Old soldiers never die, they become figurines. Miniatures, lovingly crafted and hand-painted, down to the last button and bootstrap.
At Metro Wargames, hidden away in a Broadway loft, these miniatures are hard at work, reliving and, in some cases, wishfully revising, military history. Led by President, Bob DeSilva, Metro Wargames has been stagingrecreations in Williamsburg since 1993. Club membership draws from the ranks of white and blue collar alike, and, as the members are quick to impress on an interviewer, they are students of military history not some far-out militia group bent on overthrowing the government.
Some people play chess or poker or build model railroads to relax; at Metro, they play wargames. In fact, DeSilva got into it when a childhood bout with asthma kept him out of gym and in the school library for a year. Instead of sleeping or perfecting his spitball, he read William Colbys primers on the military. From there, a love of history took him further into the study of military antiquity and the rest is, so to speak, history.
Most of Metros members came to wargameing as kids. George Wiesinger started collecting toy soldiers form the Five & Dime as a youngster just before World War II. He has, in the course of his 59 years, become something of an amateur historian, the Clubs authority on the Hundred Years War. His collection of majestic castles and thatch-roofed cottages sit patiently, waiting for invasion by several hundred English and French knights and foot soldiers armed to the teeth with historically correct weaponry; ready to storm the ramparts and do battle for Agincourt.
Wargaming has been aroung since the days when H. G. Wells invented a parlor game absed on the British miniatures he and his friend collected. In the beginning, they would literally lob objects from across the room to knock over enemy soldiers. Nowadays, the players roll dice and throwing things is discouraged.
Modern wargaming developed after the second world war when game developers bought the rights to recognition modles produced by the Army to help the allied troops differentiate between good guys and bad guys. As the popularity of the board games based on World War II battles increased, games became interested in reenacting other conflicts and wargaming became a civilian industry. During the war, itself, some major military strategies were tested on gaming tables. For instance, the Japanese first strategized the Battle of Midway with scale models. When the Japanese gamer whose unhappy task it was to act out the role of the U.S., was was inspired to create a new strategy one that ran counter to accepted doctrine he was ruled out of bounds by the referee. The Japanese High Command should have listened to him his strategy was the one used by the U.S. to defeat the Japanese at Midway.
Probably the most popular game today is Axis and Allies. Developed in 1984, this scaled down recreation of World War II is the mainstay of every wargameing club in the country. At Metro, Axis and Allis is no longer played on the original 2 X 3 board, but has moved to a 6 X 12 map complete with scale model tanks, destroyers, aircraft carriers, soldiers and planes instead of plastic chips. A game can last anywhere from an afternoon fo ra minor battle to several months for the entirewar; still a far cry from the time taken by the real war, and, with added bonus of no civilian casualties.
Wargaming takes patience, skill, time, a sense of history and plenty of money. One tank, unpainted, can cost $10 to $15. Then, it has to be researched and painted with the correct markings and camoflage designs and colors. Each piece soldier, ship, aircraft, truck and jeep is painstakingly researched and trasnformed into an exact replica of the original.
James Andruk, at 23, the youngest member of Metro, says, "When I play the game with men and materials I painted, I get a good feeling. This is something I creted and it really looks good." "You paint them, mount them and they develop a personality," says Frank Griebel. George Wiesenger confesses, "When my wife was alive, she hated them. She called them those Goddamn little men!" Gielfriends and wives take a backseat to what can amount to an obsession.
Metro Wargamers may be the only wargaming club with a permanent meeting place; most clubs are relegated to basements, living rooms or church halls. Metros stability allows its member the luxury of leaving games set up for the long periods necessary to play them. Competition is intense, as in the depth of knowledge frequenty, members are invited to beta-test new games for manufacturers before they are marketed to the public.