Outside, it’s a sunny day, but inside The Gamer’s Realm in West Windsor, the clouds of war are gathering.
In the ruins of a city square, two armies advance toward one another. On the left is a company of genetically modified human super-soldier space marines clad in powered armor. At the right is a raving horde of green-skinned orks, armed with crude but effective guns and axes called “shootas” and “choppas.”
Their warboss leads the charge, meeting the space marine commander in single combat in the center of the field. The orks have numbers and ferocity on their side, the space marines superior weapons, high technology and better spelling.
Fortunately, the collateral damage from this battle is going to be limited since the combatants are about an inch tall. The skirmish is taking place on a four-foot-square game board covered in meticulously sculpted and painted ruined buildings and rubble-filled streets.
The dystopian diorama resembles what would happen if a model railroad layout were taken 40,000 years into the future and plunged into brutal warfare, or if the inhabitants of Christmas village decided to take up arms against one another.
The scene is actually a game of Warhammer 40,000, the most popular miniatures wargame played at the Gamer’s Realm on Old Trenton Road in West Windsor. The store is the only public place for miles around where local miniatures wargamers can go to participate in their hobby.
Tabletop miniatures wargaming has its roots in war games, Dungeons and Dragons and model building. Unlike a board game that can be played right out of the box, each player of a miniatures wargame has to collect and model his or her army before playing a game against someone else.
Typically, players also paint their inch-high soldiers and somewhat larger vehicles in minute detail, going so far as to dot pupils in the center of millimeter-wide eyes and splatter mud on the tracks of tiny tanks. Often, they customize their diminutive armies, combining parts from different kits or sculpting their own game pieces from scratch out of epoxy.
In a clash of miniature armies, the outcome is decided with dice and measuring tapes, according to a complex set of rules.
Games played on the computer or with abstract game pieces can be just as fun and challenging. But for miniatures wargamers, there is nothing like having a tactile, physical, cool-looking representation of the battle.
“It’s like green army men for grown-ups,” said Hamilton resident and wargamer Michael Parsons, 40. “If you played green army men as a kid, it’s the same thing, only more mature.”
It was author H.G. Wells who was the first science fiction geek to take playing with army men to the next level in 1913. He published a set of rules called “Little Wars,” for use with the tin toy soldiers popular at the time, arranging battles with his friends that sprawled out over entire living rooms.
Miniatures cost anywhere from $2 to $10 for a single soldier, and about $50 for a large tank. It might cost anywhere from $200 to $500 to put together an army that could be used in one of the tournaments hosted by a game store like the Gamer’s Realm, depending on the game and the level of obsession of the gamer.
But a gamer stopping after collecting a single game or a single army is almost unheard of.
William Ransdale, 40, of Ewing, has been playing miniatures wargames ever since he got hooked on Battletech in 1984. His miniatures collection includes about 2,000 models, he estimated, ranging from the giant robots of Battletech to a 4-inch long replica of a Russian Kiev-class aircraft carrier, painted so precisely you can see the red stars on the wings of the fighters on the deck.
Having a rulebook, a fully painted army and a set of dice isn’t enough to play. After that, you still need an opponent and a miniature battlefield decked out with terrain features like little trees and buildings.
That’s where the Gamer’s Realm comes in. In addition to board games and card games, the store stocks wargaming supplies and has tables set up for people to come and play pickup games or organized tournaments.
The game store serves as a hub for the local wargaming community.
Adam Millman, 33, of Hamilton, an assistant manager at Roma Bank, said he’s met many friends by going to the Gamer’s Realm to play miniatures wargames like Warhammer and Warmachine, and other games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons.
“I have a ton of friends because of the gaming industry,” he said.
The social aspect of the hobby is emphasized by the rules. At most tournaments, players are judged on sportsmanship as well as how many games they win.
Ransdale said playing wargames is a good way to socialize, despite the nerdy stereotypes that surround wargaming.
“There’s a stigma around it, let’s face it,” he said. “Like Dungeons and Dragons, it has a stigma. Some gamers do not have the most fantastic social skills. It’s just not a hip thing.”
Randsdale said the hobby has an ethnically diverse fan base that appeals to people in their young teenage years all the way through old age. However, it’s still a predominantly male activity — at least for now.
“You go to the conventions, you’ll see more female gamers, you certainly will,” he said. “My girlfriend is an artist and she loves to paint miniatures. Without being sexist, a lot of girls get into it for the creative artistic side of it or their boyfriends pull them in.”
Despite the popularity of computer and video games based on Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 franchises, wargaming remains a little-known activity to the general public. Wargaming companies like Britain-based Games Workshop do not advertise in mainstream media channels.
Like many gamers, Ransdale was introduced to the hobby while attending a gaming convention for a different game, in his case, Dungeons and Dragons. Millman got hooked on wargames by his father, who was a designer of Civil War games. They still play wargames together, Millman said.
The game store itself is a means of recruiting new gamers. The ruined city is set up at the front of the store, where the orks and space marines wage a perpetual war. The staff of the store is always ready to invite newcomers to roll some dice and kill some orks.
Boris Khazin, of Plainsboro, is a co-owner of the store. He said parents often bring their kids to the store and participate in the hobby together, much like Millman and his father.
Khazin said parents like to encourage their kids to re-create WWII battles and bloody futuristic firefights because wargaming teaches important skills. Painting miniatures requires artistry and patience, since each tiny soldier can take hours to paint. Winning games demands planning, critical thinking and evaluating statistics. Tournament play requires courtesy and sportsmanship.
“The games are educational,” he said.
Ransdale said the kids who start playing at an early age may stop in their college or early adult years, as dating and careers take up more of their lives. But he’s sure they’ll be back sooner or later.
“The hobby will always take you back,” he said.