Monthly Archives: May 2014

How to paint Vikings?

This morning as I was leaving for work, my friendly postie handed me the box of Vikings for SAGA I’d just ordered.  As usual, I have to recommend the Combat Company in Sydney. I ordered the models at about 10am yesterday, and they were in my hand by 8:30 this morning.  Less than 24 hours is pretty good service I think!  I took them to work to open there, and I have to say I felt a strange excitement I’ve not felt since I was a boy, when nearly all miniatures were metal.  I’d forgotten the weight of a box of two dozen metal warriors, and it felt good in my hand.

The models look really nice.  I’d venture to say they look better in real life than the pictures I’ve seen, but you know, I actually find that a lot with miniatures.  You have to really know what you’re doing to bring them out in a photograph.  The box they came in is cool too – it’s like an old plastic snap-shut VCR case with a full colour cover.  I was a bit put off by the thick weapon hafts in the pictures and was planning on using brass rods, but they don’t look so bad in real life and my brother (who’s been sculpting models for the last couple of years) tells me it’s a structural thing because they’re bendy metal.

It’s funny how quickly I’ve slipped into the niggling historical modeler’s mindset.  I’m becoming obsessed with making sure the colours and designs I choose are historically accurate.  Yes, I read a 30 page PDF about clothing in the dark ages.  And in a moment of insanity I considered using the actual powdered natural dyes available in Europe at that time, and mixing my own paints.

Maybe just for the warlord…

I really enjoy thinking about new ways to paint that fit the models at hand.  What I’ve decided to do for these guys is get some Army Painter bone undercoat/primer.  I think this will be a great base for flesh, hair, and natural cloth.  Then I’ll colour the cloth areas with washes to give a faded natural linen effect.  I’ll paint all the metal dark grey, and subtly highlight with metallics, and then wash the models with blacks and browns and add some weathering (muddy and grass-stained knees, blood spattered shields, that sort of thing).  I’m looking forward to it, and should have some time to start early next week.

Oh, and I just finished a commission – a farseer on a jetbike for Warhammer 40,000.  It’s the first commission I’ve ever done for someone I don’t know, and the customer was really happy with her, so I feel kind of proud.  Photos soon.

All the best,

James

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Ronin Review: SAGA

Hey everyone.  I finally got hold of my copy of SAGA, and I thought I’d do a quick review of it.  I don’t want to get into the habit of reviewing games that have been out for years, and have exhaustive reviews elsewhere.  But I think most of the people who read this blog are like me – not really historical gamers – and so may not have read much or anything about it.  Plus, what else is a blog for but sharing your thoughts?  So I’m just going to say a bit about how the game looks to me, and offer my thoughts on some of the (few) criticisms I’ve read.

Right, so firstly I can confirm that everything I’ve read online about the positive qualities of this game seem borne out.  The rules (not counting faction descriptions, scenarios and the rest) are short; about 30 pages probably. Compare this to, say, the upcoming behemothic 7th edition of Warhammer 40,000, which has some 200-odd pages of rules alone.  The SAGA rules are clear, consistent and look fun.  I read the book through once, and I feel confident that I understand how the game works.  This is much more than I can say for many other games out there.  It looks simple to play and well- balanced.

There’s something I’d like to mention that I haven’t seen anyone else point out: this book is quite funny.  It has that beer-and-pretzels feel that I associate with early Warhammer, and that I think GW still struggles to foist on their players now with mixed results.  For example, in all of the official SAGA scenarios, the rules state “Roll a D6.  The winner goes first.  In the event of a tie, the player with the most impressive facial hair goes first.”  Tough luck for shield maidens I guess!  And the brief background for the Anglo-Danish faction has this to say:

Huscarls of the prosperous Anglo-Danish kingdom were characterised by their use of the latest military equipment: long mail hauberks, the fearsome  Dane axe capable of severing a horse’s head in one blow, and, of course, the magnificent moustache.

Maybe I just really like cracks about facial hair, I don’t know.  But it gave me a chuckle.  The whole book has this rollicking, light-hearted tone which somehow befits a game about Vikings.

What about negatives?  I’ve heard people say the book seems a bit overpriced, and I’ve seen one blogger say they didn’t like the beer-and-pretzels feel.  To the latter concern I’d say it’s probably a matter of personal preference and of  how much you like that style.  But I’d like to emphasise that the game itself looks tight.  The tone of the rules should not be taken as an indication that this game requires something like a “gentlemen’s agreement” to play properly or competitively.  That’s not true at all.  It’s obvious that Tomohawk Studios have put a lot of thought into designing a game that is easy to collect and play, yet deep, and that can’t be won in the list-building phase.

The price is a different matter.  To be honest, I felt the book was a bit overpriced at $55.  It’s full colour, but it’s also quite slim and has a soft cover.  My editor’s eye picked up a few typos, which is unfortunate.   I personally think $40 would be a better price for what you get.  I suppose you get good quality card Battle Boards too, though, so maybe it’s fair.  Some people aren’t going to bat an eye, but my budget for games is not the biggest.

All in all I’m very keen to play.  I’m getting some money together to order some Scots and Vikings, and my brother is going to sculpt himself an Anglo-Danish warlord and start getting some troops together too.  Hopefully more updates soon…

All the best,

James

Balance or diversity: you can’t have both

This post by Sinsynn over at the House of Paincakes had me thinking about people’s expectations of wargames. Specifically, that the general mass of people who play Games Workshop’s flagship games aren’t interested in anything else. And because of this unhealthy(?) focus on one particular system and product, they seem to have slowly got a twisted view of what is possible and desirable in a miniatures game. I’ve been investigating historical games lately, and I have to say the difference in attitude towards the games is very interesting. Take this description of GW’s Lord of the Rings from the excellent blog I have just discovered, Delta Vector:

The “bastard stepchild” of GW’s core series, LOTR is the least popular with powergamers the core GW demographic as model differences are less marked and forces are more balanced bland; magic is subtle and not an “I win” button boring; and the rules are cleaner and faster too simple.

OK, so it’s a teensy bit bitchy, but it also made me laugh.  And only this morning I’ve read worse levelled at historical gamers by someone who is primarily a Warhammer player, so I’ll allow it.

It’s interesting because evilleMonkeigh, as someone with a wide experience of wargaming systems, seems to take for granted the fact that simplicity in rules design and similarity in the way that factions play are necessary for a good balanced wargame.  Whereas I think many in the community of GW gamers (and, I would argue, fantasy and sci-fi wargamers in general) think a game is only fun if your factions are wildly varied with completely different playstyles.  Yet these same people often (quite loudly) expect the games designers to deliver inter-faction balance and an accurate points system.

I’m coming round to the belief that you can’t have it both ways.  Historical games are not so prone to imbalance it seems, since pretty much everyone in history was a human being, and people near enough to fight each other tended to fight the same way, i.e, the way that worked the best.  What happens in real life when two forces go to war with wildly divergent technologies or tactics?  One of them inevitably has their arse handed to them.

It might be time to face the truth here.  If you want a game that’s interesting because of the tactical options it presents, you’re going to have to sacrifice things like factional diversity.  You want psychic space beetles to fight cyborg super-soldiers with chainsaw swords?  Sorry mate, you’re going to have to let go of any expectations you might have for a high degree of balance.

I mean that’s why Infinity largely works balance-wise right?  Most of the troops are within a very small band in terms of abilities and have similar (if not the same) weapons as other faction’s troops.

Fantasy is fantasy and realism is realism and maybe we all need to just accept that?

 

Save us from the fury of the Northmen

I’ve put my money down, I’m waiting for the book and I’ve done all the fiddly research we gamer types tend to do before we settle on something, so it’s official: I’m going historical.

Well, I’ve played in a few historicals as a kid, but the fantasy and sci-fi stuff always seemed more exciting. And then when I got older I felt a bit uncomfortable about the very idea of historical games. The closer to the contemporary era they get, the weirder I feel. It’s not a huge deal: if a friend said they had a couple of Flames of War armies and would I come over for a game I’d say yes.  But it’s enough to keep me from starting up myself when there are so many games that don’t make me feel… creepy, maybe?  Anyway these are complex issues with good arguments on both sides so I normally just avoid it all by playing games about space and/or elves. Which is cool.

So why the change of heart? I’m still trying to figure it out myself to be honest. The game I’ve chosen is SAGA, a dark ages skirmish game, and it’s sort of ambushed me.  Admittedly I’ve been watching a lot of the History Channel show Vikings, and I’ve been reading a great series of historical novels set in the dark ages, but it started earlier than that.

Like probably most of you reading this, I love mythology. I grew up reading all sorts, but for some reason my favourites were the Irish stories of Finn MacCool and the Fianna. These works were recorded by monks in the dark ages and really sparked a lifelong interest in the period for me. The Fianna stories were meant to have taken place in the 3rd century, so not far off the SAGA period.

SAGA seems to take some of the mythic elements that make fantasy and sci-fi games fun and applies them to historical gaming. Each faction has powers with poetic names, based in their history and culture, and these powers are activated during the game. So if you’re the Irish for example you might have a power named after the faerie folk that makes arrows and sling bullets shoot out of nearby woods to hit your foes. There’s absolutely no reason why a historical game can’t be presented in this way, and it really made it seem attractive to me, as an experienced F&SF gamer and a mythology buff. It emphasises the way the people felt and saw one another, rather than the dry military history.  And since the period is so long ago, I feel as though I’m fighting mythological battles with larger-than-life warriors rather than historical men who probably weren’t having much fun when the Vikings rowed up the river.

There are a lot of other reasons I chose this game too:

  • Vikings; and Fianna; and Scots (my ancestors).
  • The cheap cost and mulit-faction versatility of dark ages models. For $60 I can get enough appropriate multi-part plastic models for three SAGA armies. Three!
  • The challenge of a different sort of modeling and painting. How do I differentiate my Welsh from my Saxons from my Scots when everyone had a shirt, some pants, a round shield and an axe?
  • People play it, which is always good.
  • I haven’t seen a bad review. I especially recommend this one, which I have to say is one of the best reviews of a game I have ever read: thorough, useful, and not boring.

So there it is. I invite you all to join me on my journey into dark ages historical gaming (once the god-damn book arrives).

Have a good one,

James

The great Star Wars retcon

Hi everyone. I’ve had a bit of a rough few weeks so I haven’t been engaged much with social media, including blogs. I just found out that Disney has made a canonical statement about the Star Wars universe in the lead-up to the next film. I heard that they’ve declared nothing is canon anymore besides the six original films and the Clone Wars TV series. Naturally my first thought was finally, Caravan of Courage and that other god-awful Ewok movie can suck it.

Once I’d finished gloating though, I was given some more to think about. I was talking to my partner, who has read quite a bit of what’s (now formerly?) known as the ‘Expanded Universe.’ So by this I mean the novels, comics, etc. Hey, even I played Bioware’s excellent Knights of the Old Republic games, and they’re expanded universe too. Well, now none of that stuff happened. It didn’t bother me too much, but my partner was complaining that there was a seminal moment in the expanded universe that had a profound emotional impact on many people who read it: the death of Chewbacca. Soooo yeah. Looks like he got a reprieve and like… now never died. Or something. The issue here is that people had real feelings towards a fictional event, as is fitting. I mean, that’s the purpose of fictional narrative right? To generate real feelings with made-up people and events?

For example I, like many others, felt personally slighted when Greedo was retconned as shooting first. It didn’t sit well with my childhood memories of Han Solo and who he was. He was a hero, yeah, but he was also kind of ruthless and street-smart; the perfect counterpoint to Luke’s naive idealism. I can only guess it’s the same for all the people who read the books about Jacen and Jaina(?) Solo and saw Chewbacca nobly sacrifice his life. Those characters and events are now expected to just vanish with the wave of Disney’s magic wand?

All of this is just me wondering how important it really is to retcon, when it undermines people’s suspension of disbelief so seriously. Really, it’s as if the author of the book you’re reading suddenly knocked it out of your hand and yelled “none of this is real, remember!” right in your face. I think it’s a decision that should always be taken with extreme care, and the process should be accomplished with as little impact as possible. Instead, the approach is too often to just tear huge chunks away, like ripping off a band-aid, and expect people to get over it. It’s not very respectful of the audience I think. The absolute worst, to my mind, is what Marvel and DC comics do, with dramatic events taking place in parallel universes. Weak. How many times has Superman died now? Think of some new characters already!

Whew. So I don’t want to be too negative. I’ll just leave off with one last thought: if you really need to retcon something to make it cool, then maybe it’s not the best fit for contemporary audiences anymore? Maybe it would be better just to leave it in the past and oh, I don’t know… make up something new?

In other news, I’ve got my money and my Good Games voucher I got in a 40k game ready, and if all goes to plan tomorrow, I’m off to buy the Saga rulebook. More on that next time.

Stay safe,

James