Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Napoleonic Wargames - Memory Lane


Then and now!

Recently, Aaron at his blog ‘Here’s No Great Matter’ (Link in the resource section below) did something of a reflective post. I added a comment, which mentioned a napoleonic wargame book that my father had bought me many moons ago and some weeks on, I now find myself in my own reflective mood.


Happily, it’s not a later-life crisis. I know this because I don’t have the remotest urge to do anything about that Harley Davidson motor bike that I may have noticed, winking at me from a show room window :-)


This instantly felt familiar to me

I have however, motivated by my comment left on Aaron’s post, just managed to obtain a ‘very good copy’ of that book my father bought me all those years ago. That was 1974 and being pre-internet and at the start of my exposure to wargames, had me hanging onto every sentence by precious sentence and it became an important companion to a young enquiring mind who was having all the right buttons pressed for a life-long passion for wargames.


Like everyone else I knew as a teenager, my parents worked hard and there was little money around other than to pay the bills and put food on table. There wasn’t really an expectation of getting anything above that. That was what Christmas and Birthdays were for, if you were lucky and which, in any case, usually stretched parents to ‘going on the weekly’ to spread the cost over the rest of the year.


Anyway, out of the blue, my father took me to my newly discovered ‘proper’ wargame shop on the other side of the city and while there, I handled the Grant book about 1000 times like an eager teenager would and he asked me if I wanted it. Why ‘yes’ I said without reservation and he bought the book (£3). I have no idea how that was paid for, probably out of his petrol allowance - still, I had my book and it was wonderful.


Somewhere along the way, I lost possession of the book, so getting another copy has just been one of those good things to do.  Anyway, here I sit, I have my book again and I am reading through it with 2018 eyes. Is it as wonderful as I remembered? Well that is for a later post, but I am immediately stuck by how the decades, no doubt through growing affluence,  have changed the expectations and judgement of myself and peers. Comparisons might be drawn from other Napoleonic rules recently acquired, such as Neil Thomas’ fast play titles, Colours & Guns by Iain Dickie and Gareth Harding, Warlord’s Black Powder and of course supplements and Dave Brown’s General d’Armee.


Some of this contemplation, which I certainly think links into wargame presentation, also comes from and coincides with my newly acquired interest in ‘getting back into vinyl’. I fancied a dabble and bought one of those cheapish decks and some speakers that I thought were okay, plus some nicely pressed new 180gm vinyl and my excitement levels were definitely on the way up. The plan was just to sit and listen to an LP from start to finish without interruption of skipping forwards etc and enjoy some chill time, something of its own nostalgic pleasure trip.
Bowie .... his Early and Later works on vinyl

Then, with my interest piqued, I started to read internet stuff and I quickly ‘realised’ that I had bought the wrong kit. What I really ‘needed’ was a deck that reduced impact on the record, that had a better needle that sat properly in the groove and that had an anti-skate device to stop wear on one side of the groove or slipping out of the groove and that the tonearm had an adjustable counter-weight that would avoid undue pressure to bear down on the record.


Of course with my newly acquired ‘expert’ knowledge, I knew the speakers were wrong! and I also 'needed' a decent amp with a built in pre-amp so that the deck thingy and the speaker thingy would perform at their best.



And did you know that the speakers need some time to ‘bed in’? so that the skin on the speakers gets to relax a bit with a few days use. You just don’t know what you don’t know and then when you do, is there any going back?


Is there a discernible difference with the kit I had a few weeks ago? Well yes actually, significantly so, even for my unsophisticated ear. Decades ago, did I know that the family Fidelity record player and then the budget music centre wasn’t actually the dog’s nuts! Well, no, not at all, I had no idea. Did it particularly matter? Well no again, I loved those records and the music for what they were. I played them without any pretentiousness, without worry whether the base may be slightly out or that speakers weren’t tweeting or woofing or whatever the ‘essential’ bits should do.


And so back to wargames. Is there a tension between our memory of ‘the good old days’ and how we wargame today?  Perhaps there is an old school tendency to look at the past with a rightful affection that also translates into a misplaced view that wargaming (and playing music) was better then than it is now.


It may be true that those days have a nostalgic magic that partly comes from the energy and excitement of youth, journeys of exploration and an absence of cynicism. Is it also possible that what we have really lost in our ‘worldly progress’ is a degree of naivety, which used to leave room for simple pleasures to abound.


So perhaps that is where the tension between before and now lays. Yes, yesteryear was wonderful if you were riding that wave of the explosion of the hobby, but on the other hand, the current day wargamer can immerse themselves in a richer wargaming environment, thanks to the commercial side of the hobby being strong enough to develop a diverse range of high quality products that can meet the tastes of most individuals. Whatever your interests, there is generally something to serve them.


To example some of this wonderful excess, a problem for me today (fancy calling it a problem!), as a fan of WWII tactical wargames, is that I have three very good series of boardgame on the subject (18 separate game modules), two figure rule systems and my own figure rules. All these vie for the same piece of wargaming time and that small piece of brain that can remember rule systems thoroughly enough to play with pleasure. Dare I mention napoleonics, dark ages, American civil war etc.


If I were to start a project with the Grant rules, then where to start? In 1974, it was easy. For the teenager it was Airfix 1/76 plastic. For those who had ten years on me, they might also be looking at metal Minifigs or Hinchcliffe 25mm’s or even those new fangled 15mm.


But choosing today, I can have soft plastic, hard plastic or metal, 2mm 3mm, 6mm, 10-12mm, 15-18mm, 1/72 - 20mm, classic 25mm or 28mm (yes and even bigger). Figure conversion is hardly necessary, because so much variety is available in each scale. Then I can choose an open table or a hexed table. My own interests would draw me towards 10mm on hexes, but perhaps a nostalgia project deserves 1/72 plastic. If I chose the 1/72, I would find that some of the figures are now in a harder plastic, and that glues and primers have been developed to cope with the softer plastics - all improvements and with a wider range of sculpts from the likes of HaT and Zvezda.


Colour plate from the book stands
up rather well against current tables.

I can’t say whether it is more expensive now than then to get going on a napoleonic project, but my Grant book was £3 in 1974, which I rather fancy was comparatively more expensive than today’s books - I don’t really know in truth. My first teenage Saturday job gave me £2 a day, a month later I was at a major store getting £6 a day, so roughly 85 pence an hour with a unpaid lunch break. Today the UK national minimum wage is set at £4.05 an hour (£28.35 a day) for under eighteens (£7.50 for over 25’s).


Even if you say ‘Bah Humbug’ to the price of high quality modern rule books, it is hard to compare them to what went before, with their good quality paper, lavish colour illustrations and generally high page count. Of course, now the ordinary man in the street also has ready publishing capability. Just type up your rules or blog post and share over the internet and be as retro or forward thinking as you desire. The fact that one can sit here and browse this blog and similar content across the internet for a couple of hours every day, is a world apart from having your only information feed as being the old (but wonderful) wargamers Newsletter circulated by Don Featherstone - as inspirational and special as that was.


Having said all of that, I am looking at the simplicity of these Charles Grant napoleonic rules and I am nostalgically drawn (back) to them, though I look at some mechanics and there are now easier ways to do some things. So for example in the Grant rules, when a line wants to form square, the flank companies are given additional movement to allow the formation to be properly formed (yes you have to measure the flank company movement separately). I turn to most modern rules and if a formation is able to go into square, the bases are simply lifted and put into square.




I have just bought 1812 Napoleons Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski and published by William Collins, and perhaps by the end of that read it will confirm my interest in building a napoleonic Russian army and maybe a Grant project will go live.


And so here we are! The memories of old music and old wargames are to be cherished. The nostalgia is strong, but almost at every level, what we have today is simply superb when it can be afforded. We may have lost our naivety along the way and whether real or imagined, that loss may be what draws us back to ‘good old times’, but we are where we are and while wargaming is generally considered niche, in truth there are now many niches within that niche and each is serviced by good product. We are indeed a fortunate hobby and whether boardgaming or figure gaming, we mostly get to play what we want.


Normal service of ‘real’ wargame content will resume shortly. I can’t hang around, there is a Harley Davidson in a certain shop window that needs stroking and admiring ....... dream on Smithy :-)


Resource Section.


Aaron’s blog - Here’s No Great Matter LINK


Commanders - my sister web space. LINK


31 comments:

  1. That was an enjoyable read, Norm. For me, wargaming is better now; music was better then. There!

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    1. Thanks Jonathan, as I buy back into vinyl, I am buying the material from 'then'. I don't listen to the music channels on the radio and the kids have long flown the nest, so I really have no idea as to any of the current music, though I assume there are some real pearlers there, so that is perhaps my loss.

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  2. I can well understand the nostalgia of the past conflicting with the reluctance actually to return to it. In my earliest days, the rules we worked to, an adaptation of Charge! rules, we great fun and enjoyable, and yet contained serious inconsistencies -especially considering the Young and Lawford 60-figures-plus regiments against our 9 or 14.

    As we progress, we can look back with a certain wistfulness, but I believe the past is best viewed from a distance.

    A few years ago I got hold of a copy of the Charles Grant book that was re-published, by his son in 2009. Charles Stewart Grant kep[t the original text and playes unchanged, but added a 'supplemento' at the end, AFTER the index. I don't reckon I will ever play a Charles Grant game (though, who knows), but Charles Grant senior's engaging style of writing makes this a fine 'bedside' book.

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  3. One of the things that I don't like about the Grant book is the writing style is in a very formal English prose and so sometimes a bit stiff, this makes the book feel 'more of it's day', though in some ways, it reminds me of the Black Powder rules, which I find to also have something of a flowery undertone that is simply out of kilter to the way we converse nowadays, i,e, in what we might term ordinary language.

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  4. Ah Norm, that was a great morning read, sitting here in a hotel room with a coffee. You touched on many things that I have also been thinking about recently as we begin our new adventure, wargaming, music and, dare I say it, motorbikes! I guess we must be around the same age as those early influences I remember well.

    The point about the manner in which most of us listen to music these days - track by track rather than album by album - hit home as I also recently made the decision to rebuild by seventies rock album collection and to listen to the albums start to finish!

    I have been contemplating what to do next, as I have decided that the future for me is board games, but as I still have a yearning to paint some figures I'm going to replace all of my Commands & Colors Napoleonics blocks with individual 15mm figures, nation by nation starting with the British and French, this will be my 'Spanish Project'

    All the best Norm, keep the posts coming, I always enjoy reading them.

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  5. Thanks Lee, Blog reading comes into its own for some quiet time in hotels or coffee shops. Hope the move is all running smootly.

    Someone said to me that years ago, you either had to wait for your song to come on the radio (or Top of The Pops) and the only alternative to that was vinyl, it gave you command of choice and with that generally came exploring an entire side of the album. How true. There are some brilliant and mobile ways to listen to music now, but remembering the discipline of just listen to all the tracks in order, has been a nice thing to re-visit.

    Having my feet in both boardgames and figure worlds, I fully get your latest thinking of going after the boardgame, while keeping a figure presence. I have a project in mind (well a resurection of an old project actually) that I think will probably sit just where your inyerests lay at the moment, so hopefully the blog will continue to entertain as you re-establish yourself in Spain. Cheers Norm.

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  6. This was my ,,4th? book on Wargaming? (After Featherstone and Charge!

    I was wearing HM uniform by then and even my rather small officer-cadet pay was sufficient for the occasional self indulgence. I only played a few small games since I was soon seduced by WRG but Grant's discussions on scale put a major bee in my bonnet that I still struggle to swat. Odd considering that he openly dismissed the larger scale anomalies that I now see as the more important element of scale: can the battle fit on the table in scale and can units achieve in the course of a whole game what they did in life? He kicked off 40 years of scale angst! But I did spend an awful lot of time with my head in that book.

    I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I don't have to rebuy my albums from the 70's, mind you some of them are also show their age and misuse. I could use new ears though.

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    1. Hi Ross, yes the scale thing has been a problem ever since the early writers tried to sincerely match unit frontage, weapon range, manpower ratio and movement allowances into something that resembled realism. And so we end up with Grant using 1 movement segment equals 1 minute of real time - while the engagements being represented could never have thought to have occurred over 10 or 15 minutes. We look at modern Black Powder rules and there tends to be a somewhat more elastic approach to these things rather than hard lined inter-relationships between all things relating to the physical.

      But then the rigidity was of it's time, in the same way that if the rules man said a battalion was 48 figures, then 48 figures it was, perhaps our generations natural compliance to rules seemed to have stifled the flexibility to say, 'well my battalions will be 18 strong instead'.

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    2. I believe Charles Grant used a ground scale of 1 inch to 10 yards - that is to say 1:360. My own cogitations on this issues indicates to me that his 'one minute' per move actually represents 20 minutes 'real time' (actually 19, but of course we'd round it to something easier to work with).

      A 10-15 move game would therefore represent 200-300 minutes - over three, and up to five hours. That sounds about right to me.

      When I was investigating the ground vs time scale thing, I was most impressed how by some instinct or feel, our wargaming forebears latched onto the right sort of ball-park in terms of time scale.

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    3. I think most of the rule writers from around that time would have come through the armed forces, with the insight that brings as to the management and administration of 'formation'.

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  7. I still listen to whole albums, despite streaming etc. Force of habit I guess.

    I'm not sure if Grants Napoleonic Wargaming was also just a compilation of magazine articles like Battle was (I have a suspicion it was), which might account for the writing style.

    Still two of my favourite wargaming books, although Neil Thomas has managed to recreate something along similar lines. I have a signed copy of Napoleonic Wargaming!

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    1. Hi Martin, the text (156 pages) does seem to have a cohesive whole, but I am guessing the language was a little stiff, even for it's day. I know your blog regularly gives a nod towards Thomas and we have probably both been around the block enough times to appreciate a straight forward rule set that delivers a result in a single and relatively short session.

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  8. What an outstanding post, Norm. Very much appreciated. I have been thinking for a long time about a weekend dedicated to "Old School" rules including Charles Grant's "The Wargame" for SYW as well as "Battle" for World War II gaming. Some of the more "modern" takes on those "old school" rules include General de Brigade and Kriegskunst, both of which I think would fit nicely in an "Old School" themed day.

    What was very special though, was the story around where you picked up The Napoleonic Wargame as a youngster, and I immediately grasped how special that was to you and how important of a moment it was when you first got it. (same for the vinyl!)

    Excellent and though-provoking post that brought up some old memories of mine and how I became immersed into historical wargaming. Thank you for posting!

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    1. Thanks Steve, as the demands of our modern pace of life has us ever journeying forwards, sometimes it works just to stop and have a glance over our shoulder.

      I do occasionally find myself walking in my fathers shoes and despite his death many years ago, there are things that I better understand and appreciate now than I did then.

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  9. A very enjoyable post, Norm, as well as the follow-on discussion. I agree we now live in an age when wargaming is nearly mainstream and we are blessed with a huge selection of ...well everything. To some degree I think we still bring our original naivety to it, a certain suspension of belief that makes it all work.

    Incidently, I read Young and Lawford’s “Charge!” and later Charles Grant’s “The War Game”. They covered the same period but I much preferred the former’s writing style.

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  10. Thanks Bill, I wonder whether we are the generation that actually have a foot in both worlds and so our wargaming, even at a subconscious level draws on that, even though we are of course also modern cool cats :-)

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  11. Hi Norm,

    Great post. I think my first proper wargames book was Battle by Charles Grant (previously a series of article in Meccano Magazine). That was sometime in the very early 1970s. By the way, I still have some 400+ vinyl albums and would buy more if I had the money. I think You Tube is great for finding new music, even for old people!.

    Cheers

    Jay

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  12. Hi Jay, yep I have just discovered YouTube for researching tracks - told a relative and they just looked at me as though I was the only one who never knew it! Then the same 'relli' told me they have a load of my old LP's! the conversation stopped massively short of the critical ' do you want any of them back' words :-)

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  13. It's good to hear the thumbs up. I have umm'd and arr'd about this title several times previously, mainly because I thought the maps were a bit lacking, but I think being in a bit of a Russian Napoleonic mood lately made me jump of the fence.

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  14. A very nice post and great to read. I enjoy these longer posts but it does make me want to write a longer reply as well.

    I came to wargaming later in life than some, and really have only been in the hobby for around a decade. My first experience was GW, and I don’t feel nostalgic for that at all. Not that I didn’t have fun, but that style of game play ultimately turned out to be not for me.

    What really spoke to me was the bit about having many interests and not enough time. I think that is the biggest conundrum that faces gamers. One of the reasons that I think people remember more enjoyment from a ‘previous era’ is that they were focusing on less (if that makes sense).

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  15. Hi Stew, yes, I think that could be the right on the money, together with the time we currently indulge our tablet / computer/ phone screens. It seems very common to see bloggers refer to themselves as wargame butterflies, but perhaps the truth behind that is that we are because we 'can be', not because that is a default behaviour for wargamers.

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  16. Hi Norm,
    another great read that gets the old grey cells going! My first foray into wargaming was a mix of fantasy (Thane Tostig and D&D) and the Airfix WWII rules. To be honest I'm not sure which came first as it's so long ago. Looking back there was certainly less choice, but in one sense that helped focus our gaming, which was pretty crude compared to today's gaming. Back in the '70's we could only afford the Airfix figures which, with their range of plastic kits, pushed us towards WWII. This was of course more than aided by an addiction to the war films that we devoured with regular glee. Also of note is that books were damned expensive, compared to todays prices, and there were far fewer of them. Living in a village we simply could not easily get into town to access the library and the few toy stores that stocked wargames stuff. When we could we could only marvel at what was on offer, most way out of our price range. Again I think that is why fantasy gaming caught our attention; a few figures, so very basic scenery for the dungeon, and away we went. We could only dream of having tables and armies that we saw in Military Modelling and Airfix magazine. This did not stop us dreaming however and regularly looking at the H&R lists etc.

    Fast forward to today and we are positively spoilt for choice. More rulesets than you can shake a stick at, every obscure army or nationality catered for (no more converting Airfix ACW figures) and many, many more superb military history books to devour. Then of course there is the internet and access to pretty much anything you need in a few clicks.

    Is it better now than then? Most probably yes, but sometimes I do yearn for the simplicity of those formative years. But then maybe I'm looking back through rose tinted spectacles as they say.

    With regards the 1812 book, the following lecture is not only a brilliant listen, but incredibly informative too:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_Pdkv16BFo

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  17. Hi Steve, Glad his post has struck a chord, I think those of us with a foot in both worlds of that past and this present, if pressed to pick only one time that was 'best', would feel compelled to say now is best, yet still have hankering for 'what was', or certainly a belief that there is a memory worth treasuring.

    Today, not only do we have a wide range of product, but the ironic truth is that there may be too much new product. I know with the kickstarter stuff, it is difficult to start getting the best out of what has just been delivered, before the next new thing is demanding your money. I wonder whether product overload will reach a critical mass point and the model will collapse or at least re-trench.

    I recently obtained a copy of The Third World War - The Untold Story, by Sir General John Hackett, published in 1982 in hardback. It has a cover price of £10. That was over 35 years ago and a hardback today is typically £20 discounted down to £10, so I feel fairly certain that books were comparatively more expensive in those days and hoorah for libraries.

    Thanks for the YouTube link, I shall watch that tonight when I get back from my wargame session.

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  18. Wonderful post! Funnily enough, I had an experience much like yours. My dad bought me the book when I was a very young teenager and not even able to really read and understand English, but I fondly remember spending hours drooling over the awesome photographs and trying to fathom what "charging home" might mean. My dad also dragged me along to the wargames shop on the other side of town (the only one in the Netherlands!) to get me my first Hinchliffe 25mm French to replace my Airfix. Old Guard grenadiers, of course, still have them. We soon ended up with WRG (I practically learned English reading them - took me years to shake of the Barkerese accent :-)). Your post brought back some great memories, thanks!

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  19. It looks like many of us have trodden the same path and I suppose that should not be a surprise. You are lucky to still have your first Hinchliffe though - nice. In fact your reply just triggered another flash-back!

    My mother told the next door neighbour that I wargamed. The neighbour had a nephew who also wargamed and so they arranged for said nephew to call at ours, next time he was up. I set up all my Airfix for two Napoleonic armies (Anglo-Allied and French), plus the Airfix Waterloo farm on the dining table. He brought a gun, limber and horses plus half a dozen cavalry, all in metal and I was bedazzled!

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  20. Nice post, Norm! Great to see you revisiting the past, taking off the glasses, and checking for rosy tints!

    The thing I was trying to get across in my own post (but didn't really succeed), was that, for me, those formative experiences are more exciting and engaging that later ones. I just don't get the same thrill that I used to either from music or wargaming, but maybe that's just me :)

    Cheers,
    Aaron

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  21. Hi Aaron, your point came across well. If everything today is so much better, materially speaking than it was, then if we feel something is lacking, our backwards look must be emotionally rather than materially based and so I suppose that leaves us with the more focussed question of why that is? What has been lost along the way?

    It strikes me that today, everything has to be good quality, professionally approached and sophisticated before we can surrender ourselves to enjoy it. Those things and that mindset almost seem to get in the way of the simple, unassumed pleasure.

    Things we owned were also harder to obtain financially and could only be collected slowly and so maybe that greater sense of value also played it part.

    Plus things didn't ache and eyes were sharper :-)

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  22. Nice post, second go trying to comment, I started off with D&D (having had piles of airfix Napoleonics previously)got the airfix ECW book for the model making but got fascinated by the small black and white photos in the battle report and intrigued by the army lists. I'm much happier now everything in any scale, I've just bought plastic multi pose late Romans, who'd have bet on that? When you're a teenager,every thing is more intense,music,relationships, wargaming?!
    Best Iain

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  23. Thanks Iain, I seemed to have travelled the mid part of my wargaming life in fear of 28's thinking that they could only be painted by master painters - now that I have had a go, I have no idea on where the basis for that belief came from - mind you, older eyes probably make 28's easier to paint together with a more forgiving nature when looking at the results. The plastics have been a great step forward for the scale.

    As for teenage years, it will be interesting to see what todays teenagers will reminisce about in 45 - 50 years time :-) They will probably say - 'do you remember petrol' :-)

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  24. Hello Norm,

    Life is busy elsewhere and so it has taken me a while to catch up on blog posts. I never started with any books at all - I was introduced to WW2 and Ancient gaming via friends at school when I was 14 (in '79). I did not last long at ancients due to the rules, but WW2 was easier with plastic kits. At the club I joined soon after I mostly played multi-player boardgames for the next 10 years, only getting back into minis sporadically after that. It wasn't until I started getting back into gaming in a more serious way in 2009 I realised there was a whole lot of classic gaming texts from the 60's and 70's. Your post was interesting to see a different perspective on introduction to gaming.

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