsch (plotter, and nearly lost the war); and dislikes Ludwig (jumped-up swaggerer!)

V. Hentsch likes Ludwig (trusty second-in-command); hates Luftberg (as he wants his throne); and hates Bitzhelm (his rival to power.)

Bitzhelm likes Luftberg (his new political ally), likes Ludwig (arrogant aristocrat, so a kindred spirit); and hates Von Hentsch (he plundered his cities for his own wealth!)

Ludwig likes Luftberg (the head of his adoptive homeland); hates Von Hentsch (who should have resigned his command and given him the army) and hates Von Bitzhelm (older, uglier, and a new rival to this military glory-hog!)

It's worth noting that the above wasn't really 'written' by me - the relationships just seemed to form up that way as the named leaders marched around and played out the battles. It's a nice sign of things taking on a life of their own. How this dysfunctional crew will function when Aschenbach comes calling remains to be seen, but it should be "interesting" if nothing else!

Friday, January 8, 2010

New Year, New Plans

Many belated returns, everybody! I hope you had a good holiday season. I've been getting back into normal life over the past week, but I've still kept active with my wargaming plans.

First, the old campaign has come to it's conclusion at the tail-end of last year - rather good timing, as it has lasted for about a year in the real-world, as each side contested the province of Spitzplatz. I'll post shortly tying up all the ImagiNation-world changes, and rounding it off (in other words, digging back over old posts from 2008 to review who met their objectives!) Once this is done a new campaign with some fresh quirk will be launched, to let Aschenbach and Luftberg once again continue to test themselves against a new contrivance of fortune.

So, what for the new year? Well, over the holidays I did two big things. The first was to invest in a new wargames rules-set, and the second was quite a lot of painting.

First, with a bit of Xmas money as a present (I never specify hobby items as presents, as my family tend not to be too sharp on military compositions for armies in the mid/late 18th Century - bafflingly) I have bought a set of rules. It came from listening to the excellent 'Meeples & Miniatures' podcast, which I recommend if you like to hear two entertainingly affable wargamers chatter at length about the hobby. Anyway, they recently reviewed the ruleset 'Black Powder' quite favourably, and this caught my attention for several reasons:

a) it's written by Rick Priestley, who did the old Games Workshop rules that first got me into wargaming (and yes, that rulebook is still on my shelf)
b) It's a big hardback book which looks excellent
c) It's been described as having the old 'classic' discussive tone of the likes of Charles Grant and other 1970's-vintage books
d) It covers SYW, Napoleonics and ACW, which are all favoured periods with me
e) It is apparently quite similar in mechanics to Warmaster, which I always felt was criminally under-rated.

So, with that I have sent away for it and am awaiting delivery (it seems to have sold well, and stocks are currently 'on order'.) I'll post a review when it arrives. The only offputting factor was that I had heard it was a 'big battalions' ruleset, which used 24-figure units. I was a bit uneasym until my mental gears creaked into action and I realised that my existing 15mm figures are based in 24-man infantry regiments already! Ah, happy fortune!

Secondly, I have been painting a lot. As readers may know, I have been battling for months to paint flat-out, while playing SYW games along the way. For much of Autumn I managed to nearly burn myself out with frantic painting. In fact, I swore off it and decided to give myself a break. However, the old adage that 'a change is as good as a rest' proved right, and I found myself painting - just on other things. I've been busy on a 6mm medieval army (which I've mentioned on my other 'General Headquarters' blog) plus a pile of Perry ACW figures, etc. Things got encouraging however when I wrapped up the medieval project over the holidays. With this boost, plus a new-year burst of enthusiasm, I have turned back to the last remaining units in my army-expansion project. Pictured below is my 'Lead Mountain':

As you may be able to see, I have my masterplan on paper (in the "2010 SYW TO DO LIST") plus a stack of figures. Some are raw lead, totally unpainted, while others are completely finished and need merely rebased. In all, there are 18 bases of infantry and cavalry left to do.

So, that's the new year - new figures, new rules, and a new campaign!