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Inside the World of Wargames

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As old as war itself, wargames have always fascinated people around the globe. Jon McGinty explains how they work, why devotees love them, when it embraced fantasy and how technoloy is changing the game.

Playing wargames, or simulated warfare. (Jon McGinty photo)

Wargames are essentially games which attempt to simulate armed conflict, real or imagined, among individuals, armies, nations or even entire species. Chess is one of the oldest, although it’s greatly changed from its historical beginnings as a representation of pre-gunpowder combat between two armies.

The first “modern” wargames appeared in the 17th century, but were mostly elaborate variations on chess, and intended as amusements for royalty. During the 19th century, the Prussians studied actual battles and used wargames to train troops and plan future battles. They replaced the game boards of “war chess” with sand tables to model terrain more realistically.

Science fiction writer (and pacifist) H.G. Wells is considered by many to be the “father of civilian wargaming.” In 1913, he published a book called Little Wars, in which he described a model of physical combat using miniature cannons to knock down toy soldiers. Other military writers and historians developed games which simulated naval combat, using scale model ships.

During World Wars I and II, wargames were often used to plan or conduct actual operations. During the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, for example, staff members of the German 5th Panzer Army used a wargame already in progress to direct events.

For many years, miniatures were the only form of wargames in existence, used mainly by members of the military. In 1952, Charles Roberts of Baltimore, Md., designed and published what became the first successful civilian board game, Tactics. Roberts went on to start the Avalon Hill Game Company (AHGC), and earned the informal title of the “father of board wargaming.” He and his company also published the first magazine devoted to this new hobby, The General.

In 1969, Jim Dunnigan, a former game designer for AHGC, started a new gaming company called Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI), and began publishing a gaming magazine called Strategy & Tactics (S&T), which included a game in each issue. Both AHGC and SPI were joined by numerous other publishers in the following decade.

This proliferation of games and gamers was driven in part by the onset of gaming conventions, which were filled with new products, demonstrations, seminars and tournaments.

Our own area of the Midwest produced two well-known designers of wargames. Frank Chadwick, co-founder of Game Designers Workshop (GDW) in Normal, Ill., designed Drang Nach Osten, one of the first “monster” games, so-called because of its size, with eight maps and 1,800 counters. And Gary Gygax in Lake Geneva was co-designer of Dungeons & Dragons, the role-playing game (RPG) which started that genre. He became co-founder of Tactical Studies Research (TSR), which sponsored one of the first gaming conventions, Gen Con, now held annually in Indianapolis.

The rise of computer games and role-playing and fantasy games has fragmented the gaming community and reduced the overall number of historical gamers, especially those who play board games, but a lively population of them still exists.

Besides the distinction between board games and miniatures, modern wargames can be categorized into four main groups.

• Historical games, by far the largest group, are based on real past events, and portray the same forces, terrain and objectives which faced the original combatants.

• Hypothetical games describe conflicts that haven’t yet happened, but could have in the past or might in the future. For example, during the Cold War, many games were based on possible combat between NATO forces and the USSR.

Science fiction and fantasy games often use a storyline from works of fiction, to create an imaginary setting. Games based on “Star Trek” and “Lord of the Rings” are examples. A relatively new genre called “Steam Punk” generates story lines within a Victorian-era world but with some modern technology added (as did the TV show, “The Wild, Wild West”).

Historical board games work all this out on a board which resembles a map containing the significant terrain utilized by original participants. Most games superimpose hexagons on the map to regulate movement, although some use areas or interconnected boxes. Units are represented by cardboard counters with information printed on them, like a drawing of the unit’s main vehicle or weapon, or a military symbol. Numerical information, such as movement factors and combat strengths, is also shown.

A TEC, or terrain effects chart, correlates units and movement costs to traverse various terrain. A combat results table (CRT) compares attacker to defender strengths as ratios, and shows the outcome of various results on die rolls, which are used to resolve combat. The disposition of forces, the schedule of any upcoming reinforcements, and the objectives for each player are explained in the rules.

Board game designers try to anticipate all situations and questions players may encounter, so the rules can become quite complex. In addition, the gaming community has a long-standing tradition of treating wargames as “works of art in progress,” so errata are often published online or in magazines to clarify post-production issues.

All wargame designers walk a line between the extremes of realism (rules complexity) and playability. Games must also be flexible enough to allow each player choices that can lead to victory or defeat, and not lock them into only one historical outcome.

Historical miniatures games are played with cast metal or plastic figures that represent individual soldiers or guns, from 6mm to 54mm, or ships, vehicles, and planes that vary from 1:6000 scale to HO model railroad size. Games are played on a tabletop or floor surface on which is constructed realistic terrain similar to a model train layout. Movement is regulated with tape measures, and in the case of ships or planes, turning gauges.

Part of the appeal to miniatures gamers is painting the figures or vehicles and creating the scenery, and some games can be very elaborate. At one recent convention, the gamemaster used running water and a pump to simulate a river, complete with minnows swimming in a pond. Both board games and miniatures struggle with the unrealistic fact that players can usually see all the opponent’s forces and their disposition. To add “fog of war” realism to their games, some designers have used hidden units, dummy counters, inverted units, or off-map maneuvers. To simulate command and control issues, die rolls are sometimes used to limit the ability of units to follow orders in a timely manner.

Mark Anderson, 62, of Roscoe, Ill., is a retired high school history teacher and football/wrestling coach. This past spring he was inducted into the Wisconsin Football Hall of Fame. He hosts an historical miniatures wargaming group (Anderson’s Irregulars) every Wednesday evening in his 50-by-15-foot game room. “Our gaming group started meeting in Beloit, my home town, about 30 years ago,” says Anderson. “It’s kind of like our bowling league. I’ve met some of my best friends in this hobby.”

Duke Seifried, pictured center, ponders his next move at a weekly gaming session with Mark Anderson’s Irregulars.

Anderson’s interest in wargaming started when he was a kid constructing scale models and painting military figures. This led to an interest in history, which became his major in college, and later his profession.

“I’m probably as much a painter and collector of miniatures as I am a player,” says Anderson. “The historical games are challenging, it’s fun to collect the soldiers, research the uniforms, paint and label the figures. I enjoy the organization [of forces] as much as the playing.”

Anderson estimates his collection contains at least 20,000 miniatures, representing combatants from Ancients through World War II, and in scales from 15mm to 28mm. His “first love” is the Napoleonic Era, from about 1792 to 1815.

“I like the variety of uniforms, the forces and actions, and the commanding presence of men like Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington,” says Anderson. “I probably own 30 to 40 Napoleonic rules sets. My friend, Rob Loken, and I are currently designing our own Napoleonic game system. We’re trying to capture how that particular period should be played.”

In the mid-1980s, Anderson and friends organized a mini-gaming convention at the Wagon Wheel Resort in Rockton. For a flat fee, attendees got a room, plenty of food and drinks, and an opportunity to play Napoleonic games for the entire weekend.

“Guys came from all over the country.” recalls Anderson. “There was nothing like it around here at the time.”

Anderson has used his hobby to enhance his history classrooms several times over the years, using miniatures to demonstrate battles and campaigns.

“I would get as many as 60 kids around a gaming table, cast them as commanding generals, then pose strategic or tactical questions to them,” says Anderson. “Then we would discuss the historical outcome of the real battle.”

Mark’s dad was a combatant in World War II, but he prefers not to game anything later than that war.

“Vietnam is still too close,” he says. “I had friends in that war, and it had too much personal impact on me.”

When asked what he thinks would surprise most people unfamiliar with the hobby, he replies:
“I think they probably don’t realize how much effort we put into studying any historical period—reading first person accounts, researching uniforms—the amount of scholarly activity serious historic gamers and collectors do…and how expensive it can become. At fair market value, my collection is probably worth more than my house!”

Duke Seifried, 78, of Janesville, is a living legend in the wargaming hobby, what he calls the “Grand Obsession.” At various times he has worked as an artist, sculptor, painter, diorama maker, model builder, game designer, writer, public speaker, entrepreneur, and gamemaster.

Seifried played with cast metal soldiers as a young boy, then spent some time in the military before deciding to turn his hobby into a business. In the late 1960s, he started or was involved in several gaming companies, including Kriegspielers, Custom Cast, Heritage, and TSR, where he developed new packaging and marketing techniques, product designs and much more for miniature games.

By 1989, Seifried had become one of the most recognizable personalities in American wargaming, and was named Person of the Year by the Midwestern Wargamers Association, one of many national awards he has received during his career.

“I had an RV in which I traveled from coast to coast, giving demonstrations at conventions, distributorships, and TV stations,” recalls Seifried. “I went everywhere and was interviewed by everyone.”

Seifried’s reputation became international when he expanded his enterprises abroad, including reciprocal agreements with miniatures manufacturers in England. He also met and became close friends with Donald Featherstone, the “grandfather of British wargaming,” who died recently.

“I am very craft-oriented, and enjoy that part of the hobby the most,” says Seifried. “I like building the dioramas, the landscapes on which the games are played. That’s what you see first in any game.”

Seifried’s demonstrations and participation games at conventions nationwide have become star attractions. Each one takes almost a year to prepare, including research, construction, figure painting, and scenario development. He describes them as extravaganzas, or interactive museum displays, and has created almost 50 so far. They have been sold all over the world.

Duke Seifried is a living legend in the wargaming hobby.

Dan Bartlett, 51, is the curator of exhibits and education in the Logan Anthropology Museum at Beloit College, and a life-long wargamer. He got started in the hobby with historical board games in the 1970s.

“I was always interested in military history,” says Bartlett, “but reading a book is static. A game allows players to control the course of events. They are a way to ‘try on’ history.”

Although he owns several games, Bartlett does not consider himself a collector, nor does he limit his gaming to just board games.

“Each kind of game has its own advantages and disadvantages,” Says Bartlett. “Many board games can take several sessions to complete, especially the bigger ones, whereas most miniature games can be finished in one afternoon or evening. Miniatures can be used for numerous battles within the same time period, but board games are usually limited to a particular battle, campaign or war.”

Bartlett also occasionally enjoys playing fantasy or role-playing games (RPGs), such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) with friends. He uses the “old school” rules for D&D, utilizing pencil and paper without miniature figures or cardboard counters. (D&D and similar games involve players creating or assuming a character with certain skills and vulnerabilities, then being led on a quest by a gamemaster to discover hidden treasures or solve problems. Any combat is usually one-on-one or skirmish battles.)

“A board game must have specific rules that try to govern everything, but a gamemaster must be flexible and apply certain rules in certain situations,” explains Bartlett. “The goal is not necessarily to win, but to enjoy the emerging story line. Really competitive people have a hard time playing RPGs.”

While not needing to win to enjoy the experience, Bartlett does want to feel he played well when he finishes a wargame.

“If we’re playing a multi-player game, I want to do my part well, make the right decisions, not let my teammates down,” he says. “When playing an historical game, I can also measure my performance against the outcome of the actual battle.”

When asked to explain why he plays wargames, Bartlett has no easy answer.

“War is this incredibly tragic, horrible experience, whenever and wherever it happens,” he says. “I’ve been conflicted as to why I find military history so interesting – why, when I oppose war and violence, I still have such a great time playing these games that try to simulate it. I guess it has something to do with being able to make pretend life-and-death decisions that affect many people.

“Military history and gaming have always attracted many people, especially men. And it appeals to players across the political and socio-economic spectrum. We’re not all a bunch of right-wing militants.”

Ken Lythgoe, 64, is the owner of the Royal Hobby store in Rockford, and has been in business since 1971. He sells miniatures, both historic and fantasy, boxed games, models, books, periodicals, railroad scenery and hobby supplies, and has seen many changes in wargaming.

“The customer base is getting smaller and older,” says Lythgoe. “There are fewer and fewer young people interested in historical wargaming, presumably because they are more interested in video or computer games.We still have customers who play with miniatures, but now the larger sizes [28mm] are more popular. The guys are getting older, and can’t see the littler figures to paint them.”
Lythgoe also notes that, because of new manufacturing technology, most miniatures are now made of plastic rather than metal, which also makes them less expensive for the customers.

“But historical board games with cardboard counters have almost ceased to exist,” says Lythgoe. “I can still order some from publishers, but I don’t stock many because nobody buys them. We sell more scale models and hobby supplies than we do games or miniatures.”

According to Lythgoe, some gaming systems are still quite popular – games which use a basic set of rules for multiple modules, and which introduce new modules periodically. These include Flames of War for World War II miniatures, Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder for RPG and fantasy games, which he credits for bringing more women into the hobby.

“We’ll always have a core of historical gamers, but their numbers will continue to shrink as they get older,” says Lythgoe. “And most of them have all the figures they need to play their games. If you look far enough into the future, miniatures will disappear and become antiques. Games will all be on computers. It’s a newer generation embracing a newer technology.”

Karl Krueger, 62, has been the owner/operator of The Last Square, a gaming and hobby supply store in Madison, Wis., for the past 20 years. His inventory includes miniatures, games, rules sets, books, models, rockets, hobby and terrain-building supplies. Krueger has also observed the aging and dwindling numbers of historical gamers, and the increase in fantasy gamers, especially among young people.

“In reality, all games are fantasy, all make-believe,” says Krueger. “In an historic game, players take on the role of a real-life commander of ships or planes or troops, and make decisions accordingly. In a fantasy game, your role is imagined, but both kinds of games use a lot of the same mechanics [for example, both use dice to resolve combat]. The main difference today is that fantasy games are more popular with kids.”

Krueger attributes this trend to a variety of factors, including the proliferation of computers and video games, and the attitudes of some gamers and convention hosts.

“There’s a small percentage of players in each camp that are purists, and play their type of game exclusively,” says Krueger. “That exclusivity has permeated the historic gaming industry, and hasn’t been very healthy for the hobby. Also, some historic gamers can be very anal about the details in their games. Fantasy games, like Warhammer, on the other hand, encourage players to use their imaginations.”

Krueger admits that computer games have some distinct advantages over miniatures or board games. You don’t need an opponent because you can play against the artificial intelligence of the computer; games can be stopped, stored and restarted at the players’ convenience; and you don’t have to collect, paint and store figures.

“But you’re missing the point if you think the whole point is just to play the game,” says Krueger. “The game itself is only the venue for a lot of things that are more important, like socializing. There’s no face-to-face human interaction with a computer. I think that’s why some kids today can be rude. They don’t know how to interact with other people. But when you play a game around a table, you’re socializing, taking about things that interest you with people who probably have similar interests.”

According to Krueger, there are other intangible benefits for young people who get involved in the wargaming hobby. “With miniatures, for example, you learn how to follow directions, paint figures, exercise your imagination and artistic skills, use reading and math skills. You don’t get much of that sitting in front of a computer or a game box screen.”

To support his opinion, Krueger relates an experience he had with a young boy who participated all summer long in one of his store’s game nights. When school resumed in the fall, his mother called to tell Krueger that her son, who had some autistic problems, had advanced two grade levels in math and reading.

“She said the teachers wanted to know what she’d done with her son over the summer to make such an improvement,” recalls Krueger. “All we did was teach him how to play Warhammer, a game which he thoroughly enjoyed.”

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