Historical Miniatures in the
Based on a Seminar Given at Historicon 2002
By Matt Fritz
over Teachers and Administrators
Starting an After School Club
Limitations of the Classroom - Set Realistic Goals
Keys to a Successful Game
Making the Rules: Keep it Simple
Dealing with Problem Players
Keeping it Real
Winning over Teachers and Administrators
Introducing the hobby: The historical miniatures hobby can seem very strange to the uninitiated. Negative reactions can range from ridicule (grown men playing with toy soldiers) to outrage (playing a game about killing people). Teachers and administrators are, understandably, concerned about violence. Be prepared to take on this issue head on and explain that the last thing you intend to do is promote violence. It's wise to avoid language that may sound flippant. Better to talk about "historical simulations" than "war games." The best way to put these concerns to rest is with a demonstration. Invite the teacher or administrator to watch, or better yet participate in a miniatures battle. Another good approach is to provide examples of other schools that have used historical miniatures successfully.
Educational value: Time in the classroom is very valuable and you should be ready to explain why a historical miniatures battle is worthy of taking up one or two class periods. Fortunately the boring history class where students sit at their desks reading dull textbooks and listening to tedious lectures is very much out of fashion. The current trend in education favors active learning, where the students are involved in hands-on and minds-on activities that are authentic and challenging. Today students are expected to do more than memorize facts and recite them on demand. Research has shown that students have a variety of learning styles. Some students are good at learning from lectures and reading books, but many other students learn best when they are engaged in activities like a simulated historical battle using historical miniatures. Teachers attempt to get them to use higher order thinking skills as they work on activities that require them to work in cooperative groups as they engage in problem solving. Feel free to use any of the buzz words in this paragraph when talking to teachers and administrators, some people are impressed by them. Buzz words aside, historical miniatures are fun, they grab the students attention, and they will be remembered long after the students have forgotten all the important dates they are required to memorize.
In most states teachers have a set of standards that tell them what the students must learn at different grade levels. When teachers write their lesson plans they often are required to list which standards their lessons will address. You can score points with a teacher or administrator by looking up the standards in your state and telling the teacher which of them will be covered by your historical miniatures activity. This is easier than it sounds. You can look up the state standards at http://www.statestandards.com/ Cast a wide net, often you can find applicable standards in disciplines other than social studies.
Starting an After School Club
There are obvious advantages to
using historical miniatures in the social studies classroom during
the regular school day. If the miniatures lesson is integrated
into the regular curriculum, with suitable activities before and
after the battle, you will get the maximum educational benefit.
However there are problems to this approach. Many social studies
units, geography and civics, for example, do not lend themselves
to historical miniatures battles. There's also no guarantee that
you will have the figures to create a battle that fits the historical
period being studied. Class time is precious, so it's difficult
to justify spending a lot of class time on historical miniatures.
A good alternative, or complement,
is to start an after school club. Most schools already have similar
extra-curricular activities, like a chess club, so it may not
be difficult to sell the idea to the administration. Normally
you get a stipend for running a club, and sometimes there is a
small budget for materials. This can be both a blessing and a
curse. If the school is low on funds that may be an obstacle you
need to overcome to get permission to run the club. It should
also be remembered that if you buy materials with school funds
the materials belong to the school. Keep this in mind when buying
figures. If you buy an army with school money and then use that
army for battles with your friends this may lead to trouble.
Your local school is understandably cautious about allowing adults to spend time with the children. If you are already a certified teacher this will not be a problem. If you're not a teacher the administration will want to check you out. You can expect that they will want you to get a criminal background check. Going to the local police department and paying a fee will easily accomplish this. The school may also want you to get a substitute-teaching certificate. The requirements for this certificate vary from state to state - in NJ you need 60 college credits.
Usually a "history club"
or "strategy club" will have fewer students than your
average classroom, and the students will have a high level of
interest. This makes it easier to manage the group. You also have
more flexibility in choosing the historical periods you will explore.
Kids these days participate in a lot of organized activities.
You'll need to make an effort to recruit them for your club. Demonstration
games and recruiting posters work well. I've found that historical
miniatures are more popular with the boys than the girls. Make
an extra effort to get some girls interested and make sure they
feel comfortable if the club is mostly boys. Girls that join,
and have fun, can be encouraged to invite their friends to join
You shouldn't expect the children to be able to stay after school for several hours each week. The club I run meets for 45 minutes each week, and once a month we meet for two hours to run a battle. The rest of the time I teach the students to paint figures, build models, and make terrain. Students are allowed to keep anything they make. By the end of the year each student will have enough to run their own battles with their friends during the summer.
of the Classroom - Set Realistic Goals
The first hurdle will be designing a scenario that can work in a short amount of time. Class periods generally run 40 - 60 minutes long. You may be able to get two consecutive class periods, especially if the school uses block scheduling. Ask the teacher for as much time as you can get, and if possible arrange to do some of the set up before the students arrive for class, or clean up after they leave to maximize the time you have for the battle. There are always a few students willing to help, so use them to speed up your preparation and clean up. It might be possible, if you can't get a double period, for the battle to stay step up and finish it on consecutive days, or for one class to start the battle and a second class to come in and finish the battle during the next period. If you run the battle as part of a club after school you can ask the kids to stay about two hours.
Ask the teacher how much table space you can have before the battle, and visit the classroom to see the space if you can. If you're lucky the student desks or tables will have flat tops so they can be pushed together to make a suitable table. If not, the floor is always an option, or you may be able to get tables from the lunchroom or library. I generally play on a 9' x 6' table, which is a bit too large. The smaller children have a hard time reaching the center of the table. I suggest using a table no more than 5' wide, even narrower for younger children. Think about how many students will be involved in the battle. If the table is too small the students will be too crowded around the edge to get to the battlefield.
Teachers always have an objective for each lesson. Before you go into the classroom think about what you want the students to learn from your battle. Keep it basic; the students won't remember obscure details like the color of the uniform facings, or caliber of the guns. Focus on the most basic information - who was fighting, why were the fighting, what was the historical outcome. The students will learn the most if the battle is part of their curriculum, with lessons from their regular teacher before and after the battle. The battle itself is a poor way to teach the facts, but it's a great way to help the students remember what they've already learned in the classroom.
Keys to a Successful Game
When planning your scenario make
sure there are a lot of figures in the battle so that all the
children will have several units to command. Students can share
a command, but make sure they have more than one unit. You don't
want anyone to lose their whole command on one roll of the dice.
Whenever possible have the units organized and color-coded. This
will make it easier for the students to recognize their units
after the battle has begun.
Once the battle starts you should
have a high casualty rate. This will insure that the battle is
resolved before the end of the period, and the students like to
see that their battlefield decisions make a difference. Keep the
battle moving at a fast pace so everyone is involved. If a student
is too slow in moving give them a warning and then move on, the
rest of the kids will get the idea very quickly.
The children really enjoy rolling big fists full of dice. They have an uncanny ability to roll the dice and knock over figures or bounce them off the table, so have boxes or trays for dice rolling. Think ahead and have plenty of dice. It takes the children longer to read all the dice and figure out how many hits have been scored, so allow for this when playtesting your rules. If you want them to add up their dice it will take even longer.
Making the Rules: Keep it Simple
The rules you use for the battle
must, of course, be very simple. You may be able to adapt a published
set of rules. When in doubt, simplify. The fewer special rules
you have the better things will run. Use the first turn of the
battle to teach the rules to the students rather than trying to
explain everything before starting. They should be so simple that
some of the kids will understand them after the first turn, and
most of the kids will understand after the second turn. Some of
the students will never figure out how the rules work. It's important
that some of the students are able to resolve the battles on their
own, without your intervention. That way the battle can proceed
much faster. Once some of the students demonstrate that they know
what to do put them in charge of running the battle in their part
of the battlefield. Maintain over all control of the battle and,
most importantly, the turn sequence, but otherwise let the students
take control. This will free you to troubleshoot problems.
When I run battles for adults
I always put together a brief summary of the rules and tables
for them to use. With the middle school students, however, I've
found this to be counterproductive. It slows down the game. Instead
I keep the tables and dice rolling very simple so they can be
One thing that can slow down the battle is measuring. Do not give the students tape measures. They will spend the battle playing with them (and breaking them). A ruler is a better option, but some students will struggle to read the measurements. I prefer to use measuring sticks. They are 12" lengths of wooden dowel (1/4" thick) marked at three-inch intervals. They make it easy to measure moves - "infantry move half a stick, cavalry can move a whole stick."
The thought of running a battle
with a classroom full of kids can be intimidating. Hopefully the
student's regular teacher will be on hand and will to help insure
things run smoothly. When you enter the classroom the students
will be looking at how you behave, so set the right tone. Try
to model good behavior at all times, and above all be patient.
Don't make the mistake of talking down to the kids; this will
turn them off quicker than anything else you can do. There will
probably be a hundred different issues that come up during the
game. Be decisive. The students will see you as an expert and
accept your decisions, so keep the game moving.
Right from the start I stress sportsmanship. You need to define what you mean by sportsmanship. I tell them that a good sportsman doesn't gloat when they're winning or whine when they're losing. Remember to reward good behavior. Praise a student that shows good sportsmanship during the game. I always give a prize to the student that demonstrates the best sportsmanship. If you can create the right climate then peer pressure will work for you rather than against you.
Dealing with Problem Players
No matter how good you are at classroom management you may run into some problem players. Here's a list of several types I've run into, and some suggestions on how to handle them.
The Distracted Player: Inevitably, when the battle slows down a bit, some of the players will become distracted. They may start talking to their friends, playing with the dice, or stare into space. Do your best to keep the game moving so the kids will stay interested. If the distracted students aren't interfering with the battle then don't worry about it. Give them one warning if they are slow to move their units, or roll their dice. Their teammates won't let them miss their turns more than once.
The Timid Player: Sometimes a player is very reluctant to move his troops into battle and take casualties, especially during their first battle. This is a minor nuisance during the early part of the battle, and can become a major annoyance later in the battle as the timid player's inaction frustrates their teammates. Whenever possible put these students on the side that will be defending. The teacher may be helpful in identifying these players, or you can ask for volunteers to be the defenders. Once the battle has begun and you see a problem try offering tactical advice to the timid player. "You were smart to hold your units back as a reserve, now would be the perfect time to move up and attack." If that fails then you can try making it an order that must be obeyed. If you assign an aggressive player to be the overall commander you can let him issue the order.
The Cheater: Cheating is a common problem, and requires a little finesse. Most of the time another player will complain that an opponent is cheating, rarely do you actually see it yourself. When necessary you can fall back on the good old "do-over." Say something like "I didn't see what happened. You need sixes to hit, and I see you have five archers, so go ahead and roll again." Assign a reliable and knowledgeable player to "help" the offender with future dice rolls. If they continue to cause a problem you can try standing right over their shoulder during key parts of the turn when cheating is most likely.
The Grim Reaper: Some students, due to poor decisions or bad luck, manage to get their command annihilated early in the battle. You can reduce the chances of this happening if you make sure each student has several units to command. I also like to give each student a leader figure that is hard to kill. If they still manage to lose all their soldiers then I give them a hero figure that is impossible to kill but can add some small benefit in combat - counts as an extra stand when shooting or something like that. This figure won't spoil the game and will keep the player happily occupied moving the hero around from place to place trying to do some good.
The Sore Loser: One unhappy player can spoil the experience for everyone. Prevention is the best remedy. If you've succeeded in setting a good tone for the game from the start, explaining the importance of sportsmanship, and possibly offering bribes (trophies) then you can let the other players apply some peer pressure on the problem player. If that fails try ignoring the player's complaints and, if necessary, remove the person from the battle.
There are several things you can
do to make the battle memorable. Whenever possible I go to the
local party supply store and purchase cheap hats or helmets that
are appropriate to the period - plastic WWII helmets, blue and
gray kepis, etc. The Jacobson Hat Company (Jhats) makes a lot
of cheap child size hats in the $2 - $5 range. The best part is
they can be reused or given away as prizes. Be warned that the
students will find the headgear fascinating and they can become
I also like to play period music or sound effects to create the right atmosphere during the battles. With today's CD Burner technology it's easy to make your own customized battle soundtrack. If you get a CD player with a remote control you can even have musical cues for specific events, such as the sound of explosions for artillery bombardments or a bugle call for cavalry charges. Another option is to run a cable from your VCR to your stereo. Then you can record (on audio tape) music, sound effects, and dialogue from your favorite war movie.
I always give trophies to the
MVP on each side, and another trophy for sportsmanship. These
never fail to impress the kids. I make them by gluing large figures
onto cardboard bases and then spraying them with gold paint. I
finish them off by attaching a computer-generated label. You can
get large "army men" size figures at the local dollar
store for pennies per figure. They won't have figures that are
appropriate for all historical eras but the kids won't mind, and
if you're picky you can buy 54mm plastic figures. I also sometimes
give away boxes of figures or model kits to encourage the students
to enter the hobby.
After each battle at our school I write a battle report that we publish in the school newsletter. These reports are very popular with the students and their parents and are eagerly awaited. Edited copies are sometimes used on this website. I also take a group picture of the students involved in the battle. On my computer I change the background to something appropriate for the historical period - a castle, for example. The picture is published in the school newsletter and each student gets a copy to keep as a souvenir. Posting pictures and the names of school children on the web is, of course, a problem. Instead we maintain an intranet web site on the school network. This allows me to post pictures of the students and figures taken during the battle.
It's important that students understand that while the battle they participated in may have been fun, real battles are deadly serious. If at all possible arrange for a veteran to visit the classroom to discuss their experiences. This will help them understand the horrible human costs to war. Another option is to have some reenactors visit the students.