One look inside the magazine sparked an interest in Fire and Fury.
Kaleb Dissinger of Shiremanstown was only a boy when he and his friends used to peek at the ad in “America’s Civil War” and dream of tabletop battles between the Union and Confederate armies.
They were gathering up the nerve and resources to play a set of miniatures wargame rules that strive to recreate history and maximize competitive fun.
“I’ve been an historian of the Civil War almost my whole life,” said Dissinger, a member of the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes the study of military history through the art of tabletop miniature wargames.
HMGS is hosting Cold Wars, its annual winter convention March 16-19 in Lancaster. The four-day event features wargames recreating a wide variety of historical periods along with gaming tournaments, seminars, a Hobby University, a flea market and dozens of vendors. For more information, visit http://hmgs.site-ym.com.
Historians trace the origins of the hobby back to “Little Wars,” a set of wargame rules written in 1913 by H.G. Wells, author of “The Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds.” A pacifist, Wells admired the courage and conviction of British military officers but wanted to create a diversion for them to prove their command prowess off the battlefield, said Wilbur Gray, an HGMS member and retired Army colonel living in Enola.
Since 1913, there have been hundreds of wargames developed where toy soldiers of various scales are moved across tabletop terrain using rules to recreate historical battles. Teams of players take on the role of field commanders who plan and react based on a set of objectives and the ebb and flow of outcomes.
Most wargames have rules for movement, terrain effects, combat, combat resolution, command and control and unit morale. What changes is how the rules are encoded to recreate the conditions of a particular battle or period of history including military doctrine and tactics, unit types and capabilities, weapons and technology and the caliber of training and combat experience.
To add an element of uncertainty and fog of war, dice are rolled to determine the success or failure of an action taken by a player, Gray said. “There are very few times where anything in war is definitely 100 percent. There’s always a chance somewhere.”
Where skill comes in is the ability of the player to execute a plan that could modify a die roll up or down to improve the chances of a favorable outcome on a probability table, Gray said. For example, charging the flank of an enemy unit at half strength can yield bonuses on the attack roll.
“A wargame is immersive,” Gray added. A Civil War history buff can read in a book how the generals at the First Battle of Manassas had to cope with the frustrations of commanding amateur armies. But if wargame rules are properly researched and written, the player can experience that frustration firsthand gaining better insight into what was like.
Wargame rules also force players to think outside the box of a 21st century American as they take on the role and the mindset of a military leader from a bygone era. Strategy and tactics that work on contemporary battlefields fall short or fail completely when applied to the past.
“One of the big problems with hobby wargames are the players know too much,” Gray said. “You can see everything on the board.” Historically, military leaders rarely perceive the battlefield in such a comprehensive way. Usually, field commanders are focused on their immediate area.
Give and take
To recreate this reality of battle, game rules use elements of chaos theory to throw a wrench into military planning. In every case, game designers have to balance realism with playability in the hope that players are challenged but are also having fun.
“It’s a give and take when it comes to historical accuracy,” Dissinger said. What rules are used and how rules are interpreted are as individual as the detail put into the tabletop terrain and the paint job on miniatures.
Dissinger works as the curator of uniforms, textiles and personal equipage at the Army Heritage and Education Center outside Carlisle. In keeping with his job, he paints every figure with exacting detail down to the correct piping on field coats.
There are books hobbyists consult on the proper look of uniforms from different historical periods. Some hobbyists pay close attention to shading and how paint schemes can reproduce the appearance of wear and tear.
“It is how much you want to invest in the history,” Dissinger said. “Some gamers spend years trying to get everything together and just right while others slap something together in about a month.”
When researching a battle, Dissinger taps the resources at AHEC by looking for regimental histories, after-action reports and the correspondence of officers giving their input on what happened during the battle. He is looking for specifics on what units were present, what kind of weapons they were using and how and when they arrived on the battlefield.
Gray is the author of three wargames that use Fire and Fury rules as a template. Age of Eagles is set in the Napoleonic Wars. Age of Honor covers the period of Frederick the Great. Age of Valor features modules recreating 19th century wars in Europe.
Each wargame required Gray to research the armies, doctrines and commanders that defined each time period and then adjust the template where it made sense. His favorite period of military history is the Napoleonic Wars with its pageantry and spectacle.
“It was such a revolutionary period,” Gray said. “The military heritage of the U.S. ... nearly everything we do is modified and can be traced back to the Napoleonic Wars and how the French built their army.”
April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of U.S. entry into World War I. Yet there are few games that simulate ground combat from this period especially the trench warfare of the Western Front, Gray said.
World War I saw a merging of the tactical and campaign levels of warfare into a static front of massive armies slugging it out across a no-man’s land. “The battles are too big to produce in terms of ground games,” Gray said. “There is nothing you can do in terms of maneuver.” He added, to be realistic, the probability tables for such games have to account for massive amounts of casualties with little chance for a decisive win.
In contrast, air combat games representing the period are very popular with hobbyists due to the variety of planes available and the wild mix of camouflage schemes in which to paint figures, Dissinger said. He added the individual exploits of early combat pilots make the air war the most colorful aspect of World War I gaming.
Typically miniature aircraft are placed on specialized mounts to simulate changes in altitude and heading while “flying” over generic terrain features. A side benefit is the air combat games require fewer miniatures making them an inexpensive introduction to the hobby, Dissinger said.
There are also naval combat games where miniature ships are moved over tabletop terrain representing a body of water. In the case of World War I, the wargames recreate such legendary slugfests between dreadnaughts as the Battle of Jutland.
In essence, the ships represent moving artillery platforms, Gray said. Many games in this category feature a three-tiered system of combat resolution where dice is rolled to determine if a hit was made, where the hit came in and whether the hit results in critical damage. For example, a World War I naval combat game may have a rule where cordite flashes in British warships could result in magazine explosions.