Tuesday, May 19, 2009

ARMY MEN! and my first ever homebrew miniatures wargame last week.

Mother’s Day was hectic as usual. My brother’s 18-month-old triplets are walking now, and trying to get into everything they shouldn’t be into. We’ve learned to play zone defense in my parent’s small apartment. After dinner, during diaper changing time, I decided to make myself scarce, as usual. This time I took my 4-year old nephew with me.

“Hey Matt, let’s go explore upstairs!”


Upstairs is where we had our rooms as kids. It’s just as small as downstairs, but is in an attic, so the ceilings are low and hazardous for me. Matt seemed to have no trouble with head bumping, and was greatly amused by my own problems with it.

First we explored the bedroom my brother and I shared as kids. I showed him where our beds used to be, where my father’s never-used exercise machines now gather dust. Surrounding all those machines are my mother’s “junk”. There’s no better word for it. From the day we moved out, her “junk” began multiplying like tribbles and took over every nook and cranny of the upstairs.

The exploration took us to my sister’s old bedroom, long since overrun by the junk tribbles. This room now functions mostly as a route to the second bathroom, used only in emergencies. Off of the second bathroom is where the real fun starts. That’s where all of our old toys and games got stashed. All the stuff that had too much sentimental value to throw out. Matt’s eyes lit up as we entered.

The kid really has no chance. My brother and I have been playing D&D for about 25 years. We decided long ago that Matt was will be playing D&D before he goes to kindergarten. A few months ago, we even took him on a 90 minute train ride to New York City (each way!) to go to Compleat Strategist (the world’s greatest gaming store) to buy him his first set of dice. He picked red, his favorite color ever since the song “Big Red Car” from the Wiggles..

Everything we do with him is a pre-D&D exercise. Hence the “Exploration” we were undertaking in the mysterious and unknown “Upstairs”.

He immediately hit the boxes on the floor, while I looked at the box with the old Commodore Vic-20. I stopped using it after I exhausted its whopping 5k of memory with a paper route tracking program I tried to write in1983. It was on the shelf next to the 10x magnification telescope I bought at a yard sale for 5 bucks. It even came with a sun filter.

In the back of the room was a hole in the sheet rock, leading to an area of the attic where we stored even more stuff.

“Hey Matt, what’s that?”

“Um, a hole in the wall?”

(He’s kinda straightforward that way.)

“No! It’s a Secret Room!”


So, having made our detect secret door check, we crawled in.

“What’s this?” he asked me, holding up a piece of plastic in the light.

“An Army Man Matt!”

“Ooohhh!” After looking at it some more, “Um, what’s a army man?”

“Let’s go downstairs and I’ll show you!”

Heading downstairs, holding his father’s old Matchbox car, stepping over freshly changed babies, we hit the kitchen table.

I took them out and showed him what they were. There was the grenade man, the bazooka man, the rifle man (both standing and kneeling down), and the tank and airplane of course. He immediately began lining them up behind the barricades, as I emptied the box of the other stuff. I found darts, cards from the old Dungeon! Game, dead batteries, and even a 6-sider.

I put the Dungeon! cards in my wallet for future use at our D&D game. My brother walked in and said “Army Men !?!”.

“Yup. And miniatures.”

Our D&D game hardly ever uses miniatures. We only have one guy who owns any, and he brings them every week for the big battles, which hardly ever happen. He brings them religiously, except of course for the prior session, which is the first time we actually needed them in 3 months. My brother got my point. We now had a backup. I put the 6-sider in the bag along with the army men, figuring I’d add it to our D&D dice pool, put the army men away, and helped pack the kids in the car.

My brother called up later that night and said that Matt was really into the army men. We always love it we he gets into stuff that we used to like as kids. It’s a blast being kids again with a 4 year old. He even watches and loves the Superfiends, which was our favorite cartoon growing up.

The following Friday I showed up early at my brother’s house for D&D, brown paper bag in hand. I picked Matt up and put him on the pool table, which serves as the D&D table on game nights, and dumped the paper bag out in front of him.

“Army men!!!”

We spent the next 15 minutes arranging them. He took the green guys, there being no red guys. I was stuck with the grey guys, Nazi’s obviously, since he declared that he had the “good guys” and I had the “bad guys.”

Once we got down to the bottom of the pile, I found the 6-sider again. My brother walked over, got on his son’s side of the table, and said he had to go to bed soon, so we had to start cleaning up. I was struck with a sudden bit of inspiration. I told Matt it was time for WAR!

I told him to roll the dice and tell me how many dots showed up. He rolled a 6. I knocked down 6 of my guys and put them in the bag.

Then it was my turn. Rolled a 1 of course. I knocked down one of his guys, and put him in the bag, over his loud protests. It took a minute or two for us to explain the game to him, but he finally got the point. Especially since he kept rolling high and I kept rolling low. Figures. We both started adding in appropriate sound effects, whether for grenade, gun, or bomb, and started moving the pieces across the table to knock the other guys pieces over.

I was struck by how natural the desire was to find a way to resolve the Great Army Man War of 2009. My brother and I used to just throw blankets on the floor and arrange the men in the nooks and crannies, then shoot each other from across the living room. Sometimes we’d use balls to hit the other side’s guys. But dice as a mechanism never occurred to us back then. I’m glad it occurred to Gygax and friends.

On his way up to bed, Matt told everyone how he beat me at army men because he was the good guys and the good guys always win.

It was the first miniatures wargame I ever played. It will probably be my last, because I can’t imagine it gets any better than last Friday. As far as D&D goes though, the kid has no chance. :)