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Generals, roll your dice

The Baltimore Sun

Union soldiers dressed in blue coats and bright red pants took their positions on a ridge.

Across a valley on another ridge, Confederate soldiers dressed in gray waited as commanders readied their orders.

But it wasn't until a handful of dice tumbled onto the battlefield, nearly knocking over some of the combatants, that the soldiers and their commanders knew the battle had begun.

"I look at the strengths and weaknesses of my forces and determine an action plan before play starts," Geoff Graff said. "The challenge of adjusting my battle plan during play is what I find the most interesting."

It was the Battle of Gettysburg, but this conflict was being waged on a replica battlefield in a Harford County church hall. The participants are members of the Harford Area Weekly Kriegspielers, a club that gathers every other Friday night to play war games with miniature soldier figurines that they built and painted.

The group - which goes by the acronym HAWK - is one of hundreds of war-gaming clubs around the country. With members ranging in age from 8 to 65, the pastime combines a love of history, art and war strategy, said founding club member Christopher Palmer.

"I got into war-gaming because I like the creative aspect," the 44-year-old Abingdon resident said. "I like building the terrain, painting the figures and the mental challenges involved with playing."

In a typical game, several players set up their soldiers and engage opponents' pieces according to instructions on tiles stacked in piles around the battlefield. For example, if a player draws a tile that says "shoot," he rolls dice to determine how many opponents will be eliminated. The last player with soldiers remaining wins the game, which can take hours to complete.

The group formed in the spring of 1994 when about a half-dozen gamers attended a war-gaming class at Harford Community College.

"Most of us who attended the class were already involved in war-gaming," Palmer said. "We went to the class looking for other hobbyists."

The club started in the basement of Palmer's parents' house and eventually found a home at the parish house of St. George's Episcopal Church in Perryman.

War-gaming dates to the early 19th century and became popular in part because one enthusiast was English writer H.G. Wells, who fought simulated battles with Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. The activity took off about 1913 when Wells wrote Little Wars, a book that set out formal rules for playing with miniature soldiers in mock battles, said John Surdu of Vienna, Va., a member of the Harford group.

By the 1950s, historical war-gaming had died out, Surdu said, as the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons took over.

The battles that the games are based span the Middle Ages to World War II, and include futuristic science-fiction conflicts.

A lieutenant colonel in the Army stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Surdu got hooked up with the group when it was in its early stages. Since then the club has grown to include about 36 members, and about a dozen of them gather biweekly to play, he said.

Group members also are regulars at a national convention each March in Lancaster, Pa., that draws about 1,300 enthusiasts.

In addition to playing the games, club members make their own miniatures, which are made of plastic or lead and then painted.

Learning to make the miniatures figures is time-consuming, said club member Rob Dean, a civilian employee at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"Learning to paint and create the miniatures has taken me 30 years of trial and error," Dean said. "You have to have some knowledge of the uniforms worn by the soldiers to make them authentic."

The players also use their creativity in coming up with different sets of rules for the various battle games they devise. Dean, Surdu, and Palmer have all written rules for many battles. Surdu wrote rules for Mexican-American, Napoleonic, World War II, pirate battles and Victorian science-fiction situations, he said. The rulebooks take Surdu up to six years to complete.

And, in an effort to encourage kids to get interested in the activity, Surdu wrote a book in 2002 called Big Battles for Little Hands. As the father of two children, age 8 and 10, Surdu has seen many benefits for children to learn to play.

"War-gaming is something that children can do with their parents," said Surdu, who designs simulations for combat models for the Army. "To play, the children have to do research and learn some of the details to prepare for the battle. War-gaming is educational."

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