Tuesday, 12 June 2018

A Day Out in Durham

Last Saturday witnessed an assemblage of TWATS at the Vane Tempest Hall on the outskirts of Durham for our annual demonstration game at the Durham Wargames Show. This is a small, local show but it's always nice and welcoming and the game itself is a chance to show off some kit, rules and speak to interested passers-by, which is the point of a demo game, isn't it???

Joining me were Andy, Jim, Steve and Shaun and we were off to the mid-1980's for a spot of Cold War gone hot with Steve's excellent 20mm East and West Germans. Honestly, the pictures don't do them justice, the kit is excellent. Terrain was a mixture of Steve's and Andy's and the rules, well, the rules were Team Yankee. But with a few changes here and there. Let me explain.

I have quite liked TY when we've played them in the past and whilst they are essentially Lionel Tarr with bits on, I have found them quite gamesy and very "BANG! - you're dead!" and that didn't sit well with me, especially for a full day demo game. So, with pad and pen ready, I had a bit of a review.

First off, I got rid of the silly bouncing rule when assaulting - if you fail to pass the roll, you bounce back. Nope, now you get stuck and become even more of a target. I mean, if you hesitate when going in, you'll get punished for it. I also changed the Bailing section. Now I know, in the novel Team Yankee, there are instances of bailing out, but in the game, this is more of a second life mechanism. You're hit, not yet dead; here, have another go. Well, I still allowed that BUT if the attacking vehicle is in range when you did that, you got a good MG-ing as well. If you survived that, you could try and re-mount. If you didn't, bye-bye tank crew. As pointed out to one interested spectator, no vehicle crew plays hokey-cokey with their vehicles in the real world. I also changed the minimum ranges for some of the anti-tank guided weapons, just so they fell in line with their real world counterparts - but more about that later on.

Finally, I completely changed the frontal armour for tanks. Why? Because the front of a tank is not a uniform piece of metal/ceramic/whatever. As it stands, TY gets you to roll for hull or turret impacts but then does nothing else. I didn't like that so sectioned the results of a frontal hit as follows:

  • Roll a D6 for where the hit landed: 1-4 hull, 5-6 turret.
  • If a hull hit, another D6, 1 or a 6, it's a track shot and results in a mobility kill. 2 to 5 is a straight hit to the hull itself.
  • If a turret hit, another D6. 1, 2, 5 and 6 mean a hit to the main turret armour. A 3 or a 4 means a hit to the gun mantlet which on post WW2 tanks is less well armoured than the rest of the turret front.
This, of course, meant playing with the armour values of the tanks to be used in the game, which made them harder than their ruleset counterparts at first sight. For example, the Leopard 2, instead of having a frontal value of 18, now had turret values of 24/18/24, the 18 being for the mantlet. Does that make it very hard to kill? Yes, and doubly so when I also added a side rule stating that the first hit on an L2, if it bettered the defense value, had no overall effect. However, another hit on the same spot would use the lower frontal value, resulting in an easier kill for the second shot but taking into account the abilities of the armour package as designed in the real world to take multiple hits (at least in development, it did), so second hit values of 18/18/18.

All tanks were amended accordingly, so the Leopard 1 had turret values of 12/9/12, the T-72 20/15/20 and the T-55 14/10/14.

With that covered, let's get on with the game. As Andy has already pointed out, it was Day 6 of the War and the Warsaw Pact forces had shot their bolt. It was time for a Western counter strike to reclaim lost territory, in this case, the town of Bratberg. The East German forces held the town, forming a defensive line along the autobahn. These comprised of six T-55's, a platoon each of BMP-1's and BTR-60's, one SA-9 and 1 Shilka AAA, two BRDM-2 with AT 5's, an HQ platoon and three PT-76's for flavour. There was one BM-21 and a Hind D on call. Reserves of six T-72's were off the board to begin with, depending upon a dice roll for where and when they appeared.

Shaun's initial deployment

Steve's initial deployment

Attacking would be a scratch force of West Germans, six Leopard 1A5's, four Leopard 2A1's, two Jaguar's with HOT, two platoons of Marders, one platoon in TPZ-1's, two Luch's recce vehicles, 1 Gepard AA and one Marder Roland. An MBB-105 with HOT was also available.

Andy and Jim took the West Germans and decided on a bit of a feint, with Jim taking a platoon of Marders, both Jaguars and a detached TPZ squad to probe the Ossie's right. He also had the helo in support. Andy led the strike against the Ossie left with everything else; the Leopard 1's and the Marder platoon in the lead, followed by the AA detachment, the Leopard 2's and finally the remaining TPZ's.

Steve and Shaun formed a defensive line with the road bridge over the autobahn dividing their forces. These were pretty evenly split, the BMP's holding the Ossie right with three T-55's, and the BTR-60's helping the remaining T-55's on the left. With that all set up, we were off to the races.

Pretty much nothing happened for the first few turns as Jim and Andy got into position, Jim approaching the T-55/BMP line cautiously. Once the action started, though, it got a bit more interesting and for the sake of clarity, I'll describe each flank in its entirety, starting with Jim.

Jim starting off
Once both sides were in missile range, dice were rolled and a game of attrition began - the missiles out-ranged the 100mm tank guns which meant that when there were hits, the targets invariably died. Long range ATGW fire was very tit-for-tat. Jim de-bussed his infantry for the long slog to the treeline (keeping out of range of tank fire) and in doing so took two salvos of BM-21 fire which killed two infantry squads by the end of the game. Even the appearance of the MBB-105 didn't cause that much excitement as although it managed one T-55 kill, it missed on the rest of its shots. It died at the hands of the SA-9 after Steve moved it out of cover. It took some doing but eventually, Jim wore down Steve's East Germans to 1 BMP, the Shilka and four infantry squads. In doing so, he lost a Marder, both Jaguars, a Luchs and the MBB-105.

West Germans obviously forgot to pay the taxi fare...

Jim means business...

If all that sounds rather boring, it wasn't. It was, however, bitty and it took a good fifteen (15!) turns to get to that point, including one turn (#10), where out of six rounds of firing, only one hit was scored! Truly bum dice rolling indeed! However, this feint allowed Andy to do the business on his side of the road so the sacrifices made by Jim were not in vain.

Andy led off with the Marder platoon, coming into contact with Shaun's T-55's. Although he covered his forces with 120mm mortar fire (using Asquith's rules for WW2 as I don't like how TY handles artillery and mortars - although the physical copy of Asquith I picked up at the Durham show for £1 served as a handy template!), Andy rolled snake eyes more than once for his mortar fire - Oops! He had to get closer to the Ossie line. This was where the amended hit rules came into play.

As early as turn 8, Andy's Leopard 1's were effective, killing a T-55 and a BRDM, whilst attaining mobility kills against two more T-55's. The following turn saw a mobility hit against a Leopard 1 and another dead T-55/BRDM combo. Turn 10 finally saw the appearance of the first T-72 unit, right where they needed to be! The missed with each shot they fired! Shaun was not overly impressed. Andy's return killed two of the three T-72's.

Looks rather impressive...
At this point, Mr B Bunny Esq declared "This means war!" and the East German Hind appeared. A very brief but illuminating conversation was had by Steve and Shaun towards me. You see, the AT-6 on a Hind, in TY world, has a range of 20 inches - under half the range of HOT and just over half for Milan. In the real world, the AT-6 out ranges Milan 5 km to 2 km so not unreasonably, I, as merely a humble umpire, thought sod that and gave the AT-6 the range to hit whichever target Steve wanted to aim for. I'll cover more on the range issue at the end of the post.

Mr Hind makes an appearance...
Mr Roland thinks he shouldn't.
All of that was for no effect as the Hind missed and was promptly shot down by the Marder Roland. Oh well. Not to be dissuaded, the final three T-72's rolled on to the table and Steve also moved his PT-76's to the line, meaning the surviving East German forces occupied a tank heavy line behind cover. Facing them was pretty much all of Andy's forces minus the mobility kill Leopard 1.

Charge!!!
The climax of the battle was pretty much a dice fest for each side, with more misses than hits, plus plenty of mobility kills which prevented any kind of withdrawal. The PT-76's lived a charmed life for a turn, killing two Marders. They didn't last long, yet Andy was hurting too as the T-72's proved rather effective against the Leopard 1's and even got a mobility kill on a Leopard 2! Shaun had one T-72 crew bail out - they survived their MG experience - but that didn't help as additional fire killed their tank dead. By turn 15, it was all over, with Andy reduced to plinking BTR-60's. There was a brief round of infantry fire but that ended up evens. Overall though, it was over for the East Germans.

The final defence before...
And after...
How over? Well, quite over. They had 1 BMP, the Shilka, two BTR-60's, a T-72, the SA-9 and the HQ unit (plus six infantry squads). The West Germans had three Leopard 2's, 2 Leopard 1's, four Marders plus infantry and the untouched TPZ platoon. The East Germans withdrew, leaving the town of Bratberg to be liberated.

Looking back at the game, the participants said they enjoyed it and I certainly enjoyed umpiring it. Umpiring is a conscious choice in wargaming and I often hear how people don't like it as it means they don't get to play the game. The fun I had was in knowing the period and using that knowledge to run a game that would be both fun and true to the period. And be a twat. :-)

There were issues encountered, both with my amendments (which I'll refine for the next time, which we don't know when that will be but it will be a while of yet, variety and all that being important to our club) and the rules themselves. I am still not happy with the handling of artillery in TY and I really don't like how they group arty and mortars in the same class. They aren't and that should be reflected appropriately in any rules.

The biggest bug bear - ranges. To be Frank (not Turner, Eddie!), TY's ranges are all over the place. Along with the aforementioned AT-6 issue, Steve pointed out the range of Roland compared to the Hind's armament. Roland has a range of 56 inches (8 km in the real world), yet compare that to the AT-6 (20 inches/5 km). MG and rifle fire were also discussed (AKM rifle 8 inches, G3 16 inches - yet although the bullets may travel further, effective rifle range for most infantry in the real world is rarely over 300-400m, whatever tools they are using - and yes, I am aware that it's different in Afghanistan but that's a different case altogether). The ranges are very gamesy and as Steve pointed out, it only took thirty seconds to find the relevant information online about real world ranges.

What this means is that some more fiddling about with the rules is needed and this will be done in time. That may offend some ruleset purists who declare that the written word is gospel but for me, and the rest of the TWATS, the rules form the framework, not the entirety of a game. If it is bollocks in the rules, we call it and change it. And Lord forbid what people think of us playing Team Yankee with non-TY kit!!! Speaking of rules, Jim did pose the question, "What would it have been like with Combined Arms? Same scenario, just a different ruleset". Good question and one that we may answer in a future Saturday game.

One final point. The game was designed as a demonstration game. In other words, to show what wargaming can be like and for anyone who was interested to stop us and ask questions. This people did and it was part of  the enjoyment of the day to talk to different people and inform them of what we were doing. It was not, and never will be a chore to talk about my hobby when putting something like this on. Some demo wargamers at other shows should follow that train of thought too.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Black Books

For those of you, like me, who didn't watch Black Books when it had its first run on Channel 4 between 2000 and 2004, well, you missed a little cracker.

Created by Dylan Moran and Graham Linehan, Black Books is a small scale, low budget sit-com centered on Bernard Black (played by Moran) and his unique bookshop, the aforementioned Black Books in the heart of Bloomsbury. Bernard's closest friend, Fran (Tamsin Grieg), owns a trendy gift shop next door selling, as she describes it, a "load of wank". This changes at the end of series two when Goliath Books moves in. Finishing off the central trio of the cast is the ever superb Bill Bailey as Manny, a former accountant who by sheer luck ends up as Bernard's assistant in the shop and the perfect foil to Moran (Manny's surname is Bianco, just to confirm the point).

Bernard hates the world and pretty much everyone in it, especially customers, who always seem to interrupt his drinking, smoking and reading. Manny and Fran try many different ways to get Bernard to change his view of the world, whilst he resolutely ignores every attempt made to do so.

The show lasted three six-episode series and benefits, like that great sit-com of the 1970's, Flowery Twats, of a limited run and very tight scripting. Less is definitely more. At the same time, the show managed to get pretty much a who's who of British comedy at the time to star. Kevin Eldon, Simon Pegg, Keith Allan, Martin Freeman, Nick Frost, Sam Kelly (klop!) and Peter Seranifowicz are just a handful of the guest stars. Some may only have a couple of lines but they all bring their best to the show.

Black Books combines word play and physical comedy, the latter coming most from Bailey who is on fine form. He also bears the brunt of Bernard's scathing barbs, a running gag concerning Bailey's appearance; Hawkwind, Gandalf and Jesus are just some of the names he gets tagged with. He also provides some of the most surreal moments of the show, the first episode, after swallowing the Little Book of Calm being a prime example.

Greig gives and takes as good as Bailey though, adding a layer of neurosis to Fran that breaks the surface at all of the wrong times. She has some good standout moments too, especially with a school friend hen party. She doesn't have much luck with men, despite trying her best but fate always seems to intervene.

It is Moran, however, that holds the show together, whether surrounded by a fog of cigarette smoke, knocking back the wine or just being plain unpleasant to people in general. He gives the show its icy/flinty heart and never lets go. He personifies the "don't give a shit" attitude and despite his friend's best efforts (and the feelings of friendship and paternity he has towards Fran and Manny respectively), he is never going to change.

Picking stand out episodes out of the eighteen made is difficult as there isn't a bad one among them. True, some are better than others but even the weakest is still good. However, I'll have go:

Series One:

Grapes of Wrath - having to leave the shop as it needs to be cleaned (by Kevin Eldon, "Dirty!"), Bernard and Manny agree to house sit for a friend of Bernard's. They can drink any of the cheap wine but none of the special vintage that the friend will give to the Pope. Well, they drink one of the vintage wines and spend an hysterical five minutes of the show re-inventing the wine. It is a perfect homage to every Frankenstein film ever made, completed perfectly by the under-played punchline at the end of the episode.

He's Leaving Home - the final episode of the first series, Manny leaves the shop as he is tired of the abuse he is receiving and ends up being exploited by an adult photographer (Omid Djalili). Surreal doesn't begin to describe what happens, and whilst Manny does end up materially better, morally he is in a much worse place. Suffice to say, he does return, but watch out for the final shot of the item that falls out of Manny's pocket.

Series Two:

The Entertainer - kicking off series two with style, this episode focuses on Fran learning to play the piano. Nether she, nor Bernard can, but Manny's ability, and their lies, end up with Manny inside the piano whilst Fran brags to a trio of blind Russian musicians and Bernard shows off to a woman he fancies. Bailey carries off the episode brilliantly, giving a manic yet resigned performance.

Hello Sun - the yoga episode where Fran takes up a healthier lifestyle with friend Eva (Jessica Hynes). Despite her best efforts, the controlling Eva puts too many limitations on Fran. That and a second plot where Bernard starts diagnosing Manny using Freud intertwine is a great way.

Series Three:

Manny Come Home - the series opener where Goliath Books has opened next door (led by manager Simon Pegg) and Manny has left Bernard to work there. This is a sublime episode, Pegg bringing an eerie seriousness to his role. What really got me about this episode was the management speak used by Pegg's character. If you work in any job using current management practices, you'll find this episode both funny and disturbing, in that whilst the show takes the mickey out of the whole "smile and you will enjoy it" attitude as you get to do really crappy jobs and change your personality to fit the corporate template, the real world has changed. It demonstrates that what was almost a fad fifteen years ago has now become standard practice in the modern workplace, at least having asked a few friends. The show took another swing at management speak in series two (The Fixer) and hit a boundary with that too. I'll say no more, so as not to spoil the show or get myself into too much trouble! Oh, and the picture of what Manny should look like in the workplace!!!

Moo-Ma and Moo-Pa - where we get to meet Manny's parents (Annette Crosbie and the forever brilliant Sam Kelly (klop!)). The best part of this episode, outside of Manny's fibs to his parents as to how his life is going, is the restaurant scene where, to get away from the conversation, both Bernard and Fran hide under the table and find a cocktail bar ready for them. Surreal as hell, yes, but also brilliantly funny.

One of the extras on the DVD copy of Black Books I watched were the out-takes for each series. Watching those was as funny as the show itself and definitely gives the impression that the show was a hoot to make and that every member of the cast enjoyed themselves immensely (Crosbie dropping the F bomb is a sight to behold). As a sign of how times have changed, I don't think Black Books could be made in the current climate, the amount of alcohol and smoking would guarantee a hissy fit from any of the major TV networks these days, even Channel Four. And yet, if you get the chance, give it a go. Each episode is only 25 minutes long and it doesn't take too long to get through a series. As I said above, the scripting is tight and the characterisations spot on. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

A Trio of Tomes

After the recent posts on Operation Warboard and how it plays, Andy very kindly loaned me three other books that he thought I might like to read. Knowing that this would lead to at least one blog post, I gladly accepted them and, without any comment on quality just yet, managed to rattle through them all over the course of a couple of days.

The three books then, are War Games by Donald F Featherstone, Wargaming World War Two by Stuart Asquith and Armoured Wargaming by Bruce Quarrie.

Aged by use, but still in decent enough condition.

I remember when £6.95 was expensive for a book...
So, first up, War Games. This is the oldest of the three and in both presentation and style, you can tell straight away that it is very much a period piece. That is not to say that it isn't useful, but given that it was first published in 1962 (this edition in 1973, with additional printings in '65, '67, '68, '70 and '72), some modern readers might be put off by the tone. I'll sum it up for you: It's your hobby, you enjoy it, make stuff up as you go along. And yes, that includes the figures!

I had some preconceptions of the contents of this book before I started reading it but what really caught me off guard was the guide to making your own moulds and, as follows, your own figures. At no point does he suggest making a copy of figures you have bought (that would be extremely dodgy), but he does suggest that if you alter existing figures to a type that aren't easily available (which seems to be very much a thing in those early days), you can then use that to cast your own. To a point, that makes sense, but not something that you would think would be suitable today. However, although the market for figures is now huge compared to the options available back in the 1960's, it did make me think about where a particular section of the figurine market is heading - namely the limited run skirmish type games, where at shows, you'll find figures breaking through the £5-6 per figure barrier with ease. Given the relative cheapness of 3D printers (or just go old school and use traditional moulds), how long will some companies survive charging such prices for models before an albeit limited section of the customer base decide "sod this for a game of soldiers" and go back to DIY methods. I am not saying that traditional manufacturing companies will go too, quantity, quality and scale of production will always mean that there will be the likes of Old Glory, Perry etc. But it did get me wondering if many, nay any, of the smaller boutique manufacturers have long term viability on a price basis alone. Then again, if the market decides that it can't be arsed and will pay the prices asked anyway, they have no cause for complaint.

Anyhoo, back to the book. It's has that grandfatherly tone that writers loved in the period, a cross between intellectual and condescending as hell, a balance Featherstone manages to keep just on the right side of easy to read. Once you get past the sections on figures, terrain and how to run a campaign, there are the meatier sections for rules - three sections covering Ancient, Horse and Musket and "Modern" (WW2) scenarios. They read quite well and I think that the TWATS could certainly get through two of the periods on a Saturday afternoon game. True, these are not the most complicated of rules but as this book is an introduction to war gaming in general, I have no issues with that. The appendices cover suppliers of model soldiers, a very small skirmish set of rules, further resources for war gamers, a list of books and literature for war gamers and a final section on the Lionel Tarr Periscope. Seems we can't get away from that particular gentleman's name in this period of the hobby...

Overall then, a worthwhile book and one that, despite it's dated approach, gives another variant of the back to basics gaming that I think the hobby needs to include in this day and age.

Something that can also be said of Wargaming World War Two, focused as it is on one period only. The layout is interesting, in that it begins with a chronological walk through of the war by theatre, at a suitably high level for space considerations but enough to give you pointers for campaigns, battles and events that you might wish to war game. Following that is a meaty section on the combatants, with specific details on force composition and organisation. We then get a technical information section on the equipment used by each participant. That takes you to page 114 before we get to the rules and scenarios. These are, once again, quite straight forward and could be worth a bash for an afternoon game. From page 138, we have a list of suppliers of figures and models, which brought back childhood memories of model shop visits as this book was published around that time when I first took historical wargaming seriously (1989). There is also a decent list of books given for additional reading which was nice to see.

Page 143 begins the naval side of wargaming, a much smaller section than the land based part but still with enough detail to get you started. Ending at page 165, there are some decent rules, a couple of scenarios and a smattering of suppliers listed for your model needs as well as another list of useful books.

Pages 167 to 190 finish the book with the air war, with the same organisation of the previous two sections, and again, whilst a little basic, give enough to get you started. And that is what this book is, in no way pretending to be the be-all and end-all for the period, just a way to get you started. In that sense, it is spiritually very close to the earlier Featherstone text and, indeed, Operation Warboard. After giving what they have suggested a go, it is then up to you to make of the hobby what you will. One thing of note is that the 16 years between the Featherstone and Asquith publications saw a vast expansion of model suppliers, most of which seem to have originated during the "golden" period of the mid to late 1970's.

Finally, we have Armoured Wargaimng and this turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. You see, what it advertises is armoured wargaimng. What you get is a (basic) history of the tank, its uses and a smattering of light technical details. That takes you up to page 113. The rules, they are 12 pages of text, followed by another 9 pages of stats. That's it, almost like the rules were an afterthought. Now I am not saying they won't be played, but looking at the values given in the stats, for example, you cannot kill a modern day 1980's MBT at all with a frontal shot. Never, not gonna happen. Hmmm... Still, they would be worth a go just to see if the mechanisms work but I will also add that the rules are for armoured warfare only - no infantry, no additional support per se.

Of the three, Featherstone and Asquith are most likely to get an airing in future games, whilst Quarrie will probably be given a miss, there being a distinct lack of content and finesse.

Thank you, Andy for the loan of these books, they have all been an interesting read, despite the aforementioned disappointments. It's always good to read up on how the hobby was perceived in the past and it does give an interesting comparison to the state of it today. Oh, and that you needed libraries. All three details texts that were out of print and recommended that you order through your local library. As quaint as that seems now in this day of Amazon, Abe and others, libraries did, and still do have a purpose, despite the disdain they seem to be held with by our elected elders and betters (cough!).

Sunday, 29 April 2018

It ain't what you do (It's the way that you do it)

Or so the song goes, and there is very much a point of thinking that the same principal can be applied to wargaming as a hobby. No matter what period you prefer, historical wargaming must, almost by definition, use (to varying degrees), historically accurate rulesets. I mean, if you didn't, then it's just a dice rolling contest and if I wanted that, I'd play a board game.

After my recent review of Operation Warboard, it was decided that the next Saturday game would use these rules for a World War 2 scenario. Despite some last minute hiccups (we moved from Normandy to Africa due to model availability - this meant some tinkering during the actually game as the rules are pretty much built for post D-Day games), four of us duly arrived the the pub (would that make us a quartwat???) to give Mr Lyall's rules a go. In preparation, no expense was spared on the production of the MG, Shell Burst and Artillery templates:

The joys of acetate sheets... but practical and cheap.

Shaun was first out of the gate, volunteering to be the Italian commander, Andy took the British and Steve controlled the German forces. The scenario was designed to mirror (in spirit only), the initial ambush scenario in the book. As I was umpiring, the forces were selected by myself, so the British got three infantry squads with transport, four Matilda's, two Honeys and a couple of Universal Carriers and Dingo's. The Germans got two infantry squads with transport, three Panzer II's, a short '75 equipped Panzer IV and two Pak-36's with transport. The Italians comprised of two infantry squads, three light tanks (which for the life of me I can't recall what they were) and a very light tankette.

Scenario-wise, the British could see a hill that would give them commanding views of the area, they had to capture it and the Axis forces had to stop them. As the Germans and Italians were already there, their positions were marked on a map but not placed upon the table - it was time to see how Andy would approach this. They would only be revealed by firing or very close observation.

The British came on to the table obliquely and make straight for two clumps of trees at the base of the escarpment - two Dingo's with Honey's and a UC in support. Andy figured that there would be a gun line hiding somewhere near there - after all, they were his toys on the table and whilst he knew what he had brought, he did not know what I had allowed the Germans and Italians to have - not for once that day did the famous quote by Mr B. Bunny Esq ring out: "Ain't I a stinker!"

The top Dingo is very, very warm in this game of "Finding Jerry!"
Steve waited until the British were practically on top of him before firing. To no effect. The return fire incapacitated one Pak-36, but the next round of firing killed the attached Bren Carrier. The other Pak-36 tried its best but still had no effect on the other Honey. The British closed and managed to MG the gun crews with only one of the Dingo's being incapacitated. So far, things were looking up for the British.

At this point, I added a dice role for spotting as even though the German infantry were dug in on the slope of the escarpment, the British were that close, they could have spotted them, and so they did.

At this point, Shaun decided that he should do something, so the Italian armour started a long and majestic sweeping herd-like charge across the length of the table. It was magnificent. Sadly, with only 20cm to cover each turn, it took a while. Still, it was magnifico! Which was good, as his infantry were dug in where the armour started so wouldn't be joining in the fight anytime soon.

Il Magnifico Quartetto.
Not only that, but Andy had brought on the Matilda troop and had angled it to meet the on-coming Italians. At that point, that flank was in limbo as whilst the armour was present, there wasn't a decent gun between the lot of them and it would take close quarter battle to sort out the victor there. At the same time, Andy brought on on infantry in trucks, screened by the armour, heading for the trees which had just been cleared of the Pak-36's.

Steve was not overly happy with this and released his armour reserve that had been hiding behind the hill. With the Panzer II's leading the way, trouble was brewing for the British.

It's all go here, the British have gone defensive at the top of the picture, whilst the Germans are ready to punch through the flank.
Needless to say, it didn't take long for the Germans to get into position, by which time, the British had taken up defensive positions in the trees.

That Dingo looks very, very worried... but there is a Honey on the left - that speck of blue paint.

Top Pz II is incapacitated, right hand one is dead, the Pz IV is out for a Saturday drive and the last Pz II is not long for this world.

It wasn't long before the firing happened, and what a cock-up that was. Steve rolled consistently bad dice for the Panzer IV - as the range closed and the effect of fire increased, he rolled 1's. The same could be said for the British, who eventually rolled well enough over three turns to incapacitate and then kill two of the Panzer II's. The last one was finally incapacitated and ruled out of the game as there was nothing they could do. The addition of vehicle crew morale was needed as despite Lyall stating common sense would dictate a withdrawal, he hadn't considered the "Death of Glory" mentality that Saturday wargamers in a pub sometimes have. Also, the 20, cannon on the Panzer II's wasn't in the rules so that was added as an ad-hoc gun, beefed up a little by the rate of fire it had. Still, you had to get in close and to the flanks to use it but it was no good here.

Given the losses to the German armour, I forced a morale check on the Pz IV - which he passed with style and off he trundled past the now de-bussed British infantry, shrugging off two volleys of rear-shots from the Honeys (two 1's from Andy at exactly the wrong time!). Truly, this was a blessed tank. Of course, Steve had a plan - approach the Matilda troop from behind! Sneaky Bugger!!!

The Panzer IV makes a break for freedom and aims to be tiresome to British Matilda's.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch flank, the Italians closed the gap, whilst the British remained steadfastly stoic. Long range fire was pointless for both sides so wait we did.

Add your best elevator muzak and that's what this felt like.
But now the waiting was over, and this is where is got a bit sticky for the British as whilst Andy incapacitated one of the Italians, the rest of his shots were 1's! By this point, the Pz IV had finished its handbrake turn and was fast approaching the rear of the British armour who themselves had to deal with the remaining Italians passing through their ranks! The British even reversed half a move - the Italians (and Shaun) went wild. A rendition of Nessun Dorma was heard from the Italian infantry - although quietly as they didn't want the British to know where they were.

At this point, the British were whistling their own tune - the Benny Hill Theme. You see, whilst the Italians were racing through the British and the Pz IV was in position, the British had a Honey following the Pz IV! It would have been farcical except for the firing. Oh, wait, that was too. At least partially. The Pz IV killed a Matilda, who in turn killed another Italian tank.

All we need now is a milk cart...
Sadly for the Axis, it wasn't a long lived success. The Italians were finished off and whilst the Pz IV killed three of the four Matilda's, (incidentally, forcing a morale test on the remaining Matilda, which it passed), it in turn was incapacitated by a rear shot from the pursuing Honey and finished off the next turn.

Whilst all that excitement was happening, the British infantry had continued its wandering, two squads in the trees and the third storming the first line of German infantry.

If you go down to the woods today...

The British go in, the Germans have already taken two casualties.
With Dingo, UC and Honey support, the British soon took the first trench line, albeit with some casualties - rifle fire and MG fire killed seven Germans, their return killed five British. Still, they took the first line and paused, to wait for the other two, untouched, squads to arrive before pushing on. It was all over for the Axis.

I had some idea as to how the game would work but what I did not expect was how easily it flowed. Really, there were no long gaps for rule book searching to find something out, no real issues with game mechanics and ad-hoc elements were slotted in very easily as expected, nay, demanded by the rules themselves. Since they felt right for the period, the way that we did it mattered more than what we did, and that was surely the point.

We'll definitely be using these again, though maybe with less stuff on the table, and probably fewer tanks as these rules are very infantry-centric. What was also noted is that despite the forty plus year gap, the machanics are very similar to Team Yankee - proof that there is nothing new under the sun, no matter how may pretty pictures you fill a book with. We all enjoyed the afternoon and, as always, the Consett Ale Works Pale Ale was superb, as were the beef butties! Thank you very much, Jean!

There won't be another gathering of TWATS until the demo game at the Durham Wargames Group show in June which will be me again, this time with Team Yankee (plus my additions) using Steve's wonderful 20mm Moderns. No doubt there shall be a report here.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Handspring Visor - oh, so close!

As I have said before, I used a Palm m515 for quite a while back in the early noughties to keep track of personal and professional commitments and very quickly got used to dropping it into my pocket and having it on hand on a daily basis. But it was not the only palmtop device at the time and, indeed, not the only Palm-based device either. Starting back in 1998, there were licensed hardware manufacturers for the Palm OS and some of the best devices came from Handspring.

Handspring was a company created by the original inventor of the Palm Pilot and the founders of Palm Computing, unhappy at the time of the way Palm was being ran by their corporate overlords. What they did was take the basic concept and take a slight left turn to create this: The Handspring Visor.

The Handspring Visor - looks just like a Palm device.
Screen cover, Visor and leather case
Looking pretty similar to the original Palm Pilot, the Visor had a few differences that made it stand out from the crowd. Yes, it ran using the same Motorola Dragonball processor with either 2 or 8Mb of memory. Some models had a translucent plastic casing (Jonathan Ive has alot to answer for!) but the device I have has a very simple black casing that hasn't really aged at all - not like the beige of home computers from the time. And yes, it ran on two replaceable AAA batteries that lasted up to two months(!).

Back of the Visor, SpringBoard to the top, battery compartment and dock connector to the bottom.
But what the Visor range offered as a unique selling point was the SpringBoard slot. On the back of the device was an expansion slot that offered a variety of options that could add to the Visor's usefulness.

The cover is in the background
Whilst a proprietary design, the SpringBoard gave the Palm OS platform the option of adding additional memory, software, wired and wireless networking, GPS and even cellular cards that turned the Visor into a mobile telephone. They truly were plug and play devices, with software being added to the device once you plugged a card in, contrasting vastly with the supposed plug and play of computing at the time where it was often called plug and pray!

Now I will say that the Visor, as a basic device, doesn't do anything a Palm handheld couldn't do, apart from a few basic application tweeks: the OS was the same, but with the Springboard slot, the versatility of the platform increased a hundred-fold - albeit at a cost, the modules could be quite expensive.

Bog-standard organiser
But back to the actual device for a moment. It sports a 160x160 16 grey-scale screen, an IR port on the left hand side for wireless syncing and a proprietary connection port on the base for a docking station connection to your desktop computer. For the time, this was a speedy option, using the relatively new USB connector, rather than the then traditional serial cable. It also made setting up the dock quick easy as you didn't have to fool around with any out-of-the-way settings. As an aside, it also means connecting to a modern day computer is straight forward - hardware wise. There is also a microphone port for use with the cellular expansions, but it does little else otherwise. Despite being made out of plastic, the Visor is quite solid in the hand and doesn't make any creaky noises when prodded and squeezed. And, whilst this may just be me, I find it quite natural to use the stylus and the easy to learn Graffiti handwriting system to enter information, something that can't really be said for any touchscreen device as you are taken away from the task by the manner in which the software on modern devices wants you to act. By that, I mean the brain `gets` writing but has to adapt to tapping and swiping - and that process varies depending on the individual application you are using.

IR port and detail of the ridge effect that prevented the device slipping from your hands
There were seven buttons on the front of the device, from left to right, they were: power (with a dimple for use with the included stylus), Calendar, Contacts, Up and Down, To-Do list and Memo. The silkscreen area above has shortcuts for Home, Calendar, Calculator and Search, plus the Graffiti area itself. This is divided into two, one for letters, the other for numbers with additional shortcuts for the on-screen keyboard and numeric keypad.

Visor and supplied screen cover - note included help sticker.

The help sticker, detailing the Graffiti handwriting system
The Visor I have was very cheap to buy but still works surprisingly well for something approaching its 20th birthday. The screen is still very responsive and the only niggle I would have using it today is the back-light - it's totally useless unless you are in a pitch-black room. Aside from that, I would happily use this today, and there are still places you can get desktop software if you have a quick Google (and hardware too!). The battery life is, compared to modern day alternatives, immense, and there is something to be said for prioritising battery life over other features, especially for devices used in this manner. Sadly, it seems that functionality beats practicality for many - and I say this as an iPhone 7 user who knows damn well how that has worked out!

So what happened to Handspring? Well, it was the curse of modern technology, poor management decisions and the market in general. It tried to move into mobile communications with the Treo range, halfway houses between organiser and mobile telephone, but they were a damp squib. They were bought out by Palm (of all people) in 2003, who were themselves bought out by Hewlett Packard in 2010 but by that point, the original ethos had fizzled out, replaced by ever more capable mobile phones. There was also a lot of corporate shenanigans about branding and licensing but that could fill a book in itself.

It's a shame, really, as it wasn't too difficult to carry two devices at the time (remember, long battery life and AAA batteries meant no charger to consider, and mobile phones would be good for three to five days back then) but maybe that's the nostalgia speaking. The m515 and by association, the Visor, are probably best remembered as very good technological dead ends, but that doesn't mean to say that if you can live with the (relatively) few limitations, you shouldn't be able to still use them today.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

A Psion of the Times

If you are of a certain age and have an interest in tech, the name Psion may mean something to you. Coming to prominence during the 1980's home computer boom as both a hardware and software supplier, Psion rode the wave and successfully launched a range of electronic organisers, helpfully called the Psion Organiser, that whilst clunky and very 80's looking, their job well enough to gain a dedicated following. This allowed them to progress from the calculator-like Organiser II with a pocket computer that defined the company into the 90's and still, to this day, gives certain individuals a sense of glowing nostalgia when seen in public.

Closed from the top

The underside and the speaker

Underside with the "gull-wing" card slot covers open

The Series 3 was their first clamshell design, one which nailed the brief spectacularly. What you get is a pocket-friendly device with a hunt and peck keyboard that, by good design, is pretty much capable of decent typing speeds with a bit of use. This is down to the well-spaced layout and the slightly concave keys that help guide the fingers accurately. True, like all Psion clamshell designs, there were issues - namely a slightly fragile hinge and a ribbon connecting the gubbins in the bottom half to the screen that could fray and cause display problems, but that does not take away what they got so right with the Series 3.

There is a screen in there somewhere...
It's alive!!!
The screen, however, is a compromise, fair enough really given the year of release. As you can see, the screen on the original Series 3 is a bit lost in the lid and has a relatively poor resolution of 240x80, and that is one area they improved upon with the following Series 3a, where the display was not only physically bigger but offered a resolution of 480x160. The main processor is an NEC V30 running at 4.7MHz (a reverse-engineered copy of the Intel 8088 that powered the original IBM PC), coupled with 256Kb of RAM and 1MB of ROM that held the EPOC 16 operating system. Not exactly heady stuff at the time but then it did run north of 20 hours on two AA batteries.

A bit of Word.

A World Clock, circa 1991
The aforementioned Series 3a offered the bigger screen, a faster (7.68MHz) processor and double the RAM (and later 1 and 2MB models). The 3c (one of which I carried at university and sorely wish I had never sold on afterwards) bumped the RAM up to 2Mb and had a matte exterior (whilst some US models added a back-light to the display).Finally, the 3mx all offered a back-light and faster NEC V30MX processor running at 27.648 MHz. At that point, the Series 3 was retired for the Series 5.

Now I mentioned the batteries and their expected lifetime. Time was that the AA battery was ubiquitous and if you need to, replacing them was just a shop visit away. These days, with densely packed lithium battery tech, all I can say is good luck with that. True, high resolution colour displays and multi-gigahertz-clocked processors require that kind of power supply, but sometimes it would just be handy to be able to swap out old for new (or rechargeable) ones.

Anyhoo, back to the Series 3. The batteries are kept in the hinge and are easily accessible. The hinge itself is still pretty firm and doesn't feel in anyway compromised by the years of use - not bad for something made in 1991! That same hinge, on the interior, gives access to eight soft-keys - shortcuts for the built-in applications: System, Data, Word, Agenda, Time, World, Calc and Program. Pretty self-explanatory but as memory serves, both the Agenda, Data and Word applications were bloody good for their time and proved more than useful twenty years ago! In fact, I don't think I have used a better calendar application ever. The Program soft-key is of particular note, as having a programming language baked in meant that those who wished could program their own applications for the device.
Check out those short-cut keys.
Connectivity was well catered for too, with two expansion slots for Solid State Disk memory cards and software packs, and a proprietary connection for a serial cable. Later models also offered an infra-red connection.

Using the device today, the screen is pretty easy to read in decent light and the lack of a back-light isn't an issue. The small amount of RAM isn't too much of a hurdle either given what the device was used for and if you wanted to do any serious typing, a memory card was easy (if not overly cheap) to add. The example I have was purchased off E-bay and though the battery contacts need a good clean, it's in pretty good nick. There are always quite a few Series 3 models available but be warned, the more recent 3c and 3mx models go for near £100 or more, proof that they are still in demand today. A quick Google located a UK based company advertising new and second-hand Psion devices so, without doing any advertising, if you do want a Psion of your own, you know what to do.

The biggest hurdle for anyone under the age of 30 using anything like the Psion is the lack of a touchscreen. You see, back when the Series 3 was released, touchscreens were a rarity on portable devices so navigation is purely via the keyboard. There is a menu button and the on-screen menus are very well laid out so with a bit of practice, you'll be zipping about in and between applications with ease. For pretty much any option, there is a suitable key-based shortcut. True, it is not as intuitive as a mouse pointer or a touchscreen but for the time of release, this was pretty good. Indeed, anyone with a passing knowledge of DOS would feel pretty much at home here. How many there are of you in this day and age is up for debate! But in any case, the Series 3 is very usable and with only a small amount of practice too.

Is this a serious tool for 2018? Well, depends on what you want to use it for. As an organiser, the software is brilliant but there is the issue of connectivity and syncing software for the modern day PC. You can get serial to USB cables and a quick search online brought up a handful of useful articles so yeah, certainly with a later model with the higher-res screen, they are certainly usable today. Would you want to pay for one, well that is another matter...

On that note, I'll leave the blog for now, what with Salute at the weekend and then another appearance on Attention Please on Monday evening with Eddie Carter. If you fancy a listen, we're on 102.5FM in the local area or you can click on the Listen section here on the NE1FM website.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Operation Warboard - a review

Special effects, pre-CGI...
Operation Warboard could be described as "just another one of those how-to" books that wargaming seemed to breed during the 1960's and 70's. Written by Gavin Lyall (who also wrote a series of thrillers, a few of which were adapted for television by the BBC), Op W is a beginners guide to wargaming World War 2 in the 20-25 mm range of miniature figures popular at the time. However, to describe it a "just another" book of the genre would be to do it a great dis-service.

Much like Charles Grant and Battle (which I covered here), Op W is very much a relaxed, introduction to a specific period of the hobby, narrow in view but superlatively detailed in what wargaming should really be about. From the beginning, the tone is friendly and plain speaking, no condescension here. It very much has the spirit of "give it a go", "use what you can" and "you don't have to spend a fortune". It comments that money can be spent hand over fist with regards to the hobby but that should not get in the way of playing the actual game in as realistic manner permissible within the boundaries of enjoyment. 

Does what it says on the "tin" as it were.

And this is the thing. Op W states time and time again that enjoyment of your (my italics) hobby is paramount. You have the interest in the period so you get to choose what path you follow. Op W is just a handy guide. Alongside that, the book also adds that if you want to change something or add to the admittedly basic rule set contained within, then have at it Bonny Lad (I added that bit myself). Work out your own values for additional vehicles, weapons etc and give them a go. If they don't work, change them again. If there isn't a model available of a vehicle you want to put on the table, why not try scratch building (and he includes an example too - though if you look at today's market, say the 15mm Command Decision range from Old Glory, it's going to be pretty hard to pick a vehicle they don't have!). It doesn't matter if it's not 100% accurate, as long as it proves a decent representation and can be used for effect within the game.

Given that, though, it is in no way completely about the game, as historical accuracy and realism are well catered for. The rules themselves are very straight forward and I am going to suggest to the TWATS that we give them a go at a future Saturday meeting. They remind me a bit of Team Yankee in that the basic set up is quite simple and to be honest, I think Lyall's are better, being more clearly laid out and quicker to understand - and yes, this is despite the picture heavy TY rules which are effectively a catalogue for the accompanying models - this is very much a case of Games Workshop - create rules to sell plastic!. 

It may seem like I am using TY as a ball here, giving it a kicking but think about how times have changed since Op W was first published. The modern day games designer is practically packaged with a manufacturer in tow. Indeed, it's usually the same company, and they control everything about the game/rules/miniatures. I have heard that at some games, if you are playing TY, you can only use TY models. If we TWATS took that point of view, we'd never play a bloody game at all. Rules are a tool to represent the period and models are there to represent the participants. Or do I have that wrong? Yes, I'll be using TY for the demo game at this year's Durham show but with my own take on things and amendments where I consider appropriate and no-one can tell me otherwise. If it works, all well and good. If it doesn't, I am sure the feedback in the pub afterwards will be suitably brutal!

That is the joy of wargaimg, you make of it what you will for your own enjoyment, not what any corporate suit (and trust me, look past the branded t-shirts and smiling faces and pretty much every larger scale company with their own rules and miniatures is a corporate entity looking for your cash!) tells you to do. As Aussie Bill Wallace once said, "FREEDOM!!!".

In the end, there is a place in the world for books like Lyall's and it would be a shame if many of today's wargamers (and not just those interested in WW2) didn't get to read something like this to give them another view of the hobby and maybe to educate them about freedom of thought and not just accepting what they are given. This post has turned into a bit of a tub-thumper when it was never meant to but I believe this is a message that needs to be repeated. That and Operation Warboard is a good read!