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Tuesday 11 July 2023

'Old School' , 'Retro' and 'Modern' .

 So which is which and why?- and do we really care?

 First question. Is there really any difference between the three.?

 Honestly no not really, but well, yes sort of possibly.

 First, speaking personally, I simply prefer the term 'retro'  for a certain style of wargaming to the term 'old school' because for me 'old school' has certain connotations. First I hated the bloody place and was glad when - many years later- I found out that some bright fella had run a bull dozer through it immediately making that part of Greater Manchester a better place. Secondly because a chap once told me that 'old school'  wargaming remined him too much of cardigans, Ralgex and Werthers originals. I won't say he was wrong. 

 Definitely both 'old school' and 'retro'. ECW guns one part of Peter Gilders collection. They were called 25mm when they were made

So, for me the two terms 'old school' and 'retro' wargaming are rather similar though it depends - as always- on your individual view.

 Now I began wargaming at the aforementioned Grammar School in 1970 which was a while back and definitely 'old school' by today's standards. Armies were mostly Airfix with a few very precious Les Higgins, then a little later Hinchliffe. Rules were Featherstone or Wise, then London Wargames section Napoleonics. or awful home written concoctions. I recall writing rules  for the Indian Mutiny. They must have been awful since we had bugger all knowledge about how mid 19th century battles were conducted and not much more knowledge about how the armies were organised. or looked.(So a bit like some modern 'game designers' then!) 

Modern Old Glory 28mm Napoleonic painted by James Main for a client who wanted them in a 'retro' style. 

 By 1974 or thereabouts I had joined the Manchester  Area Wargames Society whose members were actually adults and owned wholly metal armies. Rules were still often homegrown but WRG had made its appearance and compared to the school club stuff was complicated but there were more periods- I saw my first ECW game at one of the meetings. 

 Once I moved up to the North-East, despite a brief dalliance with the rules published by Derek Sharman- which used a 'spinner'  rather than dice for the 'random factor' then for the next few years it was mostly WRG all the way Ancients and Pike and Shot. 

 Old Glory 28mm AWI 'Modern' style? 

All of this is in many eyes 'old school' - but when you try to find out what MAKES it 'old school'  the answers all  differ depending upon the age of and time in the hobby of, the person being asked. Often 'old school' seems to mean' what happened before I joined in'  or 'different from what I do now '  or even 'not as much fun cos you had to know stuff '. 'old school 'perhaps but it is 'retro' ?

Indian Mutiny - mutineers Old Glory 28mm organised for Young and Lawford's 'Charge - or How to play Wargames' a 1960s rule set which I still find useful for smaller battles. 

For myself I tend to use the term 'retro' more for the look of the table and the  figure collection than for any other reason. Yes rules come into it somewhat but I can set up a retro looking game and use 'modern' rules- though I'm not sure why I would do this as many 'modern' rules are overly wordy- sometimes close to 'barkerese' that I can't be bothered to  spend the time puzzling them out or sorting out the useful bits in the overly pretty eye candy filled book. No always true but of modern style rules I have bought in the last 3 or 4 years only 'In Deo Veritas'  for large Pike and Shot battles in smaller scales  has made sense in less than  4 or 5 readings- but I don't really want to go into 10mm- though I will keep bending Jim's ear in that direction ! (He already has a bundle of 10mm SYW) 

Some of my deliberately 'retro' 30mm collection with  some of the plastic trees.

Mind you I HATE reading rules. The often arcane language is very off putting 'roll 97 22 sided dice in  alternate non -sequence while standing on one leg with a haddock in the left hand - then mark down one or possibly 2 casualty points but no more, then roll the 18 sided dice 13 times to decide your first unit's movement'  - yes I exaggerate rather more than somewhat-  but many modern rules do seem very dice heavy, seemingly replacing thought and decision making by dice rolling. If I wanted to plat a dice based game I'd play snakes and ladders. 

Ok , after that digression, back to the plot. The easiest way to spot what might be a retro game is the look- gloss varnish on the models is a good start and then possibly the make of models-  Minifigs possibly or Garrison or Hinchliffe or  Stadden or Hinton Hunt or Les Higgins or Lamming  or possibly even more obscure makes such as Corvus or  Vulcan.  

It is also not difficult to mix the styles. My Indian Mutiny collection  are all modern figures painted in a 'modern' style with matt varnishing are singly based and will be used for a 'Charge! variant- said rules by Young and Lawford being definitely 'old schll'  since they were published for the first time in the late 1960s but I can also use them for such modern sets as 'The Men Who would be Kings'  assuming I can get those rules to fit the Mutiny without destroying any period feel.

Does the owner of said, old lead dudes refer to them as 25mm rather than the  'cool' 28mm which is so old it dates from as long ago as the the mid 1990s. For the record two of my own retro projects are in 30mm - just to confuse the issue..

 I've also been told that 'old school' rules are more complicated 'all those tables and stuff' or indeed that they are very simple- by which they usually mean over simple really, once again old school seems to mean 'what I don't want' or even 'what I like' depending upon who you speak to.

 One thing might be close to a constant 'old school' types are often more likely to question the rules and bin them if their own knowledge tells them said rules are garbage. On that score I am definitely 'old school' . Slavish obedience to 'da rools '  at the expense of the history is for fantasy dudes and games slaves, not open minds. Mind you there was a lot of that kind of stuff back in the day so maybe that is old school too! 

Now my collection of plastic trees are definitely old school- they take pride of place in my retro games and sometimes turn up in the 'modern' style too. For a start they don't scatter flock everywhere like the bog brush trees you often see. But I'm glad I bought most of them in the 1970s as they tend to work out at around 20 quid each for the larger specimens on ebay these days. 

It also seems that in ye olden days- depending on how far back that actually is- units were often larger- see Grants 5 officers and 48 man infantry units wheras today a 24 figure unit is not infrequently touted as 'standard'  but then so is '4 bases'  in rules where the models are often no more than counter decoration- but then even that is in some eyes 'old school' - Phil Barker opined almost exactly that is several of his rule sets back in the 1970s.

 So my point really is- beyond the look of the thing- is there really any such thing as 'old school' or is it really merely 'doing it my way' rather than merely being a consumer of the latest gaming fad. 

For myself I will always prefer 'historical period' to 'gaming fad'.

 So even the way I buy into any new (for me) period might be 'old school'  it usually goes ' That's interesting'- himm what models are available- how do I want to present them on the table?-  ok what rules can I use?- Which ones are any good, and will I lose the will to live trying to read the bloody things (reading rules can kill my interest in a period faster than any other single thing). Rule are always at the bottom of the thought chain I have often bought and even painted the armies before I have thought about rules.

I suppose that  makes me old school' then ... or does it?



  1. Excellent post! And I completely agree, maybe except where my views might differ a bit.

  2. Unfortunately, "Old School Wargaming" was applied to the "fad" that swept the bloggorsphere for "Imagi-Nations" or "Imaginations" . Like most fads it seems to have run its course. At its height some people endlessly debated whether such and such was "old school" or if these rules were OSW or "middle school" or other nonsense.
    The fad had people create Imagi-Nation blogs that spent endless time in creating back stories without any actual gaming....
    They litter the internet like derelict houses built on a cliff edge!
    This may sound odd coming from someone who has a blog which charts his painting of elderly Spencer Smith 30mm figures in imaginary uniforms......
    In my defence, I started doing it way before the fad out of pure nostalgia.
    I was a great admirer of Charles Grant's books, especially "The Wargame" which lead to that other OSW staple, "Charge". That said, I had no desire to use their rules or unit sizes.....
    My obsession stems from wanting to create imaginary armies for the old GDW boardgame "Soldier King" set in an imaginary C18th world /continent. I decided to scratch the itch by using Spencer Smith plastics, but couldn't face 48 figure units. Another GDW product came to my rescue - Volley and Bayonet. If Frank Chadwick can use 54mm.....
    Once decided, the other bits fell into place, such as plain green bases and cloth, Merit and Britains trees, Schreiber card buildings.....
    My nostalgia project continues with a view to a campaign. Interestingly, although all the OSW blogs concentrated on elaborate back stories, both Grant and Young appear to have been quite sketchy on this aspect. For that you should go to Tony Bath - always a fan of his Hyboria reports.

    1. I deliberately ignored the Imagi-Nations fad thing- Featherstone did it as well but called them 'mythical countries' a term I prefer. Personally I draw the line at fictional uniforms and never liked the Spencer Smith plastics- though I did get involved in a campaign using Soldier King back in the 1980s I think.
      I like Charge! for certain types of game- see the 'Shinyloo' posts here and an amended version may well be used for the Indian Mutiny and I like large units but I also played a lot of V and B in the 1990s- In Deo Veritas- acknowledges his debt to that set but I played V and B in 15mm and IDV will be done in 10mm though not by me. 'old School' is not one thing or one way and I recall some of those silly arguments which is why I wrote the above with its conclusion. As for campaigns yes I have most of the Hyboria reports.... someday Dudes will be nostalgic for tomorrow box of plastics .
      One thing you learn as you get older
      Nostalgia ain't what it used to be'

    2. TBH I think a lot of the OSW "movement" was misplaced nostalgia for a time in wargames that never really existed.....
      Not many of the new OSWers embraced converting every figure and home casting!

    3. See your point- my early years in the hobby included considerable loss of blood as I converted US cavalry into Bengal Lancers !

  3. Interesting post and some lovely photos to accompany it! I tend to think of myself as a wargamer and don't get too hung up on am I "old school" or not. I have Hinchliffe SYW that I mix with Crann Tara and Minden and like older rules but like some modern ones too! I quite like the imagi-nation idea but more from a painting and gaming side rather than making up a whole encyclopedia of a back story. As I said an interesting post that has me thinking, but not too deeply!!

    1. Deep thought not always needed Donnie. Like you I mix makers in most of my assorted collections and use rules of different ages in different periods depending on what I am trying to do at the time.

  4. Somehow I'm never comfortable with rules that don't use inches or anything other than D6. And my figures are all glossy and on untextured bases.
    "Old school" or just getting old?

    1. I also prefer inches rather than silly measuring sticks- which in themselves are far from new. I have both gloss and matt collections- depending on the look I want. I was texturing bases before the end of the 1970s in imitation of Peter Gilder and others of that era so is that 'old school' ?

  5. Indeed, my figures from the seventies were also an attempt to imitate Gilder.

  6. Old school to me evokes the smell of banana oil, lead bubbling away for drop casting and rules printed on the old Bandar machine still smelling of alcohol! Glad you used Haddock in your reference not ruddy Cod! It offends us Grimbarians.! Nice piece of work Andy.

    1. Never did drop casting until after I had a spin casting machine !(Yes I know but these were master castings- didn't like it one bit). but banana oil and those Bandex copiers I remember well as for Haddock- always preferred it to Cod.