Tabletop games Wargaming

Miniature wargaming

American Civil War miniature battle at the HMGS Cold Wars convention in Lancaster.

Miniature wargaming is a form of wargaming which incorporates miniature figures, miniature armor and modeled terrain as the main components of play and which was first invented at the beginning of the 19th century in Prussia. Like other types of wargames, they can be generally considered to be a type of simulation game, generally about tactical combat, as opposed to computer and board wargames which have greater variety in scale.

While such games could also be played with counters on a table with colored paper to denote terrain types, the visual attractiveness and tactile satisfaction of painted miniatures moving around on a table with model trees, hills and other scenery has such an alluring power to convince many wargamers to prefer model/miniature games over the cheaper and easier board-and-chits alternatives.

The miniatures and scenario items at the core of the model wargaming experience are available in different scales, and many sets of rules are written with the assumption that a particular scale is being used.

The hobby got its start around the beginning of the 20th century, with the publication of Jane's naval war rules and H. G. Wells' Little Wars in 1913. A similar book titled Shambattle: How to Play with Toy Soldiers was published by Harry Dowdall and Joseph Gleason in 1929. Commercial products just for miniatures wargamers and awareness as a single community of people with similar interests date back to the 1950s with the efforts of Jack Scruby. Major developments in the field since then include the rise in the 1960s and 1970s of fantasy and science fiction wargames as an alternative to games based on historical conflicts, and the emergence of companies like Corvus Belli Infinity (wargame) Games Workshop, Spartan Games, Battlefront, Foundry, Warlord Games, Privateer Press and many others.

General overview

Miniature wargaming is a recreational hobby where players simulate a battle, which is played out using small figurines to represent the land, sea and/or air units involved. Many miniatures games are played on a floor or tabletop, with terrain represented by miniature scenery (hills, forests, roads, fences, etc.). Movement of the miniatures is regulated using a measuring device such as a ruler, tape measure, cut sticks or other prepared standardized-length instruments. However, like boardgames, miniature games can also be played using gridded terrain (demarcated into squares or hexagons) or even gameboards.

One of the main reasons for playing miniature wargames, in both these respects, is because it offers players more freedom of play and a more aesthetically pleasing tactical element over traditional games or computer games. Additionally, many hobbyists enjoy the challenge of painting miniatures and constructing scenery. In many ways, miniature wargaming may be seen as combining many of the aesthetics of tabletop train modelling with an open strategy game predominantly, though not exclusively, with a military theme. There is also a large social component to wargames as very often games are played with several participants on a side.

The miniatures and scenery used vary greatly in scale, from 6mm figures up to 54mm or larger (90 mm for example). The miniature figures are typically plastic or metal and are often sold unpainted. Scenery is often home-made, and figures are painted by the players, who will sometimes even "convert" shop-bought figures to better represent the units they are trying to depict.

There are any number of sets of miniature wargaming rules, some of which are available without charge on the Internet. Scenarios may depict actual historical situations and battles, or they may be hypothetical "what if?" situations. There are also fantasy and science fiction games with attendant wizards, spacecraft and other genres. Rules also vary in the scale they depict: one figure to one soldier is the most common for fantasy and some historical rules, but many historical systems presume that one figure represents hundreds or even thousands of men.

Generally, these games are turn based strategy, like chess.


Two units of 15mm spearmen from a Phokian Greek army under De Bellis Antiquitatis rules.

Scale is generally expressed as the approximate height of a humanoid figure from base of foot to eyeline (though some count to top of head - hence the possible confusion) in millimeters, this is sometimes referred to as the Barret Scale, as opposed to the ratio values used in scale modeling.

Popular sizes and roughly equivalent scale ratios

mm 54 45 28 25 20 15 12 10 6 3 2
scale 1:32 1:35 1:64 1:72 1:76 1:100 1:144 1:161 1:300 1:600 1:914

For more detailed information on common scales see miniature scale. The naval wargaming branch of the hobby almost exclusively uses ratios.

"O" (1:48), "HO" (1:87), and "N" (1:160) scale are popular among model railroad hobbyists. Some model railroad scales are close enough to the smaller-scale figures to provide usable structures and/or vehicles, possibly requiring some modification. For example, 1:144, N Scale, and 10mm miniatures typically mix well on the game table. Some wargamers use card model structures because of their economy and the ease of scaling them to appropriate sizes, and many wargamers scratchbuild their structures. 1:144 scale is not very common for wargames but notable exceptions like Dream Pod 9's Heavy Gear do exist.

Part of the reason for the profusion of miniature sizes is the need for manufacturers to differentiate themselves in what is a niche market. This results in what has been termed "scale creep" where miniatures listed in a catalog may be identified by a measurement, but in reality may vary significantly from that advertized size. This is to encourage the purchaser into brand loyalty based on the aesthetic desire to maintain a look of uniformity on the tabletop.

Over the years the size of new miniatures has tended to increase. For example, 25 mm figures from the 70s are visibly smaller than the 25 mm figures today. Some can even be used alongside modern 20 mm figures. Currently most manufacturers and gamers refer to 25 mm figures as 28 mm figures, since they are so much bigger than the earlier 25 mm figures. Some figures are still being called 25 mm, even if by the foot to eyeline ratio they should be 30 mm or bigger.

Moreover the anatomy features of 25-30 mm miniatures can vary notably from manufacturer to manufacturer and even from sculptor to sculptor: some of them rely on heavily emphasized features (to the point of distortion) closely resembling the exaggerated anatomies of comic-book characters, and are aptly called "heroic"-style figures; other, more consistent with actual human physiques, are termed "realistic" figures.

Usually "heroic" anatomies are more common in fantasy and SF miniatures and some odder para-realistic subgenres, like zombie apocalypse or pulp heroes figures; "realistic" figures feature more prominently in miniatures dedicated to actual or historical military conflicts. A player's choice of which scale to use is a direct reflection of the scope of the game to be played. For historical games, 15 mm seems to be the most popular scale, because it is small enough to allow for large battles. Smaller scaled miniatures are typically mounted in groups and moved as groups. This creates the visual effect of a large mass of combatants, allowing games simulating platoon, company, battalion, and even corps level actions. In these cases, the miniatures are often mounted on trays, or bases, for ease of mass movement.

Larger scaled figures (primarily 25 mm and up) tend to be used in skirmish games where the single miniature represents a single man/animal/vehicle. This is because, although scales in this region provide greater detail that is easier to paint, their higher cost and larger size limits the size of battles that might be recreated. Games of this scale that are not mounted on trays (and thus not locked in block formation) tend to offer greater flexibility of movement.

The perceived and agreed ratios of representative models to represented "real world" objects are generally explicitly stated. This is particularly true of rules systems that claim some form of historical authority, whereas a minority of rules sets do not state any representative scale.


Read main article: List of miniature wargames

There are many miniature wargaming rulesets, not all of which are currently in print, including some which are available free on the internet. Most rulesets are intended for a specific historical period or fictional genre. Rules also vary in the model scale they use: one infantry figure may represent one man, one squad, or much larger numbers of actual troops.

Wargaming in general owes its origins to military simulations, most famously to the Prussian staff training system Kriegsspiel. Consequently, rules designers struggle with the perceived obligation to actually 'simulate' something, and with the seldom compatible necessity to make an enjoyable 'game'. Historical battles were seldom fair or even, and the potential detail that can be brought to bear to represent this in a set of rules always comes at the cost of pace of the game and enjoyment. In Osprey Publishing's book about the Battle of Crécy, from its series on historical campaigns, there is included a detailed section on wargaming the battle, in which Stuart Asquith writes:

He adds that unless at least the initial moves are recreated, "then an interesting medieval battle may well take place, but it will not be a re-creation of Crécy." Still, rules aimed at the non-professional hobby market therefore inevitably contain abstractions. It is generally in the area of the abstraction liberties taken by the designers that the differences between rules can be found. Most follow tried and true conventions to the extent that a chess player would recognize wargaming merely as a different scaled version of his or her own game.

Role-playing games

The Chainmail rulebook.

During the 1960s and 1970s, two new trends in wargaming emerged: First were small-unit rules sets which allowed individual players to portray small units down to even a single figure. These rules expanded the abilities of the smaller units accordingly, to magnify their effect on the overall battle.

Second was an interest in fantasy miniatures wargaming. J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit and his epic cycle The Lord of the Rings were gaining strong interest in the United States, and as a result, rules were quickly developed to play medieval and Roman-era wargames, where these eras had previously been largely ignored in favor of Napoleonic and Civil War gaming.

The two converged in a set of miniatures rules entitled Chainmail, published by a tiny company called Guidon Games, headquartered in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Later, in 1974, TSR designer E. Gary Gygax wrote a set of rules for individual characters under Chainmail, and entitled it Dungeons & Dragons. Further developments ensued, and the role-playing game hobby quickly became distinct from the wargaming hobby which preceded it.

Naval wargames

Read main article: Naval wargaming

Although generally less popular than wargames set on land, naval wargaming nevertheless enjoys a degree of support around the world. Model ships have long been used for wargaming, but it was the introduction of elaborate rules in the early 20th century that made the hobby more popular. Small miniature ships, often in 1:1200 scale and 1:1250 scale, were maneuvered on large playing surfaces to recreate historical battles. Prior to World War II, firms such as Bassett-Lowke in England and the German company Wiking marketed these to the public. After World War II, several manufacturers started business in Germany, which remains the center of production to this day, while other companies started in England and the United States.

Rules can vary greatly between game systems; both in complexity and era. Historical rulesets range from the ancient and medieval ships to the fleets of the Age of Sail and the modern era. Often the hobbyists have to provide their own scale models of ships. The 1972 game, Don't Give Up The Ship!, called for pencil and paper, six-sided dice, rulers and protractors, and model ships, ideally of 1:1200 scale. The elaborate rules cover morale, sinking, fires, broken masts, and boarding. Dice determined wind speed and direction, and hence the ship's speed and the use of its cannon by measuring angles with the protractor.

In naval wargaming of the modern period, General Quarters, primarily (though not exclusively) using six-sided dice, has established itself as one of the leading sets of World War I and II era rules.

Some land-based miniature wargames have also been adapted to naval wargaming. All at Sea, for example, is an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game rules for naval conflicts. The game's mechanics centered around boarding parties, with options for ramming actions and siege engines. As such, the ship's scale ratio corresponds to the 25 mm scale miniatures used by The Lord of the Rings. Model ships are built by hobbyists, just as normal miniature terrain, such as "great ships" of Pelargir, cogs of Dol Amroth and Corsair galleys.

Air wargames

Read main article: Air wargaming

Air wargaming, like naval wargaming, is a smaller niche within the larger hobby of miniatures wargaming. Aerial combat has developed over a relatively short time compared with naval or land warfare. As such, air wargaming tends to break down into three broad periods:

In addition there are science fiction and "alternative history" games such as Aeronefs and those in the Crimson Skies universe.

Community and culture

Miniature games tend to be more social than do other forms of commercial wargames, and very often games are played with several participants on a side. This manifests itself in wargame organisations, conventions, community websites and other social events. Some conventions have become very large affairs, such as Gen-Con, Origins and Historical Miniatures Gaming Society's Historicon, called the "mother of all wargaming conventions". Sometimes the wargamer stereotypes are parodied, such as in "Wargamers, a spotters guide" and the comic strip "Larry Leadhead".

Notable miniature wargame organizations

Notable miniature wargamers and miniature wargame designers

Little Wars, by H. G. Wells (1913).

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Tabletop games: Rules and Strategy