Something Completely Different: Throwing Dice at Dad’s Plastic Army Men

Not every game needs to be complicated. I recently saw a discussion of simple, off-the-cuff rules for miniatures, and it reminded me of a game I used to play with my father. Here’s how it worked:

1. Grab some plastic army men. Players should probably have the same number–about eight is good.
2. Go outside. Both players can build a little fortress out of whatever stuff is around, or one player can build a fortress and the other player can be the attacker (in which case the attacker gets to make some shallow ditches to serve as trenches, set up low walls, and otherwise prepare the terrain).
3. Put your army men in sensible places, pretty close to each other–there shouldn’t be more than a couple yards of “no man’s land” between the players’ armies. Feel free to have your army men take cover in your fortress or in the terrain, but you’re not allowed to completely hide army men from your opponent and you’re not allowed to wedge your army men in or otherwise make it unnaturally hard for them to fall over.
4. Take turns throwing a die–just a regular six-sided die from a board game–at the opponent’s army men. You have to throw from close to one of your soldiers, so positioning matters. If you knock down or flip over an opponent’s army man, that guy is out. If you just jostle an army man but it stays upright, the army man can keep fighting.
5. Players have to move way out of the way during the opponent’s turn, so that no one gets hit by the die. This is a very safe game so long as everyone is reasonable about it; be reasonable by moving aside so that the die can’t hit you if it bounces (or if the opponent just misses).
6. During your turn you can move one of your army men the length of a short stick–maybe six inches. You can use a stick from outside, or if you cut the army men off sprues you can use a sprue. It doesn’t matter so long as both players have the same length stick. (Be careful with the sticks, of course.)

That was it. In fact, that’s enormously more rules than my father and I actually had; we just kind of figured things out as we went. It seemed logical that army men should be able to move, so we grabbed some plastic sprues from the army man set and used them to measure how far they could go. The game wasn’t fun when army men were braced and impossible to knock down, so we said that that wasn’t legal. We never wrote the rules of this game down; the listing above is the first time they’ve been recorded in any kind of formal way (at least by me–I’m sure other people have played similar games).

And you know what else? That game was super fun! It was very thematic (which wasn’t the word I used when I was eleven, but you get the idea). Good tactics were important, but there were also elements of physical skill and luck that allowed for comebacks after a tactical mistake. (Plus, throwing things has an entertainment value all its own.) Building the fortresses was great; we played on a rocky beach that had lots of building materials.

I’d like to say I have a big point about game design to make with this post. Maybe there is something here about how understanding game design in a rule-driven way doesn’t have to lead to ossification of the art, or how the fun of building something in the context of a game can extend to building the game itself. If I’m being honest, though, my real motivation was to say this:

Play outside with your kids. They’ll treasure those memories. I know I do.