Monday, 7 October 2013

Book Review: Fantasy Wargaming by Martin Hackett

One of the things I'm keen to do on this blog is introduce some books that may be of interest to Oldhammer gamers. I'm not thinking, in the main, of Warhammer specific books, or books published by GW. What I want to draw attention to is the wider range of wargaming books that have ideas and resources to be mined and that fit in with the Oldhammer spirit one way or another. I'll start with this one:

Fantasy Wargaming: Games with Magic and Monsters, by Martin Hackett. Patrick Stephens Publishing, 1990.

I've heard some rather harsh words about this book. While I don't think all of the criticism is entirely fair, it would only be reasonable to accept that the book is not an unreserved success. So I'll start with some of the negative points, before getting onto what I have to say in favour of the book.

A critical critic (to get all tautological) would point out many flaws and shortcomings (and, to be quite honest, a tough editor should probably have encouraged the author to resolve some of these). The most obvious problem is that the book is extremely confused in its organisation, flitting between talk of RPGs and wargames in a way that doesn't make the distinction sufficiently clear, as well as shifting from observations about the hobby at large to details about the authors own rules systems and fantasy setting without ever really getting that balance right.

One thing that seems odd to someone opening the book today is the major focus on trying to make the moral argument that fantasy gaming was not going to eat away at your soul (or your children's souls), turn you into a devil worshipper, etc. Of course, these were real (if ever so slightly overblown!) moral panics during the 80s, so it's an interesting piece of period detail in some ways. Nevertheless, if Martin Hackett's idea was indeed to persuade a general reader who has little familiarity with gaming, then the level of technical detail in the rules he presents is waaaaaaay too high. In fact, it has to be said that the fantasy battle system he does introduce is set out in a very badly structured manner, making it hard to read even for someone who is an experienced gamer. I would actually be quite interested to try out the rules, but they're presented in such a convoluted way that you'd be hard pressed to fully understand them.

But in spite of all this, I have to admit, I am very fond of this book. It captured my imagination when I took it out of Bootle library in the mid-90s (although even then it was apparent how dated it was), and when I bought a cheap 2nd hand copy recently I was pleased to find that it still captures my imagination. So given the fact that the book has significant failings, why do I still enjoy it so much?

The first and most obvious answer is Martin Hackett's enthusiasm for his subject. He loves gaming, and he clearly wants you to love it too, and I think that carries me along. Sure, he's a little evangelical, but he's not trying to flog you a used car, and so for the most part it's like listening to somebody very keen and friendly who just wants to explain all the great ideas he has and all the great ideas you could have too if only you got into fantasy wargaming.

And there's the thing; it's all about the possibilities, the ideas. As I said in the first post of this blog, one of the attractions of Oldhammer, for me, is that it implies an open universe, one in which you're free to implement your own ideas and conjure up your own worlds. That's exactly what Martin Hackett has done for himself and what he encourages you to do; sure, he does go into maybe a bit too much detail about his own campaign settings, but I reckon that he's trying to show the reader how they too could let their imagination run wild. When I took up GW games in the mid-90s, I always got the sense that someone else was in charge of my game - whenever I played Warhammer, I was a guest on GW's lawn; but reading this book, I was reminded that the rules and the world that I played in were up to me, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed it then and now. I like the fact that there's a make do and mend attitude, a sense that it's your responsibility to improvise and create.

A clear attraction of the book for Oldhammer minded readers will be the photographs that showcase a extremely wide range of figures. Be warned: this is not a book of exquisitely painted works of miniature art; most of the photos are black and white, and where we do see the painting, it's generally gaming standard (ranging from well executed to somewhat crude) rather than Golden Demon standard, but to be frank I don't care because this is a book all about the game. There are loads of quirky miniatures showcased here that I would never otherwise have known about, and I'm thankful to the author not only for making me aware of their existence, but also presenting them in such a way that they prompt ideas for different campaigns, scenarios, and so on. (To give one example from the captions: "A group of Museum Miniatures carts form a defensive square while a cart is righted. The rocky outcrops and trees by HEKI form a natural position for the defenders to watch their supplies overnight"; or to give another, "Perhaps on one of your planets, dwarves will fly on giant bats. A Grenadier combination.") It's never just "look at this mini"; it's about showing how the minis make a world.

It's also worth noting that in terms of the practical value of the book, the chapter on Campaigns is well worth a read, going into high levels of detail about aspects such as the geopolitical dimension of fantasy wargames campaigns, naval encounters, weather chance events, and so on. To run a campaign on the scale he's describing would be a very ambitious undertaking indeed - but reading the book certainly gives me the appetite to do it one day.

I'm still not sure who Martin Hackett intended to write for; I really can't believe that a novice to gaming would find the book that compelling, and I suspect those parents in the grip of 1980s moral fears that D&D was going to get their kids worshipping the devil would find his arguments unpersuasive. But for someone who is already into gaming, who likes seeing a wide range of old school minis, and is looking for fresh ideas, there's a great deal in the book to enjoy. A flawed book, but one that I will happily flick through when I'm seeking inspiration.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Battle Report: Ambush at Logan's Way; or, Fighting Nemo

In which Lenihan's expeditionary force, finding themselves waylaid by the dastardly Clan Snickit, call upon the aid of some unusual allies...

Last sunday saw the first meeting of OGRE (Oldhammer Gamers, Region: East Anglia), one of the regional groups that has recently sprung from the womb of the fertile Oldhammer movement. We benefited from the kind hospitality of the Cambridge City Wargames Club, who had booked the scout hut in Logan's Way, Cambridge, for the whole day, and soon the room was ablaze with 3rd edition Warhammer action: Dwarves vs Wood Elves, Brettonians vs Orcs and Goblins, and High/Sea Elves vs Skaven (not to mention the 2nd edition 40k game going on at the same time). This battle report will detail one of those games; an ambush scenario, with my elven troops deployed in marching order in the centre of the table, with Skaven converging around them. All credit to my opponent, who in the best spirit of Oldhammer accomodated my narrative whims (I can't just have a normal battle, can I?) and, as we shall see made great sacrifices in order to ensure that we both had a good game. He also provided the pics for this battle report (more can be found on his blog Snickit's Tail). See, these Skaven get a bad press, don't they? They're much more generous and honourable than we've been led to believe. Seems they're the victim of malicious propaganda! Ok, on with the report.

The march home, mile after mile, day after day. Movement without moving. The same hills, the same trees, the same rocks, again and again, the monotony of the landscape driving you mad. Until finally you see it in front of you, beckoning: the sea. And beyond the sea, home. The waiting ship, the chance for a tired army to sail away and put these lands behind them.

In the midst of the joy and relief, who was the first to notice that they were not alone? Was it the sea elf priest Nemo who first recognised the scratches and high pitched skittering? Was it the sorceress Serellia who saw the rodents scuttling from behind the trees? Was it the commander Lenihan, at the front of the column, who became aware of the rat ogres climbing the hill ahead of them?

Suddenly a noise from behind - two sharp blasts, like cracks of thunder.

(Sidebar: ok ok, I think it's only fair I come clean here. Initially, as can be seen in the pictures above, my Skaven opponent had placed not 2, but 4 jezzails on the hill behind my marching column. In the first turn, all of them rolled to hit, and it quickly became clear that the game was going to be a short lived one; the perfect storm of my deployment in column (due to the nature of the scenario), the proximity of my troops to the jezzails (again due to the nature of the scenario), and, of course, him rolling all 4 to hit, led to him completely wiping out two of my units - and without even bothering to roll for casualties on my shore riders (who would very likely all have been wiped out as well), my opponent suggested, very sportingly, that we should start again. I suggested that we should play with exactly the same starting deployment, except with him fielding only 2 jezzails on the hill behind my marching column instead of 4 so as to give me at least a chance of survival, and being a gentleman, my opponent agreed. Obviously all credit goes to him for ensuring that we both had a fun game that lasted beyond the first turn! And that's the spirit of Oldhammer in a nutshell. More important for both parties to have a fun game than for one to win at all costs. Anyway, the damage inflicted by two jezzails was quite enough, as we shall see...)

While cool heads kept their eyes forward, some of the elves span round to see where the blast had come from. They saw the two jezzails on the hill behind them, heard the screeching laughter of the rats, and, with horror, realised that their brothers in arms lay dead or dying on the ground beside them. Before they had even had a chance to come to terms with what was happening, further casualties were inflicted by a warpfire thrower on the right flank. The sea elf company, the column of warriors, the shore riders, all smashed in a second of smoke and blood. The elven force found itself reduced to half its original strength.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the chaos the sea elf priest Nemo was chanting invocations, calling upon the gods of the oceans to send aid in this moment of trial. His prayers were not in vain: rising from the rock pools came the warriors of the depths - monstrous crabs, man of war jellyfish, squid, even a mighty and fearsome seahorse. The denizens of the waters had answered Nemo's call to arms. The skaven would not just be fighting Nemo and the sea elves; they would be fighting the sea itself.
Sea gribblies come to our aid

Seeing the diseased rat scum close in on all sides, Lenihan gave the order to his shore riders to charge the Rat Ogres and clear the way.

In order to minimise further casualties from the jezzails, the rest of the troops fanned out before advancing. Raising their bows, the sea elf company and the warriors peppered the skaven forces with arrows, but luck was against them, and their aim was wayward. The bolt thrower too, whose crew had stayed behind in order to hold off the attacking forces, missed its target. Yet the battle was not yet a lost cause; the sight of two great eagles swooping towards them caused a block of the foul clanrats to turn and flee, while Lenihan and the shore riders found themselves able to push the rat ogres back.
The situation after the charge phase during my first turn; note the clanrats fleeing from the eagles, and the ogres engaged by the shore riders; but also note the massive depletion in number after the jezzails and warpfire throwers blasted our troops

The rats, so used to stripping the flesh from the bodies of the dead, were no strangers to the foul craft of necromancy. The sea elves might have called on the creatures of the ocean for help; but Clan Snickit had raised its own allies from the ground, using their dark arts to animate a fearsome cohort of skeletons. The sight of these skeletons closing in terrified the bolt thrower crew; deciding that it was better to be the last of a dying race than to join a dead race, they abandoned their brave stance holding off the enemy, and ran like hell, leaving the bolt thrower behind. The unit of elven warriors, still reeling from the casualties inflicted by the Skaven war machinery in the first moments of battle, found itself charged and pushed back by the stench of a block of clanrats. The shore riders, led by Lenihan, fared better, slaying all three of the rat ogres and leaving their cowardly handlers to flee.

The battle now hung in the balance, as Lenihan and the shore riders swung round to return to the aid of those brave elves who survived; to the east, the allies of the sea had caused the Clan Snickit gutter runners to flee - but to the west, the unit of elven warriors found itself completely destroyed, overrun by the numeric superiority of the clanrats.

The jezzails hoped to repeat its trick of decimating the elven battle line; but this time one of them overheated and exploded, while the other missed. The warpfire thrower proved more reliable, toasting one of the eagles and leaving the battlefield bathed in a smell not entirely unlike fried chicken.
I feel like eagle tonight, like eagle tonight...

It was perhaps in the excitment of this slaughter that Clan Snickit began to fall into disorder. The unit of Clanrats to the east attempted to turn to face the approaching shore riders; but amidst the noise of battle and the distracting scent of roast eagle, the order was lost, and the Clanrats were left with their flank exposed. It was single moment of weakness, but one which the elves sought to seize upon.
The shore riders charged the clanrats in the flank; in spite of this, the clanrats held. But the sight of the remaining great eagle swooping towards them was too much. Now, the clanrats fled, and in the hurry to leave the battle field, much rodent blood was spilled.

The sea creatures too did their work, sending the crew of a warpfire thrower into flight. Hope began to rise in the hearts of the surviving elves; could they outmaneuvre Clan Snickit and reach their ships?

It would take something dramatic to stop the elves now. The remaining warpfire thrower could not inflict a further hit on the sea elf company. But the crew of the remaining jezzail saw their opportunity. They could hardly believe their luck; the exposed flank of the shore riders, who had been pursuing the clanrats. A single shot in the flank could rip through each and every one of the riders. It would be risky... one jezzail had already overheated... but the opportunity could not be lost. The jezzail team took aim... fired... and missed.

Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Clan Snickit's shaman called a clap of thunder from the skies in the hope that the shore riders' horses and the sea creatures would take fright; yet amidst the roar of battle, a single clap of thunder was hardly noticed.

At this stage, the elves were in a position to make good their escape.

The skaven could try and chase (cue the Benny Hill music), but their chance to close in around the elves and stop them in their tracks had been lost. The remaining jezzail, spying a chance to cook some more eagle, took aim with one last desperate shot, and finally exploded.

The threat had passed. Lenihan and the elven survivors had escaped from the claws and teeth of the foul clan snickit. But aboard their elven longship at last, there was no mood for songs of celebration and victory. The casualties had been too great. Too many lives lost. Too many left to rot on a foreign shore.