Saturday, August 30, 2008


"This hulking, one-eyed titan fears no one. Possessed of remarkable strength, it wields a mighty oaken club when it isn't hurling large boulders at its foes. The earth trembles as this giant lumbers about its domain, or so say those who claim to have survived an encounter with a Cyclops."—Ultima VI guidebook

I am on the hunt for a cyclops model. A few months ago I noticed an out of production cyclops miniature on eBay. I watched it, but foolishly let it go. Now that I have started this Ultima project I really wish I had it! The seller did not know the manufacturer. The model was clothed only in a fur caveman-type outfit. Anybody know who made it? There is another cyclops on eBay now, but it's wearing a helmet—that's way too civilized for my tastes. The model also looks like it is suffering from lead rot.

Steve Barber Miniatures has a great cyclops in it's Greek Mythology range, but it looks like it is really big, more of a giant than a troll-sized beast. Black Tree Design has a cyclops, but their's has satyr legs, scales, and a horn.

The above illustration from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. The cyclops is among the many fanciful people and creatures reported by returning explorers. The idea of the cyclops originated with the Greeks. The most famous cyclops is found in Homer's Odyssey. It has been theorized that the Greeks came up with the cyclops after finding fossils of elephant skulls. The trunk cavity looks like it could house a giant single eye (the real eye sockets are on the sides). The islands of Crete and Sicily are rich in fossil bones. See The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Terrain Board

Behold, my recently completed terrain board! This is the surface on which I will be playing with my miniatures. I suppose I have space to build a permanent gaming table in my basement, but for now I intend to game on the dining room table.

Figure 1
I started with a 25.5 x 25.5 in piece of hardboard. This is a man-made product composed of compressed wood fibers. I bought a huge sheet (something like 4 x 6 feet) for about $11. A more economical choice would be to find a scrap piece of plywood. There's always a bin of cheap scraps by the saw at your local home improvement store. I picked the hardboard, because it's easy to cut with a utility knife or handsaw. I know I'll be using the srcaps as bases for hills, buildings, forests, etc.

The guy at the home improvement center cut the board for me. He must have been new to the saw, because one of his cuts set a piece of board flying across the room. Fortunately, it slammed into a box of scrap wood, rather than continuing on to hurt some one.

Figure 2
I beveled the edges with a utility knife to give more of a rough-hewn look. Next, my 6-year-old daughter and I glued on sand for a textured surface. I squirted white glue on the board, brushed it to even it out, and she poured on the sand. We worked on a large sheet of paper, so the excess sand could be poured easily back into the container. I used to live near the beach, where sand is plentiful and free. I am land-locked now, but have just realized I can swipe some sand from a playground sandbox. You can buy sand at the hobby store, but why would you?

Figure 3
The next step was to paint the board brown. At this stage I suggest you spray-paint the surface with matte black paint. Spray paint doesn't soak into the board as much as brushed-on acrylic, so it would be a good way to avoid warping. I thought the 1/4 in. board would be thick enough to hold its shape, but I was wrong. My daughters helped me paint the sanded surface (without priming with spray paint). The board soon buckled and curled. I had heard that painting the other side would prevent this (it's the wet side fighting with the dry side that creates curling), so I painted the back and placed a heavy radio and a log on top to flatten it down. Thankfully, the next day it was fine. I'm sure spray painting would have helped, but a sure-fire way to avoid buckling would be to use plywood. I don't think smaller pieces of hardboard will suffer so much from this problem, so my scraps should be a-ok for making terrain pieces.
Once the brown paint was dry I bushed on areas of differing shades of green. Using the same brown to mix in to the green is a good way to ensure that the colors look good together.

Final step
To finish the board my daughter and I glued on patches of flock (green dyed sawdust) and static grass (tiny green plastic hairs).

Board use
My new game of choice, Song of Blades and Heroes, recommends a minimum playing area of 90 x 90 cm if using 25/28mm models (which I am). To start out, however, I decided to make a smaller board. This one is 64.5 cm square (25.5 in.) I think leaning the rules will be easier if I play in a more confined space. I figure this will minimize movement, and maximize fighting between models. My board is still larger than the smallest suggested size of 60 x 60 cm, although those dimensions are intended for those playing with 15mm models. After learning the game I may keep using this board, or I may move on to a cloth matt at the 90cm size.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Avatar

The above model is one of the high elves sculpted by Mark Copplestone for Grenadier's old "Fantasy Warriors" range. Although most of this range is now being produced by, the high elves are not available as new production. I bought this one on eBay.

These days the term, "avatar," is quite common with online message groups, multi-player games, etc. It's the digital representation of someone in the real world, just as an avatar in the Hindu tradition is the earthly incarnation of a divine being. So it was with the Ultima series. "The Avatar" was the character meant to portray yourself, the hero of the game. It was actually a title held by your character in-game. The people of Britannia would address you by that name, "Hello Avatar. Welcome back to Moonglow."

The title was apt also because this hero was a physical embodiment of the Virtues, the philosophy followed by the Britannians. This idea of the Virtues did not appear in the series until Ultima IV. Before that time the hero character was called only, "The Stranger." Interestingly, Ultima IV's quest for moral virtue was a response to parents' concern about the perceived negative influence of role playing games (upset by the killing, stealing, evil themes, etc.).

P.S. Check out the old floppy disc icon in the image at right. When's the last time you saw one of those?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Britannian Town Guard

The guards of Britannia are all business and are often curt in their dealings with civilians. Perhaps you inquire into a guard's proffesion. "The man looks at you like you are an ignoramus. 'I am a guard, idiot. Thou shouldst go about thy business.'"—Britain city guard, Ultima VII

Of course, the job of the guards is to keep villains and knaves out of town—to maintain order. Although it was not expressed in the Ultima computer games, one might expect this duty to also extend to the patroling of major roads. The guards of Britannia can easily be represented by the "Human Warrior" stats in the wargame I'll be using, Song of Blades and Heroes.

The guard captain has been painted with an ankh on his surcoat. This is the symbol selected by the producers of the PC game to represent Britannia's philosophy of virtues put forth in Ultima IV. The ankh was a good choice. It's a good looking graphic, and no one was is likely to be offended by it's use since there are no living polytheist Egyptians these days. The serpent emblazoned on his shield is another symbol from the Ultima series. I think it's supposed to be the "Silver Serpent," but I don't know the significance of that.

My guard models are sold by Black Tree Design. They are from their Hundred Years War range: HYW1004 Infantry with Halberds, and HYW1001 Foot Knights with Swords. Black Tree has some nice models, but their customer service has a spotty history. A read through the messages on TMP will reveal complaints of missing or long-delayed orders, lack of communication, etc. Problems are usually worked out in the end, but not without hassle. I live in the US and have ordered from the UK location twice. The first time (maybe '05) my order went missing. After some complaint, months later I received a replacement box at no charge. My second order (summer of '07) was missing some models. It had been the case that all Black Tree models were produced in England, but there is now is US location in Texas. My advise would be to order from within your own country, or (even safer) buy from a dealer in person).

Monday, August 11, 2008


"No one knows exactly how the senses work on these mutant abominations. Do they sense the world only through touch and feeling? Or do they see with some inner vision? Whatever the answer, these relatively strong creatures are fairly enduring and do mild damage to their foes. They tend to carry goods with them."
—Ultima V guidebook

"The product of a wizard's failed experiments, these wretched creatures somehow manage to sense the location of their quarry and strike with unnatural accuracy. Do not fall prey to pity, for the headless would as soon strangle you with his bare hands as accept your mercy." —UltimaVI guidebook

Outside of the Ultima series the headless monsters are rather uncommon in contemporary fantasy writings. I'm rather fond of the concept of such a monster, which is discussed quite a bit in ancient and medieval literature. The ancient Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, first wrote of the creatures (Pliny the Elder, Historia naturalis V.8.46). The latin name for these beings was Blemmyae (Blemmye, singular). These "historic" monsters were described as having no head, but they did have a face planted in their chest. Check out the article on Blemmyes on Wikipedia.

Finding an appropriate wargame miniature to represent the headless was a bit of a task. The ancient germans, celts, greeks and vikings are written to have often fought in the nude. Consequently, there are quite alot of models available, but these all have shields, belts, and scabards molded on the bodies. I found the manufacturer, Bronze Age Miniatures. In their 28mm generics line are some nudes intended to be used as armatures for further scultping. A quick snip of the head and filing the shoulders will create excellent headless. 

For my Ultima scenario I finally settled on using the Neanderthal Warrior models from Pulp Miniatures. These are great guys because they have wonderfully animated poses and come with clubs. I have long been meaning to get Pulp's Ice Age Predators, and Bigfoot models, so this set has convinced me to finally make an order.

Update: I painted up some headless monsters here.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Iolo Fitzowen

Throughout the Ultima series Iolo (pronounced 'yo-lo') is a close companion of the Avatar. He is an accomplished bard and world-renown bowyer. His finely made bows and crossbows are made available in his shop in Britain. When not adventuring, Iolo makes his home in the Deep Forest on the edges of the town of Yew. The image at left comes from the Ultima VII PC game. This character was modeled after a real-life friend of Richard Garriott.

The above model comes from Old Glory Miniatures' "Revolting Peasants" set. I liked that this mini is dressed in a similar way to the character in The Black Gate—a tunic with hood. He is mounted on a 25mm metal washer. This is the same size base as used in GW's LOTR game, so he could easily be played with those rules. The level of sculpting found in the Revolting Peasants set is not the highest, but there are a few nice townspeople models found in there.

In Song of Blades and Heroes I may assign the Wood Elf Commander traits to Iolo. This will account for his high status, archery skills and his ease of traveling through forested areas.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Ultima's Britannia

To game Ultima on the table top I will be using is Song of Blades and Heroes. These flexible rules are designed to allow the players to pick any Medieval fantasy setting, using any models. My chosen subject is Britannia, the world featured in the Ultima rpg series designed by Richard Garriott. If you are unfamiliar with the game here is a short description.

Britannia is the name given to all the lands of the world. Britain is the capital city where Lord Biritish is king. It is populated by humans, but there are of course numerous monsters throughout the land. Naturally, caves and dungeons are plagued by horrid beasts. Britannia is home to another civilized people—the gargoyles. They are a monstrous looking lot, but no more or less violent than humans. Most live on the island of Terfin, but others are scattered in various towns across the land.

I came into the series of PC games at Ultima VII. My miniature wargames will take place after the events of Ultima VI, and just before the beginning of VII. On the whole, Britannia is at peace. Although there has been no full scale war since the fight with the gargoyles 200 years ago, there is danger in the form of highwaymen, pirates, hoardes of monsters, rogue mages, etc. A suitable adventure is always easily found by a willing band of adventurers.

For more backstory check out Ultima Wikia.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Wargaming the Ultima series

In 1992 I bought a copy of Ultima VII, The Black Gate. Rich in story and full of engaging creatures and characters, this rpg drew me in completely. It was designed for DOS systems—sadly, it quikly unplayable on more modern computers. In 2000 the third party software, Exult, brought the game back to life. The Black Gate and its sequel, Serpent Isle, can be now played on contemporary machines (PCs and Macs).

In addition, the story of Ultima V is available as a the mod to the game Dungeon Siege, bringing a 1988 PC game into a 3-D graphic format. I am happy to play the aptly named Ultima V Lazarus, but I have also been wanting to bring the characters of Ultima's Britannia to the tabletop. I am collecting 28mm medieval/fantasy figures to represent the people, monsters and animals found in my favorite PC game.

Over the months I searched for potential wargame rules to game with these models. GW's LOTR game has been a front runner for a while, and I thought the old boardgame, HeroQuest might do nicely. I have finally settled on the rule set, Song of Blades and Heroes (SBH). It's a simple, but fun system. Appropriate to the Ultima games, it has a supplement for dungeon crawls—Song of Gold and Darkness.

Ultima Computer Game Links
Ultima Aiera - fan blog keeping you abreast of current Ultima projects
Dino's Ultima Page - Old Ultima resources and up-to-date news
Ultima V, Lazarus a modern remake of the 1988 U5
Ultima VI Project a modern remake of the 1990 U6 (a work in progress)
Exult - play Ultima VII on your Mac or PC. (email me if you need any files!)
Ultima Wikia - encyclopedia of all things Ultima