In Defence of Toy Soldiers
by Phil Barker

Miniature Wargames No:14 - July 1984.

My position is almost opposite to that taken by Paddy Griffith in his article "The Case Against Toy Soldiers" in No.13, in that I have played, and vastly enjoyed, Paddy's kind of game, but think that the game with models is MORE, rather than less, realistic in some specific circumstances.

I will start off by describing my part in Paddy's megagame at Sandhurst, simulating the Pyrenees campaign of 1813, in which I had the honour of representing Lord Hill, and contrasting it with a hypothetical table equivalent. My corps of two divisions was quartered in a number of villages in a broad Pyrenean mountain valley, with a detached brigade holding the actual pass ahead. For logistical reasons, I was not allowed to have more men forward until warned of an attack. The flanks of the valley rested on broad topped boggy hills. Other corps commanders were guarding the remaining likely approach routes and prosecuting two sieges. Wellington commuted between us as best he could.

Physically, I sat on a chair in a lecture room, accompanied by the player representing General Stewart, commanding my detached brigade. An occasional phone call told me what time it was or reported weather conditions. Umpires occasionally appeared to deliver written messages from other players and status reports from our units. We had a large scale map covering the entire theatre, a more detailed local map, and sketches by Paddy of what could be seen looking forward and back from the centre of our current position. While waiting for some thing to happen, which was most of the time, though fast and furious at others, we talked about unrelated subjects or read books.

Now imagine a table game equivalent to my part of the affair. I would be sitting on a chair behind the table, seeing over the model hills from my greater height, and seeing red or blue-coated figures manoeuvring.

Now take a third step. Imagine that I am the real General Hill at that battle. My maps are primitive, probably much less complete and accurate than those Paddy provided. However, I am physically active, have a stable of superb horses, and have all the time in the world until the French are reported, and since they move at foot pace, quite a lot then. I occupy myself by riding out to inspect each part of the valley, the pass itself, and with an escort, the country in front. I explore the various tracks that could be used for outflanking, noting their condition and practicality. I visit each unit, judging the troops condition. When viewing the terrain, I select raised vantage points with a good view. In short, my decisions are based mainly on visual information received personally.

Now which of the two alternative simulation methods represents the reality best? I maintain that the miniature terrain laid out on the table is a closer representation of Hill's topographical knowledge obtained by riding about than is Paddy's single viewpoint sketch. Similarly, he is not restricted to a single view of a tactical situation. The scale height of the viewer above the table is deceptive. In my case it is about 18", which with my ground scale of 1"=50 paces would appear to be 2,250 feet. Not so, because we should use the vertical scale of the figures, so that with 15mm, 1"=10 feet, and eye level=180 feet, quite an ordinary hill.

Now note that it is Hill's battle as a separate entity that I say can be better simulated by a table game. It cannot be so simulated as part of the big game, if only because it would take too long. If there had been a single huge table covering the whole front with each general knowing too much and moving his own troops, we would never have simulated one day's fighting, let alone the actual week. A separate table game in each room would have been only marginally better. We needed to have battles decided in 15 minutes or so, not the two hours that the simplest would have taken on the table, or the six hours plus that would have been required by the multi-wave attack by six French divisions that was my high point!

This gives us some guidelines as to what sort of battles are best simulated by figures. They are those in which the general commands by visual presence and not by message and map. I suggest that this includes ALL battles up to 1775, those involving a corps or less from then to 1915, and those including a battalion or less from then on. Which just about includes all those currently gamed with miniatures! Those wanting bigger battles will have to content themselves with simplistic boardgames, or go for the much large cooperative megagames that Paddy has pioneered.

Dealing with Paddy's minor points, I really do not see why it should be a bad thing to play up the romantic and heroic side of war and play down the death and misery. The latter exist, we all know it, so only wargamers with a guilt complex need to punish themselves by emphasising them. If I felt guilty about wargaming, I would not wargame. The dead of Waterloo are just as dead whether wargamed or not. If I were one of them, I would rather be wargamed than forgotten.

Yes, there are wargamers that think of a figure as a man, a river as a bit of flat blue stuff that you cross slowly, and that hardware is more important than morale and condition. Don't blame models for this. The same people might assume from Paddy's megagame that Wellington commanded by telephone. That some wargamers are ignorant does not mean that those who are not should restrict their own wargaming to things the ignorant can cope with. The afflicted should be tactfully helped and educated, not emulated.

Speaking personally, ALL my figures of every period wear combat dress, not ceremonial dress. Paddy's suggestion that units cannot NORMALLY be distinguished from their enemies by dress or NORMALLY assumed to be identically armed fills me with incredulity. In his own period, the only possibly significant variation in armament is that some skirmishers used rifles, and even an ancient barbarian force is assumed by all current rules to fight as the common denominator of its mixed weapons. Bodies of troops can be identified as horse or foot and red coats easily distinguished at any distance within practical line of sight. Misidentifications usually confused friends and enemy of essentially similar dress, and this has happened more than once on the wargames table to my knowledge.

If Paddy had the least first hand knowledge of mainstream ancient wargaming, he would know that the rectangular base is not taken as equating to a rectangular formation. Unlike Napoleonics, rules insist that irregular figures should be mounted randomly on bases so as to distinguish them from the regulars who are the majority type in armies of the period, and whose formations were necessarily more rigid than those of any troops since. The reason bases are rectangular is firstly because that is by far the easiest shape to cut, and secondly to define a line of contact between opponents. Even barbarians had to keep roughtly in line with each other at the point of contact or be killed by a side swipe or back stab. Formless mobs are pure fiction. Paddy concludes that figure gaming has reached it's peak, or at the least is providing greatly diminishing returns. My own view, as a practising rule writer of some experience and reputation, is that recent breakthroughs in technique, ironically originating in the WD that Paddy founded, will provide huge improvements in realism and playability, and keep figure gaming viable until the next generation but three of holographic projection computers takes over.

Copyright (c) Phil Barker. 1984.