It’s true. For some reason, though my generalship in historical wargames is usually impeccable, my friend (and Battlegames Fantasy & Sci-Fi Editor) Guy Hancock regularly trashes me every time I trot out 2,000 points-worth of Warhammer anything. The number of times I’ve beaten him can be counted on the fingers of one thumb, and since he’s pretty much abandoned historical gaming altogether, this means that I’m not even getting any chance to redress the ego balance anytime soon.
The most recent drubbing was last Saturday. “Come on round,” he said, “let’s have a fun game and a bit of a chat.” I should add, perhaps, that I had just proposed to my long-term partner Ann, and was feeling the warm glow of the fact that, even after 16 years of putting up with me already, she has agreed to make an honest man of me sometime next year.
And so I dutifully packed my box with a mighty army of Bretonnia (that’s the medieval knight-looking lot for those of you unfamiliar with them) and set sail to meet the foe.
When I arrived at Guy’s, he’d already set up the terrain, a 6’x4′ arrangement, a few low hills and a couple of woods surrounding a small farmstead that was about a third of the way in from my left flank. After just four moves, the terrain looked much the same, apart from all the dead, singed, mashed, pummelled and generally minced Bretonnian bodies. What had achieved this? Some mighty horde of giants? A ravening mob of deadly Chaos warriors? A doughty Dwarven gunline, perhaps, backed up by thundering artillery?
A bunch of little ratmen, a smattering of Skaven.
Okay, admittedly, these were no ordinary Skaven. Guy’s a great one for collecting ‘themed’ armies, and this furry mob hied from Clan Eshin, which is about as menacing and sneaky as a Skaven can get, this being the ‘ninja’ tribe of the squeaking warriors. Though they don’t look like much, these little critters are trained assassins of one grade or another, well tutored in the art of sneakiness, armed with poisoned whatnots and, worst of all, equipped with a gun-line of long-barreled jezzails, the most deadly, accurate and reliable of Skaven weapons.
Well, all I can say is that my brave Bretonnians blundered into the most withering storm of sustained fire, both long range and short range, that you can possibly imagine. Guy was having to throw so many dice each turn that the neighbours must have thought there was a hailstorm.
First, those jezzails, which if not powerful enough already, carry the additional bonus of being armour-piercing which gains them an additional bonus. And what do Bretonnians wear a lot of? Yup, armour.
Next came the slings used by night- and gutter-runners. Tolerable at their long range, though there were lots of them. But at close range, the little blighters got to double the number of shots. Facing several dozen dice throws each turn is not, I assure you, a pleasant experience, in spite of the Bretonnians’ armour affording them some hefty saving throws. You just know, the longer it goes on, the more the dice luck is going to tip in the Skaven’s favour.
And then, even closer, the poisoned wind globadiers, who chuck their nasty little stink bombs that, naturally, render armour ineffective and leave the wearer suffocating in his tin skin.
Oh, don’t let me forget the poisoned throwing stars, shiruken with attitude that cause automatic wounds, armour no object.
And yes, I know you’ve been waiting for me to mention the Skaven favourite, everyone’s wacky weapon of choice, the warpfire thrower. Before the damn thing blew itself to smithereens (taking half a dozen of my spear-armed men-at-arms with it) it managed to fry some of my pegasus knights, which I deem both a horrible thing to do to some of my most expensive troops and, frankly, cruel to animals too.
And finally, after watching all those little cubes bounce across the table to decimate my ranks, there were the warlock engineers armed with warpfire lightning thingummies, particularly efficient at zapping, as you might guess, anything wearing metal armour.
That’ll be my boys, then.
Now, as if this isn’t enough, Guy seems to induce some kind of mind paralysis in me when we’re playing the Games Workshop way. To be fair, he’s a pretty darn good general these days, and certainly gets to practice his skills at Warhammer far more frequently than I do. But it’s more than that. I think it has something to do with the alternate move system. Whilst I’m perfectly comfortable with simultaneous move systems, whether using written orders or not, when it comes to alternate moves, it’s as if my brain somehow dislocates, and I end up making the most stupid errors time after time after time.
For example, the huge benefit of Bretonnians, besides their tough steel exoskeleton, is that when they charge, they can use a formation known as “the lance” which allows them to pack an almighty punch on a very small frontage, enabling them to ride down pretty much anything in their way.
But only, and this is important, if they charge.
So numbnuts here, with alarming regularity, manages to leave his gallant knights hanging just within charge reach of HIS troops, which completely negates the lance formation and leads to an ugly, close-in slugfest where the horsemen have to rely on their thick plate to save them from the ignominy of the position I have left them in.
Skaven are utter rot individually, but pack a lot of them together – and, oh boy, there are a LOT of them – and they really take some killing, even by handsome knights on big, stamping warhorses. It’s like a slow mincing machine, and you get the feeling that the mincing machine is going to win.
Guy is also extremely good at making the most of the points allocation. For example, I got suckered, Lord knows why, into taking an expensive Paladin battle-standard bearer who proved to be Sir Percy the Prat, incapable of pulling up his own socks, let alone dealing death and destruction to the furry foe. Seriously, he seemed to attract the longest run of the most pitiful dice rolls, demonstrating what Guy calls “rubber axe syndrome” so convincingly that I felt like crying.
Oh, and then there was my mighty general, armed with a deadly morning star and mounted on a mighty Royal Pegasus, fully ten percent of the points value of my army or more.
Talk about ending up with EasyJet when you wanted British Airways First Class. On move two, a lone assassin emerged from the woods, slaughtered the winged horse, bringing my general to his knees, and then performed a non-anaesthetised disembowelment on the hapless monarch whilst my army looked on helplessly, listening to a throng of chittering rodents squeaking “easy, easy, easy…”
The thing is, after the event, in fact in the car on the way home, I was besieged with realisations of all the things I should have done. How I should have deployed differently, manoeuvred differently, chosen different targets for my (modestly successful, as it happens) trebuchet. But, most especially, how I should have kept my beautiful knights in a position to charge and scythe their way through his lines.
But on the day – and that, unfortunately, is what counts – my archers ran away, my knights ran away, my wizards ran away, my trebuchet crew died to a man, accompanying my general and three quarters of my knights to the afterlife where, I imagine, the mockery of those bloody vermin is still ringing in their ears.
Unfortunately, watching Guy’s warfire team explode in a ball of fire proved very cold comfort indeed.
So, where do I go from here? Should I just pack it in? Well, no, that’s not the kind of guy I am. And, as it happens, I already have the solutions in the wings.
You see, like so many of our kind, I’m an inveterate butterfly when it comes to my wargames purchases, and I already have in my possession an army of Empire troops, and another of goblins, that I can trot out in the requisite kit to face ritual humiliation on the table. I keep hoping that, one of these days, I’ll find an army that suits me, that somehow brings out that spark of generalship that I know is lurking inside me somewhere.
Maybe it will be the doughty boys of the Reik – after all, for many years I was a landsknecht re-enactor, so I feel right at home with all that puff-and-slash and polearms. And I feel positively excited about the possibilities of a mighty artillery train and a reliable line of handguns and crossbows.
I feel completely different about the greenskins: I think they’re a laugh, there’s loads of ’em, and with classic dafties like squig hoppers and doom divers, (if you don’t know what they are, imagine a green kamikaze Leonardo da Vinci on drugs) they’re going to raise a smile whatever happens, like a tide of tickling duckweed.
Which is just as well, because the man commanding them may never learn to be anything other than rubbish at Warhammer.