On the Home Front
Patrick Martin, a senior biology major, combines a deep interest in history and socializing with fellow students through war simulation games.
A typical Saturday for biology senior Patrick Martin involves toy soldiers, a scaled-down battlefield and a lot of strategy.
For the last decade miniature war gaming has been a hobby that allows Martin to combine an intellectual curiosity about history and the camaraderie of playing with like-minded individuals.
Much of Martin’s encyclopedic knowledge about battles comes from devouring history books. “When I read an account of a battle, my natural tendency is to visualize what it was like to experience that history,” he says. “We don’t have time machines, so we’ve got to make do with simulations.”
At Northwestern Martin has attracted a loyal group of five players who wage battles against each other on a semimonthly basis in the first-floor study lounge in Kemper Hall.
The clashes are based on real battles, but instead of slavishly re-creating a particular encounter, the players fight a could-have-been conflict that presents the same challenges commanders in the real war might have faced.
The game requires a basic knowledge of history, strategy and even dress. “If you’re going to paint an army from a certain period, you’ve got to know what they looked like, how they were equipped and what proportions of various troop types there were,” Martin says.
Martin has amassed a collection of 2,800 miniature figures, with 800 more unpainted in the basement of his family’s home in Madison, Wis.
His favorite time period is the era from the French revolution in 1789 to Napoleon’s exile in 1815. “From both a military and political standpoint, it’s fascinating,” Martin says. “It’s almost the first real world war because during Napoleon’s time France and Britain were always fighting each other, and both sides had different allies at different times. And as far as gaming goes, it was an extremely colorful period; everyone was still wearing brightly colored uniforms. There’s a spectacle to it.”
Martin also stages confrontations on Pafrasia, a fictional continent that grew out of his imagination. Located in the Indian Ocean, Pafrasia has a long history of conflict between the indigenous people, whom he has named Mohammedans, and Europeans with imperialism in mind.
During the games players command anywhere from 20 to 200 soldiers that stand 22 mm tall. A typical Napoleonic game would deploy at least 1,000 figures, while a Pafrasia game only requires 300. All decisions have a bit of chance thrown in, thanks to dice and cards.
Instead of majoring in history at Northwestern, Martin decided on his other interest, biology. “You can’t be a hobby biologist,” he reasons. Not surprisingly, his battling instincts have transferred to an interest in researching the immune system and discovering ways to protect the body from infection. “He wants to wage war on the cellular level,” jokes Weinberg junior Carl Gustafson, a fellow gamer.
Martin spent much of his sophomore year painting soldiers in one of Sargent Hall’s hallways. That attracted attention, and soon he gathered the small company of players. As a senior, he is “filled with thoughts of establishing a legacy,” that is, passing the game on to the next generation of players.
His main recruitment tactics are to post fliers around campus and to play occasionally at Norris University Center. Yet, from Martin’s perspective, miniature war gaming sells itself. After all, he’s giving potential players the opportunity of a lifetime — to be their own Napoleon.
— Esther Chou (J03)