THE COMPRESSED WARGAMER: Finding balance and order from our own chaos

26 November 2020
Thoughts on how a hobby can run away with you

There’s a famous law from science you may have heard about: “A gas will expand to fill the available space”. The law has been reworded a few times to reflect the nuances of other pursuits, but I like to think it holds very true for wargaming too. With a bit of tinkering it becomes: “A hobby like wargaming – especially like wargaming – will expand to take over your available space”. Anyone in agreement with me here?



Without a Zen like mental discipline our hobby has the potential to colonise and dominate every shelf, box, table and cabinet in our homes before we’ve even set up to play a game. I enjoy wargames with a passion. It’s a pastime that has enthralled me since the early ‘80s. Sure, there have been periods when my interest has occasionally waned, but it’s been one of those things that has remained through all the twists, turns, up and downs that one’s own existence inevitably takes. Sometimes I stop and consider that my fascination with small soldiers, bits of scenery and rolling buckets of dice has survived the ages and still gives me a buzz of excitement.

Some of my collection has been with me for decades and has travelled across the globe as I’ve in-turn migrated with family, worked overseas and re– located to Europe. Simply put it has been one of the constants in my life.

Even now well into middle age my brain’s synapses ignite every time I see some new and attractive miniatures range. This is immediately followed by an eruption of complex thought that tries to figure out how I’d fit this in to my collection or what items of terrain or new rules I’d need to game with such additions. Like a rock being dropped into a pond, the ripples just reach out. Furthermore the hobby always finds a way to possess me for a few moments on a regular basis even if I’m far from my hobby area (but: more of that later...).

Like many of us I work a job, have kids and various commitments competing for my time. I like to think of myself as a well-rounded adult who knows his every day responsibilities. Not an oddball recluse who shuns all else in the pursuit of a hobby. Yet, in times past my collection has been a disordered mess of rule books stacked high, interspersed with boxes crammed full of half painted minis of varying scales and eras. Not to mention terrain heaped randomly about the place. As such I often find myself enviously marvelling at the gorgeous and immaculate photos of sizeable wargame tables, ample scenery workbenches or massed armies displayed online or in magazines. Plus I enjoy viewing YouTube videos showing gurus of the hobby in their large well-ordered workshops demonstrating how they construct impressive terrain pieces or play through a large game in a dedicated studio.

But, here’s the thing. Not all of us have the real estate to actually pursue our hobby to such lofty heights (or rather, such expansive acreages). There will always be a gap between what we’d like to do and what we can realistically achieve on account of our space. If you do have the space, then that’s great. 


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I’ve probably lost you as far as this article goes. A great majority of us are lucky if we can at least have a dedicated painting area that can be left set-up in a study or some such: the miniatures and pots left out as we work through our latest batch. However, depending on how big this room actually is, further activities risk seeping out into the shared areas of our houses or apartments. At the extreme end of things we risk the sum total of many minor, and not so minor, purchases lying heaped up in the forgotten corners of our house. Factor in the lead, and terrain, pile may be inactive for months or years can make our hobby at times resemble some pathological exercise in hoarding. Plus not forgetting the wargame table, or tables, need to be kept somewhere too. And that’s before we’ve even started rolling the dice!

I’ll tell you a story...

Zululs! Dozens of 'em: gaming in the author's small space.


I currently live in Holland and couple of years ago I went along to Crisis in nearby Antwerp, Belgium with a couple of newly found wargaming friends. As we walked around the innards of the dockside warehouse the convention is held in, my two friends slowly but surely amassed an ever growing pile of minis, boxed sets, scenery and books that they struggled to cradle in their arms by the time we left. By contrast I didn’t buy a single thing. Nothing, nada, zilch. Much to their consternation they wondered if everything was OK with me and asked why I hadn’t bought anything. 

My reply was a long winded tale from the annals of my history. Many moons ago – twenty years ago to be precise – I used to work for a TV shopping channel. In spite of the show business environment, the lights, the cameras and the action all I seemed to care about was the polystyrene packing that was discarded each day as new products were unboxed ahead of them being filmed. Upon first seeing these piles of discarded packaging the ‘wargames part of my brain’ sprang to life as I planned all the buildings, fortifications, castles and ruins I could build from them. The trouble was I didn’t just get them the one time, but time and time again over a period of weeks. It got the point where the apartment I lived in had huge bin liners full of polystyrene completely filling the entrance way. Even as I squeezed past them each day, I was always adamant I would use them to build something for my fantasy battle games That day never came and I slowly came to realise I would probably never use a single piece (I don’t recognise a single word you’re saying... Ed). 

Even then part of me was still in a form of denial. Surely I’d find that spare hour, or weekend, where I’d craft something, right? Wrong. It never happened and the only one to blame for the lack of action was me. Finally I rationalised that I should just dispose of them and so one day I took it all to the local recycling centre and said farewell.

It was this long sweeping saga I used to excuse why I hadn’t bought anything when there were so many goodies on offer, either new or second hand. Believe me I was sorely tempted, but I wanted to stay in control and not get lost in the highs created by a raft of new purchases that may never get painted or played with. Plus it was enough for me that day just to walk around and absorb at all the goings on of a hobby I cherish (in either case I bought a load of stuff there when I’d gone to Crisis the year before).

The point I’m attempting to make is that it’s easy for aspects this hobby to spiral out of control until we are no longer just wargamers or miniature collectors, but also hoarders of varying magnitude. However, this all comes from an innocent place. Small innocuous purchases here and there, or collecting craft materials, can take us by surprise so that one day we turn around and become overwhelmed by the mountain we’ve created.

That’s why in recent years I’ve tried to be very rational and disciplined with any new purchase. My internal dialogue racing as a bead of thought moves along a flow chart of questions and options as I prowl wargame conventions, or the aisles of hobby stores. Experience reminds me that many has been the time when a new game, or set of miniatures, has been unpacked, cooed over, then put away again to languish abandoned and forgotten. 

Like a lot of gamers, the Author's earlier experiences included a lot of Warhammer.


So what do I play? Well, everything I guess. My journey started when I purchased the old three book Warhammer boxed set some time in the mid ‘80s, followed by some supplements and various ‘Old School’ minis from Citadel, Grenadier and Ral Partha. Next Avalon Hill games gave me a taste for the historical which in turn led me to buy a 1/72 scale ESCI Napoleonic army (that I never finished painting) Accompanying Le Grand Armée was the brilliant Guide to Wargaming by Bruce Quarrie. This small tome was my rabbit hole into the fascinating world of historical miniature wargaming.: remember, there was no internet back in the ‘80s and no way to instantly look up a 28mm Dark Ages army or a 54mm WWII battle. Instead this book was the sole manner in which I could peer at photos of lavish gaming tables, miniatures doing battle and set-ups I could only dream about. From around ‘87 to 1990 I must have looked at it at least once a week. If I’d have taken it as GSCE in that book, I’d have gotten an ‘A’. 

Sadly, after these initial years of discovery, things cooled somewhat as other teenage interests took my fancy. My collection was put into storage in my parents’ garage by the time I left home, although I did keep a hand in gaming by playing RPGs at University. Then – after my studies – things flat-lined to nothing for a few years and all thoughts of the hobby went from my mind. Or so I thought. 



The dying embers of my gaming career were re-kindled by playing Space Hulk with a neighbour sometime in the late ‘90s. My rehabilitation continued when next I played Lord of the Rings strategy battle games with my nephew. Ultimately some colleagues at work got a small weekly gaming group going. A few years of solid gaming followed in which all members of the group got caught up in a brutal arms race courtesy of Warhammer 40K (one that did me no good as my Orks got obliterated most evenings) or were frustrated and entertained in equal measure by the goings on in Castle Ravenloft and other boxed mini games. Sadly that group dispersed after seven fun filled years, but it didn’t slake my appetite for buying minis, painting them or crafting pieces of terrain. 

In many ways I was cast back to the early teens. Purchasing various armies, rule sets and so on without any clear idea about when, or how, I’d play with them. And so the strata of games from ages past were buried under newer acquisitions. Time for another story. 


Back in the 00s my now wife and I moved out of our old apartment and bought our first house. After all our belongings were unpacked my wargames, boxed sets, terrain, miniatures, RPGs, dice and so on that had been rounded up from every nook and cranny in the old apartment, were now heaped together in the house’s loft. It was an epic, yet sobering, sight.

An enormous pile of boxes, books and containers full of the hobby’s accoutrements reached to the ceiling like some wonky monolith. I had the sneaking suspicion that my hobby was creeping up on me again like an incoming high tide and it was time to dispose of some items lest I get caught out by the rising waters. In an instant of calm clarity I came to the conclusion that I should really try and flog some of these on ebay. Gone were the numerous impulse purchases, the games that I had promised myself I’d learn to play yet never had, various charity shop finds, a huge regiment of crossbowmen I’d never painted, some 28mm sci. fi. soldiers and aliens I’d last played with over a decade ago. The proverbial fat had been trimmed and what remained was lean, trimmed down and manageable. A core of games I knew I’d play with my gaming group or at least review and tinker about with on my own. 

Plus at the storage level, I could easily put things away in a reasonable manner and get out them again should I need something (even if they were still exiled to the coldness of the loft.). Before I had risked an avalanche every time I reached for a game, or had to resort to archaeology as I dug my way into some huge moving box. The whole thing was a cathartic experience, one I’m glad I did, but one that took a lot of inertia to overcome.



So, why am I telling you all this? Have I become some wargame monk who shuns new products or purchases? Am I slowly turning my back on the hobby I’ve been practising since my early teens? No, to both questions. The reason is that I have since moved to yet another house and one in which I’m incredibly lucky to have a fabled ‘Man Cave’ which is largely given over to my gaming hobby. Even from the get go in the new property I quivered and shook as the base urges within me fought for control against my rational disciplined side. Having spent years coming to terms with, and managing, my gaming obsessions the last thing I wanted was for this modest sized room to instantly become some sordid pit of half built miniatures, paint pots, flock, dice and half built gaming tables (I still have no idea what you’re talking about! Ahem... Ed.).

Talking of man caves...

Instead of stacking things up against the walls, I was now able to actually put things away and still walk around without tripping over! Don’t get me wrong I’m not a neat freak trembling with compulsions to perpetually tidy up and put things away. It was more a case of, now with this new space, I finally had a clean slate in which to make sense of my hobby. 

I finally had the space for a painting station to be permanently set– up, I could actually get through the minis I’d been collecting over the years a themed batch at a time. My boxed sets were nicely stowed away courtesy of an old Ikea cabinet, the shelf space held my collection of rule books while my scenery and raw materials are neatly ensconced in a place of their own in the corner. I have since made purchases of games and minis of course, but before each I’ve always had a think about how it would slot into upcoming gaming projects. Getting waylaid by mad tangents of thought in the form of random game purchases is something I’m trying to avoid. Occasionally I’ll cull some games I no longer have an interest in, but I’ll use to proceeds to get something I really want or need; kind of a “one-out, one-in” policy. Plus my older miniatures have been given a new lease of life courtesy of the various Osprey Wargames books I’ve been steadily buying. So I’m far from having had a moratorium on new games. 

However, despite my luck in having a dedicated room something is lacking – a decent sized wargame table. This is the one thing I am just going to have to live without. 

Sure I could buy some old table, stick a 6’ x 4’ sheet of painted wood or grass mat on top, but that would leave me with absolutely no space left in the room. Or at the very least I’d be pressed into the walls and bending under the slanting roof. While I could easily go around the corner to my local hardware store to buy an appropriately sized piece of wood and set it up somewhere else in the house, I refuse to do so. No, my little room has to be the available space my hobby occupies, but doesn’t fill or expand out of. Otherwise all those years of sensible management and discipline have been all in vain.

But what’s the point of collecting and painting minis if you can’t game them? I hear you ask.

...the editor is privileged to have one! Mind you, even with lots of space, there still comes a point when you have to rationalise...


I mentioned not having a decent sized board. Instead I’ve just had to accept my space limitations and adapt things to gaming on a small sheet of wood that sits perched on the edge of a low long coffee table. This humble 2’ x 2’ piece of green painted wood has superbly focused my efforts and gives a certain context to my wargaming. There’s no point planning huge 28mm battles as they simply will not fit. Without this small piece of ply I may still be adrift in planning some grandiose army building and terrain schemes that would never be realised. It was the brilliant catalyst for my current gaming regime, as without it I may still be dreaming up never ending projects that would only ever be played on the wargame table of my imagination. 

Although small for full-on Warhammer or Kings of War type battles say, it’s quite adequate for smaller Frostgrave games, 54mm man-to-man encounters with a few figures a side, my 15mm Pike and Shot skirmishes using Pikeman’s Lament and 10mm Fantasy wargaming. Also due to my current circumstances I solo game, and my minis basically rotate on and off the board by scale and rule system on a fairly regular basis according to fancy. Plus I can leave a game set up for as long as I need. At the moment some 10mm Pendraken Skeletons and Lizardmen are facing off. In a few days the fantasy scale increases to 28mm for a mini Frostrgrave campaign. Perhaps after that it’s time for some 1/72 Anglo-Zulu war encounters. I have a lot to choose from! Importantly I’ve finally found the balance that was lacking from much of my earlier gaming and collecting.

The Author goes small and goes home, while striving for focus (in more ways that one!).


So what’s the point of telling you all this? Think of this stream of thought as my take – my proverbial ‘two cents’ – as to how a hobby, nay passion, can run away with you and lead you into a quagmire of unused miniatures and never ending half completed projects. When does a love of painting, crafting and gaming mutate into an inconvenience that burdens you and puts pressure on what may already be a limited space. Does the prospect of doing something with all those unopened boxes seem like a hassle instead of fun? Take a long hard look at your collection, do you need everything? Can you store it easily without it encroaching on the lives of your partner or family? Do you need to make more purchases to finish off your army or themed terrain and if so how will these be slotted in to the available space. 

There’s only so many times you can buy ‘one more container’ or set-up ‘one last shelf’ before your room, storage area, or indeed home, descends into claustrophobic chaos. 

To paraphrase Bruce Quarrie’s sound advice in aforementioned Guide to Wargaming, only buy a few figures at a time as having piles of unpainted miniatures lying around the place can feel too much like hard work. 

Never a truer word spoken. 

Words (and most pictures) by Tom Holden

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