A journal following the history, design, construction and operation of Bernard Kempinski's O Scale model railroad depicting the U. S. Military Railroad (USMRR) Aquia-Falmouth line in 1863, and other model railroad projects.
©Bernard Kempinski All text and images, except as noted, on this blog are copyrighted by the author and may not be used without permission.

March 2, 2019

Back to my roots?

Scene from a Johnny Reb  game depicting Gettysburg with some photoshop smoke.
I was feeling under the weather this week, and my mom was ill too, so I did not get  much modeling done. However, on Friday, my buddies JD Drye and Mark Franke, invited me to participate in  miniature war-game depicting combat in France in 1944.  I decided to accept their gracious invite, especially since some of the models we would use were painted and detailed by JD and Mark, both experts in that hobby.

I used to do a lot of war-gaming, both in miniature, and board games, and some computer games before taking up model railroading. Since I was primarily a Mac OS user, the selection of decent computer war-games was slim, so I didn't partake much. But I did a lot of miniature gaming, particularly with John Hill and his Johnny Reb system.

John exhibits exceptional sportsmanship as he acknowledges an extremely lucky
57mm anti-tank shot that destroyed the sole armor support he had in the scenario.
As I got more into model railroading, I let my gaming interest wane. In fact, in the past 20 years, I had played just one miniature wargame.  There were several reasons for that.

First, model railroading is a great, multi-faceted  hobby that can be very time consuming. If you want to get a layout done, you have to stay focused. That might sound odd from me, as I dabble in lots of things, but the Aquia Line has been a steady current though all the conflicting tides of disparate projects, museum models and other diversions.

The second reason is that wargaming can be competitive. Life is tough enough without more competition. On the other hand, model railroading is cooperative. I like that aspect of the hobby. It's one of the reasons I am not a fan of model railroad contests, though I do occasionally partake them. Afterwards, I usually ask myself, why did I do that?  About a few years will transpire and I will go through the same cycle. Doh!

Model railroaders is also a very social hobby. Even though we spend lots of time alone in the basement, we can share the hobby with a world wide fraternity through writing, blogs, joint work sessions, open houses, RPM meets, and the NMRA. My wife is no longer amazed about how, regardless of where we travel, there is usually a fellow model railroader we can visit.

By modeling a Civil War railroad I was able to combine my interest in military history with model railroading. I feel my civil war era railroad allowed me to opportunity to learn a lot about American political, technology, military, and economic history.  At the same time, I was able to develop a somewhat unique railroad that also allows for fun operations.

I also had a nagging feeling that some aspects of war-gaming trivialize combat, especially WWII. Many war-gamers are infatuated with German WWII weaponry, while ignoring the attendant horror. I studied WWII quite a bit in my high school and college days, but I didn't have much urge to wargame it. I used to say to folks, I lose interest in war-gaming with the advent of the machine gun and its wholesale slaughter.

However, JD and Mark spoke highly of the WWII game system they were starting to play. It's called Bolt Action. It's a skirmish level game meaning that battles that are platoon to company size with individual soldiers and vehicles.  I picked up the copy of the rules and it did appear that the game system captured the fire and movement of WWII tactics without too much complexity. Being a former Army officer, a realistic simulation of tactics is important if I am to appreciate a game or simulation.

The Bolt Action system is oriented to using 28mm figures, which scale out to about 1:56. Somewhere between S and O scale. I should note that I have hundreds of 28mm civil war figures on my layout as forced perspective objects.  But I was dubious that such large scale figures could work in a game, after all weapon could fire across the  room if done to scale.

Armored vehicles are primary targets in a situation like this.
JD did his utmost to neutralize this Sherman, even
after it was immobilized by an anti-tank round from his
 armored vehicle.
So I went into the game Friday with an open, but skeptical mind. Unfortunately, Mark had to cancel at the last minute, but JD and I went ahead. JD had created a nicely detailed terrain board with an interesting, freelanced scenario.  The game system presented a lot of difficult decision making. It did reward sound tactics, but luck and some gamesmanship played a part too. Overall it was an enjoyable experience, and I would probably like to see how works in other scenarios too. The larger figures worked out well since the game focuses on infantry combat, with armor and artillery in support.

Part of the enjoyment of the miniature war-gaming hobby is making an interesting, but functional terrain board.  Some people care less about this and are happy to play over a plain table, but most others prefer a nicely detailed scene. I learned many of the scenery techniques I use today in model railroading from building war-gaming terrain.

War-gaming terrain has to be tough as it gets handled a lot in the games. It should be reconfigurable as to allow use in multiple scenarios. However, I specialized in making detailed pieces for each battle. For example, I  once made a detailed model of the Marshall House that was about 2 by 2 feet for use in a large wargame depicting the battle of Cedar Creek. Unfortunately, I never got any good photos of those terrain pieces. I do have some scenes from a Gettysburg game, see above.

The Bolt Action game was a fun diversion. JD and Mark are good friends and any excuse to hang out with them is welcome. Mark commented to me, that he is glad he is getting into WWII gaming as it is causing him to go back and research things that he had forgotten or never knew. All of our parents participated in the war in some manner, so it is a way for us to think about their sacrifices in a pleasant setting. As JD says, "our soldiers don't bleed."


  1. Well if you do decide to explore adding more gaming to your time I would recommend Chain of Command from Too Fat Lardies over Bolt Action on the WWII side. For ACW I would lean towards the updated Fire and Fury roles at the brigade level or their new regimental level rules. Too Fat Lardies also has a good set of ACW rules called Pickett’s Charge.

  2. Played a little Johnny Reb many moons ago. Much fun. Local train buddy played a lot of Ironclads back in the day. Trying to get him interested in Advanced Squad Leader, but that's another rabbit-hole neither of us really have the time for, unfortunately...

  3. I found your comments on contests in model railroading hitting close to home. I don't care to add the stress to my hobby that comes from contests, yet I still fall for it regularly.
    I model for my own enjoyment, but do like to get suggestions and constructive comments. I always seem to walk away from a contest a little less satisfied than expected, even when the model scores well.
    I enjoy your blog!