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  • Wee Warfare in Tampa

    Posted on October 12th, 2004 Rob No comments

    It was Hurricon 2004 at the Comfort Inn Conference Center in Tampa, where the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society-South marshalled 200 hobbyists to make toy war o­n tabletop battlegrounds, o­ne of two Armageddon's scheduled each year

    That Saturday afternoon got mighty bloody.

    Roman legions marched o­n a palisade of barbarian Gauls. British ships cannonaded a Spanish port in the islands. A hundred regiments of Union and Confederate forces were locked in combat. A serial killer named Jack stalked London streets. Mobs and hobbits raised havoc in a village Thomas Kinkade would love.

    That was just in o­ne room

    For the entire weekend that Jeanne assaulted Florida, grenadiers and Panzer divisions, dark elves and wolf nomads, light infantry and heavy cavalry, zouaves and Zulus battled over tiny bridges, skirmished through lichen forests and seized plastic forts and space stations.

    It was Hurricon 2004 at the Comfort Inn Conference Center in Tampa, where the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society-South marshalled 200 hobbyists to make toy war o­n tabletop battlegrounds, o­ne of two Armageddon's scheduled each year.

    A crowd ranging from teens to graybeards sported a little camo and punk black, o­ne sun helmet and a paratroopers beret, but most costumes were o­n tiny metal figures, fighting wars in Roman armor, 19th century shakos and pelisses, World War II olive and Desert Storm tan.

    The good guys, if you had a favorite between the Russian and Turkish navies or the rebellious Boxers and the Imperial guards, won some and lost some.

    And some were hurricaned out in a convention that lived up to its name. Replays of the British naval battle with the German Graf Spee off Uruguay, the often overlooked Prussian-Austrian Battle of Prague in 1866, and a Middle East conflict where U.S. tank crews dismount to establish an urban garrison were called off because Jeanne pinned down game masters and players cancelled.

    For all this warfare, a strange peace has settled among the warriors.

    On the biggest battleground, a 16-foot table in the main lobby, six men manoeuvred 2,000 figures of French and Austrian troops stretched in battle lines at Eckmuhl in 1809. When the Napoleonic era retreated, the same table turned icy white and became Osgiliath, where Sauron would try to land the forces of Mordor across a neon blue sea and take a beachhead.

    Not a shot was fired, or a death ray or a potent spell; the forces of history, fantasy and science fiction have come to a truce. In a new peaceable kingdom, Napoleonic hussars and hunchbacked orcs stand shoulder to shoulder – at an inch or less – in defence of toy war gaming.

    "I try to bring (fantasy) gamers back to the historical. Its strictly nonviolent fun – men having a good time, shaking dice and talking about history," said Rhett Scott, a civilian intelligence employee at MacDill Air Force Base and Gaming Society leader. He also owns Regimental Colours, a small business that sells both grenadiers and warlocks by the bagful, so hes tolerant of both sides: "We all roll the same dice."

    He and other historical gamers have a long tradition that dates back to H.G. Wells and Winston Churchill and extends to modern war colleges – and sand-table exercises at today's field headquarters.

    The armistice could end a conflict between historical war gamers and fantasy players that has outlasted the Thirty Years War. Plenty of veterans were here, battle-scarred by the toy wars as well as Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm.

    Among the proud old soldiers was Larry Brom, a soft-spoken man of 74 with a big smile, who is the modern Wellington of war games. The rules he wrote for a renowned war game manual, The Sword and the Flame, 25 years ago have been translated into the French and Indian Wars, the Moro Rebellion, Caesar's Gaul, the buccaneers Caribbean and a dozen other eras, but not fantasy.

    Pat Condray of Crystal River has kept a waggish history of miniature gaming among "chronological adults" since the 1950s. He also sells replicas of rare forces, from Republicans and Falangists of the Spanish Civil War to the Swedish musketeers of Charles XII.

    It would have truly looked like Appomattox if storms hadn't kept Dave Arneson away. Arneson, the director of game design at Full Sail in Orlando, is a frequent participant in war games, although he is better known as the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons in 1969.

    Dungeons and Dragons begat a leviathan army of supernatural and sci-fi warriors in playgrounds, movies and TV: fantasy role- playing, video games, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and countless generations of aliens and vampires. Their magic seemed invincible and the games moved fast, with few rules, strong appeal to kids and the powerful weapon of marketing buzz.

    The outnumbered classic figures of Prussian dragoons and British redcoats have somehow held their ground. Miniature gamers meet regularly in Jacksonville, Orlando, Lakeland, Brandon and Miami, the number of military miniatures in hobby shops grows slowly and the Internet musters a huge variety of soldiers from all eras of warfare.

    And after so many years under siege, the opposing forces have come to fraternize and in the fog of war slip back and forth across the lines and game in different worlds. For Condray, fantasy gaming is "the dark side," but he goes over to it occasionally.

    Ultimately, historical loyalists took a strategic risk and invited the younger generations of fantasists to peace talks, hoping to lure them in. Video games, Dungeons and Dragons and computer games can be solitary, but historical gaming is social and educational.

    Fantasy is easier for newcomers to play, because they dont have to move as many figures, gamers said. Though they also dont have to buy as many figures, they also dont get the kick of knocking as many down.

    The principles of most war games are more complicated than playing the role of a werewolf. Games consist largely of rules that describe the number and nature of foot, horse and mechanical forces o­n each side, and the conditions and layout of a specific battlefield. Gamers who want to play must assemble their own forces, paint the pieces and build their boards or maps.

    In play, each commander takes a turn to move forces, fire and attack defenders. After judges measure the inches between forces, the numbers, weapons (muskets, rifles, lances, slings, swords and so o­n), morale, discipline and tactical aspect (charging, firing, uphill, over water, etc.), they explain the formula for rolling dice. Casualties retreat or are removed from the field.

    Shifting through five or six turns, battles can take three hours and could produce a different result. David Neal, a former company commander who was painting tiny tanks at his booth, pointed out that the 3rd Infantry lost an Iraqi battle when he led a miniature Republican Guard.

    And when a bag of five Micro Armour tanks sells for $8, building a few divisions can cost money.

    Theres o­ne strategic difference, too, said Alex Zizo, a teenager who fought miniature wars staged in the 19th century and in murky fantasy. Miniature orcs, warlocks and superheroes represent o­nly o­ne individual and thus can turn and move easily in any direction. In historical battles, each foot soldier or cavalryman represents 50 troops; wheeling or redirecting a whole formation may take an entire turn.

    Yet the similarities are obvious. Ancient battles of Assyrians, Egyptians or Romans have the same swords and chariots used in combat of mythical figures. Medieval war scenes double easily for fantasies with sorcerers and hobbits. And Miniature Building Authority sells the same half-timbered village with church, guild halls and castle battlements as a setting for Nazis and Allied troops. The ruined church comes with piano outside waiting for Tom Hanks or Adrien Brody.

    The same foundries that make wizards and warlocks also cast the detailed armies of history.

    Rules are changing, and games are transposing eras and genres. Risk Godstorm, a popular new version of the classic board game of world conquest, now features Norse warriors, Celts, Greeks and Babylonians battling in early Europe and North Africa, with two big changes. The lost city of Atlantis is occasionally in play, and off the board is an ecumenical Olympus/Valhalla, where the gods of each team reside.

    Warhammer, a popular set of rules for historical games from the ancient era to musket skirmishes, has been expanded to Warhammer 40K, far in the future.

    Theres also a move to simpler, quicker versions of historical games to draw in the young. The Slaughterloo and Flintloque games combine fantasy and Napoleonics, with the dog troops of Saxhunde, battalions of elfin lancers and the Army of the Undead.

    Historical purists may sneer, but Chuck Kennedy, a beefy, bearded veteran from Bowling Green who runs Hurricon, and his Gaming Society allies are passionate about their open table policy. Nonviolent railroad-building board games, Wild West and pulp fiction re- enactments, card-run role playing, Dungeons and Dragons, MechWarriors, bring 'em all o­n.

    "There's no Viagra for our hobby," Kennedy said during a smoke break in the hotel lounge. It needs new blood and new players, and the young gamers who cross over learn something, too. "How else are you going to show them what Gettysburg, even a part of it, was like?" Miniature wars teach more than history, they teach attention to detail, artistic skill – Kennedy o­nce painted 800 Zulu warriors – and, like any game, good sportsmanship. "If a guy gets out of hand, people just don't want to play with them."

    By the way, gamers don't shy from the word play. "Were, what, confident in our masculinity," Rickey Grice said with a laugh.

    Ultimately, the tactics are the same.

    "Its all role-playing. Whether you're a vampire-hunting detective or . . . an Austrian field marshal," said Frank Frey, a veteran and a University of South Florida employee, although he could pass for either character if he added a monocle to go along with his bald head and goatee. "I've been to war, and this is not it.

    "Moving a squad of 10 guys, you make a mistake and you lose them, it doesnt matter whether its a Roman squad, an orc squad or Civil War troops. Your preference is whether you want your guys with green skin."

    Chris Sherman, St. Petersburg Times

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