Tuesday 10 August 2021

“With Flashing Blades” – Recommendations for Background Books

Since my last Blog post, a couple of people have asked me about reading and viewing material which might accompany the game which Nick, Rich and myself have been working on.  I thought it might be fun to mention some of the books I’ve been reading as background and inspiration for “With Flashing Blades”.  Like any list, this is not comprehensive.  The literature for swordsmanship, duelling and swashbuckling of all kinds is huge, and spans different genres from historical fiction to swords-and-sorcery, and from the supernatural to science fiction.  Here, I’ve confined my list to the books which I personally found useful as encouragement for the game.

Another couple of small caveats:  I’ve not listed any historical sources here.  I’ll prepare a Blog post in a week or so on that subject, looking at some of the background to early 17th Century France and also the ‘Schools’ of swords-handling, duelling and fencing which I found really interesting in the context of working on the game.  I have also limited this blog to written material.  A future Blog post will contain all the film and TV inspiration, including that theme tune!  

So let’s start with the grand-daddy of them all, “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas.  I thought I knew this book, but I’d never read it before as a complete novel.  As I read it from cover to cover for the first time last month, I was really surprised.  It is not the book I thought I was going to read.  The actual sword fighting is infrequent in the book, and takes place quickly over very few pages.  I’ll not give too much away (just in case you, dear Readers, have not read the book), but it is not one of those novels where there is a sword-fight every twenty pages.  What is, however, very much present is intrigue.  There are plots, plans, stories, developments and yet more intrigues on top of all that.  When you read the novel, all the various plots hang together very well and the central arch of the story is not difficult to follow.  This is not “The Name of the Rose” or an Agatha Christie novel – the intrigue, though deep and pernicious, never obscures the story in which the lives of our heroes is unfurled. 

And, while we’re speaking of heroes, it surprised me that huge chunks of the book are placed in the in upper echelons of society.  We are frequently present in the world of the King, the Queen, the Cardinal and the Duke of Buckingham. Dumas loves to name-drop the titles of Dukes, Counts, Duchesses and nobles generally.  The actions of the musketeers frequently revolve around noble and royal characters, not the opposite.

Dumas also loves place-name dropping.  Much more familiar to his 19th Century French audience than to me in 2021, there is a litany of French street and place names, including prisons, palaces, market places and execution sites.  Some we know (La Bastille), but some are much more unfamiliar.  I thought that a map would be helpful in reading the book, and I found myself reaching for a guidebook of Paris in the early chapters.  You don’t need to do that, but it’s fun to have alongside you as you read the novel.

Finally, a huge shout-out to one of the Audible audiobooks of the “The Three Musketeers”.  I was reading the Penguin Classics version of the book, and chose the accompanying Audible version, narrated by the well-known actor, Paterson Joseph.  The narration by Paterson is a total delight. 

I love Audible generally, and Mr Joseph’s narration was one of the finest narrations I’ve heard on the site.  He has a real ear for French names, and really evoked the sense of place with each of the names of the people and places being pronounced. I was really thrilled to learn (from a Twitter post) that Paterson regarded his work on the Audible narration of "The Three Musketeers" as one of his best pieces of work.  I think its amazing and, if you have any interest at all in Dumas’ novel, I would strongly recommend you give Paterson’s Audible narration a try.

From Dumas’ classic, the next suggestion I have on my list is the canon of books by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, featuring Captain Alatriste.  I came to these books the long way around.  I first read Pérez-Reverte’s books in the 1990s and early 2000s, starting with the complicated (but remarkable) “Club Dumas”.  This book, incidentally, has a rich seam of connection to Dumas and “The Three Musketeers” (no spoilers, folks), but that was rather lost on me at the time, as the book is really about the supernatural, or – more accurately – the possibility of the supernatural. 

From there I read Pérez -Reverte’s other books, including the most excellent “The Fencing Master”.  Don Jaime, the main character of the book, is one of my literary heroes, especially as I have got older.  His sparse, austere and controlled lifestyle in Madrid as a 19th Century fencing master is something I’ve often thought about, particularly as an antidote to the uncontrollable and byzantine mess of my normal family life! I really enjoyed the book when I read it in 2003, and I enjoyed re-eading it last year in the depths of the pandemic.  

But I digress.  All of these books just prepared me for Pérez-Reverte’s “Alatriste” series of books.  Several of my friends recommended the “Alatriste” series to me (thank you!), and I have not been disappointed.  Captain Alatriste is the hero of the series, being a battle-scarred and indefatigable veteran of Spain’s wars of the early 17th Century.  Perhaps inevitably for a literary hero, Alatriste finds that fighting the French and Dutch in Flanders to be less dangerous than navigating the treacherous alleys and squares of Madrid, Seville and Toledo.  The books are narrated by a wonderful character, Inigo Balboa, a young companion and sometimes-manservant.  Unlike Dom Jaime in “The Fencing Master”, Inigo gives depth and humanity to Captain Alatriste's journeys, and I feel Inigo as a narrator adds to the stories considerably.

All of the Alatriste books I have read are fun and worthwhile.  So far, I’ve really enjoyed “The Purity of Blood” the most, but I have yet to tackle “Pirates of the Levant”.  Recommended reading and very much in the right vein for “With Flashing Blades”.

And finally, two left-field inspirations.  “With Flashing Blades” is set in Paris, in 1622, a city with a good claim to being the centre, or one of the centres, of the world at that time.  Thinking about the 'place' of the city in a game might seem a little bit abstract.  While we wanted to make our game of “With Flashing Blades” to be a miniature wargame (and “not a roleplaying game”), I did also want to think about how we could make the idea, and the themes, of a city come to life in a small table-space. 

In that context, I’d like to recommend two wonderful books, from very different genres.

Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino is a tour de force about the potential of the city as an experience.  Is it literature?  Is it philosophy? Is it a mediation?  Or perhaps it's a mystery?  Who knows?  Not me, for sure.  But I loved every page and some of the images conjured by Calvino in the novel are simply spell-binding.  Invisible Cities” is not the city of “With Flashing Blades”, but it might hopefully help us capture some of the chaotic fun and confusion of setting a game within our chosen city of 1622 Paris.

And last but never least, is a slim booklet which I bought through Drive Thru-RPG.  If you've never come across Chris Kutalik’s “Fever Dreaming Marlinko”, you are missing out. 

Chris’s book is small in size (only 68 pages), but it's a masterpiece.  “Fever Dreaming Marlinko” is a roleplaying guide to the strange city of Marlinko, and serves as a ‘city adventure supplement’.  You don’t need to be a fan of role-playing games, or play the Labyrinth Lord system to be inspired by Chris’ book. 

Funny, rude, dramatic and constantly inventive, it’s a terrific example of how to create a city which really feels like it exists as a backdrop to the gaming action.  If we can do anything like this in “With Flashing Blades”, we would be very pleased. 

So that's my very personal list of books which have inspired me in playing and helping develop "With Flashing Blades". I am sure Nick and Rich will have their own to add to the list, perhaps in a future episode of the TooFatLardies Oddcast.

I hope you can join me for the next Blog post, when I'll either be posting about converting and painting figures for "With Flashing Blades", or blogging about the films and television inspirations behind the game. Until next time, dear friends!


Saturday 24 July 2021

"With Flashing Blades" - Crossing Swords in Paris

Since May this year, I’ve been working on a discrete project which is a lot smaller than my current Laarden 1688 obsession. It’s far from being a complete project - in fact its barely started - but I thought it was a good time to mention it here on the Blog.

Paris, 1622 - City of Glitter and Treachery

Back in 2019, I talked with my good friend, Nick Skinner, about developing a skirmish game based on the adventures of the “Three Musketeers” from the pages of Alexandre Dumas. We thought that the exploits of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, d’Artagnan, Milady, Rochefort and Cardinal Richelieu were perfect material to be transformed with the treatment of Lard. 

By one of those unexpected coincidences, another good friend of ours, Martin at Warbases, also mentioned about that time he was hoping to find some rules which were suitable for the period to accompany Warbases' fine range of miniatures (which were inspired by one of the excellent, recent TV dramatisations of Alexandre Dumas’ books).

We've barely started on the rules and play-testing, but it’s an exciting time - stepping out into Paris of the early-seventeenth century to cross swords with a multitude of rivals, enemies, factions and adversaries. We’re hoping for a game which is very portable - with our first play-testing being on a board 18 inches (about 48cm) square - and with a low figure count, possibly only a dozen figures a side.

Hopefully, history will not be forgotten as we travel the dusty roads of Champagne and the Île-de-France. I've been reading through manuals and treatises on the different schools of fencing from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hopefully, we can introduce rules for various schools of swordsmanship into our games - whether they are the Italian Schools of Bologna or Venice, the evolving styles of fencing with rapiers, or the styles of fencing practiced in the Salle d’Armes of Paris established by notorious gentlemen of the blade following the examples of François Dancie or Girolamo Cavalcabo.

And, with luck, the single-based figures can also be recruited for use into larger-skirmish games of "In the Buff" or "The Pikeman's Lament".

As for the figures, I thought 28mm worked best, using a mixture of Les Mousquetaires du Roi and the Garde de Richelieu from Warbases and Brigade Games, with some extra figures from Dixon Miniatures, Wargames Foundry, 1st. Corps and the lovely 1898 Miniatures range. As there'll be fewer figures on the table, it should also allow us the scope to create some fun conversions, vignettes and green-stuff lunacies.  Here's two converted figures from a favourite miniature in Dixon Miniatures' wonderful "Grand Alliance" range.

I've experimented in basing the main characters on circular MDF bases of 30mm or 35mm. I think they look good on the slightly larger sized base and it makes them easier to handle.  The larger bases can accommodate small blood markers depicting when a character is wounded - something useful to track in a small scale skirmish game.  To try and make these characters distinctive, I've swapped the right arms, added green-stuff lace, and created some special casualties for the characters (including silly things like a green-stuff dropped key to the Royal Chambers of the Louvre Palace).

As we're dealing with a small skirmish, I thought it was worth adding plenty of casualty figures for not only characters, but also the henchmen and ruffians on the tabletop.

In the fighting and duelling, we've been trying out rules for stumbling swordsmen and dropped weapons.  No one makes figures or bases for these, so I felt like making my own, together with some figures for prone swordsmen.  The two prone swordsmen below were converted form 1st. Corps casualties, with swapped-out Redoubt Miniatures' heads with green-stuff ruffs and cloaks.

Storing the stumble and dropped weapons bases on a magnetic board makes them easy to bring out for each game.

I've added common soldiers, ruffians, henchmen and civilians to the project.  I've experimented with adding these to 20mm or 30mm square bases (with rounded corners). These store really nicely in foam trays.  The Dumas novels are packed full of intrigue, disguises, spies and agents - so there's plenty of opportunity to assemble a cast of citizens which can fit into any Parisian location.

The threatening figure of the jailer in the front rank is a lovely Heresy Miniatures figure, which sadly now seems to be unavailable.  Somewhere, I have his partner-in-crime wielding a poker ... but I'm not sure in which box it's in....!  The other figures, below from left to right, are a Citadel Miniatures ratcatcher (with a Redoubt Miniatures head-swap), a lovely Warbases plague-doctor and a dagger-throwing Midlam Miniatures assassin.

Finally, and with a nod to future games, I could not resist painting up Louis XIII and Anne d'Autriche.  These Warbases miniatures painted up beautifully.  Any resemblance to Alexandra Dowling and Ryan Gage is ... well, I may have to paint up another pair of figures to get it just right!

I'm not at all sure what the final rules will look like, so all this might change...  So far we've been experimenting with a few, core characteristics.  And, of course, that's a chance for some more very self-indulgent cards to place at the players' disposals.

That's all for now, but hopefully in future posts I can post a few pictures of the games we've been playing, and explore our Paris of 1622 in a little more detail.  Hope you can join me for that next time.


Wednesday 12 May 2021

"Strength & Honor" : Recreating huge battles from Antiquity c107BC - 200AD


One of the sets of wargaming rules I have been enjoying during lockdown - from a reading and playing perspective - has been "Strength & Honour", a ruleset written by my good friend Mark Backhouse and focusing on HUGE ancient battles.

Mark's rules use very beautifully created 2mm armies - all hand-crafted - to recreate iconic classical battles.  In that micro-scale, famous battles such as Pharsalus, Watling Street or Carrhae are well within the space and expense of any wargamer.  I therefore felt very privileged when Mark offered to stage an online battle for me, from one of Julius Caesar's battles in Gaul, over the Bank Holiday weekend in the UK.  

Here's the wargames table before the opposing armies clashed in the main engagement.  On the left is the Roman army, of four Legions and a strong force of allied cavalry, which were under my command. On the right are the tribes of the Nervii, the Viromandui and the Atrebates - all Belgic tribes or varying qualities and experience, which Mark took leadership of.

The "Strength & Honour" rules have many elements to create the 'feel' of an ancient battle, including the need to deploy your forces carefully, and think about how to match those forces against your adversaries.  The deployment phase involves thinking through which units could offer flank and rear support to the front line formations, how they advance on their enemy, which preferred line of march they would take, and where your force would best be concentrated.  All of these aspects of the rules felt perfect for the challenge of manoeuvering huge bodies of troops on an battlefield. 

And yes, "Strength & Honour" is the world of massed engagements, not skirmishes.  And, as such, I think I am allowed at least one reference (.... and maybe more... ) to one of the films every wargamer should have in his or her movie collection, which also involves a huge ancient battle between massed armies.  If you've ever imagined yourself commanding the armies in the opening scene of the Ridley Scott film "Gladiator", then "Strength & Honour" might be for you....

As the commander in "Strength & Honour" - whether King, Emperor or Consul - you're commanding a very large force of anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 combatants.  The rules force you to think about where, and when, your army is best to be placed to make the all-important melee contacts.  There's a very fun mechanism in which 'reversal of fortunes' can take place when your luck fails (and the dice-Gods do not smile upon you).  Again, all very classically themed, and well thought through.

Mark mentioned to me that some discussions are on-going regarding 2mm figure blocks being commercially produced for the forces on the tabletop.  I think this is a welcome accompaniment to the new rules, but seeing Mark's figure blocks on the table was certainly inspirational.  

I've made a few similar bases in 2mm for my Thirty Years War collection and I don't think they are too difficult to produce.  They take a little bit of practice, but anyone who can paint formation numbers of a 28mm miniatures water-bottle would certainly be able to create the army of Pompey or Crassus given a roll of green-stuff putty and a decent sculpting tool.  Parthia, Britannia and Germania, here we come!

One very good idea is placing unit designations on the various bases.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, one group of 5,000 tribesmen, or Roman Legion, looks pretty much like another.  I've had the same problem in the 2mm scale, and I think the best way to get over the challenge is - as Mark has done - creating small labels for each base.  That makes it easy to swap labels to denote units in different ways (different tribes, commanders, and so on), to help you get the best use of the figure blocks once created.

The "Strength & Honour" rules also feature a role for the camps of the opposing armies.  Our game had two fortified camps - one for each side - with additional attractions and challenges for looting and defending.  Again, this seemed perfectly in keeping with the ancients theme.  During the battle each side accumulates 'set backs' (minor retreats and push-backs) and 'disasters' (units routing, commanders being killed, etc.) - and having your camp raided would certainly fall within the more severe of those events.  

A particularly fun rules mechanism is that the 'set backs' and 'disasters' in the wargame are delivered on a set of "Strength & Honour" cards, the value of which is not revealed until one side forces their opponent to total up the various values on the back of the cards.  I thought this was a great way of keeping the game unpredictable right until the end of the game. 

Mark has a very active Facebook page where you can find out a lot more of the detail in "Strength & Honour".  You can find the Facebook page HERE.

The rules are scheduled for publication later in 2021 from Von Reisswitz Press, the publishing arm of TooFatLardies.  I admit openly that Mark is a great friend and long standing chum of mine - so I am totally biased - but that being said, "Strength & Honour" is a really well thought-through set of large-battle ancients wargames rules, which I'd very much recommend.  Have a look for them and join in the fun.

And remember, Brothers (and Sisters) - what you do on the wargames table in life, echoes for eternity!

Monday 3 May 2021

"...nothing but going hunting and dancing in ballets": French Commanders and Royal Favourites from 1688

"And victory, with little loss, doth play

Upon the dancing banners of the French"

King John, Act 2, Scene 1

During September last year, I painted up some of the command figures for my French army which will, eventually, take the Field against their Flemish and Spanish adversaries in the 1688 campaign for the (fictional, and deeply self-indulgent) Free-City of Laarden.

Command figures are, frankly, a bit of an indulgence.  They take up a disproportionate amount of space on the wargaming battlefield for the commanders concerned - who in the late seventeenth century rarely had a "staff" in a modern sense.  Commanders such as these might also be an eye-catching addition on the tabletop - but perhaps they distract from the more prosaic, and perhaps more professional, business of logistics, war finance and the physical geography of the battlefield.

But .... who cares, mes braves?  They're French, and fashionable, and ludicrously indulgent.  So here, on Roundwood's World, we're spending a Blog post concentrating on pink satin jackets and ostrich feathers.  Somehow, I doubt you'll surprised, dear readers.

In the centre of the above photograph is the personage of Louis de Crévant, Duke of Humières and Marshal of France.   De Crévant is a historical commander, who was granted the Marshal's baton in 1668 after the War of Devolution, and was one of the French commanders in the Nine Years War.  Prestigious, wealthy and well-connected, I thought he was an ideal choice for a tabletop commander - less well-known than his rival, the Duc de Luxembourg, but a valid historical commander for us to place into an alt-historical campaign.

As befitted any Marshal of France, de Crévant hailed from an impressive ancestral chateau (at Azay-le-Ferron, in the image below).  And tbelow is de Crévant's portrait - as aristocratic a portrait one can hope to find of any French commander, I'm sure you'll agree.

For the figures, I used Wargames Foundry command figures for all of the bases, with a Redoubt Miniatures lance for the standard (of the Gendarmerie) accompanying de Crévant.  I tried to stick to either the colours of the Gendarmerie for the troopers accompanying the commands, or the Royal livery - but in the end, I was carried away by the ease of painting more colourful clothing on a couple of the figures.

The standards are from GMB Designs, and they're printed with great clarity and a joy to use.  All I needed to do was glue them (with Bostik, a tack-y but flexible glue), and paint the edges to finish them off.  The finials are from Bicorne Miniatures, and the bases were from Warbases.

I particularly enjoyed converting and painting one of the brigade commanders. Adding a new arm, and reams of green-stuff lace, ribbons and feathers gets strangely addictive - as you might know from other Blog posts.  I intended the figure in pink to be a young, ambitious and arrogant chevalier - the Marquis of Rouen.  A fictional character to accompany de Crévant, but one who I thought looked the part and who I could have fun with in creating tabletop scenarios.  

While the Marquis de Rouen may be fictional, his pedigree is most definitely historical. As a historical aside, I enjoyed reading the list of court favourites of Louis XIII in just the years between 1614 and 1617.  These favourites are listed in Sharon Kettering's book "Power and Reputation at the Court of Louis XIII", with Dr. Kettering stating that the King often engaged with several court favourites at once.  The list of the favourites' names is almost impossible to read without imagining rich velvets, excessive lace and the fine steel rapiers possessed by the highest level of the French nobility: Luynes, Bassompierre, Montpouillan, Courtenvaux, Le Rochefoucauld, La Rocheguyon, La Coudrelle, La Curée, Termes, Vitry and Liancourt.  

Those names were behind the type of character I was trying to create in the form of the Marquis de Rouen.  Dr. Kettering mentioned in her book that one of the favourites, the important duc de Luynes, was said, according to a contemporary, to have "thought of nothing but going hunting and dancing in ballets".  Typically French, I thought when reading that line.  

But the joke was on me.  Dr Kettering's brilliant book masterfully describes how important such activities were, alongside martial exploits, in the life of a royal favourite of the seventeenth century.  I'll try and review Dr Kettering's book in a future blog post - it's a great read if you enjoy fathoming out how royal politics worked in seventeenth century France.

So, they're indulgent, fashionable and French.... and (quite possibly) a stereotypical misrepresentation of the skill and forcefulness of the army of Louis XIV.

All I would say, in my defence, is that in the miniature wargames hobby, sometimes you just have to treat yourself!


Saturday 1 May 2021

Soldiers of Fortune: The Regiment de Kinský, 1688

"Serve I the first, I shall not be repaid;

Serve I the second, I harvest but hate.

Tricked I will be, if I serve still another,

Serve I the fourth, my conscience will bother.

I know the hero whom we'd serve without pay;

The one who permits us to steal our own way"

A tavern song, sung in Bohemian, in "The Harvest Goose", Laarden, 1688*


Among the various Analogue Hobbies Painting Challenge entries I prepared earlier this year, I been painting a German mercenary regiment for my late seventeenth century project centred around the fictional Free-Flemish City of Laarden.  I wanted a unit of German mercenaries who could easily take to the field on either side - Flemish, or French - and who knows, perhaps be of dubious loyalty to both, or either.

Casting the net to find for mercenary formations in the seventeenth century is not hard. There's a good choice of formations from the Thirty Years War, the Fronde, the Northern Wars and further to the East. 

I came across the name of Count Wilhelm Kinski, a colleague of Albrecht Wallenstein, the great Imperial military enterpriser and general in the Thirty Years War. Kinski - also spelled as Vilém Kinský or Vchynský - was a Bohemian soldier of fortune whose landed property passed to more reliable Hapsburg supporters after Wallenstein's murder in 1634.

I've also come across a reference to a regiment of Kinský serving in France in the Fronde in the 1650s, perhaps some distant relation. So, following a theme, I thought it was not unreasonable to place a regiment of the same name in late seventeenth century Flanders, as Bohemian "children of fortune" following the drum.

These 25mm figures are a real mix.  I used Dixon Miniatures and Wargames Foundry for the soldiers.  The camp followers are from Midlam Miniatures and Colonel Bill's.  The cat and the dog (also following the drum, or the food) are from Warbases, and the barrels of beer and apples are from Hovels.  The basket of bread is from Irregular Miniatures (and has finally found a base after about 30 years in the spares box).

I struggled with finding good standards for German regiments which did not feature an Imperial Hapsburg eagle.  Most of the German regiments in the Northern Wars between Denmark and Sweden seem to have adopted standards similar to one of the Northern belligerents, rather than something more personal to the colonel of the regiment.  

I did come across a couple of standards which featured a pair of duelling knights on horseback, and used that design for the centre-piece of the standards, which I painted myself.  

I tried to go for standards which looked sufficiently 'German', but which could also reasonably pass for use in either a French or Flemish or Imperial army in the period.  I wanted to get the most use on the wargames table for these "children of fortune" - from Laarden to Tuscany, and from the Palatinate to Muscovy, so to speak.

As befits professional soldiers of fortune, I didn't bother with lots of green-stuff lace, feathers and ribbons.  Such affectations are not for true masters of their craft - we can leave that to the French cavalry, or maybe faux-French-fashion-following Flemish cavaliers (#forthcoming, dear readers).  I thought that the beer barrels we possibly more in keeping with the mercenary lifestyle these 'gentlemen' would have enjoyed.

I fluffed up the bases a bit with tufts from WWS Scenics (which are very nice), and some static grass.  I tried to get the 3mm bases (from Warbases) to be as neutral as possible, so went for a burnt umber tone for the edging, instead of black.

And or all the collectors out there, here's the Collectible Character Card for the "Enemies and Allies of Laarden, 1688: The Challenge XI Collection", for Count Kinský and his "children of fortune'.

If you see them in the Grote Markt at Laarden, dear friends, just trust me. Walk the other way...

(*  I should mention that the chilling Bohemian song isn't mine.  The verses are from a Strasburg-published text from 1650, which I took from page 472 of Fritz Redlich's "The German Military Enterpriser and His Workforce" (1964).  Dr. Redlich's famous book has everything you'd ever want to know about sixteenth and seventeenth century mercenaries, and is very much recommended if you can find a copy.)

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