Billy No-Mates: A soloist speaks up

By Kevin White

A Brief History

My interest in wargaming began at secondary school (during the 1970s). The English teacher made us do a three-minute talk on a hobby or something of interest to us. One boy talked about wargaming and brought a Napoleonic French infantry command group as a visual aid. That was it for me. I joined the newly formed wargaming club at school and never looked back. My two best friends also joined the club and that was my early to mid-teen life.

There were two key periods of interest in the beginning, Napoleonic and Ancient. I was also beginning to pick up the wargamer’s affliction of being seduced by other periods, sometimes led by the school club, more often by something read in “Military Modelling.” I still have Seastrike in its original Top Secret yellow folder bought on the strength of a review in “Military Modelling.”

I paid 60 pence for Arthur Taylor’s Rules for Wargaming published by Shire and they became the “house rules” for games outside the school club. (I lost this book years ago and bought it again last year on eBay for £10!) When ancients became the period of choice, we picked up WRG rules.

When I hit 16, one friend started to talk about his involvement with the Sealed Knot (at the time the only English Civil War re-enactment society) and that helped to sort out various summer weekends. Then disaster struck; I was distracted — by a girl.

Clearly, playing with toy soldiers is not cool. Neither was running around the countryside at weekends dressed up as an extra from The Three Musketeers. I gave away everything. I gave it all to a kid who lived down the road. His mother had mentioned to my mother that he was interested in toy soldiers and my mother arranged for us to meet. What can I say, he caught me at a vulnerable time.

Run the clock forward 15 years. By this time I am married and have two children. I also have a proper job with hours that mean I am at work when most people are at home and vice versa. The work can be quite demanding at times and almost all consuming. I need to find a hobby before I become very two dimensional and worn out.

Mooching around the local WH Smith, I see the first edition of Practical Wargamer. Just down the road is a model shop. Do Airfix still do 20mm plastics? They do, and look, there’s paint and brushes, and everything. In a little while I am starting to get back into the swing of things. The big question is, “Who am I going to play against?” Don’t panic, just keep collecting and painting, something will turn up.

Something did. In the Winter 1987 edition of Practical Wargamer there was an article by John Bennett called, “Solo War Chess.” It was a revelation to me. Up to that point, I had no idea that you could wargame alone. John Bennett, of course is the founding father for soloists. He started the Solo Wargamers Association in the ‘70s and, as we all know, it is still going strong.

A couple of weeks later in the local library, I was going through a pile of books that were now surplus to requirements. Don Featherstone’s book, Solo Wargaming, was sitting there calling my name. It was only a pound or two to buy, the best couple of quid I have ever spent.

My wife bought me Charles Stewart Grant’s book, Programmed Wargames Scenarios for Christmas. He very helpfully noted an address for the Solo Wargamers Association. I paid my subscription in January 1992. I have been a member ever since.

What is good about being a soloist?

To be perfectly honest, I can’t see a down side. I have a ready opponent. We never argue about the rules. He never sneers at my average painting ability. We agree about how the various armies that we are using should be organised and used. We decided amicably that 20mm would be the scale of choice. The majority of our figures are plastic and neither of us was leery about that. He’s always ready to look at a new period and never tires of my innovations. Surprisingly, I don’t always win, but that’s character building!

 Actually, when I returned to the hobby I didn’t really give much thought to what figure scale I was going to use. Clearly there were more scales around than when I had left years before. All I did was pick up something that was familiar from the past. To be frank I couldn’t afford metal figures at that time, even in 15mm. 1:72 plastics suited my pocket.

This is one of the great joys of being a soloist. You please yourself about all sorts of things. It doesn’t matter what is fashionable, in terms of scales, period, materials or rules. You just plough your own furrow.

As well as collecting figures and terrain, I also find that I am an avid collector of different rule sets. I read them from time to time for inspiration, but I don’t use any of them! What I am interested in are the mechanisms. What is the thinking behind the rules, what is the underlying philosophy of the writer? Sometimes I will see something which really interests me and it will invariably turn up in a different guise somewhere in my rules.

As time passed, I did start to think about what I wanted from the hobby. I was very glad that I had chosen 20mm plastics by default because there are so many good manufacturers in the market place now. It is no longer the case that you will be short of various arms if you go the plastic route. The Internet is a great tool for research and most of the figures that you might need are usually out there somewhere. There are also one or two manufacturers of metal 20mm figures that can plug whatever gaps there may be.

As well as figure scale I started to look at the playing surface too. Traditionally wargamers use a plain surface, but do you have to? Again, it was John Bennett writing in Practical Wargamer (sadly defunct for a number of years) who first raised the possibility of using a grid in that article “War Chess.” I read that again, and another article by Clive Lane, entitled “Using Hexed Terrain” (also in Practical Wargamer.) It was this that prompted me to experiment. Looking back it was ridiculous how nervous I was about the whole business. Who else was there to satisfy, apart from me?

 I bought some hardboard, painted it and drew 150mm hex grid on it. Over time, even that has changed. I now have a one and a half inch hex mat (produced by Eric Hotz; see his website for details) and all my terrain and figures are based to fit that.

 As well as the aforementioned articles in Practical Wargamer there was the added impetus that came from playing the board game “Ambush”. I suspect that many of you know this is a solitaire game produced by Victory Games set in late World War 2. You command a squad of American paratroopers. There are various missions to be played out over two different map boards. Wouldn’t it be good, thought I, to play this as a figure game? Answer, “Yes, it is.” I have the precision of a board game with the attraction of painted miniatures as counters.

Hyboria, Imagi-nations and all that

 Tony Bath’s seminal work, Setting up a Wargames Campaign, has also been influential. For years I wanted to have a multi-nation continent with different ancient/medieval armies fighting it out for supremacy. I could never make my mind up about what the armies should be and how they should be organised. Then the DBA family of rules came along with the standard 12-element size for all the armies. Brilliant, but I think they look too small on my table. So I changed it. The armies in my imaginary world consist of 12 units and the core of the army is usually six units of foot … except when it’s not. For example, I have just completed an army which is loosely based on the Saracens. This army has three units of foot, two units of foot archers, two units of horse archers, three units of medium cavalry and two units of light camels.

And I can populate my world with whomsoever I choose. No one is going to complain that it’s ahistorical or unrealistic. For your information, 1st Century Roman; Greek hoplites; Gallic warbands; Normans; Saxons; Saracens; Huns; 100 Years War English and French armies all feature at some point.

These are illustration of what I mean when I say nuggets from other games and rule sets will often turn up in different guises in games of my own.

You didn’t expect that, did you?

The perennial question is always, “How can you have an unpredictable enemy when you are playing both sides?” It is actually easier than you think. One of the things I really enjoy about being a soloist is that games are unpredictable. By the way, why should the enemy be the only ones who are unpredictable? How many times historically have friends and allies failed to turn up at the appointed time and place? What mightWaterloohave looked like if the Prussians had failed to appear, or turned up even later than they did?

Anyone that has read any of the rules that I have had published in Lone Warrior will know how I go about having an unpredictable enemy. One of my favourites is to use a chit or card system. Have a card or chit for each unit on the table. Draw a chit to activate the unit. Depending on the period, the unit may move, manoeuvre or fire – or maybe all three! In a Napoleonic game, when an infantry unit is activated will you risk firing at that unit of enemy cavalry or will you take the opportunity to form a square? You may get another opportunity if the infantry battalion is activated again before the turn is concluded, and the cavalry may not get activated at all, but do you want to take the risk?

I think there is enough in this article for you to realise that I would strongly commend solo wargaming. I am not saying that you have to give up face to face gaming, but you may just find something in solo play that is not to be found anywhere else.

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3 Responses to Billy No-Mates: A soloist speaks up

  1. Paul Le Long says:

    Bravo Kevin – I really enjoyed this piece & I’m sure it struck a chord with most readers who have probably had a broadly similar experience.

    I got into wargaming by a slightly different route but I have nevertheless arrived at a similar point to you – I use hex terrain (by Erik Hotz), I also collect rules but never use them except to harvest the ideas for my own home-brew rules. I too use order chits (I use a pack of cards) to activate units randomly so that the turn sequence is, well, random. And like you I have a campaign setting into which I place armies with complete disregard for history or the opinion of others.

    And best of all, my regular opponent is a brilliant guy who always agrees with everything I do. And he beats me most of the time too.

    Soloist or not, it’s sometimes nice to know that you are not completely alone in terms of wargame preferences and approach. Once again, a very interesting read.


  2. Steve_G says:

    You strike a very real and somewhat poignantly nostalgic chord for me in this very insightful piece. You mirror my own experiences with uncanny focus and accurate similarity. While I enjoy a thriving community of family and friends who game with me regularly (especially my wife), I still, to this day by choice, enjoy solo gaming the best.. almost every time. Odd isn’t it?

    Reading your words was a delightful experience and a wonderful way to wake up with my mug of tea and start the day.

    Now…. you must excuse me. I have this troop of ECW horse I must finish painting 🙂

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