Saturday, 4 March 2017

A blast from the past

My grandmother is having a clear out of the spare room and happened to find some magazine binders from the 1970's. Whilst I have not yet plunged into the seven years worth of Airfix magazines my late grandfather had purchased, I have been given three binders of Military Modelling (one issue from '73, one from '76 and the remainder from '77 to '79) as well as a half dozen issues of Battle magazine from 1977.

I remember reading these in my early teens, and they were of an age back then, but having a quick perusal brought back some very fond memories and also got me thinking (yep, thinking!).

35p! Ah, those must have been the days...
There have been a fair few articles in various blogs about the current state of the wargaming magazine market and more than a few posts on TMP, yet looking through the admittedly small number of issues of Battle, I feel that the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.
By that, I mean that whilst today's publications are certainly less wordy and more picturesque, the topics haven't changed much. Indeed, the letters page of one issue is filled with the discussion (conducted by post, no less - POST, having to write or type a letter and have the Royal Mail deliver it. If you don't know what that is, Google it...) of the merits of rulesets and their accuracy towards the reality of battles, and whether "Britain's most popular indoor activity" (honestly, that's what two of the participants called wargaming!), can be classed as gaming first or historical re-enactment. 
The letters page from November 1977 has a corker of a topic: Fantasy gaming.
The debate, it seems, continues...
Apologies for the poor photography, the paper is rather shiny and artificial light is a necessity this time of year, but anyway, there is a divide here that still exists to this day. This is helped along by an introduction to fantasy by a little known gentleman, Mr S Jackson:

Whatever happened to him or GW???
I know that comparing these issues to modern day publications is like comparing apples to oranges, with an added difference of forty years, but I was struck with how much content you got in these. These are not the biggest publications and most of the pictures are black and white (with colour seemingly reserved for the cover pages and the odd plate), yet as you can see, they pack the writing in. Compare that to a modern mag where there a swathes of white space on most article pages and, depending on the magazine, a disturbing low word to picture ratio. No, these are not clean, glossy magazines as most youngsters would recognise but, by gad, they aren't half useful. And not just for the contemporary news (the Briefing section for military enthusiasts is a goldmine of late '70's news, projects and skullduggery!), but also for the adverts. There are loads of them, from Hinchcliffe to Skytrex to Heroics and Ros, all a little time capsule to an age long gone. 
I shall be keeping these in a safe place and will be having a read through the MilMod binders in due course. 

Saturday, 11 February 2017

York - and a question

Last Sunday saw an early start for a trip to York and the Vapnartak show. It has been held at the racecourse for several years now and it's one of my favourite venues. Access is good and the catering is above average. Never underestimate the need for semi-decent scran after a half past bed-time wake up call and a couple of hours on the A1(M).
The show itself pretty much followed previous years, and it must be said that it seemed to be the same old faces in the same old places. That should be expected, after all, the hobby isn't that big, but the biggest concern I felt was that the demo/participation games seemed to be the same as last year. Deja vu indeed. There were one or two new games that did catch my attention, and not necessarily for the right reason - the Airfix battles game on set on terrain in the form of a printed sheet being one. It was one step removed from a board game and having read a few pieces on the gaming system, watching that play out didn't improve my opinion of it one bit.
Other than that, the show did see me drop a few quid at Caliver (the Team Yankee expansions for the British and East Germans - I quite like Team Yankee, even if it is very much a "Bang! You're dead!" type of game but with a few amendments and an umpire guided set up, they are actually quite fun) and Dave Lanchester Books (a lovely volume on air operations at Suez, a conflict that holds my interest but tends to be forgotten amongst the rest of the Cold War shenanigans).
The show was busy (until the usual 1.30 exodus as the hordes depart for Sunday lunch and a snooze), and there were more than a few familiar faces, especially from my neck of the woods. It was nice to see, to be honest, and made me think that if the two larger north-east shows (Border Reiver and Battleground) could attract the same crowd, it would be of benefit to both shows.
Border Reiver has had a drop in attendance since the move to Gateshead International Stadium a few years back (it has certainly felt less busy as the years have gone by), and the organiser of Battleground (Leon), has been more than open on the Pendraken forums about the drops in attendance for that show. So on the whole, fewer people are going to those shows, yet it will cost the same, maybe a little more each year, for the venue. Fewer people means less door money, It also means either the per person spend has to go up or the traders are taking less money. If it's the latter, how long do they keep up their attendance before it becomes financially pointless to go?
As regions go, the North-East is pretty large, and the two shows don't compete for the same venue or date. If you were to compare these shows to, say, Falkirk, they are pretty similar in economic location and catchment area. Yet for all appearances, the two north-east shows (as far as public visibility goes), don't hold a candle to the Scottish show.
So I leave with a question: Is there a point to either North-East show?

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Of Things To Come

So a new year has begun and I feel it's time to take stock as to what is to come this year. Naturally, this year will involve some wargaming, with the aim of a Saturday game once a month, shows permitting. We actually have one today where we should hopefully have a good turnout for the delayed TWATS Tiny Tactica Tournament.

Show wise, I am hoping to get to the usual suspects, York (Vapnartak), both Partizans, Edinburgh (Claymore), Falkirk, Derby and possibly Newcastle (Border Reiver). Transport depending, the Battleground show in November is also a possibility, but we shall see. Last year's shows were mostly pretty good, though I have doubts about the Newcastle show this year. And Battleground for that matter. Both are medium regional shows, and last year, Newcastle seemed to follow a trend of being quieter than the previous year. Also take into consideration that Battleground's organisers actually release customer numbers for their show and it has been taking a 10% drop year on year. I get the impression that both shows have uncertain footing. Part of me really hopes they continue, but with declining attendance, how can you keep a show going if fewer people are spending money with traders? And let us not forget, without the traders paying for stands, the economics of a show are very dicey(!) indeed. We shall see...

When time permits (and the mood takes me), there are a couple of decent TV shows that have new seasons this year. Firstly, Sense8, which had a two hour special released over Christmas to tide fans over before the full second season arrives in May. I have written about the show previously and I am really looking forward the the new one.

Another show that gets a second season release very shortly is The Expanse. Based on the novels by James S A Corey, the show is set a couple of hundred years in the future in a divided Solar System. There is political intrigue, action and more than a little drama. Sort of a cross tonally between the Battlestar Galactica re-boot and Babylon 5, the show has a pretty good handle on realism and my good lady and I got through the first season in pretty short order. It even prompted me to buy the first three books of the series and they don't disappoint.

Gaming wise, the slate is a little bare - there is Mass Effect Andromeda coming in March and that's about it. I still have a ton of games to get through so that's possibly no bad thing. I am not even overly bothered about the release of the Nintendo Switch. It's a tad pricey for the two games I would want to play before the end of the year and not even the thought of portable Skyrim is enough to tempt a purchase. I am hoping the price either comes down or there are pack-in bundles that give a bit more value for money.

So that appears to be that for now. I shall, of course be adding to the blog on a more regular basis than last year, and be adding a few show reports as and when they happen. Toodle pip for now.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Hold on again, I bought two of those!!!

Following on from the Tapwave Zodiac post the other week, it got me thinking about what was possibly my favourite piece of multi-purpose tech from the noughties - the Nokia N-Gage.

Now hold on there before you get pitchforks and flaming torches, hear me out. This was an attempt by the then biggest mobile phone manufacturer to combine said mobile phone tech with a games console, something that still alludes to this day (I am not counting smartphone gaming as  unless the rely upon simple touchscreen/gyro controls, actually playing them is a chore. I believe that physical controls trounce those options pretty much all of the time).

So what was it like? Well, Nokia took their then successful Series 60 software platform and stuck it in this:

The Nokia N-Gage - aka The Taco phone

Now I will be the first to admit that they compromised massively on the design, indeed, one of the key failures was the controls themselves, a phone keypad rather than gaming controller. It actually challenges the Atari Jaguar pad as worst design ever. Still, at the time, it was quite a piece of tech and yes, I bought one on launch day with a copy of Tomb Raider and I loved it. For a while...

Amongst the other compromises brought along on the phone side was the screen, a very (phone sensible) 11:13 ratio vertically orientated display. However, most gaming devices at the time followed the 4:3 ratio that copied televisions of the age. This was awkward and compromised the aesthetics of most of the titles. Another was the game card slot. This was inside, with no access externally. This meant that to change titles, you had to strip the battery out and re-boot the device. To be fair to Nokia, they did improve on a few things with the N-Gage QD but I'll get to that in a moment.

Despite the frankly obvious negatives above, I loved the machine. It allowed me to carry one device instead of several and even if you did look like a complete tool using it for a phone call, it ticked a lot of the boxes for me. Even the battery life wasn't too bad and it took a standard Nokia battery at the time so carrying a pre-charged replacement was easy enough. Plus pretty much everyone had a Nokia charger lying about.

Having said that, a quick check on YouTube shows that time is a harsh mistress and the titles that I remember playing and enjoying have not aged well, either by the technical abilities of the machine or that god-awful screen ratio. I ended up with about ten titles for the N-Gage over the two years I used it and it's follow up, the QD. Alongside Tomb Raider, there were Sonic N, Pandemonium, Super Monkey Ball and Call of Duty that stand out. Not necessarily for the right reasons, but I remember them well.

As per the market at the time, once the 12 month contract was over, I upgraded to the QD, a softer, more sensible re-design that slightly improved the controls, moved the speaker and mic so that you could hold the phone normally and placed the game card slot on the edge of the device. I sold the original which payed for the first five months of the new contract and held onto the QD for pretty much the rest of the following year. It was only when the software releases practically stopped that I turned my attention to newer devices and sold the QD and games off. As a collector, I wish I hadn't done that, but then YouTube is enough to remind me of the games and it's one less thing to clutter the house up.

The N-Gage QD - what the original should have been...

The N-Gage was a bold move by Nokia into the territory then (as now) dominated by Nintendo. That it didn't work, I put down to how the device was sold (this was long before children were given mobile phones as almost a human right - that's a discussion for a much later time) so unless you had deep pockets, a contract was the only way forward, the compromises brought about by trying to be master of all trades and the sheer strength of the competition. It also displayed the first cracks in Nokia's dominance of the mobile market. It failed and it failed badly. The coming of touchscreen smart devices would prove to be an even greater challenge.

The N-Gage was a technological dead end at the time, given that the hardware was probably too underpowered for gaming and the mobile networks were nowhere near capable of supporting the feature rich software we take for granted now, though the time of portable gaming and mobile phone synergy (minus physical controls) was only a few years away the form of Android and iOS devices. Am I please I owned two? Yes, as I said with the Tapwave post, they fitted a need that I had at the time. I do not consider the money spent a waste (what with selling the devices and games on, as well as having the phone contract which I would have had anyway). Would I seek out the hardware again for the sake of familiarising myself with it? No, that ship has sailed, and the rose tinted spectacles can do very strange things.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Hold on, I bought one of those...

Having a rake through a couple of packing boxes that hadn't been touched since the house move, I happened across this:

Tapwave Zodiac 2 with screen cover on

A Tapwave Zodiac 2. Part Palm PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), part games console, I bought this piece of tech back in early 20005. Common with the tech of the time, it uses a custom charging connector that is in another box somewhere, so unfortunately I can't power it up. I can, however, have a bit of a reminiscence about it.

Back of the Zodiac showing logos, charging/sync connector and stylus

I have always had a fascination about technology, and when the Zodiac was announced, it caught my interest as it combined the then popular PDA fad (almost entirely taken over by mobile phones and tablets these days) and gaming. Whilst I justified the purchase because it could replace my failing Palm 515, it was the gaming part of the package that intrigued me.

Looking at the specs now, they seem very anaemic compared to modern day devices, but by the standards of the time, they are respectable. A 200MHz ARM processor, backed up by 10Mb of RAM, the model I have has a massive(!) 128Mb of storage. It also has two SD card slots for additional storage and software. The screen is a not too shabby 3.8 inch half VGA type capable of displaying 65,536 colours.

With screen protector open

What I really like about the Zodiac is the design, rounded so very comfortable to hold and made predominantly of metal, so it feels solid in your hands. It is also just about the right size for my (not overly) hands. It's comfortable to hold for reasonably long periods and, ergonomically, it is as close to perfect as it gets, at least for me.

Still with Duke Nukem game

As well as the touchscreen (resistive, hence the stylus), you get two shoulder buttons, Home, Function, Power and four Action buttons. There is also an analogue stick, spring loaded so resets to centre when not under pressure. Connectivity wise, there's the aforementioned charging/sync connector, a headphone jack bottom left, Bluetooth, an IR beamer and the two SD slots on the top edge (neatly protected a bit by the screen cover when it's closed). So, for the time, not too shabby and it was well designed.

I used the Zodiac for well over a year, and it did a fair amount of travelling too. Indeed, by the time it was replaced, the battery had reached a point where it would be good for just a couple of hours of continuous use. Replacing that was a no-go as Tapwave themselves had wound up by then, so the Zodiac went into a drawer.

Incidentally, the Duke Nukem game that I bought with the Zodiac isn't a port of the classic 3d shoot-em up, rather it is just a generic shooter with Duke artwork. Disappointing as I think the hardware was more than capable of handling the real deal.

In general, use, the Zodiac was great fun, an extra memory card held enough music for the daily commute and back, whilst I would generally get a full days use before needing to charge the batteries. Gaming, however, was a battery killer. With the screen brightness turned up anywhere near maximum, you would be looking at three hours tops (and that was brand new out of the box!). As time went by though, I was using the Zodiac less and less for gaming and more for the core PDA functionality so it wasn't too great a loss when a Sony Ericsson K800i took on music/diary/calendar duties.

In hindsight, the Zodiac was a nice piece of kit that was technologically a dead end. PDA wise, it was up against the newer ranges of feature phones coming from Nokia and Sony Ericsson, whilst gamer's were being targeted by Nintendo's DS and Sony's PSP. Tapwave was in no way big enough to compete with any of those companies, and their target market was relatively tiny. It didn't help that the tech was caught between two stools and truly was a jack of all trades, master of none.

If I ever find the charging cable, I'll fire this puppy up and see if everything still works. Having written about the Zodiac, it has reminded me of another piece of kit I used back in the day, the Nokia N-Gage, but that's another post entirely...

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Road to Bad'gagh

Last Saturday saw a gathering of TWATS at the usual venue for what was planned as a three way test of rulesets that was proposed quite a while back. However, as playing the same period/ruleset does get quite monotonous very quickly, we waited until the back end of the year before we tackled the triple challenge. And what a challenge it turned out to be. 

The initial brief was simple. I was to run a game using three Modern period rulesets, Combined Arms, our usual set; Team Yankee, a lower level fast paced 'fun' set, and Cold War Commander, back to a similar command level as CA. To make this possible, the scenario was as simple as can be, the briefings designed to make the individual games quite quick and offer an opportunity to put some awfully bad jokes in there as well.

Before I list the briefings, a note on amendments: As Team Yankee does not cover Challengers, we basically used the Chieftain's stats with Stillbrew. Similarly, Warriors were classed as BMP 2's. This didn't make much of a difference overall. 

The British Briefing

The Road to Bad'gagh - Bar-Alnnabidh Aleasaria - British Briefing

To: Colonel Richard Bartholomew Copestake

What ho! Dickie!

Sorry to get down to business, old chap, just we have found ourselves in a bit of a squeaky bum situation. As you know, Christmas is nearly here and, like you, I was hoping to get a bit of skiing in with the family at Klosters. Bit of bad luck that the American hope of a quick bish bash bosh and home by Chrimbo seems to have been a tad over-presumptuous.

However, the Greenflies have heard that there is a nice big gap in the Hirraqui lines leading to a rather important town and oil field. More so, the town overlooks the main highway to Bad’gagh, so offers the perfect opportunity to cut off the head whilst giving him a damn good thrashing to the kidneys.

All is not green and pleasant though. Seems the Yanks don’t have the spare tools for the job so want us to make a lightning strike and capture the town and the oil (nothing new there then!). So, your job is to take a scratch Battle Group and sort the buggers out. I don’t have an exact Or-Bat, you’ll find out when you get there. However, I do know that the Green Howards will be your boots on the ground, the Royal Irish Hussars will provide your firepower and recce will be courtesy of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

I can also give you the basic plan of attack.

Start line is SHAKESPEARE, follow on is objective BARD. From there, you’ll have phase line HORSE, with secondary objective LONG FACE. Finally, there is phase line DICKENS, where you’ll need to decide upon objectives OLIVE or TWIST. And shout up if you need support, you never know, there may actually be some this time. As an aside, you might want to capture OLIVE, just to get in your cousin’s good books. I hear he quite enjoyed his little helicopter escape action a few weeks ago.

Good luck, and God’s speed.

Oh, and one more thing. There is frightfully awful Haboob heading your way. Best be at that town quick smart!

As always,


(Brigadier Norris St. Michael Farquhar)

The Hirraqui Briefing

To: Commander Hirraqui Republican Forces, Bar-Alnnabidh Aleasaria

Greetings and Salutations on this pleasant day. I hope all is well as your valiant forces rest after teaching the Infidel the true error of his ways. Although your losses were heavier than I had foretold, I understand that you find the rest and recuperation pleasing, and that material defects to your combined arms forces are being repaired quickly and efficiently.

I am sorry to say that your forces will be required again in the very near future, so please do not delay in training and melding the numerous brave soldiers of the 3rd, 5th, 9th, 31st and 33rd Armoured Divisions into the Sword of Allah I know you are capable of being. I believe that you and the four hundred brothers in arms you lead will be the key to our victory! You should not be disturbed by the Infidel as the 6th, 10th, 14th and 22nd Armoured Divisions are at this moment weathering the sandstone of his pride.

Allahu Akbar

The Great Leader.

As you can see, nothing too specific regarding forces, as the whole point was to playtest the different rules. It pretty much ended up being 6 Challengers, 4 Warriors, and 4 Scimitars versus a dozen or so T72's and 5 BMP 2's. Also, the approaching storm was designed to limit the games to 5 turns apiece so we could fit everything into an afternoon, especially the Beef butties and chips! As for the jokes, well, I'll let you guess at those - there is a common theme.

Game One - Team Yankee

As this was the ruleset that kicked off the idea of the challenge, Team Yankee got first shot. Andy took on the role of the resting and recuperating Hirraqui commander, whilst Jeff and Paul were the British.

First turn was pretty much the British dashing to contact, the second turn slowing to a more tactical pace that ended with an ATGW strike against one of Paul's Challengers without effect. The British reply was a volley against the offending BMP that quickly ended it's participation in the proceedings. A T72 tried it's luck, again without effect and it too ended up dead once the British had replied.

Turn three saw Andy get the bulk of his T72's into line on a ridge to await the British advance. At this point, the British closed again and the real tank engagement began. Three Challengers fired, killing two T72's, the return of which killed a Challenger! I know, shock and horror!!! Paul, on the other flank, targeted three '72's and killed two. Things were not going well for the Hirraqui's!

Turn four saw the British dash their Scimitars through an ambush point towards the town, a point they had to reach to class the encounter as a win. This, it must be said, did not go well. In quick succession, cannon fire destroyed a Warrior and three Scimitars. On Paul's side, a BMP took out a Challenger with flanking cannon fire.Not to be totally outdone, the British claimed two more '72's and a BMP. At this point, the game was declared over by both sides, and I couldn't blame them as the slaughter had been quite horrific.

Now, before we continue, yes, Jeff and Paul were forces to be overly aggressive, so in a full afternoon game, tactics would have played more of a part. However, the original aim of the game was achieved. We had play tested Team Yankee and although, compared to CA, it lacked nuance and seemed to be quite dice driven, it was actually good fun. I would certainly have a go again, and maybe tinker a bit here and there, as is the wont of our Group.

Game Two - Cold War Commander

The second game saw a reversal of players, Andy and the recently arrived Shaun taking the British, and Jeff and Paul turning Hirraqui. I will be honest and say that none of us were au fait with the rules but between myself and (mostly) Andy, we had a bash. Early on, we ditched the five turn rule as the distance to be covered and the scale of movement being too great.

Turns one and two were just the British advance, though it did give us an idea of the initiative system between formation leaders and CO's. And by idea, I mean chucking a lot of dice for not much effect.

Turn three saw Challengers take up a firing position and the British recce fail a command roll, though the CO saved them, so all continued as planned. Still, if I had 10p for every dice rolled so far, I could have bought myself a pint!

Turn four saw the action kick off, Three Challengers against T72's, who remained out-ranged throughout the game. 18(!!!) dice saw 4 hits (bearing in mind, it takes 5 hits in a turn to kill a T72 unit) saw some suppression but as two of the hits were saved, no other effect. Another three Challenger round of firing, another 18 dice, another four hits, but with only one save this time. So, 36 dice(! - another pint there plus change) and five hits. Ok, bad dice rolls but still.

During the mass firing, a pause was held for the as-usual excellent beef butties and chips, before we went back to see what we could salvage from this game. And there was the rub. CWC is an extremely dice driven game and seems aimed at the professional dice roller, rather than what we would call an historical wargamer. Harsh? Maybe, and I have borrowed the ruleset from Andy to have a proper look over but to a man, none of us thought the system was any good. As for the third game, CA, we simply ran out of time, but since we have been playing those rules for several years, we know how they work.


So, where to begin. Well, without a doubt, CA remains the group favourite. However, the surprise of the afternoon was Team Yankee, very playable, not without fault but at the same time, they fill a gap and I can think of making a couple of amends to add a dash of flavour and we'll have at these again. I would, however, avoid the game extras: £16.50 for the artillery template! No thanks, cheaper to find a sailor down the docks!

CWC was the real disappointment. Too faffy, far too dice driven and very much of the "rules say this, you must do this, nothing else is permitted" school of thought. Not my cup of tea and, judging by the other guys (including a couple of former competition players), theirs either. It was still a good afternoon though and that's what it's all about, isn't it?

The Jokes

The basic premise was an Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman walk into a (trendy wine) bar (in arabic, obviously). After that, it was the trio of bar jokes: Shakespeare walks into a bar, Barman says You're barred! A horse walks into a bar, barman asks, why the long face. Finally, Dickens walks into a bar and asks for a martini, barman asks, olive or twist.

I am truly sorry!

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

September and gone...

So another month nearly over, and one that contained a tad more wargaming that usual, what with the Newcastle show and a meeting of the TWATS. It also has a fine ending in the Derby World Wargames show this weekend.

The Newcastle show was, to be honest, slightly disappointing. Maybe it's me, maybe it's the small regional show vibe, but it felt more like Battleground from last year, decently busy at the beginning but tailing off by midday. And, whilst I do try to support local shows by spending some cash, it was a pretty hard thing to do this time round. Still, a couple of decent books made their way home.

The TWATS gathering has been well covered here so I won't add much else, other than to say that I was having an off day, and only the good company, fine ale and delicious food saved it. But isn't that what club gaming should be about???

Derby promises to be a good show, one where I hope to get the two available expansions for Team Yankee. They should come in handy for the October TWATS meeting where the long mentioned three comparison between Command Decision, Cold War Commander and Team Yankee will be made. Nothing overly fancy but just enough to give the different rule sets a try.

Outside of this hobby, September had its fair share of treats, such as eventually getting to start "Stranger Things", an 80's set sci-fi horror show that hits the right nostalgic note (the credits and music are prime examples) as well as not dragging too much into the eight episode season. If you have Netflix, give it a try.

Book-wise, there have been a couple of goodies from Amazon. The fourth in the series of Cold War technical books from Chris Gibson (this was co-authored with Dave Forster), "Listening In". This follows the British elint effort from the 1940's onwards and is another cracking text. There is another in the series, "On Atlas' Shoulders", due out in October, detailing transport projects. That one is already on the wishlist. The second book is "British Aircraft Carriers" by David Hobbs. The sheer amount of detail and information held in this book is amazing and well worth a gander if you have any interest in the subject.

So, that's it for the moment, just a couple of reviews to complete for and a couple of weeks off towards the end of the month. May even get some painting done...