Time Machine: The 'Airfix Generation' — Twenty Years On

Michael O. Varhola

To those of us who were in fact part of the "Airfix Generation," this retrospective from the July 1990 issue of the glossy U.K. magazine "Minature Wargames"  some 50 years on now  is especially interesting. This piece in "the international magazine for wargamers" was written by modeler Rober Greenwood, "one of the Ragnar Brothers," whose experiences mirror many of my own a decade or so later. He does seem to be a little dismissive as to the value of his experiences, however, and my own seem to have been of greater value to me, especially as I have gone on to become a developer and publisher of games. 

In the mid 60s, we bought boxes of plastic soldiers; the library lent us books about wargames, or possibly its only book about wargames; we read, we painted (sometimes) and together with our school friends called ourselves "wargamers" and spent many hours playing at generals and claiming to be learning about history. Maybe our parents thought it was just a fad which would soon pass, but since it kept us relatively quiet and off the streets for many hours at a relatively low cost, we were allowed to continue. Somewhere along the way, wargames societies were founded and joined. Soon old enough to work, and wealthy enough to travel, the new metal figures (which felt so much better than plastic), accompanied us to conventions and competitions around the country. We had arrived, and if you're still reading so probably have you and might have experienced some of the arguments I'm going to present along with a route for the way forward. 

Halifax Wargames Society, of which I am fortunate to be a member, usually chooses its AGM as the forum for a debate on the future of wargaming. Usually there is a lively discussion on the influence of role-playing, the power of "Games Workshop," the cost of metal figures, the effect of GSCE history, and various other exciting and less relevant topics. The conclusions may not lead to much change but a few interesting points do emerge. There are a lot people wanting to play — look at the number and size of conventions, there is a lot of equipment about — check the adverts in magazines and the shelves of the model shops. This is a very exciting time to be in the hobby and the key to it all is the wargame itself, and that means rules, frequently the weak link in the chain. It's not that there is a shortage of both home-written and commercial sets of rules available, or a lack of good research. The problem is one of mechanisms and structures, combined with an understandably growing conservatism emanating from gamers faced with documents requiring many hours of study before even the simplest of games can be attempted (Often they contain sentences even longer and more badly structured than that last one.) 

Model soldiers, terrain items, and historical research specifically for wargamers have never been better; but consider rules. Back in the 60s, Donald Featherstone's book Wargames laid down a structure which has hardly changed in a quarter of a century; movement, firing, melee, and morale. In those game twenty five years ago the detail was limited, games were fast but the comments were heard; "It isn't very realistic when ..." Whatever remarks followed matter little, the result was that wargamers added more details to their rules. Still the same comments came and still the same result, more detail. This takes us to the end of the 70s, in terms of the ancient period we now have something like the Wargames Research Group 5th Edition Ancient rules, augmented by local amendments about orders stuffed inside the back cover. Phil Barker clearly realised that something was wrong the 6th Edition rationalised the problems attempting to simplify the mechanics of the game. Other commercial ancients rules changed details and launched attacks on their competitors, but nothing very drastic had really happened, buying a rulebook got you amounts of details varying from: "too much," to "I could never read all this," based on the old structure of movement, firing, morale, and melee in different versions of formats popularised by WRG.