Sunday, July 20, 2014

Let's Paint with Oils

As the years go on I get restless every now and they to try some new approach to painting. I have to admit that Vallejo acrylics and a nice brush will turn out some pretty nice figures but there's always that desire to mess around and see what else is out there. My project painting toy soldier style Soldiers in Plastic was a fun experiment for example- using low levels of detail and lots of gloss varnish.

Flock those Minis!
I've been following the work of Stokes Schwartz through his blog and through various pieces he's submitted to Miniature Wargames/Battlegames. Stokes does a pretty stunning job on his 18th century armies and a lot of his work is done in oils. I've tried oils in the past but in short was using them wrong and they came out looking terrible. Then I read Mr. Schwartz's piece on using oils in Miniature Wargames #371 and decided to give it another shot.

The short form is that Stokes recommends diluting alkyd oils with a substance called Liquin before using them. I set up some Perry War of the Roses infantry, put down a white gesso basecoat, and set to work.

The Liquin dilutes the otherwise pasty oils up to a point where they resemble vaseline. If you dilute them only slightly they resemble acrylics and paint on in a familiar fashion. The main difference is that the oils don't dry as quickly and so you can't paint a layer, wait a minute, and then go back and add more color. If you do the first layer just gets pushed to one side. If you dilute the colors intensely they can be used as a wash of sorts, hardly as agile as Citadel washes or inks but still serving a similar purpose.

Overall I had a pretty positive experience. Acrylics are obviously faster in all ways- faster to mix, faster to paint, faster to clean. The oils are superior in the luster of their color. They really stand out across the table and for pretty armies they will do a terrific job. They also smell good, which is not Completely trivial.

I'm not going to use oils for dark ages or WW II figures. I could well imagine using them for Blood Bowl, War of Austrian Succession, or Successors. In the future I think I'm going to aim for more wash effects and less attempt at a solid and precise color. But overall, a nice experiment.

A Tragic Bit of Bad Advice

Recently I picked up Armored Combat in Vietnam and Marine Corps Tank Battle in Vietnam. The latter, written by Marine Corp vet Oscar Gilbert, is a pretty compelling set of narratives. It chronicles the Marine's armored efforts in the war and concentrates on individual soldier's recollections and accounts. The former text is more grand tactical is scale and while interesting it doesn't pack the same emotional punch.

Both books are worth taking a look at. They agree on a number of points. First, it was harder than pulling teeth to get any armored vehicles into the theater. Planner envisioned a foot soldier war with air and artillery support.

They both also suggest that armored vehicles, including tanks, ended up playing a useful role in the war. They describe moments in which armored vehicles were mildly helpful and also moments (such as at the relief of Tan Son Nhut during first Tet) where they were pretty vital.

All that being said, it was revealing to start reading my copy of The Street Without Joy last week. This book was published in 1961 and is one of the most accessible texts describing the French experience in Indochina from the forties through the early sixties. In fact, unless one can read French, it might be one of your only sources of information regarding that conflict if you were, say, an American policymaker contemplating the region in 1962.

The stage now set, l
et's turn to the forward, written by Marshall Andrews:

     "There was no lack of equipment for modern war in the hands of the French Union Forces (FUF)... this very plentitude of heavy equipment proved a handicap in the test of battle. Not only did it tie the FUF to what few roads there were, but both the equipment and the doctrine it imposed led FUF commands time after time into easily contrived ambushes. The French contended against the jungle while the Viet-Minh made use of it."

There's more in that vein. He concludes with:

     "What is needed now, in the light of France's failure in Indochina, is a search for stout legs, stout hearts, fertile brains, and an understanding of the new relation of big politics to little wars."

It's almost enough to make you cry. For one because a great many stout hearts were identified and then snuffed out during that conflict- combatants, civilians, men, women and children. So "stout hearts," check. Further, many of the political issues that bedevil the French stay active during the American involvement. It is clearly easier to mobilize stout hearts and legs than it is to develop understanding.

But, on a much more trivial note, it's also sad how misleading this text is. I suspect Fall's book was a major influence on American tactical doctrine. From what I've read, at least, it appears that armor in Vietnam was fairly effective, especially when used as a mobile striking force and not diluted into isolated palace guard duty. But by the time the information from experience was making its way back to the States the policies had already been developed.

Now there are additional arguments against an armor heavy involvement in the war. Personnel caps made exporting a large vehicle support infrastructure difficult. And Fall's work suggests that the French also suffered from insufficient numbers of troops. So American planners probably decided to increase foot troop strength at the expense of (theoretically) inefficient armor.

If nothing else, it's an ironic cap on two books about armored combat in Vietnam and an interesting example of how policy is developed.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Mel Gibson Lets me Down Again

For people of a certain age the name Mel Gibson means Road Warrior. The young Dr. Fischer to be would never have guessed that the awesomely cool Mad Max would eventually morph into a cackling maniac with an addiction to humiliating public misbehaviour. But the present day Dr. Fischer had at least some small hopes that Mel would hold it together for We Were Soldiers, a film based on the events at Ia Drang in late 1965.

The battle of Ia Drang is important in a number of respects. It's the first major encounter between the United States and the forces of North Vietnam in that conflict. It's an example of the early use of airmobility in that war. It features many of the hallmarks of that conflict- overwhelming American air and artillery support, a generally professional level of performance by the American troops, and the vital role of intelligence in the war. Finally, it represents a mammoth and bloody encounter that takes place in an isolated and strategically meaningless area. All these elements would repeat throughout the conflict.

In terms of the movie, I was hoping for at least a decent war film and maybe some interesting looks at the terrain. I have to say that We Were Soldiers was instead just terrible. Because the movie changes the Entire Ending of the Battle. In history the Americans don't "win," they make it through the battle. Surviving the encounter and holding the position are massive challenges but the battle doesn't end on a high note. The North Vietnamese simply melt away.

In the movie the Americans find themselves about to take on a final attack. At that point the pour out of their trenches and rout the Vietnamese. Moving at a run the 400 Americans drive the 4000 enemies UP a hill. The Vietnamese gather beyond the crest of the hill and level all their weapons at the ridgeline, waiting for the Americans to come across. It's going to be a massacre! And then two American helicopters appear literally fifteen feet above the Vietnamese and blast them all into oblivion. They don't approach, they just appear, like Jason from Camp Crystal Lake appearing behind you when you look in the bathroom mirror. They're Stealth UH-1's! Mel Gibson and his troops end the film moving through the ruined Vietnamese base camp, humbled at the massive destruction.
Yet Another Bad War Movie

The rest of the movie is pretty average but the end is so wrong on so many levels. It's not editing for time, it's not combining characters to make the story manageable, it's just completely altering the event. Why not just rewrite the whole war, make it a brushfire skirmish on a small Caribbean island and have Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison lead a rag tag squad to victory against giant zombie spiders. Get Michael Bey on line one!

Spencer Smith Minis Arrive

After reading issues of Battlegames and various classic Charles Grant books it's become a fantasy to own a collection of toy soldier style Spencer Smiths. On a seemingly unrelated note, my mother in law took the wife to England this Spring. The connection?  I was able to think quickly and arrange to have a massive pile of lead delivered to their hotel and then carted back to the US in their luggage! The wife was a good sport even as she wished my hobby was feather collecting or stamps.

I've experimented with two styles of painting for the new minis. The first is to leave strong black lines as borders between colours and body parts. The second is to use only blocks of paint and ignore shading, highlight, and all the typical tricks we use in modern figure painting.

Here are the grenadiers. I used the painting guide from Nec Pluribus Impar site detailing the army of Piedmont in the War of the Austrian Succession. Because really, why not build an army from an obscure conflict that's completely overshadowed by the following massive conflagration? And even an army fighting in the less well known theater of that obscure conflict.  I'm sure I'll find oodles of opponents.

Up next are the fusiliers. I used just blocks of colour and skipped any defining lines. I have to admit, it made the process absolutely zip on by.  It almost feels like cheating to whip off a unit so quickly. In the end I think I'm going to stick with this approach. I like the speed and my skills are not up to maintaining extremely fine lines, even when I base coat in black.

In both cases I am pretty thrilled to perfect my facial hair drawing skills. Lucky this is a heavily mustachioed time period! Cavalry is next.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

My New Haul!

Myriad Games in Salem had its bi-yearly charity auction this weekend and I was able to attend for the first time. The store takes donations of old games and then auctions them off, with anywhere from 20-100% of the proceeds going to charity (the remainder go to the game's donor, not the store).

A Pile 'o Fun
This auction certainly had its' highs and lows. There are plenty of copies of Munchkin and Trivial Pursuit to go around! And also Scene It, which is secretly a lot of fun to play. There were also some wild old gems including an interactive VHS game (Dragon Strike!) and a lurid oil painting of a demon from Dungeons and Dragons that was just both hard to look at And hard to look away from. But buried amidst the dross were some real treasures. Basic games like Dominion, Bang, and Carcassonne. Some more outre entries like Space Alert. And some lovely little treats. I was outbid on Blood Bowl but then my luck changed.

I managed to walk away with thirty pounds of Tide of Iron game and expansions, a copy of Hybrid and Hybrid:Nemesis, A Combat Commander set, and a huge box of Space Marines. Now some of this is headed to eBay but what's left is going to be awesome and basically have paid for itself.

So a productive afternoon, if you use the word productive in the inappropriate sense!

As an aside, how do we explain Rackham to our children? Yes kids, there was once a company that produced an endless stream of insanely beautiful miniatures but one day they all decided to change their business plan and then go bankrupt. Have fun with your horrible Mantic miniatures. Tragic. But that being said, the games are first to eBay I suspect.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Close Call

I recently picked up an iPad to use as a email and banking tool. Suffice it to say that the iPad is terrible for those things, as well as pretty much every other task but one. It's a nice gaming platform. Since it was free and full of buzz I threw down zero dollars and picked up Hearthstone.

Hearthstone is an online card game similar to Magic. You have a deck of cards and play against an opponent. Each player has some hit points and the person who can reduce their opponent to zero hit points first wins. Some cards attack your opponent, some protect you, some deploy minions who can attack or defend or both and some cards alter your minion's abilities. You can play as one of several classes, Rogue or Cleric or Warrior for example. Each class has special cards and abilities. The game has huge replay value based on the number of cards available and the various classes.

So here's the rub. The cards are available for purchase in virtual packs of five. You don't know which cards you'll get and some are more rare and powerful than others. The more packs you purchase, the greater the chances of getting some awesome and useful card. You can also earn virtual currency by playing the game enough times. In theory if you played all the time you could earn a lot of currency and then buy more packs without spending actual money. Keep in mind these "cards" and "packs" only exist on your computer.

In its favor Hearthstone is a fun game. It's fast and entertaining. That being said:

Sheer Craziness
After a Lot of playing I suddenly recoiled and grabbed my head. God d@#m, I just spent ten hours perfecting my skills of doing Nothing, wasted time earning Points so that I could waste more time doing Nothing, and lost a lot of games because I wasn't up for spending real money on cards that Don't Even Exist.  It's insane!

I like board games because they're fun, they're social, and I feel like you do tune your brain while playing. You lean to manage resources, cooperate, take chances, and focus on goals. In Hearthstone you're alone, losing a ton unless you throw down some serious time or money, and perfecting your skills at playing Hearthstone. "Hey honey, I'm going to ignore you and the kids and after three hours I'll be marginally better at a completely abstract and otherwise useless task."

So Hearthstone is gone and the next day I built a new door for the chicken coop. Whew.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Final Charlie Don't Surf Playtest

I had one more chance to test the game last weekend with trained wargamers this time. The good news is that after a few minutes of play the game flowed pretty well without my constant direction. One thing you look for in a convention game is to have the GM disappear into the background and let the players concentrate on having fun. So that was good.

I continue to be very happy with the 6mm figures. The main drawback to them is that NVA and American uniforms are pretty identical at that scale. I'm going to have to give them all banners of some sort.

The battle of Hoa Tan was a huge success for the Americans, with high NVA losses and (relatively) few US casualties. We found that Charlie Don't Surf is accurate enough in that this scenario is terribly hard for the NVA players. They are outnumbered and outgunned from the start and ambushes and snipers just don't slow down the American steamroller enough to make a difference. I hate to meddle with the historical order of battle but to make the game fun for all the players I'll be cutting down on the American troops.

The consensus in the end is that the rules are decent, the game flows quickly enough once you have played a turn or two, and that the terrain is almost con-ready. Compared to my usual games which appear at Huzzah with the paint still drying that's not too shabby at all.