Miniature war gaming is big with history buffs

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James Curley sets up his figures for St. Michel-Sur-Meurthe during the 2016 Little Wars Historical Miniatures Games Convention in Lombard, Illinois, on April 30, 2016. (Mike Mantucca, Chicago Tribune/TNS)
James Curley sets up his figures for St. Michel-Sur-Meurthe during the 2016 Little Wars Historical Miniatures Games Convention in Lombard, Illinois, on April 30, 2016. (Mike Mantucca, Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Miniature war gaming is big with history buffs

by: Kate Thayer | .
Chicago Tribune | .
published: June 29, 2016

LOMBARD, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — A group of men gathered around a table, discussing their next moves in the midst of an invasion.

In this case, the table was also the battlefield, and the soldiers were only about an inch tall.

Row after row of these Lilliputian combat zones filled a ballroom at a west suburban hotel recently, where legions of Historical Miniatures Gaming Society members turned out for their annual Little Wars convention, hosted by the group’s Chicago-area chapter. They came to play war games — the old-fashioned kind.

There are no video screens, no virtual bloodshed. Instead, tiny soldiers made of metal or plastic take their strategic posts on elaborate tabletop terrains fashioned by hand with faux foliage, model tanks, submarines and outposts.

For their tiny scale, many of the warriors are meticulously painted to accurately reflect a specific place and time, be it ancient Greece, the Alamo, the Confederate South or World War II Europe.

The society boasts 25,000 members, many who come from military backgrounds. Some historical miniature gaming enthusiasts say it’s a love of history that attracts them. From smaller, weekly games among local groups or big meet-ups like Little Wars, there’s a sense of camaraderie and pride, said Kevin Cabai, membership vice president of the society’s Midwest chapter.

“We’re not the geeks in their mothers’ basement,” said Cabai, 57, of Chicago. “It’s a different aspect than what people think of when they hear gamers.”

Like any aging organization, members hope to attract a younger generation of players, recognizing the challenge in an age of online gaming and countless other distractions literally at one’s fingertips.

“We are trying to bring new blood into the hobby,” said local chapter President Steve Fratt, also a history professor at Deerfield, Ill.-based Trinity College. “As a historian, I want kids to learn history.”

For many, actually playing the game is just a small part of the hobby.

Cabai said it’s not uncommon for 10 hours of preparation to go into every hour of play. That’s spent shopping at hobby stores, creating the game board terrains and carefully painting figures as small as 3 millimeters, though the most popular size of soldier is 28 mm. Some members said they spend thousands of dollars yearly on supplies.

And then there’s the historical research. Cabai said gamers will study the details of a specific battle, down to the type of stripe on a soldier’s uniform, to be as historically accurate as possible.

“In some form or fashion, I do this every day,” Cabai said of his hobby.

At Little Wars, most of the games were based on real historical battles, and many have their own precise and often complicated rules. There’s also a fantasy side of the games, where battles are modeled after “The Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and other popular books and films.

At the convention, players carefully positioned their tiny soldiers around their battlefields. Some were placed on their sides to denote they were dead or wounded. Gamers used rulers and tape measures to see how far tanks or cannons could shoot. Bits of cotton and plastic painted black and orange represented an explosion with billowing smoke when one side was struck by enemy fire.

A game master, or judge, oversaw each game. Fratt thinks it’s not just playing; it’s learning.

“People say they don’t need to know history … but the benefit of history is to understand the human condition. You gain wisdom by understanding the past, not just memorizing facts,” said Fratt, who exposes his students to historical miniature gaming during class and encourages them to step away from their phone and computer screens.

During the Little Wars convention — named for the H.G. Wells book sometimes cited as the first set of rules for war games — Fratt ran a game for the rare younger players based on the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.

Craig Borri, 53, of Lombard, brought his 14-year-old twin sons, Luke and Wyatt, to play. Borri started gaming in high school and hopes to pass the hobby to his sons, who first started playing around age 9.

Not many kids their age are familiar with miniature war gaming, they said, but Luke said he’s drawn in by the “realism,” while his brother Wyatt said he likes that the game requires intelligence.

“I like to be able to really see how strategies play out on the battlefield,” Luke said. And, although the brothers play video games, Luke said old-school gaming is a chance to work more closely with fellow players.

“You use your brain,” added Wyatt.

Fratt, who carries a flip phone and doesn’t text, said he’s noticed a drop in history majors and tries to instill a love for the subject into the younger generation. The games aid him in that, he said.

The 62-year-old Gurnee, Ill., resident said he became interested as a child watching war movies with his dad. He’d dress up with his grade-school friends and act out battle scenes using an old Clorox container as a helmet and a trash can lid as a shield.

“I was pretty big on hands-on imagination,” he said. Eventually, Fratt said he became interested in the historical play sets with plastic soldiers and started coming up with his own rules for games.

Fratt is also a Civil War re-enactor and donned his Union soldier cap as he ran games at the Little Wars convention.

Jeff Cohen, 60, of Rolling Meadows, Ill., was this year’s Little Wars convention director. Like many in the group, he’s a veteran, having served in the Army for more than 20 years and the National Guard for another 10 years, he said.

“This hobby got me through college as a history major,” he said.

Now he has about 60,000 figures stored neatly in labeled, plastic bins in his basement.

Cabai, who started dabbling in the hobby in 1972 and is a former Army captain, drew his wife into the mini-war game world too. Lorraine Cabai, 55, said she first started attending conventions with her husband more than 20 years ago but didn’t participate until recent years.

“I don’t think the women realize there is more down here for them to do,” she said. She enjoys not just the creative elements of the games, creating terrains and painting figures, but also the strategic side. She hopes more women will get involved.

Despite the focus on those figurines, Fratt said one big benefit to the hobby is the “human interaction with another real, live human being.”

“It promotes social skills. It promotes camaraderie, instead of … playing Xbox or competing online with people,” he said. “It’s the joy of creating real human relationships.”

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