Deadlines are powerful things. I can’t think of any other explanation for the fact that I have 160 Gripping Beast plastic infantry and 36 cavalry assembled on my table and awaiting an undercoat just 72 hours after taking the sprues from their boxes. I’m even feeling a little heady from the fumes of all that polystyrene cement.
On this occasion, the deadline in question is the May Bank Holiday weekend, currently just eight weeks away, when I shall be umpiring another huge imagi-nations bash set on the ever-complex and confusing periphery of the Wars of the Faltenian Succession. This time, the setting will be my recently-created sub-continent of Dahlia and Chindrastan, and the aforementioned plastic troops are being mustered in honour of the Rana Simonia of Felpuri (a tribute to my dear friend Simone who has fought and defeated cancer over the last couple of years).
But why should it be that I am investing so much concentrated time and effort into creating an entirely new force when figures purchased months, years, even decades ago are still languishing unpainted, unbased and unloved on my shelves? I’m not the first to ponder this, the psychology of the wargames project, nor shall I be the last, but perhaps I can add another perspective: that of the writer.
At first glance, the connection isn’t an obvious one. Just how, you ask, can the career of the writer be compared to that of the hobby wargamer? But the answer, of course, is that heady mix of creativity and inspiration. Like writing, or any creative pursuit, the wargamer needs to feel inspired to begin a project. But also like the writer, the real challenge is not in getting started, but in seeing the task through to completion. (I can see how my primary career as a graphic designer also has striking parallels, but I’ll come back to that later.)
What makes the difference between all those half-finished or even barely-started projects and a completed army – in my case, at least – is a deadline. Just as the writer needs the incentive to finish an article or book by a particular date, I find the same to be true of my army building. When I think of the wargaming projects I have actually completed in recent years, they have all been either for the Ayton gatherings, to stage a demo or participation game, or because my friend Guy and I had agreed to launch a new project and play our first game on a particular day.
Again, just like writing, the ‘short sprint’ project is less of an ordeal than the marathon, even if the figure count – just like a word count – is rather high. I know from experience that I can crank out 5,000 words or more in a day if pushed, just as I know that under the current ‘emergency’ circumstances, the Rana Simonia of Felpuri will have her elite household troops in time to face the Grenouissian axis in May. When I think back to my most impressive phases of wargaming output in my adult years (Sittangbad for Partizan in Newark, Zulu Wars for Redoubt in Eastbourne, Biebersfurt Waxball Championships for Hammerhead in Newark, 1940 Germans in 1/285 and then again in 20mm for my games with Guy), they have all been produced to a deadline.
I see this phenomenon time and time again with those who regularly stage demo games at shows, made all the more impressive because they are often producing terrain as well as troops. Some are club members and can therefore share the burden, but quite a few are individuals or partnerships who, time and time again, not only produce the goods, but to an astonishingly high standard as well.
Names pop into my head like Steve Jones, James Morris, Phil Olley, Barry Hilton, David Imrie, Ade Deacon, Paul Robinson with the Grimsby club and the Crawley Wargames Club – these are just some of those I associate with regularly staging outstanding games of an award-winning standard in the UK, and those of you living elsewhere will know others. The desire not to let anyone down on the day – their mates, the public, the organisers or even their own reputation – is a powerful motivator.
No, it’s the long-haul stuff that causes problems, the projects I have started on a whim, with no fixed date to achieve a certain level, nor even a guaranteed opponent. Sometimes, the trigger has been a simple attraction to a range of figures (I’m looking at you, Pendraken, the Perrys and Newline); at other times, a strange feeling that I ‘ought’ to try a particular period or scale. Says who? Silly man!
There have been other examples where I’ll be less hard on myself, because I bought stuff in the genuine expectation of games that never materialised or was caught out when life circumstances curtailed one or more participant’s involvement. But quite why I haven’t just got rid of the stuff I accumulated in the process is another thing entirely.
For example, a significant section of my shelves is groaning with stuff that was for Warhammer when I bought it, but which has been sitting there so long it’s now classified as ‘Oldhammer’! To be fair, some of that stuff is painted – and was painted a long time ago – but the last fantasy game I played was at least four years ago, and I have no immediate prospects of playing another, so why am I hanging on to all that stuff? I had vague hopes that my godson would become a regular opponent, but he hit his teenage years hard and that turned out to be illusory. So, here I am, Supreme Warlord to the Skaven Clans just when peace has broken out.
On the other hand, when it comes to writing, I’ve learned to be unsentimental – ruthless, even. I’m sure that being an editor for more than a decade has helped with this too. If a brief specifies 1,000 words on the first of the month, then that is precisely what I’ll deliver, not one word more or less. Anything and everything can be sacrificed to meet that.
But then, they are just words, marks on a paper or screen, not little miniature people on my shelves, begging to be clothed in acrylic colours so that they can march and die for me on many a miniature battlefield. Is it the anthropomorphism of our little plastic and metal miniatures that gets to us, making it difficult to discard them? Or have I just been in this hobby too long?
I mentioned earlier that I can see a parallel with graphic design too, not least because that, like illustration and painting, is strongly rooted in the visual aspects of the pursuit. I’m quite certain that all of us, at one time or another, have taken the plunge into a particular period simply because it looks good. Back in the day, it was the cover of Charles Grant’s The War Game that imprinted long ranks of marching Spencer Smiths in my mind as the epitome of horse and musket gaming, followed perhaps a decade later by Peter Gilder’s astonishing Napoleonic battlefields carpeted with glowing, glossy Hinchliffes.
But graphic design is work I undertake to a deadline, for a client – and for money! I don’t have any unfinished graphic design projects languishing in a cupboard somewhere, unless the client ordered them to be abandoned, in which case they would have been unceremoniously deleted or archived. Moreover, the working method is something that has been honed over decades under the professional’s pressure of Getting The Job Done. When you’re working to a deadline, you quickly realise that perfectionism has to go out the window: the criterion becomes Is it Good Enough or, perhaps, The Best That I Can Achieve In The Time Allowed (a bit like those Landscape Artist of the Year programmes on the TV or Masterchef).
Clearly, psychology is a complex subject, and in my experience, wargamers are frequently complicated people, but I think we’re onto something here. Left to our own devices, with no specific deadline pressures, we’re often apt to stew in our own juices, becoming hypercritical of our own efforts and suffering comparisonitis and overwhelm. On the other hand, given the focus of a specific date, time and place, we display an astonishing ability to get stuff done.
Furthermore, I know that in my own case, I’m not at all good at doing stuff just for me – I’m much more inclined to see something through if I have the motivation of doing it for someone else, and this applies to my life in general, not just my hobby. Campaigns are a good example – would I really put myself through so much pressure on my own account? No, of course not, but when I have a dozen people’s enjoyment of the experience at stake, I dive in like the keenest swimmer in the class.
You’re reading another example right now. Left alone, would I crank out blog posts, podcasts, videos and other stuff on a regular basis? No, and the period of a year or so that I took a back seat in the hobby proved it without any doubt – I need the motivation that other people are expecting something from me. Otherwise, I might scribble the occasional page in a journal or pen some thoughts on scraps of paper from time to time, but why would I go to the effort of planning and executing a regular schedule of content?
And that’s the thing about my wargames projects: if I want to get them finished, I need to feel as though I’m accountable to something or someone other than myself.
I know some people who have made an art of this. Some of them are patrons of this very site, and regulars of the Ayton gatherings – an interesting point, because those get-togethers provide precisely the kind of deadline motivation mentioned above. They may be relatively private gatherings held amongst wargaming pals, but the desire to make a good showing is evidently strong. I think back to our first 18th century bash a number of years ago, and participants were heavily reliant on my large collection of Spencer Smiths; but for the last couple of gatherings, I’ve been having to ask them to leave stuff at home so that there will be some room on the table for manoeuvre!
Each individual has their own was of chivvying themselves along during the arduous hours of assembling and painting their miniatures: some blog publicly about their progress on a regular basis; some use a Zen-like approach of a set amount of time every day and some obscure planning software; others simply rely on the sheer terror of not having everything ready on time and work in monstrous binge sessions (that’ll be me, then…). But whatever the process, the end result is the same, a freshly-raised force ready and fighting fit on the day (give or take the occasional errant varnish or basing tragedy).
And so I’ll draw this missive to a close with the thought that for myself, I clearly need to re-assess those unfinished projects and get ruthless. Are they actually projects I want to complete, or should I just get rid of them as soon as possible? And if I do want to complete them, it’s clear that I need to make myself accountable for the progress by broadcasting it.
Business consultants and self-improvement gurus often use the acronym of S.M.A.R.T. for goal-setting – Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Realistic; and Timely. So:
S = be specific: outline in a clear statement precisely what is required
M = make the goals measurable: this enables you to monitor progress and to know when the objective has been achieved
A = make the goal achievable: by all means make it challenging, but don’t set yourself up to fail, or you’ll end up quitting
R = be realistic about how you might achieve the goal, rather than being locked into a specific method, and also be realistic about your own abilities to meet the target. Again, being unrealistic will only result in failure.
T = timely: set a deadline! As we’ve seen above, I’m pretty certain this is the key to getting it all done.
I’m sure you’ll have your own thoughts and experiences about wargaming projects, both those that have succeeded and those that have failed, so as ever, please feel free to add your comments below. I’m off to sift through my pile of unfinished and even unstarted projects and think very hard about them. Expect to see some stuff on eBay before long!
Images and text © Henry Hyde 2018