Back to the Boer War

Back being the operative word. Much to the amusement of my chums, I did my back in whilst carrying the Christmas tree into the house in early December, something which has stopped me sitting at my desk for any length of time for the past month. As a result, despite being able to stand and build my Afghan village, I’ve been unable to sit and paint my modern figures. An immensely frustrating experience when I am ready to get cracking on the modern playtesting.

Anyway, rather than suit here twiddling my fingers, I thought it would be an opportunity to crack on with a long standing project; our Boer War rules. The net result has been that we have played a couple of games since Christmas, Colenso last Tuesday and the attack on the Rangeworthy Heights yesterday. What I’ve also been able to do is get the rules out to public playtest, something which is a key step towards getting the rules into print.

The experience at Colenso was an interesting one, and one which really got to the nub of the issue for the British. The game we played focussed on the 2nd and 6th Brigades attacking towards Hlangwane and the road bridge north of the town. I fail to see the point in including Hart’s 5th Brigade in a wargame, as expecting a player to replicate that very particular cock-up is just not fair. We, therefore, assume that the disaster on the left is happening on auto-pilot, so to speak, while we focus on the battle proper.

For the British player, the use of formations to minimise casualties a key factor in the game. However, what is required is a matter of balance. If the British wish to move effectively across the veldt, they need to be prepared to sacrifice the safety of extended order formations and their command and control problems and adopt more pragmatic formations which allow them to move efficiently until they reach the point where they can at least trade fire with the enemy. Once that is achieved, an extended formation, advancing in short rushes and supported by fresh troops ready to take up the attack when the initial wave flounders (as it surely will) is the way forward.

In fact what we saw was a situation very similar to what actually occurred at Paardeburg. The British deployed their first Brigade onto the table with two battalions entirely in extended formation, as we see here.

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It looks pretty enough, the front battalion, the Royal West Surreys, has four companies in the front line and four in the second. To their rear, the 2nd West Yorkshires have adopted the same formation, whilst in their centre in Major General Hildyard. This photos was taken on the first turn of the game and was their initial deployment onto the table. Note the distance from the stream to their left front.

In this second photo, we can see the same units after three hours play. This is taken from the opposite angle and, as we can see, the force has changed formation somewhat to form an even longer front line, but the location of the stream confirms that they ave advanced less than 12″ all evening whilst under the fire of Boers at extreme artillery range and largely out of rifle range.
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It’s worth considering ground scale for a moment in order to realise that the lead battalion of 800 men is spread over a mile and a half frontage. When one realises that, it is not surprising that the realities of commanding such a dispersed body means that movement has been so slow as to completely scupper any hopes of achieving the objectives. In the end, Lord Dundonald’s colonials on the right stormed onto the slopes of Hlwangane, clearing the Boers from their trenches, but lack of progress in the centre meant they were obliged to withdraw and abandon their gains.

Fair enough. This was the first outing with the Grand Tactical version of the rules we’d had, so errors are to be expected. What it did do was provide a very telling lesson and one which the British players this week were keen to learn from.

The attack on the Rangeworthy Heights is an interesting action. The British under Buller had made a ponderous flank march in the hope of outflanking the Boer positions and breaking through to Ladysmith. So slow had they been, and so well telegraphed was the punch, that the Boers has a week in which they set the local labour to chipping trenches into the rocky mountains. By the time the British crossed the Tugela, the defensive position was ready and waiting for them. The table looked like this.
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Obviously, I have added on contour lines to give a feel for the terrain! The Boers began with deployment points on Three Tree Hill and Bastion Hill. The British then placed their three Deployment Points on their base line before the Boers placed two more on the Plateau. These would define both their deployment during the game and the layout of their defences.

Here’s a silly shot from the British lines to give an infantryman’s view of what lay ahead.
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The British plan was simple enough. Major General Woodgate’s Brigade, the 11th, would demonstrate before the Boer positions, pushing forward to oblige the enemy to show themselves. With that achieved, Major General Hart would advance with his Brigade in a right hook attack. Hart is an interesting character and I felt it important to reflect this. He was a great exponent of “keeping his men well in hand”, shunning extended order as he believed, not entirely incorrectly, that an extended line was impossible to command effectively (as, indeed, we saw at Colenso). As a result we limit Harts Brigade to open order at best, so extended order is not on. This plan played to his strengths, allowing him to launch the well-coordinated attack whilst the Boers were busy engaging Woodgate’s man.

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All began well, with a neat advance in open order, but then, with the lead elements wavering under fire, an attempted passage of lines went disastrously wrong for the Lancashire Fusiliers, the two waves becoming muddled up and allowing the Boers a dense target.
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By now the Boers were coming to life, with Three Trees Hill and Bastion Hill occupied, whilst on the plateau four guns were adding their fire. Woodgate pushed up with the 1st South Lancashires to try to regain the initiative in the centre.

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Here we see the Boer positions and, in the distance, the arrival of Hart’s lead battalion
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Hart’s arrival certainly caused the Boers some grief. On Piquet Hill a lone Boer gun faced the advance without support…
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…and soon paid the price.
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Here’s a “naked” picture in which you can clearly see how Woodgate’s Brigade is engaging frontally, its fourth battalion, the 1st York and Lancs, just arriving in battalion column. Meanwhile, Hart’s Brigade is now pushing forward, flushed by its initial success. The full range of formations can be seen here, from dense almost Napoleonic columns, to open lines and fully extended lines. Nearest the camera, the 1st South Lancs have pushed through the stalled Lancs Fusiliers, but they too have bunched up under fire. It was here that Woodgate rode forward to rally and reform his battalion under fire, allowing it to continue the advance.
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On the right, Hart’s Brigade continued to push forward. The Dublins received a nasty shock as they advanced from Piquet hill, with the Heilbron Commando revelaing its positions with withering fire. Losses were slight, but the first was was driven to ground by weight of fire. However, this was not to stop the Inniskilling Fusiliers who stormed Three Trees Hill in short order, routing the Krugersdoorp men. However, consolidation on the hill they too found themselves drive to ground by fire from the Heilbron Commando. On the right, Hart, refusing to allow his men to shake out into more open formations, was finding that progress was impossible.

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On the left, Woodgate’s intervention saw the 1st South Lances shake out, four companies advancing in echelon to the right towards the Heilbron flank, while four more companies swung to the left to face the small German contingent on Bastion Hill. It was to be a key move, as we see below.

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With Bastion Hill falling and the looming body of Lord Dundonald’s colonial horse sweeping up to the West, the Boers, all the time under heavy artillery fire, decided to quit the field. The route to Ladysmith was open.
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A British win, albeit with just two turns of daylight left. It was a close run thing. All the more close when it turned out that the Boers had forgotten to deploy the Boksburg Command, a sizeable force which, it turned out, was overlooked as Sidney decided to go to the chip shop while I did the briefing. A foolish error which, without a shadow of a doubt cost the Boers the game. However, in fairness, they were very nice chips.

As a playtest game, this was the first time we had used the prototype Force Morale rules and also the clock mechanism. What was very pleasing was that we managed to play a full 12 hour day on a club evening. There were aspects of the Force Morale system which I felt penalised the Boers in this scenario, but then that’s why we playtest stuff. All grist to the mill.

We’ve already had some great feedback from playtesters so far. One of the nicest comments came from a gamer in the North East of England. He said “after a few turns I was there on the veldt, trudging forward and getting shot to pieces”. As a game designer, that for me is all the praise I could ever ask for.

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Afghan Fields

With the village pretty much complete my goal now was to get the fields and drainage ditches done. For these I used a sheet of 3mm MDF as the base, cutting the fields into rough rectangles around 8″ by 3.5″. I used a jigsaw to get a wavy edge to these, as can be seen here:

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I then sanded the edges down, as previously a mask was used as MDF is VERY BAD for you if inhaled, so please be VERY careful. Once that was done I applied bits of astro-turf door matting which can be any green standing crop, and some coir door matting for ripe wheat. Used a hot glue gun for this, trying to ensure that the matting edges stuck close to the MDF as any gaps stand out.

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After that I applied sharp sand to the edges using PVA as a base and then, once that dried, washing a 50% PVA/water mix over the top. Where there were gaps (and you and avoid them entirely) I then added some clumps of larger stones to cover these.

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With that dry I painted the green mat bases all over with dark brown…

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…and the wheat mats had just the bases painted:

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Next I painted the astro-turf with several shades green, working up to a light dry brush of a yellowish white.

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From this angle you get a better feel for them in depth.

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The next stage was to dry brush up the bases, all done as per the main buildings.

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Finally I took the semi-harvested sections of wheat and applied neat PVA…

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…before applying trimmings from the coir matting. This actually is not so much for harvested sections, but if any troops move into these areas I can put these sections down as opposed to having them moving in some mysterious levitation across the field tops.

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A final slap on of 50% water/PVA held the coir in place and then they were all done. Once nice thing is that these stack very easily for storage, as we see below.

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I have been sorting out my Taliban forces for painting and was looking for a suitable mullah figure to inspire the faithful. I knew I had some old “back of beyond” figures for Sharp Practice and a rummage around found this bloke with a buckler shield and large chopper. I removed the buckler, cut off the chopper and removed part of the right hand. With green stuff I made a battered old tome of religious texts and then built up the hand to hold that. I had a blob of green stuff left, so I enlarged his beard to give him some gravitas. I’m going to tidy the figure up and then I’ll enjoy painting him.

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The basing is cut for the irrigation ditches, but I am really having to spend most of my time trying to keep my back straight. With a game scheduled for next Tuesday I have no idea how I’m going to get the two forces painted in time. Gulp!

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Project Afghan Village – Round Up

So, with the buildings largely complete, I now wanted a spurt to the finishing line to get this off my desk. I need to get cracking with the fields and irrigation ditches, but finishing this was my first priority. The final step would be to give the village a lived-in look so that it would move from being a collection of buildings to a plausible village.

The first stage was to add some pots to the roof sections and some prayer mats. The latter are really just there to add colour, the former have a more practical purpose: they serve as the handles by which the roofs can be removed.

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The pots I purchased on eBay, 1:48th modelling accessories for dioramas, the mats were green stuff rolled out flat and cut into shape.

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With these done I then painted the pots and made up some odds and ends. Some stuff came from my spares box, like the oil drums and some of the fencing, other bits, like the wooden cases, I made from balsa wood cut to shape and with the planking drawn on with a biro before coating it in PVA glue. The mats you see here are just base coated as I can’t paint the detail yet due to my poorly back. However it gives the general feel. The static grass is a dry summer grass which I think is appropriate for the season just before the harvest; the fighting season.

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Two of the shops got signs for visual effect rather than accuracy. Afghan villages seem to have little in the way of shop signs, I suppose everyone knows that Bert the butcher is the butcher because he’s got several dead sheep out the front. I took these from pictures of shops in Kabul. I do have plenty of produce to put outside the shops, but until my back improves to the point where I am able to sit to paint them they are not on display. However, the shutters got some graffiti to liven things up. All of this I got from images on line. It could well say “Death to the infidels” or just as easily say “We shut early on Wednesdays”, either way it looks right.

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And here are the other buildings. No comments particularly needed I think.

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And finally the odds and ends, including a communal well which I purchased on eBay from a company called Red Zebra Models. Their range of 1:48th model accessories is perfect for 28mm gaming. Their new web site can be found here: http://www.redzebramodels.co.uk/

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So, that was that. The village is largely complete. Now on to the fields and waterways. My big concern at this moment is that my back is showing no signs of getting properly better, so whilst the village may well be ready, the figures are sitting forlornly in their grey undercoat. Just eight days to go until they should be on the table for their first mission in Helmand Province.

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Project Afghan Village – Yet More

I’ve only managed some very brief bursts of activity over the past couple of days, for obvious reasons, but with no time to post on here due to Christmas cooking duties and then being so steeped in festive booze that any attempt at technology would have been pointless. So, Boxing Day seems a good day to de-tox and bring you all up to date.

The first step was to do the roofs to match the walls and then add some rudimentary thatch. I used a broom head for this purchased from Homebase ages ago for another project.

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You can see a bit more detail here:

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I also did a rudimentary test of crops, (my next project will be the green zone fields so this was a bit of an early prototype) by adding some astro turf door matting. I’m in two minds about whether to paint this, I think I will but we shall see when I get onto the crop stage.

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This has pretty much completed the main structures; now I could begin the detailing. My first step was to begin work on the gates for the large compounds. I bought some Wills model railway sheets of box corrugated metal for this. It’s cheap and easily cut with scissors or a knife, so perfect for this task.

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I wanted to be able to move the the gates and to have them either open, closed, or anywhere between the two. I decided to base them on some placticard which I would then texture. I also added a matchstick gate post.

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This can then be added to a model thus:

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Next, I used the same material to make some shutters for the village shops. I used precisely the same method, cutting to shape and sticking to a plasticard base. This will then be lightly textured with fine sand.

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I have some boxes of produce which can be stacked outside the shops, so I can show them either occupied and open or shut up for that High Noon moment when all of the civvies scurry off as Terry Taliban is out to play.

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It is my plan to add a bit of signage to the shops just to break up the monotony. I’m also adding a bit of neat tile grout to some models where I am not entirely happy, but that’s all small detail stuff. Tomorrow I plan to paint the doors, gates and any clutter which I can get prepped today.

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Project Afghan Village – In Search of Camel Sh*t Brown

So, there I was with my models all undercoated and a selection of paints to choose from, but, if I am honest, no clear idea about what colours to choose. I had a very specific idea in mind, I wanted the village to merge in with the ground, giving the impression of a community tied to the soil in every sense and with a hint of camel poo thrown into the mix. So, in essence, it had to be a grubby, stoney, earthy sort of colour, Whatever that was.

In the end I mixed a bit of the Homebase Weathercoat Terracotta with Sandstone to give a salmon pink colour. That reminded me that when I’d done my Dark Age buildings I had started with that colour and worked up to a light beige, so I slapped that all over in a liberal fashion.

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It’s an unusual base colour, but I like to build colour up and when you’re going to end up with a lightish finish I find a bit of strong colour behind it adds depth. With that in mind I then slapped on some Windsor and Newton acrylic Yellow Ochre before leaving that to dry overnight.

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I wasn’t entirely happy with these colours, and I knew that I’d have to get the next colour absolutely right. In the end I went with the Sandstone but with a dash of the original base colour, bitter chocolate. This have me a good earthy colour which I finished off with a highlight of soft almond applied to the tops of the walls and lightly dry-brushed down to give a weather beaten look. And here’s how they stand bow.

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Some points of note. I intend to spread sand over the bases so these are intentionally exactly the same colour as the walls, that will tie the two together when they are on the table.

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I painted over the lean-to wooden structures as well as this strengthens them. Now these are done I will paint these and the roof sections in chocolate brown and then follow the same procedure again so it all blends together.

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Of course, tomorrow is Christmas Day, so I doubt if I will get much done especially as my wife has informed me of which bits she will surgically remove if I “mess about with that bloody village” on Christmas Day. However, I am hoping to get the thatched areas done on the sly when she is not looking. We shall see.

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Operation Afghan Village – Part Six

So, the big day was now here when we began to see what the final buildings would look like. I must first apologise for the quality pf photos here, it looks like the lens of the camera has got a bit greasy, so the images are not crystal clear. Sadly I cannot go back and change that, so I must ask you to forgive me.

Anyway, it was now time to apply the magic gloop. I am now a big fan of tile grout as a medium for strengthening buildings made with polystyrene, so I use this as a base with the usual addition of PVA glue, but this time with with added sand. I sieved the sand which had also been dried. You just cannot do this with damp sand as it will not mix. I reckon the ideal mix is about 50% tile grout, 25% sand and 25% PVA. Sadly I used about 33% or each and I now reckon that I have lost some strength, but that’s a bridge I will have to cross when the buildings start taking damage. It’s frustrating, so please learn from my error and don’t skimp on the grout. Anywya, here’s how the buildings looked after the gloop had been applied.

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Nothing very exciting there, so, moving swiftly on, I let that dry and then applied sharp sand to the base with PVA glue. Once this dried, I washed over the surface with a 50% PVA, 50% water mix to hold all the sand in place. The two stage process is necessary to ensure real stickability.

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I also added sand to the roof tops, taking care to stay away from the edged where some final sanding might still be required.

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Next I added some larger stones around the bases of the walls and in nooks and crannies. This further visually ties the structure to the base and allows any holes or gaps to be covered. Again, this is a two stage process. PVA, glue and then, when dry, more watered down glue to fix in place.

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Once that is dry, and I really do mean dry – if you fail to allow what we have done so far to completely dry you will come a cropper in the next stage – we add our base coat of paint. Here I was very keen to use Sandtex in Chocolate Brown which terrain superstar Silver Whistle recommends. However, my local DIY store only had their own brand in that colour so I went with that. I have no idea if it is as good, but I splashed it all over with a large brush. I actually did this outside as this is a messy stage. Fortunately it stayed dry!

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Again. apologies for the photo quality!

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The next conundrum is to decide on what colour to paint the terrain with. I really want the rich almost orange look of the photos and videos I’ve seen, but ultimately I am going to be using a sand base (as in real sand on the table) so I need to tie it in with that too. A compromise may be required. Anyway, I bought a whole host of small pots, as we can see below, blowing a ludicrous £38 on this lot and a paint brush. I should have gone to Wilkos as Silver Whistler recommended.

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Next time I’ll be painting these up, so tomorrow will be decision time for the paint scheme…

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Operation Afghan Village – Part Four

I have to admit to not knowing much about mosques, but I do know that they can be key points in the fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Naturally, I wanted to make this the most elaborate building in the village, so I bought some of the Warbases windows to use. I chose the leaded light windows as, whilst the pattern is not perfect for the Muslim world, it is at least ornate and makes it look like someone has taken care with it. I do know that imagery is not allowed in their faith, but geometrical designs are seen as an illustration of the greatness of Allah, so I wanted the whole structure to have some geometry about it. In the end I decided on a cruciform structure with some embellishments. I stated like this….

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…and then went on to this. You can see that the windows on all faces are balanced and the smaller corner pieces make to an over-all twenty sides structure,. which is as geometrical as I’m going to get with polystyrene!

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And yes, that is fresh claret on the corner and it bloody hurt. A salutary lesson in how important it is to be careful with a sharp blade!

The next step was to make the roofs. I had now decided that MDF was the way forward here. Each roof would have some feature or other, maybe a pot or an air conditioning unit, which would in truth be a handle with which the lid could be lifted off. MDF would be solid and robust enough to stand lots of handling. It is also easily cut with a saw. As can be seen below. The mosque dome was a polystyrene piece which I purchased when I bought the 2″ blue poly sheet. It cost about thirty bob and was a great buy at that price.

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So the village was now roofed. The next step was to prep it for the gloop which would form the surface and give it that “freshly made with camel shit” look that I so aspired to.

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The first step was to fill some gaps. I used Milliput to do this. It was a tedious job, but it is simple enough and I watched a couple of episodes of Ross Kemp swearing his way around the green zone while I did it.

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Next comes a key stage. Where car undercoat paint touches polystyrene it will eat it up like acid. If there are any parts of the model where the polystyrene could be exposed you MUST cover this up with PVA glue to forma protective barrier. For me, this was the following places.

1. Where I had drawn on exposed rocky sections…
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2. Where the wall ends and the doors begin. I want to keep this clear of the gloop or it looks like the doors have been set in concrete.
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3. Where the wall lip houses the flat roof. The roofs have been cut to fit. A big dollop of gloop here will mess this up badly, so just PVA here.
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Finally, I added the wooden structures which would support some other roofing. I am intwo minds where to leave this as a tarpaulin type material or use a rough thatch. Either way, this structure of match sticks with a liberal application of PVA glue, will serve to support it.

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And that’s it for Day Four. Tomorrow sees us apply the magic camel shit gloop with a big brush. Imagine how photogenic that will be…!

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Operation Afghan Village – Part Three

Phew! It’s been a busy day on Lard Island. I had promised myself a hard slog, and it certainly was that. I didn’t get as much done as I wanted, but I do feel I have broken the back of the initial build stage. I’m also pleased that what I have done has proved that the modular build will work in practice as well as in theory. Let’s look at what I’ve done.

First up are some of the compound options. We saw in part two how I was combining one large module with smaller ones. Here we see some options in place and a destroyed wall section which is interchangeable.

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Here’s some other variations which show how the larger section of the compound is standard, then the smaller sections add the variety.

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Here’s another shot of some of the wall section variants…

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…and this is how we can configure the odd bits so we get infill sections of ruins to again add variety. The configuration is, again, designed to provide variety.

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Next we have the two smaller compounds, the ones on the rocky outcrops. I’m rather pleased with these as they add some variation in wall height. You can see the Warbases doors which have really save me HOURS of time. Normally I’d be making doors from cereal packets, a tedious task at the bet of times.

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We can see here how the configuration allows for the dried wadi (or live stream) to run between the two.

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Next we have a row of shop units. These will have corrugated shutters but with some signage they should add a bit of colour and a focal point for the settlement.

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Here’s a shot of the rear of the shops. Warbases door again.

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So that’s today’s work done. Here’s an overview of what I’ve built thus far. Tomorrow I’ll be building the mosque which has more detail involved, but already this is turning into a decent size settlement.

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And here’s a shot of that 4′ by 2′ sheet of polystyrene. There’s just over 3′ by 2′ left. On the pounds, shillings and pence basis this has been a cheap build to date. I’ve used £3 worth of blue poly, a similar amount on Warbases doors, £6 on the MDF base and let’s allow a pound for some old blue poly I had knocking about which I used here. Oh, and about five quid on hot glue. That’s a total of eighteen pounds.

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The next phase involved some matches which cost 79p a broom head which I have in the shed but which cost £3 when I bought it for another project. So by the time I finish the buildings it will be less than twenty five pounds in total and with plenty of material left for other future projects such as the irrigation ditches and fields. Compare this with the price of a single resin building in 28mm and I hope this shows how cost effective building your own terrain is.

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Operation Afghan Village -Part Two

Day two, and it’s time to get cracking on one of the large compounds. The whole 18′ high wall issue had to come to a head and it did: I bought the wrong bloody thickness of foam. I really should have got a sheet of 3″ polystyrene as that would have allowed me to simply slice lengths off like a loaf of bread. As it was the only thing I could do was get the saw out and hack away. The result was fine in terms of wall thickness, but the wood saw does leave a very rough finish. That said, look at the picture below. The wall there looks less than impressive when it comes to quality of finish. I’m going to be adding lashings of tile grout and PVA, possibly with some fine sand mixed in to give a more textured finish, so I think I can live with the hand-sawn look.
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Ultimately, I am building a limited number of these larger compounds with the very high walls; the smaller stuff will have 2″ walls, so that will be fine.

Right, let’s look at the build. As we have seen, I marked out the layout on the MDF bases and essentially I stuck to that. Here are the three primary compound walls.

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You can see how I cut this in around the surface rocky outcrops here:

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I wanted to start the build with the main compound walls as that is how I think these things would be constructed. In a somewhat anarchic society your first priority is to build your defences, after than comes the luxury of a roof over your head.

Next was the interior walls. I “cheated” here and bought a pile of doors from Warbases which are ideal for a rustic look across many periods.

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You can see how I built that up in this photo.
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I’ve not decided on how I’ll do the roofs yet. I want them to be “lift-off” so I considered artists mounting board and foam board, but I think I’ll be going with MDF as this is thin but solid. AT this stage I just added some internal support which these will sit on.

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The idea of the modular terrain is that I’ll be able to mix and match two halves of the compound to get variety. Here’s the combination of a larger and a smaller module. You can see that I’ve used the hot wire to shape the wall edges, a job which it does with ease and very quickly.

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This looks very rough at present, it’s just the polystyrene bits. I plan to add some wooden bits from matchsticks as well as some additional small structures on the roofs and then I’ve got some pots and general “scatter” to add some character. Warbases have some nice packs of goats which will look good as well.

Next I’m going to try to crack out the rest of the polystyrene structures before I move on the the other mediums. This is a big build project, so I am taking a somewhat industrial approach. Having put my back out I am finding that I can stand without much discomfort, whereas sitting typing this is bloody uncomfortable! Hence this short update.

More tomorrow.

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Operation Afghan Village – A Project Begins

As 2014 comes to an end, thoughts on Lard Island turn to next year’s projects and, in particular, our games on the show circuit. By the middle of the year we plan to have our rules for ultra-modern conflict, Fighting Season, published. Down in Australia, well known military author Leigh Neville has been working hard on the beta version of the rules and we will be joining him on the project as of the first week of January when playtesting begins with a vengeance. Of course, that means we need new figures and new terrain, so my Christmas holiday project is to build a small Afghan village in time for our first show of the year, Crusade in Penarth in January. (Nadolig llawen a blwyddyn newydd dda to the lads down there in South Wales, and a Pasg Hapus while we’re about it!)

Normally my approach to any build project is to throw myself in with very little planning. This time, however, I managed to put my back out just before the project started and, as a result, I have had adequate time lying on a hard floor and scanning my iPad, to research Afghan villages fully. There are some great tutorials for wargamers on the web, but I must admit that my time was largely spent scanning Google Earth and watching the Ross Kemp in Afghanistan boxed set of DVDs that were meant to be arriving with Santa. Fortunately my missus took pity on me and let me have them early.

My objective with the DVDs was not to revel in Mr Kemp’s limited selection of liberally applied expletives, but to look specifically at the terrain. I had originally hoped that at least some of my North African houses would make adequate stand-ins, but the truth was somewhat different. What both the DVDs and Google Earth showed was that unlike the majority of wargaming models one sees, the compounds were large open spaces with very little in the way of buildings or cover. This seems to me to be rather important as if the models are jammed into a small space with a tiny courtyard at the centre this fails to present the players with the same tactical challenges as the troops in the ground. As a result, I decided to follow the real pattern and try to create some nasty open ground for troops to fight across.

Compounds

Being flat on my back also allowed me to spend a bit of time on eBay sourcing the best materials cheaply, but the core component was going to be high density polystyrene of which I bought a 4′ by 2′ sheet 2″ deep and a sheet of 3mm MDF which would serve as the bases for the models. A word of warning here. I purchased the polystyrene before I began my research as they make perfectly good 12 foot high walls. The problem is that many Afghan compounds have walls much higher than that, often 18′ high. So how I overcome that problem I have yet to decide. Were I starting again 1′d buy 3″ deep polystyrene as this can always be cut down. Secondly, whilst we Brits went metric in 1971, the truth is that we didn’t and, for most normal people, we still haven’t. This is not just reflected in the fact that children will still tell you their weight in stones and height in feet and inches, but also that most of our wood is still cut in Imperial sizes which they then approximate to a metric size. A key example here is that 120cm by 60cm MDF sheets in Homebase have actually still been 4′ by 2′ as they were cut on the old Imperial machines. Now this is just changing and they are going with metric. So if your terrain collection, like mine, is based on 4′ by 2′ boards, it would be worth your while stocking up on these while you can find them. Which has nothing to do with the Afghan village, but I thought I’d mention it.

Right, so to begin with I got my board of “nearly 4′ by 2′” and marked out my terrain modules. The basic size was 12″ square which would be a large individual building, such as the mosque, or the main part of a larger compound. On the “not quite 12″ square” bits I drew up some secondary parts of a larger compound, some smaller single building compounds. Below that on 6″ square sections or smaller, I drew a mix of small wall section modules, so that sections of walls could be destroyed and replaced, a few small gardens and the odd 6″ length of wall which are always handy. This system would, I hoped, allow for a fair bit of variety. I need to get a second sheet to do the crops and irrigation channels, but that’s for later in the project. For now I completely filled my MDF shape. You can see where the mosque will be.

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Unfortunately, pencil doesn’t show up well in the photos, so I manipulated the contrast on the image below so you can see better what I did.

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The next step was to cut up the board into the individual modules. I used a basic chippy’s saw for this and then cut the corners off with a set of pliers. I find that rounding the corners softens the visual effect and, pragmatically, it avoids bumped corners looking tatty with use.

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Part of the plan not mentioned yet was to make the village look a bit more rugged by the addition of some large rocky areas with houses build on or around them. I also wanted the flexibility for some games of placing the buildings so that a wadi or stream could run through the village, so the rocky areas would help achieve this look. Here I deployed my new toy, a hot wire cutter for polystyrene. I got mine for eleven quid on eBay and it has alll the qualities of something bought for that price. It is horrible cheap plastic and powered by a battery, but it does the job. The more expensive options which were forty quid and more would undoubtedly look nicer, but this is more than adequate. Within moments I was wielding it like Zorro.

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Here you can see the section with rocky outcrops. The top ones are the ones where the wadi can go. They don’t look great, but they will do once we sand them down and apply some real rocks. I stick mine down with a hot glue gun which is perfect for the job.

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Finally, I sanded the polystyrene down and the edges of the boards. I used a sander, the type you do the skirting board with, and this makes it easier than doing it by hand, but it is still a bloody tedious chore. PLEASE do make sure you wear a good mask when sanding MDF, that stuff is more toxic than apartheid and can be a killer if it gets in your lungs. Cheap masks are next to useless. I bought a respirator type mask years ago and that is a worthwhile investment. I also do all of my sanding outside and ideally in a decent breeze.

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With that done, I decided to start at the simple end and just knock out some small gardens and walls. I want to build up to the more complex structure and learn as I go. I also need some time to think about those 18′ high walls and how to crack that nut. Here I used a sheet of blue stuff which was knocking about in my spares box. It’s about 1cm thick and about 12″ by 3.5″.

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I measured this against one of my Empress Miniatures British infantry (undercoated at this stage) and reckoned that about 9/10th of an inch was the right height for the garden wall. That small sheet was just enough to do this lot.

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You may be wondering why the triangular gardens. One of the issues with modular terrain is that it can be very orderly, too orderly for an Afghan environment. Afghanistan is one of the few places on earth not to have been influenced culturally by European colonists and, as a result, they have one of the obsession with order that we seem to have, as a result the very idea of an orderly Afghan village is not quite right. The triangular garden sections allow us to break up straight lines in our terrain, as we see here, with the two blank boards masquerading as buildings.

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I used the hot wire to shape the tops of the walls in an irregular fashion. The tool was perfect for this but for cutting straight lines I’d still recommend a sharp knife. Finally I added some rocks by drawing them on with a ballpoint pen. When we goe later in the process I’ll be adding some real rocks to make this wall look more real than it does at present. Anyway, I reckon it’s time to move on to a larger structure. That should be interesting…

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