Tis The Season For Toy Soldiers


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.

New Game Weekend: Spartacus

Back in the 1970s and 80s, many popular TV shows — from Happy Days and Welcome Back Kotter to Mork and Mindy and The Six Million Dollar Man — cranked out cheap, simply-designed board games. While these games were based on shows and characters we loved, in hindsight the majority of these games were horrendous in terms of gameplay. I think there’s still a copy of the Dukes of Hazzard Game at my parents’ house, but I hesitate playing it again lest I ruin my fond childhood memories.

Modern shows continue to market themselves through games, although most of these come in the form of versions of Monopoly, Operation, Life, Trivial Pursuit or other established board game brands. I’ve never seen the incredibly popular Spartacus TV show on Starz, but I’ve read about the intense levels of swords-and-sandals-themed sex and violence which make the show a must-see for a certain demographic. About a week ago I had the opportunity to play the board game based on the show with three of the guys at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, and this is definitely not a TV board game like most others.

The game is played with 3-4 players with each player representing a “Dominus” or a “house” in the ancient Roman city of Capua where the show’s drama unfolds. The quest for ultimate control through growing your “influence” is the goal of the game through three basic turn phases — Intrigue, Market and Arena.

The “Intrigue” phase allows you to play schemes and reactions via cards that grant positive or negative effect combinations on you and/or other players. The “Market” phase provides a auction-like environment where the players secretly bid for slaves, gladiators, guards and equipment.  The “Arena” phase is where two players face-off in a bloody gladiator tournament where victors bring “favor” to themselves and “influence” to their Dominus.

Spartacus is definitely a game with pretty simple some straight-foward rules, but the rambunctious thrill in the game is in the free-wheeling buying, selling, bribery and double-crossing among players. Your slaves maintain your house resources and often grant additional side-bonuses like the ability to heal wounded gladiators or to earn extra gold by providing, ahem, special services. Combinations of gladiators and acquired equipment makes for stronger opponents within the arena. Guards provide protection from the havock that schemes can rain on your house. All along, players are trading and buying their way through the game. You might bribe a player to allow your gladiator access to the arena for a chance to score victory over a weaker player’s gladiator. Other times, you might share the rewards from a scheme with another player in exchange for  use of that’s player’s influence strength to your benefit.

I played the game with three other players which made for a great dynamic of shifting alliances. One player quickly acquired Spartacus and a full compliment battle equipment making him unstoppable in the arena, so the rest of us cut whatever side deals we could to block going up against him in hand-to-hand combat. While we were busy keeping Spartacus out of the arena, another player quietly bought, sold and traded his way into a series scehemes and slave acquisitions in the market which eventually shot him to the lead and winning with the most influence in the game.

Spartacus plays in a couple hours and has a great design with characters pulled directly from the TV show. Themes and play can be a bit raunchy and graphic at times, and while it’s not designed as a role-playing game, players may naturally gravitate toward taking on the snarling personalities of their Domini. Fan of the show or not, strap on your shield, grab your trident and head to the arena for some wild fun in ancient Rome.