Saturday, 27 July 2013

The S.M.A.R.T. Imagi-Nation

Like most modern 'things', the use of various mnemonics, 'buzz' words and phrases, and all the other assorted dross, that managers like to encourage their workforce to use and take on board like it's some new religion (till the next 'big thing' comes along at least), is largely rubbish. The belief that the right phrase, at the right time, will motivate people to achieve, is both widespread and generally ineffective. However in some very rare cases something useful appears.

You will have seen the much used and abused S.M.A.R.T. mnemonic I'm sure. If you haven't, in essence it provides a framework within which to work and applied logically and sensibly, can be applied to almost everything you do. Therein lies the 'bad rep' it has received, as it is usually not applied logically and sensibly. I doubt I am alone in having seen this applied by some smart-arse manager, who hasn't actually done his homework and has thrown it out there to justify his inflated salary. In this situation the method usually bears no relation to the intent and makes little sense.

Despite that, when used imaginatively, applying that mnemonic after adjusting its concepts to suit the situation and the project in question, will give your project structure and allow you to avoid many of the pitfalls, false starts and blind alleys, that you are likely to encounter. It may even save you money, admonishments from your better halves and new found respect from your fellows... okay, maybe not all of those, but at least your project will be the better for it.

By all means 'wing-it' if you will and that can work too... I was described as the 'King of Wing' in a previous job and while I was somewhat successful at what I did, my subsequent re-birth as a 'SMART' planner allowed me to see the error of my ways. Some of you will have experienced many of the terms I'm going to be mentioning, but I imagine they were in somewhat different forms and customised to their particular themes, or at least they should have been.



Specific

When we describe our hobby and its sub-sections, we are generally quite vague at first; "I play Medievals", or "I'm planning on Spanish Civil War", might be how I'd open a conversation. If the conversation continues, I would follow this up with more specific information. I might say for the SCW, that "I'm primarily interested in the start of the war and plan a campaign based on the taking of Seville, securing Andalucia and the advance on Madrid in 1936". That's a specific goal. Amongst my general aims however, might be to one day continue past this and game the actions designed to cut Madrid off, which resulted in battles like Jarama and Guadalajara.

The important thing is that immediately I have a specific initial goal - the first few months of the war (July to October 1936) and a specific location - the area surrounding Seville and the territory between it and Madrid. When it comes to it, I will focus it down even further and just concentrate on Seville and its surroundings in July and August 1936 initially. If I then begin my figure collection with units of the Italian CTV and Republian EPR, I have completely botched all my plans, as I can't actually play any games in the setting I've planned for and the 'campaign' is on hold until I get round to buying and painting the militia and regular army figures I need for the initial actions.

In the case of an imaginary war or an Imagi-Nation, you are freed from some of these constraints, but nevertheless you still need to structure what you will be doing, particularly if you plan on starting it off and playing while you collect your forces. If you already have the forces you need, it's not so vital, but even so to be 'believable' you will still need a structure to work in. Starting your concept off with actions that take place all across your imaginary land, rather than in a specific area, will be confusing for the people following it, particularly as they won't be familiar with your creation in the first place.

Real wars tend to be localised to an extent and few are conducted on a broad front (obviously there are exceptions). Having created your nation (or nations), to whatever depth suits your needs and likely have planned the structure of the armies involved. Now is the time to sit back and give some real thought to what you are doing.

Sidney Roundwood started off with amassing rather generalised forces, to play First World War skirmish games. I don't get the impression he began with any real plan, other than to create opposing 'forces' to play with. They were well painted and he offered comments, hints and tips, which made his blog worth reading. For someone who isn't that interested in the Great War though, I found myself skim reading them and looking at the pictures.

At some point though he decided to concentrate on the Battle for Verdun and if you've followed his blog, you'll notice a distinct shift in his writing as a result. Instead of somewhat broad and unconnected posts, his posts are now far more connected in terms of content and relates details about specific units and personalities, that are connected to it. While he hasn't converted me to playing WW1, I always make time to read his posts and to feed off his enjoyment of what he does. That is what you should be aiming for, when you begin to relate the battles and adventures of your wars and countries.

I've previously mentioned Mort's VBCW 'Somerset' setting, but it's another example of 'specifics'. He had a 'bigger picture' conception of how a 'Very British Civil War' might begin in 1937, but instead of planning grand campaigns, he focused on just his local area and one 'unit'. He started off with a very small group of insurgents and the actions of the local authorities to stop their activities. He then widened the conflict as the insurgency grew, but still kept it local. Others have done similar things with their campaigns, allowing them to produce very readable and interesting accounts of their imaginary conflicts, even down to the individual and unusual. Martin Penneck's article on the Mersey Tunnels in Miniature Wargames 364 is a good example of this. Small can be very big sometimes.

Measured

Yeah, I know it's lame, but nevertheless true... every journey starts with that first step.

History is continuous, it never stops. For convenience we assign arbitrary beginnings and ends to specific periods, but in reality these don't exist. My grandmother was born during the Great War, her children between that and the start of the Second World War, her grandchildren during the Cold War and her great-grandchildren during the Gulf War. When she was a child aeroplanes were virtually non-existent, her husband worked in an aircraft factory, whose products could travel hundreds of miles to drop their bombs and then return home. Her grandchild sat and watched the first man walk on the moon and at the end of her life, routine flights into space were so common that they barely got a mention on the news.

Imagine trying to wargame in terms of my grandmother's life (80 years). Off hand I can think of ten pretty important conflicts that occurred during that time and which involved family members (admittedly they were extended family) to a greater or lesser extent. I doubt very much if, in a single lifetime, I could actually get the money, paint the figures needed, make the terrain, or indeed find time to game, all of these, even if I went for 'company level' games, with a number of varied companies for each protagonist nation.

If you just consider a single conflict, there is usually sufficient variation between different arms, to make amassing a representative force to cover the range of options. Take WW2 for example; how many variations were there on the basic British 'tank company' between 1939 and 1945? I think there were three between 1939 and 1940 alone. Perhaps the same for the French and maybe four for the Germans? It's not that important, the point is that even a short period of time can present a lot of work for the gamer, if they are to represent it in miniature, with any degree of accuracy.

Odds are that you anticipate getting some mileage out of your Imagi-Nation or Campaign. It might be a gaming year, which might span a 'campaign season', with the option of renewing it the following gaming year. It might be that, in the case of Imagi-Nations in particular, that you intend it to be a permanent entity, which continues throughout your wargaming life. Either way, you are going to have to set 'the pace' for it, or in other words, the way time passes. This applies both within your world and within the real one. Real world time is covered under 'Attainable', but is closely related to the pace of time in 'your world' too.

Using the Spanish Civil War as an example again, the Republicans and Nationalists began the war with roughly a platoon of FT-17 tanks each. Between July and September, the Republicans added a further thirty or so from Poland between then and October. On both sides, they were all largely destroyed or out of action by November. After October, the first imported Panzer I, L33 tankettes and T-26 tanks began to appear. In WW2 the story is similar, with the Panzer I being the majority German tank up to the end of the French Campaign. For the British, the A9, A10 and A13 cruisers were all over by 1941. A similar story for most vehicles continues for any given period.

While the situation is less fraught for some periods, for example the changes within the Roman Army happened over decades, or even centuries and that places like Mexico have only just recently retired the M8 Greyhound armoured car, the point remains that change happens. In the SCW example, my FT-17 tanks will only get three 'game months' of use before being 'retired'. If my 'game months' follow real world months, that's quite an investment trashed after just a few games. The temptation to move things along in 'your world' is strong however and you really need to consider how this relates to your specific period. There are limits too, to how much you can stretch out time, before it feels like time is standing still.  

In context too, you have to be realistic. Most wars are of short duration and even wars like the 'Hundred Years War' and the 'Eighty Years War', had their periods of activity and inactivity. Fictional countries, just like real ones, have finite resources and if a country like Spain, with access to the riches of the Americas, couldn't maintain war for a prolonged period, your imaginary land is going to look a little ridiculous if it can. The plus side to this, is that you can take a 'holiday' from your project when peace breaks out, allowing you to paint up new units, or to pursue some other aspect of your hobby. If you are really clever, you will be planning all this from the start.

Attainable

Roy was just about to tell his wife that she could come back from her mother's, when he realised that his 54mm terrain project for the big 'Isandlwana' game, still wasn't quite finished yet.

Sidney Roundwood assesses his painting output per year at around 150 figures per year. For a three month painting competition, he planned to complete around a hundred or so figures. or 2/3 of his typical yearly output in a quarter of the time. Stuart over at Army Royal, planned a force of 199 figures, to be completed over a three year period. While life threw a spanner in the works for Sidney with regard to starting and finishing, once he got started, he has largely been able to stick to the pace he wanted. Likewise, Stuart has also mostly completed what he set out to do. Both of these guys planned to suit both the time they spend painting a figure, the quality they wanted to achieve as well as weighing up real world constraints.

Sidney and Stuart have both posted their plans in the course of their blogs, my next example hasn't, so I'm making an assumption As we know, assume contains the words 'Ass' and 'Me', so apologies if I have this wrong. Mort doesn't appear to ostensibly plan, but instead, expands his 'world' as and when his next batch of figures or models, are bought, converted and painted. I don't use this as a bad example by the way, just a different way of doing it. It works for him and that is what is important. It's certainly better than my method, which is to over-plan everything in great detail, so much so that nothing actually gets done. I can tell you all about weapons, training, tactics and other details, but put a unit on the table? No.    
  
Manageability isn't just about painting figures and making terrain though, it's also about the games you will be playing too. Re-fighting something on the scale of Waterloo, on a 6'x4' table, is not going to work too well in 28mm, at least without some serious abstraction of ground and figure scales. If that is an acceptable goal, then no worries, but to be 'Manageable', your aims should have some correspondence to reality.

Presuming that this is a new project, or will involve at least an expansion of an already existing one, you will have to be realistic about what you intend to do. We all have our grandiose notions from time to time, but this is the point where you need to consider whether what you are doing is actually going to happen in reality. In my case, this has led to a reconsideration of the games I intend to play, the size of the forces involved and the space in which I have to store them and play with them.

Whether you are planning more figures for your forces, more terrain and buildings, or planning on creating your own rules, or adapting someone else's, even considering how many games you will play, how often you play them, or even the time you have to play them, needs considering. The level of immersion into your project that you can realistically achieve, will be dictated by the time you have available. This is really a no-brainer, yet is a common failing of many Imagi-Nations and Campaigns.

I will presume that most of you devote one night a week on average to gaming, another one or two, to other hobby related stuff, be it painting, researching or other similar activities. With that in mind, is it realistic to embark on a project where you need hundreds of figures and which to set up each session, seriously eats into the three or so hours you have to play in? How long will it take to paint up those hundreds of figures, or construct those terrain features, in similar three hour (or so) slots?

We are all different. Some people have to juggle life, work and family, alongside their hobby and have few hours to devote to it as a result. At the other extreme, some are more fortunate (relatively speaking) and are able to devote as much time as they wish to their hobby. The biggest, flashiest and most inspirational projects we see, have either taken years of work a couple of hours at a time, or have resulted from an incredibly focused approach, in which everything else has taken a back seat. Where you fit into this scale is for you to determine.

Moving away from the 'hardware' of the setting, what about the setting itself? If you have the time to devote to working out crop production, illnesses and death amongst your civilian population and leadership, as well as all the myriad things you might wish to include, then fine, go for it. However all of these facets take time, not only in the creation of rules for them, but to actually keep track of as things go along. If your personal circumstances mean you are time-poor, then doing this is going to eat into either your 'creation time' or your 'gaming time', or even both. "A man's got to know his limitations" as Dirty Harry put it and these are wise words indeed for the wargamer to heed.

Review

After reviewing his original manuscript, 
Adolf made a few changes and produced,
laugh out loud bestseller! 
Having worked your way through all of the previous sections, it's time to look again at what you have planned and examine what is relevant to the project. By relevant, we are talking about things we may have considered within our plans, but which will actually detract from the project as a whole. Think of it like editing a movie. Reams of footage gets shot for any movie, but a good proportion of it ends up on the cutting room floor; 35 hours worth of film might get cut down to an hour and a half, or thereabouts.

As I'm sure we've all experienced, this can be done badly, leaving 'holes in the plot', or it can be done well and nobody notices. Think of the film 'Titanic'; twenty minutes worth of running up and down flooding companion ways was a bit excessive and unnecessary, don't you think? On the other hand, imagine if the final scene of 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' had been cut. We might not have missed it, but we would have been robbed of one of the most memorable movie moments ever.  

I'm going to use my SCW example again here, as your project will be unique to you and I can't predict how it will be structured. I plan to game from the taking of Seville and Cadiz on 18th July 1936, to the 'siege of Madrid' and the battles of Jarama and Guadalajara, probably cutting off in July 1937. My miniature forces will compose of; a Republican Militia force, the beginnings of a EPR force (admittedly some of the figures in the former can be recycled for the latter), International Brigades, a Nationalist 'Regular' force, a Nationalist 'Legion' force, a force of 'Moros' along with sub-units of Falange, Guardia Civil, Asaltos and Carlists. The last force needed will be the Italian CTV.

In all we are talking about perhaps close on 750 figures, perhaps actually more, a considerable number perhaps, but we are also talking a very long term project. I also don't need them all to begin with, particularly the EPR, International Brigade and the Italians, which are 'late' forces for my planned setting. To begin the project, I only need perhaps a third of the total force at best and that can be built up from the initial skirmishes in town streets.

My original plan was to start off in Seville on the morning of 18th July 1936, with the 'siege' of the 'City Hall' by the Rebel Army and the Guardia Civil on July 18th 1936. To do this I need somewhat substantial forces for all of the combatants and a layout to reflect the building and the open ground in front of it. I need artillery and a couple of armoured cars too. For a 'start off' game and for a project which I intended to expand as I went on, it is almost falling at the first hurdle.

While the game could last several sessions, the investment in figures and the time creating the buildings, for what is essentially a 'one off', doesn't justify the 'cost' (time, materials and money) in comparison to the 'reward' (game time). I'm unlikely to use the buildings again, unless I can recycle it to represent the Alcázar in Toledo, or the walls of Badajos, which is doubtful. Even the numbers of Asaltos and Guardia amassed for the game don't fit into my overall plan for the forces required for the project. Is this relevant to the project then?

Fortunately I can get round this by starting my campaign a day later, after the City Hall has been taken and the street fighting in the suburbs of La Triana and Macarena is about to start. I now need small numbers of militia, Falangists and regulars, steadily increasing in numbers. By the time I've finished gaming that stage, I will be ready to move off into securing the local countryside, using 'Legionarios' and 'Moros', alongside my initial forces. The buildings I need to construct or buy are quite generic, as opposed to the more specific 'City Hall' and can be re-used for other settlements too. Is all this relevant to my overall aims and goals? Yes.

This part of the process might mean some tough calls and it's really up to you when it comes down to it. It might be very hard to cut 'The Alamo' out of a Texas Independence War setting, or even 'Isandlwana' out of a Zulu War one, but if you really think about it, they aren't that important in the terms of getting a project off the ground. Your Texans will begin with 'Remember the Alamo!' on their lips and the director of 'Zulu' didn't feel the need to show us the battle that preceded his film either. In both cases, there was plenty more action to come and enough to justify not showing the 'grand openings' in either case.

Whatever your campaign setting, or however your Imagi-Nation is constructed, going 'big' from the word go is not advisable, unless you already have your forces ready. Otherwise I really do recommend that you assess 'Relevance' before you begin. What seemed like a good idea at the time, is a common enough phrase and assessing the relevance of every facet of your creation will make for better results and less money wasted in the long term.

Timing


Now that you've hopefully finalised your plans for your project, you probably have quite a list of things to do. You have also hopefully got an idea of what order things need doing in and what is required at each level to carry your project on. It's time to put some form of timing in place. I can hear you shouting something "No way, I do enough of that at work, this my relaxation", but I'm not suggesting you go quite as far as your boss here, but it is a fact that when we set ourselves a goal, we are more likely to achieve it if we set a date, or have some form of schedule, than we would if we didn't.

Think of diets and the weekly weigh-ins that go with them. Or that half-marathon that you need to be fit for by a set date. Slimmers who don't have that impetus, rarely achieve their goals. "I'm entering the London Marathon" generally works out better than "I fancy doing a triathlon one day". The time scale that you set for yourself will only work if you are committed to it. Having a display game to put on always seems to focus people, as does mentioning your plans on your blog, or on a forum. While nobody probably remembers what you committed to in the first place, you know and that is usually enough.

You do need to be realistic though. In the examples mentioned above, Stuart and Sidney had widely different time scales. They set goals that were right for them, that is what is important. While nobody really suffers if you don't meet your target, a bit of you, as well as your enthusiasm for the project, will die a little each time you think about it, or are reminded of it. We don't handle failure very well in the main and are our own worst critics. If your deadlines are realistic, achieving them will give you a boost and spur you on to the next one. Small delays and setbacks will occur though, so be prepared to be flexible.

The temptation to be excessive is common, but the point of the whole thing is enjoyment. If you focus wholly on your one project, then it takes a high degree of willpower to see it through. Some people can do this and there are folk out there, who are capable of pursuing one specific project, from beginning to end. If that is the way you work and you can maintain the enthusiasm in the process, go for it, you're in good company. The rest of us will need the occasional break however.

In the blogs and forums, I commonly come across mentions of people 'losing enthusiasm' or suffering 'burn out'. I have even been there myself. Is that not the strangest thing to encounter within a hobby that is meant to be relaxing and stress reducing? I have had jobs that I have had to walk out of and I know of people whose work has literally killed them... but a hobby? The simple answer is that we fixate on what we are doing. When you have that spur of enthusiasm for something, there is a tendency to devote all of our spare time to it, be it reading up, ordering the latest 'Fab Miniatures' releases and then painting them, looking for the 'right' rules to play them... you get the image, I'm sure.

Timing your project is not just about producing the end result to a set scheduled date, but also about ensuring that the 'quality' of what you do isn't compromised, or that corners aren't cut to produce a less superior end result. Being sat there at some future point, wishing you had painted the buttons on your figures, or hadn't made your terrain out of corrugated cardboard and wallpaper, whatever, is a bit of an anti-climax if you're original plan was for something else. If that was your original plan, then well done, clearly you did it all right!

It's all about pacing yourself. We often see marathons where you get people racing off at the start, then slowing down towards the end, or maybe even dropping out partway round. The ones who finish, maintain a steady pace all through it. They might put more effort in to carry them up hills, or slow it to go down slopes, but invariably they often have that bit left to put on a final spurt at the finish line. Some of them never actually even hit 'the wall' that many people speak about.  Finishing times vary of course, but the point is that they do finish.

When I first started this blog, my posts were sporadic and often written on the day, with much of the day devoted to them. This of course meant that everything else I needed to do, was also rushed to make time to blog. Now I tend to publish on a Saturday or Sunday, but begin almost as soon as the previous post is published, sometimes before and then add to the post, or edit it, in small periods of time throughout the week. I'm sure that I actually spend more time on it that way, but it is in manageable portions. I don't sit there of a Saturday any more feeling drained, or feeling relieved, that I have finished my post for the week.

Your project will benefit from a similar approach and has more probability of being completed, if you maintain a steady pace. You can alter your timing as you go, even top athletes have days off planned into their schedules. The poor ones plough on and when they suffer injury, are off for longer periods, presuming they actually continue to train. Dieters are the same, the successful dieter does have a bar of chocolate from time to time, it is planned into their calorie intake. The poor ones deny themselves anything 'bad' and usually crumple after a week or two, go on a binge of everything they denied themselves and then are back to square one when they see the 'love handles', they are then locked in a cycle of weight on and weight off ever after.

Good timing of a project has a realistic end date, which is composed of a schedule of steps, but which also allows for the 'life-hobby' balance, foreseeable setbacks, but also allows for unforeseeable ones too. It is really okay to allow yourself an extension to your 'due date' too... just don't get trapped in the dieter-like excuse of "I don't know why I even bother, I can never do this because (followed by a run of excuses)".  

15 comments:

  1. Apologies for not been here sooner my friend but I found you on another blog, I'll have to check what happened on mine, fecking good read as always and currently feeling a little burnout or lack of enthusiasm myself but other factors are playing their part!

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    1. No worries mate, you got here eventually. I can appreciate that you have other things on your mind too!

      I have been having issues too, blogs I've followed for a while have disappeared from the list on here, so no updates... Lee's has been the latest.

      Glad you enjoyed the post though!

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    1. Thanks Guy ☺

      By the way, I thought you was robbed in the LPL! You produced some great entries!

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  3. Another cracking post I have a feeling your blog is going to become my weekly hobby fix, reading wise. I love your writing style have you done articles for publications?
    Peace James

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    1. Thanks again! I did some for the VBCW series, but what other writing I have done is non-wargame related and somewhat in the past. Although much further in the past than I had realised till I thought about it just...

      Glad you like it and thanks for saying so!

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    2. Dam this brew must be strong I'm seeing double :)

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    3. Well that was a new 'blogger' oddity... it normally hides things, not adds them. :-/

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  4. Most amazingly entertaining, instructive, and inspirational. Thank you. I read things like this and it makes me wish my own on line hobby space was so well done.

    http://www.weebly.com/weebly/main.php#

    Steve

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    1. Hi Stephen,

      Thank you and glad you enjoyed it. In all fairness though, with my figures and paints packed for an impending move, the blog has become pretty much my hobby, so you'd expect it to be ordered and organised... albeit that I'm a touch obsessive about presentation too lol.

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  5. Good luck on the impending move Jim (always a stressful time... but you`ll soon be in your new place and ready for `action` once again). Your blog is v-e-r-y well structured; and I can really see the pride you put into it.... actually I blame you for my new found consternation about my own site lol... After seeing your blog, I am going to close various sections of mine for `renovation` and a major make over, and try to make the whole thing look a little less confused.... damn you Jim, you`ve pricked my conscience, making me realize I have to do a much needed mega blitz... lol ^^

    Keep up the amazing work. my wife and I will check your blog regularly from now on.

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    1. Thanks for that and of course for the appreciation... it does mean a lot to hear it, as is the case with any of the positive comments I receive.

      Things here will be quiet for a time until I get settled, but hopefully things will sort themselves out before long and I can get back to doing what I do here.

      Certainly it does no harm to restructure and reorganise, and as you've shown here, people do go back over what you have done some way back, so ensuring everything is accessible and fits the 'new plan' is important.

      I suppose it all boils down to taking pride in what you do... something drummed into me at an early age. :-)

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  6. Keep up the amazing work (the lessons you learned early on are a credit... and something for us all to learn from, so thank YOU for that). Meanwhile, I/we (Hilary and myself) will check back here from time to time, either for inspiration or to check in on what`s new.... no hurry, all the time in the world; that's one of the beauties of this hobby (I especially enjoy solo gaming too).

    Its a bit like waking up in a nice home with a great view... there`s not a week goes by I don't find myself waking up and thinking how happy and lucky I am to have such an immersive and passionate life long hobby {and one I share with my wife too.. makes me double fortunate I think}.

    Cheers for now,

    Steve

    (email is: gypsy__dance@hotmail.com <-- double underscore between gypsy and dance. email any time, we both love to natter on and enthuse about gaming).

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    1. I will try to and thanks for the support!

      I have to agree, the hobby has been my one constant too and has bought me so much throughout my life. So for me this blog is a way of spreading that joy to others.

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