Thursday, 26 September 2013

Black Powder AAR: Relief Operations in the Sudan

Samulus was over last week for our second game of Black Powder in the Sudan. It being a post-work game, I put together a simple relief scenario, with an Egyptian force holding out in a defensible village until a British relief force could arrive, see off the Mahdist hordes and evacuate them to a safer area. This time, I took the Mahdists and Samulus the Anglo-Egyptian forces.

Defending the village in one corner of the board, we have Egyptian infantry and some hastily turned out locals, encouraged to defend their property by the pro-Egyptian tribal council. Without support, surely they can't hold out long? The Mahdists would claim a minor victory for wiping out the garrison and major for breaking the British relief force. The British would claim a major victory if the garrison survived and they broke the Mahdist force.

Facing them, the Mahdist hordes swarm over the ridge line, almost within striking distance. The Mahdist cavalry was raiding off-table and would arrive later.

Turn one and some uncharacteristically good command rolls had my Korfodan tribesmen flood forward, almost to the village outskirts and disrupting the pro-Egyptian warriors with a quick volley on the run. Samulus responds in the only viable way, scoring two hits and a disruption with some fine shooting.

It all looks over for the Egyptians, until I roll the traditional blunder. But the situation is saved by a '6' - all ordered units charge the nearest enemies! The Mahdist infantry decimate the tribal militia on impact and press home their assault on both Egyptian units, breaking the leftmost one soon afterwards. But assaulting a defended position takes a toll on the first wave.

Turn two and the British arrive, all formed ranks and artillery

Could the outriders be the Egyptian's salvation?

The attack on the village has dragged in most of the Mahdists, leaving just stragglers facing the British firepower. While I was greatly helped by a timely (first) blunder disrupting Samulus' neat lines, it is well past time for me to re-form my lines. The British open up on the one Mahdist unit in range, Beja sharpshooters skulking in a wadi. As the smoke clears, the sharpshooters have vanished. Curses!

In my turn, the Egyptian infantry and Bashi Bazouk outriders break one of my infantry units. Bad timing for me as before I can pin them back into combat, the weary Egyptians seize the chance to make their escape. Cheekily, their mounted saviours charge well ahead, keen to put distance between themselves and the veritable horde on the heels on the Egyptian infantry. 

Seeing victory slip away, I gamble all on a last ditch charge. With my cavalry now on the table, they're flung forwards to join the elite Beja. But the fresh troops are too few in number and a disciplined volley as they close in causes too much havok. Both units are flung back.

With the last desperate charge failing, I concede, the Mahdists fading away to find easier prey. The garrison survive by the skin of their teeth, so a major victory for the British!

'Ali ash-Sharif surveys the battlefield

Post game analysis

Another great fun game of Black Powder, it is such a playable system and ideal for evenings after work, wrapping up in under two hours. After a tough first game for the British, I tried to balance the forces, while playing another scenario which kept them moving. Moving one unit across and having the Mahdist cavalry delayed perhaps over-compensated, though the game was still quite close, with a minor Mahdist victory within reach until the surviving Egyptian infantry got a chance to make their escape. After that though, the last Mahdist charge was one of desperation, with too few full-strength units for them to make an impact on the fresh British line. 

All of the photos were on my new camera, which I'm still getting to grips with. The lighting is better here, greatly helped by using the daylight lamp I use for painting. But I've been struggling to get enough depth of focus for good miniature shots - on many one rank would be in focus but the next out of focus. I understand a non-zoom 'prime' lens should improve matters, as well as playing with more of the manual settings.

The sharp eyed of you will notice that a few units are still only basecoated in each of the Sudan AARs. I'm slowly working through getting them finished, while assembling others with half an eye on the winter (and a certain painting challenge perhaps...?). The British screw gun has just come off the painting table, its varnish currently drying. Next up, some Baggara cavalry and more command. Relentless!

Monday, 16 September 2013

Mahdist Emir 'Ali ash-Sharif

Still trying to resolve my dearth of commanders for Black Powder, I bring you my first Mahdist leader, the Emir 'Ali ash-Sharif. Quite a colourful chap with his patched jibbeh, which most of my Mahdists don't have. One of the early adopters, maybe he is trying to curry favour with the Mahdi (clearly works, as he's got himself a command...). He may get a ride out tomorrow as Samulus is over for a game of something.

I've not really got into a painting rhythm yet, so I'm pleased he's finished and I can move onto the next batch. I tried to jazz up the horse furniture with some freehand but it didn't quite come out how I imagined, though is better than my first attempt.

These snaps were taken with a new camera that I got last week: a new Olympus 'compact system camera'. This clever new breed of cameras are more like a DSLRs but in a significantly smaller body, so is a massive step up from the four year old compact I was using before. On a positive note, the unsightly blob of dust is no longer present, but I definitely wouldn't say I know how to use it yet. I was getting better results without using the flash, but look forward to pushing the camera a little bit more as I figure it out.

And with flash, the colours come out more like my shots with the old camera.

And as is customary, a final picture with added vintage effect. I like how this one came out, very moody.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Book Review: The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston

The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain
Paul Preston, first published 2012

I picked up this book on a whim and with a money-off voucher while mooching about the tiny history section of the WHSmith in the soul-sapping Westfield shopping centre. Before I start my review, let me be clear what I was looking for, as it affects my thoughts on the book. I was after a decent introduction to the Spanish Civil War as a whole, covering the political, military and social aspects of the conflict. When I picked the book up, I knew little beyond the Curt of Analogue Hobbies' wonderful miniatures, AARs and intelligent posts on the subject.

A group of Curt's fine Carlist Requetes, used with permission

The cover includes many encouraging plaudits and quotes, with it having won Sunday Times history book of the year. Finding it in the pitiful historical section in a high street shop, I mistakenly assumed this book would be what I as after. I was quite wrong!

As the title suggests rather more obviously that I had realised, this work of 700 pages is a comprehensive review of the repression of POWs, political figures and innocent civilians by both the right-wing Francoist military rebels and the Republican regime of predominantly Unionist, Communist and Anarchist organisations. The author clearly wants to set the record straight on which regime was more repressive, using statistics to prove, seemingly beyond doubt, that the Rebels were more repressive by an average of three times the number of individuals murdered. The author calls the repression the 'Spanish Holocaust', his own term and an emotive one that he carefully justifies in the prologue. This is organised by locale and by region and presents statistics based on the latest research available to modern historians.

A Spanish Civil War propaganda poster, courtesy of ALBA

The book makes clear that repression in rebel-controlled zones was planned, a staggering strategy of extermination, despite the Francoists' propaganda claims that they were only responding to incidents of 'red terror' and that they used appropriate legal processes. The claims of 'red terror' were outrageous propaganda based on exaggeration of real events and outright invention and claims to use legal processes were clearly an outright and deeply hypocritical lie to generate support for their cause. The disturbing litany of Rebel atrocities was helped by happening in remote areas, far from neutral observers, which in turn helped Franco obtain/retain the support of more of the international community, Spanish elite and Catholic Church.

In comparison, while there were atrocities in the Republican zone, these are presented as mostly being in response to Rebel actions such as bombing raids on civilians, being encouraged by agents provocateurs and and not being centrally coordinated. In fact the author documents the many attempts to prevent atrocities by individuals and the Republican government. With its revisionist aims, the book goes to great lengths to attribute responsibility to individuals or organisations for particular atrocities on both sides, wherever possible, generally having more success in the Republican zone due to the superior records of the crumbling state (despite some clumsy attempts by the Madrid Junta to conceal later atrocities) and the larger number of international diplomatic and non-governmental observers.

Another propaganda poster, courtesy of ALBA

The structure of the book detailing repression region by region lends itself to a repetitive feel, presenting the Republican repression before the Rebel advance, then the much greater, planned and brutal Rebel repression, before singling out a few, usually two or three, examples which are notable for the profile of the victims or the scale or brutality of the atrocity. I found the most interesting chapters were later in, particularly chapters 9-11 (of 13) on the atmosphere and events in Madrid in the year before the end of the war and the sections on foreign support for each side, particularly Nazi Germany's material contribution and its hunt for German exiles, as well as the Soviet Union's illicit activities in Madrid and Barcelona to hunt and eliminate 'Trotskyists'.

The book is clearly written for people with a solid grounding in the subject. The progress of the war and specifics of the Rebel and Republican forces are barely covered beyond generalities, for example the Battle of the Ebro is referenced, but never expanded upon. There are a colossal number of individuals mentioned and they are given the briefest introduction so I found it hard to make sense of who was important and who wasn't in the wider context of the military and political conflict. Some are referenced again many pages after first being introduced, with only the briefest of memory jogging. The turbulent events meant there were scores of acronyms for organisations on both sides, as well as the authors' use of many Spanish terms like 'sacas' (seizure and extrajudicial killing) and 'checas' (informal police forces and detention centres) throughout. There is a glossary at the back but the author could at times have made it easier for an unfamiliar reader: I found the term 'fifth column' and 'fifth columnist' first used many pages before it was described what the term meant. This all adds to the sne the book is quite specialised, but despite a few niggles, that I was able to follow the narrative fairly well is testament to the quality of the writing.

And in miniature, Curt's female Anarchist 'Milicianas'

The book seems to close quite suddenly, whisking through the ongoing repression in the years immediately afterwards and fate of those who had fled to France after its all to Germany in the Second World War. The coverage of repression throughout the rest of the Franco regime was in a similar format: statistics and case studies, but seems very brief, which is a little jarring compared to the heavy detail in earlier chapters. The final chapter, 'The Reverberations', covers the re-writing of history by the Francoist regime and national movement for the recovery of historical memory' from the early 2000s and some reaction to this. the chapter also covers some examples of the guilt of the oppressors, tracing ten or so case studies, including some occasions where perpetrators apparently get their 'comeuppance'. But there is little significant effort to draw conclusions on the effect of the repression on modern Spain, which I had expected given the apparent expertise of the author.

One of my comments was going to be the lack of a map of Spain, as the stats are broken down by both town and region and my knowledge of Spanish geography isn't good enough to make sense of the progress of the war and repression. But about halfway through, I found a series of maps and graphical summaries of the repression in each region described in the text, both in an Appendix nestled between the substantial Notes and equally substantial Index. I would have preferred the maps in a more obvious place at the start of the text. While the book contains two eight-page sections of black and white images, these cover a faction of what the text covers and were difficult to contextualise, not being referenced in the text and often appearing many pages from where the individuals/organisations are first described.

Pablo Picasso's work Guernica, created in response to the aerial bombing of the town of Guernica in April 1937, image courtesy of Wikipedia

In conclusion, I wouldn't be able to recommend this book to someone in my position: new to the field and looking for an overarching introduction to the military, political and social conflict. It certainly is not (and does not claim to be) a general history of the war. Understandably, its focus on the brutal repression offers little 'wargaming potential'. That is not to say I didn't get anything from the book: I found it powerful and deeply disturbing and learned a colossal amount about its subject matter. Even in my inexpert view, it is clear that this is a meticulously resourced work from an British historian who is clearly an expert in the field. It is more of an academic work, providing the statistics of the repression as best can be accounted and based on the work of many historians, all drawn together into one coherent book. To present such challenging material in such detail yet remain accessible is extremely impressive. The quality of the referencing is exceptionally strong as of 700 pages, 530 cover the text and a substantial 170 covering a glossary, notes, appendix and index. The author naturally draws heavily on Spanish source material, including many first-hand accounts and the work of modern Spanish historians.

I greatly respect the book as a modern history and attempt to set the record straight through clear presentation of facts, statistics and assessments, based on meticulous research. For those with a reasonable grounding in the conflict and who are looking to learn more about the repression of the conflict, or students of early 20th century history and fascism, it would appear to me to be an essential work, particularly for English-speakers, drawing as it does on so much original Spanish-language material.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Feldpolizei: Now with Checkpoint

You've seen these two chaps recently, but on return from holiday and not having picked up a brush for nearly a month, I fancied easing back in by painting a few quick bits from the pile. So here we have a checkpoint for my German feldpolizei, a little piece of terrain or fun objective. This is a simple little 4Ground kit.


Hopefully I'll bring you some more sizeable updates once I get back to full painting speed.

Also, Ian at The Blog With No Name is having a 500 posts/second blogaversary giveaway, so swing over and check it out if you're interested in such things.

Monday, 2 September 2013

From the Archives 2

With all going well at my recent nuptials, I'm now enjoying the delights of Bali on Honeymoon. It's a tough gig, I can tell you. I didn't bring any hobby materials and the latest issue of WS&S didn't arrive before I left, but I've now had chance to catch up on the few weeks' blogs.

Today, I bring you the fruits of another rummage through the archives: Infinity by Corvus Belli.

I got really into Infinity when it first came out, struck by the anime stylings and dynamic poses. Despite its premium price point, I built up a fair collection of PanOc and had a small dabble in Haqqislam and Nomads. The Nomads, never even came close to getting paint on them and were recently shifted to fund other projects, the Haqqislam may well go next.

Here we've got some early PanOc: Fusiliers from the starter set, a heavily armoured ORC trooper and one of my favourite sculpts, the medic on the left, calling in a medevac.

I also did quite a few conversions, more than I tend to do these days, as when I played there was only or or two variants of each troop type available: I preferred not to proxy. Here we have a simple weapon swap to give an Akalis a much nastier boarding shotgun rather than combi-rifle (sourced from a Void weapon pack) and on the right, an Akalis hacker. I was quite good at cycling the spare weapons around to other models to minimise wastage - the Akalis HMG went onto a converted Nisse scout long before the official sculpt was available.

Infinity as a system was really fun it is early days, I liked that it was human vs human vs human, though each faction was pretty similar for a couple of years - they seem much more diverse with more recent releases. The 'ARO' reaction system worked really well, allowing basically unlimited reactions to movements within line of sight, resolved by a face-to-face roll. While it sounds brutal, the fact infinity used D20 mean the aggressor had a chance and there were plenty of tricks to avoid reactions, like therm-optic camouflage and smoke grenades.

Infinity had a simple force selection system but it did allow some game-breaking lists: Gharak spotted that he could engineer a Yu Jing force with six missile launchers (3 support weapons usually being the maximum at 300 points and missile launchers pretty rare). Admittedly carried by conscripts, but he only needed one to hit to do some serious damage. So I brought a force which deployed nothing on the table: Them-optic camouflage and drop troops abound. Including a camouflaged TAG (mecha).

Last up, another ORC trooper and one of the extremely cute PanOc Dronebots - it's cute curves hiding the fact it brings an HMG to the party. I think most of the drone sculpts are ace.

The iffy lists, the ever-increasing complexity and the constant addition of new special rules became tiresome for me, as did what I saw as early of power creep with the alien factions out an end to my Infinity gaming. Oh and I moved away to another area for a new job, which meant I didn't have a group in the area. I'd have preferred they kept a streamlined system with special rules to a minimum, but I think the economics of the hobby mean Corvus Belli need to keep pushing out new shinies and cool rules for them.

I still keep an eye on the amazing rate of new releases and still think about half the sculpts are awesome, some don't quite work and a few are downright ugly. But it's unlikely I'll get another game unless Gharak fancies an old school one: I suspect my old PanOc are likely to be quite underpowered these days!