Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Miniature Wargames’ Versatility

Many facets of the adventure gaming hobby have a do-it-yourself aspect (DIY). Roleplaying gamers spend time creating their own settings and scenarios. Miniature wargamers work hard crafting terrain and props besides painting and basing figures. Both forms offer flexibility in altering rules (“house-ruling”) to better suit people’s different styles of play or level of detail/complexity. (Less so board and card games, including board wargames, all of which, by their very nature, include everything one needs in the box, ready to go.) Which means roleplaying games and miniature wargames can combine their DIY suitability with gamers’ needs and preferences to customize the play experience for a particular audience, venue, or event. Over the years I’ve tried to introduce gaming to new audiences, most recently at the local museum. Although roleplaying games aren’t ideally connected with local history, historical miniature wargames possess the capacity for customization to a particular time and place...with some DIY legwork and a bit of research.

Miniature wargames offer a versatility rivaled only by roleplaying games. They involve a great deal of DIY work, though in many cases (miniatures and terrain) longtime grognards have previously crafted material on which to draw. To run a specific engagement I need to research the particulars, notably the units involved, lay of the land, and key elements in the flow of battle. A solid library of history books, notably ones from Osprey Publishing, certainly helps, but a quick visit to the local public library or <sigh> a search on Wikipedia also does the trick. Then I translate the historical information into game elements. How do I use the miniatures and terrain I already have to stage the engagement? Do I need to buy or craft more? Which of the several rule systems I like do I use and what adjustments (if any) do I make for this particular period or battle? I also take into account issues running the game with newcomers and kids, as well as the visual presentation.

Certainly some boxed games exist – what I’d call “board wargames” or “battle games” – which could suffice for running historical games. Titles like Battle Cry and Hold the Line: The American Revolution offer plenty of scenarios for famous engagements using terrain tiles and plastic figures. Ambitious game hosts could use these to design their own scenarios for local history. Enterprising gamers have also ported these board game rules to the miniature wargaming format with large hex-grid maps, modeled terrain, and ranks of painted miniatures.

All these options provide great flexibility in designing a local history wargame experience. They drawn on our own accumulated hobby resources (and sometimes serve as an excuse to buy more toys) and capitalize on our DIY effort to customize a game for a particular audience and venue.

The Battle of Trenton prepped
to run through an online meeting program.
I’d hoped to use the versatility inherent in miniature wargames to start a wargaming program with the local history museum. (Ultimately sanitized as “strategy gaming.”) The onset of the covid pandemic in 2020 derailed and delayed my aspirations. We had a date set (in late March 2020) for the initial “Wargaming History” gallery talk, with hopes for subsequent game days highlighting events from the county’s rich history. When conditions finally became more tolerable for (masked) group gatherings, I attempted to restart those plans. They didn’t get far: the initial gallery talk and a well-attended ironclads game went well enough, but my cautious response to the virulent omicron variant, to do online presentations and games, did not really get off the ground.

In planning these events the museum director wanted games focusing on the local county’s history or, at the very least, Virginia history. My initial gallery talk focusing on Civil War games included a very brief demonstration of a cavalry and cannon skirmish that occurred in September 1863 right outside town. The ironclads battle, ostensibly taking place on a more navigable western river, still emphasized the fighting between monitors and casemate ironclads like the famous Battle of Hampton Roads. Although our county saw numerous engagements during the Civil War – from small raids to massive battles like Cedar Mountain and Brandy Station – any battle involving Virginia or its citizens offered possibilities across three wars (French and Indian War, American War of Independence, American Civil War). Certainly anything featuring George Washington or Robert E. Lee remained fair game, which left plenty of possibilities.

Tepid response to museum wargaming offerings during the covid pandemic prompted a pivot to something new. The museum director hopes to focus future game-related programs on more accessible board games vaguely related to local history: Ticket to Ride (the railroad line that played a role in the Civil War still passes through town, past the depot building with the visitor center and museum); Settlers of Catan (popular in its own right yet focusing on colonization); and anything else with a vaguely tenuous connection to local or Virginia history. I had offered to run a game of Steve Jackson Games’ Dino Hunt Dice with large crafted components, but a hurricane canceled that event (our county has a quarry with a huge discovery of dinosaur footprints). I have half-jokingly suggested the museum could host a game of Pandemic, since that directly affected our county. And I’ve also half-jokingly suggested hosting a game session of C.I.A. (Collect It All), based on the actual CIA card game for training new agents...and inviting our Congressional Representative Abigail Spanberger, who served in the CIA.

I’d like to offer one more example of miniature wargames’ versatility for a public event, this time in a non-historical context. At a recent fan convention the local public library hosted, an organizer asked me to propose some events I might run. Aside from offering a presentation topic (engaging one’s fandom through games) I volunteered to run a kid/beginner-friendly miniatures wargame tied to a fandom. I have a small repertoire of miniature wargames based in transmedia fan properties – mostly tied to Star Wars, but a few others that interested me over the yearsbut since the local public library was hosting the event, I wanted to go with something with slightly more literary appeal. So I ran a battle between Middle-earth orcs and Rohirrim using Daniel Mersey’s Dragon Rampant rules. I’d run the scenario before, so everything was ready, but with the miniatures and terrain at hand I could design a few different scenarios if needed.

My adventure gaming hobby activities cover a vast range of form and genre. Some days I’m up for a board game ready right out of the box with rules leaving little room for interpretation and adaptation. Other days I’m exploring miniature wargames and roleplaying games...two forms that allow immersion beyond actually playing the game, but in many cases allow us to escape into game-prep-related activities like figure painting, terrain crafting, character and scenario creation, even world building. It’s easy to look at a board game box and quickly judge if it might be right for me or my intended audience. Miniature wargames might not interest everyone, but they offer far more versatility in adapting them for our friends, the public, students, and even just ourselves.

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