Monday 29 January 2024

"Nobody Likes the Chaya": A villainous faction for 'When the Last Sword is Drawn'

"Nobody likes the House of Chaya. Their nobility is bought through wealth and their signature is greed.

They are wealthy, proud and ambitious. Their sharp-elbowed advance along the coast of northern Honshu, gathering lands and castles, has created many enemies. One clan, the Akiyama, has become the most recent victim of Lord Chaya Ichiro’s schemes of aggrandisement. But now, Lord Akiyama is dead.

Two days ago, Lord Akiyama was dishonourably killed by Chaya no Irosuke, a notorious samurai of the House of Chaya. Worst of all, Lord Akiyama’s legendary sword was taken from his dead hands and was brought to the Chaya’s ancestral temple to be re-consecrated as a trophy of the Chaya’s conquests."


Everyone loves a villain. And, as one famous actor has said, “Every villain is a hero in their own mind.”

In creating tabletop miniatures games at games days and wargame shows, I always find it helps to try and set the theme. Part of that is describing what the players are fighting for. What are the stakes? Which side are you on? It’s easy with history. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows it’s OK to punch a Nazi.

But with games which involve a more alt-history, or a down-right fantasy feel, it’s harder. Of course, sometimes it's made easy by the bad guys wearing black, or carrying a red light-sabre. Other times, it helps for me to tell the players, in as few words as possible, which side they’re fighting on.

And so to The House of Chaya.

Put simply, they’re villains. Nobles, for sure. Wealthy, of course. Darkly handsome in a Kylo Ren kind of way? - well, maybe you can make your mind up on that one. But they’re the bad guys? Yes, they are. Because every story needs a villain.

More seriously, I’ve found that wargames with a smaller footprint (in terms of game size and playing time) need a helping hand. You can have an attractive table, and thematic rules. But the importance of the background story, or the “skinny” as American TV writers might call it, increases as the table shrinks. The figures and the terrain can’t do it all on their own.

And in that environment, it helps for there to be a villain. Someone you can point to as the bad guys. Maybe they “killed our ‘Pa”. Maybe they burned your farm. Maybe they took your sacred sword.

Or maybe they did all three.

It short circuits the long gaming background of where you are and why you’re fighting. Because as Indiana Jones says, it's always OK to punch a Nazi.

Or clash swords with the Chaya.

I've been carrying the representatives of the House of Chaya up and down the United Kingdom for the past year and a half to serve as the bad guys in our games of "When the Last Sword is Drawn". These are the latest additions to the usual suspects. Including the heart-throb of the House of Chaya - Chaya no Irosuke.

These are some more of the figures from the glorious samurai- and Japan-fixated 1980s. The two fallen fighters are from Dixon Miniatures’ early samurai range. The mounted samurai is from the same range. He’s advertised as a famous samurai commander from the 13th Century.

But he’s such a lovely figure that it’s a shame to limit him to that period. I strung his bow string with fine wire, and pinned the bow to his hand at the start of painting. I also glued him to his horse. It would, however, have been easier to paint horse, rider and bow separately, and assemble afterwards. It was a hard choice, and I might do it differently next time.

The remaining figure is a Games Workshop samurai retainer from the 1984 “Oriental Heroes” range. He’s a lovely, flexible, figure who could serve as a retainer, or a samurai without armour. I love the confident pose, the larger than normal (almost comic-book) katana, and the wicker rain cape. He’s got a swagger about him, which the mounted samurai shares. And, after all, who doesn't love a villain with a little bit of sass?

I also felt the Chaya needed a uniting theme. I chose a colour for their House. Green, the colour of confidence, green tea, lush (almost-certainly stolen) farmland, and jealousy. I tried to make it a signature of the House of Chaya. Almost so that you know when to boo when they enter the stage.

And because all the factions in "When the Last Sword is Drawn" have some traits and attributes (not all of which are helpful), here's the ones we've been using for the Chaya on the tabletop, updated for some of the new members of the household. And, of course, a ludicrously indulgent character-card for Chaya no Irosuke himself:

More from the wintry coast of northern Honshu next time, dear readers.


Tuesday 23 January 2024

Akiyama Tomoyuki Faces His Demons



There were three of them.  No.  There were more - four bakemono, and then two larger forms, lumbering through the heavy snowstorm.  Huge demonic ogres - Oni - one with a huge sword and the other with a pair of war mallets.

“There…. There they are. There’s six more!”  Tomoyuki’s shout in the gale of the snowstorm was urgent and loud.  “Give me more arrows”.  Even so, the fierce wind stripped away his voice into the void.  Tomoyuki’s retainer, Juzo, passed his master another sheaf of needle-pointed arrows: “That’s all we have left, Master”.

Tomoyuki looked at the eight arrows in the sheaf.  Make every one count, Tomoyuki told himself, notching the first of the black arrows, pulling the bowstring back and focusing on one of the large demonic Oni thrashing forward in the snow.  

Behind him was the howl of the kitsune which had followed him and Juzo to the temple earlier in the day.  If only he had offered another prayer earlier, he might have been able to persuade the kitsune to help him in the moment of battle.  But it was probably too late now.

The arrow was loosed into the storm, but the wind took it wide of the leading Oni.  Tomoyuki took another arrow from the sheaf, and finally whispered another sutra. Perhaps the kitsune would hear his prayers this time…?


Over the course of the winter, I've been adding a few more figures inspired by Japanese history and folklore to my collection for "When the Last Sword is Drawn" (or "Bonsai Bonkers" if you prefer).  This is the game we've been working on for a year and a half, focused on skirmishes in medieval and Edo-period Japan.  

These figures are a little way off the historical track.  There’s a selection of Dixon Miniatures bakemono and oni…. Japanese goblins and demons from the "Legends of Nippon" range.  They’re lovely figures, sculpted by Mark Copplestone in the 1980s.  Gosh, yes, they are that old, but I feel they still stand the passing of years very well as sculpts.  

The samurai is from the same vintage era of Japanese wargaming, being originally a Games Workshop archer sculpted by Aly Morrison in 1984.  I do love those older GW sculpts from the 'Oriental Heroes' range, turning back the years with their style and posing taken from Japanese Ukiyo-e era wood-block prints.  

The retainer is from the Perry Miniatures’ range of Sengoku era figures, in the Civilian’s box.  The kitsune is a Warbases fox. I removed her tail with a scalpel, and added two new (slightly bushier) ones from green-stuff.  Kitsune’s can have up to nine-tails - the more tails indicate the greater powers that the fox-spirit has.  Just two here, but enough to weave a little magical stardust into the skirmish.

The main thing I was trying out with these figures was Citadel contrast paints and shade paints on the bakemono and oni. My great friend, Curt Campbell, persuaded me to give these paints a try last year, but I didn’t get around to it until last month.  The contrast paints were used on a white base, and supplemented by GW inks (shades).  They certainly look vibrant on the (demonic) flesh, but I wasn’t quite sure I was getting the effect just right with the flow of paints into the creases of flesh. I’d love to experiment a bit more with these paints during the course of this year.  Above all, I just thought they were fun, and something which looked very different from green or brown goblins or ogres which I’ve done before. 

The samurai and his retainer and the kitsune were painted a little more conventionally.  Over the years, I’ve had this silly obsession with bowstrings.  I’ve no idea how I picked that up, but when I see a bow on a figure, I feel I have to string it, as in this case with thin wire.  I use my figures at the local wargames club and for participation games at wargames days and shows, so I wanted something more robust than just fishing thread.  Its fiddly to string the bow in this way, but hopefully worthwhile.

Finally, there are some scenic items to be scattered over the snowy temple of the game.  The terrain items are mainly 3D prints of trees, a smaller shrine, a miniature Buddha and a temple lantern.  These are really here to help set the theme, and to give the combatants something to fight around and fall over or bump into at the least convenient times.   I made the tiny dōsojin stone shrines with green stuff, carving the tiny stone kami (spirits) on the shrine stones with a nautical theme - hopefully the whale and octopus are just about visible.  They were fun to do, and hopefully add that little bit of Japanese ‘feel’ to the tabletop.

I’ve also added a few of my ludicrously indulgent character cards for “When the Last Sword is Drawn”, featuring these figures.  Here's the one for Akiyama Tomoyuki:

More from the snowy mountain fastnesses of fantasy Honshu soon, dear friends.  


Saturday 21 January 2023

The Disciples and Acolytes of "The Celestial Path"


The monk, Makoto, looked at both Lord and Lady Fuchida. Makotos's company of poor ronin, former retainers and impoverished tradesmen had been travelling for several days. The information that Makoto had been given was that both Lord and Lady Fuchida were keen acolytes of "The Celestial Path". Quite the fervent believers, Makoto had been told. Which was good news - as the long journey from Takasaki had sapped some of the high spirits of Makoto's company as they trudged through rain squalls and difficult terrain.

All that Makoto needed now was additional funds for food and lodging - enough to cross the palms of ferrymen, innkeepers and friendly farmers along the rest of the journey. Of course, a few extra coins would be more than helpful to persuade additional disciples to join the pilgrimage.

Makoto's eyes widened when Lord Fuchida greeted them and passed the heavy coin purse to the monk. "Thank you, my Lord. I can see you are a true believer in The Celestial Path", the monk replied gracefully.

Lord Fuchida Ichiro almost blushed, and bowed, introducing his wife. "This was very much my wife's idea. There are these fishing rights, downstream, which we have long contested are ours.." Lord Fuchida waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the dusty, earthen road leading down the valley. "Maybe", Lord Fuchida added, "..... maybe The Celestial Path can be followed in a direction which guarantees those fishing rights will be returned to the House of Fuchida?"

Lady Fuchida took one small step to her husband's side, smiled politely, and counted the swords of the disciples of The Celestial Path. There were more than enough weapons in the company to secure the fishing rights that had been stolen from the Fuchida.  And maybe 'recover' the woodlands in the valley as well....


I’m very much a historical wargamer. That probably comes through loud and strong on this Blog. In recent years, I’ve loved weaving history together with a narrative which is historically plausible but also allows some creativity. The characters, timeline and precise locations are fictional, but the engagements, skirmishes and battles which the characters fight are consistent with those of their historical contemporaries.

I freely admit that might not be everyone’s cup of green tea, but it works for me - and, I hope, for you. A very good friend of mine said to me the other week that the historical reality Japan of the 16th and 17th centuries was quite different to what we, as wargamers and roleplayers, might understand it to have been. But in a moment of great insight, my friend then also said that it is the “otherness” of Japan which has attracted many roleplayers and wargamers to create that Japan on the tabletop. 

The legend, the colour and the “otherness” of what we might understand to be Japanese culture and warfare has been the magnet which has drawn people to wargame that setting. For me, as well.  I hope that's not disrespectful of the authentic reality of historical Japan.  It's certainly not meant to be.  If anything, it hopefully has much in common with the Kabuki dramas and Ukiyo-e art of the nineteenth centuries, and the work of authors such as Lafcadio Hearn at the turn of the nineteenth century. And this Blog post fits into that dynamic - drawn and entranced by the “otherness” of Japan for a wargamer and roleplayer.

The figures are - with the exception of the female noblewoman - all Dixon Miniatures from Mark Copplestone’s Legends of Japan” range. These were sculpted in the late 1980s, but are still a pleasure to paint.  Lady Fuchida is an equally-lovely Perry Miniatures sculpt.  They’ll be used in our Japanese skirmish games of “When the Last Sword is Drawn’, set loosely in Tokugawa Japan.

I wanted to create a company of adventurers for our skirmish games, themed around a religious purpose. So here we have seven adventurers, including a rural samurai nobleman and a monk and their portable shrine. They are adherents of “The Celestial Path”, a fictional religious group themed around the various collections of religious fanatics wandering Japan both in the Sengoku Jidai (the Age of the Country at War), and afterwards.

I painted the figures with a limited palate. I used Vallejo Sky Grey, Dark Grey, Medium Grey and US Field Drab as the base colours. These themed well together, and were complimentary. I tried to add a splash of suitably-Buddhist orange - even if just an emblem, sash or set of prayer beads - onto each figure. This hopefully brings the company together, along with the colour scheme. I painted the samurai in black - no doubt an expensive cloth, but a sombre colour as befits members of the samurai class following The Celestial Path. I did make sure to add some item of orange clothing or pattern on both of the nobles, just to keep the theme going.

But what is The Celestial Path I hear you ask? In game background terms, it's a good background for an unusual religious group. Historically, religious groups such as the Ikko-ikki were the inspiration for The Celestial Path. The Ikko-ikki were the product of various populist movements arising in and around the Oni Rebellion. The principles of self-determination taught by the Oni spread widely among the population of central Japan, with the most extreme members of the group insisting that each individual had the right to their own expression of reality. In that regard, maybe the acolytes and disciples of the Celestial Path are seeking their expression of reality in following the stars in the heavens, from adventure to adventure.

And to do this, I needed a ‘Path’ for the acolytes and disciples to follow. In wargaming terms, I wanted this to be a map, with various destinations for the players to follow in a small mini-campaign. Tracing the campaign along a heavily wooded valley - complete with hamlets, a small monastery, several shrines and culminating in a fortified samurai’s house - gave me the ‘Path’ I was looking for. I prepared the map earlier this month and finished it with some watercolours last weekend.

The circles on the map can serve as encounters for the acolytes and disciples to survive and endure. For those successfully completing the Path, a suitable reward can await them.

I hope to add destinations from The Celestial Path in future posts.  So... stay tuned and watch the stars, Dear Readers.


Saturday 31 December 2022

The Samurai, the Servant and the Demon: A Folklore adversary for "When the Last Sword is Drawn"

"The smoke curled slowly in the still air of the woodland clearing. There was the scent of freshly-caught fish, cooking on an open fire. The samurai’s servant, Akira, turned the freshwater fish on the wooden spit, the fire occasionally crackling and sending a shower of sparks into the evening sky.

Across the clearing, the demon eyed the fire, enviously. The demon drew its grey tongue over its lips, salivating at the thought of the feast it might be able to enjoy in just a few minutes. Akira was sure that if his master, Kazuko, lost the duel, the demon would be consuming more than just the huge river-fish which Akira had caught that afternoon.

Kazuko levelled his sword at the demon’s throat. His hand was steady and he bent slightly bent forward in a stance long-practised in his family dojo. Despite his skill at sword fighting, Kazuko’s heart was racing. Kazuko watched the demon draw an over-sized, enormous sword with a single, crimson-red, muscled hand. In the demon’s other hand was an immaculately wrought katana - a trophy from another, older duel - but wielded as easily as if the sword was made of fly-wood, like a child’s toy.

As Kazuko circled around the clearing, the dust rose from his bare feet. He was quick on his feet. But was the demon faster?"

As I mentioned in my last Blog post, I’ve spent much of my wargaming time this year building up Japanese terrain and painting miniatures for a skirmish ruleset, set in 17th Century Japan.

We’ve now played about a dozen or more games set in a Japanese historical background, but I wanted to expand the scope to create some games based on historical ukiyo-e prints and the rich tapestry of Japanese myths, folklore and legends. 

The Christmas break has given me the chance to do some painting for the Analogue Hobbies Painting Challenge, and this has been the first submission I've entered in the Challenge so far.

In a woodland clearing one evening, a samurai and his servant prepare for a duel against an Oni, a Japanese demon...  

Oni are depicted in Japanese folklore as being a supernatural form of ogre or demon, known for their fierce and bloodthirsty nature. They have a propensity for murder and brutal behaviour, frequently terrifying the heroes of folk tales and serving as a villain in kabuki drama. Japanese demons even have an appetite for human flesh, although we can guess that the Oni in this blog post might have first been attracted by the scent of cooking fish.

I wanted to equip the Oni with two swords, one a huge (normally two-handed) no-dachi and the other a katana. The Oni and the swords are from the wonderful Dixon Miniatures range of 28mm “Legends of Japan”, sculpted by Mark Copplestone in the late 1980s. Adding the swords into the Oni’s sculpted hands required a bit of brass-rod pinning, really to try and ensure that the swords could be 'held' steady and would not come adrift in hours of gaming.

The samurai is from the former Games Workshop range of Samurai, now sold by Wargames Foundry. I love these sculpts - created by Aly Morrison in 1984. They have, to my mind, stood the test of time very well.  I had the great pleasure of chatting to Aly about the figures a few years back.  I remember that one of his guides in sculpting the range were the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of artists such as Utamaro, Kunichika, Utagawa and Yoshitoshi. Which makes the range perfectly suited for the ‘feel’ of the game I’m looking to try and create.

I didn’t make any changes to the samurai, or his trusty servant (from Perry Miniatures). But I did scratch-build a small campfire on which a large freshwater fish could be cooking. I used a few scraps of wood, and a selection of 3D printed fish, one of which I could skewer on a brass-wire spit over the camp fire. I also added a few spare fish to base of verdant, broad leaves - cut from the meal foil from a wine bottle.  A small sprinkle of fiery-painted sand and foam completed the embers and small flames of the smoky fire.

My time is a bit restricted for painting at the moment.  So wargames which have a low figure count are definitely something which I'm enjoying at the present time.  With this in mind, our games of "When the Last Sword is Drawn" have featured duels, smaller engagements, and companies of half a dozen figures or so on each side.   Combined with a smaller wargaming table, the emphasis has been on opposing forces which are very easy to assemble and paint.  

The larger trees in the photos for this blog post were plastic bonsai, bought from an aquarium supplier in the 1990s and brushed-up this year to serve in our skirmish games.  The smaller trees are some very useful 3d prints - certainly something which we didn't have access to in the 1990s!

And, to follow the character cards I prepared for the "Characters of Laarden" a few years back, here some cards themed around the characters in this blog post but tailored for the rules in "When the Last Sword is Drawn".  Hope you enjoy the cards - they're very frivolous, but have proved to be fun in the games we've played.  

And I hope you can join me for more about Japanese skirmish wargames in another blog post in about a week's time.

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