Sennybridge 2004, United Kingdom (2004-09-06)
It is never easy to compare events and games around the world, but when you stumble upon the event of the year, you can't help but notice. Forget the game itself and look at the credentials of the organizers: Ex-SAS elites managing one of the most prestigious military tactics training school in the UK, backed by resources from the British military. When asked how such a spectacular event could be put together on restricted grounds with access to military hardware, the answer was obvious yet so true - "Its who you know". And for the 300+ people who attended the event, that translated into one dream weekend that is difficult to top.
Located in the middle of the UK, Sennybridge is home to a secret military training facility developed by the British government during the Balkan war. Constructed on the lush rolling meadows of Wales, the training facility is a well maintained Balkan village complete with a church and 28 buildings of various sizes. It is a complete village with houses, post offices, government offices, etc. There is a main street running through the village, with many small side streets and fenced off gardens and lawns that are attached to each house. The buildings themselves look homely enough from the outside and are finished in clean grey concrete on the inside. There are basements, underground tunnels, trap doors, secret windows, attics, and a countless selection of nooks and crannies to hide in. Outside on the street, remnants of old British tanks and APCs lie burnt yet mysteriously dignified - almost as if guarding this ghost-town. A fully furnished executive command center is located in the church tower - with large spotless glass windows that offers a complete view of what is going on within the entire village at any time. Networked loudspeakers are situated everywhere at all points in the village, used to broadcast instructions and background noise like tanks and explosions to increase the ambiance of war. Are you jealous yet? You don't have to be since you too can join the fun. Read on. (Place your mouse cursor over photos for more commentary)
About The Organizers
The Ex-SAS outfit that hosts the Sennybridge event annually is The Stirling Services Group. Renowned for their professionalism and ability to hold extremely authentic war scenarios, the Sennybridge game has been gaining international status with players flying in from all over the world to attend. The 320 players who attended were the lucky ones since registration was closed early to avoid over-crowding the event. Future events will be announced on the Stirling Services website so check for details and sign up early if you want to taste this for yourself. Stirling Services also provides specialized training classes for executives, gamers, and law enforcement agencies from around the world. They have trained units of the British law enforcement agency, members of the South Korean army, and many weekend warriors who want to have a go at storming a jet-plane in a terrorist response call! Stirling Services owns a large collection of buildings for training, and our tour revealed many office buildings riddled with bullet holes (yes, the real kind). Their programs are not cheap but definitely exclusive and not for the faint of heart. For example, they offer a survival program where students are sent into the woods with nothing more than a bottle of water, and are hunted down by military trained operatives over 3 days. Once captured, they undergo "torture" tests that test their limits. If that sounds like a bit too much for you, then how about their 6-day para-training program that lets you jump out of planes for insertion behind enemy lines?
Rest assured that you will get top-notch instruction. If in doubt, just review the footage of SAS operatives storming the terrorist-held Iranian embassy in London many years ago. You will see an SAS operative pasting explosives on a window on the second floor, and then rushing in immediately after the windows are blown out. That would be John McAleese, one of the instructors at Stirling Services. And you need not be intimidated by these wholly serious instructors - they are friendly and nice people who are eager to share their knowledge with you.
Held over 2 days from August 20 - 22, the event was nothing short of incredible. RedWolf Airsoft sponsored and attended the game - and we must admit that it is the best that we have ever seen. Of course, it helps that the game was held in a military training facility. But the fact that enthusiasts like Curt and James drove their authentic Humvees and Ferrets to be part of the game made everything feel so much more real. Not to be outdone, Stirling Services arranged a fully functional APC to participate in the missions. Fully armored and seating 10, the APC runs on tracks that rumble and shake as it roars through the middle of the village. At any given moment, you can see John Mac's head sticking out from the top as he commands the huge vehicle through town with the same ease as many of us would drive a compact convertible! Curt's own Humvee is nothing to sneeze at either - it is a fully restored Humvee that is painted with hard-to-get US military paint (again, it's who you know). Originally starting life as part of a US Marines unit in the UK, Curt bought the soft-top Humvee and spent 3 years restoring it and converting it into a hard-top. The result is amazing and one cannot even tell that it is a decommissioned vehicle. A professional race-car driver himself, Curt pilots the Humvee through rivers and up hills courageously and sends most of us diving from the grab-handles. The Ferret is a very classy vehicle itself and owner James says it is a 1960's vehicle that he bought and restored completely. With a pop-hatch on top for a gunner and side-hatches for small-arms fire, the Ferret is fast and versatile - able to climb hills and plough through water with ease. It's throaty engine rumbles like a can of beans in your belly, allowing it to keep pace with the Humvee. Not bad at all for a 45 year old piece of machinery!
Variety Is The Name Of
The Korean war. Americans (or the Yanks) are battling it out with the North Koreans in a series of small battles to gain position in the long war. Each side has their own Generals and Commanders, all denoted by specially colored arm bands. With the benefit of a field with bunkers and trenches, coupled with the full village, the game was afforded a great amount of variety - offering jungle, field and city skirmishes. With the tunnels and trap-doors, guerilla tactics were also possible. The Americans wore white arm-bands and the Koreans wore yellow arm-bands, which worked fine during the day but could have worked better at night when it was hard to tell the difference.
Basically there were two main parts of play - the day game and the night game. The day game was held up in a rather large hill with long convoluted trenches, piles of sandbags, stone bunkers, etc. The Americans had the uphill position, while Koreans had to attach from underneath. Playing on the Korean side and working uphill, the words from "Sun Tze's Art of War" kept ringing in my head - "The higher ground will always be advantageous". I guess Sun Tze was right because the Americans creamed the Koreans. Sitting down at the re-spawn point at the bottom of the hill, an endless stream of 30-40 "Koreans" would steadily walk back. It was a massacre as the Americans lay fortified in their high bunkers and deep trenches looking down upon us. Frustrated at our inability to break through, I charged up the hill and came upon a small trench where an enemy lay. We exchanged full auto fire from a distance of 5 feet before he ducked into the trench. Thinking that he retreated to wind his magazine, I charged forward blasting away with my auto-winding magazine. But alas, I felt the BBs impact my face just as I saw a cloud of smoke emitting from the end of his M203 launcher. The adrenaline rush was so strong that I did not even hear it. I tripped forward and landed on my head, with the rest of me folding over and ending with my knees next to my ears. Needless to say, this was a painful experience but I have to give it to the guy - instead of a blind shootout, he used his brains and won. As fun as the day game was, though, everyone was already talking about the night-game - the "main event".
So as the skies darkened, the Koreans spread out and filed into the village buildings and fortified their positions in preparation for an onslaught by the Americans. The village itself is pitch-black with no lights during the battle, and given the cloudy skies, there was little hope for depending on moonlight for visibility. "Your eyes will adjust and you'll be able to see by the light of the fires", I was told. Fires? It turned out that the organizers set fire to all the derelict tanks and APCs around the village to add to the ambiance of war. In past events, they also broadcasted war sounds through the loudspeakers to make it all very real. "You know that first scene from Saving Private Ryan?", asked John and Sarah, a couple who were holding down the Korean house with me, "well its just like that and your heart is really thumping, and your adrenaline is rushing". "Maybe its no big deal for an SAS soldier to hear these loud sounds since they just tune it out. But for us regular people, that just gets you all worked up and it really does feel like the real thing". While the instructors did set most of the vehicles alight into huge blazing bonfires, they failed to play the background sounds this time due to technical reasons. (Thank you John and Sarah if you are reading this, for keeping the RedWolf team alive with those delicious chocolate bars!)
But even without the bonfires, many players were equipped with night vision goggles (NVGs). Many were also equipped with Tracers so shootouts almost became a laser show with green or orange bullet-hoses streaking with the chilly winter night. And as if that wasn't enough, almost everyone carried a flash-bang or some sort of grenade that lit up the night. According to the organizers, basic pyrotechnics were allowed. But the fact was that most people carried home-made grenades that shook the ground and stunned anyone within a 20 foot radius. One grenade even caused a tree to catch fire and the organizers had to quickly run over to stamp it out. The rules regarding grenades were simple - if one was thrown into the room that you occupied and no solid walls stood between yourself and the explosion, you were automatically out.
This turned out to be a key tactic as the American forces invaded the buildings one by one. Their approach always came with a full convoy comprising the Humvee, the Ferret, the APC, and several jeeps and trucks. The first approach landed them into the center of town which led to their immediate alienation - just like in Saving Private Ryan. Korean forces played lasers into the APC as the rear doors opened and shot everyone inside before they even left their seats. The second invasion was much more thought out and the convoy attacked the perimeter buildings first, slowly working their way through the entire village. Using massive spotlights, the Humvee and trucks lit up every hostile window like the sun, which (1) blinded us Koreans completely, and (2) gave them a clear view of any heads sticking into the line of fire. This technique kept us from shooting at all and before we knew it, enemy forces had already accumulated at our doorstep. Pinned down, all we could do was play our lasers and rifles into the stairwell to keep them at bay. But a couple of grenades later, we were all wiped out. Marshals stood on our floor to ensure we called our outs when these grenades went off.
Fighting until 1am, the objective was to take as many buildings as possible and have them counted so that we could continue along the same battle lines in the morning. To indicate wounded fighters, we were each given a glow-stick which would be taken out of our pockets after we were hit. Flashing a glow-stick meant that we could avoid being hit as we trudged back to the re-spawn point at the other end of the village.
Fighting continued in the morning and we continued to shoot it out in and out of the village, avoiding "drive-by" shootings by armored vehicles every now and then. Snipers turned out to be a valuable weapon given their 500fps limit, a good 150fps over the 350fps limit of AEGs. The Glock18C was also very popular as a room clearing tool - people would stick them around doorways and corners to shower people hiding under window sills.
The fighting was serious yet fun at the same time. Given the size of the site, it was difficult to rejoin your unit after you were re-spawned, so many players would join up with other units based on convenience. It was also a bit difficult to tell the enemy from friendlies given that we all wore woodland camouflage attire, which meant that we needed code words to tell who was who. But apart from all this, it was still a world of fun. The building invasions were lots of fun and felt like a scene taken from the US TV show "Cops". People were extremely friendly and while there were occasionally some heated tempers, everyone remembered it was just a game and made sure not to spoil the fun. Of course it also helped that there were so many marshals on site to control any outbreak (28 of them, 1 stationed in every house).
In support of the event, RedWolf Airsoft raffled off numerous T-shirts and caps, and gave away an RWC SR16 CQB AEG worth USD 600 to a lucky winner. We had a great time and look forward to going back again in the next year. For any of you interested in attending a game of such magnificent proportions, we encourage you to keep your eyes open for the next Sennybridge event and make your way out to the Queen's country. We promise you won't be disappointed.