On any given Sunday afternoon in the Jackson-based Van’s Comics and Cards, you can hear the wargamers and tabletop gamers before you see them. Generally, it's the thunderous, hail-like sound of handfuls of dice landing in long wooden dice trays. While the game store has never fully emptied during the pandemic, the number of players willing to risk infection has begun to climb as more players receive their vaccinations and booster shots. You can almost feel the relief as folks settle back into their established routines. You can also feel the unspoken worry that these times may not last.
Van’s Comics and Cards, like many gaming shops in Mississippi, has tables set aside for various sorts of games. Amongst the card game tables and the shelves of comics and collectibles, wargamers have built small, lifelike miniature worlds for high-stakes conflict, combining the practices of folk art and gaming. These games use models painted by hand, bases replete with tiny artificial plants and rubble. Measuring tape is used to move models across crafted battlefields, and dice are generally used to determine the success or failure of actions. While some games are more or less freeform, or bound to specific historical scenarios, most modern examples have moved towards a more formalized and competition-friendly model of scoring points for holding objectives and eliminating specific targets. The model scenery filling these tables are sometimes made using plastic kits sold by companies such as Games Workshop, but often they are made by hand with a wide variety of materials. Wargaming is a communal, participatory folk art, one that connects people in a creative setting.
Wargaming is a communal, participatory folk art,
one that connects people in a creative setting.
Wargaming itself is almost as old as the United States. The first of these games, known as Kriegsspiel, or “war game”, was released by a man named Georg Reisswitz, whose first attempt at simulating war excited the Prussian princes. Much later, the science fiction writer H. G. Wells brought the concept of war games to English speaking audiences. In his book, Little Wars, Wells outlined a style of game that was both imaginative and idealized, and mostly concerned with recreating a boyish fantasy of war—an aim which, to the pacifist Wells, was a good alternative to the real thing. Little Wars became a foundational document for the historical games to come. The book would influence and inform the popular science fiction and fantasy games that followed in the 1960s to the present, such as Warhammer 40,000 (often said as “40K”), Frostgrave, and Conquest. The most enduring legacy of Little Wars by far has been its DIY nature—like modern players, Wells often hand-built small dioramas to contain his conflicts with whatever was available. Wells may not have imagined the influence his book would have, but he might have been delighted by the century’s-worth of artistic works it helped inspire. 1
While most wargame production companies expect players to purchase unassembled and unpainted model kits and then build them according to manufacturing specifications, many players prefer to treat these rigid kits and their neat instruction manuals as guidelines rather than law. The practice of combining disparate model kits and found materials to create new, inventive, and original heroes and monsters is so common within the wider community that it has specific names: "kitbashing" or “conversions”. Even for those players who prefer to build according to the box, painting offers opportunities galore to practice and show off their artistic ability. The artists apply their painting skills and tools to bring color to uniforms and weapons, and specialized paints to simulate gravel, snow, or perhaps the Martian surface. This process is often called "basing" and creates the impression of a surface for model soldiers to stand on. Wargame artists apply layer after layer of washes and contrast coats to simulate grime, shadow, or viscera. Bringing an army up to the local store or club—or especially to tournaments and conventions—is as much a display of a player’s artistic output as it is a chance to socialize.
Regardless of setting or genre, tabletop wargaming requires a communal space. Players must have a table or a floor of the proper dimensions for the game, and they must assemble terrain and scenery. These can include perhaps custom-built and hand-made miniature structures, or something as simple as textbooks piled on each other to represent fortifications or hills. For those not fortunate enough to have table space in their home to sacrifice for the hobby, local gaming stores provide the valuable community service of free tables, sometimes paired with community-built terrain and reasonably priced snacks. Under normal circumstances, a two-player game at a local store will have as many as four to six people milling about the table, discussing the ongoing game and inquiring as to the specific choices other modelers have made in customizing their personal armies. Conventions and tournaments are also popular, not only for competition, but also as social hubs where hobbyists can connect and painters show off their skills. Tournaments were very common before Covid, ranging from small local affairs of six to twelve players at a local game store all the way to massive 2-3 day events with as many as four hundred or more players competing for prize money and bragging rights. Conventions, on the other hand, are more purely social events where modelers and players can attend workshops, meet-and-greets, events, and even trade and buy pieces in convention centers or rented-out hotels. Some of these modelers will even paint for others on commission, producing game pieces of high quality for locals as well as acquaintances from several states away.
How, then, are wargamers able to adapt as Covid-19 has forced many of us indoors, away from communal spaces? Without a table to gather around, players’ ability to take part in the "gaming" part of wargaming became deeply strained.
You can almost feel the relief as folks settle back into their established routines. You can also feel the unspoken worry
that these times may not last.
To answer these questions, we reached out to several sources within our local sphere. As wargamers ourselves, well-embedded in the Jackson-area community, it was easy for us to contact fellow players we've met through connections at our local store's organized play leagues. These connections allowed us to have candid conversations with local organizers including Adam Chance, a historical wargamer responsible for organizing the Siege of Vicksburg war gaming convention, which is one of the newest annual gatherings that caters to historical wargamers in Mississippi. Adam in particular was a very helpful source, giving us insight into the gaming scenes further afield than our own in areas like Hattiesburg. We also made and distributed questionnaires throughout the community, both in person and using the "Central MS 40k" Discord server, which proved to be a valuable resource for collecting data regarding how fellow wargamers spent their quarantine and how lockdown had affected their engagement with the hobby.
When we spoke to Adam Chance, he recounted how the uncertainty of the pandemic made organizing conventions a nightmare. “A lot of modeling for tabletop gaming is regional,” Chance explained. “There aren’t a lot of stores for people to meet at. A lot of those stores and conventions, I’m not sure if they made it through the pandemic.”
Aside from the FLGS (a common affectionate acronym for “friendly local game store”), the main communal space where wargamers meet, play, and trade materials and ideas is the convention hall. In Mississippi especially, where game stores with dedicated gaming spaces were few and far between even before the pandemic forced some to shutter, large yearly wargaming conventions such as Hubcon and Coastcon became meeting grounds. Conventions provide opportunities for players and artists to meet with folks from out of state, show off their modeling prowess, and take part in large-scale tournament-style games, as well as to learn about new games they may not be familiar with. Unfortunately during the pandemic, many of these conventions had to take a year or two off, denying players who depended on them to get their wargaming fix a chance to meet with their fellows.
Even for those fortunate enough to own a table set-up at home, without the ability to invite over friends, the early pandemic was a small nightmare. Several of the respondents to our questionnaire told us that they were forced to refocus on the modeling and painting side of the hobby—the only part which can be done alone, safely away from crowds. The skills they had developed took on new life now that they had more time than ever. Gone were the rush-jobs for a tournament weekend. Now, artists had time for intricate basing work, and they learned how to add rocks and artificial grass to tiny bases. There was time for them to learn how to add weathering, or to learn how to achieve a “chipping” effect on metal armor with a sponge and dry-brush. New and interesting leftovers from previous projects or even third-party materials found amidst the horde of eBay offerings could form the basis of a project that would take many hours.
Amongst the card game tables and the shelves of comics and collectibles, wargamers have built small, lifelike miniature worlds for high-stakes conflict, combining the practices of folk art and gaming.
However, even this practice had its drawbacks. Painters want to show off their work to their peers. Without the safety of local stores or events, for some, their only options were to post their hobby work to social media. This sometimes felt to them like an imitation of their interactions with friends and fellow members of the local wargaming scene. Worse, several of our respondents noted that completing larger, more elaborate projects became artificially difficult without the ability to trade pieces of model kits with each other, or show off their work in progress to fellow artists. The tradition of the "bits box" of leftover model pieces which can be used for your own projects or traded around the community in normal times functions like a communal war chest that any artist can draw on. During the pandemic, elaborate projects were strained as players struggled to find a way to secure bits for rifles or a particular hat.
Fortunately for the beleaguered hobbyists of Mississippi, the twenty-first century's unique challenges are sometimes mitigated by its advantages. Enter Tabletop Simulator (TTS), a popular program designed to simulate the experience of playing several popular board games with built-in functionality that allows players to challenge friends over the internet. Long before the pandemic forced wargaming online, enterprising gamers had built unofficial expansions to allow Tabletop Simulator to run many popular wargames, including Warhammer 40k. The increased number of virtual players transformed the TTS scene from a way to playtest new army lists with a friend several states away into a vibrant community of modelers and amateur coders creating digital versions of the hobby they loved. It mixed bespoke 3D models with rendered photos that were mapped onto objects. In a digital space, the DIY spirit that led hobbyists to learn how to papier mâché boulders led them to create collage-like digital worlds. The mis-matched quality of it all seemed almost comforting to some, as we discovered. One of the Jackson-area artists we reached out to via our connection through Vans, Liam, eagerly showed us a large collection of digital models he had stored and cataloged. Just as in the physical communal space, craftsmanship and “fluff-friendliness”, or accuracy to printed fictional portrayals, were still important.
For those who have not fled to the frontiers of the digital, the pandemic has been a mixture of blessings and hardships. One of the most consistent themes we discovered in our conversations and in the answers to our questionnaire was that the inability to meet for months on end had not weakened the desire of local artists to work on models and scenery. “Before this, I was focused mainly on playing and going to tournaments but when that wasn’t possible,” says Haley McIngvale, one of our questionnaire respondents, “I began to focus on modeling and painting. I have really expanded the skills and knowledge I have when it comes to painting and I get more joy out of sitting down with a model and brush than I did before.” Others echoed this sentiment, always eager to show off projects conceived of and executed entirely during quarantine.
Another unexpected advantage of the pandemic came in the form of new players and modelers. Driven inside with nothing better to do for months on end, many new modelers in Mississippi and elsewhere found themselves with too much time on their hands and spare cash. For these people, the solitary practice of building and painting models provided a welcome relief from the boredom of quarantine. While this holds true for those already building and painting, a change in pace opened up the possibility of engaging with this artistic pursuit to those who would not have otherwise come into contact with it. Thanks to communities built on popular social media platforms like Facebook and Discord, connection to the larger local scene was only ever a click away for new modelers. New communal spaces online also reconnected enfranchised modelers whose normal communal spaces, such as local game stores, were no longer available. Despite the physical requirements of social distancing, in some ways the pandemic drew new modelers closer to their community as they struck up conversations and friendships with experienced hobbyists. Younger members, many of whom had experience with more competition-oriented hobbies like collectible card games, found themselves drawn not only to the gameplay that wargames provided, but to a hobby that could also be a craft. Something that could not just be bought or played, but that could also be built with one’s own hands was attractive, especially as board and tabletop games in general have experienced a wider cultural renaissance. New generations are rediscovering old pursuits, and with them they are rediscovering old crafts.
- ^ For more information on the subject of Little Wars and its relationship to modern war games, Trevor Timpson's BBC News article "Little Wars: How HG Wells created hobby war gaming" is an excellent resource and freely available online.