Playing a new game: Bolt Action by Warlord Games

I recently purchase a copy of the Bolt Action World War II miniatures rules.  This is published by Warlord Games, which is affiliated with Osprey, one of my favorite publishing houses.

The story behind Bolt Action is kind of interesting.  The game designers started their careers working for Games Workshop, and were involved in the design of Warhammer 40,000, Warhammer Fantasy Battles and other stuff.  For many years they were quite happy with their gig, in part because they had a good amount of creative freedom and the company was growing by leaps and bounds.  From the 80s to through the 90s, there was continuous improvement in both the quality of design and physical appearance of their products.  I am not alone in considering it the Golden Age at GW.

However, by the late 1990s, the management had become more profit-oriented, and this resulted in friction between the designers, who wanted the best possible game design, and the management, that was more concerned with sales than the quality of the rules.

Since the bulk of GW's money came from miniatures sales, it was no longer enough to simply build a good wargaming system and  marketing it, the system itself became a vehicle to boost miniatures sales.  In practical terms, this meant that the rules of their games were altered to make players need to buy more figures either by increasing the scope of the game (requiring more models to play) or changing the rules for various units, requiring new models to remain "current."

As one might expect among creative types, they eventually got tired of this and left, staring various alternative companies.

Warlord Games is one of those successor companies, and the design of Bolt Action is essentially the final form of the earlier 40k system.  It therefore is familiar to me, intuitive, but much simplified and streamlined since it got more playtesting and the designers were freed from the constraints of managers pushing new editions every 3-5 years.

This places me in the unique position of having never played a game, but having a good idea how the game will play because it is so similar. 

The timing for this seems to be just right, as I am taking some time off over Christmas. 

There's something fun and exciting about starting a new game system, and that's definitely in play, even though I've seen much of it before.  I actually have a fair amount of figures already painted up due to my decision many years ago to use historical models for my 40k armies whenever possible.

At the same time, there is also scope for additional collecting (I'm looking at building a Soviet force to fight my existing Germans), which is always enjoyable.

The tri-annual release of a new edition or Warhammer 40,000 is here!

Apparently Warhammer 40,000 is celebrating its tenth edition this year.  I quite during the third edition, which makes me seven editions out of date.

In practical terms, this has saved me hundreds of dollars in what would now be useless rule books.

The game had its debut as Rogue Trader back in 1989, and the first major revision was in 1993.  This is the 2nd edition, which I still play.  The 3rd edition was release in the fall of 1998, and made significant changes.  I stuck with it for a while, but eventually quit, and later picked up 2nd where I left off.

I bring this up because as a game designer, I strive to create a definitive and clear rules set.  The more a system is played, the more problems are identified and subsequently corrected.  What Games Workshop has done is create a situation where the game sees significant revisions every three years.  These are not about correcting mistakes; they sometimes appear to be random design decisions to highlight new tactics or draw attention to new models or factions.

GW can do this because of a near-monopoly position in tabletop gaming, particularly in Europe.  I don't sense anyone else could ever be in that position, and as yet, GW has managed to stay afloat despite these changes.  Apparently, it works for them, though I can't help but wonder how long this will continue.

Gaming companies are uniquely susceptible to sudden failure.  SPI, Avalon Hill, TSR - all of these were industry leaders and are now defunct.  Some years back, I thought GW was close behind them, but so far, I've been wrong.  So maybe they've found the secret sauce.

Too clever by half-elf: Dungeons & Dragons No Honor Among Thieves

Over the weekend I was cajoled into watching Dungeons & Dragons: No Honor Among Thieves

I did not enjoy it.

The problem was that I wasn't sure if I was watching a satire or a serious adventure film.  There were plenty of obvious laugh lines aimed at D&D players, and yet the pacing and general structure of the film indicated that I was also supposed to take it seriously.

This was impossible, because as the film itself demonstrated magic and do almost anything, and no sooner would this assertion be declared false than magic would in fact solve whatever problem was at hand.

This goes back to my repeated critiques of super-hero films and now Disney Star Wars, which is that if there is all this non-stop action, when am I supposed to find time to care about the characters?

The more wild and improbable (and unrelatable) the setting gets, the less invested I become in the outcome, because everything appears arbitrary and random.

At that point, if the good guys win, it won't feel like they earned it, they just happened to turn over the right card (or the game was fixed from the start).

This problem becomes doubly acute when the plot is built around a bank heist.  In the real world, I know that locks, walls of steel and massive doors covered by cameras present formidable obstacles.

But in the D&D world, there's probably a spell to circumvent all that - and then a spell to stop that spell, and a spell to the stop that spell, etc. 

As I said, arbitrary and random.

There's also the setting, which has no meaning to me.  Oh, I recognized some of the references from the game, but there's no overarching story of D&D World like there are of Narnia or Middle-Earth.

It's just a tale from the Land of the Knee-Walking Turkeys or something.  The Princess Bride felt far more grounded in that respect.  It make jokes about the genre, but not at the expense of destroying one's immersion in the story.  The fact that it was a story within a story actually amplified this effect - as Fred Savage became more invested, so did we.

Fans of the film have suggested that the digressions, asides and so on represent the course of the game, and in that case, I'd have loved to see a bunch of nerds sitting around the table arguing about what will come next.  Then we'd have to real tension because the story would finally be anchored in some sort of consistent reality.

Instead of being arbitrary and random.

Collecting to collect or collecting to completion

The change in the weather heralds the arrival of gaming season, a major part of coping through Michigan's long, dark winters.

Over the years, I've noticed there tend to be two types of gamers.  The most common are those who collect to collect - that is to say, as long as they retain interest in their hobby, they never stop adding to their pile of games or figures or whatnot.

Such folks rarely "downsize" the collection, they operate on an all or nothing basis.  They collect right up until the moment they liquidate, and their collections very often include unopened kits.

But there is a second class, and that's the one to which I belong, which collects to a point and then stops.   We may also made a decision to cull the collection in order to focus it, or stick with the parts that we like best.

Another way to describe this is the difference between "getting" and "having."  Much of the joy of collecting comes from the anticipation of the next purchase, and there is always a next purchase.  I enjoy the having much more.  I may teak this item or that, but there's a quiet satisfaction to having a collection come to completion.

The first style is more prone to hoarding because of course there's no natural end point.  There's always something new to add, even if collection consists of a limited set of items, because if you have them all, you can always buy duplicates or variants.

Indeed, our consumerist society lives to support people like this, and companies like Games Workshop depend to a large extent on never finishing their game systems.  There are always more rules, books or miniatures to buy.

That's one of the reasons I went back to an out-of-print edition, because it is finite.  My collection is not yet complete, but it's getting there.  Certain factions are actually finished, and haven't seen new additions in years. 

This frees me up to enjoy and appreciate the things I have, rather than fixate on what I don't.  I think that's a pretty healthy way to approach life.

Excalibur: A ludicrous Arthurian fantasy

As part of my continued review of the films of my youth, I picked up a copy of Excalibur.  I remembered it as being ahistorical, cheesy and that the Grail Quest plot line was really boring, and all of that was correct.

What I forgot was how many future A-list actors were slumming their way through it.  Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and Patrick Stewart all got prominent roles.

As to the film, it's a guilty pleasure, almost a parody of itself.  The super-shiny Renaissance armor is completely out of place, as are the apparently neon Celtic crosses.  It's all a giant goof, but a useful time-waster and certainly suitable for mockery in a group setting.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about it is that it wasn't an American production - the Brits produced this dreck, and one has to wonder if the producers were unconsciously imitating Monty Python's Holy Grail spoof. 

Excalibur borrowed heavily from existing classical music, which made a profound impression on me.  My first CD was Carl Orff's Carmena Burana, because I love the Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi tune.  Later on, I bought some of Wagner's 'greatest hits' so I could hear Siegfried's funeral music.

So at least the film has that going for it.

The 80s saw a bunch of fantasy movies, perhaps trying to capitalize on the Dungeons and Dragons craze.  Most were terrible, though they were bad in different ways.  Few turned a profit.  I think the biggest winner was Conan the Barbarian, which was quite good and has a superb soundtrack.

Excalibur falls into the "so bad it's good" category.

Now under contemplation: a new wargame design

Since my military retirement, I've been debating how to bring some of my wargame designs into publication.  Several of them are quite mature, and what I particularly like about them is the ease of setup and rapidity of play.  These were developed to be used to study a conflict area during the lunch break, and they worked very well.

I think they would hit the sweet spot between playing a standard card game and something a little more strategic and elaborate.

One issue is the topic: contemporary/future conflicts.  These were designed as teaching tools, and the general public may not groove to them.  However, yesterday I realized that I could probably adapt the core system into a more popular topic, say the various civil wars in England (obviously including the Wars of the Roses).

A big advantage of this approach is that it has huge growth potential.  I've already built multiple scenarios, which gives the game some "legs" in term of future expansions.

Now if only I could convince my old unit to let me use their plotter to make the maps...

Unreliable sources

The research for writing Long Live Death was quite challenging.  I quickly learned that there was lots of information on the Spanish Civil War, but much of it was false.  It is one thing to be biased, and portray various actions in the most negative way possible, but it another thing entirely to simply state things that are not true.

For example, Hugh Thomas has a clear bias in favor of the Republic, but his information is meticulously documented and generally reliable (though I did catch a couple of errors in his very complicated narrative).

Antony Beevor, on the other hand, is a total hack.  If he told me the sun was shining I would assume it wasn't until proven otherwise.  His bigotry and deception by omission renders everything else has written suspect.

The Romans recognized this the logic of this, enshrining the phrase: falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (false in one thing, false in everything) in the Western legal tradition. 

I'm sad to say that when working on Walls of Men, this same principle destroyed my trust in a web site I had visited and enjoyed for years:

I'm not entirely sure of who posts there now, but back in the day it was product of the longstanding collaboration of Jim Dunnigan and Austin Bay, two old-school wargamers who had collaborated in the best-selling A Quick and Dirty Guide to War.

During the Global War on Terror, the site had been very useful in providing updates on Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots typically ignored by the mainstream media.  However, over time I noticed that the site was often irrationally optimistic about American operations. 

To be fair, it was possible that their sources were simply lying to them.  After all, we know that a great deal of internal communication within the US military was fabricated to justify ongoing operations and conceal the magnitude of failure from the American public.

However, when I began to dig into the inner workings of the Chinese military, the errors were too glaring to ignore.  The breaking point for me was a post which described the Peoples' Liberation Army as being "all-volunteer" since the 1980s.  This is absolutely not true.  (I can't find the specific post because the site's organization is abysmal.)

Multiple published sources (which I used in my book) confirm this, and reputable web sites also state that conscription still happens, though no one is sure exactly what percentage of the PLA is recruited using it.  Either way, it's just plain wrong, and that kind of error casts doubt over everything on the site.  I now have to wonder how much else they go wrong, and while there may be some value to determining whether it was due to bias or ignorance, the inescapable fact is that they simply cannot be trusted.




Days of Wargaming Passed - West End's R.A.F. and the Heyday of Gamer Geekdom

This past weekend was drill for my old unit, so in addition to sleeping in, I set up a wargame I haven't time to play for years.

The game is question was R.A.F., a solitaire game of the Battle of Britain.  Designed by John Butterfield and published by West End Games, R.A.F. is somewhat unique insofar as there is no option for a second player.  Once wargaming became big enough for market research, it was clear that most games were played solo and many of them had ratings for both complexity and solitaire play included in their advertising.

I'm not here to do a review per se - you can find a complete inventory on or, the point here is that this is how I spend much of my youth - playing wargames, with or without human opponents.

Wargaming could be competitive, but for me it was a way to interact with history.  Instead of just reading a book, I could become and active participant (usually while reading books on the topic).  Much of what I know about military history was acquired by playing a wargame on various conflicts.

West End Games was an eclectic outfit, and one without any particular focus.  In addition to R.A.F. it published the brilliant Imperium Romanum II, a wonderful and sweeping study of the Roman Empire.  Yet much of the company's product line centered on less erudite topics, such as sci-fi roleplaying (Paranoia) and some licensed products.

It seems incredible now, but back in the 80s, obscure lightweights like West End obtained the licenses for both Star Wars and Star Trek gaming systems.  At that time, both franchises were assumed to be "kid stuff" and so anyone willing to try to make a buck on them in the new niche hobby of gaming was welcome to try for a relatively modest fee.

West End took the ball and ran with it, particularly in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game.   A plethora of supplements, adventures and other aids flooded the marketplace and were eagerly devoured by fans left high and dry by the end of the original trilogy. 

I was not one of them.  I bought a couple of the wargames, but by that time I was putting Star Wars in the past, along with other 'kid stuff.' 

How times have changed!  Now even superheroes are unabashedly followed by people well into adulthood.  We truly live in an age where childhood never ends and the phrase "act your age" had no apparent meaning.  Back in the 1980s Bill Shatner could infamously tell a bunch of Trekkies in a Saturday Night Live skit to "get a life," but fandom is here to stay.

I don't think that's a positive development.  Many of my contemporaries are developmentally locked in the late teens, and have abandoned relationship formation and child-raising in favor of a perpetual adolescent emphasis on hobbies.  On a personal level, I haven't talked to most of them in many years - precisely because I have so little in common with them.  On the macro-scale, we see plummeting birthrates and a culture where people are sharply divided in large part because they have so little in common.

A childless ever-teen isn't going to have the same approach to political questions as parents trying to bring up a family.  Indeed, the oddly casual attitude to sexualizing children is part of this - people without proper adult formation see no need for such boundaries.

Meanwhile, West End ultimately lost its licenses and went out of business, along with most of its contemporaries.  Gaming continues, but it is both more accepted and also more fragmented, sustained in large part by advances in print-on-demand services and online communities.

Thus, gaming and geekdom are still growing strong and have never been more accepted - which is a serious problem.


The dead of winter

After a cold snap around Christmas, winter turned unexpectedly mild.  January was gloomy and chilly, but temperatures generally got above freezing during the day, causing all the snow to melt and given the world a brown and dreary appearance.

I think one of the things that makes winter in Michigan tolerable is the snow.  Not only is it attractive, it reflects light, and since the latest snowfall, things are a lot more cheerful.

Snow also absorbs sound, amplifying the natural quiet of winter.   Before the weather changed, it felt like late November - no snow and the scattered holiday decorations hinting that Christmas season had just begun.

Now it's bitterly cold, with temperatures threatening to go below zero and fine powder wafting through the thin air.  This is as it should be this time of year.

At least in this part of the state, bitter cold also brings brilliantly clear skies, and I'll happily trade sub-zero wind chills for some sunlight.

This is very much indoor weather, and I'm making use of it in terms of modeling and painting.  When spring comes, it will be time to set up the garden and then the fleeting joy of summer will keep me outside.  But for now I don't have to feel guilty about watching a movie or playing a game.

New gaming forum found

After a brief search, I found that is still around and has decent traffic, so I joined.

I think I was a member there 15 years ago or so.  I recall there being a pie fight amongst moderators at Portent or and people looking elsewhere, only to come back when things settled down.

Dakkadakka was mostly for orc (and ork) players, but now it seems more open to other points of view.

It is nice being able to talk about apolitical hobbies, and the minutiae of game mechanics.  There was a spirited argument a few days ago about aesthetics of the various Warhammer 40k factions, which was enjoyably trivial.  My first flame war in years.

Society needs more of this.  Everything is political, and people don't debate or even argue, they just insult and cancel.  That's why I've embargoed myself from the news.

The fact is, posting about gaming stuff makes me want to game, and that in turn causes me to work on my collection or come up with new rules.  Conqueror: Fields of Victory was born in a gaming forum, and while it's not a runaway financial success, I enjoyed making it and playing it.

By contrast, nothing positive comes of political or news commentary.  People just get worked up and stressed out. 

It's been a few weeks, and the results are clear: cutting out news makes me more productive around the house and happier in general.

That being said, I'll continue to post columns at in part because it's more cultural/entertainment commentary, and often I'm just watching old movies and writing about them.  That's a pretty stress-free environment.