One of the questions that comes up periodically is that of why we have toy soldiers at all. After all, the critics or commentators say, they act as tokens and therefore could simply be replaced by another token. So our beautifully painted First Foot Guards could (and, the implication perhaps is) should be replaced by a scruffy piece of cardboard with the name of the unit scrawled on it.
There do not seem to be too many answers to this suggestion. We tend to smile nicely, and move on, continuing to buy, paint and wargame with our beautiful creations. The critic too tends to continue wargaming with toy soldiers. The deduction has to be that there is more than simple cussedness (although that, presumably, plays a part) in this continuation of an expensive and time consuming aspect of our hobby.
I know that there are good aesthetic reasons for using figures in games, although I am not really the person to comment on aesthetics. There is, I know, pleasure in handling beautifully painted figures on nice terrain. It is a feeling, I think, of experiencing beauty, as in the experience of sitting at a table carefully laid for a meal. The aesthetics enhances the experience, the symmetry of the table makes eating more of a pleasure, the attractive figures and terrain makes wargaming similarly more pleasurable.
We can, of course, eat off a table upon which the cutlery has just been dumped. We can wargame using unpainted figures on a table where the terrain is marked out by chalk. In both cases, the primary aim can be achieved, that of eating or having a wargame. But the pleasure in each is below what it can be if the table is prepared more carefully.
There is, however, a second, perhaps more minor issue concerning wargame figures. A set of pieces of cardboard do not give us the instant recognition of troop type and status as wargame figures do. For example, I can tell at a glance if this base of soldiers is cavalry or infantry. If they were cardboard, I would need to read the card. Even if the pieces used those NATO standard symbols, I would still need to read and recognise them. The cognitive load is just a little higher when having to translate from symbol to troop type.
The toy soldiers, therefore, give us an instant visualisation of what the base consists of. It, can, of course, go a bit further, depending on our specific knowledge. We might recognise this base as being the Imperial Guard, and that base as being a levy infantry battalion. That too might cause us to alter our channels of attack of defence. This sort of information would (within limits, of course) have been available to battlefield commanders, and, we could argue, therefore should be available to the wargamer. While again, it is true, that the information could be available by scanning the information on a piece of cardboard, the cognitive load is less if we just can notice that ‘Cripes! That’s the Guard’ and react accordingly. The instantaneous visual quality of the figures makes a difference.
Now of course this situation has to be nuanced. There are some very nice printed pieces of cardboard out there which come fairly close to the recognition that can be accorded to wargame figures. I suppose too that there are wargame figures that are rather hard to recognise, either through poor casting or painting. There might also be rather fuzzier areas where the figure for the historical equivalent cannot be found, and a substitute is used instead. Nevertheless, we do make efforts to find a substitute that is close to the original. We do not substitute Panzer Grenadiers for Seventeenth Century Moroccan musketeers.
I think a third element might be to aid our imagination. While I can engage a part of my brain in cognitive examination of the table top to see what is to be done to the best advantage, I am not sure that that is the only reason for wargaming. I can, of course, shuffle pieces of cardboard around on a campaign map to create a battle, and that is one thing. But pieces of cardboard clashing on a table top does not fire my imagination as to what might be going on in the ‘model world’. For that to happen more easily, I think I need figures and terrain.
Thus, I think there is a big difference between looking at a map and saying ‘X Brigade is holding this BUA’ and ‘X Brigade is defending the village’. If we can see the troops on the table, perhaps it is easier to imagine them digging in, loop holing the walls and cooking the hens than if it is just a cardboard counter on a brown bit of map.
Of course, cardboard counters have their place in wargaming more broadly. They are, as I’ve mentioned, much more appropriate for campaign games and, of course, for more modern wargames where the fighting is on a front several hundred miles wide. The counters have some advantages over wargame figures as well, in ease of production, storage and, indeed, the quantity of information which they can contain. But I do not see them really replacing wargame figures, even if such a replacement were necessary or desirable.
I do not think that I am trying either to denigrate wargame figures or cardboard counters. Each has its place in wargaming. But I am trying to suggest that the wargame figure is a little more than just an interchangeable token. The figure itself, and its disposition on a base (are they in line, dispersed, and so on) also contains information about the type of soldier represented and the tactics they are employing. It does so in an easily cognized way, which takes little effort in reading and recognising by the player.
A base of wargame figures is not, therefore, just a token. They cannot, I think, be easily swapped for another token for aesthetic, cognitional and imaginative reasons, quite aside, of course, from the thought that there would be no reason for doing the swap in the first place, given that wargaming is a hobby.