Historical battles: Wargamers cut history down to size

Matthew Lane • Mar 19, 2017 at 5:00 PM

KINGSPORT — Historicon is the largest gaming convention in North America devoted to historical miniature wargaming. The event will be held in Fredericksburg Va., (made famous during the Civil War) from July 12-16 with the theme of this year’s event being “100 Years of Tanks.”

Each year the convention draws more than 2,500 people from around the world to re-create some of the most famous military battles in history, from the Battle of Gettysburg to the Normandy landing to the biplane battles of World War I to Napoleon’s famous defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

According to the convention’s website, both gamers and military history buffs will love the four days of events, tournaments, seminars and hanging out with like-minded folks. I’m tempted to go myself, as Fredericksburg is only a half-day’s drive from the Tri-Cities.

But before I commit to the “mother of all wargaming conventions,” I thought I would educate myself on the nuts and bolts of historical miniatures.

Historical miniature wargaming is exactly like it sounds — using miniatures for military units (troops, animals and vehicles) on a table covered with scenery, buildings and accessories. Imagine a large train set, but with tanks and soldiers and you’ll get the idea.

The miniatures can range from 2 to 54 mm, with the more popular or common sizes being 15 mm and 28 mm. Games typically break down in two ways: skirmish level, where all of the models are on a 1 to 1 scale, and the brigade/battalion level, where one model could represent as many as 300 troops or a battery of artillery.

For longtime wargamers George Keen and Fred Mottern, skirmish level is their preferred method of battle.

“It takes less time to play, less time to set up, but you can have just as much fun. It just depends on what you really want to get into,” said Mottern. “If you want to feel like a commander of armies, then you do the small scale.”

Keen and Mottern have been playing historical wargames for years and manage to get in a skirmish about every two weeks, sometimes sooner if time allows. Keen, 62, is a librarian at Church Hill Middle School and Mottern, 59, is retired from the U.S. Army and operations for an airline company.

How each got engaged in wargaming sounds similar. Keen started with Dungeons & Dragons, then moved on to board games and then finally to miniatures. Specifically, Squad Leader by Avalon Hill.

“Once you start miniatures, it’s like you're hooked,” Keen said.

Mottern, who finished his tour of duty with the armored school at Fort Knox, also started with an Avalon Hill game, Afrika Korps, that follows Gen. Rommel’s Afrika Korps and their Italian allies as they fought against British forces in World War II.

“It’s a very simple board game and I still have it in my collection. When I find somebody, my grandson for example, who might be interested in gaming, I can break it out and play,” Mottern said. “For me, I started out just enjoying reading military history, and this is a way to get a deeper look at it. And it’s enjoyable at the same time.”

Keen started out with 15 mm Napoleonic miniatures, painting each individual soldier and unit to match its historical counterpart, putting in quite a bit of research into the background of the uniforms and paying close attention to the subtle differences among the units.

“Right now, skirmish wargaming is where it’s at,” Keen said. “I’m not a big convention-type guy. I’d rather sit down, find a battle somewhere and actually re-fight the battle regardless of what the troop numbers were.”

Mottern said it’s very popular to re-fight the battle of Gettysburg, with some gamers going so far as to field armies representing the actual number of troops used in the battle. One year at Historicon, Keen said he saw the Battle of Little Bighorn on a 1 to 1 scale, with three to four thousand Indians and 700 troopers from the 7th Cavalry.

“Some of these guys get into it quite a bit,” Keen said.

Both men have sizable armies in their collections, from a number of historical periods, and remark that if you go on the Internet and search for wargaming rules, you’ll be able to find a ruleset for just about any point in time, from “ancients” like Roman and Egyptian battles to the gunpowder age, the American Revolution and Civil War to the modern era and beyond.

The WWII games of Bolt Action (skirmish level) and Flames of War (battalion level) are popular with the two men, but they have also been known to skin smoke wagons in a wild west game, take to the skies in Wings of War (a WWI biplane game) and sail the open seas in the pirate game Limeys & Slimeys.

Keen said a good beginner game is Battlecry, a Civil War game with simple mechanics and scenario battles that’ll also teach kids some history as they play.

One of the perks of the hobby and a side note to the actual game itself is learning historical trivia during the research into the army or a specific unit. During one battle when Napoleon invaded Spain, a sergeant lit his pipe in the presence of the emperor and was scolded by his superior officer.

The sergeant then countered by saying he would salute the emperor from the top of the hill. After leading a charge of 120 soldiers up the hill, only seven survived, including the sergeant, and were made part of the Old Guard — Napoleon’s most prestigious and elite unit.

“And there was a girl at Waterloo who got wounded in battle, and they didn’t know she was a girl,” Keen said. “It’s little things like that,that got me started.”

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