Outsmarting Napoleon- page 3 | History | Smithsonian

Outsmarting Napoleon

War games enthusiasts use miniature soldiers and multiple-terrain boards to simulate real battles

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(Continued from page 2)

Mudd, a Washington native who is only distantly related to Dr. Samuel Mudd of Civil War fame, has about a thousand 15-mm figures and 500 of the 25-mm soldiers, plus many still unpainted. He says a fan gets excited about a period or battle, collects the soldiers for it, then moves on to another one. A half-dozen major firms handle war games, some specializing in figures, some in rules, some in paints, a few in a variety of items. Some also produce fantasy-gaming products, though most historical games manufacturers are purists who prefer not to be identified with the fantasy field (big with younger crowds brought up on games like Dungeons and Dragons).

War-gaming cannot be blamed for the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and similar tragedies, I think. For one thing, the average age of the players is around 35. And even though some youngsters do tend to start with fantasy gaming, "it's like the whole TV issue: most people know it's not real life," says Mudd. Moreover, many young players get into historical gaming from the start.

I ask about the role of electronics, which seems to play a large part in fantasy gaming. "The computer is perfect for certain random events," he replies, "and it can keep track of a complex situation, but it's not easy to combine with gaming. It's certainly better than rolling the dice forever, but it's most commonly used in sea battles, which are very technical. If you fire a 16-inch shell, you know how much damage it will do, so you don't need charts — the computer figures it instantly."

But it's the hands-on aspect that fascinates Mudd and many others. He will spend hours painting a single tin-and-bismuth figure (lead soldiers being medically incorrect) in acrylics, sometimes two hours just on one flag. His coin research shows him the designs that might appear on, say, a Theban soldier's shield. His soldiers have won first place in the Masters Category at the Historicom Convention, put on in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, by the Historical Miniature Gaming Society. And he has won quite a few tournaments in a fairly abstract game involving 12 pieces on a side. "It can be played in under an hour, it's fun and very simple, and it's a decent simulation, 60 percent skill, 40 percent luck," Mudd says. "On the other hand, I haven't done very well with my Charles V army. I spend a lot more time painting and researching those figures than fighting with them."

By Michael Kernan

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