02 December 2022
Conrad Kinch talks us through playing wargames with his two children
A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about wargaming with kids. It wasn’t really about wargaming with kids, but wargaming while one has kids. I pottered along for about a year with my little ‘board on a tea tray’ setup using Bob Cordery’s Portable Wargame rules. I played games with my son asleep in a car seat tucked up the wargames table and found time to paint in between feeds.
Five years on and all has utterly changed: terrible beauties are being born all over the place. The Kinchlet twins, once small pink things given to an engaging series of giggles and burps, are now a fully fledged little boy and girl who occupy all available space and time, leave jam sandwiches in the loo and are full of questions, opinions and the like. The boy is prone to delightful behaviour like attempting to adopt every animal he finds, no matter how matted, feral or carnivorous, while the girl greets random women on the train with the observation “You are very pretty, but you should wear nicer shoes.”
Managing this comes with its own challenges, but it does also mean that the children sometimes ask “What are you doing?”, “Why do you like toy soldiers so much?” and even “Can I play?”
This last request led to a bit of poser. I wasn’t wild about letting the Kinchlets loose on my collection of delicate figures, but I did have some more robust 54mm plastics. These were excellent for crawling around the floor with and shooting with toy catapults from around the age of four.
I also had a hex mat and a collection of plastic ships from the board game Red Alert, so we made up a simple game with that. Each player got a little fleet of ships which were to be deployed “anywhere on the table” and a couple of plastic disks. I used disks from a now defunct game of Crossbows & Catapults, but coins or some other projectile would suffice. Each fleet set up on the board and could fire two disks per turn from anywhere it had a ship. Each ship could move three hexes per turn. Ships that were hit were blown up. Last ship standing was the winner. This kept us entertained for a few weeks.
Then the LadyBaby hit on an excellent idea of deploying her ships “anywhere on the table” and hiding them on the stretchers underneath the table, where they couldn’t be hit and she won by default. Her brother stormed off in a huff. There was a swift errata-ing of the rules on deployment after that!
The exceptionally generous gift of some Playmobil models from a friend led to a series of games with these figures. These were handy as there were redcoats and bluecoats, cavalry figures, plus a mix of civilians. Also, I was able to obtain some Princess figures which definitely attracted the LadyBaby’s attention. We’ve used them as part of a couple of different games I’ve played with the Kinchlets over the last few months. These were named the Toy Soldier Game and the Dragon Game. So what, you may ask, are the rules?
RULES OF THE TOY SOLDIER GAME
There are two opposing sides. The Baddies are played by Daddy and the Twins play the Goodies. The Goodies are represented by Lord Bear (Twin1) and the LadyBaby (Twin2) and their redcoats, while the Baddies by General Du Fromage and Les Bleus.
The tabletop is covered with a hex mat. You can have as many figures as you like in a hex, but each figure can only move two hexes. Figures on horses can move three.
Cards are used to determine turn order. Each card has the name of a type of figure on it. The cards for our game were:
- Lord Bear (x2)
- Lady Baby (x2)
- Red Cannon
- Blue Horse
- Blue Cannon
Shuffle the deck of cards and turn them over one by one. When a figure – or class of figures – card is drawn, all those figures can move and shoot. When the deck runs out, reshuffle and draw again.
Terrain has no effect on movement, but it may not itself be moved. Figures must move around it. The only exception to this is fences, which cost one move to climb over.
A building can only be entered or exited by a window or a door. A figure can move from any part of a building to any other part in one move.
- Cannon: A cannon can only shoot if there are two soldiers with it. It must be fired from the position it is in. Each cannon may fire two shots per turn. Any figure knocked over by a cannon is down. Shots may be bounced off objects, other players, etc.
- Muskets/Pistols/etc: A musket can be fired at an enemy soldier that can be seen and is within four hexes. Roll a d6 die: a six knocks the soldier over.
- Melee: There wasn’t very much of this in the game, so we started off using Scissors, Paper, Stone, with the losing figure being knocked over. However, egregious cheating made this unsustainable... So I think in future I would probably use a set of cards marked Scissors, Paper, Stone or shift to a straight dice rolling contest.
- Lord Bear: Good at Sword fighting. Lord Bear can lose the first round of any sword fight without being knocked down.
- Lady Baby: Gifted horsewoman & Doctor. The LadyBaby may move four hexes rather than three on horseback. She may also stand up one figure that has been knocked down per turn.
Editor’s note: I see that there are no special rules for General Du Fromage. While that may be balanced when one’s opponents are very young (and daddy has a fair deal of actual gaming experience!), in others circumstances against more skilled players, one might want to allocate a more balanced leadership recruitment regime. Perhaps The General might also have a special capability? Just a thought. Ed.
RULES OF THE DRAGON GAME
Set out the board something like I've shown in the photographs. Figures may only enter clear hexes. Mountains and woods fill the hex and are impassable.
Cards are used to determine turn order. I hadn’t intended to use cards for this game, but my daughter really enjoyed being able to write her and her brothers name, so – as she made the cards herself – in they went. The card mix was as follows:
- Lord Bear (x2)
- Lady Baby (x2)
- Baddies (x2)
Whenever a characters card was turned over, they were able to move d6 hexes or 2d6 if they were on a horse.
Each Kinchlet got a soldier to accompany them and who would be knocked down if they failed a task. I did this to give them some extra “lives” in case things went badly.
I put a number of red tokens down on the board. The Kinchlets had to get their figure to the token to find out what it is. These revealed tokens represented:
- Mother Goose: Mother Goose has lost her parrot and wants to find her. She will give the player a card which reads “Here Pretty Polly”. If the players can find the parrot and read the card to her, the parrot will give them a card reading “Look under Saint Joan” and fly back to Mother Goose.
We have a picture of Joan of Arc in the hall and I slipped an Index Card with “Saint Joan Magic Sword” written on it and a spare PlayMobil plastic sword taped to it under the frame, where they could see it if they went looking. This magic sword could be used to defeat the dragon.
- Miss Rabbit: Miss Rabbit has been kidnapped by the White Witch and tied up. She will thank you kindly and give you a magic potion that will let you stand a figure up. Once freed, she will hop away to safety.
- M’Uncle: Their old uncle has also been kidnapped by the White Witch. He is so old and tired that he cannot escape. If mounted on a horse, he can be moved off the board.
- A horse: Snowy, a white horse, can be brought to M’uncle and will carry him to safety. He can move 2d6 hexes and can jump over enemies.
- A parrot: See Mother Goose.
- Old Mother Hubbard: Old Mother Hubbard has an old magic book that she can’t read. It might help the players defeat the Dragon. The kids had a Spell Book toy that I think came in a Kinder egg that opened up. I hid a little note in it which read “Look in Toaster” or you could make a “book” yourself out of card. I hid an Index Card with “Magic Spell: Sleep” written on it in the toaster. If the Kinchlets can read out the spell, they can cast on the Dragon to put it to sleep.
The Kinchlets were tasked with getting to each token, rescuing or solving the problem and then finally dealing with the Dragon. The White Witch hid behind the Dragon and hissed and threatened, but ultimately played no part in the game: it ran away when her Dragon was defeated.
- The Dragon: The Dragon stayed in one hex and breathed fire every turn. I used Teddy Bear stuffing for the fire. It filled up to the two hexes and any character in those hexes was knocked down and sent to the nearest clear hex. Each activation of the Dragon he would move one hex side, so that the Dragon’s flame is quite predictable. The Dragon is defeated if either character can make it within three hexes of him and cast the Magic Spell Sleep (by reading out the card) or by hitting him with the Magic Sword.
- Black Tom & Les Bleus: Black Tom is a pirate Playmobil figure that Bear got as a Christmas present, who is “a stinky pirate”. Les Bleus were some blue coated Playmobil figures that I used in the other game. Black Tom & Les Bleus would appear on the board whenever I thought things were getting boring. They would move d6 hexes each turn and would try and kidnap the Kinchlets if they could. They could be scared away by addressing them with a French phrase or by counting how many of them there were in French. They would then run off the board to re-appear as needed.
Once the Dragon was defeated, the Kinchlets could open the Treasure Chest he was guarding. The treasure chest had a note in it reading “Look under Bed”. There was a shoebox marked “Treasure Chest” stashed under their bed which had two comics in it with which they were well pleased.
ACCOUNTS OF THE GAMES
We played both games out and this is how they went...
THE TOY SOLDIER GAME
Firstly, the ‘pre-game’. The kids had been asking when they would be allowed to play “one of Daddy’s special games”. Mrs Kinch told them that they could play it as a special Fathers Day present to me. This was mainly inspired by the gift of two small armies of Playmobil figures from a friend who had planned to play Little Wars style games with them, but hadn’t pursued the idea.
As there were very few female figures, I had a look on some local adverts sites and found someone selling a collection of Playmobil Princesses locally for ten quid. I had planned a sort of wagon train game where the kids had to escort a wagon across the board, but this was promptly taken out of my hands when the LadyBaby saw the setup I had arranged. My daughter was delighted with her Princesses, but informed me that one of them was Empress Sissi while the other was Lady LadyBaby. As an aside, Sissi was Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1837-1989), who was also known as Sissi. My daughter’s obsession started when we came back from a wedding in Vienna with a doll of Sissi for her.
Bear didn’t mind so long as he got to fire the cannon, which was the main attraction so far as he was concerned. I bodged together some vague rules based on the old Milton Bradley Battle Masters game and we got going.
The twins got one specific character each to represent them. They could each do something special. As you’ll have seen from the rules, Bear was good at sword fighting while the LadyBaby could “resurrect” troops that had been knocked over by the cannon; she had asked if her character could be a doctor, but later decided that she just yelled at the fallen until they stood up again. Apparently bellowing “GET UP AND STOP BEING SILLY!” is what is required under these circumstances. Who knew battlefield medicine was so simple? (have you informed the Authorities about her discovery? Ed.)
I decided that the siege of the Dolls House was the battle wanted. Empress Sissi was going to be kidnapped by Les Bleus and the twins had to defend her. The game kicked off with Empress Sissi being dispatched to her room because she was “scared”. I then moved the baddies forward a couple of spaces each time they got a go and opened fire with my cannons. The LadyBaby peeking over the edge of the table when her troops were under fire because she couldn’t bear to look was very funny, but she got grumpy when I laughed, so I had to keep a straight face. Bear worked out what enfilading fire was and used it to great effect. There was one epic shot which took out seven baddies in one fell swoop.
I made sure to pick my shots carefully, knocking down one or two of their figures, but not putting them under too much pressure. One shot which I botched, knocked down four of their men and led to the Bear losing his head and mounting a one Kinchlet cavalry charge. This went deep into the enemy rear to take out a gun that was punishing his troops. He managed to cut his way through the line only to be felled by a shot from my other cannon.
The crisis of the game arose when the LadyBaby suddenly realised that she wasn’t as good as her brother with the cannon and Les Bleus were closing in. She had to run halfway across the board to yell at him to get up, then realised she was on her own and the enemy cavalry were closing in. She promptly arranged an escort for herself, ran over, picked him up, dusted him off and dragged him back to his gun, where he managed to hold off the bad guys until the game was over.
The game clipped along at a rare old place for over an hour. The kids had limited time to move their troops and I would advance the Les Bleus each turn and bombard them.
THE DRAGON GAME
The Dragon game was more like a standard board game than the Toy Soldier game, but it was still fun. It came about because I needed to occupy the Kinchlets during a very rainy afternoon. The Dragon was a bath toy, my standard wargames terrain served for the board and the Play Mobil figures were the stuff we had already acquired. Miss Rabbit was added at the Ladybaby’s insistence for reasons that are obscure to me.
The main difference between the Dragon Game and the Toy Soldier Game was that I didn’t use the spring loaded cannon. We used cards for activation and dice for movement because the kids wanted them to be “proper” games. Most of the challenges in the game were based around tasks that the kids had to complete, either reading short sentences written on index cards (which they found quite tricky), hunting for clues that I’d hidden around the house, or using a few of their French phrases. This kept the game lively and meant that it didn’t descend into a die rolling contest.
I really enjoyed sharing the hobby with the Kinchlets and I hope to keep it up over the years to come. It’s highly unlikely that you are going to be able to run the exact games presented here as they make use of materials that I’ve collected over the years. The rules of the two games are offered as an example of things you might do. However I have learned a number of things from playing games with the Kinchlets:
Start with what you have. I haven’t bought anything for these games beyond the Playmobil princesses and you’ve no guarantee that your kids are going to enjoy the game you’ve presented, so I would be very slow to buy anything for them. Far better to start with the toys that you (or better yet they) already have. If you can weave a favourite toy into the game you’re already catching their imagination and surely that’s what it’s all about. (readers might refer to the origins of Tom Bombadil in the Lord of the Rings: a favourite children’s toy, I understand. Ed)
Kids these days seem to have mountains of stuff, certainly more than I ever recall having as a youngster, so make use of what’s already at home.
Let them make it their own. I learned very quickly that the Kinchlets were much more interested in a game that they had some input into. The LadyBaby was delighted that her heroine Sissi was added to the game. Give them their head and see what they come up with. They will surprise you.
Keep it simple: Five year olds have limited attention spans and limited abilities, so make sure to keep the game at their level. The aim of the exercise was to spend a happy time together, not to give Advanced Squad Leader a run for its money in the game design stakes. Simple games play more quickly and it’s better to run a short game that every one enjoys than something more involved that flags before the end. Kids are ruthless. They will absolutely tell you if you’re boring them.
Be Flexible: I certainly adapted things while the game was in motion to cut things that I thought weren’t holding their attention.
Simplicity: I used a hexed grid for our games for precisely that reason. The kids have just about got their heads around feet and inches, but measuring things is a bit tricky for them. Using a gridded play area made that a lot easier. If you don’t have one, a roll of brown paper and a few minutes work with a marker should do the job. I’m actually considering a game where we draw the board on some brown paper and then colour it in as the kids explore it as a possibility.
We’ve had a lot of fun with these ideas and I hope hope they give you some ideas of your own. It’s never too early to start planting the next generation of wargamers. If you do, let me know via the magazine or at [email protected] or @aquestingvole on Twitter.
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