Wargame Thoughts and Commentary
Building Wargame Armies

Building Armies: A Fifty Year Perspective

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There are few great advantages to growing older, but one of them is experience, and recognizing mistakes-and being wise enough to not repeat them. As long as one avoids being too much of a "I told you so!" critic of people as you see them repeating many of your earlier mistakes, and have the grace to allow them to make their own choices, one can share one's experiences and perhaps save some few people the pain and cost of certain recurring bad decisions.

One of the things that acts as a restraint on the growth of the wargaming hobby is the cost of entry. Whether a historical wargamer's attempt to create a napoleonic army fit for the Emperor, or building a fantasy army, those figures, their stands, banners, and terrain, cost money, and then they have to be painted-which is going to take a bit of time, or cost additional sums to have painted. This is not a hobby for instant gratification! No matter how you cut it, your entry into the hobby will cost several hundred dollars and weeks, perhaps months of time. The cost and the time is further multiplied by bad decisions that many a hobbyist has made as they plan and assemble their armies. More than a few would-be wargamers end up having spent their hundreds of dollars, and spent months of time, only to have a useless force that they are no longer interested in, and a LOT of unpainted figures that they will try to sell to recoup much of their investment. Even long term gamers often have more of their investment OFF the table in their original bags than on the table in play!

The first mistake is not settling on a FEW periods and, instead, trying to have something in each period. Even worse is following the next "trendy" period or strange off-shoot every time they show up rather than finishing periods you have already started. There is an argument for having forces in a few watershed periods-say early and late Horse and Musket; Some form of modern, and maybe some well provided for era of the ancient or medieval/renaissance wars. But trying for every period is only going to lead to one of two results: A smattering of half-finished armies, or a number of miniature armies that are too small to illustrate a true army and have too many figures to use in skirmish rules. These small armies also don't allow for much variety as there's not much you can cover in 12-16 units that is very representative of the 50,000 plus armies of most periods.

This attitude also leads to a "next shiny thing" syndrome where the gamer paints a little of this and a little of that and it doesn't add up. Sure, you have the Guard Grenadiers, and the flashy Carabiniers or Mousquetiers, but come up short in the line units, and everything ends up in the wrong proportions. This not helped much by army lists or historical orgs, as the gamer's priorities are seldom on the ordinary and somehow the showy, special units always get painted first. If the gamer is also building armies in several periods, this is even more magnified as he distributes his attentions over the periods-and never does get back to finishing the "ordinary" units.

Trust me, limit your attentions to a very few periods, but flesh them out in detail and completeness. Build LARGE armies that reflect the make-up and appearance of their armies, not only in proportions, but numbers. When you get them reasonably developed, you'll really have something of value, not only to yourself but others, instead of a mish-mosh of fragments. It also offers the opportunity to create the support elements and diorama vignettes that can add so much to the tables appearance. You actually have time to add little done units to the tabletop beyond just the usual suspects that appear on every tabletop in the hobby. The unique, unusual and one-of-a-kind detail piece is the icing on the cake of a complete, and large, army. This may be a carriage, some form of wagon or engineering equipment, a HQ scene, or a Siege Train. They may not have a direct role on the game action, but their presence will add a LOT to the color of the game, and along with the terrain, add much to the diorama and illusion of the game.

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I might also suggest that you don't make the mistake of joining a certain period because it's so popular in your area, or among your current group of friends. You must care about your area of concentration and be motivated by your strong interest. Just doing Napoleonics or ACW because the other guys are doing it is not a good enough reason or motivation. If your interest is the Franco-Prussian, War of Spanish Succession, or AWI, then do that. Generally, you can always sit in on a game using other gamer's figures, while you build in your particular area of interest. Trust me, the world will not run out of Napoleonic , WWII,or ACW wargamers, and by setting off in a new direction you will add to the hobby's variety and local gaming options.

There is one caveat, if you strike off in a period apart from the local group; You must build both sides. This may cost more, and take a bit more time to get to critical mass, but it will, in the long run, be the better answer. People move, groups break up, you may move to another city, state, or country. The only way to insure that your investment in figures and gaming is protected is to be independent of other's whims, and the twists and turns of local game groups.

This, in my mind also applies to issues of figure scale. If you are building both sides you may select the scale you feel best suits your period and personal tastes. I chose 10mm for my Franco Prussian as I want to have the impression of large armies fighting on the corps level. Even with my 4X12 foot table, I felt the number of units I wanted in play required 10mm figures. The Prussians are generally pretty monochrome-even with a touch of Bavarians and hussars- so not much in the uniform area there, but in smaller scales the French Imperial outfits really don't show to their best, but 10mm (or 15mm) does allow for some detail. If I were doing skirmish or even battalion level actions, I would certainly go to 28s. To the contrary, ACW and later wars, including WWII, offer few arguments for anything much larger than 10s or 15s-unless you are really caught up in detailing armor.

For my favorite period, the WSS, I can't imagine anything smaller than 28s. The uniforms of the WSS, SYW, AWI, and Napoleonic period are simply too striking and colorful to not want to capture it in a good sized figure. I would also maintain that the intrinsic value of an army done in 28s will always be worth more in later resale (if only by your widow) than any other scale. Aesthetically, 28s are, in the horse and musket era, always more desirable and easier to sell. In fact, even non-gamers will appreciate these larger figures in a way that they would never react to 15s,10s, or smaller. Along the way I've sold several armies and the 28s always sold more quickly, and brought a better price (and a higher percentage of initial investment) than smaller scales.

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It should also be noted that, in most cases, the investment in figures in all scales does not vary much. The usual course of action by gamers in 15s, 10s, or 6s is to simply put more figures into a unit-capitalizing on their cost savings by adding mass. So instead of 12-18 28s, the 15s are units of 16-24, and the 10s are 30 or more to a unit. It is not uncommon for armies made in smaller scales to have more units to boot. The gamer feels he saving a lot more than he truly is in the smaller scales.

There are exceptions, If you are doing very large scale actions with many units that need to fit on a reasonably sized table, or if you only have access to small 4x6 foot gaming spaces, or intend to maintain the per figure savings by organizing units with the same number of figures as larger scales, or live in circumstances where space and money are strongly delimited-then smaller scales or skirmish rules will be the answer, and all other considerations are moot.

However, all things being equal-you'll never lose by choosing 28s as your scale. I would also encourage you, if you lack the skill or time, to get the figures painted to the highest quality you can afford. You will find, just as in many other products such as jewels, cars, and art, that you'll always get more back out of an investment in quality than if you settle for just OK. You'll also have the enjoyment of using really elegant materials while you own them. If you are going to pay for quality figures, it makes no sense to paint them in a crude and slap-dash manner. This also argues to avoid the occasional "group projects" where everyone paints dozens of figures in a rush to meet a deadline game at some show. The game is often a disappointment, and looking at the pathetically painted figures afterwards will only remind you of that fact.

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Always buy the best castings available. You are only going to buy them once so why pay for anything less than the best? Better figures always paint up better, and are more impressive when finished. Do your research and seek out the best figures for your purposes. Now, you can have an aesthetic goal for an old-time look and decide that certain figures suit your plan even though they are less detailed, or not as well animated as more modern castings-I think of Willies, Spencer Smith, or even (gasp) Scruby's in this regard, but other than some design purpose such as this, go for the best you can. Always be on the look-out for lines that have unique posing, unusual special figures, or an unusual variety of posing within a type that allow your army units be each have their own personality and unique look-even when the uniforms are identical.

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Flag your units in all periods where this is correct. They add a great deal of color and distinctiveness. Detail them out as much as possible with ferrules, cravats, and tassels. Flag Dude, Maverick, and Flags of War have great selections of standards in all periods. If possible, and historically correct, use more than one standard. Two Standards really make for a impressive visual impact. Mu infantry units generally have the King's Color and the Colonel's. I also decided to use a heroic style in my standards, opting, in many cases for a slightly larger than scale standard (10-15%) in the interest of really making them pop-out on the table.

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Finally, Pay a bit of attention to mounting the units with a proper amount of terraining. Make sure the bases are thick enough that the units may be handled using the bases rather than constantly handling the figures. Label the units on the HQ stand so that they have a visible, but not obtrusive, identity and are not treated as some generic unit, but one with a history and traditions! Let them add to their history in your games!

For examples of much of the above, please use the button on this website to go to the Yahoo! site and click on the photos section under albums for WSS troops over 116 photos of my admittedly large WSS forces are shown, as well as photos of my FPW 10s in another album .

Remember, these are just my opinions, but they are the result of 50 years of being in this hobby, which doesn't make them right, but does mean they have a firm and extensive basis!