Keeping Project Diaries

Note: this article was originally written for Wargames Illustrated during my short tenure as a columnist earlier this year, but it was rejected as “… jarring with the rest of the content in the magazine”, as a result of which I parted company with that publication. I shall make no further comment about that, but instead, I shall be using this blog to post more of my own thoughts on the hobby in future.

 

THE WAY WE WERE

One of the most satisfying aspects of our hobby is not the playing of games, nor the painting of figures, but simply sitting at our favourite table and planning a new project.

In the old days, we would have been clutching our copy of the Minifigs catalogue or the Hinchliffe Handbook. Perhaps we had responded to one of the little black-and-white ads at the back of Military Modelling or Practical Wargamer, and had sent off our SSAE (yes, a stamped, self-addressed envelopes, remember those?) to Ronald W Spencer Smith or Peter Laing or Heroics & Ros, or indeed any of those manufacturers, many now sadly long-gone, who then sent back a simple photocopied sheet listing their wares.

Ah, if only the prices were still the same as then! And of course, in those days, whilst those little leaflets would list the figures and tell us their prices, we would have to guess what they looked like, as photos of products were few and far between. Hinchliffe, like Redoubt Enterprises, took the unusual step of providing line drawings of their figures, which of course rather relied on the talent of the artist…

We shake our heads. Listings of figures without any images to show us what they look like. That would never happen nowadays. Surely. Would it…?

A page from The Hinchliffe Handbook

A page from The Hinchliffe Handbook

NEW PROJECT AHOY!

Now, even assuming that most of us, unlike Peter Cushing, don’t sit at our wargaming desk in collar and tie, let alone cravat, smoking Gitanes and wielding a Mont Blanc fountain pen as we peruse the lists of available wares, there is something deliciously indulgent about planning a new project. Indeed, I know some wargamers who admit that it is one of their favourite things, almost a hobby in itself, as they conjure up entire theatres of miniature warfare in their heads and then work out the practicality of turning their dreams into reality.

Of course you could do everything online, simply adding items to shopping carts without checking out, but I know I’m not the only one who has special notebooks for storing these indulgent episodes. Whilst you might plump for a simple pad of A4 ruled paper, I like to invest in the pleasure of a new Moleskine. Others prefer old-fashioned school exercise books, whilst some of my ken are definitely modern in their tastes, preferring the tap of fingers on keyboard or touch-screen to the subtle scrape of pencil or pen on paper.

You might be familiar with Microsoft Excel, but an online group I belong to is regularly entertained, if that’s the right word, by one of its members who swears by a piece of software called Kanban Flow. At a game I organised a few years ago, one of the participants created a miniature vignette depicting a general consulting his project manager, aided by a flip-chart and pointer!

Elite Kanban flow chart guard! Photo by Dave Hall

Elite Kanban flow chart guard! Photo by Dave Hall (see his fabulous blog at http://themedetianwars.blogspot.co.uk )

THE JOY OF PAPER

Why buy a posh notebook? Well, planning projects such as my Wars of the Faltenian Succession and, more recently, forays into early WWII, combine so many aspects of our hobby that it seems a shame to let all that hard work go to waste. In a notebook, I can put down my thoughts about the period, the rules, the armies I want to collect, the organisation of those forces and how they will be represented in my games. This can be followed by research into who provides figures for that period in the scale I have settled upon, and what the likely costs will be.

It’s a good place to jot quick calculations, too – for example, £20 for a box of 36 American Civil War infantry in 28mm, versus roughly £1.15 per figure in metal… So, with a box equating to a battalion or thereabouts, then that will be about three boxes or £60 for a brigade, plus a battery of two artillery pieces and crews (roughly a tenner each, more if you want the limber too) and a unit of a dozen cavalry (another £20 in plastic). So, in 28mm, a single brigade with support is going to cost in the region of £90. Add a few pounds more for a couple of command figures and you’re looking at around £110.

But wait, a bit more research reveals that there are bargains to be had, with Perry Miniatures doing a brigade (three boxes of plastic Infantry, two metal artillery packs and a high command metal mounted figure) for £64; and even better, a division (six boxes of plastic Infantry, three metal packs of artillery, two high command metal mounted figures) for just £114. Bargain!

Of course, this is only one example, in just one scale, in a popular period, of the kind of notes you might make. You’ll also be thinking about ‘the look of the thing’, the size of battle you want to represent on the tabletop, the rules you want to use and, of equal importance, who your opponents will be and what their preferences are. In my case, though I did dabble in 28mm ACW and even painted a few Perry figures, I realised that what I really wanted for my ACW games was the grand sweep of battle, and to play out large-scale manoeuvres on the tabletop, committing entire corps or armies to battle. This meant a shift downscale for the miniatures to 6mm or 10mm. In the end, as listeners to the View from the Veranda podcast will recall, this led to love at first sight with Pendraken’s delightful 10mm offerings.

My wargaming campaign and panting notebooks.

My wargaming campaign and painting notebooks.

MORE THAN JUST THE MEN

The choice of scale doesn’t just affect the figures, but also the tabletop terrain. For many gamers here in the UK, at least, storage is a real challenge—we just don’t tend to have the large houses that our American cousins, in particular, seem to enjoy. Perhaps this is why the British are noted for their garden sheds! It’s a little easier if the burden is going to be shared as a club project, but still, there are both storage and terrain costs to be factored in. In my own case, I already have lots of terrain for 28/30mm 18th century games, so there was simply no way I could also accommodate a new batch of scenery for 28mm ACW. I’ll concede that for some eras, the landscape and buildings are at least similar, if not identical—but there are very distinct differences between the look of a game set in America compared to one set in Europe. All that rail fencing and those colonial-style timber buildings… So again, 10mm suited me in terms of budget, space available and the look that I wanted.

All these internal debates can be included in our project book, which is looking really interesting now. We’ve probably ‘gone to checkout’ with some of those imaginary orders, or picked up some stuff at a show, so it’s time to sit down and clothe our little men with paint. This is where the notebook really comes in handy. First of all, you can use it to list reference sources for uniforms and equipment. Nowadays, I frequently find reference online and print out pages or images from websites, which I tuck or stick into the notebook. But most important are the painting notes.

Peter Cushing painting his miniatures.

Peter Cushing painting his miniatures. See the video on YouTube at https://youtu.be/BGag8Qllgnw

PERFECT PAINTING PARTNER

We all know what it’s like to be in the middle of painting an army, only to have to take an enforced break, either through illness, travel or, as can happen, fatigue with a project. We return to it with high hopes, only to realise that we are having trouble matching the colours we used last time. Did I add one or two parts white to that navy blue to highlight the jackets? What about those gun carriages—did I use Russian or French Chasseur Green in the Foundry range? With a notebook, these problems are eliminated—the precise mixture of paint is noted and, better still, a blob added to the page for additional reference.

Your project book can be finished off, of course, with photos of your miniatures, nicely painted, based and on parade. Why not go one step further, and include shots of them in action too? You could even list each unit and leave space for their accumulated battle honours, or citations for bravery, an especially nice touch if your force is built for skirmish wargaming.

What I love about this process is that you achieve several things. Not only do you have a substantial point of reference for your project as you are working on it, but also, in years to come, you will rediscover this special work that you created by yourself, for yourself, with love and enthusiasm over days, weeks, months, even years. I have notebooks dating back to the 1980s and wish I had started even earlier. There’s nothing quite like being able to relive projects as they unfolded, the trials and errors, the highs and lows, the victories and defeats.

Although it may be a personal thing, the digital alternative just doesn’t quite cut it for me. I can’t get excited about finding old spreadsheets. Can you?

Spreadsheets – not so exciting!

Spreadsheets – not so exciting!

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