Wargames match strategies on plywood battlefields

June 25, 1997


Staff Writer

Imagine it's the 22nd century and all the world's governments have collapsed, only to be replaced by a handful of mega-corporations.

You command the neo-Japanese Mashima Corp., which is doing battle with the Cybertronic Corp.

Your battlefield is a 4-by-8-foot piece of plywood, built to resemble Mars with red and gray terrain. Your armies are represented by miniature hand-painted models.

Entire battles are won and lost at the roll of the dice.

Scenes like this are played out in the back rooms of gaming shops all over the Tri-State area as the popularity of tabletop gaming grows.


The Gaming Realm started in Frederick, Md., and has opened three stores in three years to meet the demand - in Hagerstown, Martinsburg, W.Va., and Frostburg, Md.

Popular in the 1970s, strategy and role-playing games have made a comeback just like platform shoes and disco.

There are more companies than ever, each constantly introducing new games with new characters and new settings, gamers say.

Some people go for the fantasy games with elves and magicians. Others are into games based on Star Trek. Then there are the historical wargamers, who enjoy recreating actual battles.

Some enjoy painting the tiny models just as much, if not more than, playing the game. The pewter models cost about $3 each, but there also are less expensive plastic ones.

The hobby appeals to people of all ages, from 8 to 80. Still, most of the players are men.

"It's a male thing," said Malcolm "Thunder" Booker, manager of Brainstorm Comics in Frederick.

But one game-maker is trying to change that this August, when it introduces the first all-female army called "Sisterhood of Battle," he said.

Teen `hangout'

At The Gaming Realm in Hagerstown on a typical weekend night, teenage boys park their bikes on South Potomac Street and go inside, where they drink sodas, listen to the radio and play the game. Some battles last all night.

Their colorful miniature collections are stored in a locked case when they're not in play.

"It's not so much of a store as a hangout," said David Winger, 17, of Hagerstown. "Really, the place gives people something to do."

Store Manager John Maddox, 22, said the shop keeps teenagers out of trouble.

"At 11 p.m. and midnight, I know where `my kids' are," said Maddox, who credits the game with helping him straighten out his own life.

Maddox said he became an alcoholic when he went to college, but getting back into gaming brought him back to reality and he left the party scene.

"The games actually had more of an effect for me than AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) did," he said.

Maddox gave up a high-stress job doing computer technical support over the telephone to manage the shop. He enjoys the job even though it's a commitment of up to 70 hours a week.

He's also very good at playing the game, coming in third at last year's U.S. Championships in Baltimore.

Pete Baxter, 34, comes to the Hagerstown shop once a week. It's an outlet approved by his wife, Bonnie.

Eventually, he hopes to teach his month-old son Jacob how to play.

"I think that in general you can learn good sportsmanship. And you learn strategy," said Baxter, an engineer who works for Hagerstown's Light Department.

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