Some enthusiasts call it conflict simulation. Others talk of tabletop reenactment. A few label it combat strategy reproduction.
“But essentially,” says John Armatys, “it’s grown men playing with toy soldiers. Are we eccentric? Maybe but it’s better than playing with model trains, isn’t it?”
Hmm. Welcome, reader, to the weekly meeting of Sheffield Wargames Society.
Here, chaps in their 40s and 50s push painted figurines around table top terrains, refighting real historic battles with dice, cards and the odd Machiavelli quote thrown in for good measure.
In one corner, the Romans are taking on the Parthians at the Battle of Nisibis. In another a Napoleonic skirmish rages. In a third, a 1980s Russian Army is over-running western Europe in a game imagining what may have happened had the Cold War got warm.
And today The Diary is at the society’s base - the Polish Catholic Club in Ecclesall Road - ahead of some 2,500 enthusiasts descending on Sheffield from across Europe. They’re coming here this weekend for The Sheffield Triples Wargames Show at the English Institute of Sport, Attercliffe. It is the second largest such conference in the UK and will include competitions, trade stands and a chance to mingle with other pretend generals.
“It’s been running 30 years now,” says John, 56, of Broomhill. “And it’s got bigger each year. We’ve already had a group of Canadians book tickets for 2014 so it’s got a global reputation.”
If there’s one thing Wargame enthusiasts are, it seems, it’s...well, enthusiastic.
“The games tend to have one main objective: to kick seven shades of what’s good for the roses out of the other army,” says Mark Hides, 45, of Wincobank. “But it’s more than that. Playing wargames is a lovely way to spend an evening. It’s about socialising and learning history.”
The games themselves can vary. That’s because the actual rules tend to be rewritten by the players before they begin. Some battles are done and dusted in 10 minutes. Others make a Test Match look speedy.
“I played one game which went on seven years,” recalls John. “It was by post so each move took a week or so. Who won? I can’t remember.”
Now, the group - 40 men, two women, and thousands of figurines - is preparing for that convention.
“It’s always a great weekend,” says chairman Tim Gow, 47, of South Anston. “When you see thousands of people enjoying themselves you think ‘We can’t all be eccentrics’.”
Little wars, long history
Wargames are enjoyed the world over - but they were initially developed for hugely serious purposes.
The first known example was designed by (who’d have thought?) a German. Mathematician Johann Christian Ludwig Hellwig created it in 1780 as a way for Prussian generals to devise battle strategy and predict outcome of future wars. Their stunning defeat of the French in 1871 is often credited to officers playing the game Kriegspiel.
By the late 19th century, however, pushing tin soldiers across table tops had become a popular nonmilitary pastime too.
The first known wargames club was founded in Oxford around 1898. In 1913, HG Wells wrote his famous on the pastime, Little Wars. The tome described the pleasure of playing - although it’s official title was almost as long as some battles: ‘Little Wars, a game for boys from 12 years of age to 150 and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books’.
It is unclear when Sheffield Wargames Society was founded - although it is estimated to have been going for at least half a century. Details at www.sheffieldwargamessociety.co.uk