Tabletop battlefields

Maksim Smelchak

Photo By Larry Dalton

Rosemont resident Maksim Smelchak has been into war games—games of all sorts, actually—since the 1970s, when an uncle introduced him to the hobby. Smelchak, a former teacher, is now active in dozens of gaming groups, both regional and international, online and in person. In early February, he won a 15-millimeter DBA tournament—that’s De Bellis Antiquitatis, or wars of antiquity—at a small Northern California convention, playing as an Indian army. Among his assets when he sits down to play, or to tell a reporter about his hobby, are a degree in international relations from UC Davis, real-life military experience (in the Air Force) and a deep knowledge of history. (He also put his teaching skills to good use during this interview, teaching said reporter a quick game based on the French Revolution.) Read more about Smelchak on his blog, 6mm-Minis, at He also suggests gamers check out for information on locally made games he plays and visit to learn about a gaming convention to be held in Sacramento in April.

You mentioned that the Prussians developed some of the early war games.

Yeah, specifically, a game called kriegspiel, and for them it was a military preparation and simulation activity … to prepare for what they might have encountered in pre-World War I Franco-Prussian wars and that sort of thing, so that’s kind of the earliest modern basis of the gaming genre and specifically war gaming—although it’s not all war gaming. It’s really more about conflict. I mean, there are a lot of games about train companies trying to build routes, or economic games. From there, the next guy that really helped to push the hobby forward was H.G. Wells, who you might have heard of. … He wrote a book called Little Wars, and that was basically guys taking toy soldiers and playing with each other and having a good time, and that book is oftentimes looked at as the mother of all gaming.

Do people still use war games for practical purposes?

Oh, yeah. Politicians do all the time. Those polls they use in forecasts—most of those use algorithms and conflict simulation that was developed for war gaming. The government does it, too. They use it in a military aspect. Most governments do. It’s conflict simulation. It’s a way to plug in values into a computer. … It’s very much a part of economic study, international-relations study, military, political.

Which war games are your favorites?

I really like one from a guy in England named Jon Tuffley. He runs a company called GZG [Ground Zero Games], and it has a game called Dirtside II. It’s just a science-fiction simulator. … Lately I’ve been playing the DBA and the HOTT, which stands for Hordes of the Things. They’re almost the same game, and they do ancients warfare. Lots of little armies with spears and bows and horses fighting among each other. … The latest board game I like is one called Commands & Colors: Ancients. It’s from a company called GMT, which is local, and I’ve really been enjoying that.

Are you known for being any particular type of gamer?

If I was known for one thing, it’s the size of the miniatures that I like best, that I advocate, and that’s 6 millimeter. And all that means is that the average little piece, the length of the guy from his feet to his head, is 6 millimeters. Why do I like that one? Because I can build an entire batch with buildings and little guys and pieces and everything, and it all fits in a shoebox.

Are there any games focused on Iraq or Afghanistan or other current conflicts?

The Middle East? Yeah, there are tons of them. One that I just heard discussed the other day is a company out of Texas called Steve Jackson Games. They made one called Raid on Iran about the failed [1980] raid to rescue all our hostages. … If you want to cover the Arab-Israeli conflict, there are dozens of games. I have two or three shelves full of ’em, but, you know, one of my particular historical interests is the Middle East, specifically the modern Middle East. … Desert Storm? Sure, there’s a half a dozen there. As far as Afghanistan, no. The general trend of gaming is that a very small fringe wants to do conflicts that are currently running. It usually takes about 10 years before they’ll do a game. So, like, the current insurgency in Iraq or Afghanistan, you won’t find anything on that. You might find a couple of miniature games, guys that make little pieces for mujahedeen … but for the most part, no.

Are a lot of war gamers also amateur historians?

The guys who tend to stay with the hobby tend to be interested in the historical at some point. … It’s hard to play one of these games and not want to look back and find out more. … I used to go to a hobby shop in Rocklin … and the neighborhood kids would come in, and we’d teach them these historical games, and they’d want to learn more about World War II or the Civil War, and God they need that. As a former teacher, kids just aren’t interested enough in history.