Miniature Ordnance Review looks at the world of miniatures wargaming with an emphasis on 15mm World War II and Flames of War.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Of Game Scale and Ground Scale - Part II

Recently the owner of GHQ published a lengthy post on The Miniatures Page providing some company background and extolling the virtues of GHQ's 1/285th product line. Honestly they do have some nice miniatures, but I personally found the post more than a bit troublesome on many levels as it represents yet another fairly absolutist position in the ongoing discussion regarding what is the proper scale for company level tabletop gaming. What follows is an edited version of the post I made to that thread, but as this is an issue that seems to come around quite often, I thought it was worthy of a deeper look.

Before going into some of the key portions of the post, I think a little preamble is required. Discussions and debates around ground scale vs. model scale – and absolute ground scale vs. abstract ground scale in wargaming have raged for years and will continue to rage for years into the future. At the end of the day, I strongly believe what scale a player chooses really comes down to a matter of personal preference. That personal preference covers not only the miniatures themselves, but what level of abstraction a player is comfortable with on the tabletop and in the rules. That key point is what I believe is completely missed so often in this discussion, as evidenced by the post made by GHQ.

I enjoy the model building and painting aspects of wargaming as much as I enjoy the games themselves, therefore I prefer the level of physical and painting detail I’m able to achieve with 15mm miniatures. The fact that things can get a bit crowded on the tabletop is a secondary consideration for me. I’ve been building models since the 70’s and playing wargames almost as long. The fact that a 15mm wargame lets me merge the two hobbies effectively is attractive because, as I’m sure is common to everyone here, I don’t have infinite time to pursue all of the hobbies I’d like to.

That being said, I tried to get into 1/285th micro-armor back in the 90’s when I was at Ohio State University. I purchased a rule set and some pretty nice miniatures (they may even have been GHQ), and although there were several good game stores in town I literally couldn’t find a group that played - in a major city with one of the largest universities in the nation. I was, however, able to find a chapter of the International Plastic Modeler’s Society – so I went that route for several years and didn't try to get back into historical miniatures wargaming until Flames of War came out and established itself. Then I was able to find a community that played, and I still play with essentially the same group.

GHQ's post has severed to foster some good discussion, but it also has allowed a platform to rehash several of the old arguments that are, quite frankly, irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Furthermore, I personally found several key statements in the original post objectionable, prejudicial, and in some cases insulting.  I understand that GHQ wants to run a business, and that the new Team Yankee ruleset affords them an opportunity to sell more product. However, you can build up your own product without simultaneously tearing down someone else's - this is where GHQ's post failed.

The post starts by saying,

A while ago we posted a message from GHQ laying out some of the history of GHQ. In it we went over the relationships we developed with the US Army in the 1970's participating in the development of the Dunn-Kempf game. This game was developed by 2 army officers at Command & Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth named Dunn and Kempf. They contacted GHQ to do the miniatures for the game. During this time we took many trips to Ft. Leavenworth to work with the TASO (Training Aids Service Officer) who supplied us with classified photos and drawings of Soviet vehicles on a "need to know" basis. These models had to be very accurate because one of the additional purposes of the game was vehicle recognition training. They chose GHQ for this project because they were familiar with us from using our miniatures in WWII games. They liked the scale and quality of our miniatures. They could have gone with 1/87th or 1/144th, or any other scale. They could have contacted another company in a larger scale, but they thought 1/285th was the appropriate scale for Modern warfare. This was very gratifying for us because it validated our decision to choose 1/285th when we conceived GHQ Micro Armour.

The post starts with some really nice background on the company. I can certainly relate to the fact that during the 1970’s and 1980’s it was decidedly hard to get solid information on Soviet Bloc equipment. I was trying to build armor and aircraft models at the time, and most of the accurate kits of modern subjects didn’t really start coming out until the late 1980’s / early 1990’s when the Iron Curtain fell. This sort of background is awesome back story for a company.

However, right off the bat the post starts to turn south as the thesis itself represents a couple of logical fallacies wrapped into one. By using the word "validated," it attempts to lend an absolute authority to what comes after. Ideally the thesis should have been "1/285th is a viable OPTION for company-scale tabletop wargaming" (which is absolutely is). Unfortunately, the thesis reads as "1/285th is the CORRECT scale for company-scale tabletop wargaming because the military says so, and we worked with them." This is an example of both the "appeal to authority" and "anecdotal" logical fallacies.

The post continues:

GHQ came about because I became interested in wargaming in 1963. The games played at this time were largely WWII in 1/87th (HO-Scale) with plastic Mini Tanks. Because of the large ground scale chosen, we played on the floor. Historically wargames had been played on the floor by grown men with Britains, and other toy soldiers. This kind of gaming did not appeal to me. I felt that games should be played on a table. I felt that there had to be a ground scale, and a miniatures scale compromise that would allow realistic gaming scenarios. At the time there was no smaller scale miniatures than 1/87th for WWII.

My goal became finding the smallest practical miniature scale that was convenient to use, but still allowed a model to have excellent detail, accuracy, and recognition. I made wooden prototypes to test scales. I concluded that 1/285th fulfilled these requirements, and gave 9 times the geographical playing field as 1/87th. I then set about learning how to cast vehicles. I was already a re-loader, and cast my own bullets out of lead, so I didn't start from scratch. Dow Corning had recently come out with RTV (Room Temperature Vulcanizing) rubber. I bought some, made molds, and started experimenting. Casting lead in RTV was beyond the specs listed, but it worked fine. I contacted Dow and told them about my experiences. They were shocked. I believe that I was the first person to ever use RTV for wargames miniatures, or figures.

No one is arguing that GHQ was a pioneer in the industry. No one is arguing that they have served the wargaming community well for decades, and hopefully will continue to serve for decades more. However, wargaming in general has grown exponentially both in dollars, number of available systems, and in sophistication since the 1960's - which is even before I got going! Just because a company was first to the market doesn't mean that the original solution is the best, or only, or "correct" solution in perpetuity. Companies and gaming systems must grow and adapt with the times and the market, or they risk relegation to obscurity or eventually shutting down completely.

GHQ continues,

At any rate, you can see that the whole purpose of GHQ was to create the best scale to game WWII, and Modern warfare in miniatures…and the US Army agrees (as well as those of Germany, UK, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israeli, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, Saudi Arabia…) This is particularly pertinent today because of the popularity of Battlefront's "Flames of War", and now "Team Yankee". First of all, let me say that I give high praise to Battlefront for their business plan. They recognized the huge popularity of "Warhammer" and designed a WWII game that played like "Warhammer" in roughly the same scale to appeal to those interested in crossing over to WWII. To their credit they have dragged many sci-fi gamers into historical gaming. "Flames of War" is an immensely popular beginners gaming system that has attracted many adherents. It has increased the popularity of WWII gaming among beginners, and we thank them for that.

And sadly this is where the wheels well and fully come off and we move from building up GHQ product to tearing down Battlefront and the Flames of War system as written. The first sentence is a blatant appeal to authority logical fallacy because they're contending that the scale is the "best" because several militaries use it for their own simulations. That's fine, but wargaming – even on the historical level – is not always meant to be a 100% accurate simulation. There is a time and place for extremely accurate simulations, and certainly military training exercises are one of those. Not every player is willing to go to that level of detail or commitment for an afternoon's enjoyment. Each individual game will have different goals, and will be trying to simulate different aspects of historical combat. Furthermore, games must consider a timeframe for play and set an overall complexity level – those will determine what abstractions need to be made in the rule set. And ultimately it is those abstractions which are what is going to attract a person to a gaming system or not.

The next sentences essentially damn Battlefront with faint praise (or if you will an appeal to emotion logical fallacy) and then go on to belabor the "beginner" aspect of Flames of War. There are a few key errors in the assertions. Warhammer and Flames of War are not "roughly the same scale." Warhammer and Warhammer 40K miniatures are 28mm heroic scale (often >30mm) whereas Flames of War simply focused on the already popular 15mm scale. Second, while it is approachable and accessible to the beginner, characterizing it as a "beginner’s gaming system" is both prejudicial and insulting to its player base. Granted it lacks the detail of some other systems, but those were conscious design decisions.

From this point forward, the post seems to belabor the point that "everything you’re doing is wrong" if you’re not playing company level games in 1/285th scale. Many of the objections stated, around towns, hedgerows, terrain, etc. have some merit at a high level, but they represent very nit picky details - honestly some of which aren't helped by moving to 1/285th scale miniatures.  For example, you can easily abstract hedgerows in Flames of War – the Normandy compilations do that quite well. Towns can be problematic as you won't technically have as many buildings as you'd see if you had a 1:1 ground scale, but again this is one of the areas that is abstracted in the Flames of War system. For a 2 hour company level game, that's fine. If you want the same game to run 6 to 8 hours, go for more detail!

For me, the bottom line is this. If you are uncomfortable with the level of approximation intrinsic in a company level 15mm tablegop game – play Flames of War in a different scale by all means, but please don’t contend that it is an empirically superior game. Please don't contend that your chosen scale is the "best" or "superior" or is "validated" by some external entity. Instead realize it has to do with your own preferences, as a player, and your comfort level with the level of abstraction in the gaming system as a whole. Also understand that there is ample room at the gaming table for different games and different scales, and at the end of the day we're all just a bunch of wargaming geeks trying to have a good time!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Plans for the Second Half of 2016

Given we're well into August at this point, I figured it was time to do a "state of the hobby" update for where I am with my various projects at this point... and the plan for the rest of the year.

My painting table is still straining under the weight of my Japanese force from Banzai. I'm hoping to have some pictures of the progress (or sadly at this point, lack of progress) on those guys by the end of the weekend. At this point the base coat and wash is on all of the infantry and gun crews, so now I have to go through and start doing the uniform highlights and details. I'm hoping to have these guys ready for a tournament about a month from now at Guardian Games in Portland.

The next list I'll be painting up is my 761st Tank Battalion list from the upcoming Battle of the Bulge compilation. I'm planning on taking this army to the Tanksgiving event at Guardian games on November 12. This event is a little different in that it is a true TANK event - no squishy infantry or gun teams allowed. That will drastically change the meta of the game. You also need a "warrior" team. This doesn't have to be an official warrior special character per the rules, but can be a historical figure or even a Hollywood character. I'm going to paint up a tank dedicated to Ruben Rivers of the 761st.

Past that I still have several Flames of War and Team Yankee projects I'd like to get back to. For Team Yankee, I may go ahead and finish the Americans first as I'd really like to do the Eastern Bloc miniatures as a non-Soviet satellite state. I also have several Flames of War armies I'd like to work on, including some mid-War Italians - both for North Africa and Sicily. I have several German forces half started as well that I really need to get back to.

I've still been slowly working on Warhammer 40K miniatures with my son. I've gotten a lot more of my Space Wolves built than painted at this point - honestly I just have base coats on one of the Grey Hunter squads. Fortunately I've found some Vallejo paints that work well as a substitute for Space Wolves Grey - as I've had too many bad experiences with Citadel paints to walk that road again (not to mention the fact that I have controlling interest in Vallejo paints at this point and buying a redundant set of paints makes no sense!). I may also resurrect my old Tyranid army for fun and flavor.

I've also picked up the rules to a miniatures game from Osprey called Frostgrave. This is a skirmish level game played with fairly standard 25-28mm fantasy miniatures, though you can get miniatures designed for the game from North Star Miniatures. The game itself follows your primary character, a wizard, his or her apprentice, and a warband generally numbering no more than 10 or 11 figures as they work their way through a ruined city in search of treasure facing perils and other players. They even have a few modular plastic sets for Soldiers and Cultists which are pretty good. A game like this is appealing because it uses fairly normal fantasy miniatures, and therefore has a fairly low painting overhead.

Chances are I won't get a all of this done before things need to be packed up and start moving over to the new house. The nice thing about the new house will be I'll have a game room and full workshop dedicated to my model-building and miniature painting hobbies. Once I get everything up and running next year I hope to be able to start busting more projects out on a regular basis.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Japanese Army Progress and General Update

This has been a crazy year so far. Despite having several months warning of the impending release of the Pacific War books - and intimate knowledge of said books - I'm still ridiculously behind on my Japanese forces for Flames of War. Of course, being in the midst of building the new house has something to do with it, but I think I'm finally starting to make some progress.

My first goal was to start getting as much of the core of my Japanese army prepped for painting as possible. This means I can paint them "assembly line" style. I started with the Hohei Chutai (JBX01) infantry company since this would give me plenty of infantry that could be used as the core of an infantry or fortified infantry force, or support for an armored force. Those are reinforced with Hohei Machine-gun Platoons (JP704) and Nikuhaku Teams (JP706). At this point I have all of those miniatures cleaned up and primed - so they're ready to paint once I get the rest of the support teams together as shown in the photo below.

Yeah, that's a LOT of figures, and actually goes well beyond just the three units I cite above. I'm also working on gun support for the infantry forces. The un-primed figures are comprised of an Artillery HQ (JP710) and a unit of the Type 94 37mm Anti-tank Guns (JP501). Also included are the teams belonging to several other guns.

Above you'll see the Type 92 70mm Guns (JP560), the Type 96 150mm Howitzers (JP580), and a couple of Type 88 75mm Heavy Anti-aircraft Guns (JP550) - which were the subject of a recent review I wrote over at the WWPD blog! The tracks belong to my unit of Type 2 Ka-Mi tanks.

I have not been neglecting my armor - above are a few of the Chi-Ha tanks (JBX09) I have in progress, as well as a few Isuzu Trucks.  Below are some Ha-Go tanks (JBX03) I got together a while back, but was waiting to paint.

I've also been working on some Type 89 (JBX02) tanks (which were used in the Philippines in 1944-5) as well as some of the new Type 97 Te-Ke tankettes (JBX05) which were the subject of another review I wrote up for WWPD.

Unfortunately progress continues to be slow, and I'm still trying to figure out the right paint scheme to use for my Pacific War Japanese. I have the tank colors well established at this point, but the infantry is a tougher nut to crack. Most of the Japanese uniforms for the Pacific theater seem "greener" than the colors Battlefront is recommending in Banzai and Rising Sun. Of course, Rising Sun is a 1939 uniform for mainland Asia - a far different theater than the South Pacific. I'm leaning toward painting my army correct for the liberation of the Philippines with some armor from Saipan (notably a few of the Chi-Ha tanks). Once I have the paints identified, I'll write more.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

State of the Blog Update

First, I apologize for the radio silence recently. As is normal when things get "quiet" I've been working on some "things." One big thing that's been taking up a lot of time is we are building a new house on our property that will actually fit us, our son, and our hobbies (at least that's the plan). Building your own home, even when working with a contractor, is a long, drawn-out, and often exhausting process, but we're starting to see the project actually move forward - though at this point all we have is a very interesting hole in the ground that my son is enjoying.

Of course, that is all going to change fairly quickly as the temporary power comes in tomorrow, the permits should be issuing this week or next, and the financing closes tomorrow or Monday. The goal is to have Thanksgiving in the new house... and did I mention that there is going to be a real GAME ROOM!?!??!?  I will finally be able to set up real Flames of War games (among many other miniature and board games), in my home!!!  I... can't... wait!!!

On the Flames of War front, I finally got my copies of Banzai and Gung Ho and have been madly assembling and cleaning up my Japanese for painting. I've just about decided what paint schemes I'm going to use on the tanks - generally they will be either units from the Philippines or Saipan. Reading through the Banzai book, I was a little disappointed by a couple of proofreading goofs that slipped through - and I both wrote and proofread the book - but overall I think the text is some of my best work, right up there with the Remagen book. I have some other writing assignments I'm also working on for Battlefront, so stay tuned!

By now many of you will have read the post over on the WWPD forum entitled "Why We Game." Like many I'd noticed a distinct cooling in the interest level for Flames of War at WWPD - both on the blog and in the forum. For many years, WWPD was one of my "go to" sources for all things Flames of War and I was disappointed in the reduction in focus, but it's natural that everyone's interests will grow, change, and/or wane over the years. That being said, as a part of their re-structuring, the guys over at WWPD have asked me to be a contributor to their blog - mostly focused on Flames of War as I'm still firmly "in the thick of it." In the next few weeks you should start seeing some of my Flames of War posts showing up on the WWPD blog. I'm planning to write at least a couple of posts for them a month going forward, and honestly I'm very honored and excited to move from reader to contributor on such a well-respected blog!

So what does that mean for this blog? Honestly, not a whole heck of a lot. This blog has always been a place where I can talk history, hobbies, and occasionally show off some miniatures I manage to get painted, and I still plan on doing that. I won't be cross-posting content from WWPD to here or vice versa, though I will generally try to provide links to any of my published content on other sites. With the new house and studio, I'm hoping to be able to actually get more miniatures painted and up on the blog - well, that's the plan at least!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Of Game Scale and Ground Scale - Fighting Tarawa in Flames of War

It's been a couple of weeks since Behind Enemy Lines published my Tarawa mini-campaign. That campaign lets the players re-fight the historic battle using a series of six individual games of Flames of War. However, the small scale size of the Tarawa battlefield got me thinking about another way to fight the battle which I mentioned briefly in my campaign summary - what about using the general scenarios to set up some larger "mega battles" where the actual terrain from the battlefield is used as a template?

Flames of War is generally considered to use a "sliding" and "compressed" ground scale which allows the player to field the more detailed 15mm miniatures in what is generally a company-level game. For example, in Flames of War, most battle rifles have a range of 16" on the tabletop. Using a straight 100X conversion, that gives a ground equivalent range of about 133 feet, or 45 yards. Most actual battle rifles of the period had an effective range of 200-300 yards, or 72" to 108" (6 to 9 feet, or roughly 2-3 meters) on the tabletop. Given Flames of War is most often played on a 4 foot by 6 foot (1.2m x 1.5m) table, the compromises required to fit the game on the table are fairly evident.

In the game this system works pretty well because the battlefields of World War II were generally quite large compared to "table scale," but when you start talking about the Pacific Theater, that basic assumption isn't always true. That doesn't mean that the game suffers from using a sliding scale, but it does open up different options for the player looking to explore different table arrangements.

Betio Island, where the Battle of Tarawa was largely fought, is a very small atoll.  It is roughly 3000 yards (just shy of 3000 meters) long, and its width varies from 100-200 yards at the narrow eastern end of the island to maybe 600-700 yards at the broader central and western parts of the island.  In game terms, that means even using a fixed 1/100th ground scale, the eastern end of the island is only about 1-2 yards (3 to 6 feet) wide. Because of the small size of the island, it is technically possible to play some of the battles in nearly 1:1 scale. The map below (click for larger size) shows Betio island with a few representative 4' x 6' standard gaming table outlines superimposed over the map.

As you can see, the very narrowest tip of the island is only one standard gaming table wide, in 100% (non-sliding, non-compressed) scale, though the invasion beaches stretch on for several tables. This means it is truly possible to play the Battle of Tarawa campaign in something approaching 1:1 scale on the tabletop.

As written, the Flames of War rules assume the compressed and sliding ground scale, so the question which would arise at this point is what impact (if any) trying to play the battle with a non-compressed ground scale would have on the rules of the game. I can see a few ways to approach the problem. The first is to simply decide that the rules are played as written and the 1:1 scale battlefield is there for historical accuracy and ambiance. The proportionally shorter ranges of most weapons in this case would simulate "battle range" as actually encountered on the atoll. Another option would be to allow all defending artillery to be "off board" and only fire in bombardments - though this may handicap a Japanese player with few AT assets. The most elaborate option would be to recalculate ranges using the actual range of the weapons in question - though that would mean rifles and pistols would have a far longer range in game terms. When choosing this final option, it would be key to ensure that the table is dense enough with appropriate terrain (including elevation changes) to provide realistic fields of fire.

Hopefully this post has given you a few fun ideas on how to adopt the Pacific campaign to the tabletop in Flames of War. While the small island campaigns dominate most layman's perceptions of the Pacific campaign, they are truly only one facet of the war. Look for future mini-campaigns and battles where a wider range of more traditional Flames of War battles come to the fore.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Battle of Tarawa Mini-Campaign

The great guys over at Behind Enemy Lines asked me to write up a mini-campaign covering the Battle of Tarawa. I'd generated a couple of mini-campaigns while writing the history and flavor texts for Banzai covering the Battle of Guadalcanal and Battle of Iwo-Jima, and they really seem to have struck a chord in the gaming community. These mini-campaigns offer more flexibility than a larger firestorm campaign and are better suited to casual play, but still give the players a strong grounding in the historical roots of the battle. Behind Enemy Lines published the campaign over a period of four days, and links to each of the battles can be found below.

Day 1 covers the initial Marine landings on the island of Betio, where almost all of the Battle of Tarawa was actually fought. It covers the assault on landing beaches code named Red 1, 2, and 3. An exceptionally low neap tide prevented the Higgins Boats from reaching shore, so only units equipped with LVT's made it to shore. In game terms the scenario focuses on this initial beach assault.

The action on Day 2 is covered in two separate scenarios in which the Marines begin their breakout from the Red 1, 2, and 3 beaches. The forces at Red 1 begin an assault on the adjacent Green beach which roughly runs along the western coast of the atoll. In a separate mission, the Marines from Red 2 and 3 Beaches begin their advance to secure the island's strategic airstrip.

With the battle going against the Japanese, Day 3 sees a change in their tactics. As the Marines on Red and Green Beaches try to link up with the Marines holding part of the airfield, a more mobile battle erupts - simulated using the "Dust Up" mission. That evening, the Japanese had planned a full counterattack, but this was broken-up by artillery, leading to a Banzai charge in the early morning hours of Day 4.

On the final day of the battle, the Marines began to mop up the last Japanese resistance, which had been forced into the narrow eastern tip of the atoll. The Marines would often bypass strong points and try to attack them from the rear. By the end of the battle only 17 Japanese surrendered out of a garrison of over 4500.

Point values used for this mini-campaign can vary, the real key is trying to balance the forces and ensuring each player tries to take a force representative of those actually used in the actual battle. Another option would be to play a "mega-campaign." Tarawa Atoll is small enough (and narrow enough) to model most if not all of the island across several tabletops. Running the battle in closer to 1:1 scale would also give the players a good feel for how tightly fought and contested some of these Pacific battles truly were.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Resurrecting a Classic Predator - Part 1

Warhammer 40K has a fairly long history. First released in the 1980's by Games Workshop, the initial rulebook and rules had a very "independent gaming" feel to them. The system was very raw, though it had a great dark Gothic feel to the game. The game itself has gone through several editions, and over time the models have changed a great deal.

One of the first plastic vehicle kits was the venerable Rhino troop transport for the Space Marines. This model was adapted to form the main battle tank for the Space Marines - the Predator. The original Predator kit was all plastic, though it would morph into a mixed plastic / white metal kit in the 90's and would again morph into an all new plastic kit with the release of the updated (i.e. current pattern) Rhino chassis. Oddly enough, Forgeworld now offers an updated version of the "classic" predator design as the Deimos Pattern Predator.

As cool as the Deimos Pattern version looks, I loathe to spend money I don't have to - especially when a Deimos Pattern Predator costs north of $75 (U.S.). I used to play a lot of Warhammer 40K back in the day, and started around 1988 when the system was just getting started. As an enterprising college and later graduate student, I built up quite a collection of partial kits in trade over the years. Now that my son is of an age to paint his own miniatures, and has taken a shine to the Ultramarines, I've decided to create my first new Warhammer 40K army in over a decade - the Space Wolves.

Digging through my old box of bits, I found pieces of an original predator kit still in reasonable shape. I'd acquired the predator from a friend who... well, wasn't the best painter in the world, so I cleaned up the painted pieces and added them to a fresh Rhino chassis. Unfortunately some parts of the kit were missing.

The turret was there, but the connecting rod that attached the turret to the hull was missing - so I added a new aluminum rod with some epoxy for strength. I also added a new muzzle brake for the gun since the original had been broken off.

I had two fresh lascannons for the sponsons, but the parts holding the lascannons in the sponsons were long since gone. I simply made up some pieces using my chopper and some sheet styrene:

These were then glued (CAREFULLY) onto the backs of the sponsons.

Finally I carved down the the new styrene pieces so they were flush with the rest of the sponson. While waiting for the sponsons to dry, I went ahead and assembled and sanded the infamous two part spiked cow catcher of doom.

I still have several detail pieces to add to the tank, but it is starting to take shape. I'm adding a few Space Wolf gubbins from the more modern kits to help give it a bit of visual uniqueness.

Once the assembly is complete, I'm planning on giving it a modulated paint job with some modern weathering techniques on top of that. I'll continue to post updates as I make progress on this project.