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In Ann Arbor: The Guns of July

6 minute read
George Russell

The resinous scent of hot green summer flowed in waves across the sprawling north campus of the University of Michigan. But the obsessed, drifting in and out of the five-building brick residence complex perched above Ann Arbor, hardly noticed. This was a weekend devoted to the joys of combat.

The occasion was Origins 78, the fourth U.S. national war gamers’ conference. For 72 hours, some 3,600 hobbyists, exhibitors and camp followers milled and argued, chattered and competed in a giant tournament. To Paul Wood, 35, chief conference organizer and president of the hosting club, Metro Detroit Gamers, the event was as simple as a military tune: “It’s nice to get together, drink a few beers, and have a good time combatting each other.” In fact, the whole affair was as complex as, well, a war. All weekend, participants were indulging in the seductive impulse to establish their very own rules for the world. Not only could they alter history, they could control destiny. What Walter Mitty could resist?

Perched on a sunny concrete patio of Bursley Hall, the dormitory hub, Vincent Bertolino, 19, and Chris Nadolny, 16, schemed to carve up the Third Reich. Between them was a stylized map of Germany, replete with rivers, hills and other obstacles. Equipped with cardboard counters representing military units, Vincent took the role of Russian Supreme Commander in 1945. Chris was his American equivalent. The object was to bash away at Nazi forces—and then grab as much territory as they could. “It’s an intellectual thing,” explained Chris, a high school junior from Morristown, N.Y. “I’ve always had an interest in military history.” He supports his interest, immoderately, with more than 100 similar board games; spends an average of 30 hours a month playing with them; and hopes to go to West Point after graduating from high school.

The major part of tournament action took place indoors, in recreation rooms, cafeterias and dormitory rooms, even though university administrators had turned off the air conditioning for the summer. On the steamy second floor of Bursley Hall, Mark Wellington, 30, pushed hundreds of miniature soldiers along carefully tape-measured distances in a table-top replay of an engagement on the eve of Waterloo. The rules of the intricate contest filled two sturdy binders, each about an inch thick. “It’s based on what might have happened if Napoleon had pursued Wellington an hour earlier than he did,” said Mark. “We’re replaying it under two sets of weather circumstances. In one case, the British have held the French off. In this other one, the British have escaped with their lives.”

Wellington—the living one and no kin —is a stockbroker from Fort Wayne, Ind. As a miniaturist war gamer, meaning one who uses realistic figures, not counters, he is considered one of the hobby’s aristocrats. With good reason. All of the 600 or so figures on his table, each about 2 in. tall, were painstakingly hand-painted in the exact regimental colors and insignia of the period. The cost of the miniatures is about $1.75 per man. Wellington meets other armchair generals about three times a year. Object: large-scale wars involving as many as 4,000 figures. “I guess it’s an attempt to get at the playing at tin soldiers that’s left in us,” he theorized. “Left in us? What am I saying? That’s all it is.”

At the next table, JoEllen Burton, 25, of Dayton studied a rule book while her husband, Jack, helped field-marshal a 15th century Franco-Austrian war. She too is a war gamer. “It was either that or be alone,” she confessed. “I finally decided that it’s his hobby, so why not get into it?” War gaming is still a bastion of male chauvinism, apparently; JoEllen’s tactful explanation is that “too many men feel uncomfortable unless women are very good at it. The group I’m in at home has been very patient with me.”

Down in the lobby, Kim Gillette, 25, another member of the tiny female contingent, recounted a fantasy game she had just left. “The plants had a death spread on them. But I was killed just before that.” The game, Gamma World, is a futuristic (postnuclear holocaust) contest in which participants adopt the characteristics and hostilities of humans and aliens. “It’s a lot more exciting than Monopoly,” the player explained brightly. “No dragon’s ever going to jump on you in Monopoly.”

A recently laid-off teacher of English composition from Brockton, N.Y., Kim is also a member of an outfit called the Society for Creative Anachronism, with a “couple of hundred” confreres scattered across the Northeast. Medieval buffs, they engage in “wars, feasts and revels” at appropriate times of the year.

Kim seems to own her own time ma chine. She also likes to play with micro-armor: tiny scale models of tanks. A few hours after her fatal accident in Gamma World, she was marshaling miniature armies of dwarfs and ores in a battle based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic, The Lord of the Rings. This was not a good weekend for Kim; her side, the dwarfs, was annihilated.

Not far away, Charles Carrico, 36, huddled over a felt-covered table representing European terrain. Carrico knows a bit more about combat than his fellow fantasists. In real life, he is an operations officer at the battle-simulation center at Fort Carson, Colo., home of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. The captain was part of a five-man group flown to Ann Arbor in the personal staff plane of Fort Carson’s commanding officer, Major General John Forrest.

Army has been placing a lot of emphasis on battle simulations,” said Carrico. “It decreases the cost of maneuvers and also increases expertise. The thought was that by spreading our expertise around, we might induce some of these guys into the military, among other things. We also thought we might pick up a few ideas for our own simulations.” Carrico and his colleagues gave the civilian amateurs high marks for their skills at play-fighting. Said Lieut. Bill Bradburn, 25, a field-artillery officer: “Some of them are amazingly adept. They have a tremendous grasp of some of the theory and doctrine that is taught in the Army. They keep very current. Some of them seem to have a steady information pipeline to the active military.” But Bradburn also detected a weakness in the civilians’ knowledge of artillery tactics — which his team was about to exploit.

When the guns finally fell silent in Ann Arbor, the battlefields were littered with cigarette butts, empty Coke bottles and hot dog wrappers. The victors trooped home bearing 69 engraved plaques and 225 runners-up certificates (the Fort Carson Army group suitably took first prize in the NATO armored battle simulation).

Outside, on the patios, a few last stragglers unfolded boards, produced counters, and squinted up at the sun in calculation. If they hurried, there was still time to get in one last war.

— George Russell

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