07 May 2022
A retrospective on changes in Wargaming
Words by Conrad Kinch, Images by John Treadaway
When I was a young Kinch, as yet unschooled in the ways of age and villainy, I made a serious error and got a four year degree in Journalism. This was paid for by my parents and while it did wonders for my alcohol tolerance, it was not exactly a sure fire ticket to gainful employment. To be honest, I’m not sure I learned very much, what I did learn was of little use and I’m not convinced my father would not have been better employed sitting out in his armchair lighting cigars with fifty pound notes while I was shipped off to learn a proper trade like plumbing, furniture upholstery or turkey sexing. It would almost certainly have been a better use of his money and my time.
But I do recall one lecture being delivered by a elderly hack who God-love-her was dying of cancer while teaching us ungrateful whelps. She drank neat gin from a “water bottle” at her desk and imparted gems like: how to write an opinion piece about basically anything; how to carefully fiddle expenses and – occasionally – some of the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten. I recall vividly how in between sips of Cork Dry Gin (she was not a very discriminating lady), she advised us that any young aspiring journalist who wanted to break into feature writing, would be well advised to get himself an almanac (this was the '90s: calm down kids; now I’d check wikipedia) and carefully note down all the anniversaries of the almost important events. “Almost important” was a significant qualifier here: there was no point picking really important events that everyone remembers because any Features Editor in her right mind will have her own people working on something for Remembrance Sunday or the anniversary of women getting the vote. But, there is something to be said to having an article mostly ready to send on the anniversary of the first woman to swim the Channel or that time Idi Amin opened a supermarket in Grenoble, particularly if you could link it to something vaguely contemporary. An excellent way to get the foot in the door and maybe pick up some actual work.
This has never actually worked for me, and I did try at the time, but I have noticed that half of Twitter – which is what journalism has effectively become – is devoted to posts like “On this day in 1923, Helen Keller taught the first badger sign language.” Probably the other reason I wasn’t very successful was that I wasn’t great about getting these things done and to the editor on time (not a word... Ed.).
In line with that great tradition of almost important anniversaries and being late, it was eleven years ago that I published my first article in Battlegames. It was called A Starter for Ten and was about using quizzes in campaign games. Henry Hyde very kindly took a chance on me and shortly thereafter offered me a column writing about wargaming. Battlegames became Miniature Wargames with Battlegames and then Miniature Wargames, but eleven years on here I am still writing. John Treadaway, our noble editor, has taken up the baton from Henry and very kindly suggested that a retrospective might not be the worst idea.
So – no scenario this month, I’m afraid – but some brief reflections on the last ten years or so: what I’ve learned from doing it this long, but also some observations on the changes I’ve seen in the hobby over that time and where I think we’re going. Normal service will resume next month.
So: here’s three things I’ve learned:
DO IT FOR REAL
Wargaming is my hobby and – Mrs Kinch would probably say – my obsession. But it’s cheaper than golf, more fun than drugs and it still keeps me occupied of a wet Wednesday. It isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, my job. Whatever I write here is the fruits of my own rambling wargaming journey, which is why I’ve written articles like 2016’s Experimentation column about an experimental Napoleonic game that didn’t go very well or March 2019’s column How not to write a Wargames scenario. If I’m writing about it here, I’ve thought about it and played it.
I have a pal who runs a weekly roleplaying game podcast and I asked him how he finds it. He admitted that about half the time, it’s just homework, producing material to hit a schedule. I have no idea how he manages to do that: I’d go crazy. Send Three & Fourpence is – for all its faults – the product of whatever I’m excited about in wargaming right now. The column will persist as long as people are willing to read it, the magazine remains profitable and I stay excited about wargaming.
YOU’LL NEVER BE UNIVERSALLY POPULAR
I don’t often get feedback on particular columns, but I never tire of seeing wargamers who’ve tried my stuff online or doing their own take on something I’ve written. Be aware if you write a blog or articles for the magazine, most people will read your work and forget about it. Some wargamers will actually give it a try and an even smaller number will tell you about it later. I am firmly of the opinion that most wargaming scenarios, etc are more read than they are played, but other lad’s games are fun to read about too.
When I do get feedback, the vast majority of it is overwhelmingly positive. Unfortunately every so often, one gets called nasty names. The only article that has ever really got much negative feedback was Points Systems in the Dock in Issue 389, where I discussed the pros and cons of points systems. I was “...the sort of moron who is destroying the hobby…” according to one correspondent. Rest assured this reign of terror will continue unabated. (A man after my own heart, Mr Kinch. Ed.)
THE GAME IS THE THING...
Yes, The game is the thing: but not all of the thing. One item that always surprises me whenever I meet wargamers in person who regularly read Send Three & Fourpence is that – while they often differ about what they like about the content of the column (scenarios, interviews, etc) – they always mention the jokes and the asides about my mother in law or the Kinchlets. Perhaps the people who don’t like that sort of thing stop reading or just don’t talk to me, but Mrs Kinch has remarked on how consistent it was. I suppose readers enjoy the idea that wargamers have other things going on in our lives. I had some lovely emails when I wrote about the challenges of wargaming with young children. It would be easy to get carried away and dive into a mess of in-jokes and self indulgent nonsense, so I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.
But that’s quite enough self indulgence. Looking back on the last ten years, I’ve noticed some definite changes in the hobby.
MAINSTREAMING OF GEEK CULTURE
A thousand feature articles have been written about this, but one of the changes in Western society in the last ten years or so has been the mainstreaming of Geek culture. From Sheldon and the gang from Big Bang Theory playing board games to Henry Cavill talking publicly about his enthusiasm for Warhammer to the fact that the computer games industry rivals Hollywood these days, quirky pastimes have become – if not exactly mainstream – certainly more public than they were.
Primarily due to Warhammer and computer games, it’s likely that – if you mention that you play wargames – the person you are talking to is likely to have some idea about what it is that you’re talking about. That can only be a good thing.
A small part of me thinks that the advent of YouTube may actually be as significant as the invention of the printing press. That might be a grandiose statement, but I think the weight of evidence supports it. The democratisation of video production has meant that even single individuals can produce video content that if not quite up to professional standards is at least passable.
Books and magazines are great, but we live in a culture of the image rather than a culture of the word. YouTube and other video platforms are not only a superb way of getting the hobby in front of new people, but also an excellent way to share expertise. It’s one thing to write an article about how to paint a figure: it’s entirely another to actually see the process happening in front of you on screen.
You can even watch on our own YouTube a video made from another Send Three and Fourpence written by Conrad Kinch, on Wargaming Podcsts!
SOLO & CO-OPERATIVE WARGAMING
If you told me a decade ago that well over half my wargaming would be solo or co-operative I would have laughed at you. I don’t think that standard two player gaming is under any threat, but I think a mixture of an older audience with less free time and the advent of the Coronavirus, has made solo wargaming a more attractive prospect than it was ten years ago. While there were certainly books available for solo wargaming before, written by major figures like Donald Featherstone and Charles Grant, solo and co-operative wargaming is more visible and supported these days. While Dan Mersey’s The Men who would be Kings blew my mind when it included rules for solo action, I’ve noticed that more games are including solo options, particularly over lockdown. Richard Borg’s group published his solo rules for Commands & Colours Napoleonics, Frostgrave and Stargrave both now have expansions that convert the game to support solo play, and please bear in mind – these are just the rulesets that I have personally played.
In addition, there are dedicated rulesets like Rangers of Shadowdeep which are specifically focused on the solo or co-operative player. Five Parsecs from Home from Nordic Weasel Games has enjoyed some success as well. Games Workshop has released two solo/co-operative games in recent years, Cursed City and Blackstone Fortress. All these are fantasy/sci-fi games, but Nordic Weasel Games and Two Hour Wargames have extensive back catalogues for stuff for the co-op/solo historical wargamer, games like Five Men at Kursk, Five Men in Normandy and NUTS!
I don’t think this is a bad thing, particularly if it helps some of us – who otherwise wouldn’t get a game on the table – back into the action.
THE RISE OF THE HYBRID WARGAMER
One thing I’ve definitely noticed in the last ten years is the rise of the hybrid wargamer, by which I mean the wargamer who plays historicals and fantasy/sci-fi or other games. When I think back to my early days in the hobby it was far more an either/or proposition.
I learned the hobby from my dad via Airfix figures and Paddy Griffith and Donald Featherstone books, but in that I’m kind of an oddity as most of my peers got into wargaming via Heroquest, Space Crusade and Warhammer. The Airfix generation of wargamers who were about during the 1960-70s are now grandfathers and wargamers under forty are far more likely to have had some exposure to non-historical wargaming before coming to the historical side of the hobby.
While I would observe that the pipeline of Warhammer players moving into historicals is still definitely something that happens, I’m seeing fewer wargamers who then abandon their previous interest completely. Hence the hybrid wargamer: the chap who fields space marines as well as his Roman legions and has dwarves on his miniatures shelf as well as Shermans.
This is a change: not one that I think is particularly for the better or worse, but just a change (and that’s why this magazine reflects and embraces that change, I’m proud to say. Ed.)
MOVE FAST & LIGHT
I love big games with hundreds of figures spread out on the table top as I try to recreate a Vernet or Lady Butler painting in miniature. It’s a glorious thing and I adore it.
But I don’t get to play those types of games very often, not least because the amount of time required to set them up and break up down. The last ten years has definitely seen an explosion in skirmish gaming: Games Workshop has had considerable success with Kill Team, Warcry, Underworld and so on, but there’s been a flood of skirmish games and large skirmish games in the last ten years. Saga has an active fanbase as does Bolt Action, Chain of Command and Sharp Practice, all of which are games that require a relatively modest investment in figures and terrain. I don’t think this marks the death of the big battle game, but I do think that there has been a certain amount of recognition that – if games are to be played rather than talked about – they need to be more accessible in terms of the table size and number of figures.
Even Warlord Games, whose Black Powder ruleset I’ve always considered the poster child for glorious excess in miniature wargaming, has released Black Power Epic. This uses smaller figures and doesn’t require the vast acreage of table space needed for its bigger brother. Bloody Big Battles by Chris Pringle and Snappy Nappy by Russ Lockwood are both attempts to make big battle games playable on relatively small tables and in reasonable (90 minutes to two hours) time frames.
While obviously everyone wants a table groaning with miniatures that is home to epic battles, reality dictates that we don’t get that experience as often as we’d like. I think the trend towards more streamlined and accessible games is a positive one.
I wrote about this in our June 2020 edition when lockdown was really beginning to bite. Remote wargaming is when you set up a board and a your figures and then use a camera to film the board for a player or players elsewhere. While I’d advocated for this kind of game for a while as it allowed me to play with friends who lived in Canada or the US, 'lockdown' really seemed to kick it into high gear.
Remote wargaming seems to work best with relatively short games that don’t involve a lot of figures. This is because even a simple game takes longer to play via video and it can be quite hard to tell one 28mm (or smaller) figure from another over camera. One of the problems I hadn’t anticipated about running WWII games remotely was the camouflage worked: sometimes players got quite annoyed because they got “ambushed” by enemy units that they’d either failed to spot or had forgotten were there.
The Lardies with their characteristic energy and enthusiasm organised Virtual Lard via Discord, a “virtual” show where wargamers could sign up to play. I’ve had the pleasure of playing Virtual Space Hulk with my friend Tom Egan (@tomjmegan) who chronicles his games on Twitter and it is a game that works really well in that medium. Players who prefer historicals would be well advised to check out Bob Cordery’s Portable Wargame which would work very well via video for the same reasons Space Hulk does: it features a short playing time, gridded battlefield and low figure count.
I really missed playing games face to face during lockdown, but I don’t think I’ll be abandoning remote wargaming now that face to face games are a possibility again. If the Discord groups and chatrooms are anything to go by, I think a lot of people are thinking the same. Like a lot of changes we’ve seen in the last ten years, I don’t think this is replacing something old, it’s just adding another option and that’s a good thing.
In the May 2013 issue of this magazine, I interviewed Mongoose Publishing head honcho Mathew Sprange. During this interview, I noted that he was selling STL files for Second World War ships for his game Victory at Sea. Cute, I thought: what a weird idea – It’ll never catch on though. Oh dear Lord, how wrong I was. 3D printing could be made for wargaming. The ability to create terrain and miniatures is unparalleled. The sheer number of files available for free on Thingiverse is striking and there is plenty to keep both the fantasy/sci-fi wargamer, but also the historical gamer interested. There are any number of digital sculptors working at the moment, selling their wares at places like Cults3D or MyMiniFactory. Two that have particularly caught my eye are Knucklebones Miniatures and WOWBuildings.
Knucklebones Miniatures produce 28mm scaled figures that are…odd! And WOWBuildings design terrain STLs aimed at the Second World Wargamer which are excellent. The files are available individually, but they are also sold at a very heavy discount during their periodic Kickstarters. I cannot believe that I could recreate the entire town of Clermont (from Kelly’s Heroes): truly we live in an age of dreams!
So that’s the last ten years, what happens next? At the risk of making a fool of myself, I am willing to make the following three prophecies about things that will happen in wargaming by 2032.
TooFat Lardies were leading the way as early adopters of selling rules PDFs, their social media game is top notch and they started putting YouTube tutorials about how to play their games up before anyone else I know.
Book and PDF bundles are already a wargaming staple, I think the next step is the tablet enabled rulebook. An electronic copy of your paper rulebook, but that comes with embedded videos demonstrating the rules, apps that help you draw up your army list and possibly even software that handles some part of the game. Imagine taking a picture of your Chain of Command board and then running the patrol phase on your tablet in a linked app with a pal? It’s an idea whose time has come.
COLOURED 3D PRINTING
I don’t understand how it works, but there are already commercial outfits offering pre-coloured 3D prints. It’s slow, it’s expensive and confined to the commercial sector at the moment, but that was the case with 3D printing ten or fifteen years ago. Hero Forge, a company that specialises in offering bespoke 3D printed fantasy miniatures that you can design yourself, ran a Kickstarter in 2020 to offer coloured 3D printed miniatures.
The figures aren’t brilliant and a competent painter could certainly do better, but I am confident that the technology will be within the grasp of the average hobbyist within the next ten years. Imagine it: vast painted printed armies could be within the grasp of anyone who has the inclination and the printer time. God help us all.
THE WIDE WORLD OF WARGAMING
Wargaming may not be a rich man’s hobby, but it is a hobby of the comfortable. You need certain resources to be able to be a wargamer, a certain amount of disposable income to gather figures, somewhere to play, etc. Which is not to say that you can’t wargame cheaply if you need to, but up until relatively recently a lot of the world’s population lived in poverty. The proportion of the world population that lives in extreme poverty has fallen off a cliff in my lifetime: it’s been one of the great success stories of the last fifty years. And I’m willing to bet that some of those guys will like toy soldiers.
Reading the discourse around inclusiveness in the hobby is not something that I’ve been particularly impressed by in the last few years, but ultimately it seems a sideshow. What I am actually excited about is that sat somewhere in Lagos, Kinshasa or Dhaka right now there is a chap who loves toy soldiers like I do. There is someone out there in the world who is going to write a wargame about the battles of the Sokoto Caliphate, Bagirmi sieges of Kimre treeforts and Srivijaya-Mataram war.
And I would absolutely play that, but... that’s enough prognostication for now: see you all in 2032.
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