Tiny Tanks Hauling Ass: A Weekend of Strategy Gaming

“So, I was with this chick I was banging…”

Those words actually came out of his mouth with a hitch in their step, like they had jumped over some more reasonable formulation of that thought—”a girl I was dating”? “a woman I was seeing”?—eager to prove how fucking badass their speaker was. “Banging” and “chick” were a tactical error of impression on his part, insomuch as I don’t really think I’ve done anything with a chick that would qualify as banging, per se, and anyway have been raised and conditioned to not think in those terms, even when it is just us guys. I’m very banging progressive.

It was probably just overcompensation. The last-second switch to “banging” and “chick” was made, I think, because of where we were talking, a space that is simultaneously almost purely masculine and emasculating in the same moment, like a paintball gear shop or a testicular cancer ward. (I am being unfair here to cancer patients, who after all didn’t choose their lot. Sincere apologies.) The speaker—I am just going to call him Winston—and I were en route to get some pizza or maybe a burrito after having completed seven hours of fictional World War II battles at the Field Marshall Gaming Convention in Oshawa, Ontario. Specifically, at the 420 Royal Air Force Legion.

The FMGCon is a two-day event offering the chance to play literally dozens of what could loosely be called “strategy” games, from maybe more familiar board/dice varieties to boards sans dice, card, card/dice and miniatures, which require not only cards and dice but small figures and hand-built terrains and sometimes measuring tape and laser pointers. It is attended exclusively by men, men who treat Risk like a knock-off Barbie accessory and who bring multiple two-litre bottles of diet soda for single-day sessions and who will drop most worldly concerns to go watch a smallish tank just haul ass around an adjacent field. (One of the co-sponsors of this event is a website called I Will Never Grow Up Gaming, although truthfully the Legion Hall this weekend feels less like a rumpus room full of scattered Lego than a detached garage full of soldering tools.)

Besides watching the tank, I am here exclusively to play Axis & Allies—arguably the pre-eminent World War II-based strategy game and one I have been playing since I was about 13 and my cousin stopped wanting to play Dungeons & Dragons with me—in support of a good friend of mine who has recently had a baby and is taking his adult male interactions in generous gulps. This purely support role is not really as accurate as I am telling you or myself it is, but a lot of people in Oshawa tell themselves a lot of things.

“We were leaving the bar to go to this party … I wasn’t drinking or anything, not with that car.”

Before we left for what became burritos, Winston popped the hood and revved the engine of his utterly immaculate 1980-something T-top Camaro Z28. He also popped the trunk and sparked one of a cigarette’s case worth of joints, which explained his semi-frequent breaks from the table.

These twin peeks under the hood counted as the first things I learned about Winston: Through most of our actual game, he had remained stoic if occasionally forceful, always focused on the game, more or less guiding me and another player in a slow but assured dismantling of the Axis’s (my friend’s) vastly superior forces. 

(An aside: Excluding the odd entirely inappropriate joke, it is rarely addressed around the game board that all of these world powers have very real historical analogues, some of which, it could be argued, embodied the concept of human evil. But I am guessing that, like, having to mark annexed territories with a swastika would probably weaken the German players’ resolve some, and create a crucial game imbalance.)

My friend has—and I say this as someone who loves him unreservedly—a nearly obsessive-compulsive focus when it comes to Axis & Allies, which makes him almost impossible (for me) to beat; that Winston had not adorned himself with any visible Nazi paraphernalia was basically good enough for me during the game.

Losing happens to me enough when I play strategy games that I don’t even really rank it as an annoyance. Actually, losing doesn’t really, really bother me, but mostly only because I can subsume the not inconsiderable pride I have in my rational faculty under the ridiculousness that this is all just a game. And anyway, who is really willing to sit there and carefully pick apart and dissect the movements of like 60-odd fake tanks and battleships when there’s another cold beer in the fridge (or Legion Hall cooler)?

The answer, of course, is literally everyone I am sitting in this Legion Hall with, including my friends.

“This guy was really mad at me about something. I think maybe he was after one of the chicks I was going to the party with. But he was also on a lot of drugs and had stolen the dirt bike, so who really knows?”

Strategy games tend to dress themselves up in various clothes of appeal—maybe your thing is space marines as opposed to World War II (statistically speaking, it’s either one of those or dragons)—but they are all essentially trying to replicate chess: two equal sides trying to kill one another. Like chess, what you do is secondary, really, to what you think your opponent is going to do; when we talk about thinking a number of moves ahead, what we mean is that we understand our opponent well enough that we know what they are likely to do. Ideally, our moves are a kind of anticipatory reaction.

This comes with a considerable amount of intellectual cachet (well, at least in chess), but that’s not even really half of it. Knowing what is possible is an analytical skill, but choosing possibilities is something else. That’s about knowing your enemy.

Quite a few of the people at FMGCon travel around and meet each other at similar sorts of events across the continent—there are realistically only so many people in any given geographical area who are interested in driving fake tanks across fake Europe. Something like outreach or growing popularity is not something even the organizers of the Con discuss: This kind of event is solely about giving everyone a space to meet up, maybe try a new game, but probably just finally play that miniatures map you have been working on by yourself for the first eight months of this year.

I stuck to playing Axis & Allies with my friends, although without Winston for the second game we kind of fell into similar patterns. I ended up resigning the second game at about one in the morning after making a mistake that Winston had corrected me on like four times.

“He must have hit me pretty good … I don’t really remember it. I ended up in a coma. I’m glad I don’t remember it. He broke my femur—it came out of skin. There’s a steel rod in there now. … Also left me with some brain damage. Yeah, my memory’s in the 18th percentile of people. ... My problem-solving is good, though. I think it’s 93rd. That’s why I can still play pretty well.”

Winston did not come out to the second day of FMGCon. Whatever remains of the 420 Legion did, though, for a Battle of Britain remembrance ceremony. They watched an Air Cadets marching band and then came in to eat those little mayonnaise-heavy triangle sandwiches, each one wearing whatever uniform they retired from the service in.

On the other side of the room, up three short stairs and below a row of dart boards, about 20 or so people, including me, re-fought a West German tank battle, the landing at Omaha beach, the Pacific theatre and the entirety of World War II.

Neither group really said much of anything to the other.

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