Toys, Trains and Games at the New York Historical Society

IMG_4659Toys and games are on my mind year-round, but the holiday season adds an extra layer of history, tradition and nostalgia to my passion for play. And so, my son and I made our way this past weekend to the New York Historical Society on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and back through more than 150 years of childhood wonder.

Holiday Express: Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection

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The museum’s ground level entrance and rotunda galleries are currently occupied by the stunning Holiday Express: Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection. The name of the collection is derived from the names of Jerry and Nina Greene, the Philadelphia area collectors who amassed more than 35,000 toys over some five decades.

The Jerni collection, considered one of if not the largest toy collections in the world, represents a comprehensive story of what is considered the high water mark in toy making from the mid-19th through 20th-centuries. With a heavy leaning toward European manufacturers like Märklin, the railroad themed items in the collection are dizzingly ornate and go beyond locomotives and carriages to encompass railroad stations, amusement rides and detailed mechanical machines and vignettes. Boats, bridges and other transportation toys are also included. Everything displays an incredible level of detail and refinement in the use of metal, wood, paper cloth and hand-painted finishes developed through advances in manufacturing processes through the late 19th-century.

IMG_4664Toy military and civilian ships from the Jerni Collection at the NYHS

IMG_4661Futuristic-looking craft hold their place next to traditional trains at the NYHS

Just a few years ago, the Jerni collection began seeking a new home. After displaying some of the collection at Sotheby’s auction house in 2010, no appropriate buyer was found to meet the estimated eight-figure value of the collection. A small portion of the collection went on display again in November 2012 at the NYHS which generated enough interest from a group of donors to underwrite the cost of acquiring the monumental collection. Two years later, the Holiday Express exhibit offers just a glimpse of what the museum now has under its roof.

IMG_4662Some of the Jerni Collection’s trains in the rotunda at the NYHS

While the current Holiday Express exhibit of some 300 objects is heavily focused on railroad-themed toys, my interest was drawn to the side displays of toy cast metal soldiers. Several periods are represented, from early American and Old West toys to a fantastic grouping of World War I era soldiers, vehicles and artillery. The preserved original paint, cloth, string and wires on these toys is some of the most impressive I’ve seen. Thin bayonets continue to protrude from the ends of tiny rifles, and an olive drab fabric cot is still doing service holding an injured soldier. The survival and ongoing preservation of these primarily metal toys in the Jerni Collection is all the more remarkable given how many vanished through the decades of play and wartime scrap drives in the mid-20th-century.

IMG_4657Toy soldiers and artillery represent multiple nationalities

IMG_4658A patriotic display of toy soldiers, medical staff and railroad transports

IMG_4663Old West metal toys from the Jerni Collection at the NYHS

The Games We Played: American Board and Table Games from the Liman Collection Gift

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On the museum’s lower level, is the smaller yet no less important exhibit The Games We Played: American Board and Table Games from the Liman Collection Gift. The ongoing display offers a rotating view of American made board and card games selected from the 500 item collection. Focusing on the period of 1840s to the 1920s, the games help illuminate a period where a modern and less rural middle class America was on the rise. The late 19th-century also saw great advances in color printing processes, allowing for bolder and more complex graphics. The current exhibit focuses on games with the theme of “fate,” something very much on the mind of native and newly arrived Americans at the turn of the last century. I would expect similar revelations into the shared cultural experience through gaming as the exhibit continues to evolve.

With so many stories to tell, the New York Historical Society’s current exhibit space dedicated to toys and games is certainly a crowd pleaser. My hope is that serious focus continues in future exhibits at the museum on the themes of toys, games and play. Just as technological, economic and cultural shifts drove mass change in toys and games beginning in the mid-19th-century, these same factors are driving new evolutions to the way we play today and influence who we may become as New Yorkers and Americans tomorrow.

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Robin Williams (1951-2014) – Comedian, Actor, Gamer

williamstoysAmerican comedian and actor Robin Williams died yesterday from an apparent suicide after battling years of depression and addiction. While his award-winning acting, frenetic comedy performances and activism are what he will no doubt be best remembered for, to a certain set of fans like myself, his lifetime interest in gaming and toy soldiers likewise leaves a mark.

As a lonely, oddball child of wealthy parents, Williams developed an early escape valve through play with toy soldiers. In a 1993 New York Magazine profile, Williams’s mother recounted his boyhood obsession with toy soldiers:

“Robin had the entire third floor,” his mother, Laurie Williams, says. “He put his toy soldiers — he had thousands of them — in those rooms, carefully divided according to period.” Williams not only staged intricate battles between soldiers of different eras, he created dialogue for them in what was, essentially, a childhood version of his performance style.”

Not only was Williams a toy soldier fan from an early age, but gaming was a lifelong passion. He was an avowed Warhammer 40K player (apparently favoring Eldar forces), even posing for photos with staff and other players during stops at local gaming stores. He is also listed among celebrity players of Dungeons & Dragons, going so far as to participate in major gaming events up until a few years ago. His passion for gaming also extended to online and video gaming, and his daughter Zelda is rumored to have been named for the popular adventure fantasy video game series from Nintendo.

morkboardgame1979’s Mork & Mindy board game from Parker Brothers

Like a lot of kids growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, Williams’s starring role in Mork & Mindy from 1978 to 1982 was a fixture in my weekly TV viewing. Starring as Mork, a zany alien from the planet Ork, Williams’s catchphrases, mannerisms and signature look became firmly imbedded in my young mind. There was definitely Mork madness in my life and in the culture for a bit, extending to toys, games and even rainbow suspenders (yes, I had a pair).

Williams certainly went on to much bigger and often more serious professional work, but that period in my youth where I was becoming an impassioned gamer myself definitely informed some of my own willingness to stretch into characters outside the bounds of reality. Williams’s life of playing characters, switching roles and acting out wild fantasies brought so much joy to audiences around the world, but for me, I like to imagine him as that little boy crouching over his little soldiers and creating a universe that was just his for a moment.

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.

Favorite Tabletop Games Kickstarters of the Month (June 2013)

I’ve spent a month tracking my favorite projects and looking for new fun stuff on Kickstarter’s Tabletop Games section. Of the five projects I wrote about in May, four have been succesfully-funded to date. I wound up throwing my support behind one of these, Canterbury, and I’m still hopeful things will turn out well for 54mm plastic Civil War toy soldiers project now in its closing days. Here are the other projects I’ll be watching in June.

Princes of the Dragon Throne: This fantasy-themed board game combines deck-building, area control and resource management. Players build recruits and vie for control of the board on their quest to be crowned upon the Dragon Throne at game’s end. There’s a ton of stuff in this box with over 200 miniatures and more than 500 components overall. The levels of support for the game plus the accompanying specially-crafted meeples comes in over $100, but it’s got dragons so the game looks to be well worth it.

Euphoria: Build A Better Dystopia: This Saint Louis, Missouri-based project launched in May but wraps up this month with a very successful funding run. In this worker placement game, dice represent your workers and cards represent elite recruits. Using your workers and recruits, each player attempts to establish a new empire by managing and selling resources, collecting artifacts, building alliances, and undermining your opposition by digging tunnels and launching devious agendas. Dystopian scenarios are a big fave of mine, and the artwork captured in the design of this game is marvelous.

Amerigo: Another successfully-funded game slated to finish its run in June is Amerigo by Queen Games. Players aid famed explorer Amerigo Vespucci in his quest to discover new lands, establish settlements and collect resources in the islands of South America. The game uses a nifty tower through which players drop and draw colored cubes which determine actions available on their turns. Pledging support at different funding levels scores you a copy of Amerigo as well as one (or more) of Queens Games’s other popular historic-themed games such as Alhambra, Shogun or Lancaster, making backing this project quite a deal.

Admiral: In general, I don’t play naval games since I like the variety that a well-laid-out land terrain tabletop allows. That said, this game could get people like me interested in strategic wargaming on the high seas in the Age of Sail. The Ukrainian designers of this game have loaded the base game with 24 1:1700 scale ships that surpass their toy-like colors in their attention. Backers at higher levels get more islands, ships, seascape gameboard tiles and other game components, making supporting this project a fnatstic opportunity to set sail into a different kind of wargaming.

Giant 2 Inch Soft Foam Polyhedral Dice:  My final fave of the month is just goofy and fun. My two sons, ages 8 and 13, are familiar with real gaming dice at this point. But, if I had a small gamer-in-training in my life, these would be on my funding list. The set includes six large, squishy brightly-colored dice used in most gaming (D4, D6, D8, D10, D12 and D20) in a handy cloth storage bag. Appropriate for ages 3+, there’s a whole bunch of options for buying a la carte dice to supplement the basic set, and additional colors and number styles will be made available. What better way to introduce a kid to the wonders of gaming than throwing a few of these on the floor? Then again, they may just go nicely on my desk at work…

Favorite Tabletop Games Kickstarters of the Month (May 2013)

Earlier this week, I wrote about how I believe Kickstarter to be the latest incarnation of how gamers have contributed to the decades-long conversation on who truly “owns” our hobby. This had me delving deep into what’s current on Kickstarter’s Tabletop Games section.

To date, I’ve honestly only contributed to one tabletop games Kickstarter project. The modest fundraising drive for A Las Barricadas which brought in just under $10,000 for a game that has since been delayed but promises to be shipping soon. While I wait for this little game of street protest pitting Occupy Wall Street-like demonstrators against the police to arrive, I thought I’d share a few projects I’m watching this month.

Moby Dick, or the card game: Like any good English Literature major, I’m a fan of Herman Melville’s epic American tale of one man’s obsession with a whale. On the flipside, I am not generally a fan of card games. That said, this card game of the high seas boasts some truly marvelous woodcut-like artwork and what looks to be an entertaining game of the best recruited crews trying to survive in their quest to spear the Great White Whale.

All Quiet On The Martian Front: Showcasing 15mm miniatures of Martians vs. early 20th-century human armies, this game uses the H.G. Wells sci-fi classic as a jumping-off point to imagine a world of humans locked in protracted combat with alien invaders. The models look fantastic, mining the very-popular steampunk trend in gaming today. Supporters of the game (particular those pledging in the hundreds of dollars) will net a lot of cool looking stuff with its funding.

Canterbury: Nothing gets me going like a great Euro-style worker placement game, so this is particularly enticing. The game places you in the age of Saxon Kings, and your aim is to build the greatest of cities starting with only a well in the wilderness. Managing your growing population, resources, culture, military and ongoing construction of buildings, the game claims to be one of pure skill and planning with no luck factor whatsoever. This one looks like a beauty and I’ll be anxious to give it a play when it is published later this year.

 Wargaming Terrain for the American Frontier: I don’t play games in the period, but the latest from Acheson Creations presents more than a dozen wonderfully-crafted 28mm buildings from the pioneer, settler and Native American era of 18th-century colonial America. I particularly like the longhouses and wigwams, possibly inspired by the local tribal history of the Western New York and the Rochester area where the creators (and I) hail from. The blockhouse, fort wall sections, barn and cabin models also look great and could easily be used in other eras or in fantasy gaming scenarios, too.

Civil War Toy Soldiers: This final project has less to do with gaming and more to do with the special spot in my heart for the toy soldiers of my childhood, especially around the holidays. Cast in soft plastic and a large 54mm scale, this new line of Union soldiers have been launched to compliment Cunnyngham Collectibles’s existing Southern troops. The poses, liveliness and equipment details on these guys make for some really cracking personality. A few bags of these fellas on the floor or in the tall grass and I’d be transported back to when I first fell in love with little plastic men nearly 40 years ago.