Thursday, 5 September 2013

A Change of the Guard

It's all very tempting to look back these days. There was 100 years of H.G. Wells' Little Wars, then Willem Schoppen, the ´Dutch Donald Featherstone´ was taken into hospital and then The Donald himself passed away. It feels like the end of an era.

Welsh Guards (Wargaming Miscellany: Bob Cordery)

Given the massive outpooring of reminiscences in the blogosphere, it feels like in a sense we are now paying our last respects to the last wargaming pioneers. Wells who made the transition from an officers' teaching tool to a civilian's game, Featherstone who popularised it in the Anglo-Saxon world, Schoppen who popularised it in the Netherlands.

Look at the sense of novelty and pioneering this old hand describes in his memories of wargaming in the 1950s and 60s. Or read Achtung Schweinhund by Harry Pearson for a more elaborate depiction of those years. There is a recent spate of books on wargaming, boardgaming and roleplaying history. But of course, the pioneering era ended some decades ago already. Don Featherstone has already been 'succeeded' by others.

Okay, no Featherstone, but I do have some gamer cred

I just found out I actually have no book by Featherstone at all! I always took him as an icon whose designs had been surpassed by new generations of writers like Bruce Quarry and Stuart Asquith, of whom I have several books each.

Starting wargaming with Hinchliffe miniatures, I was then totally overwhelmed by Foundry's Franco-Prussian range. Just like Magic: the Gathering was a watershed in terms of visual appeal and gaming tension. I remember coming back from a games show and teaching all my friends how to play the next week and then buying them all starter packs the week after that.

Willem Schoppen and his wife from a Dutch popular
science magazine in the early 1980s

To me, Willem Schoppen and his Boutique La Grande Armée are natural points of reference, but they are meaningless to most Dutch gamers of my age and younger. Donald Featherstone means nothing to tens of thousands of kids in GW stores worldwide, and neither does Gary Gygax, Von Reiswitz or Phil Barker (I'll share that story with you tomorrow). And they don't have to. Just like you don't need to have heard the Beatles to appreciate One Direction or to have read Marx to appreciate Lenin's writing.

And now there's discussion of a Golden Age in wargaming and boardgaming and on the other hand one of 'the hobby's dying out'. Lots of new stuff is happening. In terms of boardgaming the mechanical revolution has passed from the German/euro style games to wargames and Ameritrash. In wargaming the revolution is now mostly in highly thematic skirmishing rules after a period of highly formated competition rules. And design and marketing have received a welcome energy by crowdfunding schemes in the middle of a general crisis for gaming companies.

But as ever, there is a process of creative destruction going on. The success of Too Fat Lardies, Bolt Action and Flames of War will mean the quiet disappearance of other rule sets, just as Avalon Hill was eaten up by Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast, Peter Laing and Minifigs have become memories of the past. Hinchliffe was sold to Skytrex and now Skytrex itself has gone into administration. Those that see only growth, just don't notice all that we leave behind.

There are counter movements though, like the one sparked by the Little Wars anniversary. I see a dozen gamers with a sense of nostalgia buying up their 54mm toy soldiers and playing Old Skool on their brittle knees in the garden again. I guess there is an age between 13 and 50 where you feel too serious about this kind of thing, just like you feel to serious to play monsters battles with Play-Doh. Wrong!

Grown Men (Hail! Hail! Freedonia: Jim Wallman)

Maybe we all just got old

And maybe that is what people yearn for the most when they hanker back to the good old days of Wells and Featherstone. A period when they were young, when it seemed the whole world was still there to explore and map and everybody was enjoying it. It all became more complicated with time. Wargaming became work, with lots of accounting and legal prose. Maybe as the world was mapped and better understood, players lost the freshness and joy in arguments over rules, regimental lace and the intricate mechanisms of phalanx combat.

We need to find back, bring back and/or keep alive that sheer fun of the game. I used to get up early to get to the club in time to play four games of Napoleonics for a club competition. I played 24 hour RPGs marathons. It was the best thing I could think of doing then and even though life now gets in the way much of the time, it still is one of the few ways of spending my time now totally engrossed, immersed, occupied and happy.

If you want to honour your heroes, if you want to keep this hobby alive but you worry about the fact that we can't get the youngsters in anymore, or if you just want an opponent for your dust covered Royalists, do it by playing. With anyone, anywhere, in any way possible, because mechanisms and realism and correct painting schemes don't matter. Just play that game with the same intent and joy as you played when you were playing with the Don.


  1. Good post Jur! I was sad to hear of Donald's passing, he was the last of the first if that makes sense.

    I don't think that wargaming is dying out though, nor even that what 'they did' is in anyway better than what 'we do'... they just started it all off for many of us.

    It is a sign of getting old though when people who mean something are no more. Incidentally Bruce Quarrie is no longer with us either, he sadly died in 2004.

  2. Excellent post.

    I am reminded by what someone once said at a book club: "why is it that the best books we have ever read were read when we were fifteen".

    There is something special and unreachable about those early days in our youth when did nothing but live and breath gaming.

  3. By the way, I now remember that I used to own a Featherstone book! Tank Battles in Miniature, I think the Western European volume. I lent it out long time ago and never got it back.

  4. Great post, Jur! The hobby has evolved since the days I started wargaming in the early 1980s. Perhaps there have been a couple of missed steps along the way, but in general I think the hobby's in a very strong place right now. But I don't think that stops any of us being nostalgic from time to time. I've certainly done my fair bit this week, re-reading a couple of Don's books in the evening.

    They brought back a lot of memories - things which I tried in various games over the years, things which worked, things which didn't. But they also reminded me about how much we just tried out for the fun of it. And that's something I don't ever want to loose sight of - that spirit of adventure of writing rules, devising scenarios and starting (and sometimes, just sometimes) finishing campaigns!

    1. Nostalgia is fine, but it should serve as inspiration, not stagnation.

      Maybe kids will reminisce some day about the passing of 21st century icons like Rick Priestly, Tim Gow, Sidney Roundwood...


    2. Jur, humanity is doomed if I'm on the icons list !!!

    3. Ah! And so modest to boot! ;-)

  5. It is nice to reminisce and Gygax still remains the best D&D modular writer IMHO to date and Phil Barker my least favourite rules writer primarily due to the fact he made it as hard as he possibly could for anyone short of a Phd. in long forgotten English to understand what he was saying.

    IMHO wargaming has never been stronger and continues to grow and this is in spite of computers and x-boxes. It sad they have passed on and good that we tip our hats to those who shoulders we stand on and I for one am grateful they started it all as I'm still having so much fun!


    1. Hi Christopher,

      I'd agree with you about the strength of wargaming. It is natural that new stars appear, rise, fall and disappear. This is a tough business.

      And you are right that it is good to tip our hat once in a while. On the other hand, why wait till people die before we honour them?

      Have you got a suggestion?

    2. You already mentioned Rick Priestly who probably has had more impact in wargaming then any I can think of regardless if you like his work or not to include the old greats. That man has achieved a popularity across the spectrum in terms of young and old, fantasy,SF, Historical etc. Virtually everything he touches turns to gold WFB,WH40k,WAB,BP,HC etc.

      Richard Clark is also a real giant and quite the innovator with some serious loyal followers and growing ever bigger.

      Not a rules writer, but worth a mention is Kevin Dellimore who is probably listed in the dictionary under figure painter. How many figure painters do you know that have a style named after them?

      There are many others worth naming of course, but it's hard to think of bigger names today IMHO.


    3. Hi Chris,

      those are names I can imagine some people will be remembering in a few decades. Probably most so with 'If it hadn't been for the local GW shop, I would never have been in this hobby' Rick Priestly. Do you think a painter like Kevin Dellimore is inspirational in that sense as well?

    4. Yes, I think a painter can be very inspirational in that sense. He(Kevin Dellimore) revolutionized wargames figure painting in showing how to get a 3 dimensional appearance in a reasonable amount of time. The man already has two books on how to paint wargames figures the demand is so high on his technique.

      Painting wargames figures has evolved beyond a base colour and a glossy protective coat is now equally as important as playing and writing good rule sets(more so if your like me)so that painters are now becoming well known and their styles actively sought out.

      Pick up any modern wargames magazine and your highly likely to find somebody talking about how they paint figures.;-)

      In the historical circles to drop a few names folks like Phil Hendry,Giles Allison, Captain Blood and Saxon Dog(aka David Imry) are achieving name recognition primarily due their painting styles for example. However, nobody has yet to have the same impact as Mr. Dellimore as of yet so if any painter is remembered it will likely be him.


    5. That just show how utterly ignorant I am of the estaetic side of wargaming. Thanks for giving me some ammo to bluff my way in historical miniature painting.

      I guess it's a show of strength that the hobby is able to specialise that nobody can keep up with all that's happening unless it's a day job.

      On the other hand, it also makes it unlikely that someone from this generation will achieve the same wide recognition as Don Featherstone or Gary Gygax.

    6. I think you cannot compare Role playing personalties with wargaming ones as they may be similar in some things, but they have too many differences to get a good comparison.

      I agree with you that Gary Gygax will likely never be topped in role playing, but as to wargaming there is no more well known name the Rick Priestly IMHO. Don Featherstone as is Barker and Clark are well known in historical circles for sure, but outside of that very few know who they are. Take Rick Priestly and go on any wargaming forum you wish be it historical, fantasy or SF and immediately his name will be recognized. More wargamers have his books then any other by a good country mile I figure. By default decades from now his books will be in more wargamers libraries then any other making him likely to remain the best known. Of course this can change, but I seriously doubt it.


    7. You might well be right, Chris. Remind me of this again in 25 years and we´ll test your hypothesis. I can imagine that in 25 years, precious few people will remember Don Featherstone


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