Interview with: Matt Robertson

How did you get started in the hobby?

I got started in the hobby very early on while I was growing up. My father was a history teacher and when he was in college he studied and wrote his master's thesis on Erich von Manstein. He also got into building model kits from Airfix and various other manufacturers and painted them up with friends. One friend of his had built from a kit or scratch built every plane that saw combat service during World War II (allegedly - as I am sure that there were some which weren't known in 1967 to have been in combat).

In any case, my dad was hooked and he continued to build models and he played all of the early board games from various publishers, like Avalon Hill, SPI, and others. He had the original Jutland game, and so many others which were too numerous to name - literally hundreds of games with thousands upon thousands of counters. He ran the Chess Club at the high school where he taught and while they played chess, the group expanded into other tactical simulation games and it wasn't long before they got involved in miniatures and painting figures. I remember as a small child seeing my dad paint with the old Floquil and Humbrol paints which really smelled horrible, but the figures were great to see done.

When I was around 8 years old, I got to start painting with my dad. He let me do the base coat on the figure (priming the figure) with the old rust brown primer and a largish brush. We would sit in the "den", what is now referred to as the "man cave" in the basement, and we would paint at an old kitchen table with all of my dad's books from college on shelves all around us. The library was literally staggering in terms of the number of books. I remember it all very well, sitting in the only finished room in the basement of our house, around the table, with books on every topic of history sitting on shelves behind me and a statute of Napoleon on one shelf, a Pickelhaub helmet with a brandy bottle and four shot glasses inside across from it.

Below that were the 54mm figures of various types. There were some were civil war figures together with a Grenadier a'Pied of the French Imperial Guard in bearskin, a Voltiguer in bearskin as well as a Hussar and a Dragoon figure in charging poses, alongside a 12 lb gun painted in the traditional French Green. We would paint figures together and he would also run D&D games for us and read The Hobbit to us at bed time.

Occasionally, I would get to go with him to play in games with the adults or high school students. When I did get to go, I got to play in the Napoleonic games that they ran using Empire. My dad's cousin was stationed in Texas and he got involved with and met the writer Scotty Bowden, if I recall correctly. We also were heavily involved in playing Napoleonic games. Together we painted up (mostly Dad) many battalions of French, British, Russian, Prussian and Austrian infantry - and my dad's passion, Turks!

As I painted along side my dad, we painted various figures from several manufacturers and with each new order, we were amazed at the improvements in details made with each year. The first figures I remember I got to paint all by myself were from Hinchliffe and they were pretty cool figures, knights from the late 100 Years War in full platemail on barded horses. I still have those figures in my collection. By the time I was 12, the group switched from 25mm figures to 15mm figures because they were so much cheaper and we got involved in games which were no longer skirmish games like Chainmail or the D&D games that Dad ran for us. When we switched to 15mm figures, I got to pick an army that I would like to play and I picked the Mongols, which have become a life-long obsession of research, reading, writing, painting, and modeling together with my friend Chris. Chris and I met when I was 11, he was 10, and our dads were friends when they were kids.

When we started painting 15mm figures for armies using the WRG rules system, we had the "army lists" and we purchased figures to meet the minimum and maximum numbers allowed. My friend Chris decided he wanted to paint Crusaders - a somewhat historical opponent for the Mongols, his dad, Don, painted Romans and then branched out to a variety of other armies. My dad painted up Sassanid Persians first and then expanded to a variety of others. During this period we painted virtually every night together and took in a houseguest, Van, who also wargamed while he was here stationed as part of the Vista Volunteers. Together, we painted, gamed, and read about all kinds of topics while engaging in the continual struggle with home work from school, making sure mom wasn't too angry when I wasn't home at a "decent hour" from the wargames, and generally just getting by in life. So, that is sort of how it all started.

What are your favorite genres to play?

I play virtually anything now. When I was younger, I played D&D, the original boxed edition, expanded to AD&D when it was released, and into various historical games which I played through high school. I prefer historical games to fantasy games or science fiction games. I play Warhammer Fantasy, Warhammer 40K, and Warhammer Historicals, and find that the historical rules are tighter than the fantasy or 40K rules and the armies are a bit more balanced. Nothing in the historical rules is a game killer as the magic system in Fantasy can be, or the bizarre troops with "codex creep" in 40K. I really enjoy playing World War II games now more than any other game. In part, because of the huge variety of troops you can command, the ability to research virtually any army, battle, troop type, or vehicle in relatively short order through the internet and in the various sources available in print and more being made available every day.

What was the best game you ever saw?

The best game I've ever seen, it would depend on what you mean by that. Are you talking about the game where I got to command and participate or just observe? The best game that I ever got to command and participate in is a difficult thing to judge as I have been involved in so many games over the past 30 years, it would be virtually impossible to pick the best game. I guess I can pick two of my favorites from the long list, not because I was on the winning side, but because they were so fun to participate in them either as a player or a referee.

The first was from when I was still in high school and I got to go play in a weekend long Napoleonic game - I don't recall if it was a historical re-fight or if it was just a big game. I was fairly bored at the outset as deployment took the better part of Friday night and we were playing at a friend of my cousin's garage on the floor on these raised board sections. The board must have been close to 400 square feet in size as it filled the two plus car garage. You walked on the board to move troops.

I finally got assigned my command the following morning - I was Russian or Prussian and I was ordered to command the Cossack/light cavalry Division. I had nearly 20 regiments of Cossacks and other cavalry. My orders were to prevent the French from getting their Grande Batterie across the river. I don't recall what troops my opponents had, but they didn't have much cavalry, but loads of infantry and guns. I managed to chase off his cavalry by noon Saturday, but by then, the French infantry had pushed across the bridge and had a foot hold.

For the rest of Saturday and all morning Sunday, I was engaged in launching wave after wave of cavalry across the board into the French lines. I recall that when my units would hit the French squares, they had a minimal chance of actually breaking the square, but it forced them all into square where the Russian guns were given great targets and it prevented them from using their guns or massing their Grande Batterie to fire on the Russian lines.

The game was in 25mm and the charge range of my light cavalry was 45 inches so they would start their charges nearly three feet from the enemy lines and on occasion a unit would get lucky and break a square and get to run amok in the rear areas. At the end of the game, I had less than one third of my command in total figures, most of the regiments were well below half strength, but the division was still intact and none of the regiments had routed off board or been completely destroyed.

The game was amazing, because of the sheer number of figures on the board. I've heard of larger games, seen larger games, and participated in a few, but this one was special - because it was my first huge game, and it lasted three days. I don't think any of us ever gamed that type of game again - it was almost as hard on the participants as a real battle as it wasn't warm outside and the garage wasn't heated except by bodies and some space heaters.

The second game was a game which I was the referee and had designed the scenario for a friend and my dad. The game was a World War II game on the Russian Front, 1943. The Germans held a town and as their objective had to hold a crossroads for a certain time period (I think I said 10 turns). The German forces consisted of an officer with three subordinate squads, and a sniper team, with a total of about 15 figures. He had two light machine guns, one Panzerfaust. The Russians numbered about 60 figures, including two heavy machine guns and they were reinforced with a tank which would appear at a random point after Turn 2, so it could arrive on table edge by Turn 3.

The German player had a great time with his sniper team as they held up the Russians for nearly 5 or 6 Turns as the shot rang out, a Russian would die, and the entire mass of Russians would go to ground, fall back into cover, or otherwise refuse to advance across the open expanse covered by the sniper. The Russian player (Dad) eventually found a way to go round the sniper's field of fire by rushing some troops forward to draw the sniper's fire, and rushing others around to flank the position. The Germans responded by deploying their light machine gun to cover the approach, but there were too many wooded areas to cover and ultimately the Russians got a toe hold in the town.

The battle was fun, the terrain was pretty good, but the tension of the game was the most I've ever seen before or since. The Germans held the village by their fingernails and were fighting the desperate struggle to hold it while being out-numbered 4 to 1 in a skirmish game. Further, the Germans and Russians actually behaved like you would during the game, hiding from sniper fire, avoiding cross fire positions, picking your targets, and the like. The players, my friend Ted, and Dad, were literally on the edge of their seats from Turn 2 on with each roll of the dice.

The game went the distance and the ability of the Germans to continue holding the town revolved around one die roll - that of their ONE panzerfaust attempt on the Russian's tank. The Russians managed to roll for their tank and kill the sniper's spotter, effectively eliminating the sniper team. The Russians then pushed the tank into the village without close infantry support to fend of any German assault. The panzerfaust MISSED the target and the 6 Germans then retreated off board as they did not want to continue the fight for the village with the nearly 30 surviving Russian infantry and tank hunting them down.

What are your favorite conventions and/or clubs?

I've been to GenCon in Indianapolis once - and it was amazing because of the sheer size of the convention and the number of games, vendors, and people. I have been to Enfilade in Olympia, Washington the past two years, have been to Tactical Solutions in Spokane, Washington, and Cour d'Alene in Idaho the past two years. I like Enfilade very much as it is a good sized historical game convention with a very nice venue/hotel. Enfilade has some vendors, not as varied as GenCon obviously, but they are very nice to deal with. I've been to MisCon in Missoula, Montana for several years which is a science fiction convention and was even on the board at one point. I haven't been back since I moved away in 1998, preferring to go to other conventions with historical games as the emphasis.

What is a best kept secret in the hobby?

I think that the best kept secret in the hobby is the fact that there are so many people who do paint, play games, and enjoy the hobby, but they are secretive about it. They don't venture out to explore sharing their experiences in the hobby with others. So many times, I've gotten to meet people who have been in the hobby for years, but they are so reclusive that you don't get to know they do it for several years. For example, in Montana, there are quite a few gamers out here, more than I would have ever anticipated and many more join the hobby when they get here (military base) than you would expect. However, many of the people who do game, are reclusive and do not advertise or let anyone know they play games. There is the "D&D" stigma where some non-gamers think that what we do is the devil's work. It's totally untrue and narrow-minded, but the bias runs deep and the stigma also runs deep as well.

There are so many blogs around and internet, like TMP, where people give hints, tips, tricks, and advice on how to do virtually anything related to the hobby to see, try, and experiment with. Things like the "dip" method, magic wash, dry-brushing techniques, pinning, and the like. There are as many who love to share their experiences openly as there are those who like to keep secrets.

Who do you really respect within the hobby?

I respect my dad, as he is to me one of the founders of the hobby regardless of the fact that he hasn't written any rules, created any games, or published anything. If my dad were not involved in the hobby, I doubt that there would be nearly as many gamers out there without him. I recall the literally hundreds of people who passed through his Chess Club during his 38 years as a teacher who learned to play Kingmaker, Richthofen's War, and many other games, who then became participants in the hobby. I remember all of the people from Malmstrom Air Force Base who took his classes at the Park College campus on base, who participated in games because he was involved and who now continue in the hobby.

As for people who are in the hobby as professionals, I would have to say that I don't know many that I've met in person. I respect most of the people whose games or game systems I have played because of the amount of time and energy they have devoted to creating something which I have enjoyed. I respect the Perry brothers because their sculpting abilities have inspired so many other sculptors to turn it up a notch. I also respect Martin Blow, many of you may or may not know him, but he has written some of the best rules systems I've played and he is an excellent painter and faster than I could ever hope to be and retain the quality he does. Martin was critical of my painting early on, and has lessened to some degree as I've gotten better, but his criticism pushed me to do better and I respect him for that as he gave me tips and pointers on techniques which I still use today.

What are some unique things that you've done/seen/thought of?

I guess I've not done anything really unique that I recall as a part of this hobby, generally painting and playing games pretty much as everyone else has done. I did create a unique piece of terrain which earned the game Best of Show at Enfilade 2008 which I am fairly proud of making. It isn't unique in that it is based on a historical castle fairly extensively, but perhaps the construction methodology to some degree. This is a difficult question because so much of this hobby is based upon history unless it is science fiction or fantasy and in that realm I am not very inventive. If it isn't allowed in the rules, I don't bother trying to build/create it.

What would you like to see in the hobby?

I'd like to see more people in the hobby participating in the various facets of it and enjoying it more openly. If we do not promote the hobby and all of the good things it is about, then the hobby will die a slow death as we grow old and fade. Increasingly so much of what happens is becoming digital as better games, graphics and simulations are made with better research to support them. PC gaming has already eliminated many people who used to be in the hobby as gamers because they don't have to dedicate any time to set up a game, paint figures for the game, or dedicate a room and time to read rules to play a game. This hobby isn't purely about painting, or gaming, or any other single aspect, but it is about interactions between people at the face-to-face level - not over a computer screen, text messages, or interactive voice chat.

Thanks for speaking with us!

© 2009, Gabriel Landowski