Thursday, 9 February 2017

A Visit to Knight Models

For the past few years, I’ve been working on a freelance basis for a pretty cool tabletop miniatures company called Knight Models, based in Madrid. If you don’t know who they are, they’re the masterminds behind the Batman Miniature Game, the DC Universe Miniature game, a host of awesome collectable miniatures, and very soon, the much-talked-about Harry Potter Miniature Game. I know, right?

The kind of office that could tempt
me back into office work...
This week, I paid them a visit, finally putting faces to the names that I’d known for so long. As it was my first time in Madrid, the guys whisked me around the beautiful city of Madrid for some evening sightseeing and a business dinner. Next day, I spent some time in the office, seeing where the magic happens – almost literally in the case of Harry Potter! I talked to the owner of the company, Jose, about the many projects and plans he had lined up – and he allocated some incredible jobs to me, including some rather tasty Batman expansions for release over the next couple of years. I then spent some time with games designer Gustavo Cuadrado, working on the Harry Potter game mechanics. It’s been a real privilege to be involved in this one from the start, bouncing ideas around for rules and cool physical gaming components. Not long now before we can share those ideas, but for now I’m afraid it’ll have to be a secret.

The Knight Models team is small but dedicated, working feverishly in an office directly above their factory (aka the Batcave). Figure-painters, graphic designers and writers work hard, surrounded by comics and memorabilia, and some out-of-this-world Harry Potter collectibles. The guys showed me the miniatures they’ve produced to date, and you’ll have to take my word that they’re gob-smackingly good. The best output I’ve seen from a company already known for its dynamic sculpts.
Finally, in-house painter Borja proudly showed me the office cabinets, full of studio-quality miniatures. I’m not allowed to show you all the pictures I took, of course, but a few sneaky shots managed to find their way onto Twitter. (Whistles innocently).

I left Spain with armfuls of new toys, some great new friends, and more work than a mere mortal should take on. But what a trip. Viva España!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Chosen Men: Design Notes

**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the January 2017 edition of Wargames Illustrated. Produced here by kind permission.

The 29th Foot driving the 9th Light Infantry off the Cerro de Medellin at bayonet point,
by Graham Turner © Osprey Publishing. Taken from Campaign 253: Talavera 1809.

Ah, the smell of musket-smoke, the roar of cannon-fire, the pounding of hooves on cracked earth. It’s been a while, but it’s good to be back in the Napoleonic era with Chosen Men. My previous efforts have included Trafalgar and Waterloo, both for the now-defunct Warhammer Historical, and two very different exercises in games design for me. Trafalgar, for instance, was written as a fast-play, cinematic interpretation of Napoleonic naval combat – something I thought was lacking in an otherwise packed field of ‘simulation’ type naval games. Waterloo, on the other hand, was an effort to take the huge breadth of Napoleonic-era land battles and wrap them up into an accessible set of rules for all, sort of bridging the gap between glossy fantasy battles and the grit and substance of the historical Napoleonics gaming scene.

So, where does Chosen Men fit on that scale? Naturally, as it’s me, somewhere between the two! This is very much a ‘Mark Latham’ game, so if you like what I’ve done before, you’ll probably like this one too – it plays differently, but has a similar vibe. However, I know that fans of Osprey’s wargames series want as much grit as can be reasonably milled into those slimline volumes. Therefore, while I haven’t become a grognard overnight, I’ve gone for a balancing act between a cinematic feel and ‘realistic’ mechanics. It’s a tricky one, that’s for sure…

The Inspiration

I’ve loved Napoleonic history for a long time, but as I’ve always said, gaming for me is rarely about simulation, but about fun and action, and telling stories through the use of miniatures. I get the same thrill from a good tabletop game as I do from watching a movie, playing a video game or reading a good book. As such, when I start designing an historical game, I start by gathering inspirational material. Out came the Waterloo DVD and Sharpe box set. The Master & Commander soundtrack got queued up on the PC. My reading list went from the usual Sherlock Holmes and Gothic horror books to Cornwell, Scarrow and O’Brian. (Yep, Sharpe appeared in twice on that list. And I’m unabashed – the game is called Chosen Men, after all).

A Bit of History

The format of Osprey wargames books can make it tricky to include much in the way of background text (the dreaded ‘fluff’). With my last Osprey project, Broken Legions, I tried to circumvent the issue by having a line or two of flavour text next to various rules, and making the rules themselves get across the themes. With Chosen Men, the lack of historical text is more than compensated for by the vast range of Osprey history books available. These allow players to buy one or two ready-made ‘sourcebooks’ for their chosen force. Let’s be honest, my collection of Osprey volumes made up the bulk of my research for this game! They also provided rich pickings for the editors when furnishing the book with art. As well as some fantastic new pieces, and that stunning cover, the book includes some of those lovely colour plates for which Osprey is so famed.

In fact, the only limitation I really felt from the limited space was that I couldn’t fit a set of campaign rules into the book – anyone who knows my games design history knows that I love me some campaigning!

At a Glance

Chosen Men is a set of fast-action skirmish rules detailing the bloody skirmishes between light troops in the Napoleonic Wars. The primary focus of the game is on soldiers and NCOs in light ‘wing’ companies, as they scout ahead of larger forces and take part in man-to-man actions against enemy skirmishers. The game can be set in a number of theatres of war: such as the Peninsular War, where British and Portuguese riflemen, and Spanish Guerillas, not only acted as part of Wellington’s army, but also engaged in small objective-driven actions across Spain against the French; the Hundred Days campaign, where skirmishers on both sides were sent to clear key objectives in vicious building-to-building combat; and 1812, where the Russians launch brutal hit-and-run attacks on Napoleon’s starving, retreating army.

This game is about small actions set against a backdrop of unrelenting war, where morale and tenacity often count for more than accurate musketry. For the most part, officers are not swashbuckling super-heroes, but staunch commanders who rally and direct their men to achieve the battlefield objectives.

Chosen Men focuses on small, agile units of, on average, 5-20 men. It might be imagined that these are hand-picked men sent to achieve some objective away from the main theatre of war – this game doesn’t concern itself with larger-scale conflicts, except to give a broad impression that they’re going on ‘off-camera’, so to speak. Although some regular and elite infantry and cavalry are present for the sake of providing options, the ‘army lists’ stick mainly to light troops and irregulars.

Typically, an ‘army’ in Chosen Men will number 30-50 men, depending on quality, and possibly a light cannon or two. A game of that size should play out in about an hour once you’re familiar with the rules.

This, then, is a fast-play set of rules, operating on a 1:1 figure ratio, with small autonomous units. Not your usual Napoleonic game, but then, it’s not meant to be – this is a great point of entry for people who just want to field small formations of 28mm figures, and might be put off by big battalions.

The Core Mechanics

Units are pretty much autonomous on the battlefield, although having officer nearby, or actually part of a unit, greatly enhances their ability to stand when the going gets tough. Units have their own stats and leadership value, and can take a number of actions in a turn based on their Tactical value – the higher this number, the more well-drilled the troops, and the more actions they get in a turn. These points, however, must be split between manoeuvring, shooting and fighting, so must be used wisely. The game is not strictly IGOUGO, but ‘alternating action’. Players take it in turns to move and act with a unit at a time. However, officers can sometimes use their command radius to move a whole section of their force at once, or forego this option to move out-of-position troops into the fray more quickly.

The game uses a D6 system. Whereas my other recent Osprey game, Broken Legions, used D10s to deal with very granular modifiers and drawn out one-on-one combats, this game is more about group musketry and quick, bloody hand-to-hand fights. You’re dealing with units of men at a time rather than individuals, and so I’ve tried to keep modifiers to a minimum.  The complexity of the mechanics comes in the combinations of special rules and orders, representing the intricacies of command and control on the battlefield – the basic actions taken by units on the other hand, are streamlined, allowing for fast gameplay.

Special Features

The nuts and bolts of the rules – moving, shooting, fighting, and morale – naturally make up the bulk of the book. Army lists and scenarios make up the remainder - the armies included are France (and their Peninsular allies), Great Britain (and both their Peninsular and Waterloo allies), and Prussia. However, every game needs one or two special features beyond merely [sparkling, flawless] core mechanics to make them stand out from the crowd. The two bits I’m most pleased with in this game are the Cauldron of War Strategies and Commander Traits.

Cauldron of War Strategies are randomly determined for each player in the first turn of the game. This special rule represents the raging battle that is going on just beyond the bounds of the gaming area, as though the skirmish taking place is merely a snapshot of a much larger engagement being fought all around. So, for instance, you might gain ‘The Big Battalions’, which means you have some large blocks of infantry just off the board, and when your opponent moves a unit to within 12” of the edge, you can give them a volley of massed musket fire. Similarly, you might roll ‘Artillery Bombardment’, meaning that some of your army’s cannons are directed in the direction of the skirmish action, sending a timely bombardment to shock and awe the enemy.

Commander Traits are less epic in scale, but no less influential. Every army has an overall commander, usually an officer of Colonel rank or similar (although as this is a skirmish game, you might also have things people such as Spies in charge of your little task-force). You can purchase Traits for your commander to show just what kind of leader he is. Some, like ‘Flogging Officer’ might allow you to automatically rally a broken unit, but at the cost of a Morale value penalty for the rest of the game. Others, like Tactical Genius, show on officer’s real quality, by allowing his units to perform additional actions. There are lots to choose from, and they allow you to not only personalise your force’s leader, but by extension your whole army.

So there you have it – this is a game all about stirring, heroic actions and feats of derring-do, set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s campaigns. I hope you have as much fun playing it as I had writing it!

Chosen Men is published by Osprey Wargames, and is available now from all good bookstores. You can order it direct from Osprey here.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Christmas Ghosts

“There is probably a smell of roasted chesnuts and other good comfortable things all the time, for we are telling Winter Stories – Ghost Stories, or more shame for us – round the Christmas fire.”
- Charles Dickens, Telling Winter Stories, 1859

Every year at about this time, I tend to turn my reading to ghost stories. Okay, who am I kidding? I read ghost stories all year round. But there’s something particularly nostalgic for me personally in sitting by the side of a log fire, glass of single malt in hand, reading a spooky old tale, particularly those set at Christmas.

The Christmas ghost story is something of a great British tradition, of course. Like most things related to Christmas traditions, they were really proliferated in the Victorian era – that Dickens fellow has a lot to answer for. After the success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens took to publishing festive ghost stories annually in the periodical All the Year Round, in which he included tales from contributors such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. In 1898, American anglophile Henry James (whose less famous brother turns up in The Lazarus Gate, you may recall) wrote The Turn of the Screw – his own take on the Christmas Ghost Story, inspired in no small part by Dickens and Collins.

That doesn’t mean all the stories we equate with being good Christmas spook-fests are Victorian in origin though – many of my favourites were written in the Edwardian or even post-war periods. M R James – my favourite teller of ghostly tales – was a particular proponent of the Christmas ghosts tradition. He would write a new story each year, and read it to a select group of peers and students at King College, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve.

Anyhow, enough history. Over the last few years I’ve been collecting festive ghost and mystery stories to read over the Yuletide period. Here’s my pick of the bunch so far:

A Mystery in White

J. Jefferson Farjeon

I’ve been really quite taken by the British Library Crime Classics series. Published in a very nice little paperback format, they now produce a range of long-forgotten mystery thrillers from the golden era of crime, and have even started branching out into supernatural mysteries. A Mystery in White is one of their growing Christmas Mysteries range, and details the fortunes of a group of train passengers stranded in a snow drift while trying to get home for Christmas. When a man on the train dies under suspicious circumstances, a party of intrepid passengers hikes to get help, whereupon they stumble across a spooky old house, recently abandoned like the Marie Celeste. Strange things are afoot in the house, but luckily one of the party happens to be a psychical investigator…

Old Christmas

Washington Irving

“When I returned to the drawing-room, I found the company seated around the fire, listening to the parson, who was deeply ensconced in a high-backed oaken chair, the work of some cunning artificer of yore, which had been brought from the library for his particular accommodation. From this venerable piece of furniture, with which his shadowy figure and dark weazen face so admirably accorded, he was dealing forth strange accounts of popular superstitions and legends of the surrounding country, with which he had become acquainted in the course of his antiquarian researches.”

Pre-dating the Victorian era, American writer Washington Irving wrote several spooky, winter tales, including this one set at Christmas-time. Although he’ll be forever associated with Halloween, thanks to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it’s well worth giving his other work a read.

The Festival

H P Lovecraft

“It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.”

In this typical story of madness, depravity and forbidden lore, Lovecraft’s narrator pays a Christmas visit to Kingsport, only to find that the locals at the church aren’t gearing up for a traditional Christian celebration, but something altogether darker. Generally thought of as Lovecraft’s first Cthulhu Mythos story, a fact that makes The Festival interesting in itself.

The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance

M R James

I’ve included this lesser-known tale because it’s the only Jamesian story to be actually set at Christmas-time. In truth, at this time of year I take out my collected editions of his stories and read them all, because he really is the master of the ‘pleasing terror’. This one is essentially a low-key tale of a man searching for his missing uncle in his old home-town, and features a memorable appearance from a creepy Punch & Judy show.

The Haunted House

Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, and others

No list of Christmas ghost stories would be complete without some work from that most famous Victorian writer, Charles Dickens. However, as everyone has read A Christmas Carol, or at least has seen the films a dozen times, I’ve gone for a more unusual pick. Opening at Christmas Eve, this portmanteau story by Dickens and five other hand-picked writers, follows the fortunes of visitors to a haunted house. These aren’t actually traditional ghost stories, but more tales of regret, injustice and fear, using ghosts as a device to put the unfortunate protagonists through the wringer.

Friday, 16 December 2016

A Little Festive Spirit

As Christmas is right around the corner, I thought it'd be a good time to remind you of the free, festive Apollonian Casefiles short story I wrote last year. Entitled Hanlocke's Christmas Spirit, it's a very short black comedy detailing how a certain Ambrose Hanlocke, gentleman thief extraordinaire, came to be in our universe. I've now converted it into a .mobi format suitable for Kindles and other eReaders, so feel free to download it at your leisure.

Get it for eReaders here.

If you're happy to read it online, however, the original tale is still up on the Titan Publishing website.