Outsmarting Napoleon

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

Sometimes it starts with chess, a most abstract form of warfare, with rigid rules and little identical armies. Sometimes a young player wants more "reality," more of a sense that this is indeed a battle, and discovers commercial board games simulating war. And then he wants his own army.

For Douglas Mudd, it was a miniature battlefield that he saw one day — Hannibal versus the Romans, on an 8-by-4-foot table fixed up with grass, trees and a gently hilly terrain. There were the Romans in their phalanxes, each tiny shield hand-painted, and there were Hannibal's famous elephants, the spearmen, the bowmen.

Mudd, who manages the National Numismatics Collection at the National Museum of American History, started buying unpainted miniature soldiers and soon was deep into military history, researching not only the battles themselves but the uniforms worn at the time. Military medals struck to commemorate famous battles, plus ancient coins showing soldiers with decorated shields, provided a great source of information about the look of things.

From painting miniature soldiers to fighting their battles was just a step. Soon Mudd was competing in war games based on historical battles. Game participants deploy miniature troops on a board that looks like a three-dimensional representation of the terrain covered in the actual battle. "I love the strategical challenges of putting myself in the shoes of a known general to see if I could do better than he did," says Mudd. "War-gaming began in the 1840s," he tells me. "The Prussians wanted to analyze what happened with Napoleon, how he could beat them even though they had a large, well-trained military. How could they anticipate what a genius could do? So they created the general staff, a pool of officers trained in all aspects of war, logistics, battle tactics. They tried to see if this group of officers could simulate what would happen if you had a genius like Napoleon against you."

They set up teams of officers in separate rooms, with maps, a chain of command, rules and referees. By the 1860s Kriegspiel was being used by major European countries for military training. Civilian war-gaming spread with the aid of Little Wars, a 1913 war-gaming book by H. G. Wells. But these civilian simulations were relatively crude compared with the sophisticated war games that developed later, in the wake of World War II and the Korean War.

Today, model soldiers appear in many sizes, from 2 to 25 millimeters. The 15-mm figure, a bit over half an inch high, is the most common and is relatively cheap.

"Most of my troops are that scale," says Mudd, "although I now prefer 25 mm: I can afford them now and they're a little more detailed. The problem is, if you re-create any large-scale battle, you need a big table — minimum size, 5 by 8 feet."

The rules are the heart of it all, and the rules are incredibly complex. I still wonder how any set of fixed regulations could come anywhere near simulating the madness of a real battle. Look at what happened on October 25, 1854, at the Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War. A huge body of Russian caval- ry, 3,000 to 4,000 strong, threatened to overrun the base camp of the Allied army, consisting of British, French and Turks. Routing the Turk defenders, the Russians forged ahead.

All that stood between the Russians and the base was Sir Colin Campbell, 550 of his 93rd Highlanders and 100 invalids. Campbell had his men lie facedown in their red coats, in a threadbare line just two men deep, along a hillock. "Men, remember there is no retreat from here," Campbell famously told them. "You must die where you stand." Four cavalry squadrons bore down on them. Suddenly they leaped to their feet.

They fired a volley from their muskets, every bullet aimed. The Russians wavered, came on again. A second volley, another hesitation. Some Highlanders pushed forward for a hand-to-hand fight. "Ninety-third!" shouted Campbell sternly. "Damn all that eagerness!" A third volley, and the Russians wheeled about and withdrew toward the main body of the cavalry. Impossible, but it happened. That brilliant stand was immortalized as "the thin red line."

How do you write rules that cover such stranger-than-fiction scenarios — the infamous fog of war?

"Well, there's hundreds of sets of rules," says Mudd. "They're divided up into periods: the ancient period goes up to the edge of gunpowder warfare, about 1450, covering 3,000 years of history: swords, pikes, armor, spears, shields, et cetera. Then there's the pike and shot period, to 1600, and the horse and musket period, from 1600 to 1785. And so on."

There are rules for large-scale battles, rules that balance different types of troops, so that if one player has, say, soldiers of the Trojan War totaling 300 points and another has 300 points' worth of soldiers from the Persian Wars, much later, it will be an even matchup.

"There are a dozen very focused rules for the Frederick the Great era, accounting for the special characteristics of each army." For instance, Napoleonic armies had light infantry or skirmishers, who move at a certain pace, and more heavily armed grenadiers, who move slower and act differently in a given situation. "Infantry might move six inches per turn on open terrain, but only three inches if crossing a river or going through woods."

Other factors cover fighting ability — the difference between feared Guards troops and militia — or the impact of morale. And dice are used to add that element of luck that can thwart even the best general.

The rules for a game in which you are following historical fact would be different from those for a battle you are making up. Sometimes you can move troops and have them fire in the same turn; the dice decide how many you kill. Sometimes the rule proclaims that communications failed, so your men move but are too confused to fire.

Try imagining a chess game in which one of your knights goes lame. Or a pawn refuses to advance.

"I do have some World War II troops," Mudd informs me, "but basically I stick to pre-19th century. I don't do Napoleonic wars anymore. I just don't have the time to paint those large armies. You need 120 to 150 figures for a battle [the usual scale is one figure for 60 men], but if you want a large army you need some 300 figures."

Mudd's speciality is the wars of Frederick the Great, from about 1760 to 1780, "although recently I have been involved in the Italian wars, so I have an army of Charles V of Hapsburg, and I've also got Spanish, German and Italian troops of the 1550s." Mudd has built a considerable collection of books on battles and uniforms. It's amazing, he says, how a skilled painter can give character and identity to even a flea-size soldier two millimeters high.

Uniforms greatly aided morale. The tremendous shakos and busbies worn by grenadiers made them look ten feet tall, and with their trademark piratical mustaches they looked as fierce as Gauls. In the age of gunpowder, uniforms were a vital means of keeping a unit together, for as soon as the first volley was fired at a range of 50 yards the entire field would be obscured in dense smoke "and you couldn't see men five yards down the row," explains Mudd. Thus, each company often had two flags, six feet square, designed to be seen.

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

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.