Darkest Days of WarWhat do you say about a book that you find pretty much perfect? This seems to be dilemma I am finding myself in right now, as I try to formulate some sort of coherent opinion about Peter Cozzens’ ‘The Darkest Days of the War’. The only thing that keeps popping up in my head is simply ‘This bloody thing is perfect!’.

Of course I realize that this is not a very helpful review and if I’d be hard-pressed to be more precise about the reason why this book made such an impression on me, I’d say ‘balance’. The author strikes absolutely perfect balance between overall picture and detail, between dry facts and personal experience, between commander’s perspective and the horror of combat experienced by individual soldier standing in the line of battle. Military history buffs interested in American Civil War are blessed by the fact that there is a multitude of historians that are also very talented writers, but Peter Cozzens is exceptional all in his own right.

There may be another reason why I cannot help but regard this book as absolutely superb. Just as most historical wargamers, I read a lot of military history literature. Most of the time I regard books in this genre simply as source of information and a learning tool. Very seldom do they manage to touch me on personal level. On this occasion however… there is something in the writing style of Cozzens that on several occasions filled me with immense sense of sorrow and sadness for the men who had to live through the horror of the events author describes. Military history writers often try to present the ‘human aspect’ of armed conflict, but in my case at least it is very seldom that their efforts manage to provoke a reaction. This book is for some unexplainable reason different and it definitely managed to leave a lasting emotional imprint on me.

What about the wargamer’s perspective then? Well, here I can be a bit more precise in my opinion and say… what a shocker… that it’s pretty much perfect and not for one, but for two specific reasons. First of all, the book deals with Iuka and Corinth battles of 1862, which also happen to be the subjects of many scenarios in Caliver Books’ ‘Heartland’ scenario books I’ve used for my games over last couple of years. ‘The Darkest Days of the War’ puts at least two of the scenarios I’ve played into historical content in best imaginable way! Furthermore, this book is a scenario trove all in its own right due to the fact that all three of the main engagements of the campaign are described in exceptional detail. Unit deployment is described all the way down to regimental (and sometimes skirmish screen) level, while the maps could be fetched from a wargaming magazine. The only thing missing is detailed information about manpower of individual regiments, although it can often be extrapolated from the narrative. Last but not least, the Iuka/Corinth campaign as a whole strikes me as extraordinarily suitable for a campaign game and this book provides all the necessary information and data needed for such exercise.

Overall, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in topic of American Civil War and doubly so to historical wargamers invested in this conflict.

August 19, 2017

Timecast latex rubber rivers

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Since this article is a ‘pure’ review of a commercial product, let’s start with the mandatory declaration of independence – I am in no way associated nor sponsored by Timecast Models. Thus, this review is an expression of my personal opinion as private consumer and wargamer.

Allright, with these rather official preliminaries completed, let’s get on with it.

Couple of years ago I’ve decided to ‘migrate’ my terrain from GHQ-s styrofoam hexagons to ‘conventional’ DIY terrain boards. Major reason for this move was my wish to simplify the setup and keep as much of it (hills, woods, rivers, ditches, hedhes and so on) as removable, flexible stand-alone pieces.

At the same time, Timecast Models released their roads and rivers system, made out of silicone rubber. That in itself wasn’t anything spectacular, many companies make similar terrain pieces. But two things caught my attention in regard of this particular product range. First, Timecast Models made rivers came in four different widths that could be connected together with dedicated ‘connector’ bits into integrated waterway system. Second, Timecast complemented their product with variety of resin bridges and fords. In other words, their product line struck me immediately as a complete and expandable solution for waterways. And that, ladies and gents, isn’t something one can often say when it comes to wargaming terrain.

My first (and so far only) order included enough straight and meandering river sections of smallest width to provide continous river of about 2 meters. I’ve also ordered all available sets of fords, connecting bits and river bends. Samples of what came in the box are shown below.

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As can be seen in the pictures, the rivers and fords are made of brown, flexible rubber-like material. You can easily cut and trim individual pieces with a pair of scissors.

Before painting and flocking, I washed the whole lot in lukewarm water with some dishwasher detergent. Every bit was gently scrubbed with a toothbrush, rinsed in cold water and left to dry. It was probably a bit of an overkill, but better be overly cautious than running into problems later on with some chemical residues left-over from mouldning process messing with the paint.

On with the painting then… I kept things extremly simple here and started with painting the riverbanks with dark-brown acrylic wall paint from Flügger. Water surface was painted with dark-blue acrylic artist’s paint from Amsterdam. I know, I know, not very realistic, but I like my rivers and ponds blue. Next, I tried to add some shine to the water surface with help of blank acrylic varnish, but I can’t say this step had a lot of effect. Finally, I’ve stuck some flock on top of river banks with thinned PVA glue. And that was that.

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Couple of comments about painting process. First and foremost – the paint seems to stick to the rubber material used for these terrain pieces… and stays there! This is more than I can say about my silicon roads from Total Battle Miniatures. Yes, you can peel it of if you scratch it forcefully with fingernail or something sharp, but the paint doesn’t peel of on its own if you bend the ‘bands’. That’s a good thing. Second, the flock I’ve glued on with the PVA will probably rub off with time. But that’s no biggie, I’ll just reflock if I feel it’s necessary. Finally, I feel it’s a good ocassion to repeat the advice I keep hammering on this blog – if you value your money, do not use modelling paints for your terrain pieces. Vallejo, Army Painter, Games Workshop, it doesn’t matter which brand you use, their pricing is insane and wasting their product on terrain pieces will cost you a pretty penny. For large terrain pieces, use artist’s paints that come in huge tubes, or better yet, take a trip to your DIY market and find their paint section. They usually sell half litre sample jars that will last you forever, for price of two GW paint pots and carry color ranges that will make all modelling paint ‘systems’ look puny.

Oh yes, one last thing. I’ve included couple of resin bridges that were suitable for those rivers. I still haven’t painted them, but I think it’s only fair to included couple of snapshots of how they fit together with the rest of  the ‘system’.

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Overall, my initial impression of Timecast’s river system is very positive. They’re made of what seems to be durable, flexible material. Acrylic paint and varnish sticks well on them and they look the part once painted. Addition of dedicated bridges and possibility to integrate different river widths into single ‘system’ is in my opinion a stroke of genius and was the factor that convinced me to go with this product. So, for the moment at least, I can’t but enthusiastically recommend it to anyone in need of simple but effective representation of rivers on wargaming table.

Took me just two months, but they’re now done. Final impression after putting some paints on them? Neeeaaah… my initial impression hadn’t changed that much – they are cheap and they are adequately detailed for a wargaming table. It should be enough and yet, somehow, it isn’t.

Oh well! Judge for yourself, what do you think?

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July 18, 2017

Hedge test piece

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Once again, going where everyone has been before. After watching a couple of tutorials on Youtube, I’ve ordered couple of packs of coconut fibre. Here in Sweden the easiest way (actually the only way, it would seem) to get hold of them is in small packs intended for nest bedding for birds and critters.

OK, you wonder, why should I care? Well, as it turns out, coconut fibre works pretty well as base for hedges of different sizes. And hedges, or to be more specific, boccage hedges is something I will need meters and meters of for my future Chain of Command campaigns.

For this first trial, I just wanted to see how hard it would be to work with the stuff. As it turns out, not hard at all. First, I took a wide lollipop (3cm wide) stick and sawed of the rounded edges. I didn’t bother with painting or flocking it, as it was quick and dirty proof of concept piece. Next, I pinched off a handful of coconut fibre and glued it onto the stick with hot glue. A bit of trimming was necessary to give the lump of fibre appropriately ‘hedgy’ look. Finally, I blasted the thing with spray adheseve and sprinkled the thing with Classic Flock from Noch. Couple of minutes later I repeated the last step, just to give the hedge a bit more ‘bushy’ appearance.

And that’s it, this is the result of this first trial, which by the way took all of 7-8 minutes.

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June 24, 2017

Proving the theory

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And so, finally, the day of the first outing for my newly painted Saxons have arrived.

With H.’s offensive on kingdom of Rhegis having slowed down to snail pace, L. decided to see if his tribe wouldn’t have better luck a bit further south, in kingdom of Caer Gynntguic. With his bunch being freshly painted and this being his outing with Dux Britaniarum rules, I decided to keep things simple and let him lead a basic raid on a village. The Saxon goal in this scenario is quite simple – run into individual the village, search the houses, find the loot on a roll of a six, grab the loot, run back home. Oh yes… try not to get killed in the process, but that’s optional. For Britons the objective is also pretty straightforward – kill’em all.

The plans

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L.’s entry point in this scenario was from the far edge of the table. He was lucky enough to get three rounds of movement before my troops arrived on the table, unlucky to find out once I got there, I had all of my troops with me. This fact must have influenced his thinking, as only one group of warriors and a leader was sent into the village in search of the ‘treasure’, potentially slowing down his ‘search for treasure’ rate. Remainder of his raiding party – two units of hearthguard, two units of warriors and the bowmen – set course straight for my guys.

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Just a couple of rounds into the game, the lines were drawn in the sand, traditional greetings in form of insults about relatives and personal hygene were exchanged… and a bit of a crisis materialized for my Britons. As can be seen in the picture, I was a bit too eager to get into contact with L.s hearthguard and exposed my flank to his other group of warriors. L. didn’t fail to notice my predicament and did actually try to smash into my exposed flank, but his dice roll for movement turned out to be inadequate for the task. His failure with the movement dice roll allowed me to bring up my peasant levies, grouped in a single large formation. By pure luck, I managed to avoid a potential disaster.

A quick clarification is necessary at this point – as it turns out, I had a truely crappy ‘photo day’ during this game and vast majority of pictures taken during the game have turned out to be unuseable. Because of that fact, the most vital part of this game has to be narrated without any visual aids.

Basically, what happened was this – L., tempted by a good set of Fate cards, smashed his hearthguard into the shieldwall in front of them. He ignored my commanipulares on the left flank and focused his effort on my warriors in center and the right. It was a pretty even and prolonged fight in which L. managed to break my warrior group on the right flank. In the end though, the Shock points mounted up for him and his front rank broke rank and fled. Remainder of his hearthguard gave it one more try, but it wasn’t enough. Once his chief was wounded, they followed the example of their comrades and withdrew in orderly fashion.

His two units of warriors engaged my other shieldwall, consisting entirely of peasant levies. Surprisingly, here the fight was rather onesided – both sides suffered some casualties, but the Shock caused the Saxons to break contact almost instantly after first clash of arms.

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The picture above shows the situation after these dramatic events. L., unwilling to give up, charged the British warrior group that broke rank in fight with his hearthguard with what remained of his own warriors and actually managed to put them to flight. This success exposed them however to an assault by my peasants, who managed to maul them rather badly.

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Meanwhile, L’s raiders in the village searched freneticaly for anything worth bringing back home. House after house was ransacked, but nothing even remotely shiney could be found.

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With his hearthguard catching a breath at safe distance from what remained of my ‘main’ shieldwall and his search in the village turning up nothing of value, L. made a rather surprising decision to make one final attempt to break my levies. With just four warriors, he smashed in the middle of their shieldwall and actually managed to split it in two. This was however the high watermark of his effort – what remained of my peasants turned onto his warriors like mad dogs, or, at least they did so in my imagination. To be truthfull though, they didn’t manage to do much damage. They did however manage to convince L. about general unhealthiness of his current situation. His Saxons came to sensible conclusion it was best to break contact.

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At this time the game was at a rather peculiar stage. Both L. and I did loose a formation of warriors. L’s hearthguard had a shedload of Shock points to deal with, but was otherwise still combat-worthy (one of his groups lost three men, the other was untouched). L. also had one completely fresh Warrior group in the village. From my perspective, the situation wasn’t that rosy neither. My peasant levy was still alive, but pretty much in shambles. My commanipulares didn’t suffer any casualties, but they were now supported only by a single group of four warriors; these guys would not stand for long if L. decided to attack. In other words, this fight was far from over!

But… as so often is the case in our hobby, real life clock and exhaustion took over. We’ve been at it for almost five hours and L. made the sensible decision to call it a day despite the fact that he didn’t manage to find anything of value in the village.

Musings after the battle

Let’s start with the obvious – the Saxons, newly painted as they were, never really had a chance in this game. The old wargaming truism has been proven yet again! Smile

If I am to be serious though, this game of ours was quite fascinating for me for two reasons. First of all, it was rather entertaining to see how different playing styles of H. and L. shaped the course of the game in very different ways. With H., I can usually assume that the Saxons will act cautiously and, for the lack of better word, rationally. L. explained to me later that he wanted to explore the ruleset and therefore acted consciously much more aggresively, seaching for a fight wherever it could be found. Thus, he took risks I’ve never experienced in my games with H. It has to be said that these risks did pay dividents, most important of them being the fact that he managed to split my levy shield wall with just four warriors accompanied by a leader.

Which brings me to the second reason this game was also a valuable learning experience. In Dux Britaniarum, a formation can be created by groups of warriors being formed either side by side or in two ranks, one behind the other. If a formation consists of two groups, they can be formed like this:

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The difference between these two setups is that side by side groups always take equal shares of potential hits, while in ‘one rank behind the other’ setup the front rank absorbs all hits until their number dwindles to less than half of their comrades in rear rank. Then they shift place.

In our game, I played with groups side by side, L. set up his formations in two ranks. This was new experience, because H. usually preferred same setup as I did.

Why do I mention this? Well, for the first time, I had the opportunity to see the real differences in these two formation variants and they do add some surprising complexity to the ruleset. The advantage of the ‘side by side’ formations is that all involved groups support each other by division of possible hits. But this also means that all groups accumulate the Shock points, not necessarily at equal rate. It seems that one of the groups will always be ‘unlucky’ and accumulate more shock points than everybody else. In the end this will result in their rout, which in turn will split the formation into smaller components.

‘Two ranks’ formation seems to have their own set of pros and cons. As only the front rank absorbs all the hits, their comrades at the back are ‘protected’, at least at the beginning of an engagement. But the almost ‘manipular’ possibility to switch positions once casualties start to mount up seems to me rather unlikely – rather, the front rank wil suffer casualties and shock points and at critical point they just as likely break instantly, leaving their buddies to face the opponent all on their own. This is what happened in case of L’s hearthguard’s attack – his front rank took all shock points and by the time they lost half of their numbers, it was too much for them and they run away.

My point with this rather too long ‘analysis’ is that there are hidden depths in this deceptively simple set of alternatives for formation setup and I’m not sure how to deal with them. Further games seem to be necessary to explore this topic further! Smile

There is this old wargaming saying that claims that there is no better motivation for painting more minis than actually playing games. There may be something to this, because after recent test run of Chain of Command which disclosed how limited my collection of minis really was, I decided to do something about it.

And so, after yet another archeological excavation in my basement, I found what I was looking for – 1/72 sets of German and US infantry from Plastic Soldier Company. For those unfamiliar with this company, it’s been around for a better part of a decade by now. Their goal is simple – to provide affordable hard plastic figures and vehicle models in 15, 20 and (I believe) 28mm scale, mostly for WWII.

First off, as I am in urgent need of getting some .30 cal Brownings on the table, I decided to get cracking with the US Heavy Weapons set. Just to clarify yet again, I use 20mm or 1/72minis, so review is of the box in that scale. The box contains three identical sprues. Each sprue has following contents:

  • 19 miniatures, all of which are sculpted as crew personel for weapons listed below.
  • M1917 water-cooled MMG on a tripode, crew in sitting stance
  • M1919 aircooled MMG on a tripode, crew lying down
  • M2 HMG (aka 50cal or ‘Big Deuce’) on a tripode, crew in sitting stance
  • 60mm mortar
  • 81mm mortar
  • 4.2’’ chemical mortar
  • Bazooka

As I hope can be seen in picture of the sprue, some cleanup, assembly and gluing, both of weapons and figures, is required. For gluing I recommend the glues intended for plastic model kits, such as Revell’s Contacta glue or Tamiya’s Extra Fluid Cement. Superglue will also work, but personally I prefer the kind of glue that melts and fuses plastic together.

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The assembly of minis isn’t complicated, but it does takes a bit of time – this single sprue required about two hours of my time. If you don’t bother with scraping and filing away all tiny mould lines (which are not much of a problem, really), you could probably cut away an hour or so from preparation time.

It has to be said that these little suckers weren’t the easiest ‘build’ I’ve ever worked with. The parts are a tad fiddly and I managed to snap off one leg of the .50 cal tripod, but that’s not really much of an issue. What gave me most problems were the minis with arms separate from the torso – .50 cal gunner, M1917 gunner and the guys with binoculars. The .50 cal gunner is especially tricky, as his arms are fused to the machine gun. If you don’t attach these arms ‘just so’, the entire gun ends up floating in the air. In the end, I had to use some filler for the joints between the arms and torso on a couple of figures and I’m still not 100 percent happy with the result.

Perhaps I make it all sound too dramatic – the minis go together pretty well and I’m sure that with a bit of practice things will move along for you without any hickups. And once you’re done with a sprue, here’s what you get…

The good

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The bazooka team and both medium machine guns are pretty nifty figures. The .30 cal is slightly overdimensioned and bazooka’s details aren’t 100 percent historically accurate, but I don’t think anyone but a true button-counter will have any problems with deploying those minis on the table.

The bad

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With this group, I unfortunately have some issues. Let’s start with the ‘elephant in the room’, and I do mean it quite literally. Seriously, who the heck sculpted this M2? While it is instantly recognizable as what it’s supposed to be representing, it is simply huge. Its length is 3,2 cm, i.e. about 230cm in 1:1 scale. The real thing is about 165cm long. So the overdimensioning in this case is very hard to ignore.

Next the 60mm and 81mm mortars. Both are sensible additions to this set, but… once again, the 60mm tube is grossly oversized, so much so that at one meter’s distance it is really quite hard to distinguish it from its bigger brethren. The real M2 60mm mortar was a tiny thing (relatively speaking), with a barrel just a bit over 72cm long. M1 81mm mortar’s tube was 119cm long. Sadly, this difference in size and heft of the two mortar types is unfortunately hard to observe in this set.

The questionable

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Finally, we arrive to my ‘huh’ moment. Opinions may of course differ, but to me the addition of this heavy piece of equipment in a 1/72 scale set is a bit of a mystery. 20mm minis are most often used in skirmish games. On the other hand, 4.2 inch mortars were deployed as battalion level assets and had minimum range of over 500 meters – not likely the equipment you’d encouncer at the edge of front line. Addition of some troops with sachel charges, bangalore tubes or flamethrowes would in my opinion be much more useful. But here it is, in three ‘copies’.

Luckily, the minis that follow with it are generic sculpts and will certainly come in handy as artillery crews for all kinds of equipment.

Conclusion

In the somewhat underrated WWII movie ‘The Monuments Men’, there is this scene where Matt Damon steps on a German anti-personel mine. He hears the click and freezes. Then Clooney comes along and wonders what happen. Damon tells him and Clooney asks ‘Why did you do something like that?’. Personally, after putting together these figures, my reaction is a bit like that of George Clooney in that movie. The guys running Plastic Soldier Company know their stuff and they certainly know what a whiney bunch we wargamers can be. So why would they decide to give us an .50 Browning looking like a bolt gun from Space Marines set and a 60mm mortar on steroids? Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe it’s something about the design process (I think PCS designs in CAD and then scales minis accordingly), maybe it was a concious decision to make the pieces less prone to breakage. I can only speculate, but regardless… overall, I can’t help but think that this set is a bit of a missed opportunity.

Having said that, I must allow my sensible side to have it’s say – despite my criticism, I claim that this box it is most definitely a good purchase. The crew minis look good and you get 47 figures for peanuts when compared with prices of metal figures. And if you’re after a cheap, quick way to flesh out out your U.S. infantry force, I doubt that you’ll find better ‘value for money’ option that this set. I won’t lie to you, in due time I will maybe be replacing these 60mm mortars and .50 cal HMG’s with figures from AB Miniatures (with gritted teeth over their abhorent prices, I may add), but for now I will happily be fielding these minis in my Chain of Command games.

May 26, 2017

When Wargamer’s Magpie Syndrome pays off

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Let’s face it, we all suffer from it to some degree – new period catches our interest, a new range of minis is released, a book or a movie gives us ideas for a cool scenario or campaign. When this happens, small parcels start being delivered by postal service to our doors. I’m sure that vast majority of wargamers is far more disciplined than I am and manages to put contents of those parcels onto wargaming table within a couple of weeks… In my case though, these newly acquired ‘treasures’ are as often as not inspected, admired, put in some box and then doomed to linger, half-forgotten, in my basement storage room. Sometimes for years, sometimes for decades.

Every once in a while though, a small miracle happens and my interest in the period or theme awakens again. As for example, with the WWII skirmish due to ‘Chain of Command’ ruleset. As I started to seriously consider putting together last week’s test scenario, I realized that I really didn’t have much terrain suitable for such game. And then I remembered… sometime in late ninties I’ve bought a shedload of bits and pieces from Gamecraft Miniatures. It took some effort, but after a small archeological excavation I’ve managed to dig up a bag of resin walls and stones. I am pretty sure that a dozen or so resin buildings are hiding somewhere, so the search is not yet complete!

Anyway… getting these walls and stone formations ready for a game seemed like a plausible goal over a period of two weeks I had for preparation of the game. In ‘raw’ form, the terrain pieces are made of off-white resin. So the first step was to wash them in luke-warm water with some detergent. An old-fashioned toothbrush is quite useful for this task.

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While the resin lumps were put aside to dry, I started to wonder how to approach this particular painting job. Normally, I start with a coat of Vallejo (or these days Plasticoat) grey primer and then get to work with acrylics. But in this case we’re were talking about stone. In nature, both stone walls and outcrops have a lot of subtle tonal variation, but in a limited color range. Browns or greys shift in saturation due to varied exposure to elements – to get a realistic effect, I would have to do a lot of blending and washes. And I have to admit, after all these years blending with acrylics is still a challenge for me. And so, I arrived to a somewhat surprising decision – this time around I would go ‘old school’ and dust off my old Humbrol enamel pots!

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Enamels may be an unfamiliar medium for ‘younger’ wargamers, but they were pretty much all we had before acrylic ‘revolution’ of early ninties. They are not water-solvable and need either white spirits or terpentine to thin (and wash the brushes). They stink (especially some of the older Humbrols can make your nose hair curl in panic as soon as the lid is off) and they take forever to dry. So when acrylics arrived on the scene, enamels didn’t stand a chance. But… this last drawback – long drying time (and I speak about several hours) is under certain circumstances a blessing in disguise. It allows for blending and lifting off techniques (that’s what I call painting and then ‘taking off’ paint from painted surface) that one only can dream of with acrylics.

I started the painting process with an uniform coat of Humbrol 98 for the stone formations and Humbrol 118 for the stone walls. Once this was done, I let the pieces dry over night.

For stone formations I next proceeded with building up several thin layers of 72 and 187 mixed in different ratios. Darker shades were applied all over the stones. I did however try to let the dark base color to get through here and there. That’s where ability to pick off the paint with the brush was very useful. As I successively lightened my mix, I blended it with underlying layers in the areas that would be exposed to sunlight and elements. For final highlights I added some light grey Humbrol 64. Addition of light neutral grey desaturated the mix. It was added to the sharp edges and surfaces that were visibly raised. Normally this step would be done with drybrushing technique. However, since enamels don’t dry in a blink of an eye, I had plenty of time to do proper blending.

I did however switch over to drybrushing once I started working on the walls. Blending of individual stones would simply take too much time. So a heavy drybrush of Humbrol 26 was applied to the raised stone areas with a flat brush, followed by lighter passes of Humbrol 187 and 72 in irregular patterns.

Next, I returned back to the stone formations. I dilutted heavily the dark brown Humbrol 98 with white spirits and used it as a wash, applying it to lower parts and around crevices of stone formation. Once done, I left everything to dry over night.

Last painting step consisted of a wash with Vallejo’s acrylic washes, which I applied on the walls in an attempt to bring out the detail of the walls. I mixed together Black and Oily Earth and applied it all over the walls. Not entirely happy with how this step turned out, but it did add a bit of variation in color tonality.

Once everything was dry, I flocked the terrain bits with turf and foam clumps from Noch/Woodland Scenics.

Overall, I am not entirely happy with how the walls turned out – the reddish tone of Humbrol 118 that I used as base color looks a bit unnatural to me. But from a couple of meters away the walls look perfectly serviceable. On the other hand I am totally delighted over the visual effect of stone formations. The stones have subtle but clearly visible shifts in color, which is exactly what I was after and the dark brown wash that was added in spur of the moment did a lot for creation of ‘natural’ look.

It was a very happy return to an old medium of enamels, which I’ve neglected almost completely over last two decades. For the future, I will have to remember about their special characteristics and positive properties.

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