When Pokemon and wargaming crossed paths

My nephew, now in his late 20s, recently spent the weekend with me. Well, he actually spent it glued to his phone in search of illusive Pokemons while staying at my place. Believe me, I didn’t have a clue about Pokemons or the current craze until he explained it to me — at length — over a breakfast I paid for. It was during that breakfast where I was forced to listen to the nuances of Pokemon gyms and fighting a Pikachu, that it occurred to me: If I…and my nephew…were to survive this weekend, his attention had to be redirected.

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GAMERS ARE ALL DIFFERENT

Don’t get me wrong, when I was younger, I spent an inordinate amount of time playing games—mostly the classic bookshelf wargames from Avalon Hill and the similar strategy boardgames of SPI, but there were times when I had to share a room with other people playing the “new” TSR game, “Dungeons and Dragons.”

In college, I was actually a part of a “wargaming club” (no girls allowed…well if there were any who wanted to play, we would have let them). We met in the student union on weekends, occupied a large amount of floor space, and recreated combat in miniature. Our go-to games were “modern warfare” scenarios played in 1/285 scale. Pushing around masses of M60A1s and T-62s, we fought different scenarios of how we perceived a Third World War would occur in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s.

Okay, we were pretty geeky. If it wasn’t “Third World War” micro-armor, we recreated WWII Pacific naval warfare in 1/2400 scale, or fought out table-top WWII Russian front scenarios with Avalon’s newest addition to their catalog: Squad Leader. Alas, all good things eventually are watered down by the masses, and our little weekend wargame club was not immune.

Our wargaming on campus was unusual enough to draw out the local newspaper. The two-page article featured photos of our "terrain" laid out on the floor of the Student Union.

Our wargaming on campus was unusual enough to draw out the local newspaper. The two-page article featured photos of our “terrain” laid out on the floor of the Student Union.

As more friendless collegiate cohorts joined our ranks, the purity of “military game only” focus became diluted: First, by some rather portly kid’s contribution of Star Trek miniatures rendered beautifully in 1/2400 scale that we combated much like naval vessels of the Napoleonic era (though these “ships” had the ability to throw up force fields as opposed to extra sails). Next was the trio of freshmen who came, not carrying boxes of miniatures, but stacks of books, graph paper, and “multi-faceted dice.” Beyond my comprehension, the three sat at a table where one of them seemed to tell a long story interspersed with several tosses of the 20-sided dice. After each toss, the other two leaned in to await his pronouncement. “The dragon stole your gem, and then breathed fire on your companion,” or “You suffer 3 hit points to your mail armor.” These guys were out there. I didn’t have a clue what they were doing, or what the heck they were describing.

They were playing “Dungeons and Dragons.” A “role-playing game” that is best described as pretending you are a character in a Tolkien book while allowing someone else to direct you on imaginary adventures. This was SO far from what I thought wargaming was…I had little interest in what they were doing.

Over the next few weeks, though, more and more people sat at the table that held nothing more than cans of Pepsi, bags of chips, and a several pages of graph paper. Their “dungeon master” continued to lead them on an adventure characterized by 20-sided dice, “hit points,” “trolls,” and magic spells. Meanwhile, the number of guys wanting to defend the Fulda Gap with a platoon of M60s and a company of M113s against an attack by 300 T-62s and BMP-1s, was dwindling. Furthermore, the Dungeons and Dragons players had the ease of showing up with their books and pencils…no long hours of painting miniatures. The appeal of the magical kingdom of imagination was taking its toll on my little group of wargamers!

Yeah, that's me in 1981, wearing my "lucky 1st Cav" shirt and going over unit disposition with a fellow gamer (and actual National Guard member).

Yeah, that’s me in 1981, wearing my “lucky 1st Cav” shirt and going over unit disposition with a fellow gamer (and actual National Guard member).

By my third year of college, the people interested in recreating historical warfare had dwindled to just a couple of us. Everyone who used to enjoy studying the particulars of military specifications and recreating them in game form had taken up their imaginary broadswords and capes to play Dungeons and Dragons.

To say it was a “fad” would probably not be fair. The guys of TSR Hobbies revolutionized role playing games. They actually provided the groundwork for the “first-person shooter” games that permeate electronic media today. Regardless, at the time, I could see it as nothing more than a superficial fad. I felt betrayed by my friends who abandoned military gaming for this fantastical form of interaction that somehow overtook our little group. I divested myself of my 1/285 scale armies, left the group, and found other ways to fill my weekends (thank you G. Heileman Brewing Co. for showing me there was more to college than just wargaming!). Until recently, I had no contact with those former gaming buddies. Dungeons and Dragons had taken them away, and when they were done with it, I was long gone.

That is, until recently. Through the over-connected virtues of Facebook, one of my old gaming buddies reestablished contact. It turns out, D&D didn’t ruin him. Rather, he went on to marry, raise a family of five kids, and is a really solid, likable guy. I felt a little bit ashamed for not staying in touch all these years.

I STILL DON’T CARE ABOUT PIKACHU

I was reminded of this “reconnection” when my nephew suggested we go to a “game shop” together. I figured it would be filled with pasty kids playing D&D or even worse yet, flipping through stacks of comic books, but I was pleasantly surprised.

While there were fantasy games like World of Warcraft, Warhammer, and Age of Empires predominated, this shop had more. It had “traditional” wargames and miniatures. My nephew spent his time looking at whatever it is he looks at, and I immersed myself in memories, looking at package after package of 1/285 scale armor, 15mm Civil War miniatures, and 28mm WWII tanks. I don’t know how much time had passed when my nephew came looking for me! He started asking me questions about what I was looking at. How did I know about this stuff? Did I ever game? Who did I play with? And the all-important question: ”Do you still have your miniatures?”

You know how collectors are: We rarely get rid of stuff. I am a collector, so therefore, I still have a pretty big, 30-plus-year old box of miniatures stored in the garage. It’s still there probably because I harbor the belief that my eyes are still strong enough to paint them, and that I could actually remember how to conduct wargames with them. Regardless, I just haven’t been able to part with the nearly 30 lb. of pewter 15mm Mexicans and American figures — maybe because they represent a really fun time in my life, when a group of guys would get together and talk about military things, eat junk food and just enjoy spending time playing “with soldiers.”

After my nephew and I returned to my house, I drug the box out of the garage. Much to the aversion of my partner, my nephew and I settled on the living room floor and spent the next several hours looking at the figures, talking about different unit capabilities, and eventually, stretching out a few lines soldiers, placing a couple of pieces of artillery, and beginning my first wargame in 30 years — and his first wargame, ever.

It was 2 a.m. before we decided Santa Anna would never defeat Zachary Taylor. We gathered up the miniatures, put them back in the box of their previous 30 years of storage, and I carried it back to the garage. The young man followed me out. As I slipped the box back into its spot, I heard from behind me: “Hold it right there…there is a Pokemon standing on the shelf!”

Well, I tried. We played a good three hours of a Mexican-American wargame. But, I guess I underestimated the strength of a Pokemon. This time, though, I will just learn to tolerate “the fad.” I don’t want to lose touch with this guy. He’s “blood,” after all!

Preserve the Memories,

John Adams-Graf, editor,

Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

 

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5 thoughts on “When Pokemon and wargaming crossed paths

  1. leylander on said:

    This article describes my college gaming days almost exactly. John’s reaction to the rise of fantasy gaming and the obvious, not even veiled, antipathy toward those gamers disturbed me a bit. As much as I loved my 1/285 scale armor, I can’t bring myself to despise persons engaged in D&D or any other game. I’m not jealous that people want to play games that aren’t my particular favorites. Surely there is room for a diverse world of gaming. What did comic book readers do to make John so disdainful? Sgt. Rock does not approve. Pokemon isn’t my thing but if it is a fad it is now a fad pushing 20 years old. I’m thinking we can call it “established.” Me? I’m waiting eagerly for the weekend, not to push tine T34s around on the floor but so I can dive in to the newly released “U.S.S. Stevens,” a compilation of classic war comics. I must be less than scum.

    • John Adams-Graf on said:

      I LOVED Sgt Rock comics! 🙂 Now I have to find out what “U.S.S. Stevens” is all about (I suspect it isn’t a naval vessel)

      Thanks so much for reading and caring enough to write…you are correct, those D&D guys and gals don’t deserve such a harsh overview. Some of my best gaming days were spent at the epicenter of their genesis in Lake Geneva, WI.

      Game on, Leylander!

      • leylander on said:

        U.S.S. Stevens was a very real US destroyer in World War II. Sam Glanzman, a comic book artist and writer, served on the Stevens and later based a series of comic books stories on his experiences. The stories originally appeared mostly in a number of DC Comics (the Superman and Batman people) such as “Our Army at War,” “Our Fighting Forces,” and “Star Spangled War Stories.” The book is attractive and well produced with almost 400 pages of war comics reprinted.

        • John Adams-Graf on said:

          Sounds like an AWESOME trip down memory lane. I spent many sunny days studying the Haunted Tank comics. Was really impressed when they upgraded from a Stuart to a Sherman.

          I suspect all of us military enthusiasts are cut from a very similar piece of cloth that is woven with wargaming, war comics, Rat Patrol, and our dads’ souvenirs!

          • leylander on said:

            Substitute Combat! for Rat Patrol and you’ve pretty much nailed it.

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