Sunday, 22 May 2016

Aesthetics in Wargames - Another Aunt Sally?

JJ's Roman's - terrorise not only the Dacian's but some wargamers from getting involved in the hobby- really?
Every now and then "JJ's Wargames" likes to go off on one and start a debate rolling on a theme that is common to most of us in the hobby. Recent examples included the loss and retention of the painting mojo, which seemed to strike a chord with many.

Painting and modelling is an important aspect of our hobby, otherwise we would likely be solely board gamers, and JJ's has always been a blog keen to support other like minds that enjoy that aspect.

Therefore I felt the need to respond to an article by Arthur Harman in June's, Miniature Wargames magazine entitled 'The look of the thing, Artistic licence in wargaming'

Firstly I think I should explain the expression of making the subject of debate an "Aunt Sally" which may not be a term familiar to all, certainly outside the UK. The definition of the expression is as follows.

Definition of Aunt Sally:
a game played in some parts of Britain in which players throw sticks or balls at a wooden dummy.
• a dummy used in the game of Aunt Sally. plural noun: Aunt Sallies
• a person or thing set up as an easy target for criticism. "today's landowner is everyone's Aunt Sally"

I was really surprised to read the article by Arthur Harman in Miniature Wargames magazine, that posed the question;
"whether aesthetics should be allowed to dominate  our enjoyment of a wargame, or deter us from getting stuck in. Is our terror of the roving photographer or blogger to blame?"

I have heard and seen the odd comment that there is a body of opinion that supports this proposition and had always thought it to be a very outlandish idea, and not likely to be taken seriously in the mainstream of the hobby, perhaps I was wrong. If that is the case then I think this idea needs challenging.

As you can see the question has two parts to its proposition:
  • firstly it rather presupposes that the reader agrees that aesthetics already dominates our enjoyment of the hobby.
  • and secondly suggests that we are terrorised by the "wargames fashionistas" who will come and make us feel bad about ourselves because we can't live up to the "Aunt Sally" of aesthetic perfection that it suggests we are all in pursuit of.

Really? The thought that anyone could allow themselves and their approach to their hobby to be directed by what others deemed to be a requirement to take part, I find quite bizarre. I personally wouldn't give anyone the right to make me feel that way and I don't know anyone in the circle of gamers I play with who would. Perhaps this thinking is a symptom of the modern fashion of games systems requiring everyone to use the same rules and figures in the same way, waiting for pronouncements on high as to what the "same way" is.

After reading the question and giving it some consideration my curiosity was fired and I pressed on into the article, which went on to quote Neil Shuck;
"Miniature Wargaming ..... is actually quite a complex hobby..... it's not just about the wargame rules and game, but about collecting, assembling and painting model soldiers...." and that "it could be weeks (or indeed months or even years) before an army is painted and ready to put into the field of battle. This is a huge hurdle, and has surely put off untold numbers of would-be wargamers due to large commitment of time, resources and skills required..."

The author then agrees with Neil Shuck's quote stating that he could think of many campaigns or periods not embarked upon for this reason.

So again let's think about the implications covered in the quote;
  • Miniature Wargaming is quite a complex hobby
  • It can be time/finance consuming, building a collection of figures
  • The skills required and the commitment to complete a given project could put players off from getting involved in the first place.
If we replaced the words "Miniature Wargaming", with "Radio Controlled Model Aircraft building" or "Piano playing" or "Horse Riding" or "Deep Sea Fishing" or dare I say "Model Railway Collecting", those criticisms could be levelled at lots of hobbies some a lot more complex, time/finance consuming and skill set requiring than ours.

Come on chaps, if we are as passionate, as I know from the comments received on this blog that many of us wargamers are, about our hobby, we don't care about the little list of "asks" that wargaming might demand of us to build the collection and run the games we want to play, because we can't help ourselves, we love it and we will move hell and high water to do what we want to do; even if that means learning the modelling skills, rule sets, finding the resources and time and building friendships with like-minded folk who want to play the games we do, and by our example bringing others into this great hobby.

An early 19thC aquatint that is recommended as the inspiration for our games
The web and magazines are full of articles and information out there to help us in our pursuit of wargaming nirvana, something older generations (I include myself) really appreciate as no such quantity of resource existed when we started in the hobby. From my experience there are lots of people out there happy to share their skills and encouragement to help bring new people into it and there has never been a better time to get involved, with the figure ranges, terrain options and great painting/modelling resources available. 

This blog like many others is dedicated to encouraging others to get involved in wargaming at whatever level they choose to, but not afraid to also encourage the pursuit of aesthetics in it as well; and I felt impelled to answer the criticism implied in the article and to offer a much more positive slant than the diagnosis and prescription that followed of rejecting the production of great looking games and collections in favour of the alternative and returning to bare based figures, functional terrain with contour stepped hills and figures all in the same pose. 

Hey, if the latter approach does it for you, you will not hear or read any criticism from this blog, each to their own as I have already stated, but conversely don't expect any support for the idea that great aesthetics in wargames puts people off from getting involved, if anything I believe the reverse is more true. 

I would not have been attracted into wargaming if all the books on the subject in the mid seventies had been in the style of Don Featherstone (God bless him) and Tony Bath with the functional looking games they produced. It was Peter Gilder and his fantastic looking games, that I had no hope of recreating at the time, that fired my enthusiasm and set the goal to emulate. I have memories of the frustration of not being able to get my games to look that good, but also the desire to get better and add to my skills.

That said I carried several Don Featherstone tomes around with me for months re-reading the text rather than admiring the pictures, which I rejected as being what the game should look like for me. Note these statements are personal, and I don't expect others to feel the same way, but likewise I don't think we should allow others to determine how we feel about our hobby and the way we want to do it.

A JJ's version of an early 19thC aquatint
I think the picture of the hobby that is presented to the wider world is important to attracting more people into it and I think the best aesthetically looking collections and games go a huge way to doing that, but also the need to present what wargaming has always been, namely a welcoming, encouraging, supportive community of hobbyists producing great variation on the theme.

I don't think we should buy into the negative way of thinking that says excellence puts undue pressure on individuals to live up to - rubbish! We only put pressure on ourselves if we decide to think that way and a more positive way to think is that I will play the games I want to in my way with people who also enjoy a similar approach and I will decide what I consider excellent and what I want to emulate/copy into my own games.

In addition I don't want to buy in to the mantra of "I can't".
I can't paint, I can't find the time, I can't not help feeling pressurised by others. If you think like that then you are right, you can't. But the good news is that you don't have to think that way.

I regularly hear people on pod-casts saying they can't paint and some even being proud that they can't and don't paint despite being their to promote a hobby that would suggest a modicum of painting being required. 

We don't play board games we play tabletop games with figures and terrain, most of us for the aesthetics of picturing our warrior units in action and performing the heroic deeds we have read about. I say most of us, because Arthur Harman states that he finds the use of figures more as an aid memoir as to what the unit is, although I am not totally convinced when he states that he wouldn't use counters from board games because the counters do not allow him to get "emotionally involved"

The use of the phrase"emotionally involved" is revealing and suggests that the figures in the wargame are more than just fancy game markers as suggested and I don't really buy the idea of producing armies that model the stylised early nineteenth century engravings of William Heath as the justification for ignoring the painting ideas of greats such as Kevin Dallimore.

Kevin Dallimore's step wise approach to painting illustrated in his books, enable and allow wargamers to produce, good, very good or collector standard units of figures depending on what they want to achieve and the level of input they are prepared to make.

Kevin Dallimore has done a lot to help and
encourage great painting to all standards
If I were to make one suggestion that might chime with this "can't paint, won't paint" agenda it would be the rise of the painting competition. Like it's near neighbour the wargame competition, the mere thought leaves me cold and its development in the hobby might explain why some of our fellow hobbyists feel under pressure to perform.

I spend my professional life in competition and the last thing I am looking for in my hobby is more competition; again whatever floats your boat is fine by me, this is just my opinion. I have no interest in competing in wargaming or wargame painting and in the latter I go out of my way in not making judgements about others styles and techniques, with the exception of commenting on professional painting examples in commercial products such as books being sold to wargamers, where I feel it is open to comment in review.

Competition is seeping into many so called hobbies and pastimes. We have TV shows with baking competitions, cookery competitions, singing competitions, activities that many of us considered as worthy of merit purely for the doing rather than being better at than others based on someone else's opinion. This, I think, has probably encouraged a generation of self appointed judges, ready to raise up or put down the efforts of others whether they had decided to be in a competition or not.

In my local club, we have many and different standards of painted collections. The only club rule is that figures brought to it have to be painted and ready to play, ie no "silver surfers". As a club, we enjoy sharing modelling and painting ideas and the games we produce have, I think, got better over the years as we all have improved our skills by sharing and supporting each other. There is no competition, only a desire to produce nice looking games and collections and have fun with our great hobby away from the requirements of our professional lives. Club participants are encouraged to get involved in all aspects of the hobby and we can boast some fine collections within the group which has a well defined spirit of independent thought typical of this part of the UK since the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 and before. 

The point is none of us feel controlled by the hobby and are able to make space for all types and levels of games from the simple to the excellent and that approach has, like a rising tide, raised all boats by enabling us as a club to produce more and more aesthetically pleasing games.

So in summary, ignore the "can't paint, won't paint" agenda and embrace all aspects of the hobby in a spirit of getting the most out of it for you as an individual and don't feel you have to go about it according to the "wargame fashionistas" and what they think, say or are able to do.

Importantly, don't surrender to an apathy of I can never produce the games I would like to, so I'm going to tell everyone I don't care. The fact is if someone has already done something then you can to and it then comes down to what you really want and what you are prepared to commit to achieve it, and there are loads of people and resources out there to help.

Happy Wargaming


  1. Excellent post. I find the wargaming hobby to be a good mix of artistic expression (painting, terrain making) and social interaction (gaming) and each of us can choose which aspect of the hobby to emphasize based on our particular interests and skills. I find the artistic aspects to be huge stress relievers and do them for that reason not to achieve a goal set by outside parties. I actually got into the hobby after a pair of strokes and found painting to be great therapy for fine motor skills. My first handful of figures may not meet the highest painting standards but they mean a great deal to me.

    1. Hi Jm,
      My thoughts exactly and I think you make a good point about your painting following illness. I realise some of us would love to paint but can't due to physical limitations and to enjoy their hobby are forced through circumstances to play with painted miniatures through other means than painting them themselves.

      It was great to hear you found that painting was therapeutic and I would echo that sentiment in that I find the whole process a great way to chill out and express my creativity.

      The last thing I would want to see is others being put off having that experience because others set the standard as to what their painting has to be like, but conversely let's celebrate excellence in the art and encourage all those that want to, to get better and help show the hobby to the outside world at its best.

  2. Well said JJ- preparing my own retort to MW June as well on the "Pyjamas" blogs. Unfortunately one seems to feel that setting the bar low is what the current young individuals want. Well the young folk I know want to aspire as well, often to the highest reaches possible.

    1. Hi Carlo,
      Thank you. I think the younger generations buy into aesthetics in their games unconsciously, being used to the computer games, they are familiar with having great visual graphics and animation and expecting a similar level of attention to detail in their tabletop experience.

      Both my lads have got into the hobby and can relax with a paintbrush in hand and delight in celebrating great examples of painting and modelling created by others and have that spirit of enquiry, seeking to work out how they have got the results they have.

      I think it would be hard to imagine an article like this appearing in the fantasy magazines where modelling and painting is taken for granted as all part of the hobby and with many younger players graduating from a fantasy background, my hope is that that view will keep historical gaming moving in that direction.


  3. Agreed, excellent post. Its the love of the hobby for me. Time, effort, cost are irrelevant. I strive to have good looking figures and terrain because it makes me happy. That's all that matters to me. Your blog tutorials helped significantly improve my painting skill the more I practiced. This only increased my happiness in this hobby. I have figures I first painted and still use them but it serves as a reminder to me when I compare the first generation figures to my present generation figures how far my skill has progressed and that is immensely satisfying. Your set up and figures remain my benchmarks to reach but I am greatful for having this high bar to reach. It keeps me motivated.


    1. Hi Adam, thank you that's very kind and I am thrilled you are loving the hobby.

      As you can see I too was motivated by the work of others and I have had a lot of pleasure out of the hobby and I feel beholden to try and put something back by encouraging others to get involved and find the fun in playing with toy soldiers.
      Keep on painting

  4. We all play wargames for a variety of reasons and I confess I like to see a well painted army grace the table. I would say I paint to a reasonable standard, but I see plenty of figures that make me think different ! I have always found wargamers a generous lot. Painters are usually willing to share their techniques and I have yet to have anyone refuse when asked "how did you get that effect ?"

    I have suffered from a different painting problem, as I well remember playing a WAB game and seeing my freshly (and I thought nicely painted) Alexandrian Companions, soundly beaten by a bunch of savages, led by a naked guy who looked like he had been painted with a roller. Nice or not, my Companions were soon back in the box. (surely a +1 for the paint job Mr Umpire ?)


    1. Hi Vince, I think you are being too modest, I know you can turn out a smart figure or two.

      Like you I have found a generosity of spirit among the majority of fellow gamers and I have lost count of the number of tips and great ideas I have picked up over the years chatting to guys in the club, at shows or seeing some great blog posts. One of the greatest delights is finding a gem of an idea and then sitting down to try it out yourself, and an even bigger thrill when it works.

      Oh yes, nicely painted figures are no indication as to how well they will fight. I guess the big effect of wielding a great looking force and seeing it get beat is that it really hurts when you see them going down in combat and you get to experience some of the pain your historical counterpart may have felt!


    2. JJ and all others who have taken the time to reply, well done to you all and "hear, hear!"

      This weekend my gaming buddy and I will participate in Little Wars in Melbourne. We hope that the efforts we put into the aesthetics of our endeavour will be enjoyed as much by on lookers as it will by us.

      And ... We fully expect that the 'performance' of our troops will be inversely proportional to how well and more importantly how recently that how've been painted.

      Thanks for your blog JJ and to the supportive and constructive community around your web presence.


    3. Hi Tim, thank you.
      Ah yes new nicely painted troops getting a good seeing too in their first outing is obviously a truism the world over.
      Have a great time at Little Wars.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful post Jonathan. The aesthetics is important to me, and by & large I find painting a pleasure rather than a chore.
    You raise an interesting point about podcasts - I will still listen to them, but I do wish they would see their way clear to have another shot at painting miniatures - I'm not referring to M & M, as Mr Schuck has been getting stuck in with the brushes of late :-)

    1. Hi John, thank you.
      I don't have a problem with a podcast host admitting they struggle with painting. We have all been there to a greater or lesser extent.

      I do however struggle to grasp the concept that says great painting and aesthetically pleasing games serve to put newcomers to the hobby off because they will feel unable to meet the standards that these types of games impose on them.

      My contention is that most wargamers I meet and know are not "wall flowers" and are quite capable of deciding what standards to impose on themselves, are quite capable of celebrating great looking games that help attract people into the hobby and are the kind of people who will help and support those new to the hobby develop their skills to whatever level they choose to do.

      Likewise we don't need to or should feel compelled to return to the plain games of the black and white era unless that is the way you like to game. "Unfashionably Shiny" with retro figures from yesteryear are great to see and take me back to simpler world, but I don't want to go back to that as the image of the hobby, and I think such an image would put more people off than attract in.

      As mentioned in another reply, I can't imagine this kind of debate in the world of fantasy where that side of the hobby has excelled in the articles produced encouraging great painting and modelling skills, that perhaps we historical gamers are just starting to catch up to.


  6. Great post.
    When I joined New Buckenham I had no wargaming experience or models, just an interest. First night made to feel really welcome and straight into a game with another member's figures. There is no pressure to have your own army, just turn up and play whatever is on if you want, although it's kind of expected that something will grab your imagination at some point and the madness will take over.
    As for painting standards etc we have all sorts from semi pro painters and terrain makers to complete novices. There are at least two painting nights a year where knowledge, tips etc are passed around and the occasional club terrain making days.
    Personally the aesthetics are important to me and I will strive to make my figures look as good as possible whilst remembering that I intend to play wargames with them, not display them in a museum under a high powered magnifier.


    1. Hi Tony, thank you. I love a great contentious piece of writing to fire up the little grey cells and this month's Miniature Wargames ticked the box and I just had to come and share it with you guys to see if my reaction was contrary to what others were thinking.

      Yes you echo what others have said and what I was keen to stress. Our hobby is blessed with a lot of really nice and generous people happy to share and help others develop in the hobby and I don't detect any pressure on anyone to do it in any particular way or to a set standard, which is why I was quite taken back that the suggestion was the complete opposite.

      As I was implying in my post, the pressure that some folks might feel would seem to be coming from themselves rather than from any external group and if you are confident in your opinions and have ideas of your own then ignore external opinions and go with the most important one, namely your own.


  7. Just found this via TMP -Interesting as my Blog Glorious little Soldiers was the other link specified. I find mysrelf in agreement. As you say its up to each wargamer to decide on how deeply he wants to involve himself. Like you I'm dammed sure I'll not be railroaded by any fashion at all- not in wargaming anyway ! .
    My real point though I suppose is the idea that we should be deliberately bad just to please said fashion(or anti-fashion perhaps) the idea is of course twaddle . Each bloke will do the best job he can to suit himelf. I just don't get this pressure nonsense.
    Nice blog BTWW JJ.
    Andy OGUK

    1. Spot on Andy, and thank you.
      I shall watch the comments on TMP with interest.

  8. Lovely article but I can't help but wonder if it maybe isn't just the visual impact that might be a cause but perhaps the group of guys playing a game? I've come across some games where the players were about as friendly as hyenas around a zebra carcass. If you were a young guy walking up to a group of older guys, some scanning through a rule book and others rolling dice and measuring, it may look beautiful, but you wouldn't necessarily understand how it is played. A demo game is a good introduction but that tends to be more of a Games Workshop experience or something at a convention, not something historical players tend to do as much - especially if they play at home.

    New generations committing time to not only find figures, learn how to paint and model and also having to read and memorize a rule book? A video game and choice of gaming console is an easier system to learn and begin playing. Better yet, they might just play online and have no real investment of time or money. I think the magazine has a point, but the reason isn't on the right target.

  9. I think the club scene here in the UK is a key difference to playing in the US. The clubs help to bring new players into the hobby, and my own club has worked really hard at welcoming new visitors and getting them involved in a game on their first visit.

    We have found that once new members have got to know the club and make the decision to join they soon experience the encouragement to get involved in painting, collecting and putting on games of their own design. There is no pressure, as I outlined in my post, with a simple club rule of only putting painted figures on the table.

    I have since writing the post had the opportunity to discuss Arthur's article with him on TMP and it is clear painting is not an aspect he enjoys or cares very much about, and we agreed to disagree. I was keen that the point needed to be made that the hobby is better represented to the wider public, some of whom might be interested in getting involved, by having the best of painted collections and terrain on view, more likely to attract them in. I think this is especially true of younger players who have grown up with sophisticated graphics in computer games and I think expect a good level of eye candy in the tabletop scene. With the amount of great figure/terrain ranges available and paint suppliers it has never been so easy for them to practice developing their modelling skills and producing great looking games of their own, supported by more experienced wargamers in their local club.