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Military Miniatures - War Games

( Originally Published Mid 1950's )



War Games are no doubt as old as wars, and wars are as ancient as man. It is reasonable to believe that in all probability the ancient veteran returning from wars refought the wars with his friends and young sons. While he was away at the wars, the boys and old men no doubt created imaginary battles and there is a likelihood that figures or playing pieces of some sort became involved in the game. Military leaders have always known that visual instructions are absorbed more quickly than verbal ones, and they have used representative figures through the centuries to convey tactics to their lieutenants. Frederick the Great, considered the founder of Prussian greatness, who set the pattern of military precepts for many years, was a great exponent of the war game using model soldiers in training his officers. Great military leaders, both famous and infamous, before and since the time of Frederick have respected the military miniature's value; the miniatures now play a valuable part in regular army training as well as in cadet training in leading military schools.

Chess, a game whose origin is lost in antiquity, is the best known of all war games. It has been traced back to about 200 B.C., and its origin has been attributed to many people of different races. Many games are tales of individual skill, but in few contests is the mental competition keener or more demanding than in chess, where the board is a battlefield and the playing pieces are representative of military forces. With the King and Queen and Bishops representing those who directed the wars, the agile Knights and plodding Pawns illustrating the soldiers, and the Castles or Rooks reminiscent of the huge towers constructed in ancient times as offensive platforms and defensive shields, we have the panoply of war.

Chess men have been produced from many types of materials and in an endless number of styles. Wood, ivory, precious metals, iron, clay and other substances. have been carved, sculptured and cast into chess men of simple utilitarian designs, and the same variety of materials have also been used to create an endless variety of chess men ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Many museums and art galleries have in their collections superb and artistic sets. Collecting chess men is a hobby like collecting stamps, coins and military miniatures.

The most interesting and most representative of combative forces are chessmen carved in direct imitation of warring warriors. As we admire these carvings, we seem to be turning back the pages of history. Here in ivory are arrayed the forces of the Romans and the Goths; in another set we see the Crusaders on one side of the board and the Saracens on the other, with the kings carved in the likenesses of Richard the Lion Hearted and Saladin. Napoleon is frequently carved as a chess king; indeed the Emperor himself was an ardent player of chess, and in his final years at St. Helena would often call one of his few companions to join him at the chessboard where, as a bishop slanted over to capture a rook or a pawn edged toward a knight, the Corsican would dream back to the days of the Nile, or Moscow, or Waterloo.

In the Georgetown University at Washington, there is a beautiful set carved from apple and cherry woods illustrating the forces engaged in the 30-Years War. In a Philadelphia collection, there are several military sets, one based on our Civil War, with Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as opposing leaders. Today in Russia where chess is a popular game, sets are manufactured to represent the Soviet forces as opposed to those of the free world. One devotee of chess who desires that his sets convey the closest impressions of military history has engaged skilled artisans to carve for him chessmen to represent the forces engaged in the great battles of history. Marathon of ancient times, and Saratoga of our Revolution are included, and perhaps there will soon be added the invasion of Normandy or MacArthur's return to the Philippines.

Many of America's notable military leaders have been chess players. In the Smithsonian Institution, you can see the chessmen used by General George Washington, while in a case nearby are those of General George McClellan. Across the Potomac where the former home of Robert E. Lee is a national shrine, the finely-turned chess set of General Lee reposes on a tray-like chess board. During Lee's advance toward Gettysburg he was asked what he would do if some agile Northern general slipped behind him and attempted to seize Richmond. "In that case," said Lee, with his mind on Philadelphia or Washington, but thinking also of these same chessmen, "I'd trade Queens." But two years later he was checkmated at Appomatox.

Many famous writers have written about war games. Robert Louis Stevenson recorded a series of battles through which he and his stepson maneuvered lead soldiers during several winters in Switzerland. Laurence Sterne, a British humorist of the eighteenth century, in his writings about Tristam Shandy relates a story about Uncle Toby, an invalid veteran, who with his servant Corporal Trim followed the campaigns of The Duke of Marlborough with a war game. Equipped with maps and plans of every fortified city in Flanders, Toby and Trim would eagerly await news of the Duke's latest seige operations and then construct the fortifications in minute detail with accurate terrain to exact scale. As the seige progressed they followed each approach, moving their miniature batteries and men until the fort surrendered. They even rigged up a gadget connected to a Turkish waterpipe to simulate the crossfire of the batteries.

No doubt the greatest champion of the little lead soldier and the miniature battle field was the late H. G. Wells. Wells describes "Little Wars" as a game for boys of every age from twelve to one hundred and fifty, and even older, if the limbs remain sufficiently supple, by girls of the better sort and by a few rare and gifted women. H. G. Wells was without a doubt the dean of War Games as they are played today. He was certainly responsible for bringing about more humane warfare with his book "Little Wars" in 1913, whose rules brought to an end the wholesale slaughter of lead, tin and wood soldiers with catapult, rubber band, pea shooters, marbles and other destructive tools of miniature warfare. Miniature murder, the mere setting up and knocking down of men, was stopped. The rules set down by Mr. Wells form the basis for most of the rules used today in War Games played with military miniatures. Naturally, there have been refinements, but "Little Wars" by H. G. Wells is still the primer on the subject and a basic manual for all miniature soldier tacticians and arm chair generals.

The miniature cannon, which could propel a projectile with a reasonable amount of accuracy up to several yards, came into existence in the latter part of the nineteenth century. These guns, made in a variety of sizes, are loaded from the breech and have a screw adjustment for elevation and depression so that the target can be brought into range. Guns of the same type are made today in even greater variety and naturally a number of refinements have been made on the later models. Some of today's models come with a supply of wood projectiles which are the re-commended type for war games, but most are supplied with metal projectiles. The metal bullets may be used, but most players prefer to replace them with wooden ones which can be easily made from pieces of wood dowel. Since the projectile is propelled by the action of a striking plate, some players increase the realism by placing caps in the breech which sends the bullet on its way with a bang and belch of smoke from the cannon's mouth. Some commanders of miniature batteries even sand and fit wood projectiles so that they fit closely, yet will pass freely through the barrel when fired. This not only increases the accuracy of the miniature weapon, but when caps are used the explosion and expansion of gasses give more power to the projectile. As you might expect, practice and experimenting are done on miniature firing ranges by students of this theory, testing the advantages of one, two or three caps over particular ranges.

Battle fields may be laid out in a variety of ways, very simply or very elaborately. They may be set up outside on the ground, inside on the floor or on a table, and of course on sand tables or other special platforms which may be constructed for the purpose. There is no set amount of space required but, naturally, the more space available, the greater the field of play which allows for more interesting maneuvers. Buildings, hills, and trees may be made from blocks of wood, books or any avail-able material which allows the player's active imagination to transform them into a realistic field of operation. Or actual scale model terrain, houses and trees may be used which, needless to say, add immeasurably to the fun and interest of the battle. The soldiers used are generally the regular 2 inch ones, but any size figures, larger or smaller, may be used.

I have no intention to provide a fast set of rules for war games. Many innovations have been introduced since Mr. Wells first set down his rules and ideas. There are even today many players who frown on the actual shooting down of enemy troops with model artillery, and who use instead dice and circles of cardboard to indicate the radius of destruction caused by imaginary cannon fire. Instead, the following is a brief description of methods, values and moves as developed by a great number of commanders of the miniature wars, including those of today's three outstanding exponents : Ted Haskell, Herb Sherlock and Jack Scruby.

After the terrain and building have been prepared, placement of the opposing armies is in order. Each player may have an equal number of soldiers and artillery or one side may have more than the other when one is refighting a historic battle where there were such odds.

Standard two-and-one-eighth inch tall figures, the size most generally used in war games. In contests where soldiers are actually shot at with miniature weapons, inexpensive toy figures, as shown in the illustration, are used. In games where dice instead of bullets are employed, many players use fine detailed figures of the same size.

Placement of the troops to open the battle is next in order. If available, a curtain or screen is drawn midway on the field and each commander then places his men and equipment along the back line of the playing field; when the opposing commanders have their troops in place, the curtain is removed and the battle begins. How-ever, if it is inconvenient to use a screen while placing troops in position, a roll of dice or flip of a coin may be used to decide which player will first put his men in position, after which the second player places his men in position and the battle is started. Some players take their battles more seriously and prepare maps of the terrain in advance; a copy is given to each player at least a week in advance. Each commander can then lay his battle plans before the actual time arrives. On the day or night of battle, the players set up their troops behind a drawn curtain in the same manner as mentioned previously. True, just as in real life, well-laid plans many times go astray and end in defeat, but by the same token some tacticians of the miniature battle field claim many a victory has been gained through well-laid plans. Battles of pre-planned type usually last four or five hours, and as only part of a campaign they have a particular objective, such as the taking of a road junction or river crossing; this overlaps with the next battle to be fought in the campaign.

Movement of troops and equipment as well as the fire power must be decided. For example, infantrymen can be moved not more than a certain distance during a player's turn and there is another limit of distance for cavalrymen (naturally further than the infantrymen, because they are mounted). Movement limitations and number of shots must also be decided for artillery pieces as well as the number of artillerymen required with the piece at time of moving and firing. The same applies to trains, crack troops, medics and the signal corps, along with the particular officers and men that have special power. Time limits for each move must also be set so that the game moves along and rules must be followed to decide when a soldier is killed and also who can capture whom and how captured men can be liberated and brought back into the battle.

As I mentioned earlier, H. G. Wells set down the basic rules around which most modern war games are designed. The following is a brief outline of Mr. Wells' Who says the infantry can't stop the cavalry? We shall know after the next roll of the dice. This is an exciting moment in one of John Scruby's war games.

Each player was provided with a measuring string to facilitate troop movements (one foot for infantry, two feet for cavalry) and players were required to keep their men clear of trees and buildings. A distance of at least one-sixteenth of an inch was also required between men. Naturally all men knocked over by artillery shots were dead, and the first man hit by an artillery shell, even if it didn't knock him over, was also dead. If the shell glanced off something and hit him, or just rolled to his feet, he was dead. No, the game was not all artillery fire. There was hand to hand fighting in which men were killed and prisoners taken as well as artillery pieces captured. If less than half of a player's army got more than the distance of a move away from the main body it was considered isolated; this could be one or more men. If the opposing player could move any of his men into con-tact with figures of the isolated group, a melee resulted and all soldiers within a radius of six inches of the contacted men had to take part in the fight. If it turned up that each side had an equal number of combatants in the melee, both groups were wiped out because each soldier killed a soldier and was killed himself in turn. However, if one force had more soldiers in the fight than the enemy, prisoners were taken in this fashion. The force taking prisoners had to be exactly double the number of prisoners taken each force killed each other, man for man, until one force was double the other. For example, if eleven men attack nine, seven men would be killed and the remaining four of the superior force would take the two remaining of the inferior force prisoner. Eight against five would result in six captors and three prisoners, six against five would result in two captors and one prisoner.

Captured prisoners were then disarmed and moved under escort to the rear, or to any place the captor de-sired. One man could escort up to seven prisoners and had to remain within six inches of his prisoners. The prisoners could be liberated by killing the escort; how-ever, the released prisoners could not join the fight until they had returned to their own rear lines, the "Repo-Depot" as the modern G.I. says, to be rearmed. All of this gives only an inkling of the fascinating action that was involved in Mr. Wells' little games of war. There were fights to the finish where the leaden soldiers marched into the open and slugged it out, and there were the strategic infiltration and circumventive type of tactics employed to capture the enemy's rear line to win victory. The book "Little Wars" may be seen at most public libraries and can be bought from many book dealers and dealers in military miniatures. It is an intriguing book that will fire the imagination of any man who is young in heart.

Real soldiers can't last very long without food and ammunition, and horses must have forage; so table top field marshalls must see that their troops are supplied too. Both Robert Louis Stevenson and H. G. Wells were aware of this supply problem and they, as well as today's miniature war generals, devised various ways of getting food and ammunition to the front. The following is one system used in today's war games. Supply depots are established at the start of the battle and model wagons are loaded with supplies; these wagons then follow the troops. Supplies are represented by small sticks or any other small items that can be loaded into the wagons, and each item is considered one unit. Units should be of such size that twenty can be loaded to a wagon. The supplies are then used by the troops in this manner: when a volley is fired each four men use up one unit; this also holds true when they engage in a melee each four men use up one unit. When a field gun is fired three units are used. Another method or set of rules stretches supplies out longer by using only one unit of supply for thirty men every six moves, one unit for each six horses, and one unit of ammunition for each thirty men that fire with six consecutive moves. Naturally, if the enemy gets between the men and the supply wagons, the troops can't get supplies. The supply wagons can also be captured by killing their escorts, and supply wagons may be disabled in artillery barrages. The rules in supply as in firing are greatly varied and are decided by the different groups of enthusiasts.

The realistic action that can be brought into the game is unlimited. Entrenchments can be made as well as gun emplacements, and even mines can be laid to blow up troops and supply trains, all covered by special rules.

The actual shooting of the troops with the little cannon is still practiced by many groups of war game generals; however, there are a large number of players who frown on the actual use of the gun. This situation exists no doubt for a number of reasons. Recent years have seen the growth of interest in the model military figure that is correct in scale and uniform. The collectors and makers of these finer figures, who are also war game enthusiasts, naturally aren't interested in shooting projectiles at models in which they have invested an amount of time and money. These same people also have in their collections non-operating scale model cannon that are more detailed than the spring-operating ones, which in most cases sacrifice scale and detail for operation; so there is no artillery on the field that will actually shoot. Another reason for the non-shooting war game is lack of space. In the shooting war game a fair amount of space is needed because of the firing range of the guns; in the non-shooting game, however, not only the firing range, but also the movement of troops can be scaled down. In fact, very satisfactory games can be played on an ordinary kitchen table and even on a card table. One old-timer says he prefers the non-shooting war because his knees don't bend as well as they used to, and it's much easier to roll dice than bend down to aim a cannon.

As you might suspect, in the non-shooting game measurements become very important, since the effect of fire power must be calculated instead of shooting projectiles. The amount of space available for the battlefield will naturally govern the measurements. Should the battle field be laid out, for example, in a space six feet by four feet, you would decide first. the length of movement for troops. A practical infantry move on this size field would be six inches, and for cavalry twelve inches. Naturally these moves are reduced if less space is used; for example, the infantry move would be two inches on a battlefield the size of a normal card table. Cannon range on the 6 x 4 field should be set at something between two and three feet, and a stick cut to measure the decided range. Any troops beyond the decided distance would be out of range and could not be killed by the cannon fire. To use artillery on the enemy, the player must point out the troops that are being fired on, check the range with the measuring stick, and then roll one dice; the number that comes up will be the number of men killed by the shot. A cannon may be fired only once during a player's move. In most games only soldiers fully or partially exposed can be killed, because the cannon fire is considered direct line firing and not high trajectory as with a howitzer or mortar. However, rules can be worked out for howitzer and mortar fire if the players wish.

The rules for the hand to hand fighting in the non-shooting game are the same as previously described for the game where spring-fired artillery is used. Small arms may be used in both volley fire and skirmisher fire in the following manner. A volley may be fired if a player can line up a minimum of six of his soldiers shoulder to shoulder (bases touching) and within a range of one move or less from the troops to be fired upon. The player must point out to his opponent the soldiers being fired upon and then roll one dice. The number on the dice is the number of enemy killed by the volley, which may be from one to six. Just as in cannon fire, troops fired upon must be fully exposed, or at least, have head and shoulders exposed, in order to be killed. If the player can line up more than six soldiers shoulder to shoulder, he may fire a volley for each six in line, but must indicate soldiers being fired upon with each volley. Should both sides come into position to fire a volley at the same time, the volleys will kill one out of every four men on each side, and then one side must fall back one move. Each player, after removing the dead, rolls one dice, then multiplies the number on the dice by the number of soldiers still alive in his volley line. The player having the higher total holds his position while the player with the lower total falls back. While only soldiers on the front rank of a group may fire, all soldiers in the unit are counted in deciding the total and must fall back or hold the position as indicated.

In skirmisher fire any number of men can engage any number of the enemy within a range of one move. There are no casualties in skirmisher fire; the results are only in one group losing ground. The decision on which side moves back is made in the same manner as in deciding which side moves back in the volley exchange, with each side rolling a dice and multiplying it by the number of men in the action. However, where the skirmishers ex-change fire with a volley line, the skirmishers suffer one casualty for each four men in the volley line, but the volley line suffers no casualties from the skirmishers' fire. The players again decide who loses ground, either the skirmishers or the volley line, by the same dice method. The usual procedure is to decide the situation after each man's alternate move. A player's move is begun by firing artillery, then moves are made, and the results of hand-to-hand fighting, skirmishes and volleys are worked out.

War games may be played by two or more players and may become quite elaborate for example, one de-signed and played by an American Civil War enthusiast and his friends. The playing field is laid out on a table eighty-four inches by fifty-six inches and is ruled off in one inch squares. When a battle is to be fought, houses and roads, rivers and creeks, fences and hills are laid out as close to the original Civil War battlefield as possible. The armies are composed of cavalry, infantry, artillery and a supply train. The infantry consists of ten brigades and each fighting man and officer is duplicated by a marching man. They are marched onto the field to make contact with the enemy and then men in fighting positions are substituted for the marching men.

The cavalry consists of two divisions with a commander-in-chief. The artillery is made up of five batteries of one gun each, four being smooth-bore Napoleons and one being a rifled Parrot with a longer range. The Union side uses four Corps Commanders and the South two or three, depending on which battle is being fought. The brigades make up the divisions which form the Corps.

The Commanding General operates from a small map about twenty-one inches by fourteen inches in another room. He moves pieces of colored board on his map according to his plans and sends written orders to his Corps Commanders and receives their written reports. Each type of man has his maximum move of so many squares, and opponents are killed by rifle, pistol, bayonet, saber and artillery fire. Models of dead men and horses replace the models of living figures as casualties occur, this adds immensely to the game. Moves by each side are made by a clock laid out in ten minute intervals, and all orders and reports are marked as to time.

Each side can have a Commander-in-Chief, Corps Commanders, Cavalry Commanders and Artillery Commanders if enough players turn out. The game resembles chess and a player must be observant and use his skill because there is no luck involved. A percentage of loss to the whole or loss of a supply train governs the battle.

Each side numbers about one hundred and thirty figures, and battles may be fought either with the sides even or in proportion to the sizes of the contending armies in the Civil War.

There is here, as in the description of the shooting war game, no intention of trying to give you a set of fast rules and all the exciting phases of fighting miniature wars. For one reason, there are no set rules and much depends on the decisions of local groups of enthusiasts; for another reason, it would take an entire book to give a description of the many moves and rules that have been developed by the various groups. However, the principles of the game are sufficiently explained in the foregoing so that you can try your hand at fighting a miniature battle. There is no doubt that you will find this one of the most fascinating segments of making and collecting military miniatures. After learning the basic principles, you and your friends will no doubt add exciting innovations and rules that will afford you many hours of fun and relaxation.



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