Wargaming: An Introduction

The opinions of David Billinghurst

What is Wargaming? What are Wargames Periods? Air Wargames Naval Wargames Land Wargames Back to my Wargaming periods

What is Wargaming?

So, what is wargaming?

Well, basically, wargaming is playing with toy soldiers. And why would grown men play with toy soldiers, you ask? Well, why not?

Wargamers essentially come in two types, though there is a big, blurry, amorphous mass between the two extremes.

There are the gamers who are enjoy the game, they enjoy the challenge of playing to win and often have the knack of analysing a set of rules to extract the most advantage from them. Period history, uniform and historical tactics research, the "reasons why" a particular conflict occurred, are of lesser importance than learning all the intricacies of a rule set, and equipping oneself with the most effective force to win under those rules.

And then there are the "historical" gamers who are drawn to the hobby because they love history. These gamers will often labouriously research obscure battles and the campaigns of famous (or little-known) generals, and they can bore you to tears debating the precise pattern of buttons on a particular issue of uniform. Rules, to them, are just a mechanism to aid in the recreation of a particular battle, or to provide some sort of neutral arbitor for a speculative set-piece. This sort of gamer can play fast and loose with a set of rules, inventing house-rules to cover unforseen situations, or even throwing out chunks of rules that, they feel, give an un-historic outcome or feel to a game.

Between these two extremes lie the bulk of wargamers who play a particular "period" because they know a bit about it, or it interests them. They play for the social aspect, the 'hanging out' at the club with like-minded individuals; they play because they enjoy the model-making aspect of the hobby, and enjoy using what they have made or painted.

So, wargaming is many things to a small group of slightly odd (mainly) men. And it's a lot of fun, so there!

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Wargames Periods

Wargamers, for convenience, divide their hobby into "Genres", of which there are three, and "Periods", of which there are many. Genres basically reflect the medium the game takes place in; "Land", "Sea" and "Air". Periods are divisions of time, usually highlighted by changes in tactics or technology, or by certain dates or conflicts.

"Fantasy" and "Science Fiction", often lumped together by those uninterested in orks or spaceships, are two distinct periods.

Fantasy, in particular, does divide nicely into Land, Sea and Air genres - Games Workshop, for one, produced a Naval game set in their Warhammer Fantasy universe, with appropriate models. And I believe Fantasy Naval rules are to be found on the Web. In the US, apparently, Aerial racing for Hordes of the Things is quite popular at conventions. I assume the "racing" includes trying to eliminate the competition.

Science Fiction gaming divides into Land and Space genres. Usually, the two genres are quite distinct as the 'Vacc Heads' usually have an interest in Naval warfare, while the 'Gropos' are more likely to come from a WWII or Modern Land background. Those coming into the Science Fiction genre from a Roleplaying background are usually quite happy to cross between Vacc Head and Gropo camps as their characters do this in their roleplaying games.

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Air Wargames

"Air" wargames are generally "World War I" Aerial (either fighter on fighter or fighter vs. airship), or "Modern" Jet combat. Some people play World War II fighter vs fighter games but World War II aerial tends to be more of a support arm for Land or Sea combat.

A more unusual Aerial 'Period' is "Aeronef". This, loosely, falls in the Steampunk genre of Science Fiction. Basically, imagine gaming H.G. Wells' "The War in the Air" or Michael Moorcock's Oswald Bastable novels (particularly The Warlord of the Air) or even Edgar Rice Burrows' Barsoomian novels. Giant airships do battle in great aerial fleet encounters. Brigade Models in the UK manufacture various airships for Aeronef as well as stock rules and there are rules and other information to be found on the Net.

I have played a couple of fun World War I Aerial games, and somewhere I have a set of two-page rules, but I have never been keen enough to take the plunge and buy some models.

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Naval Wargames

Naval Periods, like periods for Land games, run the entire gamut of history from "Ancients" to "Ultra Modern" and "Science Fiction".


"Ancient Naval" warfare is usually Classical galley warfare, either between Greek City States, Greece and Persia, or Greek Successor States and Rome. After Rome under Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) absorbs Egypt, Ancient Naval warfare effectively ends as Rome dominates the Mediterranean Sea ("Our sea") for the next four centuries.

There are a number of sets of Naval rules and models for this period. Models tend to be 1/1200th scale (occasionally 1/2400th or 1/600th). The three biggest producers of ships in this period are Skytrex (Triton 1/600th scale), Navwar and Langton. People moan that Langton's ships are expensive, but they are probably the best on the market. Navwar are much cheaper, but, in my opinion, much blander models.

Rod Langton produces a set of Galley rules called Naumachiae which I have never played. I understand they use some of the mechanics from his excellent Napoleonic Naval Rules, Hoist the Signal for Close Action. Navwar produces Ancient Naval Rules and stocks Salamis Ad Actium galley rules.


There are a few rulettes around for naval games set in the Medieval Period, but it is not a popular period, as few interesting sea battles occurred, and there are few miniatures available.


The Renaissance period has been growing in popularity over the last few years, especially as significant anniversaries for the Spanish Armada and Lepanto came round. Skytrex (1/600th), Navwar (1/1200th and 1/3000th) and Langton (1/1200th) produce ships. Langton produces a set of rules called Serenissima, and Navwar has 16th Century Mediterranean Galley Rules.

Anglo-Dutch Wars

Both Langton and Navwar produce model ranges for this period (which is also known as the Tiller and Whipstaff period).

Napoleonic Naval

Then we come to Napoleonic Naval. Like Napoleonic Land gaming, "Nap Naval" is a popular period; there are a number of sets of rules available; there are a number of figure ranges that support the rules; and there are even a number of scales from 1/600th (American Lake fleets) down to 1/3000th (re-fight Trafalgar on your dining room table).


"Ironclads" or "Pre-dreadnoughts" went through a period of popularity in the late '90's - partially as a spin-off of the Colonial resurgency, and partly due to more interest being shown in periods like the 'Russo-Japanese War'. Navwar has a set of rules called Steam and Steel.

World War I and World War II

World War I, World War II and Modern Naval Warfare wax and wane in popularity. There are rules around to play these periods and Skytrex, Navwar, and others, produce large ranges of ships.


I have played one Modern Naval game, using the Harpoon rules (which, I believe started life as either a board game or a computer game). Dave and I had command of a Russian squadron in an Invasion of Norway/WWIII type scenario, while Chris commanded the defending NATO squadron. Even though Chris had scratch-built some lovely ships, we soon realised that the scale was such that we could not put the models on the table. Instead, we used a white board and played the game very much like a game of Battleship.

The Russian missiles had a 23km range, while the NATO missiles had something like a 6 - 12km range. So, Dave and I spotted Chris' squadron with our helicoptors, and launched our missiles while our helicoptors fought to stay in the air, and sank Chris' entire squadron before he could work out where our ships were!

Realistic? Possibly. Interesting mechanics. And the Hunt the NATO ships bit was fun. But as a wargame? Well, both sides should have at least a basic chance of getting their licks in. Otherwise, it's too much like a turkey shoot for my liking. I do seem to recall, though, that this encounter was actually part of a larger campaign that Chris was running. So, from that point of view, the game was a success, a scenario within a much wider drama, and one where the NATO ships were foredoomed, but where the act of engagement would reveal the Russians' presence and so bring about their defeat.

Science Fiction

I suggested above that the Naval genre could include "Science Fiction". This, of course, depends on how you view the development of warfare in space. If you feel that at some stage Humans will develop some form of trans-light star drive; that star travel will become relatively common; and that there will be resources and real estate worth fighting over, then space combat can be modeled as a form of Naval warfare. The trick is picking which period the rules writer is interested in to really get a handle on how to fight space battles in that rules universe. The best space battle game I've played is Full Thrust by Ground Zero Games.

Go to Full Thrust - Star Ship Combat

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Land Wargames

Like Naval wargames, Land wargaming is divided into various periods. These span history from "Ancients" through to "Ultra Modern" and/or "Science Fiction".


Broadly speaking, and according to WRG, the Ancient period covers land warfare from Sumerian times (3000BC) until the start of the Great Italian Wars of the late 15th Century. As most people tend to equate 'Ancients' with 'Classical', the end of the Ancient period is usually thought to coincide with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. "Dark Ages" (a term now unfashionable amongst historians) and "Medieval" periods then fill the historical gap up until the Italian Wars usher in the Renaissance Period.

"Ancients" is possibly the most popular of wargame periods and for a long time this was due to the near universality of WRG's Ancients rules. From America (the United States thereof) to Zimbabwe, wargamers 'spoke a common language' through the various editions of the rules, and then through the various versions of De Bellis Multitudinis or DBM rules that succeeded them.

With the release of DBMM, the latest iteration and reworking of the DBM mechanisim, to under-whelming response, and the acknowledgement that there are now other serious contenders in the popularity stakes for Ancient rules of choice, some commentators are predicting that the Ancients community will fragment as badly as the Napoleonic community has done.

Ancients wargamers are spoiled for choice when it comes to figures and support material. Osprey's list of titles in the Ancient section of its popular Men-at-Arms (MAA) series of 40 page introductary army/period booklets is at least as long as for its Napoleonic and World War II sections. Most figure manufacturers will have at least a couple of lines of Ancients figures, and as for scales - 2mm, 6mm, 10mm, 15mm (now the most popular scale for wargaming), 18mm, 20mm (popular scale for plastics, equals the 1/72nd model plane scale), 25mm/28mm (while still refered to as 25mm, most figures are now closer to 28mm), 30mm, 40mm, 54mm - and some manufacturers have similar ranges in multiple scales.


Sandwiched between the Ancients and Napoleonic Periods (as least as far as WRG is concerned) lies my favourite period - Renaissance (or Pike and Shot, as it's sometimes called). And yes, we do all know that the Italian Renaissance kicked off in the 13th Century and had basically done its dash when the French, Spanish and Germans decided that Italy would do just jim-dandy as a handy battle ground (with nice weather and nice wine) to work out various Bourbon/Hapsburg differences of opinion.

To me, the fascination of the period lies in the transition from the Medieval armies of the Hundred Years War, with the heavily armoured knight losing ground to the pike, to the demise of the pike itself, and the return of charging cavalry in the War of the Spanish Succession period around 1700.

There is not as much material nor as many figures available for the Renaissance period as for Ancients, but more have been coming out over the last few years. While books in English tend to focus on the Italian Wars, the English Civil War, and the Thirty Years War, there is now more material on the Internet about the Great Northern Wars and wars in the East in the same time period. Figure manufacturers, such as Grumpy, stocked by Eureka Miniatures, shave released non-European ranges, and there are fairly extensive ranges of Western European figures in 6mm, 15mm, 20mm plastics, and 25/28mm.

Lace Wars/Seven Years War

Between the demise of the pike and the end of the Renaissance/Pike and Shot Period, and the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars that kick off in the 1790's, lies the period that saw the development of the entire "Linear system that Napoleon was to smash with his columns" (or so the argument used to go, back in the early '80's). This period is sometimes refered to as the Lace Wars, or as the Wars of the Sun King. Apart from Marlborough, much of the period seems to consist of pretty armies, much marching up and down, and sieges, ie very dull for Wargamers. There has been a bit of interest in the Wars of the Spanish Succession and the League of Augsburg, and a couple of lines of figures, but stuff is very hard to find.

Mid-century, we get the Seven Years War, often described as the First World War as conflicts raged in North America, and India, as well as in Europe. This is where a lot of things, seen in their ossified glory in the Revolutionary Wars, were at the cutting edge of military theory. Seven Years War (or SYW) was very popular in the early '90's, with a good set of rules called Koenig Krieg providing the impetus for many to get into this period.


When I was getting started in wargames in the late '70's, the Napoleonic period rules were by WRG. And, yes, everyone moaned about them, but everyone played them. Behind Ancients, Napoleonics rates with World War II as the most written about and researched Wargames period. At that time, most people collected Airfix plastic Napoleonic figures, and then converted them to get the figures they required. It is an odd fact of the Napoleonic Wars that most armies essentially dressed in the same style, with variations of cloth colour, and slight variations in head gear and back packs.

WRG Napoleonics fell out of fashion and now there is something like a dozen Napoleonic Wars rule sets; each with their dedicated band of supporters and each with different basing styles. The net result is that a Napoleonics competition has not been held at any of the New Zealand National or Regional Wargames conventions for over a decade. Without that sort of exposure, Napoleonics has become a second, or third, tier period.

American Civil War

Not a period that interests me. It is a popular period in the United States and there are a number of figure ranges in various scales, as well as several very popular rules sets.


Suddenly got very popular in the '90's (possibly because of re-releases of films like Zulu Dawn). A number of ranges in a number of scales, good rules and other support material.

World War I

Has had a bit of a resurgence with Great War Spearhead, a variant of the Spearhead rules. There is also quite a bit of interest in the Russian Civil War.

World War II

One of the biggy periods, and given a new lease of life by Battlefront and their Flames of War rules and range of figures. Flames has essentially blown other rule-sets, such as Rapid Fire, into the weeds, and established 15mm as the scale to play World War II games.

World War II period figures are still made in plastic in 1/72nd scale (20mm), as this is still a popular scale for vehicles and aircraft for this period. The Platoon 20 range from East Riding Minatures has 20mm figures in lead.

The movie Toy Story awoke a nostalgic interest in 54mm 'Green Army' figures for skirmish games, though, hopefully, this was just a passing fad.


Still has a small, but loyal following of players. WRG rules, with modifications to bring them up to the turn of the century, are still popular. For battles with forces in excess of a couple of companies, most gamers use 6mm scale figures. There are a number of excellent ranges of figures around, from Skytrex, to GHQ to QRF. Vietnam-era skirmish games have started to appear, along with ranges of figures in 15mm scale, such as Flashpoint Miniatures, a New Zealand based company.


Games Workshop has pretty much cornered the market in Fantasy gaming. Their Warhammer rules are immensly popular, as are their 28mm scale figures. Warmaster was an attempt to move away from the, essentially, skirmish nature of Warhammer, but a new set of rules, plus a new scale (10mm) meant that it never really took off - though Warmaster Ancient Battles, the historical version of the rules, has a growing following. It is still possible to get material for the Warmaster Fantasy rules from Games Workshop but, without opponents, who would bother?

There are other fantasy rules systems around, including DBF, a fantasy version of DBM, and HOTT or Hordes of the Things (fantasy DBA). There are also a large number of companies producing 28mm Fantasy figures and, increasingly, 15mm Fantasy figures.

Science Fiction

Science Fiction gaming, whether 'cyberpunk', or Skirmish military, has suffered from the lack of widely played rules, with the notable exception of Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000.

Even Warhammer 40K has struggled at times and games like Stargrunt from Ground Zero Games, which has been around since the early/mid '90's, and Laser Burn, available from 15mm.co.uk, from the '80's have never really taken fire, even with the support of ranges of miniatures.

Games like Dirtside 2 from Ground Zero Games, Epic from Games Workshop, and more lately Command Horizon from Baccus 6mm have endeavoured to take Ultra Modern gaming into the far future, allowing players to play up to Brigade level games in 6mm scale.

But Epic appears to have stagnated, and Dirtside 2 appears stuck in the development track for the third edition. Command Horizon, on the other hand, is new and still growing, with an expanding figure line.

Wargaming, though, can be a bit "faddish". Someone will get some new figures, or a new set a rules; they play them and are seen to be having lots of fun; a few mates are invited to play and they have fun, too; and then suddenly everybody seems to be playing this new rule set or period, and often a period no-one would have expected, such as Pirates, or Cowboys/Western.

Not that this has ever happened to me.
Yeah, right.

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