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Barbarians, legions clash at Holiday Inn

Repeating History
By WHIT RICHARDSON  |  May 5, 2010

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GETTING SERIOUS Peter Rice, right, the once-owner of the now-defunct Toy Soldier shop in Bath, uses a tape measure to check the alignment in an English Civil War re-enactment. Photo: WHIT RICHARDSON

On Saturday morning, more than a hundred men crowded into the banquet hall of the Holiday Inn beside the turnpike exit in Westbrook. They came with armies in tow, prepared to refight many of the most famous battles of history.

In the hotel’s large, low-ceilinged room, more than a dozen large tables carried dioramas like you’d see with model railroads. One had the palm trees and desert terrain of North Africa. Another depicted the blackened and bombed-out buildings of an eastern European city. One represented the verdant fields and forests of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

On these dioramas, the men deployed armies of exquisitely painted toy soldiers — or “figs,” short for figures, in the patois of the historical wargamer. Men — there was one female participant — gathered around the tables with some of the wargamers’ tools: rulers to measure distances between soldiers and targets, dice to determine outcomes, pages of rules that explain how the game is played. The dress was casual. One man sported a red Civil War kepi hat. A few wore desert-camo hats.

The centerpiece of the room was an extra-long table covered in teddy-bear fur painted green to represent the fields in northern Europe where in 57 BC Caesar’s legions defeated hordes of Nervii in the Battle of the Sabis.

This is Huzzah!, the first of what is expected to be an annual convention hosted by the Maine Historical Wargamers Association, a group of passionate acolytes of the hobby of wargaming with miniatures. “The club began because we’re interested in history and wargaming,” says Dean Emmerson, one of the event’s organizers.

For the past three years, the MHWA has hosted game days that attract 50 players from across northern New England. Several of the men, including Emmerson, trace their wargaming roots to an old hobby store in Bath called the Toy Soldier, the owner of which once ran a now-defunct miniatures convention in Portland in the 1980s called MaineCon.

Wargaming with painted “figs” is not as well known or respected a hobby as, say, coin collecting or knitting. But, for the hobbyists, it’s a serious pastime. Many have spent more than $10,000 and countless hours on collecting and painting their armies, says Emmerson, a 40-year-old computer tech teacher at a Bath school. “Most people don’t understand it and think it’s weird,” he says. That’s one stereotype he hopes MHWA’s outreach efforts will help change.

At the hobby’s core is an interest in military history. It gives a participant the opportunity to test his wits against history’s greatest tacticians. “We take a historic situation and look at the resources and objectives and see if we can improve upon history,” Emmerson says. “Here’s what Napoleon did in this battle. Can we do this differently?”

In Saturday’s recreation of the Battle of the Sabis, barbarians were sent smashing against the shields of the Roman legionnaires. The outcome? “It played out pretty close to history,” says Gabriel Landowski, a wargamer from Epping, New Hampshire. “The Romans were on the ropes, but (would have been) saved by their reinforcements.”

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