Saturday, 30 November 2013

Badass... -

I've been asked in the past why, when I play Moderns, I usually field Czechoslovakians.  Maybe I have Czech ancestors, or something?  The answer is far more prosaic.  It's simply that I think OT-64s are cool. Nothing says "Czechoslovakian" more than a bunch of OT-64s on the table, and in particular, they look cool in a way that, for example, a BTR-60 doesn't.  Which is a bit unfortunate, in that in 1:300th scale, nobody makes a decent OT-64A model - which was the main mark that was produced in real life.  The Heroics and Ros OT-64 is a great model (see left), with nice crisp features, but it isn't an OT-64A.  H&R do do an OT-64A, but, alas, it's not at all a nice model - the turret is essentially a round blob, overscale, and the octagonal plinth the turret is mounted on is nowhere to be seen.

Even more badass
So even though OT-64s were the reason for me acquiring a Czechoslovakian force, I've been stuck for some time with a collection of models that wasn't quite satisfactory.  But with the advent of 3-d printing, the solution has now been placed in my own hands, quite literally as you can see to the right :-)  I've made up some turrets to convert the H&R OT-64 into an OT-64A, and had them printed out at Shapeways.  Shapeways can't print anything with a diameter less than 1 mm, which doesn't quite capture the dimensions of a 1:300th scale 14.5 mm HMG, so I've had to add the gun barrels later, using some 0.3 mm diameter wire.  This means it's not just a job of simply pressing the "purchase" button, alas.  In fact, cutting the gun barrels, sticking them in the turrets, and then painting the things was quite an involved process.  But nothing that an overly compulsive gamer like myself can't handle...

And I like the result, which is what counts, after all.  In each MSH battalion, I've upgraded the standard platoon combat team APCs (6 per battalion), as well as the vehicle carrying the AGLs, but have left the vehicle carrying the SA-7s turretless, as well as the battalion commander's vehicle.  This is mostly to help identify them more easily (my AGL stands don't have guys on foot around the vehicles, so can be easily enough told apart from the standard infantry combat teams), but also because the turretless vehicles were generally the ones to carry the support weapon teams in real life - the turret took up quite a lot of internal space.  The Regimental HQ and the engineers' vehicles I've also left turretless, as well as the regimental AT vehicles: the ATGW teams often mounted their Saggers on the roof of their vehicles so they could fire them from there, rather than having to always dismount.

SKOT-2AP; photo from Wisnia6522 / Wikipedia
The OT-64A was known in Polish service as the SKOT-2A; the Poles also introduced a modified version, the SKOT-2AP,  in which the turret was redesigned so it could fire at high angles, in an anti-helicopter role (the OT-64A turret was limited to just 30 degrees of elevation).  IIRC, the Scotia model might have been a SKOT-2AP rather than a SKOT-2A, but I also seem to remember the photos of the model being so poor, it was hard to tell...  I'm hoping Andy at H&R will bring out a new set of turreted OT-64s to complement the current plain OT-64; that would render my primitive Shapeways efforts superfluous, and hopefully he could also satisfy Polish gamers with a SKOT-2AP. since that wouldn't be much more effort than making a SKOT-2A up.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Terrain boards III -

I've reached an important point today in my terrain board project: I now have the first 6 boards completed, and thus have enough to play a regular (Modern) Spearhead game on - these six boards cover a standard 1800 by 1200 gaming table (that's 6 by 4 foot for those of you still stuck in the feudal age...).

It's taken a while to get here, but it's been a reasonably enjoyable process, and I feel a lot more confident now that I will be able to complete the project.  If not soon, at least eventually!  Of course, the upcoming boards are likely to take even more time to make than these ones have...  Still, at least the winter break is coming up.

It's quite hard to see the outlines of the various knolls, rises, and hills from a photo taken directly from above like these ones have been, so here's an alternative view with the contours drawn in.  I've also removed the size distortion caused by an off-centre camera position, so the 6 boards are now all perfectly squared off; by saving each board as an individual layer in Photoshop, I can simply shuffle them around and use the rotate command to arrange them how I like, and then the resulting image can be ported straight into the battle roster sheet used to play the game.  Vertically flipping the final image also gives my opponent a picture from their viewpoint; if I arrange a game with Aaron, I can send him the file beforehand so he can plot his moves before we even set the game up "in the flesh" which should maximize our precious gaming time.

These six boards are rather generic, since they don't feature any water features or any truly large hills.  My remaining two water-less boards both feature bigger hills (one a whopping 5 contours high; which is a fraction over 2 centimetres high on-table), and the remaining 8 boards have either wide rivers (depicted about 40 mm across on average, and thus too wide to be bridged by an AVLB; they need to be spanned by pontoon bridges, or swum); narrow rivers (less than 25 mm across, and bridgeable); or a a combination of the two.  Despite this, they can still be put together to give some degree of battlefield variety.

This setup on the left, for example, features a much flatter table centre, with hills clustered on the flanks.  This could easily lead to a really open battlefield, but could still be closed down considerably with a few well-placed woods.  The spots where the board corners meet are particularly ripe spots for woods, since this will also disguise the ugliest part of the join...  I'm thinking of making my woods with a painted felt base (so it they flex over hills), surrounded by flock on the edges to hide the inevitable ruffled edges you get with felt; I intend to make a removable flocked canopy for each wood as well, to properly hide troops on the inside.

This setup on the right looks a lot more crowded, despite using the same 6 boards.  The table centre is cluttered with hills, and the flanks are not entirely open either - the most open spots are the extreme corners, which you don't really notice, and in any case, they don't see much game play, because you can't flank march into them.  It helps that most of the boards have their hills asymmetrically distributed, so rotating them can make the centre or edges more or less cluttered in turn.

This table on the left shows a progression from very flat on the right to much more hilly on the left.  Note that two of the boards only have 3 road exits/entrances, which cuts down connectivity slightly, making for a more realistic road net, but also cuts down on the number of board permutations that are possible (especially with only 6 boards completed!).  It also better conforms to Keith's scenario system recommendations, which gives an average of 8 off-table road exits for an entire table.  The roads are fairly windy, because these 6 boards are rather rural in nature; some of my boards with rivers will feature somewhat straighter road sections, and contiguous built-up area sections, rather than only isolated ones.  The river boards have all been carved out, by the way; but getting the actual water done will no doubt be fairly tricky.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Polish MSH 6th Airborne list -

Richard (see his blog: Red Storm, also linked to on the right) has been badgering me for a while (in the nicest way, I should add!) to get some Polish army lists done similarly for what I've done for the Czechoslovakians.

Since I had a reasonably slack week this week (i.e. I wasn't snowed under at work...), I thought I should humour him, and get something concrete done.  Of course this has meant my terrain borads are coming along a bit more slowly, but they haven't stopped completely, as I can work on lists while I am allowing glue to set, etc.

Anyway, I made a start with what I would call a sub-list: that for the Polish 6th Airborne "Division".  You can get a pdf of the list here (standard MSH format; two pages including the notes), covering the period 1967 to 1989.  The 6th Pomeranian Airborne Division was a division in name only (mostly to to help secure better funding!); it was in reality just a Brigade in size, and was so-named officially from 1986.

Image nicked from

The unit had a number of privileges denied lesser mortals, such as being able to walk around with their sleeves rolled up (!), the most familiar of which to the public at large was their maroon beret.  Its military efficiency seems to have declined somewhat around the time of the Solidarity upheavals, when it was forced to spend too much time parading and not enough time parachuting.

There is a major reorganization in 1976, which saw a shift in emphasis from operating as a complete brigade to providing battalion-level forces that might be used in conjunction with other units.  Accordingly, the ASU-85 battalion was abolished, while the parachute battalions were beefed up with more support platoons.  Unlike the Soviet Airborne troops, the Polish ones were never provided with BMDs, and remained light infantry.  However, unlike the (much less numerous) Czechoslovakian Airborne troops, they had  a decent amount of anti-tank weapons, so would not have been completely helpless in the face of light enemy armour.
Image from Kerim44 under CCA 3.0 licence.
The equipment is fairly standard; the only original piece of gear is the WP-8z, an 8-barrel 140 mm MRL towed behind a GAZ-69 jeep.  (If this source is correct, and GAZ-69 is truly meant instead of GAZ-66, this would seem to imply little in the way of reloads unless carried in another jeep.)  The brigade's artillery battalion included 18 of these launchers (until replaced by 2B11 mortars in 1984), but because they only have 8 barrels each, I have modelled these 18 launchers as just 2 MSH stands, and not 4.  Even that might be a bit generous!  A better solution, albeit one not sanctioned by the rules, might be two stands, but with each stand getting a 3" template and not the standard 4" one.  Try it as a house rule.

File:ASU-85 6 Dywizji Powietrznodesantowej.jpg
ASU-85 of the 6th Airborne.  Public domain image from here.
The other interesting bit of gear is the ASU-85.  Not exactly unique, but also not exactly "standard", since its only other user was the Soviet VDV; they can also make for something a bit different on the tabletop, assuming you are playing a game from 1967 to 1976, that is. (The 6th Airborne was formed in 1965, but didn't reach it's "proper" establishment until 1967, as it initially had only 2000 men on its books, and initially lacked many units such as the 35th SP battalion.)  The ASU-85 isn't exactly the most powerful weapon system in the game of course: a factor 7 AT attack, and 4/2 defence isn't exactly something to worry too many people, and with its PT-76 base chassis, it only gets a 9" move as well...  But, as with most assault guns, it at least looks cool.

The Brigade also gets a decent amount of mortars (just as well given the absence of any conventional tube artillery!).  From 1984 these can include some GAZ-66 towed 2B9 Vasileks (Wosilek to the Poles) which have the advantage of also being able to be used as direct-fire weapons.  Alas, a single platoon of 6 of these weapons means just 1 or 2 stands.

In gaming terms, this list is most likely to see use as the a source of an "extra battalion" in an otherwise normal Polish force, reinforcing a more standard regiment.  Without heavy transports, it won't be too expensive in terms of points, and although such a battalion will not be able to benefit from being allocated brigade/regimental artillery or other such assets from its host, its own assets should be up to the job anyway.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

New H&R T-54/55s -

This week I received some lead from Andy Kirk at Heroics & Ros.  Some of it was just extra stuff to fill in some gaps in my collection (particularly more SMG-equipped stands for my WW2 Czechoslovakian 1st Corps), but of more importance were the 10 models I had ordered of the new T-55AM2 that has now just become available.  These will enable me to extend my Czechoslovakians right through the 1980s by providing a battalion's worth of tanks for a 1st echelon Motor Rifle Regiment, like those of the 20th Division.

Andy also threw in a couple of sample models for me to look at - the new T-54A, and the remastered T-55.  (He has great customer service!)  So let's take a look at the beasties...  I've stuck them onto my customary 30 mm square bases rather than the 1 1/4 inch square (31.75 mm) bases that MSH recommends, ready for spraying - the standard green colour that the Czechoslovakians used for their vehicles is light enough to use as the base coat for the base, which is very handy, as you can spray both at the same time.

Let's start with the new T-55 model, since I already own 5 or 6 dozen of the old one.  The first thing to notice is that this is a T-55, and not a T-55A, since it lacks an AA gun.  Why the real thing was made this way is a complete mystery to me, because the preceding T-54A had one, and the need was obviously there, given the succeeding T-55A also had one!  The re-mastered model sells for 65p rather than the 50p of the old one, so it's more expensive (although still cheaper than any rival, so that's not at all an issue in my book!).

You can see a side-to-side comparison with the old model here.  The new model comes with auxiliary fuel tanks at the back, unlike the old model, and it also has a turret-rear stowage basket, plus hand-rails around the turret (don't file these off mistaking them for flash...).  The details are all more prominent, with the exception of the gun's fume extractor, which is much thinner than in the old model.  It's probably about the right thickness now, although because the barrel is still necessarily too thick, it means the difference in thickness between the two is now possibly understated.  I won't be sure until it's painted up.  In any case, the new one looks better in this department.  The wheels are also much more crisp and detailed, but here lies the one fault with the model - and unfortunately, it's a big one.  The entire drive train is modelled back-to-front!  The distinctive gap between the 1st and 2nd road wheels that makes identifying at T-55 from a T-62 easy is here positioned between the 4th and 5th wheels.  I hope this gets corrected; I'll be sending Andy a heads-up today...

So let's move on to the T-54A.  The model is very similar to the new T-55 model.  The main differences are the lack of a main gun fume extractor, and the provision of a DShK machine gun for AA work.  This is a separate piece, so you can mount it at any angle you like, and makes the 65p price tag look even better.  If you look carefully, you can just make out the small ventilation dome in the middle of the turret which is the only thing that seprates a T-54 from a T-55 once a fume extractor has been added to a T-54.  There are auxiliary fuel tanks at the rear of the model; much smaller than those of the T-55 model, however.  I'm not sure how common such small fuel tanks were, as I'm only familiar with the large ones.  The lack of a fume extractor means the model can't really stand in as a T-55A; hopefully Andy will produce a T-55A variant as well.  Unfortunately, this model isn't really suitable for my Czechoslovakian force, since not only were all the Czechoslovakian T-54 models eventually upgraded to T-55 standards once the T-55 was introduced, but they started being produced with fume extractors from the outset.  (As an aside, many Czechoslovakian T-54As seem to have lacked AA MGs entirely until they were upgraded to T-54Ms in the 1970s).  Again, the wheels are crisp on this model, and again, this model, alas!, suffers greatly from having the drive train the wrong way around...

So now let's check out the new T-55AM2 model, which is the thing I'm most interested in out of the three.  The addition of side skirts makes this model wider than the earlier marks, and thus giving it a noticeably greater bulk.  The good news is that in this model, the drive train is the right way round - but it's not so easy to spot given those same side skirts!  There's a faint mould line near the top of the skirt which you can just see in the photo to the left, toward the rear of the vehicle (I've scrapped it away in the centre, but am not sure how necessary this will be until I spray the thing). The extra armour over the hull front also appears to be modelled, although you really have to know what you are looking for to spot this.

It's the turret that has the most changes of course.  The smoke grenade launchers are there at the sides (the cluster pattern of these makes me believe the model is representing a Czechoslovakian-produced vehicle rather than the equivalent Soviet one; Czechoslovakian T-55s were a big export success), along with the distinctive somewhat horse-shoe-shaped extra armour around the frontal arc, interrupted by the main gun barrel.  Over the main barrel is the bulk of the laser range-finder component of the Kladivo fire-control system (probably a bit too bulky - the wide flat top should narrow down underneath); the cross-wind sensor's thick mast is also modelled on the back of the turret.  It would be great if Andy could produce a T-55AM1 variant - which has just the fire control system, but not any of the extra armour or the grenade launchers, because this was introduced much earlier into service than the T-55AM2.  On the other hand, it wouldn't be all that hard to scratch-build such a model...  This variant is found all over the place, because it's are a relatively cheap upgrade for a T-55. Want to model a contemporary Cambodian force?  You'll want a T-55AM1...

Like the T-54A, this model comes with a separate DShK machine gun, and all-in-all is really great value for 65p - an excellent addition to the Heroics & Ros range.  Now, I'm not really all that interested in post-cold-war forces, so this model will see only limited use with me - I just don't really need more than 10 of them at the scale I usually play.  But a lot of table-top forces from the late 80s onwards can make good use of this model, so I hope it sells well.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Terrain boards II - 

I've now finished the first two of my terrain boards, and nearly finished the second two - they just require further spraying with dilute PVA and then matt varnish.

The rear two are the ones that are already properly sealed - the process seems to have very slightly darkened the colour tones.  The front two have had their first PVA spray; they'll get 3 or more 4 more coats and then a couple of matt varnish sprays on top.  The PVA spray is done over the bath/shower so the wayward spray can be washed away easily.  The varnish isn't water-soluble (naturally!) so I do that outside, on the balcony, with some newspaper to catch any spray drift.

Here's a shot of the two finished ones joined together.  While the join is "obvious" from above, it is not overly distractingly so, I think.  You can see there are effectively two configurations of boards here - the roads on each board edge either exit/enter either all one third or all two thirds of the way along their respective edges.  This means I have essentially two independent sets of boards that must be arranged in a quincunx manner to get them to meet up properly.  You can see in the first shot above what happens if you don't align them properly - the two front boards are both of the same "set", and thus don't abut properly - the roads don't meet up. 

From a lower angle, as seen to the left, the join between two boards is of course not quite so obvious.  You can also see that warping isn't a problem at all - the stiffness of the boards is enhanced when they are joined (aided by the flocking and sealing), and flattens them out.  Hopefully they will stay that way - touch wood - the flexibility of the mats should enable them to be pushed around sufficiently into shape even if they do warp a bit.

This quincunx configuration sacrifices flexibility, in that half the boards will only mate with the other half, greatly reducing the number of possible configurations for a given set of boards.  And it also means I have to essentially keep the two half-sets "separate but equal" in terms of what they look like and how they are stored.  Nonetheless there are good reasons for doing this...  The first one is that if you have your road exit/entrances positioned centrally in each board edge then you have a much more stereotypical board layout.  Since each board would have the same road exit/entrance set-up, this means adjacent boards will the the same, meaning the road network looks more like a grid than a net.  Fine of you are modelling Nebraska, but not Europe.  With the 1/3-2/3 set-up, adjacent boards are not the same, as the road joins between adjacent edges are off-set 200 mm from each other, leading to a less regular appearance.

In this shot to the right you can see a board with not much in the way of vertical relief - there are just two small hull-down positions visible here, which interestingly are a lot harder to spot in this photo than they are with the naked eye, even with a dash of differently coloured flock on their tops to help pick them out.  This is one of the flattest of the board set-ups I have; most have a bit more in the way of contours than this one.  Still, there are a few light hedgerows that break up lines of sight, and woods can always be added on top of the boards to further clutter things up.

You can see a somewhat larger hill on the board shown to the left; the top-level contours are picked out in lighter-coloured flock because of their in-game importance in providing not only spotting but also hull-down positions.  From the bottom of the hill to the top summit position is just over a centimetre in vertical gain, which isn't a lot in absolute terms, but still means an overall gradient of something like 1 in 5 or 6, and it is obviously steeper in places.  This is steeper than I'd like, but carving slopes from foam shallower than this proved very challenging (I thought having the hills made of something different from the mats would be asking for trouble in terms of warping, not to mention negating the flexibility inherent in the mat material).  I'm pretty happy with the results here.  Sure it's taking time, but it's turning out to be quite fun to do.

The other main reason for my quincunx set-up is to do with rivers.  When I put together various arrangements on paper with the roads all positioned centrally, it became apparent that any rivers obviously couldn't be so positioned - so where would they go?  They would have to be off-set, which I figured would lead to a similar quincunx arrangement anyway (although I have subsequently realized there would be one way of doing it with only a single set of river tiles).  So my rivers are positioned such that their joins are centrally positioned - since any one standard gaming table of six boards will have so few rivers on it compared to roads, the regularity of their positioning isn't so apparent.

This evening I will start on doing two boards which feature large hills, which call for roads going over low points on the hills at some point.  I have still to decide exactly how I will model the surface of the roads where the cross the hills; my two options are either cutting out a card or thick paper road surface and laying it over the top of the rough road path that is currently in place, or smoothing the current path over with a layer of sand mixed with PVA.  I'll probably go for this later option, as it won't result in the road surface being elevated above the surrounding terrain, which is fine on the flat, but not when crossing a hill...

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Terrain boards I -

Today the family were out doing things without me, so after getting some housework out of the way, I took the opportunity to look at my work bench.  The main thing on it at the moment is a set of 16 terrain boards I have started work on.  Not completed, it should be noted!  Inspired by a post of Rhys Batchelor's last year bemoaning the state of the terrain that gets used for moderns games, I thought I should make a start at improving my lot.  Unlike ancients gaming, where the most important "terrain" you need is a well-painted cloth to cover the table, moderns gaming requires a lot more attention to details.  So over New Year, I planned a set of terrain boards based on 600 mm by 600 mm units, since these both dovetail nicely with Keith McNelly's scenario rules, which use sectors that size, and you can easily buy interlocking foam mats that size, which I thought would make a good basis for "boards".   I decided I would need 16 of them to give a decent variety of terrain - 6 are required for a standard "table".

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I have had 16 of these things sitting on my bench for over half a year, undercoated green, awaiting further work.  So today I restarted work on them.  I painted roads on half of them - the half without river or streams, which are going to require a lot more work.  The first 8 should at least let me get a few games out of them before I feel the need to use more.  Then I started flocking one, as you can see to the left.  I've bought a bunch of flock, and mixed various types to give an appropriate variety of shades of green and brown; I suspect I will have to buy more before the end, as I will probably run out at some point.  I've also added some "clump foliage" to make some light hedgerows.  Note the two sunken areas on the flocked board above left; these are spaces for built-up areas that can be slotted in once the boards have been positioned. 

I am anticipating the boards will have to be mostly stored stacked on top of each other, so they can't have too much relief sticking out, especially fiddly bits like steeples or trees.  This will also mean I can more easily use the boards for WW2 by using different, more old-fashioned buildings.  The photo to the right shows one of the BUA spaces filled in (the road colour needs lightening).  I am modelling hills "in the round", but they need to be relatively low to stop troop bases sliding off: a single-contour hull-down position is modelled as being 5 mm high, while proper hills vary from 1 to 2 cm high, depending on how many contours they have.

You can see such a hill here with the top contour picked out in a different shade of green so you know where it is.  Woods will be separate features added on top - I like the ones that Rhys knocked up last September for the games we played at his place, and will use something similar.  Now, critical to how well these boards will stand up to actual use will be how well the flock stays in place.  So I will next be spraying the whole board several times with dilute PVA to bond it all together, and finally with a matt varnish to seal it all in.  Hopefully it should be enough.

In hindsight, there are all sorts of other approaches that come to mind about how I could have got a decent enough effect without the hassle of flock... simply cutting up a painted felt cloth and sticking it to the mats, for example!  (The interlocking teeth part wouldn't have been so simple, but it would definitely have been less work than all the flocking I am going to have to do).

Friday, 1 November 2013

Tatra 815 trucks and tractors -

Recently I've been experimenting with using the Shapeways service - they will print out models for you in 3D, using various kinds of plastic.  You can either buy from people who have set up on-line "shops" with them, or upload a design yourself.  So I've been making up various models, using the free Google Sketchup software, and printing them out - since I now also have a "shop" there, anybody can order mu models from them, not just me (be aware that their postage charge is very steep if you are only ordering a few!).

Here are five different Tatra 815 variants that I have made in 1:300th scale (the bases are 30 mm square).  They have been printed out in the cheapest plastic that Shapeways offer, so the printed details are not as good as they could be - but I can't afford the more expensive plastics, because as a gamer I tend to need multiple examples of everything...

These 8 x 8 trucks entered full-scale production in 1983; the Czechoslovakian company Tatra has a history of innovative truck designs featuring a rigid tube skeleton with split axles for superlative off-road performance, making them idea for military duties.  The variant with the long cab (first two examples), the T-815 VT, is a dedicated artillery tractor.   The next two photos show the standard truck, a T-815 VVN, while the bottom example is a container carrier, the T-815 VPR.  Now hopefully, you will be able to click on the images to see expanded versions the pictures (although that will just reveal the sloppiness of the paint jobs as well as the lack of details "close up").  Fingers crossed for my first post with pictures...