Flames of War: Fielding the PSC Cromwell and Firefly Tank

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I started out a month ago putting together my British 7th Armoured Divison for my Flames of War gaming with a couple platoons of FOW’s boxes. I wound up with two great looking platoons and a command section, but I really wanted two more platoons of the storied Desert Rats to beef up the company to maximum size in my post-D-Day break through scenarios.

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While I love the detail in the cast resin FOW models, you can’t beat the value of the kits from the Plastic Soldier Company. For about half the cost of the FOW boxes, I’m been able to double the size of my company and field a formidable wall of nimble British armor on the tabletop. Ordering directly from PSC, I was also able to add an extra Cromwell to the five included in the box plus two Firefly models for a total of two additional four-tank platoons.

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Two platoons of the 7th Armoured Division PSC Cromwells and Fireflies

Assembling PSC kits always reminds me of the hours I spent frustrated and thrilled gluing-up Airfix models as a kid. While FOW cast resin and metal tanks go together in a couple simple steps, there’s a particular investment in time and focus needed with boxes from PSC. The FireflyPSC molded turret  is simple to assemble, but the multi-piece tracks are a challenge even though the results with the sagging upper tread is a nice detail. The turrets on the PSC Cromwells have many pieces but fit nicely with patience, and their single-piece tracks are a breeze.

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Close-up of the PSC Cromwell and Firefly models

PSC tank sprues come with multiple modelling options, although there’s no stowage included in PSC offerings. To add a bit of detail, I attached some folded mesh panited as camouflage netting to rear the hulls of a few of my PSC models.

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Members of the 7th Armoured Division with their Firefly in Normandy

Comparing the PSC and FOW models, there are some differences. PSC models tend to be thinner than the chunkier FOW kits, expecially in regards to the main gun barrels. The PSC tanks are also significantly lighter and their turrets require a bit of extra drilling to provided free movement more easily found in the magnet-mounted FOW turrets.

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Firefly model comparison from PSC (left) and FOW (right)

The FOW Cromwells and Fireflies both come draped in camouflage and other cast details, yet when mixed together side-by-side with the more sparely-detailed PSC kits some nice variety across the four platoons is acheived. Separate decals are also needed to complete the PSC tanks which do not include any markings options in the kits.

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 Four platoons and command for the 7th Armoured Division “Desert Rats” from PSC and FOW

Ultimately, the PSC and FOW models come together quite nicely with a consistent paint job and markings. If anything, the slight differences in the models will make tracking cohesive platoons on the table a bit easier when the Desert Rats roll onto the game table in the very near future.

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Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Dover Cut & Assemble Books

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I had a whole host of hobbies as a kid. There were plastic model kits from Airfix and Revell. I had a huge HO-scale train layout in my basement. Model rockets from Estes regularly launched from my back yard. Roleplaying and historical miniatures gaming finally came along, allowing me to incorporate a lot of my passion for models  into the terrain, buildings and countless metal figures I’d need for my dungeon crawls or fields of battle.

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One of my fondest early memories of scale-modelling was with the Dover Publications “Cut & Assemble” or “Easy-To-Make” books. I recall a steady flow of these books in my house with my mother picking them up with some frequency off the book racks at five-and-dimes, toy shops and book stores. There were so many of these and other activity books piled in my room as a kid, and it seemed like nearly every time we went shopping there was a new one to add to the collection.

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These books offered models from many periods including ancient castles, Viking outposts, European villages, Old West towns, Victorian mansions, seaside settlements and even some modern structures. Along with the main buildings, many of the books included details like fences and walls, wells, animals, vehicles and people. These made each book a playset of its own but also allowed for a few different books to be used together. My western town might be settled right outside the fronteir fort, and civil soldier cut-outs would fight among the buildings included in the New England-themed village sets. The HO scale of the models also lent them for use with my plastic soldiers and livestock , and I’d often throw in some lichen bushes or custom-made roads to the set-up.

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Assembly of the models in the Dover books did take a fair amount of time, and the details on things like porches, roofs, stairways and chimneys often involved tiny multiple folds. The hours I spent cutting and gluing together the buildings, often with minimal instructions, certainly gave me plenty of practice in a small scale. The heavy cardstock made the buildings fairly sturdy once built, making them easy to throw in a box when done playing with them.

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The rise of at-home printing has created a resurgence in papercraft modelling no longer constrained to books like those from Dover and Usborne Books. A lot of miniatures gamers swear by the relatively-inexpensive and quickly-accessible papercraft terrain made specifically for gamers by companies such as Paper Terrain or uploaded for free on a number of gaming sites and forums.

Despite my time paper modelling as a kid in the 70s and 80s, I’ve moved on from it with my gaming today. That said, I have been spending a fair amount of time with my youngest son who has developed an interest as of late in searching, printing and assembling Minecraft papercraft models. With his new passion for papercrafting I’m thinking that revisting the Dover books of my past with my son may be a great way to nurture a newly-seeded hobby to last another lifetime.

Collector’s Note: While some of the Dover “Cut & Assemble” or “Easy-To-Make” books are now out of print, many are still available online both new and used starting at under $10 each.

Flames of War: Fielding the PSC German Heavy Weapons and FOW Artillery Command

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After focusing on my Flames of War (FOW) Allied forces for a while, I decided to throw some energy back into beefing-up and diversifying my late war Germans. Although my German troops seldom see play, getting some infantry punch on the table led me to a number of mortar and other support weapons platoons the FOW rules offer.

Battlefront, the maker of FOW, has a number of good platoons which run anywhere from about $12-20 each. Having recently tried my hand at the Allied Stuart Tank set from the growing line of 15mm WWII kits from the Plastic Soldier Company (PSC), I spotted the Late War German Heavy Weapons box. At around $25, the set looked to be an excellent and economic way to get a lot more German infantry on the table at perhaps a quarter to one-third the cost of the official FOW models.

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The PSC box comes with four MG 42 teams, four 8 cm mortar teams, four 12 cm mortar teams, eight Panzerschrecks and eight Panzerfausts. Also included are four Panzerschreck loaders and four ammo carriers. With about 70 bits on the sprues, this set was going to add a lot of action to my already extensive German infantry collection.

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Cutting out and gluing-up the tiny pieces from the PSC sprues is a bit of nerve-racking task harkening back to my early years wrangling with assembling soft plastic HO scale Airfix soldiers. That said, following PSC’s simple assembly diagram (above) and keeping all the parts carefully organized on the workbench is key to getting the job done right and not losing anything along the way. Flames of War rules call for basing Panzerschreck teams in groups of four miniatures per medium stand, allowing for four total teams to be constructed from the PSC set with two Panzershrecks plus a loader and ammo carrier per team. The 8 cm mortar and MG teams likewise went on medium bases and the big 12 cm mortar teams were glued-up on larger bases. I had a few extra plastic FOW Germans on hand from a bonus promotional sprue I received from the Open Fire! box set, and adding those to the 12 cm mortar stands helped finished those off.

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With a bunch of new mortars in the field, I also needed to add some additional command and spotters to make them playable. FOW offers an artillery command headquarters blister pack which I added to the mix. The set comes with enough models that I was able to create three two-man spotting teams, a few command stands (adding in Panzerfausts from the PSC kit) and a nifty HQ vignette with a four figures surrounding a table with a radio operator.

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Painting Germans is a simple process for me with a base spraycoat in flat black followed by a darkish grey uniform and details picked out in flesh, blacks, browns and gun metal. The stands get finished off with some simple grass flocking and a matte varnish spray. Getting a consistent finish on the PSC models made them blend in nicely with my FOW models.

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For comparison’s sake, the PSC figures do tend to be a tad smaller and thinner than the typically-chunky FOW figures. Since most my PSC figures are being fielded on separate stands, I don’t see the minor scale differences being an issue at arm’s length on the tabletop battlefield. In addition, the extra poses in the PSC casting add some nice variety and animation in the troops once deployed.

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IMG_2217My FOW German force has long-relied on the strength of deploying large numbers of tanks in my games, so these new additions should be a nice compliment to getting more action from my German infantry. Now that it’s fall, I’m anxious to rush my new PSC and FOW Germans to the tables at Metropolitan Wargamers in Park Slope, Brooklyn and add a new season of playablity to my battleworn forces.

Flames of War: Fielding the PSC Panzer IV Tank

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One of the greatest military impressions Germany left on the face of warfare during World War II was in its feared armored forces. The famed Tiger I heavy tank gets a lot of the glory for its independence and near idestructability, but the Panzer IV medium tank served as the real backbone of German armored forces throughout the war. With improvements to its armor and gunnery made throughout the war, the Panzer IV would prove to be a tough nut for the Allies to crack until very late in the war. Especially in the period from the D-Day landings through to the Battle of the Bulge, the Panzer IV played an ever-increasing role in attempting to stymie the Allied advance right up until the eventual fall of the Third Reich in the spring of 1945.

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I already own a fair amount of German armor with Tigers, Panthers, Jagdpanzers and Stugs, but my force was sorely lacking in Panzer IVs. Most of my German tanks thus far have been from Battlefront, the makers of Flames of War (FOW). They offer a late war Panzer IV platoon in the pricey $50-60 range, depending on whether you pick the set up online or in a store. Going on some recent experience with the PSC Allied Stuart tank set, I went with the Panzer IVs from the Plastic Soldier Company (PSC) at about half the FOW cost.

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Unlike the FOW sets, PSC kits come with options to model miniatures in several periods. This allowed me to model my tanks as the later war Panzer IV Ausf H with its extra armor and gun power. Like the Airfix kits of my youth, the PSC tanks are comprised of lots of little parts. The diagrams included in the box offer clear color-coded keys to getting the correct pieces off the sprues and blow-up schematics for gluing the pieces together. If you’re like me, keeping your workspace clean and organized will prevent you from losing your mind during the multi-step assembly process. The sprues also leave some leftover parts which either go straight into the trash or into container of miscellaneous plastic for future modelling use.

Lots of parts means lots of steps. The turrets alone are compromised of 9-10 parts and aligning the tank tread sections needs to be done carefully. I also found the hole on which the turret sits to be a bit tight, so I carefully drilled those out slightly larger. My Panzer IVs were completed with a basic grey-schemed paint job over a flat black spray base to match my existing models. With assembly, painting, decals and a matte finish finishing coat, these tanks are ready to hit the table in just a couple work sessions.

Compared to FOW models, the PSC tanks take a bit longer to put together and parts can be finicky, but I really like the PSC models when complete. The PSC tanks offer crisper molding and some fine details like a slight sag in the upper parts of the treads and hangers for the  side and turret Schurzen. Models are light, making for easier storage and transport. Putting together kits from PSC just feels a lot more like model building than what you experience with FOW and some other manufacturers.

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With so much economic pressure on miniature wargame funding budgets, you can’t beat getting more armor in the field for the low cost and fine results from the Plastic Soldier Company’s Panzer IV kit.

“Airfix’s Little Soldiers” by Jean-Christophe Carbonel & “The Boys’ Book of Airfix” by Arthur Ward

As I’ve previously written, many kids’ first introduction to plastic toy soldiers in the 50s-70s came through the Marx playsets offered through Sears. Marx’s colorful plastic toys offered the ability to imaginitively play right out of the box. But for a lot of us, our interest graduated from casual play to an actual hobby with Airfix.

For people with fond memories for Airfix model kits and plastic soldiers, there are two must-haves for your bookshelf. Arthur Ward’s “The Boys’ Book of Airfix” traces the development of the company from a toy-maker beginning in the 1930s to their late-20th-century growth into a leader in scale modelling. “Airfix’s Little Soldiers” by Jean-Christophe Carbonel focuses almost exclusively on Airfix’s 1/32 and 1/72 scale plastic soldier lines. With intensely creative packaging depicting soldiers in action, Airfix’s plastic soldiers were unparalleled for their detailed sculpting and variety of poses. Unlike Marx plastic soldiers, Airfix appealed to budding miniatures modelling hobbyists willing to put in the hours painting tiny plastic soldiers. Although the soft plastic Airfix used was notoriously difficult in holding glue and paint, many a future miniatures wargamer got their start with Airfix.

Aside from plastic soldiers, Airfix produced a large line of scale model kits (planes, ships, cars, military vehicles, etc.). Because of the hobbyist focus of Airfix, their models and sets were available not only in department stores and five-and-dime shops, but they also became a presence in more traditional hobby shops. The company also created marvellous diorama playsets such as the Beachhead Assault and Coastal Defense sets to enhance play with their expansive selection of plastic soldiers. Many of these sets continued to be re-packaged and sold over the years as anniversaries of World War II battles were celebrated by the media.

 (photo via Vintage Airfix)

For fans of Airfix, you should also check out the Vintage Airfix website for a comprehensive look back at the evolution of their models and kits over the years. Both books conclude with the corporate mergers, changes in distribution and a look at competitiors Airfix faced over the years. By the end of the 20th-century, Airfix became more of a specialty brand in the US while their plastic kits remain widely available and popular in Europe. For me, holding one of those little Airfix boxes of soldiers still takes me back to the hours of painting and playing with plastic as a kid.

Christmas Toy Soldier Memories

Generations of kids who grew up in the 50s, 60s and 70s looked forward to the holiday gift season and the possiblity of unwrapping a bounty of toy soldiers and playsets. In the post-WWII years, companies like Marx, Airfix, Britains and others churned out millions of plastic soldiers and accessories which would plant the seed for many a future wargamer. These boxes of relatively-inexpensive colorful plastic knights, cowboys and Indians, soldiers, horses, forts, castles, log cabins, wagons and tanks fuelled imaginative play and a collector’s spirit for kids before video games eclipsed playtime beginning in the 1980s.

For you Generation X kids who now have children of your own, toy soldiers are a still a fantastic way to add a little something different into the holdiay season. There’s a truly wonderful company called The Toy Soldier Company with a singular mission of keeping the toy soldier tradition alive, both for us nostalgia-prone grown-ups and for kids just waiting to discover the imaginative creativity and variety that play with little plastic figures brings.

The Toy Soldier Company offers a dizzying selection of plastic and metal figures, playsets and accessories in all scales and price ranges. No matter your era of choice — Ancient Europe, Colonial America, Civil War, The Old West, The World Wars,  Modern or Sci-Fi — the inventory is enormous and ever-growing. One of their most unique offerings is their playsets which seek to recapture the glory days of the 50s-70s when catalogs like the annual Sears Wish Book Christmas catalog offered pages filled with often fantastic depictions of playsets, primarily from Marx (like those shown in a Sears catalog from 1966 at the right). As a kid, you couldn’t help but marvel at the possibilities the often-exaggerated drawings and photos of these playsets. The imagination of young generals reeled from staring at the pages in the catalog and thoughts of future battles to be waged on the living room rug or in the sandbox out back. Lots of kids would eventually take their plastic play and creativity further by spending hours hunched over workbenches with tiny brushes and their first efforts at miniatures painting.

For those of you with children in your life, toy soldiers are still certain to be a hit for the holidays. You can even bridge the eras by getting a kid the latest from the Call of Duty video game franchise, a box of soldiers and maybe some paints. Another idea would be to buy some knights and Robin Hood toys along with a DVD of the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn. A book about the American Civil War and some plastic soldiers in blue and grey would make another great package. With toy soldiers then and now, the possibilities are only bound by the imagination for play.