Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Hot Lead: Canada's finest wargaming event

Wargaming conventions are like beds in a fairy tale -- they shouldn't be too big or too small. You want plenty of games but few queues. Lots of new faces, but no strangers. Here in Ontario we're blessed to have Hot Leada perfectly sized event. Hot Lead is held in Stratford every March. It's one of the highlights of my year (along with International Talk Like a Pirate Day). Last weekend I attended Hot Lead 2015, and this time I think the liver damage is permanent.

There are two things that make Hot Lead so good. First, it's run by a bunch of complete nutters. Second.... well. Hmmm. I've forgotten the other thing that makes Hot Lead fun. In any case, this year was a blast, with 67 different games held over 3 days, plus tournaments for Warhammer 40K and De Bellis Antiquitatis.

As always, my companion for the weekend was a particularly unhinged member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Our weekend started with a gorgeous game of Dux Britanniarum, a fast-action skirmish game set in Arthurian England. The game was run by Frank Kailik from the Kent-Essex Gaming Society. Frank is one of my favourite game masters of all time -- he has an amazing talent for creating gorgeous scenery out of rags, wallpaper and trash. For example, he hand-wove his fences (pictured below) using broom bristles and tooth-picks. 

Protecting the sty from some Saxon pigs

Frank's game involved a Saxon raid on a beautifully rendered British village. I had the good fortune of seeing my wing of the British force square off against an 11-year old. There's nothing that makes me feel more like a man that out-maneuvering a child during a wargaming event. Really, it's my only hope of victory.

The Saxon invaders bounce off my shieldwall like tennis balls

Saturday morning was a particularly twisted game by Dan Hutter, one of the Hot Lead originals. He created a 28mm pulp game set in a fictionalized African republic, involving various heavily armed factions facing off over a diamond mine. My government forces ("the Sovereign Morrowi Ubangi Regular Forces" or SMURFs) exchanged fire with the hated rebels ("the Morrowi Inter-Tribal Liberation Front" or MILFs) and various other homicidal militias. The highlight of the game were the gorgeous "technicals" (or improvised fighting vehicles) that Dan had created out of Hot Wheels and other models.

As their technicals surge forward, the MILFs take the high ground and prepare to unleash their rocket launchers on the SMURFs below.

On Saturday afternoon, I played an epic recreation of a Roman-Carthaginian battle during the Second Punic War. Games Masters Kris and Mark Koloff offered an incredible spectacle, with hundreds upon hundreds of finely painted 25mm miniatures. The star of the game, however, was their home-brew rule set. Notwithstanding 6 or 7 players and innumerable units, the game was fast and nail-biting -- with battalions disappearing with a single cast of the dice. And although their rules were simple, they presented the players with precisely the same problems that faced ancient generals: how to get at the flanks, when to throw in reserves, how to hold the line. Brilliant!

I led the Gallic allies of the Carthaginians on the left wing. My explicit instructions (which were fairly historically accurate) were to kill myself as quickly as possible. A colourful self-destruction on the left would distract the Romans while the Punic elephants and elites prepared to puncture the Romans on the right wing. Fortunately for me, my opposing Roman general was the same 11-year old I faced the night before in Arthurian England. Clearly the Gods of Petty Convention G
aming were smiling on me. Beating the odds, my Gauls overwhelmed the Romans and began to roll up their flank like a rug. It was, however, an empty triumph, since the rest of the Punic army was getting annihilated. My Gauls were left hanging. Vae Victis!

Punic elephants plunge through the Roman line, but the Romans would quickly reform.

Here's master model-maker George Duff's recreation of Roman chariot races using rules from Avalon Hill's Circus Maximus. Yes, those are hundreds of painted spectators watching from the stands (plus scores more in the galleries below the stands).

My last game was Keith Burnett's take on the Battle of Hoth. After trash-talking the Star Wars models from Wizards of the Coast, I felt pretty stupid to see how grand they look in living colour. The AT-AT Walkers and the AT-ST Scouts lumbered through the snow, trying to knock down the shield generator before the Rebels could escape. It was the perfect way to end the weekend. Too bad we let young Skywalker get away!

General Veers has failed

A big thanks to James, Patrick, Chris, Elizabeth and the rest of the Hot Lead crew for another bulls-eye!

Photo Courtesy of JoJo

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Baggage Trains in Warhammer Fantasy Battle

Baggage trains are one of richest elements in 3rd edition Warhammer. In my view, no fantasy army is complete without a colourful array of camp followers. And yet, it is an oft-neglected element of the hobby: I could find only a few references to baggage trains on other Oldhammer sites (the best of which was Mouse's Flo's Field Kitchen). 

In an effort to fill in the gap, here are some pictures of the baggage for my 1000 point Wood Elf Army.

Baggage trains add three things to any game of Warhammer game: realism, conflict and creative modelling. 

The realism is simple. Most ancient armies couldn't exist without baggage trains: food stores, armourers and cooks, not to mention the sick and wounded. In the Late Middle Ages (the period corresponding to Warhammer's Old World), camp followers were not merely servants, but the wives and children of the soldiers. A chronicler of the Thirty Years War described the baggage train like this:
A regiment of three thousand men usually had not less than 300 vehicles, and each wagon was filled to overflowing with women, boys, children, prostitutes and  plunder.
This massive impedimenta (as the Romans aptly called it) didn't just vanish the moment the fighting started. Unfortunately for everyone, it was part of the battlefield.

Palu Wildcat Keeper, Citadel Miniatures (1987, sculpted by Jes Goodwin, painted by M. Sullivan)

Thus, the second thing that baggage trains add to the gaming table is conflict. A baggage train gives even the most aggressive army something to defend. But even for a victorious army driving the enemy back to its camp, the baggage train can be a peril. 

As written in the 3rd ed. Warhammer Rulebook (pages 102-103), a unit close to the enemy's baggage train will be compelled (by a failed Leadership test) to charge into the wagons and start looting, even if self-preservation would dictate a wiser course of action. What a great rule! This sort of ill-timed plundering was common in the ancient world -- perhaps the most famous case being the first Battle of Philippi, when Brutus' victorious troops dallied after capturing Octavian's camp, giving Octavian and Antony time to rally their troops. No biggie, Brutus. It's just the end of the Roman Republic.

Elf Wardancer, Citadel Miniatures (1987, sculpted by Jes Goodwin, painted by M. Sullivan)

Other interesting (and perhaps overlooked) rules about baggage include the fact that halflings go apeshit when defending baggage (+2 to hit and strength - page 103); armies get extra victory points for keeping their baggage intact (page 142); civilians in the baggage are the only units in the game to use improvised weapons (page 84); and mercenaries are more liable to bugger off when they get too close to either side's baggage train (page 125 of Warhammer Armies).
Talisman Satyr, Citadel Miniatures (1986, sculpted by Aly Morrison, painted by M. Sullivan)

And lastly, baggage trains are grand because they're an opportunity for creative modelling. This is because Citadel never released any official miniatures for the baggage train (although there are some tantalizing unreleased models). The lack of anything official means that we have to take matters into our own hands, selecting from Citadel's beer-carts, townsfolk and villagers -- or going outside of Citadel. My favourite source for extra-Citadel miniatures is Wargames FoundryAs the Ansells' reincarnation of Citadel, Foundry models will replicate the scale and sculpting style of any Oldhammer force.

For my army, I decided that baggage wagons were inconsistent with elvish mobility. Instead, I used pack horses, combined with Jes Goodwin's elves (slightly converted to transform them into messengers and grooms). To add flavour, I threw in a piping faun (the Talisman Satyr) and a pudgy halfling chef (Samwise from Citadel's original Lord of the Rings series). 

Elven Baggage Train (painted by M. Sullivan)

As brilliant as they are, baggage trains were only with us for a short time. They didn't exist in 2nd edition Warhammer, and were dropped from 4th edition. And yet, baggage can be so much fun. As a Welsh soldier cries at the Battle of Agincourt in Shakespeare's Henry V, after the French despoiled the English baggage: "Kill the poys and the luggage! ... 'tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offer't." For my own part, I love to commit arrant knavery whenever possible.

Warhammer Elf Baggage Train (painted by M. Sullivan)

***UPDATE: If you have any pictures or posts about your Warhammer baggage train, please let me know and I'll gladly link to this page.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Lightsaber's Riddle

Behold the heroes of the Rebel Alliance from the new Star Wars miniature game, Imperial Assault. To celebrate finishing all these, I just watched the original Star Wars trilogy. And not just any version, but the recently released guerrilla edition called "Harmy's Star Wars Despecialized" - a painstaking reconstruction of the movies (in HD) as they first appeared in the cinemas. 

Watching A New Hope for the first time in years, I discovered a riddle that I had never noticed before. The riddle is: why did Obi-Wan Kenobi wait?

The scene is the Death Star, as Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader meet for the trilogy's first lightsaber battle. I have always remembered Ben's last words before his death: "You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine." He raises his lightsaber as if in salute and allows Vader to strike him... but of course, he has disappeared and his empty robe falls to the ground. For me, it's the best moment in the whole series.

As viewers, we get the feeling that this was Ben's plan all along. And indeed, Darth Vader himself foreshadowed the event when he first goes to fight Ben. Grand Moff Tarkin told Vader that Ben "must not be allowed to escape," to which Vader replied, "Escape is not his plan. I must face him alone." Perhaps Vader thought Ben had come to kill him, a blinkered view consistent with his enslavement to the Dark Side. Ben, on the other hand, seems to understand that it is only by confronting Vader that he can attain the next stage in his being, just as Luke must confront Vader (in Return of the Jedi) before finally becoming a Jedi Knight.

But the riddle is this: Ben could have allowed himself to be "taken" by Vader at any time. But he waited. He waited until he knew Luke was watching. Only then does he lower his guard. Why?

Gaarkhan, Fenn and Diala, Fantasy Flight Games (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)

Gaarkhan, Fenn and Diala, Fantasy Flight Games (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)

There doesn't seem to be any practical explanation. Darth Vader wasn't barring Luke's escape. I was so curious about this part of the movie that I looked up the script. It doesn't throw any light on the question, but merely reads:
Ben sees the troops charging toward him and realizes that he is trapped. Vader takes advantage of Ben's momentary distraction and brings his mighty lightsaber down on the old man. Ben manages to deflect the blow and swiftly turns around. The old Jedi Knight looks over his shoulder at Luke, lifts his sword from Vader's then watches his opponent with a serene look on his face.
The script makes it sound like Ben's surrender comes from his being trapped and distracted. But in the movie, there are no charging troops. Nor is Vader beating him. Instead, Ben takes a long look at Luke, and then turns to Darth and smiles. The enigmatic expression on Alec Guiness' face suggests that Ben has waited years for this moment to arrive.

Jyn, Gideon and Mak, Fantasy Flight Games (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)

Jyn, Gideon and Mak, Fantasy Flight Games (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)

In order to come to an answer, I think it is important to understand what lightsaber battles mean in the original trilogy. There are only three of them (not counting Luke's short duel with the phantom on Dagobah) and one important fact stands out in all of them: no one ever truly dies in a lightsaber duel. This is because these duels are not about who is the better swordsman or even who is stronger in the Force. Death is beside point. Darth Vader is never trying to kill Luke; he is trying to corrupt him. 

Thus every lightsaber battle is nothing more than an inner struggle, a spiritual temptation for Luke. (These battles remind me of the Temptation of St. Anthony. Artists like Hieronymus Bosch or Salvador Dali externalized St. Anthony's invisible internal ordeal by painting outlandish demons in the desert. Lucas did the same thing for Luke by filming laser swords on Bespin.)

What gives these battles dramatic tension is that we feel that Luke can't win. Either he fights back against Vader, releasing his anger and succumbing to the Dark Side. Or he extinguishes his lightsaber and lets Vader (or the Emperor) triumph unopposed. The genius of Lucas is to put Luke and the audience in the same place, asking the same question: what is the solution?

Luke Skywalker, Fantasy Flight Games (2014, sculpted by Benjamin Maillet, painted by M. Sullivan)

I think this is where Ben comes back into the picture. I believe Ben waited for Luke because he wanted to show him how to win a lightsaber duel. A Jedi wins by letting go. 

In The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, we see how this lesson plays out. In Empire, at the conclusion of his battle with Vader, Luke literally lets go, allowing himself to plunge off of the gantry on Bespin and free-falling into space. It's a desperate act without self-assurance or self-knowledge. Although this can't exactly be described as a victory, it does prevent Luke from joining his father on the Dark Side.

In Return of the Jedi, Luke achieves enough understanding to let go of his anger once and for all (symbolized by him discarding his lightsaber as he stands over Vader). At first this seems like a kind of capitulation to the Emperor, who is free to attack Luke without opposition. But like Ben's self-sacrifice on the first Death Star, Luke's act of self-liberation on the second Death Star has a spectator; Darth Vader learns from Luke that letting go is possible, just as Luke learned it from Ben. 

In sum, there are three things you can say about lightsaber battles in the original trilogy: First, they are an inner struggle not a battle to the death. Second, the path to victory is a mystery, for both the Jedi and the audience. Third, a true Jedi is always teaching. Sadly, such fascinating ideas were entirely lost in prequels, where Jedi duels are reduced to nothing more than acrobatics. As Count Dooku says to Yoda in Attack of the Clones, "It is obvious that this contest cannot be decided by our knowledge of the Force, but by our skills with the lightsaber."

*** UPDATE - I've changed the title of this post from "Heroes of the Rebel Alliance" to "The Lightsaber's Riddle". I woke up this morning and it just seemed like a more descriptive name.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Oldhammer Battle Report: Orcs vs. Skaven or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Man-Mangler"

In my first battle against 24_Cigarettes and his horde of Skaven, my army of Oldhammer orcs decided that they would fight "without da sissy stuff"... no war machines, no magic and no goblin fanatics. Brave, brave, stupid orcs. After getting beaten like a bowl of eggs, the survivors reconsidered their position. Maybe sissies aren't so bad after all. There's a lot to be said for killing your enemies from a safe distance.

Da Sissy Stuff

Our second battle took place last Sunday, using 3rd edition Warhammer and army lists from Warhammer Armies. 24_Cigarettes suggested that we increase our forces from 1000 to 1500 points. I readily agreed, and immediately started dusting off my Man-Mangler, an over-sized catapult of hideous violence...

Krapfang's Backwood Bandits

Krapfang's Tin Kan Kommandoes
14 Orc Bigguns (+1 elites) with light armour, shields, spears + standard bearer and musician
(168 pts)

Lead by Krapfang Toothshyte, Lvl. 15 Orc hero with light armour and shield
(91 pts)

Gritstool's Nasty Gits
9 Orc Boyz with light armour, shields, spears + standard bearer and musician
(104.5 pts)

Lead by Captain Gritstool the Uncongenial, Lvl. 5 Orc hero with light armour and shield
(36 pts)

Harboth's Black Mountain Boyz
10 Orc Arrer Boyz with bows, shields + standard bearer and musician
(102 pts)

Vape Softbladder's Gobbo Greatmob
19 Gobbos with javelins, shields + standard bearer and musician
(73.5 pts)

Da Spear Chukka
Lead by Prince Vape Softbladder, Lvl. 15 Goblin with shield
(41 pts)

Smarmy's Swift Backtrakkers
10 Goblin Stikkas with short bows
(35 pts.)

Warspoor's Wulfboyz
8 Gobbo Wulfboyz with short bows + standard bearer and musician
(100 pts)

Grogeye's Butt Uglies
3 Trolls
(195 pts)

Lead by Grogeye the Incontinent, Lvl. 15 Orc wizard
(163 pts)
Mormo Jabberbinder, BC4 Citadel Miniatures (sculpted by Nick Lund)
Grogeye the Incontinent

Da Man-Mangler 
6-man stone thrower with Orc crew.
(93 pts)

Da Spear Chukka
3-man bolt thrower with Orc crew
(46.5 pts)

Rotwang Bawbag the Giant (mercenary)
(250 pts)

Total = 1498.5 points

As 24_Cigarettes unpacked his war host, I prepared the board. I wanted to give these armies something to fight over, so I set up a little human settlement ("Cold Crumpet Farm") for the victor to pillage and burn. The Church of Sigmar in the middle of the plain created a scenic obstacle, while various hills gave each army a chance to seize strategic highlands.

The Skaven chose to take the north side of the battlefield --  a decision whose main motivation (I suspect) was to prevent the orcs from setting up their Man-Mangler on the safety of the hill on the far side of the river. At first, the Orc general Krapfang cursed the Skaven position, but over time he realized that it might all be to the best. The open South side of the battlefield allowed him to stretch out his line, giving them room to maneuver and hopefully preventing the orcs from fighting amongst themselves.

The Skaven general Xerxes adopted an interesting deployment. He concentrated his massive units of infantry in a dense line in the centre, leaving his flanks guarded only by Jezzailachis snipers positioned on hills at opposite  ends of the battlefield. By weight of numbers, the solid wall of Skaven would be able to push back anything but a well-coordinated orc attack... and orcs generally can't coordinate themselves out of a ditch.

Krapfang's strategy was not complex: he would try not to get himself killed. Thus, the bulk of the Orcs and Goblins would hold back ("mindin' da fort") while the Giant and the Trolls moved forward to do the actual fighting against the waves of Skaven infantry. Meanwhile, the goblin archers (on the left) and the wolf-riders (on the right) would drive up the flanks to neutralize the Skaven jezzail teams ("Git going, yer gits! Iz easy! No probs! Wish eyez going wit yurz!"). Krapfang likes to avoid the words "suicide mission"... it seems to be bad for morale.

TURN 1: The opening of the battle was a mixed bag for Krapfang. His sissy artillery missed horribly ("sissies"), while the Skaven jezzailachis shot nice clean holes all over the wolf-riders.To make matters worse, the Gobboe Great mob took exception to the Orcs' views on continental epistemology, leading to a brawl in the heart of Krapfang's army. 

On the upside, the mercenary giant, Rotwang Bawbag, showed up for work sober - a fact which, on its own, might determine the course of the battle. With resignation, he lurched forward to meet the Skaven phalanx, which was advancing at half speed from the North.

TURN 2: Helmuth von Moltke the Elder famously observed that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Well, if you're an Orc general, no plan survives casual contact between your own units. On the second turn, Krapfang watched in agony as his whole line dissolved into a bickering riot. The ballista crew abandoned their post to hurl insults at the Orc infantry, who themselves were taunting Krapfantg's elite shock troops. The Goblin Archers sheered off from their crucial advance up the left flank and instead hurled homemade dungballs at the ballista crew, while the Gobbo Great Mob escalated matters by throwing actual javelins into the backs of Gritstool's Orcs. 

The only Orc leader who managed to keep his troops under control was Harboth. Hoping to hide them from both friend and enemy alike, he moved his veteran archers forward under the shadow of the Church of Sigmar.

Harboth's Archers cower behind the Church of Sigmar

Distracted by the lively philosophical debate among their fellows, the Man-Mangler again missed its shot. But, on the upside, the Giant continued to trudge forward -- and amazingly, he was followed by Grogeye's Trolls. Despite severe cognitive and digestive impairments, these Trolls overcame their Stupidity Checks and mastered the art of marching forward. Could they keep it up? Could they really? And even if they did, would it be enough? They were marching right into the teeth of 100 Skaven, two warpfire throwers, a wizard and a warlord with a Parasitic Blade.

TURN 3: As the armies began to clash, the Orc fortunes brightened. The Wolf-Riders, advancing like the Light Brigade into the face of relentless cannon-fire, routed the Skaven Jezzails on the right flank. From behind the Church, Harboth peppered the Clanrats with arrows, followed by Grogeye the wizard, who struck them with a fireball from his unit of Trolls.

Most importantly, the crew of the Man Mangler finally mastered the subtleties of trigonometry and landed a rock on top of the same poor Skaven sods. In a moment, nine perfectly nice Clanrats were transformed into tapenade. "Urk," bethought Krapfang to himself, "Dats purdy."

The Skaven hold back and form into a crescent.

In one of the most important decisions of the battle, the wall of Skaven opted not to close with the Giant and his Troll buddies. Instead, they held their position and readied the dreaded Skaven Warp-Fire Throwers. Green flame belched towards the Giant from two units of Clanrats... but one shot fell short... and the other sprayed wide. This was a godsend for the orcs -- not just because the Giant was still alive, but also because the stationary line of Skaven gave the Man-Mangler more time to do its thing.

But the Skaven still had some tricks up their sleeve. Festerlice, the wizard leading the Plague Monks cast Flight on himself and swooped down on the Wolf-Riders, tossing them like a salad with his enchanted Hammerhand. And the pack of Rat Ogres loped forward, preparing to charge into the Trolls. Crucially, the proximity of the Skaven triggered a loyalty role in the Giant, who was after all just a hired mercenary. Would he stay faithful to Krapfang? Or could the Skaven bribe him out, causing him to turn around and start bashing orc? It seemed the whole battle turned on that roll... but Rotwang stayed true. What a dupe.

TURNS 4-5: The next two turns were a blur of mud, blood and beer. Against all odds, the tiny unit of Goblin archers got within range of the final Jezzail team and riddled them with arrows. On the opposite flank, however, the wolf riders fled from the Skaven wizard, although not before tying him up for a couple turns. His leadership would soon be missed in the middle of the battlefield.

The Skaven attempt to surround Rotwang the Giant

There in the centre, the action was heavy. The Rat Ogres rushed the Trolls, nearly scalping their leader, the unhygenic shaman Grogeye. In response, the three Trolls prepared to unleash their most devastating attack on the Skaven monsters: synchronized vomiting. On perfect cue they retched up a toxic brew of stomach juices all over the Rat Ogres... but the Rats were unfazed. Krapfant stood in horror... if they could stand up to that sort of abuse, they were unstoppable.

But just before Krapfang began his strategic withdrawal, he saw the Man-Manger arc another rock over his head. This time, it landed smack in the middle of the Plague Monks, killing 15 of them in an instant. The surviving Monks wasted no time in hiking up their robes and sprinting for safety. In that moment, as the other rats began to waiver, Rotwang the Giant charged into the battered remnant of the Clanrats. This was too much for even the great Skaven warlord Xerxes. He broke, and by breaking he took a massive and untouched unit of Skaven Slaves with him. The other Clanrats would follow. The Skaven centre had collapsed. The battle for Cold Crumpet Farm was over.

Cold Crumpet Farm: there's something nasty in the woodshed (hint: it's Grogeye)

REFLECTIONS: One of the many things l like about 24_Cigarettes is that he was as gentlemanly in this defeat as he had been in his previous victory. Despite falling victim to some atrocious luck (i.e. his whole line collapsing in a chain of failed panic and rout rolls), my opponent was a complete sportsman. If you doubt me, check out his excellent battle report.

I felt a little embarrassed, insofar that my victory rested on two over-powered units: Rotwang the Giant and the Man-Mangler. But perhaps worrying about "game balance" is not what Oldhammer is all about. In any case, a great deal of this battle did hinge on dice rolls; in 3rd edition Warhammer, a stone thrower has only a 40% chance of landing on target; I got lucky in landing two direct hits in a row.

Leaving luck aside, I think the thing which characterized this battle was the hesitancy of both the armies' centres to advance. I know why Krapfang's Orcs didn't engage -- they were cowards and they wanted the Man-Mangler to do all the work. 

24_Cigarettes's reasons for holding back are more interesting. He told me he was waiting for my Giant or my Trolls to put themselves out of position by making an over-extended charge. By shaping his units into a crescent, 24-Cigs was were getting ready to engulf my most powerful units, like Hannibal crushing the Roman legions with his curved line of Carthaginians at the Battle of Cannae. But (unlike the Romans) my sober giant refused to take the bait and plunge into the trap. Instead, Rotwang held back until the Skaven had been bombed beyond repair. Thank you, Man-Mangler.

Man-Manger, Citadel Miniatures (sculpted by Kev Adams, 1988)