Sunday, 23 January 2011

Wargaming at CANCON 2011

This weekend saw a major annual wargaming and games convention in Canberra called CANCON 2011. The event was organised by the Canberra Games Society Inc. in conjunction with the Australian Games Expo.

I have a slight interest in wargaming in terms of history, particularly the North Africa conflict during World War II. I also have a couple of books and magazines on military matters that I sometimes pull from the bookshelf for the odd read. I was therefore interested in seeing what this wargaming hobby looked like and whether there was anything that might be of interest to railway modellers.

So, on Saturday morning (yesterday) a friend and I drove to Exhibition Park to see what CANCON was all about. The first thing we noticed after we parked the car was that entry to CANCON was free. Now that was a nice surprise.

When we entered the pavilion we were amazed to see table upon table of wargaming activities. In addition, there were several commercial outlets selling everything from books and magazines, to military games and figures, scenic materials and paints. My friend was interested in the range of paints military modellers used while I was quick to spot a beginner's wargaming table where I settled down to watch the first battle of a WWII game. As it turned out, the wargame I was watching was indeed at the beginner level but was using a popular set of rules called Rapid Fire!. Whilst the scenery on the table was pretty spartan, the rules (seemingly) were incredibly complicated. I was assured that the rules were not as difficult as first imagined.

The thing about these tabletop wargames is the use of die and a tape measure. The rules tell you what capacity each piece of military equipment or personnel has to move and fire, distance per move, and what type of attack or defence is available. The die can tell you different things, depending on the game and the number of die used at each turn. But the die generally tell you things like intensity and whether or not you are successful with your action. The die also gives unpredictability to the game. The tape measure tells you how far something (a platoon or tank) can move and whether the distance between it and the target is within range. It still looked complicated no matter what wargaming table I watched.

Most of the wargaming tables were actually part of a pre-organised tournament. People had signed up to do battle at CANCON well before the event date. At CANCON, the tournament was a big part of the event. WWII wargames seemed the most prevalent, however, there were other period battles (including American Civil War, Mexican-American battles, Napoleonic conflicts, and more modern scenarios like Vietnam - using helicopters on stands). In addition, there were fantasy battles involving all manner of strange creatures, as well as the popular Warhammer figures and games.

Like railway modellers, the participants were intense and generally knowledgeable about their particular historical subject. The demographics and physicality of the people at CANCON was similar to that at a model railway exhibition, although I'd say that there were less females and less families at CANCON than one would see at a model railway exhibition.

Whilst the scenery on the wargaming tables was nowhere near as realistic as for model railways, the painted figures were absolutely amazing. Interestingly, the figures seemed exceptionally well painted for the scale (for example, 20mm or 28mm) but the tanks and buildings were not so well detailed. Mind you, if one was to go to a plastics model convention and see the work on 1:35 and 1:48 tanks and military models, you would see some examples of absolutely superb detail and amazing paintwork.

A feature of the hobby that was readily apparant was the strong sense of military history in the room. There was a plethora of books and DVDS (just like the model railway hobby and the historical nature of railways). However, more impressive than that was the knowledge these blokes had about military history. I wondered how many battles were played out on the tabletops and how many more (and intense) battles were part of the banter and challenges of the human interaction across the tabletops!

The Games Expo was in the neighbouring pavilion and had several commercial outlets selling all manner of board and card games. Having grown up with just playing cards, Monopoly, and Scrabble, I was astounded at the variety of games on sale. In the Games Expo hall were more tables for wargamers, as well as tables at which selected board games were being played.

Back in the first pavilion, I had a good look at the commercial stands. Like our model railway exhibitions, there was a good range of items serving the needs of the hobbyist/enthusiast/nut case! I decided that I should at least come home with some type of wargame so I purchased a boardgame based on North Africa during the Second World War. Funnily enough, yesterday (when I bought the game) was the 70th anniversary to the day of the Allies taking Tobruk!

My friend was equally impressed with the show, although his search for a particular brand of paint was unsuccessful. He was, however, filled with the buzz from the size of the event and from the people who were clearly very passionate about their hobby. I went back again late this afternoon for a quick final inspection, albeit CANCON is open tomorrow (24th January) as well.

As one wargamer said to me, "this hobby gives me the three things that most interests me: modelling, history, and strategy". That statement seemed perfectly reasonable to me and not too different from that of railway modellers.

World War II wargaming scenarios were popular, including these tabletop scenarios in Europe and North Africa.

The Allamo was a well set up game with some amazing figures.

Overall, I had a very good time at CANCON. Whilst I can't say that I have been converted to wargaming, I did at least enjoy the spectacular; the intensity of interest by the wargamers themselves; and an appreciation of another popular hobby.

But model railways remains the number one hobby for me, thank you very much!


  1. Wargamers require a depth of knowledge in order to compete, especially to develop tactics to try & reverse history, as it were.

    I also had/have a strong interest in WW2 & studied the stuff with many books etc, tried to get rid of some without much success though. One of the main areas of my interest was with the Luftwaffe, as for a modern air force with good staff had an idiot in charge & did not really have aircraft for any real offensive strategig war, yet good for their early lightning war tactics.

    I did a fair amount of research on the Battle of Britain, & like every historian, except Charlton Heston, saw the accidental first bombing of London then the RAF bombing of Berlin as turning points, with Hitler enraged, & changing the point of bombing from the RAF bases & aircraft factories to the cities.

    Some time ago, a computer game came out based on the battle of britain, & was a strategy type, based on similar board games.

    Armed with history you played the game on the daily basis or start at any point of the campaign. I tried two tactics, from the beginning with full aircraft & squadrons, but no matter what I did, I did not win, even by providing extra rotation fighter escorts for the stukas on the radar sites, I still lost the same amout of planes.

    I then tried to cut in after the first bombing of London & the bombing of Berlin, & kept attacking the airfields, leaving the cities alone. What I found was that despite losing less aircraft, it did not affect the RAF, as is got stronger, just as history showed, when the Luftwaffe left the factories alone, the aircraft construction lifted, less pilots were lost etc.

    But not in the game. It seemed that no matter what side you took, the end result was the same.

    The best part out of all of this & obseriving modellers in their particular field os desire, is that if they are serious about their hobby, they research it, thus books are an essential part of their hobby. The books can contain so many different aspects of what you are looking for thus they are vital.

    Listening to those who were there helps, we had many drivers who fought in WW2, & to hear their stories, was amazing but also grime, likewise the same with their experiences on the job, from firemen to Drivers, & none were knocked, not like today, when rubbish books with wrong information come out & because they are written by some known guru, its taken as truth. Likewise wrong subtitles/captions to photos can mislead as well.

    I never pass up a good book or DVD as they are essential for modelling. & what I misss most is one that depicts NSWGR goods wagons, in service prior to the 1958/57 Roller bearing bogie time. Victoria has three goods wagon books & we have none.

    Col Hussey

  2. Brad,
    well written report from an outsider to the hobby.
    Hope you're not considering changing hobbies.
    Would be interesting to post that report onto a gamer forum site as an outsiders review. Or send to the organisers

  3. Bob,

    Thanks, mate. I like the "operational" side of the wargaming hobby. It looks to me rather more complicated that railway modelling (or maybe I am getting too old or lazy to spend the time necessary to learn!).

  4. Hi, I was also at Cancon over the weekend, and I come more from the Wargaming point of view than the Railway modeller. Like a lot of others my age I had a trainset as a kid, but discovered wargaming while a university student, and basically made a number of friends that I kept up with. Five years ago, I dug out my old train set to show my kids, they weren't interested, but now it has taken over my garage. My boys were both there playing in the Warhammer 40K competition. Some of the forces in those comps were beautifully painted.

    I was always more interested in the Ancients and Mediaeval era than more modern stuff. That has changed over the years, but it is still fairly true. Though I did not enter anything.

    For the competitive side of the event terrain, is more than decoration, it can play a part of the game itself. ie the location of a river, hill or wood will effect where cavalry can go and which troops are placed where. Also that 1 stand of 5 figures on the table may represent a platoon or a legion. The rules vary in this scale, and with some the position of a base of figures may be critical (ie is something in range or not) So this means that the boundary of the wood will be more important than the location of the trees. What looks like a farmhouse may in fact be representing a small village.

    The consequence is that terrain may sometimes be designed for placing figures on, rather than appearance. As a result a hill with nice slopes may end up impractical and one with steps more practical. In the game a piece of felt with a few random trees on stands is easier than a nicely detailed wood with fixed trees.

    But as you pointed out the painting of the figurines is usually far better than I have ever seen on a train layout.

    For some of the games, terrain will be supplied by the player and others by the organiser. Again, asking someone to supply terrain and decoration for 80 tables in order to run a competition is bound to end up with a range of quality. The terrain items will have been designed for transport and random placement.

    I don't know if you noticed but some of the tables with the WW2 games included some HO train tracks as terrain. (The figures were in approx 1/100 scale, so they must have found an area of France with Broad Gauge, but as part of the overall effect on the game suited the prupose)