Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Rethinking the Plastic and Lead Pile

I've been thinking about how necessary the miniatures are to my wargaming enjoyment. I recognize the blasphemous nature of my questioning but bear with me, please. 

To be sure, I got into this hobby because of toy soldiers - plastic "army men" to be precise. I wanted to do something with them (they were just sitting on my desk at work). But back then (lo those 7 years ago) the game was just an excuse to use the toys, but since then, slowly, the game seems to be ascending to dominance for me. I study the history (whereas before I knew almost none of it), read fictional works, watch movies and documentaries, research uniforms, etc. I've changed how I think about wargaming in general, so why haven't I examined this particular aspect of the experience yet?

Certainly, I've played games with paper stand-up figures and had a great deal of fun, so metal or plastic soldiers aren't necessary. But what if there were no figures at all but top down counters? Blocks? Counters of the kind found in the more traditional hex-and-counter games? Isn't a toy soldier just a token of some real or imagined "thing in the world" just as these are?

I have been inspired, for some time now, by the block armies of David Cook at A Wargaming Odyssey. Most recently, JF's solo Warring States Campaign played out on his refrigerator over on Solo Nexus fired up my imagination. Neither relies on proper miniatures to fight interesting and engaging battles. 

In fact, some of my most enjoyable games early on used homemade counters and torn construction paper for scenery to play Adventures in Jimland (I had no British, no Askari, no adventuring botanists, natives, porters, pygmies, etc. so I improvised) Somewhere along the way, I decided I couldn't play a game without having the miniatures on hand. That miniature wargaming was the only way I enjoyed wargaming. 

But what if that wasn't the case?

Last night, I decided to try it for myself.

Rather than waiting until next month to squeeze in my next Helvetica game - both to allow for the time to play a G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. game and to assemble the artillery crews for Riesling - I opted instead use a mashup of Memoir of Battle and G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. and to use some diy counters printed with the standard wargame symbols (which I believe are more properly NATO symbols) on a grid printed on an 8.5" x 11" piece of cardstock. 

Two armies lay opposite and ready.

The result was total immersion and fun - as much or more so than playing with figures. And for once, Major Heidegger didn't look suspiciously like Major Dietrich.

A close up later in the game. Colonel Duchamp, 2e Compagnie and 3e Goum.

The huge benefit I see is that I can quickly field any force of any size I want for a few minutes at the computer and then with a pair of scissors. For Riesling and Sauvignon-Blanc this means perhaps extending the campaign to the continent and maybe bringing in allies on both sides, native and imperial. With cavalry! (something I have not painted for any force in my possession.)

All of that on a very small playing surface might I add - making wargaming extremely portable.

Now, am I going to stop painting and appreciating miniatures? Hell no! 

But I have demonstrated to myself that they are not a key to my enjoyment of the game.

So, while I enjoy researching uniforms and painting, and I can not wait to view my gaming table when it's covered in 200 colorful Russians and Swedes or the marines landing on Tarrawa, it's a reminder that I don't need to acquire every mini I see that looks interesting, or build huge, expensive, armies, to have an enjoyable outing on the game table.

I know this is obvious, but sometimes it doesn't sink in until you prove it for yourself.


  1. Interesting post. I too have been pondering this just lately. Rather differently than yourself I hate painting and find the whole process of getting figures together a real chore. Lately I've been playing Memoir'44, a rather abstract wargame but a wargame all the same and really enjoyed it. This has got me thinking as to whether The whole 'figure painting' process is really sapping my enjoyment of the actual hobby.
    I'm seriously considering setting my table in more of a grand scale boardgame rather than the traditional figure based game. I think I would find this more appealing at the moment and it immediately removes the chore of figure building, kit building and to a certain extent the need to construct scenery.
    Something to ponder over....
    Thanks for posting.

    1. Hi Steve,

      I have had a great many fun games with unpainted plastic 54mm figures and sometimes think maybe that's the way to go for figure gaming (unpainted plastic 1:72 look "wrong" to me - and I have no basis for that opinion other than a gut-feel thing) but then there's the difficulty of what to do about the scenery. I really like the "grand scale boardgame" idea - particularly that it would minimize scenery/terrain building but also the stylized maps and counters have a certain aesthetic I find appealing.


  2. Ditto for the introspective post. I think you've nailed it on the head in terms of you can do both. I've come up with these thoughts, especially at this stage in life. I'm sort of the opposite of Steve. I love to paint and spend more time on that than gaming. But, I do enjoy gaming, too. However, due to a number of factors, I can't game as much as I want to. I've been sneaking in non-miniatures games and getting a great deal out of them. Its especially great to test out new rules. Whatever works to enjoy a good game is all that matters in my opinion.

    Just a slight aside, I keep reading on TMP all these comments where if they don't have absolute realistic terrain and every miniature painted perfectly and based perfectly, they won't play the game. Well, I'm old school and still rely on my imagination. If my roads are gray construction paper, my hills are a stack of books, and overall ground cover is ping-pong table green, I can ramp up my imagination scale and imagine a perfect terrain setting.

    1. Hi Chris,
      "Whatever works to enjoy a good game is all that matters in my opinion."


      It is all too easy to get swept up by the miniatures and the sense that one needs them. I have to remind myself that "miniature wargaming" is a sub-genre of "wargaming" and not the other way around.

      I've seen those same comments on TMP - and fairly often at that. Maybe they are much faster at scenery construction and figure painting than I am, or maybe, at heart, they're really model-railroaders who like to play a game every now and again. I suspect, too, in many cases, they have a regular club or shop they game at, and thus, unlike solo-gamers like myself, can rely on someone else to do at least half the work.

      "If my roads are gray construction paper, my hills are a stack of books, and overall ground cover is ping-pong table green, I can ramp up my imagination scale and imagine a perfect terrain setting."

      Exactly. The whole notion of "realistic" anything when it comes to a game throws me if I think about it too long. There are so many ways in which a toy soldier, an artificial tree, and a foam hill don't resemble the things they signify that it's mind boggling to think that one way should be judged so superior to the other.

  3. I was just pushing paper in the library to test my knowledge of the IABSM rules. I thought that I could easily do this - get some top down scenery - even just colored pieces of paper - do the same for the armies an be set.

    This especially works for ancient gaming because of the simpler blocks of troops and typically less scenery.

    I was even thinking of printing up some bases for Impetus w stats on them. It's going to be a long time before I get a samurai army painted, if I want to play - play.

    I'll have to write something up on my blog. This is getting too long for a comment.

    1. Hi Itinerant,

      Thanks for the comment! I've heard that said of ancient gaming before. I think that must be somewhat true, judging by the success of Command and Colors: Ancients which uses simple blocks.

      For IABSM, if you haven't already, you might want to head over to and take a look at the top down WWII counters for troops and armor. You may find some useful counters. I think they have some top down scenic counters too.

      I look forward to seeing a post on the use of counters/bases with stats on your blog.

  4. I agree with Chris on this as well,
    "Whatever works to enjoy a good game is all that matters in my opinion."
    Personally I get a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction from painting miniatures, making terrain, etc. I enjoy that creative aspect. But I know it's not everyone's cup of tea. One good thing about solo gaming is you don't have to please anyone but yourself. And even non-solo gamers can do things their way with compatible gaming opponents/partners.
    As to paper gaming like you described in this post there are additional options. For example, cutout standup "figures", "top-down" counters (with images that look like you're looking down on the units from above), and even computerized gaming (whether it's some commercial software designed for such gaming, one of the "virtual game board" programs, or simply using a drawing program to depict the "board" with whatever shapes or images you want to use to represent the miniatures/troops, or even just drawing on paper with successive sheets with the map already printed on it, just add the units for each move (or clear acetate overlays). Just add in a way to roll dice, pull cards and/or randomize things as needed and you could have a very portable game to play almost anywhere anytime. Doesn't have to be a total replacement for more analog visual/tactile forms of gaming, but can nicely supplement them as needed/desired.

  5. Hi Fitz-Badger,
    "Doesn't have to be a total replacement for more analog visual/tactile forms of gaming, but can nicely supplement them as needed/desired"

    A very good point. Advocating the idea that there are many ways to game without reliance on miniatures and scenery doesn't necessarily entail an all-out abandonment of those things.

    As for the drawing program idea, I'm reminded of an old THW AAR for the original version of Nuts! that was played out on PowerPoint slides using, if I recall, an actual street map of the city in which the battle took place.

    Thanks for leaving a comment!

  6. Great post and equally great comments! For me, since I read this: I have been rethinking the use of minis in the tabletop -- and I used paper minis to begin with (I like painting minis although I lack time and talent.)

    1. Hi Ricardo,

      I can't believe I forgot to mention Chris Hahn. Thanks for reminding me of that post!

      As much as I enjoy paper minis for skirmish games, I can see moving to more abstract counters for fighting out big battles, if only for the speed at which I could move from idea to an actual game - carefully cutting and basing paper minis is more time consuming than it might seem (at least for me).

  7. Ah, this also reminded me of the old Systems 7 Napoleonic game, which had a variety of cardstock counters that represented the "footprints" of units, all colored nicely to represent uniform/facing colors, etc. The battles were played out on a non-gridded surface; we used colored paper and tape to indicate terrain, and rulers were used to measure distance. I had been painting fantasy miniatures for some time at that point in my life (more years ago than I want to dwell on! lol). The System 7 games were my first real introduction to historical wargaming.

    1. I had to go look for an image as I was having trouble picturing these counters (found a bunch for sale on ebay)- I like how the uniform and facing colors are included on the counters. It makes the units seem more individual than a single generic colored counter.

      It takes a little more research to do this but I think the extra effort might be worth it in this case. It would certainly make it easier to distinguish units at a glance even in a very large battle.

  8. Thanks for a good post. I do paint miniatures, but progress painfully extremely slow. In the end, it is definitely the gaming itself that I enjoy, not so much the painting part. I should really try the simple paper concept you just showed.

  9. Hello Mats,

    My painting is slow as well - 30 or so minutes for a single 15mm character figure, only slightly faster for generic troops.

    The best part about trying paper counters is that the cost and time required to field both armies for the sake of the experiment is negligible. If you don't like it, nothing lost.

    Thanks for commenting!

  10. I would agree that gaming with miniatures is a subset of gaming in general. Paddy Griffith's, back in the day, proclaimed the death of the toy soldier, but here we are and we still have toy soldiers.

    For me I think that figures are gonks; gonks are cool things that add to one's life, but generally work out less than expected. I therefore want miniature games where the miniatures are not gonks, but actually add to the game from not only being vis-reps, but adding information that is important to the game. YMMV.

    1. Hello Ashley,

      Thanks for commenting!

      When it comes to "add to the game" my first thought was the Jackson Gamers' Rules set for WWII games (

      In these rules, each "man" is represented by three figures - standing, prone, kneeling - and these are used for determining if the figure can be hit. Assuming their intent is that the terrain and scenery are to scale, then the figure's pose would seem to add information to the game in a way that a simple counter could not (either using a counter in place of the figure or using a single figure with a counter indicating pose). I'm not sure there's no other way to represent this, but a figure, in this case, seems to make it easier.

      I was also reminded of a set of WWII rules - I can't remember the name ,but they are freely available - that suggested the use of a laser pointer to determine if a figure could be hit and also had different chances to hit based on how much of the target was visible.