Miniature armies go to war in Oakland

| Friday, July 27, 2007

War is brewing in Oakland.

For centuries, the Emperor has been battling the forces of Chaos in the galaxy; on this Saturday morning, in an upper room in South Craig Street, rival factions have gathered. Preparations have been underway for months. Infighting and old vendettas have built to a breaking point. There is only one honorable way to resolve this feud: bust out the miniatures.

"My girlfriend calls it 'using my little soldiers,'" said longtime player Dominic Metzger, 25, of the North Side. "I'm like, they're not toys, they're models."

This is tabletop wargaming, where wee figurines battle across a carefully-crafted tabletop landscape. Oakland comics and gaming shop Phantom of the Attic opens its second floor to all players every Saturday. The current game of choice is Warhammer 40,000, what store manager Leonard Jarabeck describes as fantasy characters in a war-torn 41st millenium.

Games can last all day. Wielding mini-tape measures and enough dice for three simultaneous games of Yahtzee, a player's success rests on a mixture of luck and careful positioning. Rules and objectives vary depending on the game, but dice always are involved.

"It's a game based on probability," Metzger said. "It's like gambling in a way: nothing's ever assured, you just try to increase your odds of succeeding."

Warhammer 40,000 is one of many such war strategy games. They vary from the sci-fi/fantasy genre of Warhammer 40,000, to historically-based games like Glory, set in the American Civil War. According to Jarabeck, the games gained popularity in the mid-'80s, but H.G. Wells is credited with authoring the first book of miniature wargaming rules in 1913.

The Warhammer universe has a complicated backstory and more than a dozen unique races to fight with, each with its own specialized abilities and weaknesses. It helps to have a grasp of how to think ahead, Metzger said.

"It's sort of like chess," he said. "You move pawns up to block pieces behind them. It's a lot of positioning."

Armies are composed of detailed figurines a little larger than ping-pong balls, each one painstakingly hand-painted by their "general" -- the player. Devotees of tabletop wargaming spend hours bent over the tiny models, using fine-tipped brushes (and sometimes magnifying glasses) to pick out every detail. Call them anal-retentive, but for wargaming, that's a requirement: miniatures must be painted to play. This is the "hobby" portion of the game, and for some, it's the most important part. Jarabeck painted miniatures for nine years as a hobby before actually learning to play the game.

"It's a throwback to a traditional hobby, almost counter to technology," store owner Jeff Yandora said. "People of all ages and both sexes paint them."

A wide range of age levels are represented at Phantom of the Attic on Saturday mornings, but players are overwhelmingly male.

"It's a guy game, mostly," Metzger said. "In 13 years of playing, I've seen very few female players.

"I guess it's the soldiers and the guns."

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. According to the official Warhammer 40k Web site, at least. Here's the cast of characters:

Space Marines: humanity's finest warriors, complete with extra organs, superhuman strength and skulls for faces.

Eldar : ancient elf-like race fighting to reclaim their place in the galaxy. Rather snooty.

Imperial Guard : common or garden brave human soldiers. There are a lot of them.

Daemonhunters : specialized Imperial forces that ... hunt daemons.

Witch Hunters : specialized Imperial forces that "purge evil from the worlds of Man with the cleansing fire of purity."

Tau Empire : idealistic, rapidly-growing alien race with superior technology. The nicest ones (comparatively).

Chaos Space Marines : regular Space Marines gone evil. Traitors who can summon daemons and use evil magic.

Dark Eldar : regular Eldar gone evil. Known for piratical raids and never-ending torture.

Orks : barbarous, bloodthirsty, not-too-bright aliens. And they're ugly.

Tyranids : buggy aliens that planet-hop, growing ever-stronger by consuming all available biological resources -- dead or alive.

Necrons : traded their living bodies to the gods in exchange for metal shells and eternal solitude, and now seek domination over all that live.

-- Games Workshop Warhammer 40,000 Web site Additional Information:


When: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays

Where: Phantom of the Attic 214 S. Craig St., Oakland

Details: 412-682-6290

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