Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Miniature Wargaming - The Movie. A Review

Well, it seems this documentary film is now available in the UK, via the Sky Store at a price of £9.99. Check the link here. If you're not a Sky customer you have to download the Sky Store Player app, which is a bit of a hassle but no big deal. So I went ahead, bought the film, and watched it. And here's my review.

I would say that most of the criticisms I have read online, particularly in the review from Little Wars TV, are justified. I would also check out the reviews on IMDb.

First off, the opening scene of an air-soft engagement in progress is confusing and doesn't really work - whilst including the additional problem of having nothing to do with miniature wargaming. There follows a basic introduction to the hobby, which is OK, and then we start to meet the main protagonists around whom the film is anchored. Which is where the film really starts to fall down.

The blurb from the website gives things away - "the movie dives into the heart of the wargaming industry and reveals the impact it has on people's lives". 'The industry' is a term constantly used throughout the film, and much of the film is about this 'wargaming industry', not wargaming as a hobby. Two of the three personal stories told revolve around people running small wargaming businesses. As a result, an awful lot of the film feels like it is about the problems of running a small business, rather than being about the hobby itself. The brief section set in the U.S. also focusses on a (successful) wargaming business. 

Criticisms that the film is rather depressing also ring true. One of the main characters, Andy Bryant, is a war veteran suffering from PTSD who received a raw deal from the British Army and is now struggling with his personal life as well as his home-based terrain business. Another character, Chris Nicholls, is struggling to support his family with his wargaming business and is going under from stress. Even the two actual wargamers, who are followed to a wargaming competition in Norway, find the competition itself a bit disappointing, and furthermore one of them has (you guessed it) struggled with depression in the past and found his wargaming buddies helped him through it. Crikey.

Turning back to Chris Nicholls, the main part of his story is his struggle to get his boardgame ready for presentation at a major gaming show. He fails, as you might expect, but note he is developing a boardgame, not a miniature wargame. This again points to my main issue with the film - it signally fails to do what it says on the tin. Miniature wargaming as a hobby is absent from probably half the running time. The phrase 'playing with toy soldiers' (my own summary of what the hobby is) never even occurs in the film. Henry Hyde's brief canter through the history of wargaming is OK as far as it goes, but is so condensed and rapid that non-wargamers won't gain much from it. Not Henry's fault, but indicative of the film's priorities.

I also found the film frankly a bit dull in parts, and could easily have switched off, but I stuck with it and did find some interest in the personal stories being told. There is also interesting background here if you do indeed want to understand the miniature wargaming 'industry', with companies like Warlord Games receiving a good bit of time. We get to learn a bit about the advantages of Kickstarter campaigns. But the pleasures of playing with toy soldiers are often far in the background.

I felt the film-maker needed to reach out to more grass-roots players and examine their thoughts and experiences concerning the hobby, and give a greater idea of what the hobby actually is and what it means to people. Where were the visits to clubs and wargaming shows? Where were the fabulous games put on by dedicated gamers, such as I saw at Partizan this year? I guess this relates to my own feeling that our hobby is fundamentally a grass-roots one, and that the 'industry' usually feels peripheral to me, although the fact that the hobby does support an industry is an important point to make.

As a final point, the structure of the film can be rather confusing, as it jumps from theme to theme and situation to situation, particularly in the first hour.

So overall, not really a film I would recommend. I was disappointed with a movie which I was keen to enjoy. It would appear from the evidence in the film that most wargamers are dysfunctional, or failures in life, or both. Certainly, most wargamers would admit to being a bit geeky, at least as regards their hobby. But they also tend to be intelligent and sociable people who have fun with a hobby they enjoy and which they don't take too seriously, no matter how much historical research they do or how many hours they spend painting toy soldiers.

If you don't mind having a punt with a tenner, you may find some interest here, even if only in the fact that this is (and is likely to remain), the only film about the hobby. And it is very professionally made. But anyone wanting to know what miniature wargaming is really about would be best directed to Little Wars TV and their YouTube channel - where people actually seem to have fun with their toy soldiers.


Donnie McGibbon said...

Good review but ultimately very disappointing, with your review and others I have seen I think I will give it a miss. It's a real shame as it is a missed opportunity to show the hobby off.

arthur1815 said...

I think if I was trying to introduce someone to miniature wargaming the best thing to do would be to set up a simple scenario with small forces, such as Blastoff Bridge from Charge! by Young and Lawford, and get them playing, not show them a film.

But if I had to show them a film that featured wargaming, I would pick Callan, starring Edward Woodward, which shows the two protagonists united in their enjoyment of the hobby and interest in military history, despite the fact they on opposite sides in the murky world of espionage.

Norm said...

Thanks Keith. I would agree that wargaming is a grass roots hobby and although we now have some manufacturing giants, for a long time it has been one under-pinned by cottage industry and there is still a truth in that.

I therefore wonder sometimes when a media outlet, often blogs, bangs on about ‘the state of the hobby’ or ‘why are we all playing skirmish games’ or ‘its not as good as it was because the kids don’t do historical research type posts’, when really the only thing that matters in my wargame world is ….. well, my wargame world.

Everyone could stop playing wargames tomorrow, but if i’m still playing them, there is no bigger picture issue for me. So I think there will typically always be a mismatch between what a person experiences as their own ‘wargaming today’ and what someone else tells them about ‘wargaming today’. Hope that all makes sense, I have just re-read it and it sounds like a cross between a rant and losing the plot :-)

Independentwargamesgroup said...

Thanks for the review. I must admit I had forgotten about its release and after the initial announcements several years ago I simply thought they had given up on it.
Once again a great opportunity has been missed.
Wargaming is a wonderful hobby but we have always struggled to do it justice via the media.For want of something better to watch I have been following a series re Hornby and to be honest it has been very good. In one episode there were two wargamers extolling the joys of wargaming and their set up was first rate.It was a good advertisement for our hobby. Personally I have always thought a series of talks by the wonderful Harry Pearson reading and discussing anecdotes form his excellent Achtung Schweinhund would be a far better prospect. Thanks for saving me a tenner.

Steve J. said...

Thanks for the review which has confirmed what I'd already heard about this film. Definitely won't be watching this unless it appears free on Amazon or on Netflix, but then only maybe as a last resort!

Keith Flint said...

@Norm - same goes for me. I like to reflect on what the hobby is and where it might be going, but ultimately it's just my own little projects and keeping in touch with my group of wargaming friends. Not really bothered what companies are doing well or badly, or whether historical wargaming is declining or not!

Keith Flint said...

@Steve - yeah, I really wanted to like this film, and it's not without merit, but as a documentary about miniature wargaming it falls short. Miniature wargaming - Helping With Depression might be a more honest title. Or Miniature Wargaming - The Small Business Model.

lewisgunner said...

Good review Keith, as usual you have given lots of thought to the subject that you are addressing. It must be hard for any film maker or journalist to understand and then reflect what wargaming is as a hobby because it is so unstructured. The small company stories are easy to grab and have what film needs, which is a small cast, under stress, dealing with a definable and pictorially representable problem…its a bit if reality TV.
It would be much easier if the wargaming was like squash or curling, where there is an established set of rules and a structure of clubs and participation. I sort of assume that there is no one sitting in their converted spare bedroom playing solo squash? Wargaming is too diffuse to be easily understood unless one was to take an investigative stance based upon ‘Where’s the magic? ‘ n What is the pleasure that we players with toy soldiers derive from this hobby where there is research, modelling , painting, parading, gaming, competing and warm social interaction. Perhaps the producers and directors should have talked to you first?

Wargamer Stu said...

I still like the scene in Callan where he meets his "target" for a game. I guess fundamentally its one of those hobbies that may just not work on the small screen.

I do though look forward to seeing you on the Great British Wargaming Challenge one day with some old military type fronting it! Oh hang on I'm getting Time Commanders flash backs now!

Keith Flint said...

@ lewisgunner - you're absolutely right when you mention reality TV. That's what the director was looking for, as a film maker doing his first full length documentary. Interestingly though, it seems he is involved in wargaming and has wargamed in the past, though maybe not historical gaming.

And yes, if only the guy had contacted me! Things would have worked out so much better!

Jeff Berry said...

Nobody gets anybody else's hobby, except people who share that hobby. That being said, I think it is so important as human beings for us to have hobbies (or enthusiasms), any hobbies. It's good for nourishing our souls.

I am currently working on co-developing a documentary script for a client whose hobby (which I'm under NDA to conceal) I don't understand in the least. But listening to him talk about his passion is infectious. The filmmaker I'm working with and I had the idea of emulating Ken Burns's style, a filmmaker who has made virtually any subject riveting. So many of Burns's docs were of topics I had, initially, had no interest (like Country Western Music, for instance). And yet watching them, I became hooked.

It's the way you tell a story that's as important as the story itself.

Der Alte Fritz said...

A very well written and fair review. You have a good writing style and your points are well made. I think that I will pass on this film.


Tiberian general said...

A very well written and fair review. I did not know there was a film in production let alone having been produced, thanks for the review Keith, I will give it a miss and as you point out on Utube there's lots of videos of people having fun with this hobby.
Looking forward to catching up with you at the Cotswold gaming day.

Willz Harley.