War, Strategy, and Luck — At 1/100th Scale

In a Brooklyn basement, a group of wargamers breathe life into tabletop games played with models, miniatures, dice and intense strategy.

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Chris Wright

The sand table in the back room of the Metropolitan Wargamers club smells faintly of cat litter. It’s a Sunday, and the club is empty, alone with its harsh overhead lighting and shelves full of board games and rows of miniature armies. Turns out on Sundays, the vast majority of the club’s gamers are off watching football.

All the more lonely, then, is the Sherman tank advancing uphill toward a German gun emplacement and a Tiger tank camouflaged among a grove of trees. In the background, another Sherman, less lucky, burns in a column of black-painted cotton — smoke. Everything on this, the club’s sand gaming table, is a lifelike model, all painted with vibrant, intricate detail, so that the scene carries an eerie resemblance to a tilt-shift photograph, a technique that makes the real world look like a game. If I try a little, I can practically hear the boom of the tanks’ big guns, feel the grumble of the treads in my gut.

These are tiny, but they aren’t toys. They are models in an historical replaying, governed by a thick set of rules that dictate how easy or difficult movement, reloading and firing are for each actor on the field; the fate of every action — whether a shot hits or misses and how much damage it does — is dictated by a roll of the dice. (Some games even include rules for unit morale; face enough horror or hardship and the men might flee.) James Grotto, a thickly accented Brooklynite and the preeminent WWII miniatures gamer of the club, produces a long metal box and sets its bottom end on the sand at the front of the heroic, lone Sherman. A periscope. The gamers use it to see down onto the battlefield, in the inverse of a sub’s use of the same tool, to see downward into the point of view of their models as they play. I peer into the periscope and see in the mirror the Tiger tank’s barrel aimed right at me. It’s a condensed, tight view, and shocking — the perspective of a doomed gunner.

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This is what one really needs to understand the appeal of model armies that cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars, or complex battle reenactments on enormous maps that take up to a year of stop-and-start playing to complete: perspective. Not that these gamers need to be defended. All they’ve done is bring gaming with plastic miniatures and square cardboard markers as close to real life as humanly possible.

“Could you have done better than Napoleon at Waterloo? Well, let’s find out.”

Fourteen gamers founded Metropolitan Wargamers in 1984. Today the club operates as a nonprofit organization, with around 40 members — lawyers and businessmen, bus drivers and construction workers, students and veterans — mostly men of all ages, a few women, some girlfriends that tag along. Members here pay $40 a month and have a key and 24/7 access to the club, a long thin basement at the bottom of a Park Slope, Brooklyn brownstone. It’s a sweet deal.

“Some people walk in for the first time with a grin on their face, and you just know they’re going to join,” says Mike Willner, a member of the club’s board of directors and a member for around 12 years, as we sit at a small table in the front of the club under a low ceiling. “It’s a gaming heaven.” Willner and the other men gathered today to show me around — Grotto and Kimber VanRy, both old-school gamers with leadership roles at the club — are all veterans of gaming and of the club, and beam with pride at its sense of community. “We’re not looking to be a gaming facility,” Grotto adds. “We want people that are willing to mix into the community, and bring their own passions to what we do.”

What they do runs the gamut of tabletop gaming, which had its golden age in the 1970s. Before personal computers, Dungeons & Dragons ruled the role-play gaming world and strategy gamers would play out their battles from across the country, sending their moves back and forth via snail mail. Today there’s been a rise of geekery in the social consciousness, what with Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and even outright gaming protagonists in The Big Bang Theory and Role Models. Even some celebrities like Vin Diesel and Stephen Colbert have come out as tabletop gamers. (The original celebrity gamer, by the way, was H.G. Wells, who in 1913 wrote a book called Little Wars depicting his fanaticism for wargaming.) But when it comes to hardcore tabletop gaming, there seems to be a line the public at large isn’t willing to cross: video gaming and the occasional group game of Settlers of Catan is one thing, but spending hours playing with dice, figurines, a tape measure and a rule book the size of the Bible is another. The club remains a clan of outsiders. “We’re a geek support group,” says Willner.

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James Grotto, a WWII gaming enthusiast, paints all his models based on historical reference books: (from left to right) A German Panther in yellow forest camouflage; an American Sherman in black and tan city/rubble camouflage; a German Stug 4 in Russian fall/autumn camouflage.

The games that members play lend themselves to the club’s tight-knit passion. Here at the front of the club, in its tightest quarters, darkest corners and lowest ceilings, are large wood tables covered in plexiglass. Underneath, games are frozen until their next round: “hex-and-counter” military history reenactments. They are played on maps packed with hexagonal spaces, covered in rectangular pieces of cardboard representing the units in massive armies, and take many months of gaming to complete. To our right is the Battle of Prague, the largest engagement of the Seven Years’ War. In that battle, which took place over the course of a single day in 1757, the Prussian army made a daring flanking attack on Austrian forces and forced a retreat. In the club’s version of the battle, Willner, controlling the Prussians, has tried a different tactic, splitting his forces for both a frontal and flanking assault. Twenty turns in, the Austrian player has adapted his defense. Things aren’t looking too good for the Prussians. History, it looks like, will be rewritten.

In front of us is the more recognizable Battle of Gettysburg — Northern forces marked by cardboard squares in an inner half-ring, assaulted by the Confederates. But again, this time the attacker is taking a different tack; recognizing with hindsight Lee’s mistakes in a slow-moving first-day attack that failed to unseat the Union Army’s strong high-ground positions, the Confederates, take two, are driving “helter-skelter” at the Union positions on day one. And yet it looks like the Union forces will hold out. If they can’t win a mulligan, one wonders if they were always doomed.

Every square inch of table, every set of rules tacked onto the wall, is aimed at breathing life into the gaming.

One room farther along the corridor is the “monster game” table, where the players are currently playing out WWII across all its theaters in a hugely comprehensive game called “World in Flames” that covers the military, political and economic layers of the Second World War. Every square inch of table, every set of rules tacked onto the wall, is aimed at breathing life into the gaming. You don’t just sit down and pick up this game. It can take over a year to complete, played in five-hour stints once a week. That’s almost 11 straight days of gameplay, total. The rules are complex. Just looking at a hex-and-counter board, with its enormous armies made up of cardboard rectangle units, makes my head spin. Around the “war room,” tables and strategic markups bleed off the boards and onto eraser boards and printouts on the walls.

This sort of gaming is on a different planet than pop-culture board games. VanRy says the difference between the two is the same as pastime versus hobby. “The difference between these games and Monopoly is, I’m pretty sure I’ve never spent the next few days thinking the Monopoly game over. ‘Maybe if I had tried this strategy…’ No.” The word that flits across my brain is obsession.

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The Battle of Gettysburg, replayed.

“It’s a multifaceted hobby,” says Grotto, pointing to stacks of reference books on nearby shelves. “I can watch Saving Private Ryan, read a bestselling book about the Battle of Normandy, and then play it out on the table myself.”

Or, a challenge that puts you on the same level as the greatest generals of all time, as Willner puts it: “Could you have done better than Napoleon at Waterloo? Well, let’s find out.”

These make up just one tier of the club’s game styles. The other two are played in the back room, where three large gaming tables dominate the space. This back of the club is a storage wonder world, and has the pleasant tobacco smell of a smoking section (which it is). The walls are floor-to-ceiling shelves full of board games, military history books and armies of miniatures. Below the gaming tables are drawers filled with ranks of German, Russian and American model tanks and infantry units, all painted in historically accurate camouflage. In the corners, “baker’s sheets” shelves hold portable tabletops with actual games on them, paused for the time being. Model and Lego aircraft from WWII and Star Wars hang from the ceiling. The board games are mostly “Eurogames,” or semi-complex board games that focus on strategy and have irregular or asymmetric rather than symmetric layouts. Then there is miniature gaming, a full-blown spectacle with its hordes of fastidiously painted ranks. The quality of the models is stunning. One shelf full of the flat, gray unpainted plastic models, elves of some sort, look on like ghostly specters.

You don’t just sit down and pick up this game. It takes over a year to complete.

From one drawer Grotto pulls out the strongest proof of all that this is a true den of gaming: one of the club’s “home brewed” games. These modifications to other games made up by players are some of the most popular among the club members. This one, “White Line Fever,” is a Road Warrior game that uses matchbox cars modified with custom weaponry like helicopter blades, flame throwers and harpoons. The rules include allowing the players to eat “drugs” (Tic Tacs), that can boost their driving abilities, but can also make them become insane and shoot themselves in the head. For another game, “Red Baron,” played using tiny WWI planes, the club has made custom altitude stands out of dowels with metal weights at the bottom that allow the planes to hang in the air at the proper height above the gaming board, with copper wiring that bends easily to set the planes at banking angles. It lends a surprising realism to the game as the planes, mounts and all, chase each other through the skies, their moves mapped out in secret each turn. “It can get frustrating,” Grotto says, moving the sticks to show how the banking aircraft can weave toward and away from each other, turn after turn.

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Two modified matchbox cars for the home-brewed Road Warrior game "White Line Fever."

It comes as a shock, after seeing all this intensive painting, modding and planning strategy and tactics, to remember that the gameplay still relies on the luck of the dice. This is still the closest approximation to real-world luck gamers can create; a single unit’s valiant stand to decide the fate of an entire war shares the same bounds as a turn of Monopoly. What these people have built atop this simple premise is stunning. It’s lifelike. A single beautifully painted miniature model, a history-revising move, a game where your drugged-out character can run a competitor off the road: the sum of it all is gaming as a way of life, taken one dice roll at a time.

“The world is a wild, complex place. You watch the news and you think, how am I surviving?” says VanRy. “Doing this is a way to spend a few hours really digging in and working on a complex problem — making sense of it. It’s a way to spend a few hours making sense of the world.”

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