During his staid weekdays, Evan Duncan is a respectable State Department historian. But yesterday he was stretched out on the floor of a Holiday Inn conference room in Timonium, gazing with intense concentration at 6-inch models of World War II ships arrayed on the blue carpet.
He rolled eight pairs of dice and exclaimed with delight: three hits, 18 percent damage inflicted by his Axis battle cruiser, the Dunkerque, against the U.S. Navy battleship United States.
"We're shooting very well, we're closing range and soon, I think, it's going to get very, very bloody," said Duncan, 54, who lives near Alexandria, Va. Metaphorically speaking, of course: These battles were being fought with dice, calculators, rulebooks and tape measures, and Duncan's only medal honored his "Courage in the Face of Sustained Bad Luck."
Lest anyone think there is something peculiar about grown men playing with toy soldiers, Duncan and his 40 fellow naval war-gamers were in excellent company during the weekend. More than 1,500 people traveled from as far as Singapore to the state fairgrounds and the neighboring motel for Fall In, a convention of the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society, which says that 200,000 Americans pursue the hobby.
The games vary widely by period and purpose, with some scrupulously true to the detail of actual battles and others wildly inventive. But most involve meticulously painted soldiers, usually made of lead, wielding historically correct weapons on a tabletop landscape of foam-rubber trees and inch-high stone walls. The pace of play might seem excruciating to teens raised on click-and-kill video games, but the tabletop games are a far more social affair.
"Boys with toys," acknowledged Todd Kauderer, 48, of Silver Spring, sitting cross-legged beside Duncan and enjoying an afternoon as a German admiral. He insisted their naval battle was a brain-stretching exercise: "I think of it as chess with a lot more options."
In one corner of a vast fairgrounds exhibition hall it was the year 1203, in the midst of the Fourth Crusade, as Venetian galleys besieged the walled city of Constantinople ("First you do bow-fire, then the stones and boiling oil," gamemaster Peter Hess instructed one puzzled participant.)
In the opposite corner players fought a battle staged 40,000 years from now, as "genetically enhanced Marines" fought evil opponents, one roll of the dice at a time. "All the tactics people have used throughout history work here, too," said Neil Wold, 26, of Jacksonville, N.C.
Some sessions were neither safely historical nor set in a science-fiction future, but had a distinctly contemporary premise. In one game, John Sorge, 42, of Woodbridge, N.J., played a Marine commander leading troops into Iran to remove nuclear weapons.
"I seized the nukes, but too many of my men got killed," said Sorge. Seeming not to notice any contradiction, he added: "It's a very, very nice diversion from a lot of your daily stresses."
Like Sorge, a former Army captain, many of the players had military ties. The director of Fall In, 65-year-old Fred Hubig of Washington, D.C., said his introduction to miniature war gaming came in the midst of a real war.
It was 1964 in Vietnam, where he was a U.S. Special Forces officer trying to plot attacks with the Montagnards, the mountain tribesmen who fought alongside U.S. troops.
"I tried to use maps, and my Montagnards thought I was crazy," because they were not accustomed to representations of landscapes and soldiers as symbols on paper, Hubig said. "So we created a sand table with miniature rocks and twigs for trees and they knew exactly what I meant."
Bill Lademan, 52, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who lives in Pennsylvania, recalled taking terrain maps of Iraq and Kuwait to a U.S. base in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm to play out different scenarios. He retired from the military a decade ago, but he didn't quit playing war.
"It's history," said Lademan, whose six children sometimes join in. "What was it like to stand in one of Caesar's legions and face the Gauls? What was it like to fly an attack aircraft against the Japanese fleet?"
Far from trivializing the suffering of combat, Lademan said, "to me this is a way of honoring the men and women who were there."
But for artist David Good, 50, of East Baltimore's Patterson Park neighborhood, considerable historical distance is necessary to make the war games palatable. He doesn't do Desert Storm; even World War II makes him uncomfortable.
Yesterday he was gamemaster for a fictional Civil War battle played out on a landscape he crafted.
"The Confederates are on the verge of winning," Good said an hour into the fighting. "But I'm going to take care of that. When you're gamemaster, you can bring in reinforcements whenever you want."