Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Star Wars Command’s Little Wars Heritage

For my birthday my son got me several sets of the Star Wars Command 54mm plastic soldier figures and not-to-scale vehicles. (The Little Guy loves getting other people presents he can play with/usurp, too.) They’ve been discounted at Walmart for months; I’ve watched fellow gamers and Star Wars fans snatch them up, play with them, even paint them like the old 25mm metal miniatures. I didn’t get any sets with the “Roll Attack Strikers” that enable one to attach vehicles and their bases, then pull back and send speeding to knock down enemy soldiers, though I saw them in other sets on the back of the packaging. Yet this entire set-up – toy soldiers standing around waiting for some mechanical contrivance from the enemy to knock them over – seemed oddly familiar...just like the gameplay H.G. Wells proposed in his Little Wars.

Those macrobinoculars won't help
find those Tusken Raiders....
Noted English writer H.G. Wells – also called the father of science fiction – published Little Wars in 1913, ironically only a year before Europe would plunge into an armed conflict so devastating it was dubbed “The War to End All Wars.” As wargames go it seemed pretty simple: players arrayed toy soldiers and artillery on a playing field, moved them around and shot at them with the artillery pieces. A very simple system resolved close combat, often resulting in captured soldiers as well as casualties. Nothing nearly as complex as the wargames created in the previous century by the father-son Reiswitz duo, their contemporaries and successors; certainly nothing as complex as the numerous miniature wargame rules available in the “modern” era of the hobby today. Ranged combat relied on a particular mechanical contrivance, a 4.7 naval gun toy manufactured by the same company that made toy soldiers popular at the time, the venerable Britains, Ltd. The toy gun shot little dowels at soldiers, knocking them over and sometimes causing collateral damage to nearby figures.

54mm Star Wars Command figures
face off against 25mm metal minis.
Just more than 100 years later toy manufacturer Hasbro produces a Star Wars-themed product with a very similar concept. The 54mm plastic miniatures cover a range of familiar characters – sandtroopers, heroes, Rebel pilots and troopers, even Ewoks – though rarely in the numbers one would like. Packs contain a few similar figures in different poses, but, for instance, some include secondary combatants like Rebel pilots and Imperial officers in the same numbers as such standard “soldiers” as Rebel troopers and stormtroopers. They’re perfect for rough play in little hands. But Star Wars Command sets hearken back to Little Wars with the inclusion of an added game element, the “Roll Attack Striker” to which one can affix some of the not-to-scale vehicles included in certain sets. This mechanical contrivance, a descendent of the 4.7 inch spring-loaded toy cannon of H.G. Wells’ day, works much like a pull-back toy car. The promotional video I found somewhere online (from Hasbro UK) shows two kids gleefully sending the vehicles careening into opposing soldiers, though the remote-control Star Destroyer really seemed a bit over-the-top, annihilating any sense of play balance. Sure, one could just play with the plastic Star Wars toy soldiers on their own; but using the mechanical contrivance transforms freeform imaginative play into a more regimented game relying on player skill with the “Roll Attack Striker.”

The similarity doesn’t just end with game play. Back in the early 20th century collecting and playing with toy soldiers seemed a typical part of every little English boy’s life (or so we are led to believe). Today Star Wars toys seem – and have seemed for more than 30 year – a typical part of every little American boy’s life. Even at full price the Star Wars Command figures offer kids a chance to collect and field a small army to fight battles in their favorite universe far, far away.

Star Wars Command Ewoks
painted by Michael Hansen.
I am late to the party on acquiring Star Wars Command sets. I’ve only recently started getting excited about Star Wars again, both in the general fandom sense and in light of the new film releasing later this year. My son’s renewed interest in the classic Star Wars trilogy – and his interest in my related toys and games, like the hideously random yet awesomely fun Destroy Death Star game – also helps. Seeing how other gamers have capitalized on these minis as a cheap source of game miniatures has inspired me to grab what bargain sets fate sees fit to place in my path. I’ve yet to introduce the Little Guy to roleplaying games, though that’s on the horizon; running a D6 Star Wars roleplaying game seems inevitable, so these minis will find their way to the game table in visualizing combat situations. Hmmm, I’ll also have to consider how to use these figures with some modified rules for the basic horse-and-musket-era skirmish wargame rules bouncing around in my head....

Overall the Star Wars Command sets offer durable “toy soldiers” for kids with a Star Wars theme. The inclusion of the “Roll Attack Striker” is a nice nod (intentionally or otherwise) to H.G. Wells’ Little Wars and a gentle hint to inspire children to dabble in the most basic of miniature wargaming concepts. They’re great for gaming Star Wars fans, who’ve already started painting them and deploying them onto the gaming table.

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