Sunday, 7 May 2017

Plastic Army Men – The Game

Plastic Army Men – The Game

Where to begin.

At the beginning with my childhood I think. My parents were pretty poor, I`m not just talking about... not having much disposable income kind of poor. Nor am I talking about emergency money for a rainy day saved in a jar under the bed sort of lifestyle. No, I`m talking about making a single loaf of bread (if we could afford a loaf that week) last all week by rationing what we could eat, to one slice of bread a day - each.

So where as other kids mostly had Airfix soldiers to play with, I usually had plastic bags of Army Men. Hell I didn’t mind, I loved them. I know Airfix were better proportioned and in realistic scale, and tended to stand up on their bases better. The vehicles and tanks looked cooler and again.. they tended to have much more accurate detail and were more in keeping with the Airfix figures themselves. But **sighs** they were a lot more expensive. Airfix miniatures came in nice boxes, about 48 miniatures to a set and you could choose what army you were buying, from the dozens of available boxes in their nice eclectic range.

Army Men were a mass produced mess of cheap plastic. You had no idea what you were getting, and they came in zip locker bags with all the plastic bits all mashed together into a big pile. Within each bag you got dozens of poor quality plastic soldiers... usually in various colours from Green (seemingly the most common), sandy light brown (Tan), Grey, Red and Blue. Other colours did exist, but thankfully they were not plentiful. Yellow being pretty much the yuckiest of them all, though I have seen salmon Pink - ewwww!!!  Dispersed in the bag amongst the mashed up figures tended to be odds and ends, barrels, crates, bunkers, sandbags, the occasional tree or palm, a jeep, an armoured car, a plane, a helicopter, or if you got really lucky - a tank. There were special sets too, containing all the juicy stuff like “The Army Camp” “Special Force 9 Commando Pack” containing artillery guns, boats, gliders and paratroopers, commandoes and a really cool looking bridge and pill box. These tended to be more pricy, so I never got one of these myself but often lusted after them in the toy shops.

What I remember most of all about Army Men, is the smell of the plastic bags. It`s an unusual smell... once sniffed, never forgotten. A sort of mix between blow up camping mat and blow up plastic doll. Some would call it an unpleasant smell, but too me it is pure nostalgia in a nostril (maybe not the blow up doll bit though lol). Even now if I go into a toy shop and smell a bag of Army Men... which is not hard, just place your head within 18 inches and the prevailing reek with reach your nose, especially if the shop is hot and the plastic is warm... I am transported right back to my childhood.

I`ve already said, I didn’t mind the fact I had these cheaper toys as a kid, and in fact in the end, I did end up with lots of Airfix ones in any case, as the years went by. But Airfix are now all but gone, and 50 years on... Army Men are still going strong. Made in China I am amazed just how many of these cheap toys still get pumped out each and every year. They are everywhere, millions of them. They are in every corner shop, every newsagents (in the dingy corner of the shop at the back, in the compulsory designated toys for the boys section), Army Men are in the big toy shops too, all over the globe, and amazingly would you believe, are even sold in places like Harrods of London.

Nowadays a bag of Army men will contain anything from 100 assorted colour soldiers (and a few assorted bits and bobs, and maybe the odd plane and vehicle) for about £1:50, or 2:50 euro. A big round plastic tub containing 300 soldiers in four different armies – 50 men each colour, will cost you about £5:00 or 7:50 euro. And the big boxed sets containing all the yummy stuff, anywhere from a tenner upwards to about £15:00 quid (or 20 euro).

Well, I happen to like the size of these Army Men. About 2 and a bit inches in height.... or for the gaming purist - 54mm. I`d have loved to do my America War of Independence or my English Civil War gaming in this scale, and have often daydreamed of doing just that. But when you consider that even the cheapest `proper` wargame miniature in that scale (probably Irregular Miniatures) is between £3:75p and £5:00 each figure. Hell I can get two bags of Army Men.. 200 or so toy figures.. for the cost of buying a single 54mm metal figure made by a proper wargame company.

So that`s just what I did. Not for American War of Independence or for English Civil War (I`m not that lucky lol) but for quasi WWII/ modern gaming. Basically I went out, hit the three most likely shops (4 miles down the road in Bantry) and I bought myself  seven packs of toys - for a grand total of 19 euro and 78 cent.
This yielded me about 800 toy soldiers, 17 tanks, 9 jeeps, 10 aircraft, 2 helicopters, 8 artillery pieces and crew, and a heap shit load of tents, sandbags, bunkers, gun emplacements, command post, buildings, etc etc. I came home laden, with literally a whole new hobby under my arm, with change out of 20 euro... or £15:00.
I seriously considered just ripping everything out of the bags and playing with it all unpainted for ever more (many people do, as the Army Men have a definite charm and appeal.. even as they are, in their raw state).
Unpainted, straight out the bag and ready to play with.

But I said to myself:  “No, no! wooooah there young Steve” and I sat back and thought about it all for a little while, meanwhile making myself a big cup of tea and cogitating my good fortune.
Bloody hell,  Where to begin.
Straight away I knew I wanted to get an old school look to my new toys. So I went on line and did a bit of research. I wanted to know how the Britains company painted their figures. I eventually found a site and read the personal account of a Chinese worker (like most British made toys, production moved to China long, long ago, back in the 80`s and 90`s.. though many people don’t realise this. But yeah in reality about %80 of all European toys, if they are not made in China or Korea, then they come from Poland or the Ukraine).
The article was simply delightful and most illuminating. And even included a whole bit about how this woman painted so many hundreds of toys each day... for about the equivalent wage of about £3:00 a day. The article was in a Chinese dialect, but I struggled though it by using a pc translator and by turning to a friend who is fluent and was able to translate the bits I couldn’t read.  By the end of it, I not only had a thorough social study of the life of a Chinese worker, but for me... I had the knowledge I was seeking. The information on how to recreate the style of painting I so wanted to emulate. 
Mine..... all MINE... woohahahahaa!!!
Oh the joys of solo cogitation.
Next, I went down to my local hardware store and bought myself a ton of metal washers, to lend my figures chunky weight (just like Britains soldiers) and to help them to stand on my wargames table when I use them in my games. ... and then eventually - I set to work painting.
Ooops but first I went on line and learned all I could about Army Men.  To my amazement I quickly discovered there is a whole sub genre of the hobby out there, all about Army Men. Gamers have been enjoying Wargames and narrative rpg skirmish games using these cheap toys for ages... WHY DID I NEVER KNOW ANY OF THIS? I asked myself, with dead-pan face. Best of all are the amazing stop motion movies to be found on You Tube, some of these are simply incredible. Check out the few cool ones I`ve included below.
By the end of a full day`s research I was armed with everything I felt I needed to make my own start into this fascinating sub genre hobby. I learned there is a whole underground movement of gamers out there who have created Vietnam, Korean War (just imagine being able to do the series MASH, Oooo.. so cooool), or you can play whole imaginary wars, and I am completely honest here.... I have cribbed and copied and borrowed and stole and used every new idea my eyes fell upon (far too much material for me to acknowledge every source I found), suffice to say, I am now armed to the teeth and ready to join the noble ranks of The Green Nation and their allies.. versus the evil Tan empire... and its many vile guises of domination and dictatorship (well, that`s one side of the story anyway) hehe. Or maybe just play Hawkeye, Max Klinger, Margaret Houlihan and Father Mulcahy hehe and the whole TV show MASH phenomena.
But back to the painting. I knew by now (having seen how it’s done by others) that I even wanted to keep the plastic moulding flash on the figures (to keep them authentic looking), I also wanted to get the feel of toy soldiers right. I would be too easy to paint them just like modellers paint their wargame armies, but I badly wanted to maintain that old Britains toy soldier look,... the one I so deeply craved to recreate for myself in my new collection.
Once I knew where I was going with everything, it took me just under a day to undercoat, paint, base and varnish the first 100 soldiers and various vehicles, tanks and some choice terrain pieces. 
.....that`s still less than £2`s worth from the Pound Shop, amazing or what.
I still can’t get over the price. For far less money that a single wargame expansion for Zombicide or Arkham Horror, or a handful of metal rpg miniatures... I had literally just bought myself a while hobby in one go. £15:00 was all, I still couldn’t quite believe it. I had enough figures to play any kind of game I wanted, and had enough spare to litter the board with casualty figures (the brave dead): had spares to make duplicates of personality figures (here`s Colonel Simpson standing giving orders.... here`s Colonel Simpson sitting down in his jeep.... here`s Colonel Simpson lying down on the ground looking through binoculars, etc etc), and this would still leave me with enough to make a decent 100 strong zombie horde if I wanted to. Heck, buy another bag for a couple of euro and I could have 300+ zombies at my control. Suddenly the whole sky really was an affordable limit.
Charlie Tango Base Camp Alpha 1: Just south of the slopes of the Tan Chi Chi Men Trail.
Heavy little buggers, once you put the metal washers on the bottom of each figure.
Can`t wait to get the Aliens and Space Marines Army Men bag. You get 35 figures in it for less than a fiver.
 I have now played my initial Army Men games, a few short battles to get used to my preferred system for it (actually Mutants and Death Ray Guns), and one really big game using many dozens of minis. I took loads of photos and made many notes, so am in a good position to turn these into AAR`s, but I think I will wait on that, and just keep the article short... this time round. I have found that sometimes less is more. Besides, you may all hate this, in which case I`ll just do it for myself and not bore you all with it, lol. But if I gauge there is an interest, then heck yeah... I got loads I`d really love to discuss about these cheap and cheerful little Army Men dudes, and I`d very much love to share some of my adventures and batreps with you guys.

I do hope you enjoyed reading this. If so, please do keep watching this space, this is just the beginning of a new (almost embarrassingly cheap) passion for me. So much more to come on this topic over the coming weeks and months if you want to hear about it.

As always, please do comment as they are always massively appreciated.

Like I said, still not sure yet where I will ultimately take this game. Will I do historical - aka Bolt Acton style... quasi historical... `what if` history?  Imagi-nation.... modern fantasy.... will I do zombies..... sci-fi..... Xenomorph Aliens maybe, with Ripley and the gang.....  Starship Troopers perhaps..... Mutated futures (M&DRG)..... superheroes (there has always been a WWII Captain America “Winter Soldier” and Hydra in me just dying to be released into the world hahaha)..... or will I follow the path already laid out by others – usually taking the PS console game route (they`ve made a whole run of absolutely awesome Army Men computer games since 1998).... I really am spoilt for choice here. But anyway, hopefully I will share it all with you over the coming weeks and months and years.
Everything but the Kitchen Sink
We'll fight them by the frying pan,
We'll fight them by the pot.
We'll fight them in the cold of night,
We'll fight them when it's hot.
We'll fight them on the kitchen bench,
We'll fight them on the floor.
We'll fight them as long as needed,
To finally win this war.
We'll fight them through the kitchen,
We'll drive them through the door.
We'll claim another victory,
In this never-ending war.

Article by Steve


  1. Captivating stuff, Steve, from the very first photo (which immediately caught my attention when it appeared on my reading list) through to the end. I grew up with Britains minis myself; albeit they were very expensive so I collected them as singles and stuck to the single-coloured Airfix (both large/small scale) for pitched battles, and found your writing immediately taking me back to those heady days.

    I like your simple yet effective painting too; especially the Japanese, where simply the fact of their guns being given a coat of black has made an incredible difference to their appearance.

    Wonderful article, and considering how many words/pictures it includes, I'm very pleased you've taken the time to post it up. More please ;-)

    1. Hey Simon mate, I`m so glad you found it interesting. Haha, you remember this stuff with nostalgia too, that's so cool. I owned a few Britains... and a few Timpo too (Christmas presents from my nana) and they were the price and joy of my collection. Airfix (both sizes) were my true delight though, but for a lot of my early years it was the cheaper Army Men I was utterly absorbed with collecting. Just about all my paper round pocket money went on collecting them LOL.

      I`m glad you like the simple painting. Its soooo easy to want to paint more and more on each one, and before you know it, you might as well just be painting a normal wargame figure (you could do it that way too of course, the miniatures hold enough detail to warrant this much attention if you wanted to) but for me, I wanted to get that authentic `Boys Own` look.

      The Japs are fun to do (the simple black gun makes them work). At first I did them on bases of four, but soon went back and redid the lot of them individually, as it allows much ore skirmish game scope on the game board. I originally based them all for mass battle (One Hour Wargames) but soon changed my mind.

  2. Hats it, I`m buying Army Men, lots of them.

    It is a pretty sobering thought, isn’t it, that I`ve spent an absolute fortune on buying top price miniatures, thinking nothing of spending £3 or £4 per figure, and sometimes a lot more if it`s a special one I really want. Look at Super Dungeon Explore.. £20 for a 28mm Candy miniature made of plastic!!!! Or the new Batman Miniatures Game: £12 to £18 pound for just one figure. And yet here, for {{let`s see, what is it}} £2 in the Pound Shop you can walk away with a bag dull of a couple of hundred minis, and all sorts of extra terrain bits too. I just did some checking up as well, This same company make whole range of Army Men Romans, Fantasy, Pirates, Zombies (yep.. that`s right, ZOMBIES), they do a very cool Horror set (over 100 unique sculpts for that), and historical American Revolution and Wild West. They even do Sci-fi and Aliens and Space Marines. I mean WOW, how cool is that, and they are so CHEAP. They may not be the best sculpts in the world, but they paint up just fine, and because they`re so cheap, they are just begging to be converted, head swaps, and poses altered and what not. I think these are utterly remarkable, and I cannot believe I`ve never HEARD of, let alone thought or using these before. It`s actually a real, total hobby life changer for me.

    THANK YOU Stevie for opening my eyes with this cool post. I`m still up in the clouds over this, and not come down yet. This will completely change my hobby life I think. It hurts too (would be easy to dismiss this, people never like looking at things that makes them question truth) because it brings into question all future practises of purchasing and collecting. But hell I`m no fool, would I buy one fantasy mini for £5, or 100 minis for the same money: think the answer there is pretty obvious **grins**

    1. Hi Tar` and hey, I`m glad you liked it. Gives you something new to aim for collecting when you get back :))

      Hmmmmm, I`m not sure I`d actually suggest anyone buy Army Men instead of wargame miniatures (though of course they could I suppose) I was thinking more of a great way to collect a new interest, a new project, maybe experiment with a new genre (on the cheap) and what an ideal way to get INTO gaming before spending big money just to see if you like it or not. But yeah, certainly it would be an interesting new `take` on the hobby, to see someone doing it this way exclusively and by-passing paying for horrendously expensive collections and just enjoying their hobby cheaply. For me, it an enjoyable bit of nostalgia and something I personally will most certainly pursue a lot further... as far as this project seems to want to takes me in fact. I suspect I`ve barely yet begun to scratch the surface of its potential.

  3. ooops that torn it, you've started a new trend here you know Steve.

    Army Men >>chuckles<< who`d have thought it. But it is a great idea isn't it. Not sure why I never thought of it before, crazy really.

  4. Hey, does this make me a trend setter Dave?

    You`ll be telling me I`m cool next ^^

  5. Very nice dear. I`m stealing this idea for myself. I`ve always wanted to do a Zombie game set in the opening weeks of confusion when the army still (sort of) has control of the streets. These figures will work using normal 30mm terrain. I know, I`ve just now tested it out, it looks surprisingly fine; and the urban terrain, shanty town, or any of the other stuff we have looks great. Oh the fun of painting loads of zombie army guys (can melt the plastic to look suitably grizzled and fiendish too). Now I just need to find some civvies. Can you imagine the looks I`m going to get as I raid the kids stores for cheap farm sets, looking for milking maids, shepherds and farmers wives lol.

    1. Sky`s the limit Hillers...... Sky`s the limit.

  6. What a cool idea Hil. A zombie adventure set just at the start of the apoc`. You could really afford to experiment with this idea using these Army Men figures couldn't you. I mean wow, 30 or so soldiers and a few hundred zombie soldiers and away you go. Add in a few (farm set) civilians and you got your self a game - less than a tenner for sure.

  7. Ah mate, what an absolutely fabulous article, I love the Army Men. Growing up in a really poor family myself I know what it's like to pine after the nicer things and having to make do with Army Men, but they were awesome and I remember many a conflict fought with them! Enjoy mate, enjoy!

  8. awwww thanks Andy mate, and hey I`m really glad you liked the article and could relate bud. They were fantastic for us poor kids weren't they... taking us to amazing worlds and incredible theatres of the mind. For me rediscovering the Army Men all over again is a real indulgent treat.

    1. just as an aside Steve, check out this guy's version of Nim

    2. {{just as an aside Steve, check out this guy's version of Nim}}

      OMG that`s just unreal. So well modelled. I`m in awe at that skill level.

  9. Another thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking post. As a frugal gamer, I do always look in the toy aisles for possible items to use in my games, but usually at diecast cars and the cheap plastic 'toob' animals. I have looked at packs containing fire fighters, policemen, cowboys and indians - usually to see what scenic items are in there and whether they could be re-purposed. However, I've never really considered the figures, other than to use as statues for 28mm figures.

    But I am now inspired...I never had 'army men' when I was a kid. But I DID have lots of knights that were similar quality and cost. And now I've a hankering to replace these 'knights of old' with some new ones. I've always fancied doing a Monty Python-esque game, part 'Quest for the Holy Grail', part 'Jabberwocky' with disposable knights with silly names fighting ridiculous creatures...and now I can, and for very little cost. I know where I'm going tomorrow. :-)

    Thank you, Steve. This was a treat.

    1. Actually you know what, your Knights in armour thing has really got me thinking now. Especially as I recently got the Jabberwocky DVD off the shelf and watched it again. Thoroughly enjoyed it too. I might have to re-visit The Holy Grail soon as well.

      I know just where to get a few dozen of these as well, and some pirates too (AhhHAAAAarrrr Jim lad). Little toy shop in Bantry has a bin of `on sale` stuff, and I remember seeing a couple of toobs of these. Hmmmmm guess where I`m off to now. Time for a small spin in the car I think.

  10. hehehe, oh my yyessss, Monty Python Grail would be simply super, and jabberwocky, well - its made for it isn't it. Has to be done I think.. I don`t know anyone else doing it either. oh wait, the is one.. but he only did it as a one off game for a convention table at a show. Check out the link to O My Ruritania at the side of the page for it: actually no, here`s the url will take you to the Python page itself:

    Enjoy your trip to the toy shop tomorrow. Don`t forget, Army Men at the pound shops are even cheaper than toy shops: Look for the big tubs of "Army Toys" and the cheaper see through plastic bags of "Combat Force" and "Combat Mission" There are other names too, but they re all basically the same thing.

  11. Hi Jez mate, hey I`m so glad you enjoyed the latest post. Much.. much more to come on this. Know why? buy a bag (£1 or £2), tear it open, dab a few blobs of paint on the faces and hands.... do the weapons black, stick them on some nice heavy washers, and away you go (minutes later)...... GAME ON!!! Now add in toys from around the home, giant plastic robots, garishly painted plastic wind up train sets... and rope in Mr Tibbles the family cat: and bingo!!! you got something uniquely yours.

    Oh... and, those half dozen bikes you sent me for my JD game. Lost them mate! They look FAR cooler (as is) straight out the packet used alongside Army Men hahaha ^^ ooops!!!!

    "Must get in there and save Bucky from Hydra." Cap muttered to himself. Staring at the juge shoe box where he believed his friend was being held.

    Sarge sidled over to the Adjutant standing close by and whispered out the corner of his mouth: "whose this `Hydra` he keeps going on about?"

    The Adjutant whispered back from the side of his own mouth: "Dunno Sarge, he`s been rambling about this even since he turned up at camp Plastico this morning... some sort of five headed Greek monster, maybe sir?"

    1. Let's see...if I puck up some pmastic knights today, set up some HeroScape terrain and did out that giant orange 'golem' I think is in my loft somewhere, i think I have everything I need to play a game. Hmmm, does this mean I can play-test "Feast of Crows"? I think it does! Yay!

    2. oh gosh yes yes yessssss do it Jez. Play an amazingly enjoyable game and write it up for your blog as well, isn't it great when you can take an idea and run with it straight away. No real prep work, just out of it box (or bag) and play with it.

      Take me, I went looking for Army men, and came away with a cheap tube of pre-painted `Mini Papo` pirates and went Yesssssss, as ideas for an impromptu and improvised game came flooding into my head.

    3. {{if I puck up some pmastic knights today, set up some HeroScape terrain and dig out that giant orange 'golem' I think is in my loft somewhere, i think I have everything I need to play a game.}}

      DO IT!!!!!! Go for it Jez you know you want to ^^

    4. So excited by the idea, I completely failed to spell-check my commment. I've already got an idea for the scenario and started working out the stats - just need the knights...and an evil sorcerer.

    5. hehe, I`m excited too. Pleeease write it all up so we can share your excitement too.

    6. I certainly will, once I find some ruddy figures! Eight shops I hunted in today and not one of them had any figures! Not even army men! However, I will not give up on my quest, as I've yet to exhaust every avenue. There WILL be knights...can't have evil sorcerors unleashing creatues with impunity. Oooh, and I want a Jack the Giant-Killer too! From the original 1962 movie, naturally.

    7. Any luck yet Jez? If still no go, I`ll find a packet or two and end them your way.

    8. Didn`t the base set HeroScape game come with some Knights in shining armour?

    9. Unfortunately not - 'twas vikings. However you did get half a dozen of them AND I did end up with two sets (although some of them have donated various 'parts' to the laboratory...) might have to dig them out and see ecactly how many I've got left, as this would save me having to buy anything new. I think 'Erik the Viking' was Python-esque, so I could still do something similar...hmmm, that does have some merit - a boatload of Vikings getting lost in the mists and ending who knows where...

    10. check out "The 13th Warrior" on DVD (get the extended Directors cut version), I think you'll find its just what you are looing for. Its a truly amazing film as well.

    11. Do you honestly think I've not already seen it? Try "Outlander" - Vikings, stranded spaceman and a freakingly cool alien.

  12. That's it {{throws down the TV remote in frustration and disgust}} I`m off to the shops to buy some Army Men.

  13. Already ahead of you. I went out and bought a load of Pirates. Now I got my eye on that really cool LEGO pirate ship **grins**

  14. Hey Stevie I just realised You`re wearing a 18th century Tricorn hat in those photos. Love it.

  15. Just noticed huh ^^

    Yeah its my game table lucky commander`s hat. Straight out of Black Sails :))

  16. Yeah, go me. I got myself some Army Men dudes. What am I DOING. I`m actually liking this. I know its bad when I start making the machine gun noises round the coffee cup and the bread knife, and the little men start talking to each other in army voices.

    Is there any hope?

  17. So many beautiful soldiers here...nice bases also! And this first picture is really impressive!

  18. hehehe, oh my yyessss, Monty Python Grail would be simply super, and jabberwocky, well - its made for it isn't it. Has to be done I think.
    gclub casino

  19. Hi Steve,
    Lit on this article by accident. Great read! I came to Army Men by the round-about route, beginning with Airfix, then 15mm and 25mm metals, and after 35 years, 'discovered' Army Men. But I was already well into my twenties when I discovered war gaming was a 'thing'. A whole childhood wasted (well, not quite: I did discover chess at age 11, but even then I was always vaguely conscious that it was a war games substitute).

    I've gone the 'Imagi-Nations' route, in a world created by a dude I used to know as Jono. The tech was supposed to be 1940, but I've kinda added a year or two to include bazookas, which you can get a lot of, especially as no one does anti-tank rifles. I'm not above carving figures up to provide crew for vehicles and guns.

    At any rate, I would certainly like to see more of this, and if I can figure out how to get this blog onto my reading list...