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What Is Miniature Wargaming

A Short Primer for the Newcomer


Historical miniature wargaming is the recreation of historical battles (the Tactical level of war) through the use of a 3D terrain table over which are deployed model forests, roads, rivers and buildings as well as miniature soldiers and vehicles depicting the actual participants of the engagement. Each miniature represents a certain number of historical soldiers or vehicles, as in the popular rules called Napoleon's Battles where the ratio is one figure for each 100 historical combatants. The miniature forces involved are painted to depict the same color schemes or uniforms as were used by the historical combatants. In this regard, miniature wargaming departs from its sister wargaming wings using cardboard or micro chip in also being an art form as well as a competitive hobby.

Detailed rules instruct the players on how they may move and launch their miniature forces in combat against each other, drawing on extensive research as to what happened historically and why. The rules, and also the reference chats that accompany them, regulate such things as combat formations, movement, command-control (C2), morale and firepower. Dice, from 6 sided to 20 sided, are used to insert the uncertainty that has always been present in war into the game, and thus into the minds of the players as well. Thus while such things as morale and training might dictate that a unit of 1813 Prussian Landwehr (militia) might have only a 5% chance of victory when attacking a battalion of Napoleon's Old Guard Grenadiers, it can happen, though not very often.

The miniature soldiers or vehicles are mounted on trays for ease of movement. These movement stands are often decorated with model turf or grass and are cut to an exact scale frontage representing the precise space the forces depicted would occupy historically. The trays themselves can then be aligned to represent specific historical battle formations and units. Thus the trays could be formed together to recreate the basic historical unit represented in the rules being played, such as a battalion of infantry in Empire, a game about the Napoleonic Wars. The unit could also be a full brigade as in Napoleon's Battles, a set of rules on the same period that allows larger battles to be easily played. The trays could then be deployed to represent the different combat formations a battalion could take, such as column, line or square. If done properly in conjunction with a well designed terrain table, these soldiers present an historically accurate and colorful spectacle unsurpassed by even the most modern computer wargames.

The Basics:
Cost, Scale and Other Such Nonsense

Miniature wargaming is a fairly expensive hobby, both in terms of time and resources. Currently, a package of 24 15 mm infantry figures will cost about $ 7.50 US, with rules weighing in at anywhere from $ 20 - $ 35 US. Figures can be significantly less expensive if bought in larger, packaged quantities, with up to 100 15 mm costing less than $ 20 US. Then one must buy such things as paint, material for terrain, paint brushes and research publications so that a miniature army might be deployed in its proper uniform. Obviously, once all this material has been gathered, then one must find the time to paint and produce the armies, not to mention the need to develop scenarios and build appropriate terrain boards.

It is for this reason, as well as a few others, that miniature wargaming enthusiasts tend to be a little older than folks in other wings of the hobby. They are individuals a little further along in their careers, thus having a little more $$$ and time to devote to the hobby. These same gamers are also likely to be a little more extroverted than most. This fact, coupled with the realization that miniature battles tend to simply require more material and space than their cardboard or computer cousins, means that miniature wargames tend to be multiple player, social affairs. By contrast, cardboard and computer wargames tend to be played solitaire most of the time.

In another difference from the paper and microchip set, miniature gamers tend to specialize to a much higher degree. Again, this is basically a matter of economics as the money, materials and time needed to produce a typical miniature wargames army is simply too great to allow the typical gamer to involve himself in more than one or two historical periods. This, however, also means that miniature players tend to know their chosen period of history to a much greater level of detail than a typical paper or microchip gamer. There are, of course, exceptions, but generally the rule rings true.

The most popular scale in miniature wargaming seems to be 15 mm, meaning that the height of a typical lead or pewter soldier is about 15mm. The scale is preferred because it is small enough to allow for large battles, yet large enough to allow a significant amount of detail to be sculpted and therefore painted. They are also cheaper than other, larger scales. Larger scales are primarily limited to 25 mm, which provides greater detail, but cost more and limits the size of battles that might be recreated. There are also 10, 9 and 6 mm figures available (often jokingly referred to as playing in Braille), with the opposite advantages and disadvantages.

The most popular periods in miniature gaming are likely Napoleonic, American Civil War, Ancients (covering Biblical times right up to the age of Burgundian Charles the Bold) and World War II, in that order. While there are many reasons for these periods' popularity, undoubtedly the colorful uniforms are a big factor! It is really quite tough to compete with the full dress uniform of a Trumpet Major from Napoleon's Dutch Lancers of the Imperial Guard. Nevertheless, there are still many other periods where there are a quite a few adherents. These include the Seven Years War, the Franco Prussian War and, a favorite of the author, the War of Spanish Succession (eg, the age of Marlborough).

Ancient gaming offers a unique type of game play whereby the soldiers, armor and weaponry from all covered periods are rated on a point system for tournament play. Using such a system, and historical norms for troop composition, it is possible to have a Samurai army out of Kamakura Japan tackle the phalanxes of Alexander the Great by simply telling the two players to deploy 1500 points of each army. A little off the historical track perhaps, but also remember that at one point the Roman Empire lay less than a couple of days' march from Han China. Yet the two great empires never met, and their armies never clashed. Regardless, Ancients Tournaments (and now Pike and Shot Tourneys) are a widely anticipated part of most miniature wargaming conventions.

Outside the figures and model terrain, one will also need a ruler (remember, miniature wargames measure distance and range directly, not with a hexagonal grid as do board games), usually a compass (to adjudicate the fan of fire for specific weapons) and dice. Most games use either10 or 20 sided "percentage dice." These dice are numbered from 0 to 9 (20 sided dice have two 0's, two 1's and so on) and two such pieces of contrasting color are usually used in the performance of game functions. One die represents multiples of 10, the other 0 - 9. Thus, if a blue die were thrown with a result of 6, and white die thrown with a result of three, the final result would be counted as "63." In turn, if the unit for which the die were thrown had, say, a 65% chance of successful fire against an opponent, the attack would have been successful. Had the die roll been a 66 or above, failure would have ensued. By the way, "00" is usually counted as 100.

Ancients (again) is unique in that some systems use two 6 sided die, usually to modify plus or minus the odds of inflicting casualties in a close action or fire attack. One die is of the normal type usually found in department stores and is used for all forces that are NOT Regular troops such as Roman Legionaries. The other die is also six sided, but has neither a "1" or a "6." Instead the die has two "2's" and two "5's." This die is used for the Regulars and shows their superior training and discipline as their combat modifier will never swing so radically as it would for highly emotional, but poorly trained Barbarian forces.

History and Miniatures

Another way miniature gaming is very unlike wargaming in cardboard or with a computer is the almost unbreakable link with traditional methods of historical study. With a historical military boardgame or computer wargame, all that is necessary is setup, a reading of the rules and off one goes to play the game. With miniatures it just isn't that easy.

Miniature wargaming is definitely not a lazy person's hobby, and one of the reasons is the necessity of doing one's own historical research in order to participate. Traditionally, miniature wargaming rules have seldom included complete battle scenarios ready for play. Instead, the players had to do their own research as concerned terrain, the order of battle (called OB in US military circles) and the arrival of reinforcements. Indeed, that is still the case with Bob Jones' Piquet, a rules set that covers multiple periods of history. This is changing somewhat, with rules like Richard Hasenauer's Fire & Fury American Civil War rules set also having spawned two scenario books - one for the Eastern theater, one for the West. But remember, these rules do not cover only a specific battle or campaign, but enable the player to play any battle for the period represented. Thus while the F&F scenario books might have some ready to play battles, they do not include all the engagements one might play with the rules. There are many, many more, and for these the players must do their own research. And while researching the battle of Cold Harbor, players might easily find themselves nose deep in Douglas Southhall Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants as well.

Then there are the uniforms. Miniature rules simply do not tell players how to paint their figures. Research is an absolute necessity, and like figuring out battle scenarios, can easily lead off into areas of traditional historical study. Ever wonder why Napoleonic French cavalry trumpeters wore such distinctive uniforms and rode only light grey or white horses? Take a look at French dragoons, for example. Mounted on bays or browns, with brass helmets with black, flowing horsehair manes, dark green saddle blankets trimmed white and dark green coats with lapels, collar and cuffs in a distinctive regimental color, yellow perhaps. Now look at the trumpeter - white horsehair main, yellow saddle blanket, yellow coat with green collar and so on, all on a white horse. The bottom line here is that the trumpeter was the commander's communication corps. He could not only blow a jaunty tune to raise the spirits of the lads, but he was also responsible for getting the word out as regarded battlefield movement instructions. Here we are talking about trumpet calls such as retreat, charge or recall. With all the black powder weapons going off, it was imperative that this important fellow be very distinctively accoutered so that the commander might easily pick him out of a swirling mass of men when the need arose. Interestingly enough, British cavalry, which Lord Wellington swore was among the most uncontrollable in Europe, did not dress their musicians any differently than the rank and file.

Could this lead to yet another book for the player to read? Perhaps, and so it goes as the link between miniatures and traditional history grows stronger still.

Painting Your Army

There are many ways to paint a miniatures army, but here is the method the author uses, one that has proven both quick and attractive. First I mount the figures (remember to remove all unsightly pewter or lead flash) on the very stands I intend to use on the gaming table. These stands are cut with a cardboard razor from the matting material used for picture frames. The figures are glued on the stands using Elmer's Glue All or regular household cement.

Next I prime the figures in flat black paint, using, of all things, nothing more than a can of Krylon spray paint. Priming is needed to insure that the other colors of paint adhere properly to the figure and black is appropriate since many of the figure's uniform accoutrements such as boots or field packs are in that color anyway. The color black also assists in my detailing method of which more will be discussed below.

When the primer is dry I next paint the figures in their proper uniforms, holding them by the movement trays I initially mounted them on. I paint figures by unit. This means that, for example, if the Confederate 5th Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment consists of 12 figures under a set of rules such as John Hill's ever popular Johnny Reb, I will paint those 12 figures as a group. I then paint a single color across all 12 figures before I continue with a different color, starting first with flesh (hands and face), then some sort of brown (for muskets or rifles). I do this until all figures are completed. Several brushes are need for this process, all the way down to the micro 10/0 for small areas. Water based acrylics, many in specific uniform colors, are normally preferred over oils.

Then it is time for detailing, and by this one means the little extra effect one achieves by outlining shoulder straps in black and the like. The bottom line here is that I outline nothing. Instead, and since the figure is already primed in black, I simply paint so as to leave those areas untouched where black outlining or shading would be necessary. This allows the black primer undercoat to show through and gives the impression that I have tediously done the deed with a single bristle brush and magnifying glass.

Next, and after the figures are completely dry, I flock the movement trays on which the figures are mounted. This means that I thickly paint these bases in green or some other earth tone color, and while still wet, I drag the bases through model grass or soil, tapping off the excess when finished. To this I may add a few pebbles if the stand contains generals or other commanders. I also paint the bottom of the stands (Dragon Blue, strangely enough) so that I might be able to tell my troops from those of other players when it is time to pick up after a battle.

Finally, when everything is dry, I over spray the entire unit with a clear gloss spray such as Krylon. The gloss finish protects the figures from excessive handling, while bringing out the richness of the color. A gloss finish is the preferred treatment in Britain, while in the United States a flat or matte finish is the usual norm.

Using such technique, I am usually able to produce a unit of 12 15mm infantry figures in about an hour and a 15 minutes, with the finished product rating about a 7 on a 1 to 10 scale. 

Of course, you can always buy your figures already painted through many of the fine painting services that are available for hire, but be prepared to pay big bucks. Current pricing indicates that a single 15 mm infantry figure of about the quality I produce is likely to cost a $ 1.75, with a full 12 figure Empire French infantry battalion (which uses a scale of one lead figure representing 60 actual soldiers) costing $ 21.00. Since there were about 12 battalions in a French infantry division, three divisions in a corps . . . well, you get the picture.

Getting Started

So how does one get started? Since miniatures are normally played in group settings, it is usually wise to contact a group to see what they are playing. The HMGS Websites has listings for Wargaming Clubs, so these venues are a good place to start. HMGS also maintains a membership database and members have access to an online membership directory which allows you to do a radius search on your zip code to find like minded gamers in your area.

Next step is to simply pick up the phone and find out what period is being played, under what rules, in what scale and when the next meeting is going to happen. Show up, try your hand and then depart to pick up your own wargaming army. Try to build a complete unit, but one that is not too big. Thus McClaw's Division is a good start, but trying to build all of Longstreet's Confederate Corps is likely just a bit more than the beginner will be able to handle. Always try to build lots of regular (line) grunts, as opposed to whatever Guard plays in your chosen period. There is always a need for the average foot or horse soldier, while showing up with the Old Guard right off the bat is certainly guaranteed not to win you a lot of friends. Find out what the group needs. If the only player with Austrians has just moved to Grafenwehr, Germany, pick up some Austrians (and a lot of white paint) to help out.

But above all, try to get your army started as soon as possible. Most folks have no problem sharing their figures for play with newcomers, but this tolerance goes only so far. The quicker you can supply painted figures to the collective pool of miniatures needed to play a battle, the quicker you will be accepted into the group.

After that, settle down and have fun.


This little tome is by no means all inclusive, but everyone in HMGS land hopes it will spark your interest. If it does and you feel up to the challenge, but you still have questions, just contact the friendly folks at HMGS, Inc. and let them help you out, Believe me, you will be glad you did.

Best of luck and good gaming!

Part I adapted from the author's master's thesis Playing War: the Applicability of Commercial Conflict Simulations to Military Intelligence Training and Education (DIA Joint Military Intelligence College, Bolling AFB, DC, 1995).

Picture of Napoleon after 1814 - le campagne de France by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier, 1815-91, picture of hex map courtesy of Clash of Arms Games, fromThe Six Days of Glory by Kevin Zucker, third picture from Comrades of Constantine Wargames Club, Kriegspiel page. Cover of H. G. Wells Little Wars from Major General Tremorden Rederring's Colonial-era Wargames Page. Fifth, seventh and eighth photos courtesy of Duncan MacFarland, Wargames Illustrated magazine. All other photos by the author.