Monday, 15 December 2008

Evil Internet?

Being another man's completely subjective piece rewritten by Ephraim Gadsby in the comfort of the Smoking Room at his Club while under the influence........
Cover dated January 2009

One of the major advantages of having chums is that it gives one someone to argue with. Now I don't mean the sort of argument those with a 'Domestic Arrangement' know only too well; the sort that ends with two nights on the sofa but starts with something like, “This soup's a bit salty.” No, I mean proper arguments, with verbal cut & thrust, reasoned debate, point and counter point, through which those taking part gain a greater understanding of the subject and go away both enlightened by the result and enlivened by the process of getting there. And chums are the best people for such entertainments as, when the dust settles, when one is all argued-out, one can lapse into a reverie, puff on one's pipe and know that when one emerges to ask what the chum thinks of one's new cravat, honest and friendly will be the response.
Last week, after delivering me another crushing defeat, my nemesis (and joint bestest chum,) Club Treasurer and I retired to the club's Smoking Room. There, I was fairly certain, we would argue about my tactical ineptitude until joined by sufficient other fellows to start a multi player game of Wings Of War. But I was wrong. With barely a mention of exposed flanks, Club Treasurer launched straight into a new debate, and launched with such eye-glinting vigour that I knew we were in for a good one.
The “Evil Internet Debate”, as this argument has now been dubbed, runs roughly like this: that the internet is stifling Wargaming to death - it's cutting the sales of figures, lowering attendances at shows, encourages theory over practice, gives disproportionate voice to the critical, and has developed the hobby of 'Viewing Wargames Websites' at the expense of plain, old-fashioned Wargaming. Pretty inflammatory stuff and even if we all agree that the rise of computer gaming has kidnapped some of Wargaming's natural constituents, surely the internet wasn't up to all this behind our backs as well?
But, according to Club Treasurer, it is. What followed was an hour or two's spirited debate during which many of Club Treasurer's points were, if you ask me, way beyond the rabbit-proof fence and wandering off into the mine infested territory of intellectual no-man's land where the laws of common-sense are oft blown to kingdom-come. But he made it and he dragged me in his wake, gasping at the sheer audacity of it all. Still now, slumped in the old wing-back, shell-shocked and suffering from one too many mil.spec GnTs, I'm not sure that I still grasp it all. What follows is my blurry recollection of the finer points.
The more one surfs the internet the more one uncovers sites (or more likely, blogs) dedicated to the hobby. Surely that's a good thing, the sign of a thriving and growing hobby? Then there are the forums. Tons of them. Opinions are freely traded left, right and centre on every aspect of the hobby. Again, surely a good sign?
As the trend for blogging and posting on painting forums goes from strength to strength the desire to see better painted figures increases. Everyone enjoys being complimented on their work and as the standard of painting goes up, the number of on-line articles on how to do it increases and the number of painting blogs increases. Now, while the post count may be increasing, the number of miniatures displayed per post seems to be getting lower and lower. It is much faster to paint a single miniature and much easier to photograph than a group of figures. Thus less models are painted to be displayed and so less and less models need to be bought. A well painted figure is so easy to find on-line these days that actually getting out there amongst other gamers and having a long hard look at their army is unnecessary. All of those lovely display games that used to draw people to wargames shows, where they often chose to spend money on new miniatures, are almost guaranteed to be on-line the following day. As long as there is a stout fellow with a good camera and a high-speed internet connection a gamer hardly needs to leave the house to enjoy seeing a nice miniature or display game.
For people to paint a figure they must own a figure, surely then they have to buy a figure. Yes, that's true but they don't have to buy it from a manufacturer. On-line auction sites account for more and more purchases of wargames figures each year. As projects are abandoned they are often auctioned off on-line and the profits put towards the next new idea, unless, of course, real life intervenes. As more and more gamers turn to auction sites for their next army or modelling project, manufacturers are left feeling the pinch financially. This can and does lead to sales, special offers and promotions to encourage people to buy new toys over old. Naturally profits are reduced and after a while customers begin to hold off on purchases until the next sale. As manufacturer's costs grow and figure prices inevitably rise, the second-hand market becomes more attractive to the customers and . on-line auction sites offer daily access to serious bargains. Bring and Buys used to be a significant draw at shows but now the ratio of useful and usable miniatures to tat has shifted in favour of the latter as all that gets brought to the shows are the leftovers that wouldn't shift on e-Bay. And, as a number of quite large shows may be reluctant to admit, shows that lose their B&B lose a significant portion of their customers.
The financial aspect is paramount of course; if the traders can't stay in business, then the hobby dies. But the all-important social interaction aspect of gaming is too under attack from rampant Internetting.
Back in the old days, army selection was something private. Many a happy hour has been passed sitting there with a pad, pen and calculator designing a list for one's next game or planning out the next purchase. The list was then played with, revised, played with again, units abandoned and new ones painted up, all of which involved getting around a table at some point and playing a game. These days, with a forum or discussion group out there for every game, it is a simple matter of logging on. Almost all forums or discussion groups have an area for 'gamers' to thrash out their lists and discuss the killer combos that guarantee a game winning army. Sometimes this practice is taken further with in-depth mathematical and statistical analysis of the various factors involved in rules mechanics. The pastime of 'Theoryhammer' has become so popular that many hours have been committed to boiling down the wargaming hobby to its theoretical minimums, hours no longer spent playing wargames. In fact, if all one needs to become involved is a rulebook or supplement then why buy an army at all?
Miniature designers are just as likely to be found frequenting gaming websites as their consumers and it is much easier to contact someone to produce a bespoke range of miniatures than ever before. The hobby has ever provided the workers for the industry but with an alarming frequency the internet is allowing the hobby to take on the means for production. Now I'm sure that there are many people out there who would love to see a range of miniatures for this war or a set of that obscure troop type and in days gone by the chosen method of acquisition was to find something close and convert it; in short, a hobby solution to the problem was found. Today there is a good chance that a miniature range will be commissioned, a company set up and product sold to recoup the costs. This diversity is all well and good and the gaming public are probably the better for it, or are they? There is probably a reason why an established manufacturer has not released a given range of miniatures, often connected to cost or time constraints verses potential sales. A start up company has little in the way of costs beyond those of design and production and requires an income sufficient only to cover those costs (although a profit is always welcome of course,) where as a larger manufacturer will often have to cover wages, premises and other business expenses.
With manufacture becoming a new facet of the hobby and the internet a ready source of information on more and more obscure subjects with smaller and smaller associated ranges the opportunity for large manufacturers to innovate becomes less and less. Why would an established company release a range for the X wars of 17XX when all of the potential gamers for this niche interest have satisfied their urges with sales from a hobbyist-manufacturer?
So why is this all the Internet's fault? Where did the hobbyist-manufacturer find the sculptor, mould maker, caster, painter and advertising opportunity? Yep, you guessed it, the Internet. And that is exactly where the purchasers of these new toys will head, straight to the accompanying discussion group or forum to display their wares and chat about their obscure conflict of choice. Why? Because it is an obscure conflict and all of the people likely to want to game it are scattered across the globe and unlikely ever to be sitting across the table from each other. The internet wins again.
While the internet is undoubtedly a useful tool for wargamers, it has, for some, become the end rather than the means. Finding inspiration on-line is helpful. Buying miniatures on-line is convenient. Finding someone on-line to play against is gratifying but all of these should be the means to the end of actually sitting across the table from someone and playing a game. Buying a pack of miniatures, painting them up and displaying them on-line isn't wargaming. Buying a rulebook and dissecting it on the internet isn't wargaming. Posting vitriol against manufacturers for not producing obscure miniatures or for changing one's favourite rules isn't wargaming. Sitting in front of one's computer just isn't wargaming. Buy armies of figures, play games with them and interact with someone face to face. Be a wargamer..
So there you have it; Club Treasurer's “Evil Internet” scenario. An undoubtedly one chap's viewpoint of the Internet's effect on the wargaming hobby; a viewpoint that many may argue skips passed the rather tedious, if rather crucial, conventions of rationality and balance . For all of his points there are counterpoints, for every cut a thrust, but whatever you do, discuss them from either side of a wargames table or at a wargaming convention. Discussion over the internet would only make it worse!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Wings Of War?

Being a completely subjective piece written by Ephraim Gadsby in the comfort of the Smoking Room at his Club while pondering one of his favourite games........

You must have you played 'Wings of War' by now. No? Then do so immediately – you won't regret it. It's rather ace!

Open the box & one is immediately impressed by the quality of the components & the ingeniously simple rules mechanisms. It's easy to see the potential they present. Add an expansion, say another of the compatible boxed sets, or, better still, get yourselves a couple of the excellent ready-made planes and you begin to realise how this simple set-up easily, yet convincingly, provides a rich & varied game. The individual characteristics of each type of plane are neatly handled by the manoeuvre card decks: The Fokker triplane becomes super manoeuvrable & the Sopwith Camel a nippy gun platform that can't turn left with the same conviction it displays to the right.

The card-drawing damage allocation system is another masterpiece of ingenuity, easily modelling the effectiveness of differing weapons set-ups. The actual damage caused is known only to the target – a technique that adds to the in-game fun & tension.

No matter where you play or how experienced the players are, the way the rules work encourages a fun & friendly game with huge scope for plenty of banter. One soon finds oneself playing with the mindset of a gallant officer of the 'Cavalry of the clouds,' (Lloyd George) jousting with a worthy foe, high in the clear blue skies over Northern France. matter how good a 'game' Wings Of War is (& it is, it is!) the more one reads histories of the air war, the more one reads the diaries and memoirs of those who were there, the more things become darn right brutal. More savage. More chaotic. More wasteful. Just more at odds with the atmos. that Wings Of War fosters.

A typical example is provided by former RFC pilot Oliver Stewart who wrote in 1968, upon the 50th anniversary of the RAF, that the objective of the fighter pilot of the Great War, “Was to sneak in unobserved close behind his opponent & then shoot him in the back.”

One can see why the myth of the Knights Of The Air came about and why it was seized upon by the politicians and commentators of the day – after all there was no glamour to be found in the mud of Flanders. Certainly no chivalry in the machine gun & gas hell below. But there is no glamour or chivalry in being shot in the back at 5000 feet either.

I know it's only a game, a diversion if you will, and maybe it's just me but I don't feel the period in Wings Of War quite the way I want to. Other entertainments manage it. Take two of my favourites as an example:

The first is 'Goshawk Squadron' by Derek Robinson, a Booker Prize short-listed novel that tells the brutal & moving story of the final days of an SE5 squadron and their most unchivalrous commander. The book is a fund of detail about training, tactics & aircraft performance but also about the mindset that many of the pilots adopted to survive, about their attitude to the war, their foes and their increasingly inexperienced replacements. Needless to say, it all ends badly.

Secondly, the 1938 film 'Dawn Patrol' with a top quality cast of chaps; Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, and the marvellous David Niven. Among the exciting aerial combat sequences, the film, much like 'Goshawk Squadron,' really highlights the immense strain upon the pilots, both in the air and between missions, with a special emphasis on the pressures of command.

But then Wings Of War is, as I have repeatedly pointed out to myself, a game and a jolly good one too. So does this matter? Does this matter when playing any wargame? I suppose the answer depends upon what one is after, where one's position is on the sliding scale between accurate historical simulation and, well, out-and-out fun – not that the two are mutually exclusive, far from it, but I hope you get my gist. I consider myself to be somewhere in the middle. I like my games to be fun but for the result, and indeed how you get the result, to feel like my understanding of the period. Again all subjective stuff and now I sit here and ponder, I realise that, to me, what's important really is the Feel For Period. Not only do I want the 'hardware' of the period to be handled convincingly, I also want to think that in some way playing has made me feel some of the concerns of those involved in the 'real thing', that the game has encouraged me to 'play' in the manner of the real life protagonists, without, of course, all the terror of serious injury or death.

And there you have it; there's nothing wrong at all with Wings Of War after all. In fact, if this ramblings of a chap with too much time on his hands has made you ponder nothing, then it should have at least suggested Wings Of War is one hell of a great game. Just not quite right for me. So yes, I'll still play it and yes, I'll enjoy it. Just not as much as I used to. Please watch 'Dawn Patrol', read 'Goshawk Squadron', play Wings Of War, enjoy them all, and see if you agree.

It's a great game. Unlike the real thing, but still, a great game.