My daily commute, to and from the airport, every week day for 48 weeks a year, is a round trip of 60 km. The general lack of a proper transport infrastructure in Auckland, means that I spend an average of an hour and a half in traffic every day - half an hour in the morning and an hour in the late afternoon. It takes this amount of time because I leave home at 5:45 am and finish work at 3:30pm. If I leave any later than either of those times, I can add another 30-45 minutes to that journey, in each direction.
The home journey is usually the worst. Normally I pass the time by plugging in the iPod and cranking up the volume. A bit of Beethoven goes a long way to easing the stresses of the day - I find the 6th particularly good and I can usually get between half and two thirds of the way home before the recording ends. A bit of Bach can be good too, if I am in a mathematical frame of mind. On the really bad days, when the whole day has been nothing but questions, problems, complaints and whining (as a measure of how bad a really bad day can be, I once kept a tally of the number of questions I fielded during the course of a day and gave up counting after I reached 200), bit of Green Day "Uno" or Deep Purple "In Rock" at a volume that rattles the windows is hugely satisfying. Other times I drive in silence and put that time to much better use...thinking about wargames - maybe some rules issue, a new army I am contemplating, or even what I am going to paint that night.
Just the other day was one of those nightmare days when, having been kept at work for a conference call, I didn’t get away until after 5:00pm. None of the subject matter experts we requested to be on the call were available so the call had been a complete waste of time. To make matters worse it was raining, and as any Aucklander knows, rain and Auckland drivers is a bad combination. To relieve my frustration Green Day was the choice “du jour”. However, the traffic was absolutely awful and the usually five minute, 3.5km drive from the office to the end of the airport access road, clogged by road works, took a full 45 minutes and the Green Day album ended. I finally made it past the roadworks and onto the motorway, where I drove in silence.
In the silence I began to think of a conversation I had had with one of the regulars of our gaming group a few weeks earlier about our old friend Jim Shaw and how he had died fifteen years ago - and as I thought about I realised that it was in fact fifteen years ago this week. The rest of the drive home, the remaining 55 minutes, passed quickly as I thought about the influence Jim had had on my wargaming.
Now Jim didn't introduce me to wargaming. I have had this obsession with toy soldiers since I was seven years old, but not until I started at high school in 1972 when I discovered there were actually others who shared this madness of playing with soldiers did my games began to take real form. In those early high school years I joined the Auckland Wargames Society, an odd group with a strange club hierarchy. It didn't take long for five of us, fed up with an organisation that was happy to take our fees but unwilling to let us under sixteen year olds have any say in the running of the club, to leave and set up our own club, the Auckland Wargaming Club (AWC). The Society folded shortly afterwards, but the AWC continues to this day.
I had heard of Jim from Neil, another of the AWC founding members. Neil’s father had worked with Jim and took Neil around to see Jim’s gaming set up. Jim was Neil’s inspiration and he often spoke about the way "Mr Shaw" did things.
As a young man Jim joined the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the Second World War, serving in the submarine service in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. He had emigrated to New Zealand in the 1950s and was possibly one of the first wargamers in the country, commencing his collecting in the late 1960s and conducting most of his wargames solo. In those early days he communicated with Donald Featherstone and one of his earliest opponents was one of Featherstone's fellow gamers, a chap called Bill Gunson. How Jim and Bill started playing games is worth mentioning here. Bill was working in New Zealand in the Taranaki oil fields and had got Jim’s name and address from Featherstone. One day, out of the blue a huge box of ACW figures arrived at Jim's house. Then Jim got a call from Bill announcing that he was coming to Auckland and they were going to play a game. It was not a long association, by all accounts, but an unusual one.
I met Jim for the first time in 1977, when I was nineteen, at a wargames convention at Auckland University. I had set up a huge ACW game with Airfix figures and Jim was particularly impressed with it – he was easily impressed. I met Jim at several other events over the next couple of years and then I was asked to play a game at Jim’s home – it was on 30 May 1980, I remember the day precisely. I joined this group of five or six gamers and forged an association that remains today – although Jim is gone now, three of that group still play regularly, and a couple of others play more occasionally. The core of this group formed the retail business Military Miniatures that I joined in 1984. That business eventually morphed into Battlefront.
Jim had built a wargames room under his house, digging out one end and concreting the floor. Looking back it was a terrible room really; it had a very low stud, no ventilation or insulation so that it was freezing in the winter and stifling in the summer. But none of that mattered because he had a huge 12 foot by 6 foot table and literally thousands of metal 25mm Napoleonic troops. Shallow shelves surrounded the walls and there Jim had his collections of old style 54mm toy soldiers on display – although they were never toy soldiers to Jim…always models.
We played at Jim’s house every second Friday. The evening's arrangements were simple; we would turn up at about 7:30 in the evening and play until well after midnight - 2:00am was that latest I can recall. Everyone brought a bottle of wine and at 10:00pm Jim’s wife would open the hatch door to the house and pass down a tray with a pot of coffee and a platter of cheese, crackers and other treats for supper.
Joining “Jim’s Group” proved a pivotal moment in my wargaming life. Until this point I had only ever played club games. These were competition games where the armies were selected by points from army lists. At Jim’s place, for the first time I played scenario games that one of the players would set up. They had a more "military" feel to them and a purpose beyond just "highest points at the end of the game wins." Commands and objectives would be assigned on the night.
Jim loved big games with thousands of figures on the table (in most of his games the table would fairly groan under the weight of metal), but hated to see the casualties removed. We played wonderful games in a jovial atmosphere, fuelled by wine. We forged enduring friendships.
This group, like most groups of friends, was not exempt from arguments and disagreements – and Jim could be a grumpy bugger when he wanted to be. On one occasion in late 1983 one of the newer members annoyed Jim so much (and he was justifiably annoyed on this occasion) that he terminated games at his home. We began meeting at other member’s houses and while those games were enjoyable, Jim wasn’t there. Not until July 1985, when one of our members organised a gaming weekend out of town at his holiday home at Lake Tarawera (starting a 32 year tradition for our group) did we bring Jim back into the fold, but even after that the games at Jim’s house were few and far between.
In 1988 when Military Miniatures changed premises from a retail to an industrial location and we had enough space to build a wargames room that could accommodate a 3.6 by 1.8 metre table and we began to play our Friday night games (and some Sunday games too) there, and continued to do so until as late as 2000. Jim was a regular at those games.
Jim had retired in 1985 and helped out in the business for the next 14 years. His wife died suddenly while visiting family overseas in 1987 and he had a heart attack and subsequent bypass surgery in 1997. Then in late 1999, shortly after I left the business, Jim moved down south to Taranaki, to be nearer to his daughter. For the next fifteen months I lost contact with Jim, but re-established contacts in early 2001. Then about March that year I heard that Jim had an inoperable brain tumour and he died in May, just a few weeks after his 75th birthday. His funeral was held on Saturday 2 June 2001 and it is one of the great regrets of my life that I was unable to attend.
On days like the one I described earlier (stuck in that dreadful traffic) where I have time to let my mind wander back to those magical days when we played those wonderful games in his basement, I miss my old friend Jim. I have great memories of that time. But in a way he is still a part of my life because it is his recipe for a successful game that I generally follow to this day. That recipe is that games should:
• Involve like-minded people who enjoy each other’s company
• Have a historical basis – the scenario must always be “historically believable"
• Be played with at least some level of understanding of the period you are playing - play historically
• Be simple to play – in Jim’s term the rules should be “more cruder”
• Be organised so that everyone is involved and has a role that suits their personality
• Have a result, or if no result was reached, the outcome had to be decided by a balancing of what Jim called "military probability"
• Look good - both armies and terrain
• Be fun!
• Be big!
Remove any one of those ingredients, but the last, and enjoyment is in jeopardy.
Remove two or more and your game will be average at best.