Hello all. It’s been a considerable time since I posted here. In fact, with one notable exception that I will talk about later in this extended post, it’s been a long time since I wrote about wargaming at all. I even took the decision to quit my regular slot at Wargames, Soldiers & Strategy magazine so that I could focus on my own recovery and look after my key projects. (You may be pleased to hear that I plan to return to writing a column for them very soon.)
Prostate Cancer: the Way Back
The road to recovery following the radiotherapy treatment (technically known as Tomotherapy) for prostate cancer (see my series of videos from 2019-20 here) consisted of two elements.
The first was my physical recovery from the rigours of being zapped 37 times with powerful X-rays—five days a week for nearly eight weeks—which left me feeling far more ill than the cancer itself ever had. I was completely lacking in energy, my gut was in a terrible state, I had skin burns in places you don’t want to know about and I was unable to concentrate for longer than a couple of hours at a time, which was disastrous for my business.
The good news is, for those of you who haven’t seen my updates on social media, the physical aspect of my recovery was remarkable. It’s now just over three years since my last radiotherapy treatment; at the high point, I shed around 4.5 stones in weight (63 pounds, 28.5kg) and even though a few kilos have gone back on, I got fitter than I’d been in perhaps 40 years. What began with me doing a bare minimum of exercise each day (and I mean literally a couple of minutes) expanded to 30-45 minutes of vigorous activity daily, plus long walks when I could fit them in.
Shedding the weight was helped in large measure by me and my partner Ann adopting the Fast 800 diet by Dr Michael Mosley, who has appeared in many TV documentaries about health in general, but in particular about overturning the old myths of ‘slow but steady’ diets. The proof really was in in the pudding!
The second and, frankly, more serious aspect of my recovery has been the restoration of my mental health, which got much worse before it got better. This was caused in part by the administration of Prostap-3, a drug which suppresses testosterone and thus aids the healing of prostate cancer—but which has startling effects on the male psyche as well as physical functioning, and one’s ability to cope with emotions. That, coupled with some relationship problems, led to me suffering a breakdown in January 2021, which took around 18 months to recover from. This included undergoing weekly therapy for over a year to address deeper issues that bubbled to the surface.
Improving My Mental and Physical Health
In fact, the experience of suffering poor mental health prompted me to produce a series of podcasts called Inside Your Head, which you can find here. I’d like to make another series, if time and finances allow—I’m looking for sponsors and/or advertisers.
I am extremely fortunate to have a loving partner and some wonderful friends who have been tremendously supportive. In addition to therapy, I threw myself into reading every self-help and psychology book I could lay my hands on (or ears—my consumption of audiobooks has also been extraordinary) in order to understand what was happening to me and how I could set about fixing myself as far as possible.
Self-help certainly worked better than I had any right to expect, and certainly enabled me to see off the devil in my head that had fuelled a dreadful and growing level of self-loathing that had dominated my thinking for perhaps 50 years—a psychological, self-inflicted wound that very nearly had me depart this world forever. Never having been one to embrace what, for far too long, I had seen as ‘new age’ thinking, it came as a real shock to learn that I needed to love myself before anyone else and embrace the tenets of self-compassion before I did myself serious or potentially permanent harm, not to mention the effect that would have had on those I loved. (If you get such voices in your head, grab a copy of this book before it’s too late.)
Of course, the background to all this was the pandemic: I was diagnosed with cancer just before the first lockdowns began, and my cancer treatment was delayed as a result of it. I am just emerging from the difficult path I have navigated as the restrictions have finally eased here in the UK. I think it’s fair to say that my life has seemed pretty surreal for a couple of years now.
So now, despite the onset of osteoarthritis (yup, getting older sucks), I am physically much healthier indeed, and my mind is behaving itself much better. I now know that claiming to be ‘fixed’ is foolish; working on oneself and one’s relationships is a journey, and I know just how much farther I have to travel. But the benefits are enormous.
I also meditate and use mindfulness to help me control my responses to difficult situations and emotions. Again, for most of my life I viewed such things with enormous skepticism—now, they help make my life tolerable and me a more compassionate and caring person.
Dark Days for My Hobby
So, I’m slimmer, and no longer depressed—but what about wargaming?
Crikey, it’s been a long time.
The last wargame I played was… let me check… February 2020! That’s over two and a half years ago! The Battle of Deehash was the opening battle for what was planned to be the Bathelas imaginary ancients campaign. I’d slotted it in because my radiotherapy had been scheduled to start then, but was delayed until June because of Covid. And then, of course, it became impossible for gamers everywhere to get together anywhere except online.
Together with everything else I was going through, the only way to express what happened is that my wargaming mojo was crushed, and was swallowed up by my general and growing depression. By the time the radiotherapy actually started, I had pretty much lost my interest in the hobby, and when my breakdown happened, coping with that and my subsequent recovery simply swallowed up all my remaining headspace. It’s only now that I am emerging, blinking, back into the world and wondering who I am now, what I am capable of and what, frankly, I feel like doing at all. (See below for more about this.) For most of my life, I’ve been guilty of over-committing, largely to please other people, and then wondering why I’ve felt overwhelmed and highly stressed!
Time to Please Myself
After what I’ve been through in the last couple of years, the people-pleasing stops right now—even if it means disappointing some people. (On this subject, read this book.) I’m at a crossroads, and need to do some serious reassessment of what I want to do for me. Some serious pruning is happening right now. No more dead-end projects. No more saying ‘yes’ to things I don’t really want to do. I’m 61 years old and have stared death in the face, both because of cancer and because I visited some dark places in my mind and considered ending it all. I have the right to set my own expectations, rather than serve the expectations of others.
Some of you may already live your lives that way. It will be hard, therefore, for you to understand just how dramatic a change this is for me—a showman, a social media butterfly, a people-pleaser, a man brought up to ensure that everybody else is happy, a man devoted to working himself into the ground to ‘do his duty’, whatever the hell that is. Oh, and to do much of it for little or no reward, to risk his well-being and future comfort (and that of his loved ones) for… for… Yes, for what, exactly? My efforts to earn a crust in the wargames industry have not, frankly, been very successful. Battlegames had its moment in the sun and created an impression—and certainly set out my stall as a man who provides quality—but ultimately fell foul to a ferociously competitive marketplace, a fickle audience and the limitations of running anything as a one-man-band. It’s hell! Battlegames was taken over and then I was at the mercy of the management of bigger businesses that wanted their pound of flesh from me as an editor—and they got it, especially once Battlegames merged with Miniature Wargames, and then was sold on again to an even bigger business who really didn’t care what I thought.
So I quit, and in the wake of my mother’s death (another grim episode I won’t dwell on here), I started my Patreon gig.
The Highs and Lows of Patreon
Wow, what a learning curve! Patreon is a relatively new platform for creatives, and the challenge has been producing material of a kind that the patrons approve, at a rate that makes them feel they are getting value for money. Realistically—especially given the circumstances outlined above—this has primarily meant my regular Battlechat podcasts, in which I interview not just well-known wargamers, but also military historians, archeologists and others helping us to understand what our games are attempting to represent on the tabletop.
As a source of income, it has to be said that Patreon is unpredictable. Not only are Patreon pledges priced in US dollars (which means every time I collect my earnings, they are subject to international currency fluctuations), but also, of course, supporters are free to come and go as they please, and many have chipped in for a few months, then decided that it’s not for them and moved on, which of course they are perfectly entitled to do. But as a ‘side hustle’ (it certainly doesn’t bring in enough for me to treat it as my primary income), it has proved something of a life-saver during my recent ‘years of struggle’, and there is a hard core of a couple of hundred subscribers whose loyalty has been simply extraordinary, loyalty which I intend to repay in full.
But as any self-employed creative knows, the world is changing all the time and we need to stay on our toes and be able to ‘pivot’ when opportunities arise. I am certainly keeping my eye on what is going on at the cutting edge of technology out there, and I intend to increase my self-published output enormously. Patreon is just one strand of that plan.
Interesting, then, that I should be talking about self-publishing when my most recent foray into print has been a conspicuously traditionally published work: Wargaming Campaigns.
The Big Blue Book
This 526-page behemoth of a book took no less than nine years from inception to publication. First conceived just after The Wargaming Compendium was published by Pen & Sword in 2013, they asked me to consider writing a follow-up, and a more in-depth treatment of campaigns was, to me, the obvious choice.
I have been interviewed on podcasts about the writing and design process, but suffice it to say, it was a real challenge! The writing was more or less done by April 2019, at which point I sent out the draft manuscript to a team of beta-readers, trusted hobby veterans whose opinions I valued a great deal. By early June, I had their feedback. Boy, were they honest! To be fair, what came back was 99% positive, with the vast majority of comments relating to areas where I needed to clarify certain things in the text, correct a few minor errors and omissions and add or delete a few things.
But there were two areas where major revisions were needed. The first was the chapter dealing with naval warfare, which was clearly the weakest area of the book. Naval warfare is not my speciality, and so I set about further research, aiming to add both depth and breadth to what I was offering in that part of the book. The consensus seems to be that the extra work was worth it, and I’m much happier with the balance it has provided.
Secondly, it was pointed out to me that I had completely missed out air power, a critical aspect of any campaign since the First World War! Good grief! (Huge thanks to Nick Skinner of TooFatLardies for this one!) This came as a real shock, and an eye-opener as to how the mind can play tricks when you work on an enormous project over several years. I was utterly convinced that I had written about aerial warfare—and yes, there were my notes, but no finished chapter! A period of frantic writing ensued…
And then I was diagnosed with cancer. See above.
You can probably understand how a life-changing event like this really knocked me off course, and work on the book slowed to a crawl. At the same time, the world entered the alternate reality of the pandemic for the next couple of years, during which, as described above, my own mental health also nose dived.
In fact, it wasn’t until December 2021 that I felt sufficiently restored to respond to the host of call-outs on social media along the lines of “When will the book be finished, Henry?” With the tail-end of the Covid-19 pandemic still striking at random (including me—despite all my efforts, I finally succumbed to what turned out to be a mercifully mild variant of the disease), I decided that I finally wanted to get this millstone off my neck and sat down to do the final edits and complete all the design and layout of the book. (Yes, like with the Compendium, I had volunteered to be the full auteur of the work, including designing, illustrating and typesetting the book.)
In January 2022, my Editor at Pen & Sword, Phil Sidnell, was shocked to receive an email from me announcing the fact that I had uploaded the first proof of the book to Dropbox and that my indexer, Arthur Harman, was hard at work. What ensued was a mad flurry of activity, with proofreaders leaping into action, and the last few tweaks being made to the layout and content, so that by mid-February, the files were in the hands of the printers in India and all we could do was sit back and wait.
Millstone to Best-Seller
Fast forward. 8th June, 2022.
What followed was a heady couple of months during which the book stayed at #1 in Pen & Sword’s Best Sellers list for weeks! Completely out of left field, it also hit the #1 spot in Amazon’s Role Playing category—in Sweden! And on Amazon UK, it has been bouncing around the top 50 in Role-Playing & War Games category since launch, cresting in the Top 5.
Any author would be thrilled with such a ride, and I certainly am.
But perhaps most gratifying of all has been the reception given to the book by the online community of wargamers on social media, who took photos of their copy of the book as it arrived on their doorstep and posted the images on Twitter and Facebook. Amazing.
So, I’m hoping that the book somewhat makes up for my absence from the pages of the wargaming press, its quarter of a million words would be sufficient to fill an awful lot of columns!
But what about my own wargaming?
It has been thanks to some dear friends, fantasy fiction fans one and all, that I have started to regain some hobby mojo. They asked me to run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for them, so I dug out a map I created some years previously, a version of which also appears in Wargaming Campaigns: Furchtinsel. After landing in the port town of Rattenstadt, our merry band of adventurers have set about their task of ridding the island of an infestation of the dreaded rat-people known as Skaven (yes, those of GW’s Warhammer fame), as well as discovering a great deal of local intrigue, dodgy politicians, criminal gangs and so on. In other words, just like real life!
Running these encounters, a combination of tabletop gaming with miniatures and ‘theatre of the mind’, has been a real boost for me, engaging my love of world-building, gaming, storytelling and improvisation. Fuelled by listening to Audible audiobook versions of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy narrated by Steven Pacey (not a random decision—several of the players are Abercrombie fans), I have been mixing and matching names and accents, creating a blend of ‘real’ fictitious characters and D&D characters and Non-Player Characters, even recording short ‘radio plays’ to set the scene and create atmosphere before each session.
And of course, this has also got me painting minis again.
Pondering the Pigments
After such a long interlude, I of course underwent the painful process of discovering which of my rather large collection of paints (old and more recent Citadel, Foundry, Vallejo) were still workable, and which had dried out. Fortunately, there weren’t too many casualties, which was a huge relief. But it also gave me an opportunity to think about the kind of painting I want to do from now on: just how much complex, ‘layered’ painting do I want to do? How many miniatures are languishing, unpainted, on my shelves or still in boxes? How many of them, realistically, do I think I will ever get to use? How many of them do I want to expend time and effort painting? Just what kind of games to I want to play, with whom, and how often? How many miniatures and how much terrain/scenery will I need for that, and in which scales?
In other words, a thorough-going rethink about my hobby, and my approach to it.
Well, one thing’s for certain: the new Citadel Contrast Paints are going to feature in my armoury. I’d already tried out some of the early releases, with great results. More recently, Army Painter came out with a range of speed paints, which I also tried, but I was really put off by the fact that the paints, even when supposedly dry, re-activate like old-fashioned poster paints if you attempt to paint adjacent to, let alone over them. Noooooo!!!! Having spent quite a lot of money on a set containing the full range, I was quite upset about this, but fortunately, a local enthusiast took them off my hands for a fair price and I immediately re-invested the cash in more of the now expanded range of Citadel Contrast Paints.
As for brushes, I’m glad I have always invested in good quality, mostly sable brushes from Winsor & Newton and Rosemary & Co, because they’re all in pretty good order, helped by regular doses of cleaning with brush soap. I also have a bevy of cheaper Prolene brushes which are pretty good for doing the basics, and are cheap enough to discard or relegate to basing and terrain duties once knackered.
First Loves and New Directions
So, where do I go from here?
Clearly, D&D is here to stay. I’m really surprised at how quickly it’s become part of my gaming life, but there’s something about the degree of expression that it allows which I find extremely refreshing. It’s also the non-wargaming aspects that are interesting to me—the world-building, the roleplaying, the storytelling, the improvisation and acting. This also incorporates elements from the Warhammer world, in a form that is decidedly ‘Oldhammer‘ which gives me room to invite guest players from time to time to flex their fantasy muscles and maybe stray further afield on the map.
Hardly surprising, I guess, for someone who just produced an enormous book about campaigns!
And so you also won’t be surprised to hear that I intend to dust off my Wars of the Faltenian Succession 18th century world and revive that in some way—AND I have plans to jump forward in history to something closely resembling the early years of WWII, a project that involves wargaming chum Iain Burt and probably Chain of Command or something similar… Watch this space!
Nor will you be surprised at my decision to press ahead with the growing empire of Byzarbia, ancient home to the planned tribute to Tony Bath known as Bathelas. This was originally planned before the pandemic, and was intended to include armies raised by a variety of experienced gamers. I’ll need to check whether any of them are still interested. I do know that at least one person, my editor at Pen & Sword Phil Sidnell, is itching to get revenge after his humiliation at the opening battle…
Finally, I’ll allow myself one more project to press forward on an ‘as and when’ basis. And I think I’d never forgive myself if it wasn’t my dream of Salamanca in 6mm. After all, I’ve got pretty much all the figures and terrain I need—I just have to apply paint and plan it properly, and I’m going to take my own sweet time. I’ll let you know when I make progress.
Everything else is either going to be put on hold until these projects have reached a point where I feel the collections and gaming options are sufficient, or they’re going to be sold off. I shall, of course, hang on to my library of Commands & Colors games in various eras, because they have great solo playability and are great for those occasional web-based encounters with chums in faraway places.
All except Red Alert. I got the game, all the ships and all the extension bits, but I’m afraid it just doesn’t float my gaming boat, so it can go. Expect to see an eBay listing soon—anyone interested in taking it off my hands before I go there can drop me a line.
I think a lot of people might have assumed that someone involved with producing what are now considered to be two of the hobby’s ‘bibles’ must be constantly and deeply involved in stuff away from the public eye. But the fact is, as you will have gathered by now, ‘real life’ was completely overwhelming for quite some time, and I’m only just beginning to feel as though things are back on an even keel—and even now, world events and the state of the economy threaten to disrupt us further, so no chickens are being counted!
But the enforced break has enabled me to think much more clearly and realistically about what purpose the hobby serves in my life, and which aspects of it I value. To be honest, there have been many occasions when just hanging out on Twitter and shooting the breeze, chatting and joshing in the company of a wonderful gaming community, has been quite enough to give me the ‘fix’ I need, especially when times have been tough. And yes, I realise the irony that even that gathering place is now under threat, thanks to the machinations of competing billionaires with their own agendas that have nothing to do with the experience of ordinary users.
Perhaps you’ve had your own hobby break at some point: I’d be interested to hear how that affected you. For others, the pandemic spurred them to even greater efforts and heights of achievement, leading to greater connection, rather than less. But that’s the nature of our hobbies—they can adapt to the changes we undergo, and the community continues to accept us as wargamers, even if we don’t get around to doing much actual wargaming. It’s a hobby that can exist in the mind as much as on the tabletop or in our collections of miniatures, whether paper, plastic, resin, wooden or metal. Some people game only at a club or Wargames Holiday Centre; others never venture out from behind their own front door or the home of a friend.
None of that matters. We’re all part of that happy band we call wargamers.