Saturday, 14 January 2017

"The figure is only a token!"

"The figure is only a token!" is a statement one hears now and then when discussing the use of figures in miniature wargaming. The context often is when the rules of a game are discussed, and  what scale is best used for the figures to represent the troops on the table. The size of the figures is proclaimed to be irrelevant, since what really counts is the footprint of a unit on the table. And whether you "fill up" that footprint with figures that are 6mm or 15mm or 25mm doesn't matter that much. Actually, you could as well use a counter or a simple piece of cardboard to represent the unit, and move that thing around. In that sense, the figure is indeed is only a token.

This view is reinforced by many current rulesets that define units as occupying a certain area on the table - whether expressed in base widths or a similar measure. A unit might be defined as defined as having a frontage of 10cm, and you can fill that up with whatever figures you please. Back in the days of Featherstone and Grant, the footprint of units was often a secondary result. Units were defined as consisting of a specific number of figures, often derived from a chosen men-to-figure ratio (e.g. 33 men to 1 figure). The frontage of the unit on the gaming table was then the result of physically placing these figures next to each other, which in turn led to other measurements such as the ground scale. Depending on whether you take the men-to-figure ratio as your primary starting point, as opposed to the frontage of a unit, indeed leads to a different view on the role of the wargaming figure. If the role of toy soldiers is limited to filling up a pre-defined footprint, one might indeed come to the conclusion that the figure is only a token. (I guess since that early hobby wargaming after WW2 was entrenched in toy soldier modeling and collecting, it's no surprise the actual toy soldier was used as the focal point for developing rules.)

However, I think this is a very distorted - even simplistic - view on the role of wargaming figures in miniature wargaming.

I fully agree that if you isolate the rules, it does not matter how you represent your troops. A piece of cardboard matching the footprint of a unit does the job as well if not better. Taken to its logical conclusion, you don't even need figures to play miniature wargaming. Actually, you don't even need terrain pieces, since these can also be represented by pieces of cardboard. The game might look dull, but from a strict rules point-of-view, it's the same game. But this argument is only valid if you consider the game to be nothing more than the rules. And I want to argue it is not. Miniature wargaming *needs* miniatures to function properly. The rules by themselves are not enough.

Most miniature wargaming rulesets result in games that are not very "deep". The decisions one has to make as a player are in many cases very straightforward. After the troops are set up, the gaming engine propels the troop forwards, they clash in battle, and that's it. Granted, the player can make some decisions to steer the game in one direction or the other, but often, the decisions are pretty much obvious. Most miniature wargames do not have game trees as deep as Chess or GO, that allow you to explore various equivalent alternatives, and also allow you to plan a significant number of moves ahead. This does not mean a miniature wargame cannot be complex - but the complexity is often present in the game mechanics. Combat resolution is often a complex procedure, involving various dice rolls, looking up modifiers, etc. This gives the impression the game is complex, but the complexity is often the result of elaborate procedures that mask the inconvenient truth that once you take away those convoluted mechanics, nothing much is left decision-making-wise.

But that does not imply the game cannot be fun. The fun part in miniature wargaming is often watching the battle unfold. The role of the players (besides making a few simple decisions), is to execute the gaming engine: move the figures, determine combat, remove casualties, etc. Through the use of randomizers, the outcome is often uncertain and unexpected. In other words, we see the drama and the story of the battle develop before our eyes. We give a little input, but we don't control it.

Every story needs characters. And the characters in our story are our miniatures, whether they are units or single commanders. And this is exactly the reason why a miniature wargame cannot function without splendid-looking figures. We need the figures as emotional anchorpoints to construct the story of the battle. It's very hard to draw up a story about two pieces of cardboard shooting at each other. But when the units are represented by figures, it does add a whole different dimension to the gaming experience. We do need the figures, such that through position identification the player can relate to them and relive the story. Otherwise it's only a dull semi-automatic game propelled forward by rolling dice.

So, are the figures only tokens? No, of course not. Saying otherwise is denying the core of what miniature wargaming is all about: telling stories inspired by military history, with the figures taking up the role of our dramatis personae. A play needs actors. Our games need figures.


  1. An interesting analysis, but I'd disagree with you on a couple of points;

    Firstly, I don't believe that you have to use miniatures in all games i.e. really small scales. I, as a predominately 25-28mm wargamer cannot see the point in painting & basing up 2mm or even 6mm in some cases when you can hardly see them at on the tabletop. You shouldn't have to get down to tabletop level so that you can identify your mini's. I think the use of detailed card "tokens" would suffice in these cases.

    Lastly I'd say that there are some great cardboard "tokens" that you can get now. A lot better quality & artwork and at affordable prices than was previously available just a few years ago. I think as long as you can represent your "playing pieces" with something artistic it can be just as good as with "proper" miniatures.

    Actually, on reflection, I may have misinterpreted your point a little. Do you distinguish between tokens & cardboard representations? I mean, a token can be just a bit of paper with something scribbled on it. Whereas a cardboard "token" can have amazing artwork on it. I'd be interested to know your thoughts on these two points.

    A great post, I wholeheartedly agree with just about every point you made :)

    1. I was not so much targeting cardboard representations, but rather the idea that "since a figure is just a token, it doesn't matter what scale or representation you use". I think the use of painted miniatures is essential to miniature wargaming, not only for the visual esthetics, but also for the experience as a whole. Take away a proper representation, and the game loses much of its meaning.

  2. Good post Phil, I agree with the underlying principle of all you say, but as a user of hexes in miniatures I would go a little further and say that everything is fundamentally a token and that there is less difference anyway between a boardgame and a figure game.

    Going specifically to a boardgame, I have been playing them for 40 years and have often wondered why games that essentially end up with 1 - 3 counters attacking 1 counter, with modifiers for terrain and commonly an odds ratio or differential attack etc can prove so endlessly fascinating, but of course it is the nuances that get you to that point that tick the boxes and the immersion of play. The map and counters to me provide sufficient aesthetic and accuracy to 'be there'.

    In a figure game there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why a game cannot be run totally of 2D cardboard terrain and counters - it will without exception, mechanically work. But the figures themselves are bringing an extra dimension to the game, whether that be purely aesthetic for its own sake or it helps the player mentally to 'be there' probably depends on the particular take of the gamer.

    I think it is because I hold this position that I find it second nature to figure game on a hexed grid. Interestingly, (I have hexed all my life) I find a square grid kind of jars and interrupts my mindset, so I can see how many figure figures would feel the same about hexed tables - a sort of unnatural visual interruption that disrupts their comfort of the table.

    Anyway, what I am saying is that figures are not essential to mechanics, they are simply doing something else for us, satisfying another need. I love both miniatures and boardgames, but I will go to a miniatures draw, handle and admire the figures, even when not gaming, but do not do the same to my boardgames. However, I will dig out the rulebooks if both and immerse myself in their mechanics.

    Your own comfort at doing 'crossover' gaming between miniature and hex probably makes your post easy and natural to write, for some, that crossover will never sit easily and so their 'take' on the perspective you offer is almost certainly bound to differ.

    For me the fascinating aspect of the argument is how come mechanically 3D and 2D wargaming is mechanically the same but our minds are locked in to different takes on what is either pleasing or even acceptable and these might sit outside of practical factors such as budget and playing space and time.

  3. Norm,

    I agree with your comments. The "tokens" we use fulfill a role, the draw us into the game experience. So, a good game needs a well-thought out representation. In the best games, rules, representation, visuals, ... all belnd into a coherent whole that "feels right".

    BTW, I am also totally in the hex-gridded camp!

  4. Phil- Can't disagree with most of that. But the clue is in the title- MINIATURES wargaming therefore the use on miniatures seems to be part of it and therefore logically they should have a part. I has become as you infer quite common -especially amongst "games designers" to denigrate the actual minis- unless they are getting paid for them of course (No I do not design "games" )
    However despite comments to the contrary splattered all over the place not everything in MINIATURES wargaming is slaved to the needs of the game. Part of the point- at least for some of us is the visual and in my case sort of historical experience. Pretty toy soldiers and pretty terrain are part of that. Which is why I don't- for instance use HeXes- they jar my sensibilities however parctical they may be in games terms..
    The "look of the thing" is of major - if not always prime importance.

    1. Totally agree the "look and feel" is very important. I think that in a well designed game, the "look and feel" should be accounted for as well, i.e. you cannot seperate the rules completely from the visual representation.

      As for hexes - I see your point, but being a hex fan myself, I have found ways to integrate them in the "look" of the game ;-)