|Tabletop warriors rage on without youth
Thursday, May 03, 2007
Plain Dealer Reporter
You will never find the Battle of the Mill mentioned in the index of any history book. It lasted only four hours, and the soldiers were less than an inch tall.
But know that carnage visited those rolling hills, where a stream quietly wound through a green felt landscape, between tiny trees and giant cartons of Szechwan beef and wonton soup.
In a back room of the Warzone Matrix hobby shop on Rocky River Drive in Cleveland, members of the Northern Ohio Wargaming Society gathered on a typical Friday night -- to march and mow down hundreds of tiny hand-painted pewter soldiers across a tabletop terrain.
About a dozen middle-aged men, dressed in standard-issue T-shirts, jeans and hoodies, skirmished in groups of two to four, talking smack between dice rolls and mouthfuls of fried rice.
But more obvious than the lingering smell of soy sauce was the dearth of young faces -- a trend that the war-gaming community has been struggling to reverse since video and computer games started capturing the attention of young gamers.
War-gaming, once played by military commanders to predict the outcome of battle, evolved into a pastime made popular by writer H.G. Wells, who was among the first to draft official rules in the early 20th century.
The hobby experienced its Golden Age in the 1970s, during which the Northern Ohio Wargaming Society emerged, boasting a membership of more than 100 history buffs, military veterans, young professionals and college students.
The group's yearly public gaming convention once drew more than 200 attendees.
But now, whittled to fewer than 50 members, the war-gaming group worries that the hobby and its culture are fighting a losing battle against computer games that have become increasingly sophisticated and allow gamers to challenge opponents across the globe in real time.
Electronic war games distill complicated rules, keep records and cost far less than the thousands of dollars traditional war-gamers sink into pewter miniatures, paint, landscape and trimmings.
Chris Wilson, owner of the Warzone Matrix, said that within the last 10 years, five local hobby shops catering to the war-gaming community have closed their doors, leaving the Cleveland area with only three.
"We don't have to undercut each other to prove a point anymore," Wilson said. "In fact, we'll yell at people who buy on eBay instead of going to one of our competitors who could offer them a good deal. We just want to keep our industry alive."
Although hobby shops carry prepainted miniatures to make play easier on those who just want to try it out, the pieces are expensive. An entire army can cost upwards of $300, with each miniature running between $1 and $3. Many gamers own multiple armies.
Matt Wilson, who at 19 is the youngest in the Friday night group, said he and seven of his buddies sometimes get together to play with armies borrowed from older war-gamers.
"There's no way I can play this all the time," Wilson said, picking through a toolbox of pewter soldiers. "It's way too expensive. Maybe after college I'll buy my own army."
In the meantime, he plays video games.
Peter Adkinson, chief executive officer of Gen-Con, a national gaming convention that attracts about 30,000 gamers to Indianapolis every summer, said that video games have sapped the popularity of traditional war games among young people.
But the biggest reason for the decline in war-gaming, he said, is that kids generally are not interested in military history. They opt instead to play card games like Magic or Pokémon, and the tabletop miniatures games they usually are attracted to are based on fantasy or science fiction.
"It used to be that men riding around on horses was exciting for kids until tanks came along," Adkinson said. "Now you have wizards and Orcs. And the companies that make war games are having difficulty staying relevant to a demographic that is not interested in World War II or Napoleonics."
Since many of the fantasy and card games have become mainstream, big-box stores and chain bookstores have begun carrying the supplies, compounding the problem for mom-and-pop hobby shops with limited buying power, Adkinson said.
Even Gen-Con, which began 40 years ago when a group of guys got together to play traditional war games, has had to evolve to stay alive. The convention now offers something for everyone in the gaming community - from fantasy, to cards, to video games.
War-gaming veterans, who jokingly define themselves as a dying breed of middle-aged, overweight guys, say they try to get their children interested in tabletop gaming at a young age.
"But with all the other demands on their time and their sudden discovery of the opposite sex, it's hard to keep them captivated past puberty," said Carl Scheu, president of the Northern Ohio Wargaming Society.
But the gamers aren't waving the white flag just yet.
Devoted players say the game is one big interactive history lesson. Investing in an army, painting it and playing well means researching battle strategies, uniforms, coats of arms and the civilizations they represented.
And unlike video games, they argue, war-gaming is a social experience.
By 9 p.m. in the back room of the Warzone Matrix, a series of miniature battlefields were alive with combat, and the gamers were in rare form.
Between rolls, Confederate generals, speaking in unconvincing southern accents, uttered fighting words to their Union counterparts. On an adjacent tabletop, an army of Gauls challenged the Anglo-Normans - two ancient armies separated by centuries of history.
"You better tell your Anglo soldiers to go change their armor," shouted Wayne Carter, rolling the dice to nearly seal a victory over opponent Bill Litvak. "Now let's wrap this up and get home in time to catch some 'Battlestar Galactica' reruns or something."