Wednesday, June 3, 2009

54mm WWII

21st Century Toys Pzkpfw IV in front of scratch-built shadowbox buildings

54mm may seem an odd scale to game World War II and up until a few years ago, I would have agreed. My foray into this scale and genre happened not by design (no, really!). Four or five years ago Wal-Mart was for a short period selling Forces of Valor 1/35 die-cast WWII vehicles for $20.00 CAD. These were the basic models with simple paint jobs and very few accessories. They're not as well-painted as the showcase models now marketed by Forces of Valor and 21st Century Toys. What they did provide were simple and effective models with moving parts and a durability not found in most gaming models (you can literally drop these on the floor with no ill consequences...and I've done it, multiple times). I initially bought a few of these models just to put on a shelf in my painting room; a couple Shermans, a US halftrack with the quad AA gun on the back, and a British Matilda in very cool desert camouflage markings. I soon found that Forces of Valor also made (and still produce) painted infantry figures to go with the vehicles. Once I realized this, the seeds of a project began to grow. In my mind at the time, this would be the ideal project because I wouldn't have to paint a single figure or vehicle. Now, granted the paint jobs on the figures are very basic but they suffice. Besides, I wasn't envisioning a project with exquisitely painted models on realistic terrain. What I really had in mind was more of a Pulp-style game, something like stealing Nazi gold from a bank ala Kelly's Heroes. In these games, I could see vehicles catapulted into the air and bursting into flames, which actually became a staple and consistent rule of our games: any vehicle that completely leaves the ground must immediately burst into flames. That's the way they do it in Hollywood, isn't it? The most real work I had to do on this project came in three stages:

1) finding and buying the figures and equipment (not work, really)
2) creating some buildings and other terrain pieces
3) hosting games (which proved to be more work than I thought)

21st Century Toys very cool little German motorcycle combo (this one's a bit fiddly and fragile but worth it nonetheless)

I began collecting figures and vehicles on eBay and from hobby shops. Unfortunately, Wally World stopped marketing the inexpensive models but I was able to find some good deals on-line. Much of collection now is made up of 21st Century Toys vehicles, and although these are very nice models, they aren't quite as durable as their Forces of Valor cousins. The former are made all of plastic and thus can't be dropped successfully. They are still very user-friendly, in that they can take a lot of on-table abuse. The figures were as easily found and I discovered that 21st Century Toys also makes painted infantry. It should be noted, however, that although there is a large selection of painted vehicles available in this scale, figures are a different matter. Only the basic types can be found painted (and at reasonable prices): US infantry and airborne, German infantry, British infantry, and some mortar and gun crews.

The giant bank built for a Kelly's Heroes-style scenario.

Making the terrain became more of a challenge than I had anticipated. Many of my 28mm pieces were utilized, especially trees. I like large trees for my 28mm games and these translated into smaller, fruit-grove-like trees for 54mm. The buildings, however, needed to be built from scratch. Fortunately, I have some experience in this aspect of the hobby and I set out enthusiastically. I found that buildings in this scale could have quite a large table footprint so I decided to try some shadow box buildings. These are essentially Hollywood-style false fronts that sit at the edge of the table and have fully-modeled facades with little depth. In fact, my creations are only 5" deep (you can see one of these in the photo at the top of the page).

Hosting of the games, something with which I also have some experience, also proved more work than I initially intended. The scale demanded large tables and large tables tend to attract many convention onlookers and gamers interested in taking part. So, sheer physical size was a demanding hurdle to overcome but I like the building, no problem. Rules, on the other hand, were a far more serious obstacle to success. I wanted a Pulp-like feel to the games and none of the existing WWII sets on the market were really designed for that. I thus set out to design my own rules (something with which I had, at the time, little practical experience). "Design" is perhaps an overly grand word for what I did produce. It was closer to Hollywood Kriegspiel than anything else. In fact, every time I ran a game with the collection, the rules were different and the experience changed. Basically, I made it up as I went along! To give some perspective here, I was once asked to present a 54mm WWII game for a wargaming stag party (which, by the way, is an excellent way to raise money for a prospective groom who is also a gamer). Attendees at this mini-convention were asked to pay to play in games in order to raise money for the groom and there was also a silent auction. I added another dimension to the money-raising efforts. Gamers were encouraged to bet money in my game to influence events.

"I didn't like that die roll that killed my machine-gunner, I'll pay $5.00 to re-roll!"
"Well, I'll pay $6.00 to keep the die roll."

And so on. I even had players paying money to move physical objects on the table to ensure clear fields of fire and their opponents bidding to move them back. Players would bid money to be allowed to do outrageous things:

"I want to have my sergeant jump out of the second story window, clutching a grenade in his teeth, and roll onto the moving armoured car, pulling the pin on the grenade, and simultaneously slitting the throat of the enemy commander, then rolling off the vehicle onto the ground, all the time smiling and keeping his hair from moving. I'll bid $5.00!"

I'm happy to say we raised $180.00 from that game alone!

These days, the collection gets pulled out once or twice per year for some outrageous fun. It never fails to produce smiles.

21st Century Toys Pak40 with Forces of Valor sandbags.

21st Century German half track and civilian vehicles modified as generic German trucks.


  1. Fantastic!!! You might like to see my blog, lots of 54mm stuff!