Battling it out in miniature war games

By Peter Severinson

Imagine a game of chess spread over a 5-foot by 6-foot table top. Now, imagine that instead of black and white squares, the pieces move over realistic terrain.

Imagine also that, instead of making standard moves with sculptured pieces, the players control detailed model soldiers, each with their own look, feel and playing rules — each, in fact, with their own story.

The hobby of miniatures war gaming began in England but has had a loyal following in Ottawa for more than 30 years.

Ottawa areas such as Centretown have gaming stores to supply models, tournaments and trade shows and, more importantly, a community of players organized into loosely-knit groups who regularly gather to war against each other.

“It lets your imagination run wild,” says Bryan Orendorff, president of the Centretown Warhammer Club. “It’s like you’re this powerful general who has an army to take and march around.”

The club has 30 to 40 members, Orendorff says, which makes this one of its most popular years since he first got involved 12 years ago.

But there are a variety of other clubs active in the city which range in size and interest. Some groups play games that recreate the clashes of ancient empires, or mimic Second World War battles or epic science fiction scenes.

The games attract a variety of people, including students, professionals, fantasy fans, strategy enthusiasts and hobbyists. Orendorff says miniatures gamming offers the thrill of strategy and victory, the satisfaction of modeling and painting, and the escape of immersing oneself into the rich storylines behind each gaming genre.

These games are different from other strategy games because of their ability to be customized by the players.

Each battle can have its own storyline and objectives. Soldiers in each army can be hand-picked, modified and styled in many ways and then played with all the intricate subtlety of a chess game.

The possibilities are virtually endless, Orendorff says. “Imagine going into a chess game and not knowing that your opponent is going to have four rooks.”

For Chris Evans, president of the Ottawa Miniatures Gamers, one of the most important aspects of the games is the history and the narratives that emerge from the details the players include in any given battle.

“If you don’t start out as a history buff when you start playing these games, you usually end up as one,” he says. “It’s hard to appreciate what’s happening unless you get more involved in understanding the times, the period.”

Many players put a lot of research into their armies to learn how each soldier should look and to understand the social context of the time. A game is played differently depending on whether the army is made of conscript peasants, tribal warriors of members of an elite soldier caste, Evans says.

Evans got hooked on gaming about 10 years ago, largely by chance. A school friend’s brother was into the hobby and Evans was invited to play, he says.

“I was reluctant because I’d never done it before and it sounded sort of silly,” he says. “But it turned out to be a lot of fun… I’ve never looked back.”

The whole industry of miniatures gaming depends on unofficial groups like the Warhammer Club and the Miniatures Gamers says Jason Russell, a hobby specialist with Games Workshop Canada, which is part of an international company that sells miniatures gaming supplies.

Although games are hosted at Games Workshop stores in the Ottawa area, these are mostly used to attract new customers, Russell says. Most of the gaming is organized by independent groups.

This year, the company started posting a listing of these groups on their website to encourage the gaming community and to help players find local places to play. There are almost 70 groups listed for Ontario alone.