King Stépan IV's pleasure dome at Kragoneidin, on the shores of Lake Polishov

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Bordurians Sighted!

While Syldavians sleep deeply after their Christmas feast, dreaming of their just-eaten roast goose and sugarplums, a patrol of Bordurian cavalry probes Syldavia's mountainous eastern frontier.  These men and their horses are hard indeed, inured to the privation of the trail and to the snow. They ride through the frontier town of Vukaselo, making off with horses, lambs and plum brandy with barely a noise, and disappear into the mountains.   Later, an aged veteran swears that the men were Wallachian light cavalry, feared servants of the Bordurians.   What does this forebode?


These are unfinished figures which I have been painting in quiet moments here and there during the holidays.  They are 18mm Eureka SYW cossacks, painted to resemble a few illustrations I have of 17th and 18th century Wallachian boyar cavalry, sometime allies/subjects of the Ottomans.   They will, I hope, be finished shortly and then can march to join the rest of my Bordurian force.   The unfortunate village is of course a quite innocent Christmas town, one which has seen quite a few holidays but never a hostile cavalry patrol.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all of you from the King of Syldavia and all of his subjects!  Best wishes to you and yours for a happy and productive New Year as well!   Please ignore the "humbugs" coming from the Despot of Borduria!


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Holiday Properties 1

We are now well embarked on the holidays over here in the Kingdom of Syldavia. I am back in my hometown visiting my family with my own young little family with me, and I am anticipating a fine stretch of days with nothing more important to do than read, eat very well, enjoy family time, visit old friends and indulge in a few other pleasures like pints of stout, skiing, skating on the lake and soaking in the hot springs. Busy busy busy! Clearly it is good to be home.

The goal of this post is to do a do a little tour of a recent terrain project. I have been on a bit of a terrain binge in recent weeks, including the purchase and painting of some commercial models from JR Miniatures 15mm European range, the conversion of one of these models and the construction of a couple of scratch-built buildings. All of this effort comes from a decision to improve my townscapes and rural landscapes for my Syldavia/SYW project. The impulse for this upgrade comes from a trip to Paris I made on business last August, where I stole the time to revisit Les Invalides and the Musée des plans-reliefs, the astonishing collection of 18th century dioramas of important fortifications and fortified towns. It is an amazing and underappreciated collection; the dioramas were commissioned by Louis XIV and later kings and studied by the likes of Vauban and Napoleon. The collection has been subdivided since I first saw it in 1980, but the half still on exhibit in Paris (consisting of models pertinent to southern France and the Atlantic Coast, the rest are now in Lille) has been expertly restored and is now beautifully housed and light to great advantage. The skill of the original craftsmen who worked on these models is to be seen to be believed and it is both inspiring and humbling to see what they accomplished with hand tools and excellent but unprocessed raw materials (for example, raw silk was dyed, chopped and sorted to make foliage). My first visit spurred me to attempt my first terrain boards, buildings and fortifications, to actually attempt paint my Airfix HO scale Napoleonics and to play a wargame with actual rules (Voltigeur, if I recall). One could say that it put me on the path to wargames before I knew such a thing existed and well before I knew anyone who undertook this hobby. So, it should come as no surprise that my second visit sparked a new attempt to reproduce the AHH! effect I had in the museum. A noble quest though utterly vain of course! I’m still well off the mark but I’m pleased enough with some of what I have done recently and have learned how I might do some things better.

Chateau Trompette, Bordeaux

Fortification at Marseilles, I ve lost track of its name. 
The gallery was dramatically light, but too dimly so for my little camera 

Anyhow, on to the Syldavia project. Syldavian architecture as depicted in Hergé’s book consists largely of fairly humble structures (excepting the King’s medieval/Romanesque castle and Baroque palace) with raw or plastered masonry and clay tile roofs. Many buildings seem to be artifacts of the Middle Ages or at least could pass as such. Also, there are a conspicuous number of towers illustrated in the book, including fortifications, some church towers and most notably mosques’ minarets. I already have a number of buildings from JR miniatures 15mm Italy range (the old Architectural Heritage line, probably my favourite line of 15mm buildings), and several more of my own scratch-built buildings which were intended to pass for Italian farm and rural town buildings. These are perfect for Syldavia’s coast and southern regions. However, I have something different in my minds’ eye for Syldavia’s highland interior. There, the use of more wood and a gothic rather than Italian look seems more in keeping with the alpine context and Slav and German-influenced cultural setting. I also wanted to have some fortifications, both to dress up the town and for use in games.

My first building is a tower, built with masonry-texture blocks cast from LINKA moulds, glued to a wood dowel about 1.5 inches in diameter. Ideally, the tower should be quite a bit thinner than that as a 1.25 inch wide tower in 15mm is a very substantial structure, but this size proved to be a sort of physical limit. LINKA moulds are vey flexible and can be bent and taped around something to impart a desired curve to one’s blocks, normally cast in hydrocal cement. A 1.25 inch diameter circle appears to about the smallest one can effectively make with a LINKA mould; the rubber began to noticeably pucker and deform with the stress this curve produced. At this curve, it also proved very difficult to retain wet hydrocal in the mould so I made the blocks with white hardware-variety epoxy putty and green Milliput. Both of these materials worked well in the moulds; the white epoxy putty set quickly and retained a degree of elasticity if it was removed from the mould a little early. This flexibility helped me fit the blocks to the dowel. The Milliput also worked well though it is much slower to set. Its longer period of malleability also helped me tailor certain pieces to fit, as needed. The LINKA blocks fit together admirably well but the circumference of the dowel did not fit the pre-determined size of blocks precisely. I had to fill gaps with small LINKA bricks and with Milliput which I then gave a suitable texture. Painted, the gaps aren’t so obvious and, in fact, the small irregularities in the Milliput patches help break up the uniformity of the blocks’ texture.

The unfinished tower - I see here that I shoud have filled some joints with plaster a little more rigorously!

I added some buttresses at the tower’s base, and a ring of rampart blocks glued around the top, with some added Milliput details. This work was rather easy. I finished it off with a tiled roof made quickly from card, the eight identical roof panels were erected in pairs over a base which later served as the eaves, and were crazy-glued in place. This step was somewhat delicate but adding card shingles over top hides the inevitable imperfect corners. It is also much easier to model the tiles in card than in putty. Once dry and solid, and sealed with thinned white glue, I solidified the roof by filling it with hydrocal cement.

Tower with roof attached

The roof is attached by a nail which fits into a hole drilled into the dowel at the top of the tower; it is detachable. The roof isn’t exactly symmetrical but it works and I’m not going to fuss with it any longer! Finally, in the attempt to obtain a second and different roof line, I built a smaller watch tower for the tower top with a second very steep roof, also made of card. This detachable spire is also affixed by a nail. It is a bit roughly finished but does give a much different looking tower, one that evokes to some degree the profile of a minaret. A better model of a minaret should be taller and/or thinner than this model however and I will have to put aside the LINKA moulds and go with a simpler method to model one.

Alternative roof: watch tower and  spire

Building models by this method (LINKA blocks, epoxy putty) is quite a bit slower and fussier than the very nice and efficient card buildings Stokes Schwartz discussed some weeks ago at his blog here.

However, I’m largely happy with the results I have obtained, even with the greater investment of work, as I like the masonry texture which paints up easily and I can have three different buildings with the core of the tower I made by swapping roofs or leaving it off entirely. I can make another different roof if the mood strikes me one day. Being constructed of epoxy putty, wood and hydrocal cement, the tower is solid, very durable and has a bit of heft. It ought to last for years and years, even through Bordurian sieges.

That is it for the tower. Next up – fortifications!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jiri receives an unexpected omen on the road to Douma

The morning following his encounter with the returning Syldavian exiles, Duke Jiri set his newly-expanded army marching back toward Douma.  Jiri rode at the head of the column where he chatted with Count Josip Marklin and a few of the other exile leaders who he had invited to join him.  East of Starisveta, Jiri’s route back to Douma brought them through a range of low but rough and rocky hills.  There, the ancient Roman-built road wound along a steep-sided ravine cut by a fast and shallow stream.  Rounding a bend, Jiri’s army approached a gorge created by an imposing cliff on opposite side of the ravine.  Less than a hundred yards down the road, at the far end of the cliff, was a small bridge.  Merely a few yards away, however, was an old woman in ragged clothing at the side of the road above the stream.  Taken by surprise, she turned quickly to look warily at Jiri and his men and then stood aside to give them space to pass.  She had been watching a flock of goats on the opposite side of the narrow ravine and a young shepherd who stood on the hillside opposite, above the ravine.  The goats too were taken by surprise by the sudden arrival of the men, their big horses and their jingling harness.  A very big buck and a few kids had begun to venture out into the centre of the cliff while the dams and most of the kids hung back.  All froze and turned their heads to gaze at the men and horses.

Alarmed, the kids on the cliff nimbly turned and scrambled back to their mothers, who herded them to safer ground up the slope toward the shepherd.  The buck, however, hesitated, taking one fateful step further into the cliff face.  Then, after looking back at the departing kids, it too turned back.  However, it was a big and ageing beast with think flanks and both stiff legs.  While it turned, its back pushed against the cliff face.  Seeking to regain its balance, the buck dislodged the rocks under its hooves, knocking them into the gorge.  The buck scrambled to keep its footing, its hooves scraping in vain an instant against the loose rock, and then he too slipped, cartwheeling, into the gorge, crashing into the rocks edge of the stream in front of the dismayed onlookers. 

The old woman gasped as the buck fell. One of the men with Jiri cried out "Ha! A pair of silver crowns says that brute of a buck gets up !  Have you ever seen such a beast?"

The buck did struggle to get up, but its foreleg was clearly shattered and he finally stopped, lying back down in the water and trembling.  The old woman cried out a second time when she saw him maimed: "Oh no – my poor buck! He is finished! Who will lead my goats through the snow this winter?"

Jiri looked down at the buck and its ruined leg, and then motioned to a mounted archer to finish the animal off.  Turning to the old woman, Jiri said "Your animals took fright because of us, ma’am.  It is not my wish that my passing should bring you misfortune.  Please accept this compensation.  It should be enough to buy you a fine buck or two."  Jiri dismounted and handed the woman a handful of silver crowns.

The woman took the coins, looking warily with a cloudy eye at Jiri as she pushed back her stringy hair and bowed.  "Thank you, my lord, you shall save my flock and my family.  We were trying to lead the flock to the bridge so that we can go to the market.  Fate!  None of us can escape it when our time is up."   The woman then gazed distractedly down at her ram, which was now lying still, his battered and sun weather-bleached horns peeking like crescent moons out of the reddening water.   She then spoke again, cleverly to Jiri : "You are the Duke, yes?  This is your omen, my lord.  For a gold crown, I will read it for you, I will ."  She poked a crooked tree-root of a finger at Jiri as she spoke and nodded. 

"What?"  replied Jiri, astonished. 

"The old gods still live in these hills, my Lord.  They know the fates of men and sometimes it pleases them to reveal them to us, if only we know how to listen.  A gold piece, my lord – I’ll read your story for you. Men like you seem to always want to know what is lies in store for them…".  A few of the riders with Jiri crossed themselves, a few others pulled out evil eye beads and murmured prayers. 

Jiri too was suddenly chilled by the insistent and weather-beaten woman, but he was certainly superstitious enough to want to know what she saw for him as he set out to fight the Bordurians.  Besides, with his men and the exile leaders all around him, he knew that he could not seem too fearful of what she had to say.  This had better be good news, or else there will be second thoughts through the army within the hour… and she had better not make a joke of this either…  Jiri thought to himself.

"Here is you money, woman, what do you have to say, then?"  Jiri kept his back to his men and steeled himself for her story. 

Pointing down at her dead and bleeding buck with its horns still arching above the water, and then at the Ducal flag which fluttered behind Jiri.  She exclaimed "Two white crescents against red – the buck is YOU, my Lord."  A few soldiers nodded in assent "Yes, its true - the horns are Duke's the two white crescents."  The woman continued: "He was always a strong brute and so damned proud and stubborn!" Some of the men snickered at this and Jiri squirmed a little.  "But, so strong as well and he always knew his way in the worst of weather and snow.  That buck was as sure-footed as any animal I’ve even, he never put a foot wrong in his life until today.  But goats are so…hard to predict … sometimes.  He changed his mind and tried to turn about when he should have gone straight on across that cliff.  He would be waiting for us at the bridge now if he had bone that ". 

"You, lord Duke, you too are poised on a cliff.  No matter what, tough footing, your dams and kids going off somewhere else behind you, you can’t turn back now OR YOU WILL FALL!"  The old woman wagged her crooked finger again at Jiri’s face, as he blanched and recoiled a little.  He didn’t back off quickly enough however, as she grabbed his cloaked shoulder with an unnaturally strong hand and forced him to peer down into the gully, pointing at her buck with that boney finger.  "Look hard at his carcass, my lord.  His head points to the north but his broken leg points to the east.  That is the way he should have kept on going.  Your fate, great lord, is that way, to the east."  The woman released Jiri the then made a grotesque sort of curtsey "Thank you, my lord, for listening to an old woman. That is all I have to say.  Good Day!" she said, and then scuttled up the bank on the other other side of the road, where she seated herself behind some trees and counted out her money. 

Brushing himself off and bemused, Jiri remounted his horse and gave the order to resume the march.  "On to Douma.  And Travunje!"