Opinion: thoughts on ‘The Three Foot Rule’

The Three Foot Rule is a commonly-used, but not always clearly defined, miniature wargaming concept. At its most basic, the concept involves balancing the level of effort exerted in creating terrain or painting miniature wargaming figures against the expected level of visual scrutiny the terrain or figures are likely to be under during a game. For many wargamers, terrain or figures are rarely observed at distances closer than three feet, so the three foot rule implies that a given detail should be represented on a figure, vehicle, or piece of terrain if someone observing the model from three feet away would expect to see it. Any additional details beyond that level would cost unnecessary time and effort, as it is unlikely that any player would notice them.

It is possible to render incredible levels of detail and realism in miniature, as military miniature dioramas and model railroad layouts attest. Many Old School wargamers view painting their figures and scratch-building terrain as part of their hobby, and excellence in painting and attention to detail is, to them, as noble a goal as superior generalship.

The question for the wargamer, then, is how much effort to exert in order to have an immersive game, without spending weeks or months preparing it. Some view the Three Foot Rule as a middle ground, a compromise between detail and playability.

For Army Men Wargaming, we are using unpainted, poorly-sculpted plastic toy soldiers as miniatures. While some players may feel nostalgic using the figures out of the canister, the esthetic appearance of the tabletop is less important than historical accuracy or having pupils painted on the eyes of each soldier. Those soldiers set the tone for the rest of the tabletop. The level of quality we seek would enable players to look at a piece of terrain and, know, for example, that a building is made of brick, that there are windows on the first and second floors, and that there are doors in two adjacent sides. Apart from that basic functionality, we don’t much care what it looks like.

How about you? What level of detail do you represent in your games? Please consider sharing your thoughts in a comment ot this post.

Poll: which is the best Army Men pose?

We’ve all been there. You’ve just purchased a new bag or container full of Army Men, open it with high hopes that many of the soldiers will be equipped with a certain kind of weapon or will be in a certain pose. Which of the following unofficially standard poses are you most hoping for when you open the package?

[Opinion] Consider attending a Memorial Day Service tomorrow


If you live in the United States, tomorrow is Memorial Day, a Federal Holiday honoring those who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. The holiday’s traditions reach back to the end of the Civil War, but the manner in which our culture currently observes Memorial Day leaves much to be desired.

Instead of actually taking time to reflect on the sacrifices made on our behalf, we Americans tend to treat Memorial Day as just another holiday weekend. Our businesses offer Memorial Day sales, as if nearly two and a half centuries of blood and sacrifice is an appropriate justification for selling goods and services.

I am not saying that no one should have any fun during Memorial Day weekend; good people have died so that we could enjoy freedom. I am saying that I consider it to be a civic duty to take at least some time during the week – and especially on the day of observance – to spend some time alone to reflect on the cost of the freedom we have. I also consider it a duty to attend one of thousands of Memorial Day services scheduled May 30 across the nation. Doing so is key to valuing what many of us take for granted.

[Opinion] A pitched battle = a boring wargame

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Poster generation via diy.despair.com.

In his outstanding book One Hour Wargames, author Neil Thomas points out an interesting tendency among miniature wargamers: we devote tremendous energy to ensure realism through research into the conflicts we seek to re-enact, through the rule sets we choose, through the figures we purchase and accurately paint, and even the terrain pieces we build. We then proceed to play what is essentially the same battle each time: the set-piece, or pitched, battle, which involves forces equal in strength fighting on terrain that favors neither side.

Historically, these sorts of battles happened frequently in classical times, when open plains were the only suitable terrain for battle and tactical options were far more limited than today. To be accurate, then, wargamers focusing on ancient battles will often need to choose a pitched battle to re-enact a conflict, even for fictitious or hypothetical battles.

For just about everyone else, though, the allure of the pitched battle is contrived equality. If the forces are equal (usually determined through a points system), and the terrain is equal, and both sides start an equal distance from the board edge, then the only variable is the skill of the player, tempered by the influence of the dice. A pitched battle helps to create the impression that the winner is the better general, because nothing else in the game favors either side. Continue reading “[Opinion] A pitched battle = a boring wargame”

[Opinion] On the virtues of Green versus Tan

The Green versus Tan conflict has no living veterans.

For decades, there was apparently something of an unspoken rule among wargame publishers that only conflicts from the distant past are appropriate for recreation in miniature. Replaying a historical battle recent enough that current veterans of it are still among the living was largely avoided.

That unspoken rule doesn’t carry as much weight as it once did, as there are numerous publishers of rules set during wars in Vietnam, the Falkland Islands, Somalia, and even for the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clearly, these games wouldn’t exist if there was no interest in playing them, but such games raise a question about how our veterans might feel about them.

On one side, recreating a recent historical battle honors the participants. To put such a game on the table requires extensive research and full recognition of the battle’s importance. Many wargamers pay as much attention to detail as model railroaders with regarding how the terrain is scaled, how the miniature figures are equipped, and how forces were historically deployed. Their efforts are their tribute to those who fought.

On the other side, there is something about reducing what was an actual life-or-death struggle to a game. If a veteran of a recent conflict saw my son and I playing such a scenario, how would he feel about his sacrifice – and those of his comrades – being reduced to an evening’s entertainment? It certainly wasn’t a game to him at the time.

For my games, I have chosen the latter option. The conflict between Green and Tan army men has raged for a half-century, but there are no living veterans. Gaming with army men allows for deployment, terrain, tactics, and objectives with relatively modern, if non-specific, mechanized forces, with significantly reduced risk of causing offense to our honored veterans.

Why Army Men?

Picture 1
A few Greens set up a defensive position.

Almost everyone has pleasant childhood memories of playing with plastic army men.

As I grew into young adulthood, my fascination for objects in miniature moved from army men to miniature skirmishes in fantasy role-playing games, then tactical fantasy skirmish games, and finally historical wargaming. The constraints on time and money that come with fatherhood made the games I once played impractical for my life today.

The solution I found was a small group of relatively simple wargaming rulesets, that use plastic army men for miniatures. Simple rules make for quick games, the sort of games you can play with your young son and not test his attention span. And army men are far cheaper than any other commercially available line of wargaming figures. There was my answer: less time, less money, and more fun.

This blog will fill a handful of purposes. Primarily, it will provide information about wargaming with army men, in the form of reviews of different rules and army men playsets that can be adapted for wargmaing use. It will also offer tutorials on making inexpensive, but realistic-looking, wargaming terrain. It will provide suggested scenarios (as alternatives to the pitched battle – the sort of contest that no sane general has undetaken since the Roman Empire, but is agonizingly common in wargaming circles). Lastly, it will link to a variety of sources that offer insight on military history, tactics, and strategy that may have bearing upon how these games should be played.