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"Types of figures used in the earliest wargames?" Topic

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Groundcloths & Battlesheets

Wargame groundcloths as seen at Bayou Wars.

1,470 hits since 1 Aug 2021
©1994-2024 Bill Armintrout
Comments or corrections?

Gorgrat01 Aug 2021 4:25 p.m. PST

There may be no real answer to this, es you'd first have to define the earliest wargames. Kriegspeil? Little Wars? The early successors of Little Wars where dice rather than rubber band cannons decided the battles?

Whatever the answer, my guess would be paper flats, as these were the most common mass produced early toy soldiers.

Granted, H. G. Welles didn't care for flats, though I guess many of his early devotees played with them as, again, they were the most common figures for a very long time, and many collectors of more expensive armies might be reluctant to get their painted figures knocked around?

Gorgrat01 Aug 2021 4:26 p.m. PST

Also, what scale?

Stryderg01 Aug 2021 4:42 p.m. PST

Third picture down:

Oberlindes Sol LIC Supporting Member of TMP01 Aug 2021 7:13 p.m. PST

It's entirely possible that the chief, the shaman, and the unit leaders wargamed out mammoth hunts and raids on neighbors (and defense of raids by neighbors) on sand tables with sticks and stones to represent things, so, yeah, third picture down in Stryderg's link.

Gorgrat01 Aug 2021 7:18 p.m. PST

I think you guys have rocks in your heads ;)

Personal logo Parzival Supporting Member of TMP01 Aug 2021 7:34 p.m. PST

Everyone knows the earliest tabletop armies consisted of the salt shaker, the pepper mill, the sugar bowl, the creamer, and assorted table utensils.

"The salt shaker is the French right— all seasoned men— har, "seasoned men" hey? With a salt shaker? By Jove, that was a good one, if I say so my self. But as you see, they held the heights— here, be a good lad and turn over that teacup for the heights— Now, where was I. Ah yes, I and the lads— the pepper mill for myself and one-two-three-four sugar cubes for the lads— were caught in the open, with camp— the teapot over there— some 400 yards distance, though it might as well have been a mile in those conditions…"


RittervonBek02 Aug 2021 12:06 a.m. PST

Wooden soldiers have been found in Egyptian tombs. I suspect Reisswitz' greatest achievement was to produce a coherent up to date set of ideas rather than inventing a concept. Toy soldiers of many scales must surely have been around for a long time. The Waterloo diorama by Siborne similarly must have drawn upon existing skill sets or craft awareness?

IUsedToBeSomeone02 Aug 2021 1:30 a.m. PST

H G Wells played with Britain's figures because they were fairly inexpensive and found in lots of shops, so easily available.

Flats weren't that common in the UK.


robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP02 Aug 2021 5:13 a.m. PST

First, we'd have to distinguish real war games from playing with toy soldiers. Then we could all stand around and argue whether those miniatures in Egyptian tombs were toys or a symbolic army for Pharaoh to command in the next life.

But if you want my best guess, I'd go with lead/tin rounds of about 25mm. The sets used to train 18th Century pages, or which Napoleon had made for the King of Rome were luxury goods, and the King of Rome set--I saw pictures years ago--were certainly rounds. I'm going with more or less an inch tall because that seems to be the default, more or less, for individual handling. I could easily be half right: they might have been 54's or close to.

The earliest reference to a proper miniatures game as opposed to a training exercise is "The Tin Army of the Potomac" published in 1888, and certainly refers to rounds.

KeepYourPowderDry02 Aug 2021 6:38 a.m. PST

Figures on the Siborne models were made by jewellers.

Small lead soldiers, and cannons, have been found on Naseby battlefield. Contemporaneous with the battle.

Martin Rapier02 Aug 2021 8:09 a.m. PST

Kriegspiel used little (metal?) blocks marked up as infantry, cavalry etc. I really can't imagine the Prussian Genral Staff playing with toy soldiers.

HG Wells used Britains pre-paints as they were readily available in the UK.

Andrew Walters02 Aug 2021 9:56 a.m. PST

Emperor Qin's terra cotta warriors count, right?

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP02 Aug 2021 2:22 p.m. PST

Emperor Qin's terra cotta warriors count, right?

A tragic and familiar story. Only one army and no weapons. I'm sure the dealer at the convention promised to mail the weapons later, and the manufacturer promised a terra cotta opposition army in the same scale "soon."

Oh. And I'm going to hedge my comment about "The Tin Army of the Potomac" using rounds. The cannon appear to be 3D in the illustrations, but I wouldn't bet money on the troops--who are specified as being pre-paints from Germany. So maybe flats. Germany did make rounds in period, but they never got the hang of hollow cast" which left them at a competitive disadvantage against Bill Britain.

Keep. are there pictures? A size? I saw photos of the King of Rome's soldiers once, but I can't find them again, or remember a size. And again we're back to what makes a real wargame as opposed to kids with toy soldiers--if there is a distinction.

Personal logo Virtualscratchbuilder Supporting Member of TMP Fezian03 Aug 2021 4:02 a.m. PST

I always wondered about the miniatures Martin's son was playing with in The Patriot.

Gorgrat03 Aug 2021 5:17 a.m. PST

Black hat Miniatures "Flats weren't common in the UK"

Paper flats were pretty common everywhere, as they were the only toy soldiers relatively available to everyone, rather than just the upper class.

In any case, flats of some kind were certainly in existence, and common enough that Wells spends time deriding them in Little Wars.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP03 Aug 2021 6:07 a.m. PST

Gorgrat, you have a theory. Most of us do. But you have no evidence. Wells is using rounds. "Tin Army" is certainly using metals. Stevenson is certainly using metals and probably rounds. I can find no reference among Wells-inspired wargamers to the use of paper, though home cast is reasonably common. Frankly, I'm not convinced the naval gun method of casualty calculation is compatible with flats, let alone paper.

That there were many paper soldier made and sold I do not doubt. I expect a number were paraded and reviewed, and some knocked down. As for a game, with an opponent and different characteristics for the different arms, may I ask what the earliest date is for which you have a reference? My bet would be some time after H. G. Wells died of old age in 1946.

Gorgrat03 Aug 2021 8:10 a.m. PST

I've read Little Wars, and early books on collecting toy soldiers. I assume most of us have.

Quite frankly though, this is not my crusade. Just a few questions and assertions, which you can take for exactly what they are worth.

Just not that invested in the issue.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP03 Aug 2021 2:40 p.m. PST

Could have fooled me. Might want to consider that leisure activities tend to spread downward from the wealthy. Think second homes, sea-side vacations (or just vacations generally) coin collecting and (I think) model railroading. We may never know, but it wouldn't be surprising to see a similar pattern here.

Gorgrat04 Aug 2021 7:38 a.m. PST

Why is everyone so combative on this site?

"Hi! Nice figs? Newly painted?"


Personal logo Parzival Supporting Member of TMP04 Aug 2021 2:51 p.m. PST

Pedantry can cling very close to those with high levels of historical interest.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP04 Aug 2021 3:42 p.m. PST

It was never an especially pleasant place, Gorgat. After all, we gain prestige by exposing one another's ignorance. But now we're sitting at home with severely eroded social networks, and being obnoxious to strangers with secret identities is a much better program than being rude to the remaining friends and family.

Gorgrat06 Aug 2021 10:33 a.m. PST

You could just go on a multi-state kill spree. If you really want to relieve the stress.

pellen20 Aug 2021 2:09 p.m. PST

I described the miniatures used for the game Strategonon 1830 in a post here a few years ago:

TMP link

"unlike games like Reisswitz' or Opiz' (both used metal blocks for units) or the many games that used chess-like-pieces, Strategonon actually uses painted lead miniatures soldiers. Well, the player is given the option to use wood instead if they can not afford lead miniatures. For artillery the instructions say to use lead miniatures as well, or guns made from cardboard for players that can not afford models."

"The miniatures are put on wooden bases that have holes drilled in them, so that soldiers can be removed to display losses taken. For instance an infantry battalion begins with 10 soldiers, each representing 100 men."

"The game board is grid-based with each square being recommended to be 1 inch. The board used to hold the soldiers for a unit is to be smaller than that (obviously). So there isn't a lot of room for those 10 soldiers. They must be really small? I have not tried to calculate it, but more like 6mm scale or even smaller I guess? And probably flat at that time as well, right?"

"Got scans of the missing plates from the city library in Münich today. Not allowed to share though. Images of minis did not really add info. They are obviously very thin flats. Plate showing terrain was more fun. Some nice color drawings of trees and houses to (I guess) manually copy to use as standup 2d cardboard terrain."

That is the oldest confirmed wargame with miniatures I have seen, ignoring games using chess-like pieces that were sometimes vaguely miniature-like, or some (like Opiz) that used a few miniatures but mostly abstract shapes (Opiz used miniatures for officers and for guns, but blocks for everything else). Of course there probably exists older waiting to be found.

pellen20 Aug 2021 2:16 p.m. PST

Lewin's book on wargame history has some nice color photos of what the miniatures in the British game Polemos (1883). The game that is seen in that famous drawing of gentlemen playing a wargame that keeps showing up (including on the cover of Lewin's book):


Prepainted miniatures mounted a few (3-4?) together on bases, plus individual miniatures used as reserves and put on the table to represent losses. Someone can probably zoom in to the photo and that illustration to get some idea what the miniatures looked like.

My older post here:
TMP link

(The expert here on that game is Bob the Temple Builder though, not me.)

Gorgrat20 Aug 2021 8:50 p.m. PST

Hi pellen. How have you.managed to survive this place? It seems like actually talking about toy soldiers (or other game pieces) without using invective is very bad form here.

Thanks nonetheless.

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