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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New Game Weekend: Shoot N’ Skedaddle

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One of my favorite parts of attending gaming conventions is playing scales, periods and scenarios I usually don’t game. Getting the chance to play in scenarios run by the authors of rules is also a big bonus opportunity to experience a game “straight from the horse’s mouth,” so to speak. This past weekend at Fall In! I had one of those rare sessions that hit all these marks, playing in an Old West 28mm skirmish game of Shoot N’ Skedaddle by Oscar Turner.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been a big fan of Westerns. Starting with re-runs of the old Lone Ranger TV show and radio serials, I graduated up through American Western classics like Red River and The Searchers to the Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. Over the years I’ve remained dedicated to the now-declining genre, and I’m an enormous fan of Eastwood’s later Unforgiven and Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained

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1992’s Academy Award-winning Unforgiven, produced, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood

Like a lot of American boys, my  interest in Western TV, radio and movies spilled over into my play time. I spent a lot of time gunfighting on my bedroom floor in the 1970s with Gabriel Lone Ranger dolls  and the earlier Marx Johnny West toys. I also had plenty of cheap dimestore plastic cowboys and indians, plus a pretty substantial collection of the cowboys and indians from Britains Deetail and a pile of Western-themed Playmobil toys.

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1970s ad for Gabriel’s Lone Ranger toys

Despite all my interest in Westerns, gaming the genre never became my thing. TSR’s Boot Hill, released in 1975 just as Dungeons & Dragons was taking off, has been a popular RPG option for years. There are a number miniatures ruelsets for the Wild West, and 1992’s Desperado by Monday Knight Productions seems to be the standard I’ve seen played at conventions. So, with nearly zero experience with shoot-outs on the streets of dusty tabletop frontier towns, I was really impressed with my three hours playing through my first game of Shoot N’ Skedaddle this past weekend.

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The Shoot N’ Skedadle cards, dice and equipment needed to play

 With a visually stellar town laid out with incredible laser-cut and plastic scenery, Oscar’s scenario presented a simple scenario of outlaws on the lam with lawmen in hot pursuit. In Shoot N’ Skedaddle, play begins with character cards dealt to players playing on either the Outlaw Gang or Lawmen Posse side. Main characters such as “Judge,”Doc” and “Bandit” team-up with neutral characters like “Thug,” “Cowboy,” “Townsperson” and “Thug.” Characters then draw primary and secondary weapons (if any) which can include anything from a deringer, knife or carbine to a gattling gun, buffalo gun or dynamite. There are 40 character and 72 weapons cards, making for tremedously fun variations in the player Gangs and Posses in Shoot N’ Skedaddle.

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The town set-up for Shoot N’ Skedaddle at Fall In!

After initial deployment according to the scenario, regular playing cards are drawn to randomly activate characters in turn. I really loved this thematically-appropriate mechanic, tying the iconic Old West card game into the play. On a turn, a player can perform a combination of movements and action. Special event cards are also randonly drawn for each side, allowing the resurrection of dead characters, the arrest of an outlaw or an extra character activation. With this simple framework, characters can perform a seemingly endless variety of feats including running, hiding, shooting, grabbing a mule by the reins, jumping between rooftops, crashing through windows, kicking in doors or starting a fist fight. Player imagination bordering on role-playing is really the only boundary to the game.

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Lawmen with guns blazin’ in Shoot N’ Skedaddle at Fall In!

To resolve actions, an incredibly elegant dice mechanic is used. Characters each come with key attributes — Strength, Agility, Scrap, Marksmanship and Guts — with each of these weighted with a D6, D8, D12 or D20. Success when using a particular attribute is resolved by rolling a 5 or better, no matter what the action and no matter what the die. For example, a poor shot would roll a D6 when firing their pistol while a more skilled character might roll a D12. In either case, the player would need to roll a 5 or better to succeed. Wounds, hiding in cover or other game conditions modify the dice downward, so that same crack shot with the D12 Marksmanship would roll a D8 when shooting at someone hiding behind a barrel.

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A local woman acting just a little suspicious in Shoot N’ Skedaddle at Fall In!

Shoot and Skedaddle’s wonderful card and dice structure puts the focus back on the fun on the table like any really great game should. Oscar offers his game as a free PDF ruleset or in a printed set of cards for $25 ($30 with a box). Check out his website at http://shootnskedaddle.blogspot.com/ for downloads, ordering info, development news and more pics and information. The basic rules contain scenarios and a campaign option for longer-term  storylines to be played. I can’t say I’m going to run out and invest in a dozen Western buildings and paint up a bunch of cowboys and local citizens, but if you’re a fan of Old West gaming, I highly recommend checking out Shoot N’ Skedaddle. It’s a bullseye.

“Airfix’s Little Soldiers” by Jean-Christophe Carbonel & “The Boys’ Book of Airfix” by Arthur Ward

As I’ve previously written, many kids’ first introduction to plastic toy soldiers in the 50s-70s came through the Marx playsets offered through Sears. Marx’s colorful plastic toys offered the ability to imaginitively play right out of the box. But for a lot of us, our interest graduated from casual play to an actual hobby with Airfix.

For people with fond memories for Airfix model kits and plastic soldiers, there are two must-haves for your bookshelf. Arthur Ward’s “The Boys’ Book of Airfix” traces the development of the company from a toy-maker beginning in the 1930s to their late-20th-century growth into a leader in scale modelling. “Airfix’s Little Soldiers” by Jean-Christophe Carbonel focuses almost exclusively on Airfix’s 1/32 and 1/72 scale plastic soldier lines. With intensely creative packaging depicting soldiers in action, Airfix’s plastic soldiers were unparalleled for their detailed sculpting and variety of poses. Unlike Marx plastic soldiers, Airfix appealed to budding miniatures modelling hobbyists willing to put in the hours painting tiny plastic soldiers. Although the soft plastic Airfix used was notoriously difficult in holding glue and paint, many a future miniatures wargamer got their start with Airfix.

Aside from plastic soldiers, Airfix produced a large line of scale model kits (planes, ships, cars, military vehicles, etc.). Because of the hobbyist focus of Airfix, their models and sets were available not only in department stores and five-and-dime shops, but they also became a presence in more traditional hobby shops. The company also created marvellous diorama playsets such as the Beachhead Assault and Coastal Defense sets to enhance play with their expansive selection of plastic soldiers. Many of these sets continued to be re-packaged and sold over the years as anniversaries of World War II battles were celebrated by the media.

 (photo via Vintage Airfix)

For fans of Airfix, you should also check out the Vintage Airfix website for a comprehensive look back at the evolution of their models and kits over the years. Both books conclude with the corporate mergers, changes in distribution and a look at competitiors Airfix faced over the years. By the end of the 20th-century, Airfix became more of a specialty brand in the US while their plastic kits remain widely available and popular in Europe. For me, holding one of those little Airfix boxes of soldiers still takes me back to the hours of painting and playing with plastic as a kid.

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.