Rebuilding a 28mm Wilderness Fortification

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The construction of 17th and 18th-century European fortifications were revolutionized by the writing of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the French military engineer and author of A Manual of Siegecraft and Fortification. His formal star-shaped forts of the era defined military and city defensive architecture throughout Europe and in overseas colonies.

North American wilderness warfare of the French and Indian War often called for more hastily-built backcountry defenses. A paper by Military Architecture of the American Frontier, made available online by the National Park Service, provides an overview of how Vauban’s and other writings of the period influenced fort building in a very different environment. Blockhouses and stockades were common, and some reconstructed examples like Fort Necessity and Fort Ligonier can be visited today. Given even less time and planning, dirt, plentiful trees, and woven gabions filled with rocks could be used to create a somewhat formidable defensive position by throwing the strong backs of soldiers and hired civilians into the effort. While some Vauban-style grand forts of the period like Fort Niagara and Fort Ticonderoga still stand centuries later in the United States, countless small, temporary fortifications have been long lost to time.

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A plan of Fort Ligonier, Pennsylvania from “A Set of Plans and Forts in America. Reduced from Actual Surveys” by John Rocque (c. 1750)

My local club Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY has hundreds of pieces of terrain in multiple scales spanning many historical eras. Some of these pieces are decades old, once belonging to members who have long since moved on. They reflect different wargaming modeling techniques of the past and some bear the markings of manufacturers long gone.

I’ve taken it upon myself recently to rebuild and refresh some of these pieces, particularly a number of 28mm buildings and scratch built terrain models appropriate to 18th-century scenarios of the French and Indian War era. With this in mind, a large, banged-up and dusty wilderness fortress piece recently caught my eye on the club’s shelf and I set to work making it usable again.

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A decades-old scratchbuilt piece of terrain in need of repair

Mounted on a piece of quarter-inch plywood measuring about 8″ x 18″, this hefty model features three canon positions on a plaster raised earth mound surrounded by resin-cast wicker gabions and sharpened wooden stakes. The years had not been kind to the model. Original trees had snapped off long ago, several breaks in the plaster were evident, grass had worn off, fences were broken and overall, the whole model had taken on a drab appearance.

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Some initial repairs and a fresh coat of paint

The first step was to clean the model of the layers of dust accumulated over the years, remove remnants of broken trees and trim off flaking and broken bits of plaster. Next, I filled cracks and missing areas of plaster with lightweight wood filler. All the earthen areas then received a fresh coat of dark brown paint over which I dry brushed varying layers of browns and gray paints.

With the base repainted, I made small glued repairs to broken fencing. I also added a few spare sticks and a barrel to bring some detail to the model as if repairs were an ongoing part of the fortification’s use. From there, the logs, fence, sharpened stakes and gabions were repainted and weathered using more dry brushed coats of browns and grays.

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New trees are glued to the model

With most of the new painting done, I turned to adding new trees. I drilled and glued nails into the trunks of pre-made trees from Woodland Scenics which were then glued into holes in the base at the rear along the fence. The trees added textural and vertical interest to an otherwise flat model and also provided some additional color to the overall earthiness of the terrain.

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A layer of new groundcover is applied over the model

Further texture and color was added with my favorite Adirondack Blend from Scenic Express. This material contains grass of varying color and texture along with other larger bits of scattered twigs and wood chips which give a highly detailed look that reflects the ground of the North American wilderness. To attach, I heavily brushed white glue on a section at a time all around the base of the fortification and then shook a thick layer of the grass over the glue. Some areas around the logs also received a bit of grass to break up the sameness of the main battery area. Once dry, I lightly tapped the excess grass off the model, carefully scooping up the extra for use again. Finally, a couple small bits of clump foliage were glued around the trees and in random areas along the model’s base. With everything dry, the model got a matte spray coat to hold on the grass and seal the new paint.

In less than a couple hours work, the whole model popped back to life after sitting unused for years. The fortress also has a look more consistent with some of my other terrain pieces, allowing for a more unified look on the table. The project has inspired me to have a look at rebuilding other long-ignored pieces of terrain at the club, bringing them into a new century of miniature wargaming for hopefully years to come.

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French and Indian War: Scottish Highlanders from North Star Military Figures

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In the early 1700s, Scots from clans loyal to the British ruling government had been recruited into local law keeping forces and later as more formal militia. Allowed to dress and employ traditional Highland garb and weapons, Scottish forces would serve the British military cause from the European mainland to Egypt to the Caribbean to India over the next two centuries.  Three Highlander regiments — the 42nd, 77th and 78th — would distinguish themselves in service of the Crown’s rule in the first major 18th-century conflict of British North America, the French and Indian War (1756-1763).

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The Highland Regiment Exercising on Glasgow Green, 1758 (artist unknown)

The 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot set sail for North America in January of 1757 and landed in April. During their time in the colonies, these Scotsmen would participate in many key battles of the FIW, including the Battle of Carillion (1758) and the capture of Fort Ticonderoga (1759). After the war, the 42nd Foot spent time in Pennsylvania at Fort Pitt and Fort Ligonier before fighting in one of their most famed battles during Pontiac’s Rebellion at Bushy Run, Pennsylvania in August 1763.

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Aside from a general collection of FIW books, I turned to a copy of Osprey Publishing’s Highlander in the French-Indian War, 1756–67 by Ian Macpherson McCulloch. The book focuses on three Highlander regiments of the period, including the 42nd Foot I’ve chosen to model. The historic background, period illustrations and contemporary plates make this a great foundation for anyone wanting to learn a bit more about the Highland regiments of the period. One plate in particular portrays detail of uniform and equipment of a typical c. 1756 private of the 42nd Foot — just the inspiration I needed as I worked on fielding my very first Highlander models.

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I managed to score a half-dozen Highlanders from North Star Military Figures at half price during a recent close-out sale. Sadly, North Star is mothballing their FIW line of models for the time being as Studio Tomahawk works toward a future second edition of the popular Muskets & Tomahawks wargaming rules. I had previously painted up some of their French Canadian miniatures and I still have some of their Indians in my painting queue, so I was glad to add a few of their Highlanders to my collection while I could.

The 18th-century is fun to paint for the diversity of uniforms, weapons and mode of dress, and these Highlanders were no exceptions. This was my first go at tartan kilts, so I sunk some time into watching how-to videos online. I went with a simple technique of dark blue undercoat followed by layered grids of varying greens and greys to approximate the signature tartan of the 42nd Foot. Close-up it looks a bit pointillistic, but at arm’s length on the table I was pretty satisfied with the results.

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The rest of the figures were a bit more straight forward with red jackets and blue bonnets (or “tams”) with red balls on the top and red lacing at the brim. The officer also got some fancy stockings with an angled cross-hatched plaid of white and red. Having just six of the North Star Highlander models completed, I wish I had bought more before they became impossible to get. That said, I’ll be tracking down some more from other manufacturers so I can better field a large force of the 42nd Royal Highlanders.

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Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales

NathanHalesHazardousTalesAs a young fan of history in 1970s and 80s, my bookshelves were brimming with illustrated history books. Classics Illustrated comics, David Macaulay’s books and Dover history coloring books were all favorites. In my teen and college years of comic book fandom, I was introduced to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman. Decades later, I loaded up my own boys’ shelves with beautiful books from Dorling Kindersley on such subjects as ancient history, the American Civil War and World War II. Now, as the kids have grown, they’ve made their own reading discoveries and turned me on to newer series. One of my current favorites is Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales.

Nathan Hale is the actual name of the Utah-based author and artist of a variety of best-selling children’s graphic novels. His Hazardous Tales series focuses on US history with a wit and flair aimed at engaging kids in wonderful little vignettes of the past. His war-themed books include looks at the American War of Independence (One Dead Spy (2012)) the American Civil War (Big Bad Ironclad! (2012)) and World War I (Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood (2014)). He’s also taken on non-war subjects with the doomed Western settlers of the Donner Dinner Party (2013) and the story of abolitionist Harriet Tubman in The Underground Abductor (2015).

NHSpyPageFamed American spy Nathan Hale is introduced in “One Dead Spy”

Hale’s three war books introduce children to three different conflicts from three centuries of the American story. One Dead Spy outlines the American Revolution through the lens of famed Colonial spy Nathan Hale, his exploits, capture and martyred execution in September 1776. The first half of the book moves from Hale’s years at Yale to the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the Siege of Boston. In the second half, the story shifts to the war in and around New York City and Long Island, making it of particular interest for my sons living amid the ground covered by the Battle of Brooklyn. Other historical characters including George Washington (naturally), Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold and the colorfully-written Henry Knox all make cameos, each adding to the overall narrative which ends with Hale’s hanging just as the war was gearing up into its later years and eventual victory for the American colonists.

NHIroncladsPageCivil War naval combat from “Big Bad Ironclad!”

The American Civil War gets its treatment in Big Bad Ironclad which tells the story of the nation-defining conflict through the epic development and battle of the first US ironclad ships in March 1862. With so many stories to be told from the Civil War, this book’s focus on the relatively ignored naval side of the conflict makes for another interesting tale. A colorful cast of well-known and marginal characters, including Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Swedish immigrant inventor John Ericcsson and US naval hero William Cushing, frame the story. Drawn in blues, grays and blacks, the historic figures and events helps to place this sideshow to the American Civil War as a not-to-be-forgotten part of American history.

NHTrenchesPageEuropean alliances explained in “Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood”

My favorite of Hale’s three war books is Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood which does an amazing job of explaining the complex causes and series of alliances which contributed to the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914. The story begins in the obvious place with assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by the somewhat hapless Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in June 1914. After the entertaining opening act, the book moves to outline the intricacies of the allied European nations. Using the cartoon and comic book convention of animals as characters, each country is cast as a different creature — UK (bulldog), Russia (bear), France (rooster), Austria-Hungary (owl), Germany (eagle). You might think explaining geopolitical politics would be a yawn in a children’s book, but Hale carries it off such that even adults would benefit from the World war II overview.

The story marches onward to 1914, erupting in the war depicted in a dramatic double-page spread of assembly line of manpower grinding to battle with the Greek god of war Ares overseeing the entire coming slaughter. Weapons, the introduction of tanks and trench warfare all get their due in the second half of the book, but it’s the pre-war framing of European empires in conflict which makes this book a standout intro to the war for all ages.

AlamoThe forthcoming “Alamo All Stars”

The upcoming sixth book in the series, Alamo All Stars, will appeal to Texans and Texans at heart with the tale of the heroic defense of the Alamo in 1836. With the school year just under way, all of Hale’s Hazardous Tales are worthy of reading lists, no matter the age. Each book also contains a bibliography and more factual information at the back of the book, making all these books a great jumping-off place for budding historians and maybe some future wargamers, too.

New Game Weekend: A Few Acres of Snow

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 “You know that these two nations are at war about a few acres of snow somewhere around Canada, and that they are spending on this beautiful war more than all Canada is worth.” — Voltaire, Candide (1758)

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the area of what would become the Northeastern United States and the neighboring Canadian Provinces of Ontario and Quebec were a battlefield for French, British and Native American control. With the two European empires locked in a protracted series of large and small wars around the globe, the American colonies were often a sideshow to the global conflict. In the colonies, King William’s War (1689–97), Queen Anne’s War (1702-13), King George’s War (1744–48) and the French and Indian War (1754–63) each played a role in shaping not only the birth of the United States of America but also the face of the entire globe for centuries to come.

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A mid-18th century map of British and French colonies in North America

(from New York Public Library Map Division)

I grew up in Western New York State, spent most of my twenties in Eastern Michigan and Western Pennsylvania, and finally settled in New York City nearly twenty years ago. In my life I’ve logged many a road trip to the landmarks of British and French military control at Fort Stanwix, Fort Ticonderoga, Fort William Henry and Fort Niagara, along with various battlefields and stops at roadside markers. In July, I’ll be swinging by Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania where a British officer named George Washington first commanded troops in an opening battle of the French and Indian War. I’ll also be swinging through Letchworth State Park which was occupied by the western edges of the Iroquois Confederacy which sided with the British during the era of European conflict. In short, I’ve spent my entire life living amid the ghosts of the contested colonial regions of the North American colonial wars.

AcresCardsSample cards from A Few Acres of Snow

At the recent D-Day Plus 70 weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY I was fortunate to score a copy of A Few Acres of Snow in a dice-off raffle. Created by famed designer Martin Wallace and released by Treefrog Games in 2011, the game takes its name from a quote from Voltaire’s Candide commenting on the absurdity of European focus on colonial wars for territory. AFAOS takes players through the French-British colonial period in North America as each nation competed for control of the continent. Within the theme, the game is a rich mix of deck-building and area control mechanics as players seek to settle and defend key areas of the map.

snowsymbolsCard symbols from A Few Acres of Snow

(Wagon, Bateaux, Settler, Military Strength, Money, Fur, Ambush and Ship)

The two-player game begins with players choosing a side as the British or French with a set number of settled outposts in the wilderness of 17th and 18th century North America. British begin with their main settlements in New York and Boston while the French player starts with Quebec. Players begin with a draw deck from which they start with five cards. Playing cards in turns of two actions each, players perform a variety of actions including settlement, fortification, raids, sieges, trade, piracy and a number of card management options. Symbols depicted on each card allow for enormous flexibility in how each player executes their strategy of expansion. For example, a player might begin with a Location card setting off from an existing settlement. From there, a card is played with the appropriate movement symbol like a Bateaux along a river. Once at a new location, a card with a Settler might be played to create a new settlement. As a player’s holdings expand, their decks grow in size and options, leading to even more potential paths of empire growth. Once all settlement tokens are used or major settlements like Boston or Quebec are captured, the games ends and victory points are scored.

IMG_3640My first play of A Few Acres of Snow

In my first play through AFAOS, I faced off with my son playing the French and me playing as the British. The game plays in about an hour, but on our first run we went to a bit over 90 minutes as we wrapped our heads around the rules. After I quickly sailed to and settled Halifax well within the bounds of French country, several  sieges commenced. In his first siege attempt, my son was repelled by my superior military might powered by my store of money. He then took a few turns to quickly trade a lot of fur (one of the strengths of the French player) to buy additional forces for a second siege which chased my British from his territory.

IMG_3647My heavily-settled British Atlantic Coast in A Few Acres of Snow

In the meantime, I pushed inland with a string a settlements toward the Great Lakes in the hopes it would expose Quebec to a siege. However, my son quickly landed a stronghold in my coastal territory in a siege victory at Pemaquid. I retaliated with two failed attacks on Pemaquid using Native American raiding parties. Having held on, my son launched an attack on Boston and my British rule of the colonies fell.

Our first game showed us how quickly AFAOS can move once you get the mechanics. Getting the right cards in and out of your hand is key to winning the game, and the cards shift in importance as the game quickly unfolds. The balance of trade, expansion and military actions does a fantastic job in re-enacting the dynamics which played out between the British, French and shifting Native American allies over some 150 years. Even though we upset the course of history, we both walked away pretty thrilled over our new game and chatting up strategies for the next time we meet up in the woods and along the coasts of Colonial America.

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