Many figure manufacturers also produce some form of small scenic accessories. These are useful as dressing for dioramas, or during play as things for the soldiers to hide behind, and they are easy to produce using the same methods as figures. Naturally, they are often included in playsets (see forthcoming story).
ESCI was one of thee companies, but took a different approach to many by producing a set of components rather than finished items. To create useful items, one had to assemble them from the parts. Was this a good idea?
The ESCI Accessories
216 Battlefield Accessories
Year first produced:1985
L210xW130xH30 (box), Plastic 71g, Scale 1:72, Features: *
* Set can be assembled in many ways.
Our set is contained within the standard ESCI box, with on the front a white background and a scene illustrating the contents. Or rather, as we shall see, what can be constructed from the contents. Items shown are
- a watch-tower
- a low sandbag wall
- 2 chevaux de frise (spiked logs)
- 2 gabions (wicker containers)
- a log gate
- some barrels and crates
- a small log screen
On the back of the box, where there would normally be a painting guide for figures, we see instead an illustration of the various components that can be made, with the individual components picked out with numbers. These numbers, which run from 1 to 27, are keyed to small tabs on the sprue, so you can identify which parts are involved. The structures shown expand on those on the box front, by adding a small bridge, a palisade and a walkway (although the log gate is absent).
The sprue is soft plastic, the standard ESCI two-part affair, but far busier than usual because it contains a total of 136 pieces. At first sight, it’s all a bit overwhelming!
To make our review of the contents digestible, let’s break the 136 pieces down into several categories. Firstly, there are a few simple items that stand alone and need no construction. These consist of a ladder (essential to get to the top of the watch-tower!) and three wooden crates, which it should be noted are cast without a bottom, so have to be placed with that face downwards.
The second category of items have to be constructed, but usually from only a few pieces, and cannot really be put together in more than one way. These include some barrels, what looks like a feeding trough for horses, gabions and cheveaux de frise.
The two barrels are simply moulded in halves and need to be clipped together. The feeding trough has five parts – the bottom, two sides and two ends. The latter are angled inwards from the top, which is what makes me think that it is for animal food (it makes it easier for their tongues to scoop out the food). However, as ESCI don’t bother to name any of the items, this is just my opinion!
There are also two gabions in the set. These were wicker containers commonly used in siege operations during the horse and musket era, as they were light to carry into position, but once filled with earth provided an effective defence against enemy fire. In our set, the gabions are single pieces, which you bend into a circle and secure with a tab. Naturally, if used in a diorama, you would have to fill them.
The most complex item in this category is the cheval de frise (which literally translates as ‘Frisian Horse’), of which two are included. The cheval de frise was a defence used against horses (or to impede men, for that matter), and consisted of a large beam set, usually along four sides, with sharpened wooden spikes. Whichever way it stood, it presented a row of these spikes at chest-height to oncoming cavalry. Although heavy once constructed, it could, with care, be manhandled into or out of position and so might form part of more permanent field defences or be used as a removable barrier across a roadway.
The third category is that old favourite, the humble but flexible sandbag, which is used in warfare to protect positions to this day. There are 36 in the set, and they are moulded with a projecting lug and fixing hole on one surface; in fact, 12 of them have these fixtures on both surfaces and so can connect to a layer above and below. Using these to connect the bags together, a wall can be built that is 12 bags long and 3 high. Of course, with a little imagination, the sandbags could also be used as sacks filled with provisions.
The fourth category of part is intended to make more complex wooden structures, and consists of three lengths of log walling and an array of individual beams, of differing lengths and with an assortment of holes and peg arrangements. The instructions on the box illustrate how these parts can be assembled into useful items such a small trestle bridge, a watch-tower, some angled defensive screens, or log walls.
Most of the components in the set represent either supplies (sacks, crates etc) and field structures, especially those connected with encampments or siege works. ESCI did not state what era this set represents. However, they did include the set with all of their ‘Historic Battles’ playsets, which represented actions from Roman times through to colonial actions prior to the Great War. This is a long time period, but many of the items are quite generic and constructed from readily available pre-industrial materials, especially wood. Sacks and palisades are probably timeless, and the cheval de frise is known to have been in use from medieval times through to the Nineteenth century.
Of course, there aren’t enough pieces to build substantial structures. For example, the 36 sandbags available in the set will struggle to make more than an 8cm length if stacked 6 high; and the walls that can be constructed are similarly short. If you wanted to make a camp perimeter, or fortify more than a lookout, you would need to combine several sets.
Also, and this is the most annoying thing about the set, you don’t have enough parts to create all of the illustrated structures. I’m surprised at this, because the limitation is not mentioned on the box and I can imagine that purchasers could feel hard done by. For example, there are only enough lengths of palisade (one part 10 and two parts 9), to create the watch-tower or the trestle bridge or the walkway.
It’s a moot point whether the set is also missing a crucial element of the battlefield – anything relating to human habitation. There are no tents, cooking fires, or any of the other human impedimenta one might find in an encampment. Just saying…
With a set largely composed of parts from which useful structures have to be assembled, ease of construction is an important consideration. Especially if, like me, you are not blessed with infinite patience! And I have to confess that although I managed to build the structures, it wasn’t easy or entirely satisfactory.
Take the gabion, for example. It took me a few moments to work out that the trick to getting the tab on the end of the gabion to fit into the hole in the other end is to twist it to one side, and sort of slide it in place. Once rolled and secured, it looks OK-ish, but the tab is obvious and it’s almost impossible to get the ends to butt together without gaps. If you wanted to disguise these completely, some filling and gluing will be necessary. If you were a modeller planning to use it in a diorama setting, then this may not be an issue. But if you just wanted to display or use it from the box, the finished item looks sloppy. I can’t help wondering why ESCI didn’t make it in two halves like the barrels.
I was quite pleased with the cheval de frise that I put together. It’s a complex shape, and ESCI chose to model it by making the beam and two opposing rows of spikes in one piece, with a set of individual spikes to insert through holes in the beam at right angles. Inevitably, some of these just wouldn’t pass through. So, I ended up with one complete cheval de frise from the two provided. A bit of trimming and/or opening up with a scalpel would probably resolve this, but once again that requires some skill and patience. Would it have been impossible to make it in just two pieces? I wonder.
Putting some of the more complex structures together can be challenging. Naturally, they are a mite fiddly to assemble, especially if you have big hands. But the real challenge is that the various individual logs are difficult to distinguish from one another, and in some cases differ only by the location of the connecting pegs and holes that they are furnished with. Whatever you do, don’t remove the components from the sprue before you are ready to fit them together! The plan on the back of the box identifies them by number, but this is only found on the tabs on the sprue, so once removed they are difficult to identify.
Many of the components seem to have excess holes and pegs, most of which remain exposed after construction. This is especially true of the various logs. I assume this was necessary to allow them to be combined in different ways depending on the structures being made, and of course it would be easy to trim off unused pegs and fill the holes, but it would be a whole lot better if the problem didn’t exist in the first place.
I felt a sense of achievement at putting the watch-tower together without too much trouble, but try as I might, I couldn’t get it to sit squarely. You can see in the photo above that the sections of platform won’t lie flat, and the supporting platform below was just plain wonky. The construction is asymmetrical – note the side beams, the left one lying on top of the front and back, and the right side simply butting against the ends. In fact, the far end of the left-hand beam didn’t seem to have a peg or hole to secure it at all – it just floats. There is no cross-bracing. The result is a rickety and dangerous structure that is barely credible as an example of military engineering. Cowboy builders!
In the set we get an interesting mix of components (but no tents), from which a variety of useful structures can be assembled (but not all at the same time). There are just enough pieces in the set to dress a very small diorama, but more would be needed to construct any significant structure. For example, you would probably need two or three sets to provide adequate defences for a single box of infantry.
The concept of providing component parts is good in principle, since you can fashion a variety of items from them, and they enable more complex and 3D structures than would otherwise be possible. However, the downside here is the number of fiddly and superficially identical parts, which makes it difficult to follow the instructions, and the fragility and insubstantial nature of the constructions that can be built.
ESCI were no doubt influenced in the design of this set by their background in making hard plastic construction kits, where the purchaser can reasonably be expected to have the tools and skills to put together such assemblies. However, even for this audience the poor design of the final items lets the set down.
I can’t help thinking, it would have been far better to simplify things and provide fewer but larger components, even if fewer items could be constructed from them. As it is, despite offering some useful items for the battlefield, the majority of the set is a disappointment.
In 1993 ESCI announced the release of a new set of accessories – 252 Battlefield Accessory II. Judging from the catalogue image, it would have contained many of the same items as the first set, but perhaps avoided the more complex structures. However, we will never know for sure because it was never produced.
Italeri, who inherited the ESCI moulds, released their own 6030 Battlefield Accessory set in 2001. Rather than simply re-use the ESCI set, they opted to create a new one composed of more and larger items with far fewer components. It’s slightly more expensive than their regular figure sets, but it surely is a thing of beauty (see the Plastic Soldier Review website for a review).
It’s also worth noting that prior to the soft plastic range, ESCI had already produced a hard plastic set of accessories. 8060 Diorama Accessories contained items suitable for wars of the Twentieth Century (metal obstacles, sandbags, signposts, oil drums, etc).