Modern Wargaming

And now, Part 3 of our series on the history of wargaming!

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Click Here for Part 2


Jack Scruby - 1950s

Jack Scruby playing a war game in 1962.

American born Jack Scruby was a highly influential figure in wargaming due to two factors. He pioneered the casting of miniatures using RTV rubber molds and a 50/50 tin/lead alloy mix which would go on to become the industry standard. These would be inexpensive to produce and were sold out of his shop in California. This made wargaming accessible to a vast new audience who were also enjoying the post war economic boom. He was also a key factor in growing the wargaming community within this period. He published a newsletter known as the War Game Digest and followed this up with a magazine called TableTop Talk. These would discuss new games, miniatures and topical points within the burgeoning community.


He also organised arguably the first wargaming convention in California which hosted a mighty 14 attendees. He further organised a regular wargames club within his local area and wrote games, supplements, and campaign settings. His main contribution to the growing wargaming scene however would be his pioneering of miniature casting methods and in growing the blossoming wargaming community.


These new methods of communication and production would slowly grow into a vast array of different games throughout the century and attract many more wargamers to play them.


War Games 1962 - Donald Featherstone

Donald Featherstone’s War Games Cover - 1962

Over the pond in Britain, Donald Featherstone, a former member of the Royal Armoured Corp who fought in WW2 was busy developing his seminal work War Games. Having played Little Wars as a child he developed his game to be an extension of it that would introduce a new generation to the hobby. It codified concepts such as how to build an army or organise a campaign. A campaign is typically a series of linked games spanning an entire area of conflict. For example a WW2 game may focus on an ‘Omaha Beach’ campaign set around the allies' efforts to reclaim France from the Axis.


These concepts though familiar to modern wargamers now were fresh at the time and relative to other games on the market were simply explained and well edited and laid out.


War Games as a result appealed to a broader audience and became widely available. Many people entered the hobby through War Games, finding copies of the book in libraries or within their local bookstores. Donald Featherstone also published his own newsletter on wargaming, which had 600 subscribers and helped to grow and connect the community. He discusses that and his original work in this interview by John Curry.


He would go on to publish over 40 wargame rules sets, many of these would include rules for ancient and medieval wargaming.


One person who was no doubt familiar with Featherstone’s work was Gary Gygax, an enthusiastic hobbyist and designer based in Lake Geneva who was working on his own medieval wargaming rules set, Chainmail.


Chainmail - Gary Gygax & Jeff Perren - 1971

Cover of Chainmail 1971

Written by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren and inspired by the medieval wargame Siege of Bodenburg, Chainmail’s biggest contributor to the tabletop industry is that it’s the grandfather of the world’s ‘greatest’ roleplaying game - Dungeons and Dragons.


The core of Chainmail was a wargame rules set for use with medieval miniatures played at a 1:20 scale. It was a competitive game for 2 or more players who would face their armies against one another in various battle scenarios and one would hope to emerge victorious.


However Chainmail included a 14 page fantasy supplement which allowed you to play as Wizards or Elves and fight against Dragons or Orcs. It further included rules to narrow down the game to a 1:1 scale, allowing individual Fighters or Wizards to clash in the midst of combat.


It was the combination of this 1:1 scale and the fantasy aesthetic that would birth the entire roleplaying genre as players decided to control 1 single ‘unit’ or ‘character’ on the battlefield rather than the entire army in order to retell the stories of Conan the Barbarian, Elric of Melnibone or The Lord of the Rings.


The ‘referee’ that was common from the likes of Kriegsspiel would take a new role within a roleplaying game as the person responsible for crafting the entire gaming world. The term ‘campaign’ would have a new meaning as well. Originally referring to the military ‘campaign of play’ where the battles would be taking place, for example Alexander the Great’s campaign against the Persian empire.. Within the context of a roleplaying game campaign came to mean the setting, dungeons, events and story that the referee would create for the players to play through.


Roleplaying had always existed in some form within the past, the art of acting itself can be viewed as a form of roleplay and improvisational acting appeared in theatres from ancient Rome to early 20th century New York. It was the combination of this form of theatre with the grittier rules of wargaming that fully realised the potential of the genre.

In this new game questions such as ‘can we defeat these Orcs in battle’ or ‘can we leap across this chasm’ weren’t resolved by a gentleman’s agreement between the play actors, they were resolved by rules of the game and a myriad of options within.


The humble pawn in Chess had suddenly become a real person that you as the player controlled and put your own ideas, thoughts, feelings and persona within that could interact with an entire world in a realistic way.


Wargames would thus give birth to the roleplaying game genre with Dungeons and Dragons becoming synonymous for the term role playing itself.


In this period we are seeing a huge explosion in the number of games hitting the market but no single game had yet to become the Dungeons and Dragons of wargaming.


Enter Warhammer.


Warhammer Fantasy Battles - 1982

A game of Warhammer Fantasy Battles being played between Dark Elves and Dwarves

Warhammer is a fantasy miniature wargame developed by multiple designers including Bryan Ansell, Richard Halliwell, Jervis Johnson and Rick Priestley. The first edition was published by Games Workshop in 1982.


Games Workshop, itself, was founded in 1975 by Ian Livingstone and John Peake within the UK. The company initially produced board games such as Backgammon and Go but then branched into importing Dungeons and Dragons and selling it within the UK. It soon started producing miniatures for Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy tabletop roleplaying and wargames, then began to make its own games.


One of these games would be Warhammer Fantasy Battles.


The first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Battles had mixed reactions, the initial game attempted to merge roleplaying with wargaming to mixed results, but the core of the game was there. As the game became more refined, its popularity grew and it solidified towards being a mass battle miniatures game.


As with Little Wars, Warhammer Fantasy was all about the spectacle of lining up your, in theory, beautifully painted miniatures and clashing them. The rules were relatively simplistic, especially compared to the likes of other more ‘hardcore’ wargames, however this would mean they’d appeal to a much broader base of players, including teenagers.


It further took that feeling of personalisation you found in roleplaying and spread it to your entire miniature collection. You were no longer controlling Napoleon's forces at Agincourt, you were controlling your own unique army. The fantasy aesthetic allowed for a wide range of different factions in the game from hordes of savage Orcs and sneaky Goblins, to King Arthur inspired Grail Knights to the terrifying northern hordes of heavily armoured Chaos Warriors.

Chaos Warriors advertised in a 1986 issue of White Dwarf magazine by Games Workshop

The wide range of miniatures that would be released for the game allowed this huge variety of armies to clash against one another and manifested an addictive quality. You needed that new unit of shiny Chaos Knights, or how else were you going to defeat your mate Jim and all of his damn Trolls?


Whilst hugely successful for a wargame, it would be the science fiction variant of Warhammer that would truly raise Games Workshop to the literal billions of dollars it is worth today.


Warhammer 40,000 - 1987

Warhammer 40,000 - 2nd Edition Starter Box Set.

Warhammer 40,000 would spawn out of one simple question.


What if Orcs but in space?

Originally known as Rogue Trader, more of a roleplaying game with a miniature component, the 2nd Edition of Warhammer 40,000 would solidify the game as a fully fledged wargame. The 2nd Edition starter box would pit the genetically enhanced and power armoured human Space Marines against the Space Orks. Fantasy Orks but in space.


Warhammer 40,000 took the rules set of Warhammer Fantasy but reduced it's scale to a smaller skirmish style game with a host of science fiction and fantasy inspired factions. These included the elfin Eldar, the Alienesque Tyranids and the now long-lost Dwarven Squats.


The 3rd edition of the game, released in 1998, turned Warhammer 40,0000 it into a much larger scale wargame, codifying the rules more clearly and effectively doubling the number of miniatures needed to play. They also expanded on the range of miniatures available, introducing the Dark Eldar with some wonderfully spindly spiky weapons, as well as the anime inspired mech loving Tau, giving players a wide range of factions and miniatures to choose from. This would be where the game solidified into much the form it continues in today.

Warhammer 3rd Edition Starter Set

Warhammer 40k would soon become the iconic brand that Games Workshop would put most of their focus behind.


Games Workshop would take the various innovations we had seen develop within the wargaming community and focus them towards selling their own brands exclusively. The White Dwarf magazine which formerly used to discuss a range of different games such as D&D became devoted entirely to Warhammer. Games Workshop would support tournaments and clubs, but only if they played Warhammer, and had strict regulations regarding banning the use of 3rd party miniatures and components. They would develop more and more efficient means to produce miniatures and use them exclusively to make miniatures of their own brands and intellectual properties.


Their shops would aggressively spread throughout shopping centres in the United Kingdom and then America and the rest of the world. They acted as a means to recruit young people, usually children out with their parents to the game. My own introduction to wargaming and tabletop in general was through my local Games Workshop store where I bought a starter painting set of Space Marines as well as the latest issue of White Dwarf. I’d then visit their weekly introductory games and learn how to play whilst being hooked into the wonderful world of miniatures around me.

My old Games Workshop storefront, responsible for why I’m not a successful brain surgeon.

This aggressive and sometimes controversial marketing combined with the new technologies and established fan base and extensive lore grew Warhammer and Games Workshop into a behemoth of the industry. Games Workshop would go on to license their product out to a host of novels, comics, video games and even a film to market their brand and increase their wargaming market share.


Warhammer would be dubbed affectionately by its fans as ‘plastic crack’ providing middle class children a way to spend their well-earned pocket money and for adults with far more disposable incomes to drop eye watering amounts on armies and individual models.


With the 9th Edition of Warhammer 40k just released and Games Workshop stock prices going through the roof in the last few years this giant of the industry doesn’t have any indication of slowing down yet.


Wargaming Today


There are a myriad of tabletop games today to satiate a growing audience, whilst the juggernaut of Games Workshop still sits on top, numerous other companies and games have sprung up. BattleTech, originally released in 1984, provides a startlingly accurate simulation of controlling giant armoured Mechs into battle. Frostgrave by Joseph A. McCullough has you controlling a Wizard and a small group of mercenaries in a battle over artifacts within a frozen city. Warmachine by Privateer Press is a wargame in a steampunk setting where sorcerers who control mighty armoured robots known as Warjacks clash against one another.

A lance of BattleTech mechs arrayed on the game's hex grid map.

Much as the chariot of yore was born from a merging of technologies the modern wargaming industry is currently thriving as a result of technologies we have in our information age. The internet has allowed a whole host of fans of wargaming to connect all over the world in a means unimaginable to the likes of Jack Scruby when he was forming the early wargaming newsletters.


Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, combined with cheaper means to cast plastic and resin miniatures, have allowed smaller companies to produce large scale games for fans that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.


The popularity of industry and rise in ‘nerd culture’ has also meant a slew of licensed games for example the popular X-Wing wargame by Fantasy Flight Games, Fallout Wasteland Warfare by Modiphius Entertainment and A Song of Fire and Ice by CMON.

X-Wing Miniature Tie Fighters and X-Wing

The industry is moving to virtual realms too, Tabletop Simulator allows games to be played online on accurate recreations of a gaming board and even combines with virtual reality technology to simulate the simulation of wargaming. We are truly in the machine within the machine. Video Games such as Warhammer Total War or Hearts of Iron IV have further taken the wargaming to a virtual realm. Within the current 2020 COVID pandemic this has been a key way for wargamers to connect and play with one another whilst keeping socially distant.


What does the future hold? It is hard to predict, but wargaming seems to have exploded into the mainstream. There are games that cater to everyone's taste from those who want an in depth strategic experience to those who simply want to grab some drinks and snacks, put their miniatures down on the table, and roll some dice. We’re likely to see a growth in virtual wargames and more games catered towards an audience that can only play online. However, the physical appeal of seeing your miniatures arrayed on the table will never fade, and we are likely to see a much vaster range of games hitting the market for all sorts of idiosyncratic tastes. We’ve come a long way since the humble recreation of chariot racing in The Royal Game of Ur, and I for one am excited to see what the future of wargaming holds.

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Panny is a writer, GM and games designer with an interest in tabletop roleplaying and classical history.

Panny writes about tabletop games at www.hexjunkie.com and streams at www.twitch.tv/hexpertise. You can also follow him on Twitter @lines_panny


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