"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.