The weekend before last I went to the 2018 Salute show in Excel in London. This is the only wargames show I regularly go to. I am now a member of the South London Warlords that puts the show on, though I have as yet played no part in organising it or helping on the day. Too much else going on in my life (which is also why this article is so late).
So much that I couldn’t stay long this year. I arrived at about 11am and stayed until about 1pm. It says a lot about the show that I could have stayed longer if I didn’t have other places to go! The show is big. This year it seemed bigger than ever. Certainly from the point of view of the trading stands, which increasingly seem to be the point of the show. The games did not look as numerous as previously. There were quite a few empty tables, gratefully seized by visitors as somewhere to sit down and have a rest or chat with friends. Star of the show was a replica WWI British tank, which you could peek inside of.
There was some spectacular games, which people had taken a lot of trouble to put on. But there were some rather underwhelming ones as well. Worst was a case where the intended English Civil War game could not be put on due to illness. Instead there was a WW2 demonstration that looked pretty dire even by the standards of a club night. The reason was clear enough, but I’m not sure I would have put anything on in those circumstances. I didn’t like a couple of others more due to my personal taste. One was a Battle of Tewkesbury (1471) game. The board was small but, even then the small scale figures only took up a small part of it. The terrain was an abstract expanse of pale green base, with some darker bits to represent wooded areas. As it happens I had visited the Tewkesbury battle site over Easter (on Easter Sunday in fact). It is claustrophobic, dominated hedges, rolling ground, with streams and lanes and the general shape of the ground playing an important role in how the day played out. The recreation conveyed none of that – and the armies looked much to small in relation to the ground. The lesson there: I don’t want to do a historical game that is presented so abstractly that the historical feel is completely lost. And if you are using small scale figures, the role played by terrain matters more to the overall presentation. It would, of course, have been very hard work to put together the complex system of hedges and lanes and streams that make up the Tewkesbury battlefield – but it has the potential to be visually stunning. Although the area now is currently ruined by new developments, it shouldn’t be too hard to get close to original layout. Field systems stay much the same until modern bulldozers flatten them – as can be seen from the fraction of the field that has survived, which has changed little. Besides the battle is much studied and I expect somebody else has done the hard work already.
A second battle I found underwhelming, or at any rate demonstrating a direction I don’t want to go in, was a recreation of Aspern-Essling (1809). It used hex based terrain system and 28mm figures. The villages were represented by large building models, with one model making up a small village, and units were small groups of figures in rather loose formation. This is the danger of these popular large scales. The effort goes into doing up the miniatures and buildings to look good as individuals, but the effort required for doing large numbers is too much. The effect en masse is dire. It looked nothing like a big Napoleonic battle with dense masses of troops confronting each other in villages with streets. I don’t think the hex-based system used helped either. Whether I can achieve what I want to with 15mm Napoleonic figures on a large scale remains an unanswered question.
One good-looking table was presented on a WW2 1943 theme – featuring 20mm scale figures and aircraft in a Mediterranean setting (the battle for Leros 1943). I think it was showcasing Battlegroup rules (more of which later). But after a couple of passes I realised that nothing was actually moving. It was diorama and not a game. I remember the same thing last year with a 1941 desert war “game” to coincide with Battlegroup Tobruk. I don’t really approve, but the presentation did succeed in drawing observers in, so I’m sure there’s something to be learned from it.
Part of my purpose for the day was to get inspiration. I’m afraid, though there were some attractive games, it was mostly showing me what not to do. My tastes are rather out of kilter with the rest of the wargaming community – and so far I have failed to put on anything that demonstrates the sorts of things I want to see.
Apart from inspiration there was shopping. Here things went better. I resisted the temptation to buy models or figures (there is too much unpainted stuff at home), or books on history (too many unread ones). Instead my books were squarely focused on wargames projects. First I bought the newly published Battlegroup Torch. I am less than convinced by the Battlegroup rules themselves, though they have quite bit going for them. But their author, Warwick Kinrade, does a wonderful job of historical research and works much harder than most to create an authentic feel. I have his books on Kursk and Normandy because these were the closest I could get to the 1943 Mediterranean theme. I let the 1941 Tobruk book go; this early desert war is far too far away from what I’m looking at. But this new book starts with the various battles of El Alamein in 1942, when more modern weapons started to play a role. Better still it includes Tunisia, which is one of the three campaigns that I am particularly focusing on (Tunisia, Sicily and Salerno). I have read it, and I’m not disappointed. So much better than the rather lightweight Bolt Action book I bought last year on the Mediterranean campaigns. I do hope Warwick gets on to Italy. It is promising that he says that Tunisia proved much more interesting that he thought it would be. Indeed so. The terrain is quite different form the desert, which has never attracted me for tabletop battles, and there is an interesting array of troops and weapons, with hard fighting on both sides.
Still on the WW2 theme I bought some Iron Cross rules, which I’d been encouraged to try after a magazine article. These might well work well on a club night, where my friends have come into a stash of WW2 20mm models and are taking an interest. They are a bit simplistic in places, but actually look very interesting. Alas I can see that no WW2 rules will meet my tastes, and that I will be writing my own. Not yet though.
I also bought a couple of books for Napoleonics. I am trying to think of ways I can get my metal into club games (though the main problem for now is that the basing is all over the place and they don’t look good enough). I looked at two options. One was a new divisional game: Over the Hills. This looks quite interesting and easy to play – I saw encouraging reviews on TMP, though the reviewers also said they were poorly written. On a quick review I can see what they mean. But they are still full of a lot of the tropes that affect most wargames at this level. Built up areas are treated much like individual buildings – which fails to capture the flavour of street fighting. Squares are vulnerable to infantry attacks (more vulnerable, at first glance, than catching a line in the flank). The soldiers of Bachelu’s division at Waterloo might beg to differ. Still the treatment of skirmishers is rather better than many, and I need to give them a proper chance. I will give a proper review another time.
And finally I bought a scenario book for Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles. This is post-Napoleonic but I’m thinking of trying BBB on a club night, as another option. One of the big problems with club games is creating interesting scenarios, and Chris has a gift for turning historical scenarios into interesting wargames. I’m hoping I can do something with these (and the Franco Prussian War ones in the rule book). Since BBB is the closest current system to the rules I am trying to put together myself, I’m sure there is much to learned from this. I am trying to resist the magnetic attraction of putting together yet more armies to run some of these scenarios in their intended format…