Donald Featherstone (1918-2013)

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News is being reported today that famed British writer and pillar of the 20th-century wargaming hobby Donald Featherstone (pictured above, right) has died at the age of 95. While by no means a household name, Featherstone was the author of more than 40 books and countless articles on the subject of wargaming, beginning in 1962 with his seminal book Wargames and the launch of his Wargamer’s Newsletter that same year.

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Heavily-influenced by H.G. WellsLittle Wars, Featherstone played a central role in the post-WWII development of the wargaming hobby. This was the era when a small group of armchair historians knit together the first loose networks of gaming groups, self-printed newsletters and early gaming conventions like the first one in the UK organized by Featherstone in the mid-1960s. Featherstone’s lifework was devoted to promoting the hobby of wargaming as a way of understanding military history, writing broadly on naval, land and air combat as well as specific military campaigns and eras. Many of Featherstone’s books are available in modern reprints via The History of Wargaming Project and the early editions of his books are highly-sought by collectors.

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For more on Featherstone’s influence on the growth of wargaming into the eventual worldwide phenomenon which would give birth to Dungeons & Dragons and modern gaming of all kinds, I can’t recommend enough Jon Peterson’s excellent Playing At The World. Anyone who plays a strategy game today — whether on the tabletop or on a video screen — owes a little something to Donald Featherstone and the little wars he started more than a half-century ago.

Gaming With the Stars

Aside from my love for games, comic books, movies and associated hallmarks of geekdom, I’m a longtime fan of AMC’s Mad Men which wraps up its sixth season this coming Sunday. One of the much-maligned characters on the show is the media buyer and TV man Harry Crane played by Rich Sommer.

What the average fan of the show probably doesn’t know is that Sommer is one of the increasingly-prominent stars of the small and big screen who has a deep passion for gaming. Although currently on hiatus, Sommers until recently posted frequently about his gaming exploits on his blog Rich Likes Games, and he has appeared on a number of webisodes of gaming sites like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop. Wheaton’s show will soon be premiering new episodes featuring a new crowd of writers, comedians, actors and other creative friends with the common love of rolling dice, playing cards and out-strategizing their opponents across the table.

The ability for gaming to bring together diverse groups of people, the famous and not-so-famous alike, is one of the wonderful things about the hobby. There’s an oft-told tale of Vin Diesel introducing Judi Dench to Dungeons & Dragons on the set of The Chronicles of Riddick, leading to Dench dungeon-mastering subsequent games for her grandchildren. There are all sorts of stories out there and extensive lists of celebrities who place themselves among the worldwide population of gamers. Among them are Stephen Colbert, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Mike Meyers, Robin Williams, John Favreau and Joss Whedon. Go back further and there are stories of the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., King Vidor, Cole Porter, Harold Ross and Amelia Earhart partaking in gaming.

What I’ve found in my own experience is that gamers come from all walks of life but share a commonality in creativity, reason, knowledge, problem-solving, logic and alternating collaborative and competitive natures. These are obvious traits to be found in people who occupy prominent positions in the culture but also in the regular folks I game with on a regular basis. I find this every week at Metropolitan Wargamers club in Brooklyn where different combinations of ages, background and experience come together to play.

I recall being at a gaming convention a few years back watching a young guy with a mohawk, lipstick, piercings and dressed in head-to-toe black speaking passionately with a retired buttoned-down US Army veteran about some tactical minutae of a WWII engagement. Thinking back to that scene, it serves as my Diesel-Dench moment where those of us who share nothing and everything randomly encounter each other in our worlds of gaming.

The War Game of Norman Bel Geddes

I somehow missed it about a year ago when The Believer ran a great piece on the wargaming obsession of famed American designer and futurist Norman Bel Geddes. While his name may not resonate outside circles of early 20th-century design enthusiasts, Geddes is responsible for much of what we commonly think of when terms like “Art Deco” and “streamlined” are used. Most of Geddes’s fame today is linked to his design of the General Motors-sponsored Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and an iconic Art Deco radio commemorated with a US postage stamp in 2011.

Much of Geddes’s work — including the Futurama’s “world of tomorrow” display — was achieved through his obsessive and highly-detailed miniatures modeling. As featured during his life in such varied publications such as The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Life Magazine, Popular Science, Ladies Home Journal and Arts & Decoration, Geddes poured an enormous amount of time and thousands of dollars of time into military scale modeling. Utilizing his extensive library of military books and journals (now held in the University of Texas archives), thousands of ships were crafted from brass with exacting detail and enormous topographically-accurate sea and land playing tables were constructed by Geddes in his family’s Manhattan apartment.

Geddes moved in prominent 1920s-40s New York social, professional and intellectual circles, which led to his hosted sessions of what was simply referred to as “The War Game” to be celebrated events reported on in local papers. Movie stars, socialites, politicians, foreign dignitaries and even rumored retired military brass are said to have been frequenters of the intense gaming sessions. The weekly games ran for months on end, used a rules system Geddes designed himself and were documented in immense detail on record cards, charts and maps run on the printing press Geddes kept in the house. The archive at the University of Texas just hints at the wealth of information on how The War Game grew over the two decades of play among Geddes and his circle.

Like the games played among H.G. Wells and his friends recounted in his book Little Wars, time spent reading through the many articles now archived online of Geddes and his games reveals a vast little-known era of gentlemanly wargaming in New York City. As I look ahead to another weekend of gaming with the Metropolitan Wargamers, I can’t help but feel the rippling tradition of small and obsessive battles waged in the basements of the city to this day.

Wil Wheaton’s TableTop

Most people remember Wil Wheaton as the actor who played Wesley Crusher on the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” In his years since, Wheaton has had a growing presence as one of the more prominent celebrities involved in gaming.

This past year Wheaton launched TableTop, a webseries on the Geek & Sundry web community. For longtime gamers, the premise is as familiar as a Friday night: get some friends together, play a game and enjoy the shenanigans that unfold. Wheaton pulls together a mix of actors, writers and comedians with varying levels of experience in gaming, but the results are usually hiliarious (and often a bit off-color) as the witty crew play through such games as Settlers of Catan, Ticket To Ride, Munchkin and others.

The TableTop series is so incredibly simple in its conceit and production but very effective in capturing the joys of gaming — creativity, camaraderie and comedy. Wheaton and his guest players also demonstrate how incredibly social gaming is for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The show is on hiatus until early 2013, but you can check out all this year’s episodes online. Check out the show, get some friends together over the holidays and play a game.