Saturday 29 March 2014

The Steel Bonnets

I've just finished reading George MacDonald Fraser's "The Steel Bonnets", which is still one of the very best books on the Border Reivers you can get.

First published in 1971, it still reads wonderfully, a tale of history with all the elements of a great thriller: criminal intrigue, political double-dealing and breakneck action.

Fraser is probably best known as the author of the Flashman stories, and to me it seems that this is what lifts the book from the merely interesting to the exceptional. Fraser was evidently a skilled researcher and historian, but it is this in combination with his fantastic ability to tell a great adventure story that makes The Steel Bonnets such a great read. His descriptions are vivid and full of colour, whether of the hard, harsh landscape or the harder, harsher men who lived in it. He weaves a dry, ironic wit into the stories of raid and counter-raid, bitter feuds, cynical politics and the endless efforts of men on both sides to simultaneously control and inflame an area as lawless as any to be found in a work of fiction.

Fraser has a fantastic backdrop to write his story over. Centuries of family feudsoverlay the larger feud between England and Scotland. A population, part-ruined by raiding, who took ever more to raiding others in order to survive themselves, full of astonishing but actually real characters. Fraser describes one as the sort of man that later story writers "...who had never heard of Robert Carey, found it necessary to invent..." and he does justice to them all.

The lords of rival clans, raiding one another without regard to national borders, make the Wild West seem tame. With names like Auld Wat, Jock of the Side and The Bastard Heron, these men, already larger than life, jump from the page thanks to Fraser. In the midst of them all are the appointed Border Wardens, some strong and upright, like the "rugged, short-tempered" Hunsdon, others, like Kerr of Cessford "as much bandit as peace officer", no more law-abiding than those they policed. These men frequently tried to keep order in their own territory whilst encouraging their own locals to raid across the border. Here were Scots fighting on behalf of the English, English supporting the Scots and both sides fighting and reiving one another indiscriminantly.

Fraser breathes even more excitement and drive into this, painting a vivid picture that pulls the reader along. Events like the rescue of Kinmont Willie Armstrong from Carlisle Castle and the little-known but incredibly significant fight between Hunsdon and Dacre near Brampton would be high points in any adventure yarn, and Fraser's prose brings them into sharp, thrilling focus.

The tumult of the Anglo-Scottish border in the sixteenth century is as exciting a period for a wargame as any I can think of, and anyone wanting to try it need look no further than Fraser's work for all the inspiration and background they will need.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Making Saga Dice

Although it's quite possible to play Saga with ordinary D6's, the special Saga dice are part of the "feel" and add to the spectacle.

Sets of Saga dice are not cheap. Not. At. All.

So, if you want four (or more!) sets, it comes to a significant pile of money. So, as per my normal practice, I made my own.

The Saga Forums have the graphics you need, in various forms, so there's not really any clever art to do. At this point, there are obviously a number of options on how to proceed. You could print onto adhesive address labels, onto paper and stick it on, or print onto decal paper, which is what I did.

I imported the graphics into InkScape, and added them onto circles matched (as closely as I could) to the background colours of the dice. By doing this I could print onto white decal paper, which gave me better contrast and opacity. White decal paper is about £1.60 per A4 sheet, and one sheet will do all four sets with enough left over to make an army's worth of shields.

The blank dice came from The Dice Shop, and cost just over nine pounds for all 32 dice to make up the four sets. They do a ton of different colours and sizes in blank dice, so you ought to be able to get anything you want.

Cutting out and decalling up the dice is an easy job, but time consuming. Do it in front of the television, over a night or two. Several coats of clear lacquer sprayed on after the decals are dry protects them in use. The laquer was about four quid for the can, did all these sets,plus  tons of other stuff (measuring sticks and shield decals) and there's still plenty left for other projects.

Ready to roll!

Here are my Anglo-Saxon/Anglo Danish dice, along with my Scots and Norse Gael set. The Viking and Welsh sets will follow when I regain sufficient will and sanity to cut out another 96 decals! You get the idea. All up, the cost shook out at under £15 for all four sets. Works for me...

Merry meet again!

Saturday 22 March 2014

Measuring in SAGA 2

On page 7 of the main rulebook, it clearly states "real warriors prefer steel". Not wishing to be thought of as less than a real warrior, I obviously started cutting metal!

My intended raw material was recycled metal cargo strap. However, nylon seems to have replaced it totally. One possibility was cutting long strips from a sheet but I decided it was too much grief, so I had to put my hand in my pocket and buy a strip of metal. Unfortunately all I could get was aluminium. Now, someone is going to mutter how this is lightweight (well, it is) and not suitable for a "true" warrior. Anyone who subscribes to this view can be disabused of it rapidly by having the "Long" measuring stick jammed smartly up their nose, followed by twisting it round and round a few times. Aluminium or not, it'll bring tears to their eyes, guaranteed. Even Ragnar from the rulebooks could be brought round this way!

I formed the finished sticks by carefully cutting to length, then marked out a mitre on each corner. About five seconds on the bench grinder mitres everything beautifully. All the edges were thoroughly de-burred at this stage, because even real warriors find great lumps of razor-sharp swarf in their fingers detracts from their enjoyment of the game!

 Still haven't tidied up much!

I toyed with the idea of chemically etching designs into the sticks. I've done this before on steel items and got good results, but aluminium is funny stuff, what with oxide coatings and such, and I wasn't sure how well I could get it to work. Engraving was my next idea.

Pondering what to do next

The results at this stage look far from promising: grotty, grubby loooking bits of metal with no appeal. I decided on a Viking raven design, but struggled with transferring it onto the metal to scribe it in. Carbon paper didn't work and the design was too small to use a pounce wheel. I decided I had to print off the design in decal form, then engrave.


At this point I started adding the decals, ready to engrave the designs, but as soon as I put one on, I had a sudden change of heart. The decals really popped against the metal, so I quickly printed off another one, and decided it was time for a little bit of magic: the buffing wheel on the bench grinder!

Filthy job!

 Once the pieces were buffed on a cotton wheel, first with grey soap to take off the worst of the gnarls, then finished with pink soap, I added the decals, followed by two coats of laquer to prevent tarnish and fingermarks. This is what you get. Job done!


All ready to use now. Merry meet again!

Monday 17 March 2014

Measuring in SAGA

Most wargames call for some sort of measurement and SAGA is no different. However, where SAGA does diverge a bit is that there are only four measured distances, called (imaginatively enough) Long, Medium, Short and Very Short. The old reliable tape measure will of course deliver, but for speed and simplicity, measuring sticks are prefered in the game.

There are a number of ways you can proceed. The rulebook contains templates for measuring sticks, which are also available on the SAGA forum. Printing/copying these, cutting them out and sticking them to cardboard will give functional, if rather flimsy and short-lived measuring sticks. If you are time-poor, or not handy with making things, a number of companies will sell you a set of MDF ones, in many cases laser-cut with nice faction designs on them. Or you could make you own.

Of course, I made my own.

These, quick and easy, came out of a strip of hardwood bullnose moulding. The length (enough for several sets) came from a DIY store for a couple of quid. Just to prove I can do it, this was strictly a hand tools job. I marked off the lengths, cut them on a mitre box, then gave the ends a  light chamfer with a block plane. Some sanding (carefully, so as not to alter the length!) and it's job done. Fifteen minutes, end to end.

Excuse my mess!

They can be painted, waxed, varnished, engraved, tarted up with decals or marked with poker work (or any combination thereof!). I went with decals, with length symbols from the furthark and Aniron fonts, plus a couple of boars. Looking for other potential markings was the dodgiest bit of all. Surf the net for Saxon or even "English" symbols and it seems as if you're only ever one click away from some extremely unpleasant and unrighteous content! Those of you doing this on company computers - beware.

Spray booth is looking tatty - give it another coat!

Three sprayed coats of laquer was fine on the decals, but it was soon obvious it would need about thirty to make any difference on the wood, so I brushed on one coat of yacht varnish that sorted everything out. You need a nice glossy varnished surface to apply the decals over (old scale modeller's trick!).

 Ready to go!

 Here they are with the decals in place, and a couple of furhther coats of varnish to protect them from rough handling and aggression (by players or miniatures!)

Sorry lads, better luck next turn!

So here we are, demonstrating to the Anglo-Saxons hearthguard that they are just barely out of range to mash the Scots warriors - or have a go, anyway.

Merry Meet Again!

Friday 14 March 2014

Good News Day

First of all, Bors was well received by his new owner. Not a big gift, but given with heartfelt thanks for the help he has given me.

Second, I've passed the milestone of 75,000 hits on this blog. Many, many thanks to anyone who reads and comments.

Merry Meet Again!

Thursday 13 March 2014

Yan Tyan Tethera - Strathclyde Welsh Cavalry

“Yan tyan tethera” means “one two three”, in the Cumbric language once spoken across a wide tract of the north-west of England and south-west Scotland. The language now survives in some place names, and a few vestigial bits of dialect like this, used by farmers to count.

This was the language of a country, variously called Ystrad Clud or Alclud, Rheged or Strathcylde, that once stretched from Loch Lomond in the north to Rochdale in the south.

This part of Britain is generally not a soft, comfortable landscape. Anyone who has not visited it can get a fantastically evocative and extremely accurate view of it by reading George MacDonald Fraser's excellent "The Steel Bonnets". Whilst the main subject of this book is the later Border Reivers, the geography that forms the backdrop is unchanged. Much of the country is bleak, formed of bare, stony fells and harsh-carved hills. In many other, gentler, parts there is only a thin layer of poor soil laying over the same rocks just below. Outside of the coastal plains, this makes for poor farmland, hard to plough and harvest. If it is hard to plough now, how much harder would it have been with an ox-drawn ard plough? The land does, however, provide adequate grazing, for cattle lower down, and tough sheep on the higher slopes.

This hard land has always bred hard people. Apart from Cornwall, this was the last part of England that retained its Celtic language. Long before the Angles arrived, the people of Strathclyde had already spent centuries fighting off the Picts and Scoti, and having resisted them quite successfully they went on to resist Northumbrian dominance longer than anywhere else in the North. The northernmost part remained a semi-autonomous area even later, allied to but separate from, the Kingdom of Scotland. 

Referred to in Saga as “Strathclyde Welsh”, these men, used to a mobile life following their herds, fight mainly as cavalry. Riding men, armed with spears and raiding indiscriminately, were of course a feature of this area even later. In a sense, these cavalry seem the direct ancestors of the later Border Reivers.

Here are the first of my Strathclyde cavalry warriors. These are all built using Wargames Factory Ancient Germanic Cavalry, with some weapon arms taken from Gripping Beast Dark Age Warriors, and a selection of GB Saxon thegn and West Wind Sub-Roman heads.

The only, very slight, issue is that the men with the shield arm held close to the body are problematic in terms of what shields to use. These figures are obviously designed to work with the elongated hexagonal shields in the kit, and the round shields simply do not fit convincingly, and nor did any others that I had in the spares box. A quick measure up gave me a figure for the maximum diameter I could use. A swift rifle through the workshop turned up a length of steel tube of this diameter, which was sharpened to make a disc punch. I used this to chop out a series of discs from a sheet of planked plastic card. A bead of thick cyanoacrylate added around the circumference, allowed to dry and sanded slightly flat formed the shield rim, and the boss was a small disc of plastic card, punched out, with a drop of CA in the centre. Lovely!

In order to get these finished, I built the horses "out of the box". The next ones will get a little more work, to make them more like Fell ponies. It won't be a lot - WF have done a good job with the sculpting, so a bit of feathering on the hooves and a longer mane will do it.

This first set are conveniently numbered yan tyan tethera (from left to right). Yan has a GB Saxon head and upright spear arm, tyan has a West Wind Sub-Roman head, while tethera has GB head. In the last two, the arms ars from the original kit.

Yan, tyan, tethera... 

A 28mm cavalry figure on the table for just over a pound is a really bargain, and with the tiny bit of work I've done I'd say these stand up well against figures I've paid a good deal more for. For those prepared to make the small changes required, I would recommend these without hesitation. As well asSaga, these will give good service as British light cavalry in Dux Brit or Dux Bell, which makes them even better value.

And again!

Comparisons are sometimes helpful, so here's one for you. From left to right we have a  Gripping Beast late Roman on a Conquest horse,  the three WF Strathclyde Welsh and a Newline Design Pict,.

Unlikely looking allies!

Here they are again, side on. I don't know if this matchup is any more plausible!

Let's do it!

Merry meet again!