06 September 2022
Words & Pics by Dave Burden & Dale Taylor in Poland
One of the things we are terribly keen on here at Miniature Wargames Magazine is getting gaming out to a wider public. It’s great to play with mates and even better at clubs with the social atmosphere. Wargames shows are pretty splendid too (when one is allowed) but – let’s face it – we mostly attract... wargamers. Sure we bring along sons and daughters and maybe spouses and the odd mate but usually we are preaching to the converted.
When something like this story turns up, we at the magazine like to give it as much coverage as possible. So: take it away gentlemen! Miniature Wargames Ed.
Back in 1977 my brother Adrian, myself, friends Nick, Alan, Dale and a few others from our school wargaming club put on a Napoleonic wargame at the Dorking Model Railway and Hobby Show with over 500, mostly Airfix, figures. It was great fun, but we always dreamed of putting on a full Battle of Waterloo.
Pocket money and time made it impossible back then, but finally – on the weekend 20/23 August 2021 – our wargame of Waterloo finally became a reality. Whilst the game itself was great fun, it was everything that happened around it that made it a truly special weekend to remember, and taught us a lot about promoting the hobby.
It wasn’t until about 2016 that we seriously started planning the game: Nick and I had 60th Birthdays looming, so playing Waterloo in 2021 seemed a fitting celebration. We checked our figure holdings, checked the orbats and assessed the gap. Luckily, Adrian is a demon painter and wargamer and he agreed to take part and get painting. In the end he provided over 40% of the 6300 20mm figures (we wanted the classic Bruce Quarrie, 1:33 figure to man ratio for the set piece).
It fell to me to sort the terrain. Experimentation showed that Halfords 2ft x 2ft interlocking floor tiles (designed for garage workshops) would be an ideal way forward: they are tough and light, and – if they warp – you can just bend them back into shape. We wanted to cover 6km by 3.6km of the battlefield, which – at 1mm = 1 yard (Quarrie again) – this meant we’d need a 10 tile by 6 tile layout. We had two layers of tiles to make 15m contours, with flocked felt for the lowest layer. I spent much of lockdown painting and flocking the tiles, but the nice thing was that the whole terrain ends up storing as a simple stack 2ft x 2ft x 6ft, portable by hand in just two lifts.
I also had responsibility for the rules. As readers may remember (Miniature Wargames issues 404/405) I play almost exclusively on grids – and so the whole terrain was marked with dots every 10cm. We ended up with a 60 x 36 grid: that’s 2,160 squares, about 5,400 dots! Can we claim the biggest gridded figure-based wargame ever? (I’m surprised you can still see! Ed.)
The other innovation in the homebrew rules was that they use Fate Dice. These come from the Fate RPG system and are available in many RPG or Boardgame shops. They are a D6 marked specifically as: Plus, Plus, Minus, Minus, Blank, Blank. The neat thing is that if you throw two and add them together you get a nice bell curve from -2 to +2, centred on 0. If you then add this to your DMs it means that any “randomness” is limited, emphasising good tactical decisions over lucky dice rolls (although you still get those too sometimes!).
Initially we’d seen the game as being a fairly private, low-key, leisurely affair. We recruited fellow wargamer Bill to even the sides up, and – apart from a few friends and family popping in to say ‘hi’ – we thought that would be that. We hadn’t reckoned with the U3A and the local media!
The University of the Third Age (U3A) encourages people (mostly 60+, so I guess that includes me now!) to set up their own special interest groups within the local area. My mother just happens to be in the military history group and asked if she could invite the group along (which seemed reasonable as she was gifting Nick and I the school hall hire as an additional birthday present!). We agreed two time slots and so – on both Saturday and Sunday – we had visitors to whom we could explain the battle, the game and the hobby. Prior awareness ranged from almost zero to a gentleman who’s a battlefield tour guide and takes groups to Waterloo!
Nick had meanwhile decided to see if he could get the local media interested. One sad fact was that Alan, one of our original group and a highly talented wargame painter and scenery maker, had died of cancer back in 2018. In some way our Waterloo game was in remembrance of him, and even featured some of his old French Airfix figures. Nick managed to make contact with a journalist from GetSurrey and SurreyLive. She interviewed Nick and I over the phone and sent a photographer over on the Thursday for a photoshoot and they ran an article on-line early Friday. Then they said that they wanted to livestream the game! So another journalist turned up lunchtime on Friday. Set up was taking longer than thought (it took five hours in the end...) so she had to help put the troops on the table before we could start! She interviewed the three of us, I then gave a guided tour of the tabletop battlefield and then we gave a running commentary as we went through the first few activations of the game.
The photographer was also there again to get some “action” shots. They all got posted up along with some more text and a one minute video in another article, and on the Thursday the print edition of their local paper came out, and – not only had they put us on the cover – but on an inside double-page spread too!
A week later we heard that we’d actually also been in the print edition of the Daily Mirror, the Wednesday after the game. By then Chinese whispers had definitely set in as not only was the game described as being “on show” at the School (two days after we’d finished), but also Alan had miraculously come back to life, his name being used instead of Adrian’s in the write-up!
What we hadn’t expected was that both the U3A and the media would then generate further visitors. Several people saw the article on the Surrey Live website on Friday morning, and turned-up unannounced on the Saturday. Then the U3A people leaving the game bumped into some hikers, told them of the spectacle going on inside the school hall and we had even more visitors.
I think that every single person who visited U3A, friend or family, GetSurrey reader or passing hiker was blown away by the spectacle, craft and scale of the whole thing. The most interesting insight though was that many of them thought that this (and by extension wargaming?) was really just an animated diorama where we put the figures through the motions of the real battle. When we explained about starting positions, commands, rules and objectives they got it, and hopefully their own new insight into what wargaming is all about.
Another group that gained a fresh appreciation were the Warhammer and RPG players amongst the (typically grown-up) sons and daughters of friends who came along. Again, the scale of the thing compared to even a Warhammer battle made a real impression, and hopefully we made a couple of converts to at least the idea of historical wargaming. Our real win was when the caretaker’s son Will, (also an adult Warhammer and RPG player) popped in, loved what we were doing and stayed, playing with us for the whole weekend. One interesting comment by him was how simple the rules were compared to Warhammer – and personally I’d rate ours as around the somewhere between Shako and General de Brigade! Will’s already asked to be invited to the next game.
Oh, and remember Dale who I mentioned at the very beginning? He emigrated to Poland decades ago, but stayed a wargamer. It turned out he was putting on his own demo games (28mm WW1 Trench Warfare, and a Polish-Bolshevik War skirmish) at Rydzyna Castle in Poland the same weekend (see the sidebar: right), so we had a video hook-up between the two locations on the Saturday afternoon, and shared progress reports for the rest of the weekend.
And the game itself? The French attempted a double envelopment, and effectively turned Wellington’s left flank, but narrowly failed to turn his right due to the speedy recall of the Dutch/Belgians from Braine l’Alleud. The Prussians were a bit tardy coming onto the field and got caught in a bottle neck up the Lasne valley, but the French were really down to only the Guard and VI Corps by then so it was time for a managed withdrawal: a marginal Allied victory, we think.
So what did we learn? The lack of awareness amongst the public of what wargaming actually is surprised us. It’s as though they thought it was model railways with muskets, with no opportunity for all the tactical decision making and team-work that comes with a good wargame. Opening the eyes of the younger generation was great too, and that comment about it being “easier than Warhammer” suggests that some of the challenges of bringing that generation into the hobby may not be as high as I’d thought – and they could certainly appreciate the spectacle. The public engagement really made it, but certainly took a lot of our playing time. And – once you engage the media – you lose control and the story spreads (and loses accuracy with each retelling!) Next time if there’s any chance of visitors we’ll have a “duty greeter” to ensure that others can keep playing.
Next time? In truth Nick and I saw this game as a practice: the chance to show that we could put on a mega-scale Napoleonic wargame. Having enjoyed the games put on at Liphook and in Francis’ barn over the years we’re keen to return the favour, and so we’ll be running this Waterloo again in 2022, and then hopefully have at least an annual Napoleonic mega-game. Here’s to the future!
This game is dedicated to the memory of Alan Martin: 1961-2018.
The GetSurrey livestream video recording can be found here
Their main article with some superb photographs is here
We also recorded our own frame-a-minute stop-motion video of the whole day as a 90 second video, complete with appropriate soundtrack. You can find that here.
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This scenario was one of many that appears in Miniature Wargames Magazine, our monthly publication for all kinds of wargames! You can check out our latest issue, or previous issues by clicking hereGet your magazine here
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