Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Junior General Is A Wargaming Toybox

The Junior General website offers a veritable toybox of rules, scenarios, and paper figures for those, particularly kids, exploring history through miniature wargames. Primarily intended for children and the classroom, the site provides some good resources for both the casual and hard-core miniatures wargamer.

Paper miniatures and historical scenarios stand as the pillars of the website’s two core resources. The simulations come listed by period: Ancients, Medieval, Renaissance, 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries. Although the scenario format varies by author, most contain some historical background as an introduction, a listing of forces along with a battlefield map, basic rules for gaming the battle, and some additional resources for supplemental reading or research. Most land battles featuring infantry (some with cavalry and artillery) employ basic rules created by teacher and website administrator Matt Fritz; the rules remain fairly simple while teaching the basics of unit formation and movement, attack, and morale. Other battle formats offer a variety of rules, all oriented for use in the classroom or with wargaming beginners. Each scenario contains links to the paper soldiers and any other accessories needed to play; apparently the site rearranged its paper soldier database, so some of these links don’t directly pull up the required files, but one can find them by perusing the site’s “Paper soldiers” section.

The site’s other core feature is the exhaustive list of paper soldiers arranged by period and conflict. Numerous contributors have created cardstock miniatures of all kinds of units, from infantry and cavalry to armored vehicles, warships, and terrain accessories. Although serious gamers might find the artistic quality of the cardstock soldiers less sophisticated than other available offerings (specifically Patrick Crusiau’s fine cardstock warriors and, of course, actual painted miniatures), the figures cover many military forces from ancient to modern times; often one can choose among similar units drafted by different artists.

Junior General provides a solid framework for enthusiasts to move beyond the scenarios and paper soldiers presented here. Don’t see a battle simulation you like? Find one appropriate to your period, adapt the rules, and provide the units and battlefield based on historical research. Chance are you’ll find appropriate cardstock forces in the expansive “Paper Soldiers” section. “Help File” resources include a host of tutorials on creating, modifying, printing and basing paper soldiers; a guide to keeping paint on plastic figures; useful tips for incorporating wargames, or “historical simulations,” in the classroom; and a “Historical Gaming 101” overview of basic miniature wargame concepts. The obligatory links section contains a listing of other useful websites for paper soldiers and wargames.

Local History

I enjoy exploring local history where I happen to live and like to combine it with my gaming hobby; Junior General offers some solid resources I can use to pursue these interests.

For some time I’ve wanted to create a miniatures wargaming scenario based on a Revolutionary War battle in the town where I grew up; I have several resources covering the battle, including a fairly accurate listing of the forces involved. The Junior General pages for Revolutionary War scenarios and paper soldiers offer solid resources for my casual pursuits.

I’ve recently become interested in creating some kind of miniature wargaming scenario based on a Civil War skirmish that occurred in the town where I currently live. I’ve never really cared much for American Civil War history; sure, I’m familiar with it from school, Ken Burns’ documentary, and having visited a few battlefields in my youth, but it’s never really captivated me like other historical periods and conflicts (like World War II, ancient Egypt, and the Victorian British in Egypt and the Sudan). Junior General’s Battle of First Bull Run provides a basic framework for gaming my local skirmish, though I need to do a bit more research on the units involved and the sequence of events surrounding the battle.

The wealth of free basic rules, historical scenarios to game or reference, and downloadable paper soldiers to print and mount makes Junior General a good place to explore history through miniature wargames.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Junk Sale Gaming Treasures Remain Rare

Junk sales might seem good places to hunt for odd gaming-related treasures, but gamers’ tendency to hang onto stuff they like means few worthwhile items make it to the resale market.

I’m not a huge fan of junk sales (call them what you will, tag sales, yard sales, garage sales, much of it still looks, feels, and smells like junk to me), but on rare occasions I find something remarkable. I’ve infrequently done the yard sale circuit, watching the newspaper ads for particularly promising ones or dropping in on those I pass when I’m in the mood. I maintain a broad range of gaming and fan interests, yet I rarely find something worth purchasing; old games, D&D books, and figures remain exceptional finds amid the cigarette-smoke-encrusted household items, sticky toys, dusty gewgaws, and grimy kitchen gizmos.

These days more than ever second-hand gaming treasures do not make it to the yard sale marketplace. When gamers decide to give up anything from their collection, they find better venues for them. They turn to sites like eBay to auction off their treasures to a much wider market hoping to garner a much higher profit. They give stuff away to fellow gamers or offer them for sale on gamer-exclusive sites. They bundle them for game convention charity auctions. (I realize I’m making a broad generalization here; gamers’ habits vary widely, I’m sure.) Anything reaching the junk sale probably got there from some parent cleaning out a kid’s room (with or without their knowledge) or from someone leaving the hobby entirely; and ultimately, that’s not much.

Still, over the course of my gaming life I’ve found a handful of treasures at junk sales and junk shops. When I was a kid we sometimes stopped by tag sales in our neighborhood, more to hang out with playmates than really look for stuff, but I did find a few particularly interesting gaming treasures. At one I acquired one of my first science fiction novels, a worn paperback copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Savage Pellucidar, which fueled my nascent interest in fantasy fiction (how could you go wrong with the Frank Frazetta cover of scantily clad Dian the Beautiful and two saber-toothed tigers?). At another, right across the street from the first, I found and purchased The Royal Game of Ur in rare board game format. I was just becoming interested in archaeology and ancient civilizations at the time, so it was an inspiring find.

The local junk shop is quite that: a vast labyrinthine warehouse of cubbies filled with junk in loosely sorted categories. It has been officially called a “thrift” store and “indoor flea market,” both of which are being kind. One never quite knows what one might find, though it’s more curiosity than a treasure to purchase and take home. People I know regularly troll the dark corners seeking such eclectic finds as old vinyl records and equipment for projecting film (yes, both ancient technologies). The store used to have an adequate “game and puzzles” section primarily stocked with deteriorating family board games, but, in six years of irregular visits, I’ve only found two gems: a copy of the amazing, Mensa-award-winning Pirateer board game, and a second edition AD&D Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting boxed set.

This past weekend on a whim I visited a rummage sale advertised in the paper and run to benefit a local political group. The keywords in the newspaper ad that caught my eye included “toys” and “hobby items.” I took a chance that “hobby” meant gaming and not modeling, model railroading, or fly fishing. I lucked out. For $3 I bought a circular Celtic chess game called Noble Celts, complete with large faux leather board and resin pieces cast like Norse warriors…still in the industrial-strength shrink wrap. A little surfing on the internet pulled up the original price of $50, though it’s listed as out of stock. (I also found a First Act lap harp for $5, which, for a decent instrument originally priced at $20, and out of stock, is a steal.)
Maybe I just need to get out more, maybe I need to hit larger flea markets and community yard sales instead of the one- or two-family tag sales. Maybe my expectations are simply too high. While I don’t go to junk sales looking for anything specific from my gaming wish list, I do hope to at least find more evidence that gaming materials -- whether books, board games, miniatures, or other paraphernalia -- is making its way into the secondary market for diligent bargain hunters and eccentric collectors to find.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Allure of Maps

For many who first dive into Dungeons & Dragons the allure of the map proves the most difficult to resist. No matter what edition of the game one plays, maps serve as focal points for adventures, whether underground dungeon delving or overland exploration and diplomatic intrigue.

Few who immerse themselves in the game can resist creating their own map-based scenarios, drafting detailed cartographic charts drawn as artistically as one’s talents allow. The iconic beginner module, B2 The Keep on the Borderlands -- available in most of the early basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets -- even encourages it with the description of the map location for the Cave of the Unknown: “The Caves of the Unknown area is left for you to use as a place to devise your own cavern complex or dungeon maze.” We create elaborate maps for our own adventures, lovingly focusing on placing devious traps, connecting chambers with twisted corridors, and designing fantastic audience halls.

And then the creative process sometimes grinds to a halt. We’ve slaved over this beautiful graphic depiction of our adventure setting only to become dumbfounded at having to sit down and describe each and every location within in tedious detail, complete with monster stats, trap details, and “what ifs” describing adversaries motives and reactions. Like the game’s published adventures, we feel obligated to not only produce compelling maps but write equally engaging text to fully explore the possibilities surrounding each location. The result often consists of an interesting map and a few scribbled notes from which gamemasters run improvised adventures which, upon later reflection, become difficult to recall and recreate without more complete, albeit brief descriptions.

The movement spurred by the annual One Page Dungeon Contest brings dungeon delving (as well as overall scenario design) to a new, challenging level. Even professional adventure developers find a challenge in distilling the essence of an engaging adventure onto a single page, including the map and even brief descriptions of the scenario set-up, locations, wandering monsters, traps, and adversaries. Other genres less able to handle simple location descriptions and requiring more setting, plot, and character details -- including more narrative games such as pulp, historical, and horror -- present even greater obstacles to compacting a meaningful scenario onto a single page.

The One Page Dungeon Contest challenges adventure designers to illustrate and key a dungeon for a complete scenario experience. These system-neutral adventures leave the details of difficulties and monster stats to individuals to determine based on their particular game system. Most work within the medieval fantasy genre, but a few cross genres into pulp, horror, and science fiction. The contest not only inspires scenario designers to create a one-page dungeon, but all the entries, not just the winning ones, release to the public in free PDF compilations, so everyone wins.

Given the broad range of entries and the authors’ talents, the quality of these one-page dungeons varies widely. The PDF showcasing the winners quickly highlights the best submissions; each brings something exceptional to the one-page format, whether it’s the interesting set-up, genre adaptation, or amazing graphic presentation. They’re worth reading not simply for the adventure material to incorporate into a campaign, but as examples of how one might convey a scenario’s essential elements in a concise format.

Striking A Balance

My scenario material falls somewhere well in between the fully developed text adventure with maps and the minimalist one-page adventure. Granted, little of what I design would fall under the header of “dungeon delving,” but I believe certain elements of the one-page dungeon have validity in most gaming genres. I also believe in striking a balance between keeping things short and concise and yet presenting a fully developed scenario containing everything necessary to prepare the gamemaster and inform/challenge the players.

Writing to a short page or word count remains one of the most challenging creative exercises. It’s not simply a matter of banging out enough words to fill the required quota; one must create an engaging game situation, complete with locations, characters, and plot development/climax in an extremely limited space. Doing this well takes good planning and tight writing.

I’m often in a quandary about what a gamemaster needs to write down to record a scenario for future replay or to share with others. Would simple notes and a hastily drawn map suffice, or does a gamemaster need to give it the entire professional module treatment, or something in between? Does one outline the locations, adversaries, and objectives, or provide scene-by-scene guidance? Should the action encourage players to wander around the map or “railroad” them along a predestined set of plot points? (All of these scenario design issues are worth another article altogether….)

I’m not usually writing to share a scenario with a few friends, but fully developing an adventure for some form of publication (even if as a free promotional PDF). The format varies depending on the venue. Many times a preview PDF features a fully developed scenario to give readers a better sense of the for-sale sourcebook. A four-page “adventure outline” remains perhaps the shortest I’ve done. My scenario style tends toward the narrative, so an adventure is filled with plot guidance and plenty of setting sidebars and information about adversaries. Often I’ll include an informative player handout, like a period newspaper page with clues and cues about the pending action. Personally the shortest material I’ve published remains a pair of four-page “adventure outlines” for Heroes of Rura-Tonga. They contain the bare bones for the adventures, without the usual pre-generated characters I typically use when I run them as convention games. Still, it’s amazing what will fit on four pages. One of these days I’d like to find the time and the project/genre to develop a one-page dungeon or scenario based on a map. It’s a good challenge, and, when included in a more comprehensive preview package or in a rulebook, it provides a quick scenario to test-drive the rules and setting.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Brick & Mortar Versus Internet Game Sales

I spent this past Saturday on an expedition driving around the nearby greater metro area on a number of errands, primarily to have lunch with a friend and visit a one-day toy soldier show and sale, but also to check out a few area hobby and game stores to see if they had anything to satisfy my appetite for my various gaming addictions. While I achieved my main objectives, the hobby store aspect of my trip was terribly disappointing; I asked myself why I spent a day driving around to different stores when I could probably have spent less time purchasing what I wanted right off the internet.

Don’t get me wrong…I love brick and mortar hobby and game stores. I have fond memories of the trove of roleplaying game goodies found at the hobby store not five minutes from the house where I grew up (and sadly long gone). Everywhere I’ve lived I managed to find good gaming stores, sometimes an hour or so away, but always well worth the trip because I found something I was looking for or a hidden treasure that caught my eye. Even today I consider my “friendly local gaming store” (yes, it’s still about a 45-minute drive away) worth the trip.

But my meanderings Saturday displayed some disappointing evidence of both typical game store behavior and the depleted inventory and ├╝ber-specialization brought on by the economic recession. I encountered both wonderfully friendly staff and extremely negative managers. The stores exhibited a more limited selection of gaming products than on previous visits (about a year ago), though at least one had specialized more on a particular miniatures game which I enjoy but wasn’t looking to purchase this time around. For the most part my pilgrimage seeking game-purchase satisfaction was unfulfilling; I don’t like saying this, but I could have saved my time and money buying what I wanted off the internet.

Environment or Convenience?

The debate really boils down to going to game stores for the environment or fulfilling your shopping list online.

Good game stores offer an atmosphere conducive to customers browsing product, talking about games, and playing them. The ones that impress me the most provide plenty of room to move about to browse the merchandise as well as gaming areas where one could watch or try out new games. They encourage an active calendar for regular weekly gatherings for groups playing all kinds of games, occasional “craft” events for miniatures wargaming (like painting days or terrain-making workshops), and host special events like open board gaming days, demos, and tournaments. Websites and social networking sites provide both means for retail stores to communicate information and news to customers and forums for gamers to gather and interact through the store’s online presence.

Many stores are limited by their leased retail space that comes at a costly premium. Offering room for customers to move about the store freely or sit for hours playing games isn’t always perceived as an equal priority to providing shelf space to display merchandise for sale, but gaming stores aren’t typical retail establishments; they’re gathering places where members of a hobby community can meet and interact.

The stores I visited Saturday had gaming areas with people hanging out, talking about their particular games, setting up for matches, or actually playing scenarios; but my primary mission was game purchase, so the lack of merchandise I was particularly interested in didn’t keep me in the store very long, and their size wasn’t too conducive to hanging around (in fact in one I had to maneuver around the playing area to check out shelves farther back in the store).

With the advent of online sales, brick and mortar stores have much more fierce competition from the purely retail perspective. One can find almost any gaming product online, in most cases at a decent discount or free shipping. Even if one pays a little for shipping, it’s nothing like the time and gas spent looking for a particular product (possibly unsuccessfully) at a physical store. To survive in the face of online sales, good game stores offer customers the positive gaming environment, excellent deals, and hassle-free special ordering. I’m thankful my friendly local gaming store gives me a flat 10% off most purchases for being a frequent customer, and 10% off any special orders I place.

The Shopping List

Just out of curiosity, you might ask what I was seeking on my day-long trek. Nothing terribly vital, just a few things on my radar that have piqued my interest lately and which I wouldn’t mind checking out:

Armies in Plastic Toy Soldiers: These 1:32 scale (54mm) soldiers come in solid-colored plastic, but are nicely sculpted, reasonably priced, and cover various historical periods that interest me. A box of infantry comes with 20 soldiers, two each of 10 poses, for about $15 (cavalry comes with five horses and riders and artillery with one gun and a crew). The toy soldier show and sale I visited had a few vendors who carried a handful of boxes, primarily (and understandably) soldiers from the Civil War, but also from the Zulu Wars, Egypt and the Sudan, and a few boxes from other conflicts. I picked up a box of “Ansars” Dervish Warriors to slake my thirst for goodies from the Mahdist uprising. One can order these from Armies in Plastic online, but I like to get out and see the product first-hand.

Fire and Fury: I’ve heard this is one of the seminal rules for fighting American Civil War battles, but I’ve not seen a copy to browse or observed the rules in play. Lately I’m intrigued by a local Civil War battle I’m researching and would like to bring it to the wargaming table at some point. I’ve found some very basic (and fairly intuitive) rules online, but wouldn’t mind seeing if Fire and Fury is a little more advanced or simply too advanced for my purposes. I could order it online; instead I’ll see if anyone’s running it at an upcoming miniature wargaming convention or if any vendors there carry it. I can always fall back on the simple online rules I found.

Wings of War: Dawn of World War II Miniatures: This fun little game remains a nice entry point bridging the gap between board games and miniature wargames; I’m also running it at the local library’s upcoming teen gaming event. I wanted to beef up my RAF forces with the Spitfire and Hurricane to even out the few miniatures I already have. I’m not sure what I’ll do now…I could just make do with what I have and pare down the German forces I offer to players, or see if the friendly local gaming store could special order them (the minis aren’t something they usually carry).