Tis The Season For Toy Soldiers

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Thanksgiving is upon us which means the annual run to holiday gift shopping is nigh. By some estimates, upwards to 40% of toy sales occur around the holidays which fits squarely with my memories of the plastic bounty of Christmas past. The arrival of store Christmas displays and holiday catalogs sent my childhood mind reeling. Before the arrival of electronic games in the late 1970s and early 80s, my dreams of toys stacked under the Christmas tree were filled with action figures, playsets, games and toy soldiers.

So, with visions of Christmas toys past dancing through my head, I find myself paging through the glorious selection from the recently-relaunched website from I The Toy Soldier Company. For almost 30 years this New Jersey-based company has been keeping plastic and metal toy soldier fandom alive with an enormous catalog of toys in all scales and hand-crafted playsets which harken back to the glory days of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

With so much play now relegated to screens and virtual fun, there is still nothing like seeing a kid moving dozens (or hundreds) of little plastic figures around the floor. These toys not only make for hours of fun across generations, but they can also open young minds to burgeoning interests in history and maybe some eventual wargaming. Going a step further and combining some toy soldiers with books, movies, documentaries and family outings that highlight the period is another great way to make up a fun and educational gift package for the holidays.

Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome

Kids are fascinated by the ancient eras of Egypt, Greece and Rome, and a lot of elementary school curriculums focus on these periods, their culture, arts and the gods they worshipped. Books and films full of pyramids, temples, gladiators and chariots dazzle young minds.  Mid-century film classics Ben Hur, Spartacus and even The Ten Commandments are thrilling, family-appropriate entertainment to this day. From one-on-one arena battles between tiny gladiators to epic plastic battles on the sands and plains of the Mediterranean region will enliven the imagination for these ancient cultures.

Ancient Era playsets and toy soldiers

 American Revolution

Living here in the Northeast United States, I’m surrounded by history of the American War of Independence, inlcuding the Battle of Brooklyn fought right over ground I cover on the way to work every day. With forts, museums, battlefields and museums dedicated to the period dotting the countryside, the formative conflict of the nation is all around us. The classic 1943 children’s novel Johnny Tremain and Disney’s 1957 movie adaptation have been the hook for kids for years. There’s so much color and mythic personality to this period in early American history, and some plastic soldiers armed with muskets and cannons will easily spark interest in any wee patriot.

American Revolution playsets and toy soldiers

American Civil War

We’re right in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, so the time is ripe to get burgeoning historians interested in the period. With the release of Lincoln last year and many past offerings available like 1989’s Glory and Ken Burns’ epic 1990 The Civil War, the War Between The States maintains its cinematic hold on the American narrative. The seminal book on the war in many ways remains Red Badge of Courage which is still a rite of passage for many a young reader . Spending the holidays learning about the Civil War might kick off some family visits to battlefields and historic sites when winter breaks to spring, but getting some blue and gray toy soldiers out on the floor now can make for a very timely history lesson through play.

American Civil War playsets and toy soldiers

World War I

Europe is in the midst of the 100th anniversary of World War I, and next year America’s involvement in “the war to end all wars” will be quietly memorialized. The US came to the war late and it’s effects on our country were nowhere near those on the European continent, so learning about this conflict is a great way to broaden young minds to 20th-centtury history beyond our usual American-focused history education. My oldest son read All Quiet On The Western Front this past year, and the adaptation of that classic novel as well as films like Paths of Glory and Gallipoli are engaging ways to get a view inside the troubling politics and tactics of the war. Lining up multinational plastic armies bridging the gap of 19th to 20th-century warfare makes for a great intro to the period.

World War I playsets and toy soldiers

World War II

Perhaps more than just about any other war, World War II remains an enormous part of historical and popular culture through countless books, movies, TV shows and documentaries, both factual and fiction. From The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far to modern classics like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers and Flags of Our Fathers, Hollywood continues to crank out epic stories from the war. Aside from books and movies, their are some amazing WWII games from the likes of Axis & Allies to Flames of War. To me, WWII is the period to watch, game and play in, no matter your age.

World War II playsets and toy soldiers

The above are just a few of my favorite periods in which I think kids could easily establish a lifelong interest. Through a combination of books, films, field trips, games and plastic soldiers from the likes of the Toy Soldier Company, you can make this holiday season a bit fun, a bit unique and maybe your kids or grandchildren will even learn a little something in one of the most time-tested ways: play.

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2013 Goal Setting

We’re just over a week into 2013 but with more than 50 weeks still ahead, I think I have time to squeeze in some ideas on gaming goals I’m setting myself for 2013. Here’s five goals I’m setting for the year (including one I’ve already checked off the list):

1. Join a club

I have been dropping in on the Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn for probably 4-5 years, and this year I’ve already finally got around to becoming a full member. The club occupies the basement garden level of a townhouse on a side street in historic Park Slope Brooklyn, just two stops from me on the subway. In a city where space for storage and gaming is at a premium, the club is a wonderland of gaming tables, boardgames and miniatures. While a lot of guys arrange to play a particular game ahead of time, there’s a big opportunity on the weekends to simply stop in at the club and grab a few guys up for playing whatever sounds good. The members of the club are incredibly supportive and passionate about gaming, and the diverse ages and backgrounds always makes for an interesting and entertaining mix over the course of a few hours.

If you’re in the NYC-area and you’re interested in what’s going on at the club, I’d suggest introducing yourself via their Yahoo! Group and then come in for a game at some point. You can also check them out via Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

2. Get back into World War II

A few years ago I got heavily into WWII gaming in 15mm with Flames of War. In pretty short order I painted up large German and American infantry armies, and then threw in a US paratrooper force for good measure. I signed up and played in a full-day tournament at a convention, and then I ran a game at another convention. Along with my infantry, I’ve also got dozens and dozens of tanks, jeeps, trucks and artillery pieces that have largely sat fallow for over a year as my interests (and schedule) have drifted elsewhere. In the interim, a new revised set of rules were released and a whole host of additional rulebooks focusing on the post-D-Day actions have also hit the market.

So, I’m jump-starting my interest in the era again in 2013. A big new starter boxed set containing the new rules and a bunch of new plastic figures and tanks wound up under the Christmas tree. I also scored the new Easy Company set of character figures who bring with them a whole set of special rules as you recreate the famed command exploits of the 101st Airborne Division. I spent part of my time off from work at the end of the year gluing up and priming my new forces and re-familiarizing myself with the rules. I’ve been talking up World War II with some guys at the club, my son seems interested in playing again and now I’ve just got to commit to returning to the tabletop battlefields of 1940s Europe.

3. Tackle my Anglo-Zulu War project

At a convention a few years ago I signed up blindly for a recreation of the Battle of Rourke’s Drift, one of the most significant engagements of the late-19th-century Anglo-Zulu War and a favorite of mine in the history of warfare. I tucked the game in the back of my head for a couple years, and then I happened upon some really inexpensive boxes of plastic British troops from the era at another convention last year. Well, once I had some Brits on the workbench I certainly needed some Zulus (and more Brits).

Months on, this project has stalled. I have hundreds of figures glued-up in various states of painting and a couple additional boxes of Zulus still waiting to be unwrapped. There’s a sameness to the British and Zulus which I haven’t quite cracked as of yet. I obviously need a system and a process to tackle all these guys in the coming year so I can finally get them up and running on the table. Long-term (really, really long-term), I fantasize about playing the battle of Rourke’s Drift in a true 1:1 scale of approximately 4,000 Zulu miniatures facing off against a contingent of 140 or so British troops. That said, getting this whole Anglo-Zulu project back on track this year is a promise I’m making to myself.

 4. Wrap up my American Civil War forces

If 2012 had a focus for me, it was the American Civil War in 28mm. With the 150th anniversary of the war in the news and Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in theaters, America’s greatest conflict was in the air. I worked along throughout the year painting away at the wonderful plastic and metal range of ACW miniatures offered by Perry Brothers Miniatures, and my sons and I played increasingly larger skirmish battles on the coffee and dining room tables.

At this point I think I’m maxing out with a couple hundred troops in both Blue and Gray. I have a few more models of artillery which are about 80% complete, some fez-hatted 5th New York Volunteer “Duryee’s Zouaves” to wrap up and one box of the new Confederate infantry to start. I’ve been really happy with results this year, and I’m looking forward to hauling the whole contingent out of my apartment by the spring to share my work with the guys at the club.

5. More boardgames (and maybe some card games)

I largely ignored all manner of gaming throughout the 90s, and, with that, I largely missed the boat on the rise of Euro games. Over the past year-and-half, I’ve re-invigorated my interest in boardgames. Settlers of Catan and Ticket To Ride have become mainstays in my home for “family game nights.” I’ve already added Small World to the mix this year, and a friend of ours introduced us to Bohnanza – a competitive bean-planting and harvesting card game – over the holidays. I’ve got a list of others I want to try this year, and there’s probably countless more I don’t even know about yet.

Playing games with friends, family and members of the local club is such a fantastic way to disconnect from the realities of the world and re-connect with people in a way we seldom do in the normal course of life. Here’s to 2013 and a year of play.

Christmas Toy Soldier Memories

Generations of kids who grew up in the 50s, 60s and 70s looked forward to the holiday gift season and the possiblity of unwrapping a bounty of toy soldiers and playsets. In the post-WWII years, companies like Marx, Airfix, Britains and others churned out millions of plastic soldiers and accessories which would plant the seed for many a future wargamer. These boxes of relatively-inexpensive colorful plastic knights, cowboys and Indians, soldiers, horses, forts, castles, log cabins, wagons and tanks fuelled imaginative play and a collector’s spirit for kids before video games eclipsed playtime beginning in the 1980s.

For you Generation X kids who now have children of your own, toy soldiers are a still a fantastic way to add a little something different into the holdiay season. There’s a truly wonderful company called The Toy Soldier Company with a singular mission of keeping the toy soldier tradition alive, both for us nostalgia-prone grown-ups and for kids just waiting to discover the imaginative creativity and variety that play with little plastic figures brings.

The Toy Soldier Company offers a dizzying selection of plastic and metal figures, playsets and accessories in all scales and price ranges. No matter your era of choice — Ancient Europe, Colonial America, Civil War, The Old West, The World Wars,  Modern or Sci-Fi — the inventory is enormous and ever-growing. One of their most unique offerings is their playsets which seek to recapture the glory days of the 50s-70s when catalogs like the annual Sears Wish Book Christmas catalog offered pages filled with often fantastic depictions of playsets, primarily from Marx (like those shown in a Sears catalog from 1966 at the right). As a kid, you couldn’t help but marvel at the possibilities the often-exaggerated drawings and photos of these playsets. The imagination of young generals reeled from staring at the pages in the catalog and thoughts of future battles to be waged on the living room rug or in the sandbox out back. Lots of kids would eventually take their plastic play and creativity further by spending hours hunched over workbenches with tiny brushes and their first efforts at miniatures painting.

For those of you with children in your life, toy soldiers are still certain to be a hit for the holidays. You can even bridge the eras by getting a kid the latest from the Call of Duty video game franchise, a box of soldiers and maybe some paints. Another idea would be to buy some knights and Robin Hood toys along with a DVD of the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn. A book about the American Civil War and some plastic soldiers in blue and grey would make another great package. With toy soldiers then and now, the possibilities are only bound by the imagination for play.