Last Thursday was a significant milestone for me with sixty years on this planet ticking by.
The event was celebrated last night with a dinner for 27 at a French Café and wine shop here in Auckland. The guests included a pleasing mix of family, long term friends, wargaming friends and work colleagues.
I suppose it is inevitable on reaching such a milestone to reflect a little. My reflection has shown me just how much our glorious hobby has featured (or is it intruded) in those sixty years.
I was set on this course as early as Christmas 1960 when aged two-and-half years my parents dressed me in a military costume.
So that's where my addiction to hussars comes from!
The first step that I can remember in my descent into model soldier and wargaming obsession came in 1966 when the band of the Scots Guards toured New Zealand. My parents took the family to the show - I was hooked in those red uniform, bagpipes and a marching band. I remember that the concert programme featured the picture below of the Guards in the Crimea and that image has stayed with me ever since – it fed my desire to collect a Crimean War army a few years ago.
Following that event my aunt in England began sending me Britains 54mm Guards figures – my first toy soldiers.
Probably about a year later I went to the movies and saw the film “Custer of the West”. The opening scenes featured Custer in the Civil War charging down Confederates and so started two more life long obsessions: the American Civil War and the Sioux Wars. Again my aunt fed the obsession by sending me Britains Civil War infantry and Plains Wars cavalry and Indians. A couple of years ago I purchased a copy of the film for nostalgia sake and it is safe to say that it has not stood the test of time, nor did it live up to my memory of it...I am glad I only paid $5.00 for it.
A short time after that I was leafing through my dad's National Geographic magazines and stumbled upon the July 1963 edition with three double pages depicting the Battle of Gettysburg. This started another obsession - the Battle of Gettysburg. From this I learned how battles were fought.
The next big step forward for me in terms of the hobby came in 1969 or1970 when I discovered Airfix figures - they were amazing value with a box of 48 figures selling for 50 cents. About the same time I read in a Boy Scout Annual about how to play wargames – pretty rudimentary stuff, but still a structured game that moved away from just playing with toy soldiers.
In early 1971 a family friend gave me a copy of the Illustrated London News that contained an article about wargaming. It had an interview with Donald Featherstone and featured the image below. I wanted my battles to look like this, although these guys look way too serious...I can't imagine much in the way of witty repartie or friendly character assassination around that table.
By now my obsession was well and truly established and my parents fed it more by giving me the book “Charge! – or How to Play Wargames” by Brigadier Young and Colonel Lawford for Christmas 1971. This was my first real set of rules. I still own this book in near mint condition and often leaf through it. But still my games were solo.
Not until my first year at high school did my gaming become social. I met someone in my class that gamed and we played games at his house. Then, I think in 1972, the local TV news item had an item about a local wargames club, the Auckland Wargames Society, and we met another chap named Evan at school who actually went to that club. Evan cropped up from time to time in my wargames history and in years to come would become the vehicle and figure designer for what has become Battlefront Miniatures.
Sometime in 1973 I went along to that club and my first wargames club meeting. There I met several others of my age, some of whom even went to my school, but I never joined this club. It had this strange structure with a junior and senior cell, although in truth there were only a couple of adults and the rest were of school or university age. Junior cell members still had to pay fees, but had no say in the running of the club and were generally pushed off into a back room. It is with amusement I remember an incident that demonstrated how much more mature the senior cell was than the junior cell when during a WWII game one senior gamer became quite annoyed when artillery fire rained down on his units destroying most of them. When he questioned how on earth the firers knew where the target was, his opponent pointed out the observer, whereupon the recipient of the fire picked up the plastic figure of the observer, bit its head off and tossed the decapitated body out the open window declaring “well it won’t see any more will he!”
In September 1974 five of us, frustrated with club structure, started our own club, the Auckland Wargaming Club. The old Society folded not long after we left, but our club continues to this day, although I have not attended for more than 20 years. I played American Cilvil War and Napoleonics in these days.
For the next ten years I was heavily involved in the wargames club scene in New Zealand, attending the first National Wargames convention in 1975 then pretty much every national and regional event, either as a competitor or trader, thereafter until the mid 1990s, winning several regional and national titles in what was then the 25mm Horse and Musket category - just other day when I was cleaning up I found a few medals that I earned at some of those events.
Even though I have a deep seated fear of public speaking I fronted the club on TV two or three times and in local newspapers two or three times more – not because I particularly wanted to, but because no one else would.
In 1978 my fascination with the American Civil War led me to visit Gettysburg and Manassas where I walked the battlefields as well as visiting Washington DC and Richmond. That Civil War fascination continues to this day and my library of paper books on that conflict (that was started on that trip with the purchase of all three volumes of "Lee's Lieutenants") now numbers in excess of 230 and the digital collection is as great.
In May 1980 joined a gaming group that met at one of the member’s homes (who coincidentally had featured in that TV news item that I had seen way back in 1972) every second Friday night - sometimes weekly. Unlike the club scene that played competition games based on points, games were simply set up by one of the members with some sort of military objective and the games played, often heavily under the influence of a wine, to a logical conclusion. I loved this style of play because history side of historical gaming is every bit as important to me as the game or the figures. This is still my preferred style of gaming - with or without the wine.
We played fabulous games. Most of them were Napoleonic, Seven Years War and War of Spanish Succession (although we knew it as Marlburian) games, but dabbled a little in American Civil War and English Civil War. We took existing rules modified them. We wrote our own rules to suit our style of play. Still to this day I am a writer of rules. Of all the years I have been playing wargames, those days hold the most nostalgia for me.
The original members of the group had formed a company that imported rules, books and figures. At some point they began manufacturing figures under license. In 1984 I joined them, buying into a company trading as Military Miniatures. The following year I left my job and entered the industry full time running the retail arm of the business in one of Auckland’s more central retail locations.
In 1986, during a visit to the UK and Europe I spent a week at Peter Gilder's Wargames Holiday centre.
That same trip I visited Wargames Foundry and purchased the first part of what would eventually become a very large Franco-Prussian army. I visited Terry Wise in Doncaster and attended the Derby Worlds show. Another UK visit two years later led me to Colours in Reading and the first of several visits to the Musée de l'Armée in Paris.
The arrival of the ’86 stock market crash and soaring interest rates (at its worst commercial bank rates peaked at 26%) made for tough trading in our little business and we relocated to cheaper premises. We began manufacturing under license brands like Frei Korps 15, Tabletop Games, Front Rank, Hotspur Miniatures and our own Military Miniatures ranges.
In 1986 I began designing model buildings and general terrain items that were cast in resin, in 15mm, 25mm and 1:300 scales. In a relatively short time this range expanded to include some 150 items and would eventually exceed 300, including town and country structures for most locations and time periods. Some of the more memorable pieces included a Vauban fortress, a Japanese castle, a French and Indian War fort, a European castle and a complete range of WWII coastal fortifications. These model buildings are now long out of production and I have only a few examples in my collection, as below.
There was also a small range that were not made for the wargames market, a few samples of which are below:
But despite this extensive range we struggled with the steep retail rents and moved into a factory shop location in a light industrial area. Here we did better and we had enough space for a wargames room where we ran wargames weekends for a while.
While the business bumbled along our gaming group continued. We began to expand beyond our traditional periods of play into ECW, Franco-Prussian War, WWII in 15mm, AWI, and others. In 1984 our gaming leader (Jim – at whose home we played) had a disagreement with one of the gamers and suspended games. We then played at various player’s homes and eventually at our games room at the factory shop. Then in July 1985, in an attempt to bring Jim back into the fold, one of our members hosted a weekend of gaming at his holiday home at Lake Tarawera. The weekend was a huge success and thirty-three years later the event is still the highlight of our gaming year, although our dear friend Jim passed away in 2001.
Above, a moment in that first Tarawera game, and below the group shot of the original six (less one who is taking the photo)
The buisness still struggled on and in 1989 I was compelled to leave full time involvement for a couple of years to earn a living, returning in 1992. During my time away from the buisness I wrote and published a set of rules "Warfare in the Industrial Age" that covered the period 1859 to 1871, a reference on the uniforms of the Franco-Prussian War and ten small scenario booklets for the battles of the American Civil War (each of which contained a potted history of the battle, orders of battle and a number of scenarios). These were self published in New Zealand and then published under licence in the UK by Tabletop Games. They have long ago vanished into the mists of time, although the text of the uniforms book can be found under "Free Stuff" on this blog.
Despite our efforts the business just bubbled along until 1996. At this point we imported some metal Old Glory/Skytrex 15mm WWII tanks. They sold well for us and I remember thinking that this type of product would lend itsef for manufacture in resin, a material with which we had considerable exoerience, if only we had someone who could make master patterns for us. At almost the same time Evan, that same person from my early wargames days who had made some 1:300 scale modern models for us in the 1980s, came to me and said the he could make 15mm WWII masters models for us that could probably cast in resin. I said go ahead and about a month later Evan supplied five masters for WWII French armour and we began casting the hulls and turrets in resin and the tracks, weapons and hatches in metal.
So we started the Military Miniatures 15mm WWII range. At first we only filled the gaps that no one made in their ranges. After the the French we moved on to some of the smaller German vehicles PzI, PzII, 38t, etc. The quality and price that we could produce meant that the range began to develop quickly and pretty soon we were making a broad range of French, German, US, British and Russian vehicles (all Evan’s designs) and began to make infantry and artillery, competing openly with other brands. A friend of the business mentioned our models in an internet chat room and within a couple of months we began selling into the USA, Australia and the UK. I took our product to a HMGS event in Seattle in 1996 and to Historicon the following year. In 1997 Military Miniatures joined with another games retailer and distributor, forming Battlefront Miniatures. I left the business in 1999. I am sure that the current Battlefront management will choose to not to acknowledge my version of the genesis of what has morphed into Flames of War, but nonetheless that is how it all started, although I freely admit that the Battlefront of today bears no resemblance whatsoever to the business of those early days.
For the better part of four years after leaving the business I did very little gaming. I did build a significant ACW collection and sculpted my own range of figures for a War of 1866, including Austrian, Italians, Saxons, Hanoverians, Bavarians and Wurtembegers. The Austrians and Italians were cast up and significant forces built. Regrettably the moulding company ruined the Saxon masters and I have not had the heart to cast up the other masters. In 2004 I returned to the gaming group, attending the annual Tarawera Weekend after a six year break from the event.
I entered a period of gaming renaissance, one of pure fun and the enjoyment of good friends - the cries of anguish when bad dice are rolled and the elation of a victory. The original group is still in play. Of the original six, three still get together regularly and two more are involved occasionally. The group has also expanded to bring in new members. Most of that current group attended my 60th celebration.
My collections now count many thousands of miniatures and encompass Dark Ages, Wars of the Roses, ECW, War of Spanish Succession, Napoleonics – Russains, Prussians, French, French in Egypt, British in Egypt, Ottoman, Retreat from Moscow – Carlist Wars, ACW, Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars, Russo-Japanese War and early WWI. There are also dozens of buildings to support the various eras. I have never been tempted by fantasy or sci-fi gaming because I can never see a time when I will run out of historical periods to game. Nor does skirmish gaming really appeal - I like the specticale of hundreds (if not thousands) of figures on the table so the thought of gaming with a dozen or so figures is unfathomable.
Our's is a truly fabulous hobby.