Sunday, August 24, 2014

Painting Matters: In Defense of Hobby Standards

(Editor's note: This week's post is written by Karl, a prolific gamer, terrain builder and painter, and also one of the founding members of Chicago Skirmish Wargames. He wanted me to point out that the opinions below are his and his alone ... but if you perchance happen to game with us, you won't find an unpainted model anywhere on our battlefields. Also, a portion of this article appeared in Dakka Dakka.)

I frequent a number of forums, and periodically discussions arise regarding painting and whether or not it is a necessary part of the hobby. This often comes up among players of popular games like Warmachine, where players are rewarded for buying entire factions at once just to have a competitive option against every opponent. Similarly, Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 require a player to buy many dozens or hundreds of miniatures just to play the size of game most people at the local game shop will enjoy.

Some folks inevitably chime in with "it's just a game" or "it would be just as fun with chits." In the end, the discussion usually settles around a philosophy equivalent to: "Those who don't choose to paint their models have a different approach to the hobby and it's just as valid as yours."

Balderdash, I say! Pish posh and poppycock!

I will endeavor herein to make the case that painting is an essential part of the hobby, and a standard not to simply overlook. Like many here, I have a "live and let live apart" attitude towards folks who don't paint their miniatures. My philosophy is generally, "That's fine for you, but you'll have to find someone else to play against," though I'm wiling to make exceptions for folks whose painting is in-progress.

Still, I'm not so relativistic as to be willing to give some sort of tacit approval to those who don't paint and say that they're involvement in the hobby is just as good as mine. It's not, nor should we delude ourselves to think that it is so, simply for the sake of good feelings and avoiding offense.

Like any activity, there is a hierarchy of involvement. In the tabletop wargaming hobby, those who play with painted miniatures bring more to the table, and those with grey hordes bring less. It may sound elitist or harsh, and no one seems to like the word "hierarchy" anymore, but consider that every other hobby activity has standards by which they judge a member's degree of involvement and commitment to the hobby.

Why should wargaming be any different than other hobbies that require painting?
  • If you're a part of a car club, but don't paint or keep your car up, you're going to be viewed differently. 
  • If you're part of a fine-scale modeling club, but just assemble and convert your models, and don't paint them, no one is going to think that you've "finished" them or want you to display with the club. 
  • -If you show up to a train club with a bunch of ready-to-run "Bachman" models with plastic wheels, eyebrows may be raised.

And holding to standards is not unique to hobbies requiring painting. They exist in every sphere of life.
  • In sports, it's the better players who make the varsity team. 
  • In music, it's the better musicians (or better promoted musicians) who get the gig. 
  • In business, it's those who get results and profits who become executives. 
Likewise, if you show up to the table with grey hordes and aren't actively painting them, you simply "aren't there yet." You have neglected an important part of the hobby, and I'm not going to applaud you for your personal "approach" to the hobby. That does not make you (or me) a bad person. It does not reflect on your character, your behavior outside of wargaming or your worth as a human being.

However, make no mistake, painted models are part of wargaming and have always been. If you're content to repeatedly bring your Bondo-patched Camaro to the car show, that's your choice, but don't expect the same degree of esteem and approval from your fellow enthusiasts. Like any hobby, there are loads of people out there ready with tips and techniques to help you get your stuff done, and many more are willing do it for you for a price, but it's up to you see that it gets done.

I do not hold myself apart from these same standards and fully realize that they apply to me as well. I paint most of my minis with fairly quick block paint schemes followed by a Minwax dip. It's a standard I'm happy with and looks good on the tabletop. I even have a few prepainted miniatures that have been rebased and dipped!

But I don't ever expect to get the same kind of props or respect as someone who paints their miniatures to a higher standard any more than I would expect a best-painted award at a convention. In fact, sometimes I'm actually a tiny bit disappointed when I receive kudos for my fully painted figures, because it means that so many gamers are used to seeing hordes of unpainted models at their local game store.

To sum up, the hobby has standards. If you choose not to meet them, or your local game scene chooses to ignore them, then that's up to you and them. However, they do exist. Pretending they do not may give a warm fuzzy feeling to a few people, but it lowers the the hobby as a whole and does no one any favors. As one of the thousands of players who was attracted to wargaming by the spectacle of painted armies clashing on a battlefield of beautiful terrain, it's simply not a standard I'm willing to let go. Nor should any of us.

-- Karl, Chicago Skirmish Wargames club member

(Photos from the four-year history of CSW and the many games we've played during that time)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Quake & Mourn Campaign: Session 4 Kings of War Report

Last week, Jon, Mattias and Tim and I got together for the fourth session of our summer fantasy campaign. However, we decided to mix it up a bit and play a round of Kings of War, the mass combat fantasy ruleset from Mantic Games. The game operates at about a company level, and the rules and army lists are free to download.

Kings of War's army lists cover a wide variety of fantasy armies, with units that represent or proxy virtually any fantasy unit. Jon and Tim allied to face off against Karl and Mattias. Here's what we played.

  • Jon - Clan War fantasy Japanese mostly using the Kingdoms of Men army list
  • Tim - Celts and Tharks using the Kingdoms of Men and Ogre army lists 
  • Karl - Chaos troops using the Kingdoms of Men and Abyssal Dwarves army lists 
  • Mattias - Chaos invaders using the Twilight Kin (dark elf) list 

We played the "Pillage and Kill" scenario, where points are scored for both seizing objectives (six in this case) and killing the enemy. For the purposes of the game, we added a few more rules.

  • Players were allowed to keep units in reserve and bring them in at any turn. They could enter the battlefield on either flank up to a number of inches equal to their standard move times the number of turns played. 
  • A move conducted entirely on the road gives a player a movement boost of 50%.

Both players on a given side would conduct their turns simultaneously. We each fielded 1500 points. As we were playing on a nearly 7 by 6 foot table -- two feet deeper than a standard Kings of War table -- the first turns were mostly moving.

Tim used the road to great effect moving his Thark cavalry (which counted as six ogre chariots) rapidly towards the center. I moved up my dragon (listed as an Overlord on Winged Abyssal) and flying vampire (General on Winged Pegasus in the army list) to counter his advance. The dragon made quick work of one of Tim's Thark shooters, but went down in the following turn. The flying vampire met his end shortly thereafter.

On the opposite side of the board, the werewolves' nimble characteristic allowed them to quickly maneuver around the table, causing much havoc before being taken down by a flank attack by Jon's units.

My Chaos Knights, the only unit I placed in reserve, charged out on the fourth turn into the left flank of Jon's dragon. They looked impressive charging down the hill and made some early damage, but were shaken the next turn and routed the following.

In the center, Tim pushed on the attack. His hordes of Warriors supported by the impressive Thark Thoat riders.

Mattias was finally able to defeat the rampaging Thark cavalry, but had moved too far (or not far enough) forward, choices that would hurt him later. I managed to take down a couple of his units, but Tim choose his targets carefully and continued to chew up my force relentlessly.

As we hit the seventh and last turn, a few more of the chaos units went down. Too late, we realized Mattias's movement choices had left him unable to claim one of the objectives on our side of the table, as his artillery was just a bit too far away.

Further, through over-zealous attacking early in the game, I had lost the two flying units that I had counted on to contest the objectives on our opponents' side of the board.

Kings of War requires that an opponent score 20% more points than their opponents in order to win. By the end of the game, Tim and Jon were holding more objectives (300 points per objective) and had killed far more of our units than theirs, so with a 36% lead, the union of Celts, Tharks and Japanese had thoroughly trounced the chaos hordes.

Having only played this Kings of War game about five times, I'm still working out a good strategy for the initial deployment of my units, and I've yet to discover how to use archers effectively. This game was also a good lesson against recklessly charging into battle, even with one's most powerful units. I think we will all be more mindful of the scenario objectives in the future.

Once again Kings of War proves to be a fun game for mass battle fantasy. It's remarkably streamlined, but I still felt that there is enough depth to reward good generalship. Players who enjoy the detail and wealth of flavorful special rules found in Warhammer Fantasy Battle will likely find Kings of War to not be as quite so satisfying. However, Kings of War provides a package of rules that are quick to learn and satisfying to play. This is certainly the largest fantasy game we've ever played, but I look forward to trying even larger games sometime soon.

-- Karl, Chicago Skirmish Wargames club member

Friday, August 8, 2014

More Musings on Nuclear Renaissance

Karl and I managed to find a free evening last week to play a second game of Nuclear Renaissance, the post-apocalyptic skirmish game from Ramshackle Games. We're pretty excited about this game, as it gives us an excuse to use our prodigious collection of post-apoc vehicles and figures in a fast-playing skirmish ruleset.

Our first game, a 5-player affair played out on a 4x8 foot tabletop, was a bit too large to really get into the nitty-gritty of the rules, so we were glad to get an opportunity to try out a one-on-one game on a 4x6 foot tabletop. We bumped up the point total to 1000 to get more figures and vehicles on the battlefield. Here's the table at the start of the game.

Karl's task was to move across the battlefield and seize two objectives: the blue fuel pump on the right side of the map, and the fueling station itself on the far side of the table (the building with the vertical slats). He deployed most of his guys aboard a big, armored truck and roared across the shattered cityscape toward the fueling station, while a smaller contingent of foot soldiers hoofed it to the fuel pump (which was much closer to his deployment zone).

I deployed my post-apoc raiders (Kolony Ferals from Pig Iron Productions, if you're interested) near the fueling station, and my intent was to send them into the ruins and stop Karl's advance somewhere in the middle of the table.

Alas, it didn't work out that way. We quickly learned that Karl's truck (with a driver and gunner in the armored cab and 4 gun-wielding gangers perched in the back) was a virtually impregnable rolling fortress, capable of motoring at top speed across the map while everyone aboard sprayed bullets in all directions. This is exactly what happened in our game.

In Nuclear Renaissance, it doesn't matter how fast you're moving -- all passengers can fire out of a vehicle, and they can also claim a cover bonus when targeted by return fire. In practice, this meant that Karl could race his truck forward each turn, while it served a mobile bunker for the guys aboard.

I tried attacking his truck piecemeal with my few guys who had firearms, only to watch it shrug off the damage. I also tried charging into combat with the various passengers which, despite looking cool in photos, didn't even slow the truck down.

Finally I mobilized my buggy (converted from a G.I. Joe toy) and moved in close to use my flame cannon against the truck. At last I scored a decent hit! But by this point my guys were fairly decimated and Karl had seized the fuel pump, so we called the game.

I'll have to chalk this one up to a poorly designed scenario (by me). Because we played on a 4x6 foot battlefield, my guys never even got close to the secondary objective on the other side of the map. The entire game came down to a small two-foot-square area around the fueling station.

When we play Nuclear Renaissance again, we'll need to really compress the battlefield (4x4 feet square, maybe?) to encourage mobility. Either that, or convert all the ranges from centimeters to inches.

Also, we only had 1 melee combat in the entire game, and it was a guy versus a truck. This game was dominated by shooting. This seems to be the norm for our games even though it seems to run contrary to the design philosophies of Nuclear Renaissance, which makes firearms extremely expensive to encourage fisticuffs. We've even talked about some formal house rules to limit the more powerful firearms, like the vehicle-mounted heavy machinegun, which basically splattered any target without much effort each turn.

After the game, Karl and I agreed that Nuke Ren works best within the framework of a club that can self-moderate so ultra-shooty gangs and munchkin characters don't dominate. Most any generic system with unit creation mechanics can fall prey to this phenomenon; it's not unique to Nuke Ren.

We also agreed that Nuke Ren is best suited for casual gaming or campaigning where scenarios and narrative gaming are paramount. For a competitive campaign or a tournament, the game might well devolve into an arms race. And of course, this scenario would have played out completely differently if we had added a third (or fourth!) player. Doubtless we'll continue to tinker with the rules to find the right balance for an ideal game. So far Nuclear Renaissance is a very decent framework with endless room to explore and experiment.

-- Patrick, Chicago Skirmish Wargames club member

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Toy-Bashing Urban Terrain

Recently I started work on three projects, comprising a sort of a how-to for using toys and other junk to make industrial terrain. If you geek out over DIY projects and detailed how-to guides, then this is for you. If not, well… just flip through the pictures.

Project 1 - Hot Wheels Launcher Power Station, Or, When Toy Designers Do All the Work For You 
This hot wheels toy launcher was found in a bag of racing stuff for a couple bucks at Salvation Army. The rest of the bag went back to the resale shop, but I kept this part.

I gutted the interior and pulled out lots of nice big gears for future projects, then removed the foam car-propelling wheels. The holes they left behind were covered with cross-stitch mesh, aka "granny grating."

I used a piece of diamond plate plasticard (thanks Josh!) to cover the raceway section, and a couple of odd vent-like bits to conceal where the on/off switch used to be. And that's it -- maybe 30 minutes of effort expended in teardown and construction. Here's what it looks like with a coat of black spray paint.

Project 2 - Building Under Construction, Or, Why You Should Own a Dremel 543 Cutting/Shaping Wheel 

This find from Goodwill began life as a toy car parking garage. I used my handy Dremel 543 Cutting/Shaping Wheel cut away the tabs for attaching track, the signs, edges of car pathways and handles.

I can't recommend this tool highly enough. The disposable cutting wheels included with most rotary tools are useful for fine cuts where you don't want to lose much material, but they aren't made for shaping, and they break easily. The 543, on the other hand, is a piece of steel with rough bits of tungsten embedded in it. Not only does it cut like a champ, but you can push and pull to shape, trim and grind things down to size. It's not cheap, but in the past two years I've cut more things with it than I can count, and even as the tungsten grit wears off it shows no sign of stopping.

By pushing and pulling lightly across the plastic surface, you can nicely roughen up the surface and make it look more like cement or plaster without making gouges. I did this to almost all the smooth areas of the blue support structure. It was much faster than adding texture by smearing a thin layer of concrete patch all over the model.

I did two major operations on this project. The first was to hide the various ramps with bits of single sided corrugated cardboard. Bits of the cardboard were added elsewhere as well.

While doing this I wanted to hide most of the one-sided, hollow support pieces. I filed as much as I could with plastic counting bricks, of course found at a resale shop. I have two different styles of these and they are great for adding a bit of gridded texture. The hinges were hidden with pieces of grey plastic cut from some sort of packaging insert. The second step was to build four HVAC/elevator shaft sections from electrical junction boxes. Notable details include door-type shapes from a toy bumper cars playset, ventilation fans from baby food caps, and rectangular vents from the patriotic house decoration that became this building.

Most bits were superglued in place after sanding down both surfaces, but the baby food caps were epoxied. Epoxy or plumbers PVC solvent are really the best when you have two soft plastic pieces, especially when there isn't much shared surface area.

After gluing them in place, I added some plastic tube connection bits to the top unit.

A bit of fencing and some plasticard rebuilds the car lift into a construction worker elevator.

Here's how it looks after a couple layers of Krylon Fusion flat black, which adheres better to soft plastic, followed by regular flat black spray.

I will be adding a top edge of corrugated cardboard to the elevator shaft boxes to fill the space between the top of the boxes and the ceiling.

This last shot really reminds me of the Necromunda stacks that I used to admire in my early gaming days.

Project 3 - El Train Platform, Or, Fisher Price Rocks!

When I found this "Geo Trax" train station, it was missing a main support and a few other parts, but as soon as I saw it I knew I had to have it. The elevated train station is a common sight here in Chicago, so I hope to do well with my own rendition.

I started by adding a random white plastic crossing guard station to provide the missing support. For maximum strength, I superglued it in place and then flipped it over and poured a bunch of epoxy into the joints.

I then had to grind away entire walls of detail depicting a flower stand and candy shop on the bottom of the red tower. Fine for a kids toy, not a good fit for my world-weary cityscape. In their place is single-sided corrugated card and a hole. Here's how it looks primed.

I removed just a bit of detail on the platform, but not much else. With the Dremel cutter still spinning, I tapped the surfaces to add chips and wear. Like Project 2 I used it to add concrete-like texture to the side edges of the platform.

In the painting phase, I'll add more texture there. I don't want to give too much away, but this piece is just the start of a related series of complementary terrain pieces.

And there you have it, three more pieces of terrain ready for paint. The club is having a hobby day at my place on Friday, and painting these will be my project for the night. Hopefully I'll have finished versions to show soon. Feel free to ask any questions about construction and sourcing in the comments section, and I'll do my best to respond!

-- Karl, Chicago Skirmish Wargames club member

Monday, August 4, 2014

Nuclear Renaissance Game Report and Review

Last week the post-apocalyptic wargaming bug bit the club pretty hard, so we cleared our schedules to play a game we've been interested in for quite some time: Nuclear Renaissance.

This title from Ramshackle Games is a gang-based skirmish game that's particularly well-suited to multiplayer games. That's great for us, as our club nights tend to have an irregular number of players from week to week. For last week's game, we had 5 players, so we decided to bite the bullet and run a post-apoc free-for-all game using Nuclear Renaissance.

We met at Josh's house and put together a fairly epic 4x8 foot tabletop featuring a tumbledown industrial area alongside a wooded settlement. Here's a pic of the setup:

This game marked the first outing for several bits of new terrain, including Karl's tenement high-rise and Josh's atom bomb. Here's a closer look at both halves of the battlefield.

Looks like a great place to battle, right? We played a variation of the classic "Scavenger Hunt" scenario, with 10 little pieces of lost tech hidden all over the battlefield (most inside buildings or atop balconies, to encourage some mobility.

Nuke Ren is a single-figure activation game, where the players roll initiative and then take turns activating individual figures. Typical actions are move, shoot, drive, etc. Unlike games like Warhammer 40,000, vehicles don't come with a crew or pilot ... if you want your truck to move, you have to have a guy behind the wheel! Same with that sweet machinegun on top ... it won't fire unless a member of your warband is in the turret!

What this meant is that my warband (5 guys plus a buggy) was actually three guys once I got the buggy fully staffed with a driver and a gunner. Here's my team -- keep in mind that two of these guys basically weren't on the table for most of the game, since they were aboard the buggy and thus didn't need to be represented on the tabletop.

So anyway, that's something to keep in mind about Nuke Ren.

As the game progressed, each player's gang advanced toward a few of the scavenger tokens on the battlefield. Figures walk 10cm or run 20cm, and with such a large battlefield we found that our guys weren't mobilizing very quickly.

In contrast to the fairly short movement rates of infantry, vehicles proved much more mobile. This seems to be by design, probably to encourage vehicles to race around the battlefield on taxi runs.

As the vehicles moved into the center of the battlefield, we discovered the true potency of ranged firearms in the game. Such weapons are quite expensive in Nuclear Renaissance, accounting for half (or more!) of a typical figure's point value. But they're also quite powerful, and most have extremely long ranges. My assault rifle had a range of 80cm, longer than our fastest vehicle could move in a typical turn!

What this meant is that the few gangs that had assault rifles and sniper rifles were able to really rule the battlefield, despite what we thought was a pretty cluttered tabletop. Mike's troopers climbed a ruined building and took potshots from the upper-story windows...

....while my sniper scaled a warehouse and used his rifle's incredible 200cm range (why not just make it infinite?!) to rain fire down on Josh's squad.

As the game progressed, little mini-battles developed around various buildings as players fought for control of the scavenger tokens. In these two pics, Karl's wastelands raiders skirmished with Mike's troopers around the base of the high-rise. Later you can see Karl's chaingunner atop a ruined building, ready to seize another piece of lost tech.

Toward the end of the game, Josh wanted to try out the vehicle ramming rules, and he picked the only other vehicle nearby as his victim -- alas, it was my buggy! The ramming rules were fairly straightforward, and Josh reduced my buggy to a heavily damaged (but still driveable) wreck.

We agreed that Nuke Ren was a lot of fun. Trying to play a 5-player multiplayer game while also learning a new ruleset was probably a bad idea, as we only got through 5 turns before we had to wrap up for the night.
The size of the battlefield meant that we never even got close enough to try the close combat rules, which is a bummer considering that the game seems heavily slanted in favor of close combat.

The best part of the game is probably the well-developed vehicle section. We have lots of post-apoc vehicles in our collection, so we've been really excited to try Nuke Ren and get them all on the battlefield.

The suggested point size in the rulebook is 650 points, but in practice that gets you maybe 4-6 figures plus a vehicle, so we'll almost certainly bump the gang point total up to 1000 for future games. We'll also shrink the table size down to either 4x6 feet or 4x4 feet for most games. All in all, the game is totally playable and we'll doubtless give it another run-through in the near future. Stay tuned!

-- Patrick, Chicago Skirmish Wargames club member