By Ted Kleine

I’m in the back room of Emperor’s Headquarters, a military-miniatures shop at 5744 W. Irving Park, and I’m beginning to understand how Robert E. Lee felt in the fall of 1864. I’m in command of an army of toy Civil War soldiers duking it out on a tabletop diorama designed to look like the Shenandoah Valley. Sentimentality made me choose the rebels, since my great-great-great-grandfather was a doctor in the Confederate army, but now my sense and my God’s-eye view of the battlefield tell me my brave stand against northern aggression is approaching its endgame.

The pounding of the heavy Union cannons has caused my tiny artillerymen, each one representing 33 men, to abandon their guns and run home to their unplowed cotton fields. A regiment of dismounted Texas cavalry lying behind a stream is about to have its flank turned by Yankee infantrymen armed with Springfield rifles. Worst of all, I’ve got a bunch of disorganized South Carolinians standing at the bottom of a hill. At the top of the hill is a thin blue line of cavalry, ready to charge. I want to ask the enemy commander, store manager John Brewster, can my men at least take their horses home for the spring planting?

“War is hell,” said General William Tecumseh Sherman, who once saw a situation like this from the opposite point of view. At Emperor’s Headquarters war is a hobby.

Every Saturday afternoon the tabletop generals who buy little lead armies here gather in the store’s back room, like poker players drawn to a secret game, to replay the Napoleonic wars, Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, or any other conflict where men with weapons got together to kill one another. While I’m failing to reverse the course of the Civil War, a group at the table across the room is fighting a battle in an imaginary medieval world called Arden. It’s part of a months-long campaign in which several factions of noblemen, each represented by a different gamer, get together once a week to fight over the crown. In this particular engagement, the Earl of Falmouth (Larry Wells of Park Ridge) is commanding a group of pikemen and archers, each representing around 25 men who are about to besiege a fortified city held by King Richard III (John Read, also of Park Ridge). “It’s almost like the War of the Roses,” explains Read. The map of Arden is fictional, but all the noblemen are based on real figures in English history.

“He’s the king,” says Wells, one of the pretenders to the throne. “I want to be the king. His birthright is through the maternal line. Mine is through the paternal line.”

But the occupant of the throne will be determined by soldiers, not genealogists. As the armies are set out on the table, which is covered in the same crumbly grass and broccoloid trees used to decorate model-railroad scenes, Read is getting nervous. “This is the biggest battle of the campaign,” he says. “If they establish themselves here, I’ll be cut off from the rest of my kingdom.”

Toy soldiers have a history thousands of years old. They’ve been found in the graves of Chinese emperors, and they’ve been used by armies since at least the 19th century to rehearse upcoming battles, giving the commanders varying degrees of insight. (Custer collected military figurines. Sitting Bull didn’t.)

“The militaries of the world have always done simulations of battlefield tactics before going out and doing the real thing,” says Greg Monroe, shipping manager at Emperor’s Headquarters and a fanatical war-gamer. But it wasn’t until author and history buff H.G. Wells wrote his book Little Wars that the world began to see that playing with army men could be a serious pastime.

Wells’s rules for drawing-room combat were written for armies of tall nursery-type tin soldiers. He even recommended using spring-loaded toy cannons to fire matchsticks at enemy lines. Today’s miniature armies are much smaller–the average soldier is five-eighths of an inch tall–and the rules are much more detailed, covering such esoterica as the effectiveness of different battlefield formations, the accuracy of guns at long distances, the tendency of troops to panic and run under heavy fire, and the defensive advantages of hiding behind a tree. Modern scholars have written military history books that players can use to build battlefields and line up forces exactly as they were at Gettysburg or Waterloo.

“Everybody’s history buffs,” says Curt Sabo of WUMMS (We Use Military Miniatures Society). The group is now conducting the Arden campaign and recently completed a reenactment of Napoleon’s Peninsular War. “We read the history first, and then we get drawn into the game. You begin to see some of the problems they had. You get to feel the glory without the pain.”

The point of gaming isn’t to mechanically re-create a battle, but to see how it might have turned out if the commanders had used different tactics or simply had had better luck. As in chess, the soldiers in a replay of the Battle of Bull Run, for example, always start in the same positions. But what happens from then on is up to the players.

The action of the games is governed by tape measures and dice. In the Civil War game I’m playing, the rules basically are that every figure on the board is allowed to move a certain distance on each turn–an infantry unit can move 10 inches, a cavalry unit 21. Once the troops close in on each other, they start firing. Casualties are determined by dice rolls–one roll to determine whether you’ve potted your enemy, another to determine whether you’ve knocked him off. The more men you gather into a single engagement, the more dice you get to roll, and the better your chances of causing carnage. Fives and sixes almost always mean a kill, though there are exceptions based on the types of soldiers and the situations they’re fighting in. Troops designated “veterans” can start counting bodies with lower die rolls, while troops firing across long distances need big dice, because their shots were presumably less accurate. And you have to be luckier than the best craps player in Vegas to hit someone hiding in the woods. “You can play a game several times,” says Sabo, “and it’ll always turn out differently.”

Players not satisfied with real history sometimes invent their own battles. The Civil War conflict I’m involved in was cooked up by Monroe, who designed the battlefield to resemble the upper south and assigned forces to each side based on what he knew of the weapons and troops of the era. He gave the Union up-to-date cannons, while my Confederate artillery consists of leftover Mexican War guns looted from federal arsenals in the south. Which explains why I’m getting rolled like John Bell Hood trying to save Atlanta.

There’s an aesthetic, as well as a historical side, to war gaming. All the soldiers must be painted and mounted on stands before they can go into battle, a task that requires a fine eye for detail and color. It’s like building a ship in a bottle, or constructing a scene inside a hollow egg.

Monroe, a former draftsman with degrees in commercial art and commercial engineering, has such a steady hand he can paint the silver bars on the sleeve of a Union captain’s coat or the red band on a Napoleonic soldier’s hat. He started decorating soldiers when he was in the navy (the hobby, not surprisingly, attracts a lot of ex-military personnel) and now paints as a sideline to his job in the store. “We all started playing with toy soldiers when we were young and never grew up,” he says. “I played with little green army men when I was a kid. I’d go out into the backyard and pile up heaps of fortifications with sand. When I was eight I knew I was hooked.”

Monroe takes about a half hour to paint a soldier. He’s so devoted to detail that when he was doing a Three Musketeers series he tracked down an out-of-print copy of Memoirs of D’Artagnan, the same book that inspired Alexandre Dumas’ novel, to find descriptions of period uniforms. “I’ve got the ability to go out and make money,” he says. “Instead I’m doing what I love.”

Some of the more artistic players become so attached to their creations that it cripples them as generals. They can’t bear to see their lovingly painted troops eliminated from the field. “We had a fellow who took great care in his paintings,” says Brewster, “and if you attacked his favorite regiment he would withdraw into a shell.” The man was consistently thrashed by more strategy-minded players, who saw the games as colorful three-dimensional chess matches and didn’t mind losing a few handsome pieces.

The battlefields have a picturesque quality, like huge historical paintings by Benjamin West or Eugene Delacroix. “Moving portraits,” one player calls them. The biggest battle ever staged at Emperor’s Headquarters was the storming of the Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution. It was a D.W. Griffith-size epic, a scene from Intolerance cast in lead. More than 5,000 figures were massed on an 18-foot-by-24-foot battlefield. The Paris mob figurines, now stored in the basement, are so well rendered that you can see dementia and malnourishment on each four-millimeter face. “The palace was absolutely spectacular,” Brewster says. “Like a big dollhouse. We had the gardens out back.” The figures for this battle have been brought out only three times since they were painted six years ago. And each time the mob whipped Louis XVI and his Swiss Guards, just as they did in 1792.

Back in the Shenandoah Valley I’ve got one last chance to save Dixie. A real general, with the welfare of flesh-and-blood men on his mind, would have raised a white flag by now. But I’m playing with little lead men. I can either fire on the charging Union cavalry or run for it. I decide to fire.

Not a bad decision, says Monroe, who’s refereeing this fight. There was never a successful cavalry charge against infantry in the Civil War. (Like most of the players in this room, Monroe could qualify for a doctorate in military history.) He unspools a tape measure to determine the distance between my rifles and the horsemen of the impending apocalypse. It’s about six inches. According to a chart in Monroe’s rule book, I’ll be firing from medium range, giving me a decent chance to knock a few horsemen out of their saddles. The fact that I’m shooting at mounted troops, always easy targets, makes the odds even better. Monroe hands me a fistful of dice.

It’s a tense moment. Banjo music from a mood-setting Civil War CD is playing on a nearby stereo. I roll. High numbers! I’ve eliminated two mounted figures, forcing my opponent, Brewster, to roll a pair of dice to “check morale” for the rest of his line. It turns out my guns have given them second thoughts about a frontal assault, and they retreat back up the hill.

Still, only the appearance of a tank flying the Stars and Bars can save me. The Union infantry have crossed the stream, and they’re advancing up the hill to my last line of defense, a group of Missouri riflemen hiding in the woods.

I’m not the only one in the room taking a beating. On the other table the forces of the Earl of Falmouth have captured a bridge leading to King Richard III’s walled city, cutting off its food supply.

But the king will return next week. And later that night the Union and Confederate armies will be resurrected for another battle over the same field of honor. It will involve four players–two commanders on each side, including a Lincoln Park paralegal who gets so into his role that he calls his opponents “damn Yankees” and crows “All right! Johnny Rebs!” every time his troops win an engagement.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Nathan Mandell.