Toy Soldiers, War Dollies, Man Barbies… call them what you will. I’ll confess it proudly: one of my geekiest of vices is my infatuation with miniature Tabletop Wargames. More specifically, Warhammer, amongst one or two others. As you may imagine, this particular hobby of mine is one that is met with derision by some, curiosity by others, and is a constant source of amusement to my family, and less nerdy friends.
We’ve all seen that Simpsons episode where Homer goes back to college. “We played Dungeons and Dragons for four hours… then I was slain by an elf”. Unfortunately, wargamers get lumped in with role players, LAN gamers and dare I say it, even LARPers as a social stereotype. (Not that there’s anything wrong with role players, LAN gamers or even LARPers… I just don’t happen to be one.) So when I book leave from work in order to go to a tournament, the explanation usually stays at “boys’ weekend on the booze.” It’s just easier.
This is basically the story of how it all started for me, and where it’s come to now.
The tale begins waaay back in high school. Some friends were playing this Warhammer game, collecting and painting models and pitting them against each other… somehow. It was all very new and different, but there were some shiny figurines, and painting them looked pretty challenging. I mean, painting eyes on something that small. Damn.
Warhammer: a game cooked up in the 80’s. Games Workshop is the company behind it, along with a number of other games. GW originally distributed Dungeons and Dragons products, then founded Citadel Miniatures, producing models inspired by existing role playing games as well as generic Fantasy novel characters: Wizard with Staff, Paladin with Sword, Bard with Sword and Lute, that kind of thing. From there, they cleverly started designing games that would allow for more of their models to be used by collectors. Nowadays, Games Workshop is close to rebranding itself simply as “Warhammer” and is a multi-billion dollar company (after you see the price tag on their products you’ll understand how), producing games, models, books, computer games and even an animated movie (although I will not be reviewing that piece of drivel).
Anyway. I was intrigued.
So I wandered into the local gaming type store — I had no idea what I was doing, or how it all worked, but as a Lord of the Rings fan, the elves and dwarves and such looked pretty cool, and I ended up parting with my pocket money for my first model (a Chaos Warrior) and a starter paint set, then took it all home to begin painting.
Okay — so my first attempt didn’t really stack up to those in the pictures I’d seen in magazines, or those my friends had done. But, come on. It was my first go.
From there I started collecting. Before long I had an army of elves and ranks of spears. I had archers and cavalry, and they were even led by an elven prince on a dragon. I dutifully painted each model, slowly creating my own battalion, my forces building, ready for war. A few of my friends had also started to collect their own armies, and we were quickly staging small skirmishes that got bigger as we amassed larger collections. Until at last we were playing massive battles — conducting castle sieges while taking over our parent’s pool tables and dining rooms for weekends on end.
This is how the games work. The basic mechanics of it are in the collecting and building of your army. Each model is worth so many “points,” so a game can be any size, but the idea is that you and your opponents have armies that are worth the same number of points, to keep the playing field level. You take turns to move models (usually grouped together in “units”) and simulate the casting of spells, showers of arrows, and combat with rolls of the dice, based on each model’s start line.
It’s less confusing than it sounds. Trust me.
After high school, I gave up the game for quite some time, although I did paint the occasional model here and there, just as one particularly took my fancy. A few years after giving up and selling off my collections, an old mate thought it would be a good idea for us to get up the odd game or two, just to help us keep in touch. It used to be fun, why not get back into it…?
It started again. I bought a few new models and started planning an army of evil barbarian warriors, painting, collecting, and playing games where I tried to outplay my friends. I got a few more models, I painted some more, and all of our collections grew again (even more rapidly this time, what with our increased access to disposable income).
About this time, we discovered wargaming tournaments. Yes, there are tournaments. We signed up, we rocked up and were confronted with a hundred guys all in on the hobby, many with beautifully-painted armies. Here I was at a venue with a bar, my army in tow, faced with lots more opponents for my barbarian warriors to trample into the ground.
At least, that was the plan. It didn’t really work out that way.
I ended up second last, but met a bunch of new mates, many of whom I still catch up with regularly, years later. I discovered that a lot of nerds like a frosty beverage as much as I do, and that these events were much less serious, and much more fun and frivolous, than I ever would have suspected.
One tournament turned into several, and suddenly it was a good excuse to catch up with mates that were now living interstate, so we did that. We repainted armies as inspiration took us; we entered painting competitions; we discussed new ideas, tactics to try out, different ways to outplay our opponents; relived epic moments; and had quite a few more tasty beverages.
These days I play and even run tournaments, I’ve expanded into a few different games: some true to my Warhammer fantasy roots, others with sci-fi backgrounds, some large scale, others involving only a few models. I’m still trying to improve my painting. There’s always something else.
So, what’s the appeal?
Find out in Toy Soldiers: Part 2!