War Gaming in Australia
by Phil Barker
Miniature Wargames - December 1984.
I will start by coming clean and admitting that, although I travelled about twice the length of Great Britain and visited two state capitals and the federal capital, I only covered a tiny south-eastern part of the continent. At my westernmost point, Perth was still further away than from London to Moscow. None of those I stayed with had even met a Western Australian wargamer, except that the owner of the Tin Soldier Shop in Sydney had been gratified by purchasing expeditions from there.
The situation is best illustrated by a quote from the Canberra Convention introduction. "The long vague appearing players are from New South Wales, and those with wild shining eyes and little pointed ears hail from Victoria. South Australians talk funny while Queenslanders don't talk much at all. Western Australians are the ones that aren't here, and Tasmanians have been Franklinised (presumably drowned by the controversial dam of that name?). Therefore the short squat evil-looking players must be from Canberra."
These descriptions may disturb preconceptions of Australian men as Conan thewed beach guard types, or at worst like Paul Hogan. One Oz wife unkindly said "No, that's just how they see themselves", but I HAVE seen such, jogging in Sydney parks at lunch time. Australian wargamers mostly look like the English variety. Actually, a few ARE English, and I also met a Belgian, Claude Orban, and a Chinese, Ken Lai, who will be remembered by southern English clubs. There are exceptions, notably Sue Jobson of Melbourne, a long chorus-girl type with a ferocious Dacian army never used in non-convention games in case they should lose their edge. Other wargamers' wives look as good, but tolerate instead of playing.
Because of the distances to be travelled, all major Australian conventions have to be held on holiday long week-ends, and take advantage of this to last three gaming days, with two games per day. They are not knock-outs like the British Nationals, so every player gets his six games, and the results are aggregated. Spectators are not admitted, and there isn't the array of trade stands found at British conventions with crowds milling around.
The major conventions are Canberra at the end of January on the Australia Day LWE with 100+ entrants, Sydney in June on the Queen's Birthday LWE with 80+, Melbourne on the Easter LWE with 50+ and in June on the Queen's Birthday with 40+, and Newcastle at the end of September on the Labour Day LWE with 50+. South Australia have a convention but the other states don't know the date, and Queensland is reported to be thinking of having one. Nothing known about Tasmania and Western Australia. Be warned that the holidays differ according to state, even the Queen's Birthday shifting! This hinders attendance at each others conventions, but some manage it.
All are primarily Ancients, and either all 15mm or parallel 15mm and 25mm. D&D is very popular, and its practitioners often combine with the wargamers to share convention costs, as may Napoleonics players. Sorry, I forgot to enquire about participation by wargamers in other periods, but there were none at the one I attended. Napoleonics appears to be mainly 25mm, and mainly WRG. "Empires III" rules are well-regarded for games lasting all day with up to six well-drilled players, but unsuitable for conventions.
All the conventions for which I could get details use a modified Swiss Chess seeding for their later rounds. A player is paired with the opponent closest to him in the current results table unless they have previously played each other, so that the player currently top plays the current second, and the player currently last the next-to-last. Host clubs differ in the way opponents are selected in the early rounds and in terrain choosing. All but Newcastle select early round opponents by a seeding list based on previous conventions, and have permanent terrain on each table, with players rotated around the tables. All allow armies to be varied after seeing the terrain, a practise I think both unrealistic and unnecessary work for the organisers.
My presence in Australia arose from a phone call from Colin Scott of the Newcastle Wargames Society, which is a break-away from the Newcastle Wargames Club which had previously run five annual 15mm conventions. The break-away was actually by the majority of the clubs ancient players, who objected to being swamped by D&D and board gamers, and they took the convention with them. English readers will recognise this as an example of the standard rule that wargames clubs breed by fission - like bacteria. Colin wanted me to come and umpire the convention, providing the society with a drawing card and hopefully quelling rule lawyers.
Flattered by the suggestion that Australians thought me worth my air fare, rather than a bus ticket to the next town on condition I never came back which was the most I could expect at home, and having long wanted to see the country, I would have been mad to refuse. Sue was condemned to stay at home by her returning students, but agreed to let me go for three weeks, merely pointing out that the products of Australia included opals and yellow sapphires. Besides, she had just had three days at Manchester!
Everyone knows Australia is hot, barren, dusty, and populated by vast flocks of sheep and kangeroos. Always distrust the things everyone knows. The bits most people live in are coastal, wooded, and at that time of year frequently rained on and often cold. Going out at the end of an English summer, I took too few warm clothes.
Newcastle is three hours north of Sydney, where I landed after a 24 hour flight. I was driven up by Colin in his low-flying Porsche along the Pacific highway through spectacular gorges and Eucalyptus forest and over the Hawkesbury river, a modest stream some two kilometers wide! Newcastle is grossly slandered by the New South Wales tourist guidebook, which gives the impression of Bradford with an extra helping of dark satanic mills. It is a pleasant slightly sleepy town, very clean, a big port, a lake bigger than Lake Geneva, and a profusion of beaches. "Three mile beach" is actually seven miles long, but they got tired of pacing it out.... Colin lives with his charming wife and two delightful small blonde daughters in a multi-level house built into a hillside. I was on the bottom level, but the analogy with dungeons suffers from the shelves of books and the miniature bar for the adjoining wargames room.
Woken next morning by the friendly noise of Kookaburras in the wood behind, I was taken out for the day by Colin's Cumbrian father and his friend, Archie, a wine expert among wine experts, on a trip through the Hunter Valley wineries. These all give generous free-samples. It tasted good even at the first call. I think we made five stops, but my guides say three. There was a barbecue on route with huge steaks, zeppelin-sized herby sausages, damper bread, and - I want to go back again!
There were other sight-seeing days before the convention, the most notable being when Jeff Tilitzki took me to Old Sydney Town. This is a replica of the original settlement, manned by the best ham actors in the country, and excellent value. Something happens every hour, starting off with a convict work parade at which I was given 14 acres of trees to fell before breakfast, and also including a duel, an attempted escape to China by boat, and a trial at which another innocent member of the public was called as a defence witness and arrested for collusion after a very lame story.
The day for the convention dawned to lashing gales, and I found myself with a bad cold. It was quickly pointed out that the worst stereotype known to Oz-kind was a whinging pom with a cold!
The draw for the first round consisted of my taking a card from each of two shuffled piles, one of Sydney-based gamers and one of all others, and reading out the two names. This should have prevented regular opponents from being drawn against each other, and in the main did, but a few still had to be re-drawn on request for that reason. Although the draw was in full view of the contestants, that didn't stop a disgruntled member of the old club's rump claiming that it was fixed and that I had told him so! The second round draw was done the same way, and a Swiss Chess system based on results so far used subsequently.
Instead of the terrain being fixed by the organisers, each player was issued with an identical bag of necessarily rather basic terrain pieces and positioned and diced for these as laid down by the rules. The playing area was 5 feet x 3 feet. Although Australia has long gone metric, players invariably measured in inches.
I had never worked quite so hard as an umpire before. With 25 games, I was kept busy flitting from one end of the room to the other, with little chance to follow individual games. A favourite tactic seemed to be charging massed elephants impetuously downhill. This rapidly became known as the "drop elephant" tactic, from an incident in which credulous American marines exercising in Queensland were imposed upon by Oz troops who warned them of "drop bears" poised in trees to jump on to heads, tear and maim, thereby leading to panic on the sighting of relatively innocent Koalas. (Koalas rarely open their eyes for more than a few minutes, and it is suggested that this is because of the chemical effects of their exclusive diet of gum leaves, which leaves them "zonked to the eyeballs". They also have bad breath, fleas, large claws and a nasty disposition. Sorry to spoil your illusions.)
Although lack of continuity prevented me from judging the strengths of the convention players in relation to those at home, I had previously watched the Newcastle crew practising, and was impressed by their consistency. None of them were quite as good as the top British players, and all were better than me. In the end, Colin Scot, Jeff Tillitzki and Bob Jeffrey, who I had picked as the best Newcastle players, came 3rd, 4th and 10th respectively. Barry Hayes, a decisive winner with his Palmyran army, would be a worthy opponent for our best.
There were also two special prizes, one for the most decisive victory, and one for the maximum damage inflicted by one unit on one unit in one period, the latter being called the "Mayhem" award. The first was won by Colin Scott, with Rob Storm, once known to Society of Ancients members in the UK as "Cedric the Camel", as runner up. Both won their games in the third period, but Rob did so by virtue of his opponents incredibly poor reaction dice, while Colin's performance also made him runner-up for the Mayhem prize, and without losing a single figure of his own! Popular Claude Orban, who had never won anything before, won the Mayhem prize when his 48 pikes inflicted 294 casualties on their unfortunate opponents.
The star attraction of the weekend was me as an after dinner speaker, telling everybody about 7th edition, the most important part of which was that it won't be on sale until September 85, and that my partners will be very, very unhappy if you keep writing to ask if it is ready. This was very well received, especially by a stray lady from outside, who had looked upon the wine while it was red, and mistook me for the latest English stand-up dialect comedian. And why not?, you cry. I wouldn't have minded if she had only laughed in the right places. As two strong men carried her out by the elbows, feet 6 inches from the floor, she was still saying "But, I LIKE him, he's so FUNNY."
The Newcastle boys had arranged that I should now go walkabout, each other local group arranging my transport to them. Next day, Phil Clarke carried me off to Canberra in his car, and for the first time I saw those endless miles of rolling grass, scattered gum coppices, occasional sheep, and shimmering heat. We drove all day, visiting an opal mine on the way, so Sue would allow me back in the country. Canberra is surrounded by a ring of hills rising from a dead flat plain, known to the disrespectful as the Ring of Mordor. You can guess what the new parliament building, carved out from a central hill, is called. Yup, Mount Doom. Canberra is beautifully designed with magnificent public buildings, including the War Memorial museum you may have read about, but only has about 200,000 people. Add to this the fact that the government provides several free trees for each house built, and it explains why it is one of the few places in the world where you can have a rush hour traffic jam with no houses in sight.
My first day's sightseeing was hindered by torrential rain, so I spent the afternoon by a roaring log fire swapping lies and viewing one of the few Persian armies with Xenophon's towers. Next day, the War Memorial. I can't remember which day I visited the Gentleman Pensioners in the most palatial wargames club ever, with rooms hired from the local bridge club on quiet nights. The main thing I remember from there was the exposition by an Orc army's owner of the benefits of a horde in which the most elite force were "Regular C" Uruk-Hai. One night, there was a meal followed by the same 7th edition talk.
From there, I was flown to Melbourne, a journey which would have been 18 hours by bus, to stay with Mike and Lynne Sadler. Once again I did the obligatory visit to the local club, meal and 7th edition talk, but the major memory is of a wild life park we visited. This had pens for the animals intended to keep people out rather than animals in, and large aviaries that did the opposite. We strolled down the path accompanied by emu's, with the occasional kangaroo hopping across, and a lot more kangaroos zzzing off in corners, they favouring a relaxed life style. The star was undoubtably a platypus, which for some reason I had supposed to be sluggish animals. Not a bit. Whatever this one was paid, he was worth double, looping the loop under water, and once jumping out to scratch his ear with a hind foot in mid air.
A final internal flight then, back to Sydney. On landing, I was immediately taken by an Oz we had put up at home years before for a sail on a 30 foot yacht down the ten mile harbour. On the way back, I was given the tiller, and steered us triumphantly under the famous Sydney harbour bridge, in spite of being given a large and messy slice of water melon for the other hand. Summer was now arriving and the reflection from the water was pretty fierce. Doubts were expressed over my strength 6 sunscreen for delicate skin in extreme conditions. THEY use strength 15!
This time I was able to travel into and explore the city on my own. Sydney is like a cleaner and safer (No bushrangers; Oz don't even jay walk) New York, with skyscraper views and surrounded by water. I used the Tin Soldier shop as my base while I explored the shops and spectacular parks, where I shared my take-away lunch, not with pigeons, but with a pair of Ibis, no less.
Tin Soldier are the only all-Australian figure manufacturer, and even have an English subsidiary. They have a large range of "big 15" figures, and are now moving into 25mm with superb Samurai which include komono-clad girls with naginata for camp defence. They were responsible for nearly all the 15mm armies seen at Newcastle. Their figures are full of movement and character, the medievals menacing, the horse archers speeding past, and Alexander's companions just accelerating into the charge. My favourite is the Macedonian elephant, trudging forward with a resigned "here we go again" expression. On his back, the mahout disclaims all personal responsibility "don't shoot me, I'm only a hired neutral", while behind him, a Macedonian perched on the most uncomfortable part is bouncing up and down with an excruciated expression and trying to use his pike as a balancing pole.
All wargames equipment and books are very expensive in Australia. In some cases this is due to high labour costs and the overheads of city centre shops, but certainly not in all. This makes it more than a little surprising that a high proportion of armies are bought ready painted, and to a far higher standard than normal in the UK. A 15mm foot figure costs the equivalent of 20p unpainted and 60p painted. A complete painted army can cost half as much again, and there is a flourishing second-hand market, with armies bought and sold as an investment.
The speed-painting technique used by the professional is to apply a matt black base coat, then overpaint with colours to just short of their proper boundary, leaving a thin black outline between them and the next. There are also other refinements, such as dry-brushing colours over the black to leave shadows. I don't think the final result is quite as good as the white undercoat/acrylic wash technique, but it is much faster.
As usual, I had to earn my keep, both by the 7th edition talk, and by playing a demonstration game with 6th at the shop against one of the best local players using Aztecs. Having been originally offered my choice of all the second-hand armies sitting in the case, I was originally going for Early Imperial Romans. Learning that Thracians were also available, I switched to them at the last moment on the principle that it takes a nutter to sort out a nutter. I could not have made a wiser choice, and am now sold on Thracian and Lysimachid armies.
I was completely out-generalled, and my opponent completed out-diced. During the game, I had four 4-ups, three 3-ups, and four 2-ups in melee, leading to a critical testing and clearance of my dice by incredulous spectators. One of my units was disordered and shaken by the C-in-C being wounded while with it, but was still pushing back its opponents at the end although long reduced to below 1/3 strength. A light infantry unit charged by three elite regular LMI units in the open pushed them back! Just as my outflanking cavalry swept in behind, the enemy C-in-C made a last desperate effort to break through in a three-wide column. Although impetuous and throwing 2-up, he did not achieve one per figure on my equally narrow but longer unit, took 1/3 of the casualties I inflicted and was carried off.
After that, what could I do but fly home? All my hosts have invited me back, next time with Sue, and the saving of pennies has commenced. Meanwhile, I look forward to them coming here to us, so that excessive hospitality can be returned.