Saturday, 1 March 2014

Scale Models

I have, several times, mentioned that our toy soldiers are models (obviously), in fact, scale models of the real thing. Thus we expect our scaled down fusiliers to be carrying fusils, our grenadiers to be wearing something that, at least, bears a passing resemblance to grenadier uniform, an so on.

Usually, I have left it at that and moved on to something else. For example, I have considered before the implications of the mismatch between the scale of the scale models and the terrain and ground scale of the wargame itself. However, I think it might just be worth considering, even briefly, the implications of our scale models.

Now, obviously, there is a one to one match between a given scale model and a historical precedent. For example, a English Civil War musketeers is a representative of the genre, of which there were thousands wandering around Britain in the 1640’s. But can we push this a little further? Can we, for example, use our musketeers as a musketeer of the Thirty Years War?

In general, the answer is yes, we can and many do.  European fashions of the seventeenth century were fairly standard. A jacket of some sort, breeches, a wide brimmed hat and so on were found pretty well everywhere from England to Bohemia, and so our musketeers finds himself being quite a versatile chap.

How far, though, can we push this? Could our musketeer represent a similarly armed man from 1550? Possibly, yes, although the fashions were a bit different. How about a musketeer from 1700? Probably not, as the tricorn hat was de rigeur by then.

However, I have also said that troops in a wargame are, in fact, tokens. They are tokens not as scale models of a specific troop type, but as troops in general. They do not, in fact, have the powers that the rules grant them by their own existence as, say, musketeers and pike men, but by the meanings which we, as wargamers, attribute to them as a consequence of those rules.

This seems to mean, then, that we could, for example, deploy a legion of Romans onto the table top and assign to them the properties of English Civil War musketeers. They are, after all, tokens. They would have the same properties as the ‘correct’ scale models, under the rules, and occupy the correct space for the functioning of the game. But we do not do this. In fact, there may even be out there some eyebrows twitching at the mere suggestion of it.

Therefore, while it is possible to wargame with simple tokens, mostly, as wargamers, we do not do so. And I suppose a question that arises from that is “why not?”

I confess, I do not have any terribly good or convincing answers to the question. As English Civil War musketeers and my legionaries as pikemen, I would probably get confused and have the pikemen firing volleys and the musketeers fending cavalry. But that seems to be something of a trivial reason for expending all this effort in sourcing figures, painting them and ensuring a degree of historical accuracy.

There is also another issue creeping in here, which is about exactly how transferrable our figures are. I imagine that everyone likes to have the right figure for the right job. Some troop types, like my musketeer, are more flexible than others, but how far can we push this? This has been raised on the Baccus forum. How many obscure troop types, or troops with very limited deployment does a manufacturer need to make before a range is deeded to be complete?

For the manufacturer, of course, there are cost implications. Why should they have to go to the expense and trouble a creating a new figure if, for example, only one company of the troops was ever deployed? They are unlikely ever to recoup the costs of creation by selling the troop code sufficiently widely.

This then loops back to questions of tokens and transferability. Some obscure troop types can be created by the wargamer by using a different paint job. The unforms are more or less the same, it is just that the specific troops wore shocking pink jackets, or something of that ilk. I doubt if most of us would quibble at that.

Then we can push a little further. How about those for whom the basic uniform is the same, but which need a little modification, such as a different hat? I seem to recall that Don Featherstone advocated making new hats out of plasticine and hardening them with nail varnish. Leaving aside any worries about acquiring nail varnish, would most of us accept such a model to be its historical prototype?

A lot here, it seems to me, depends on the confidence of the modeller. For example, I remember seeing, in wargames magazines, lances decorated with stripes rotating up the shaft. Is this historically accurate? I really have no idea, but it did look rather nice and, being on the front cover of the magazine, was being portrayed confidently as being historical.

But I do have my doubts. Such things may have been for the tournament, but as the lance was, pretty well, a one shot weapon on the battlefield, I do have doubts as to whether such fancy implements were used that often in real action. I might well be wrong, or simply too much of a modern utilitarian to understand, but I do have doubts here.

So, we can accept simple paint job conversions, and even minor adjustments to the gear of a scale model to model a different prototype. But how far can we go? How far before we say ‘this is wrong’? I am not sure that I know, of define it. To be sure, there is some effect of the confidence of the modeller, but what if we really cannot source a scale model, nor find something to convert into it? Do we simply give up on that unit, or use something else on the basis that they are all tokens anyway?


  1. They are certainly tokens - there are those that claim that toy soldiers themselves make the game ridiculous (which might get us into all sorts of anal issues about perceived childishness again) and that only cardboard counters can dignify a scientific study of warfare etc etc. This is usually dressed up in claims about the ground scale distortions, stackability and implied concealment of counters - stuff like that - but it is all really about what anyone likes for themselves.

    Advantages of miniatures for me are that I like them and collect them, the study of the uniforms is a fascinating study in itself, and - importantly - each unit, visually, has enough information to avoid the use of the dreaded roster sheets. The more self-contained the tokens are in the way of record keeping, the less fatigue from cross referencing.

    I am probably illustrative of many of the paradoxes and the silly prejudices which exist in the hobby. I am proud of my lovely ECW units, but there is nothing authentic about them - far too smart, far too uniformly dressed. Swapping the flags and sticking them into the 30YW would be a very minor affront in comparison.

    I have recently spent a lot of time and money obtaining correctly uniformed British dragoons for the Peninsular War period (unknown in the scale I use), and am pleased to have done so - was it worth the effort? - I say yes, but a sensible person would doubt it. I am about to start building a Spanish army in the uniform of 1808, though I already have one in the uniform of 1812, which seems a bit fussy. The fact that they will have to fight Frenchmen who are substantially dressed for Waterloo will be glossed over. Basically, we please ourselves. I fancy the 1809 Spaniards because I like the uniforms, I have the figures and I wants them, precious. Can't justify on any more worthy grounds.

    Most of my games these days are played to board game rules, but I choose to play them with miniatures because that to me gives the ideal blend - straightforward games with a big visual appeal.

    I am at least as silly and as inconsistent as the next bloke, and I can be just as snooty about other figure collections, with absolutely no justification at all.

    1. It seems to me that the idea of authenticity is important, but it is a rather flexible concept in many ways. Our figures are authentic scale models, and probably do show more information than a counter (and I can never remember what 10-4-2 XX and a weird blocky symbol means anyway).

      But we do not, I think, really know what ECW units looked like. We've got prints, and some art and so on, but some of the representation at least is probably artistic licence. Were the besiegers of Breda really dressed in rags? I'm not sure that we know, but we have pictures to show that they were, unless it was a comment on the evil of war, of course.

      I suppose the danger of figures is that we start treating them like individuals. Board games and rules tend to stick more closely to units.

      I think the fact is that toy soldiers work as objects in a wargame. It is just interesting to ask why from time to time.

  2. There’s no doubt figures do lead to some restrictions or complications, but they are also why many of us are in the hobby. And as Mr Foy said, the figures can portay a lot of information too.
    Personally I would draw the line at hat-style. The type of hat for me is the thing that stands out most, especially when looking down on a table and as typifying a period. Especially in small scales. I would happily use any figures in tricorns for the period 1700-1785ish. Shakos 1807-1845 ish. I don’t get hung up on the difference between stovepipes and Belgic styles in 6mm scale. The period in between hats-wise is brilliant but quite limited timewise – maybe why I shy away from it!
    Coat colour would be the next obvious dividing line for me. I’m more than happy to press Ancien Regime Austrians into use as French or Spanish of the same period (my style of painting is to go for messy colours so there wouldn’t be any difference in shade of white). Perversely, I would want to get the right shade of field grey for WWII Finns.
    I have even more “flexibility” about any pre-gunpowder period with pointy sticks and bows. That wouldn’t stop me getting the right figures if I thought I would use them quite a lot. And I do hanker after a “proper” mid-18th C French army.

  3. We all go to a lot of effort to make the chaps on the table look like what their historical counterparts should have looked like, without worrying too much about what they did look like. My Peninsular British are resplendent in bright scarlet coats and white crossbelts, topped off with a shapely stovepipe shako, not dressed in a coat of faded red-brown with crossbelts the same colour as the dye has run, topped with a black blob ruined by rainwater. Does anyone use campaign-weary looking troops? I suspect these would be a lot easier to pass off as something else.

    1. Mine have a tendancy to the campaign weary. Especially my Penninsular Spanish (6mm), the scruffy beggars. I find it makes up for an unsteady hand and an inherent laziness!

      And I don't worry over regimentals - I do paint different coloured facings and turnbacks but when it comes to games I don't think "the 3rd Foot go here just in front of the farm, the 15th just behind".

      At this scale they do look good en masse though.

    2. I suspect that ECW and TYW troops did more or less go to a common denominator of brownish / greyish / dirty whiteish sort of colours. And could be used for any combatant, really.

      But the aesthetics seem to be important - all our troops are the same size, which not even the most pedantic dictator can manage with the human race. But it looks better!

  4. Doesn't it all depend on how committed one is to the mimetic and aesthetic qualities of tabletop wargaming? The pleasure of mimesis comes from the knowledge that to the best of our abilities, we have acquired and painted models which capture the look of the soldiers we are representing on the table. The pleasure of the aesthetic comes from the total visual impact of our efforts -- figures, terrain, painting and modelling work - which makes the ensemble a satisfying impression of Thermopylae or Waterloo. To substitute our British infantry from the latter to take the place of hoplites in the former would violate both the mimetic and aesthetic pleasures we wish to gain from the hobby. Yet, some of us can suspend these pleasures when, instead of a tabletop game based on Waterloo or Thermopylae, we play a paper board game with cardboard counters bearing fairly basic symbology. Some find paper or computer wargames pleasant because they are satisfying as games or as simulations, even if they sacrifice the mimetic and aesthetic qualities we might get from the tabletop. Other miniature gamers avoid paper wargames because they are not willing to sacrifice the mimetic and aesthetic.
    I note in passing that when my teenage son played Warhammer 40K with his friends, they were quite happy to use "proxies" when the did not have the requisite kit. No one seemed to mind enough to quit the game, though there was grumbling if proxies were used too often. Perhaps this grumbling represented the liminal phase from childhood to adulthood when the pleasure of imagination gives way to the idea that a game must be played within certain conventions and rules. Last week I played a game with some supposed adults where, in an Imaginations game, a certain amount of silliness was tolerated, including a Dr. Who figure and Tardis for one side's commander. Did this eccentric use of a token for the CinC bother me? Perhaps a little, in that I did some mental teeth gritting, but the pleasure of the company and the game itself was sufficient to keep me playing. In a less social, more competitive game, such a silly token might not be allowed.

    1. Now you've just sent me off on another train of thought, of course - mimesis and aesthetics in wargames. Does it look like the battle?

      As an aside, I struggle with WW2 wargames with hub to hub armoured vehicles. I guess this violates my sense of mimesis. They didn't bunch up for fear of airstrikes or artillery stonks. I'm not a WW2 gamer, but it still disconcerts me.

      Another aspect might be the absorption of the participants. If the game is good and the imaginations are firing and the narrative is strong, we can suspend a lot of disbelief, no matter what the objects of focus are and how accurate they are.

      Perhaps this is part of the reason for nicely painted soldier? Aiding the willing suspension of disbelief to enable the game to function?