Cold War Gone Hot – a question of scale

I have been looking for a while to do some ‘what if’ World War III (or cold war gone hot gaming). Growing up in the 80’s I have a morbid fascination with how close we came to the end of all things at the time, with 1983 being in retrospect a key year. A lot of things nearly went very badly wrong (for more background I’d highly recommend the book 1983 The World at the Brink by Taylor Downing).

Well recommended (and in retrospect, terrifying!)

Rules wise I have been looking at a number of options, including Battlegroup NORTHAG by Plastic Soldier Company, Seven Days to the River Rhine by Great Escape Games and The Zone by my good friend Wayne Bollands and published by Caliver Books.

With gaming pretty much on hold at the moment due to the pandemic my momentum for starting a new project stalled for a couple of months, but I have recently been inspired to revisit this after listening to the audiobook version of Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee. It would be remiss at this point to not mention the game by the same name based on the Flames of War system by Battlefront Miniatures as another potential gaming option.

I’m also very much aware of the issue of scale when it comes to gaming a theoretical World War III in the 1980s. Of course, assuming things didn’t immediately start and then end in nuclear destruction (a big assumption) we are basically talking about masses of tanks moving across the planes of northern Europe. From a gaming perspective this lends itself well to scales at 15mm and less (i.e. getting as much armour as possible on the table). The aforementioned Team Yankee and it’s supporting model range means there is no lack of availability when it comes to models and miniatures. However, while I have dipped my toe in 15mm scale in the past for World War 2 gaming, I fancied trying something a bit different.

I’m really into narrative gaming and so want the flexibility to flick between those bigger games concentrating on tank-on-tank battles to maybe some sort of special forces missions behind enemy lines (perhaps a Soviet raid on hidden Harrier launch sites or NATO forces seeking out some mobile nuke launchers). To this end infantry are important to me and the ability to work on a one figure to one man ratio is equally as key. I also haven’t really enjoyed painting really tiny fighting men in the past (and painting is my primary source of joy when it comes to the hobby).

Some WW2 Germans in 15mm I painted a while ago – while pleased with the results I found painting at this much smaller scale not quite as rewarding as usual.

So the ideal compromise seems to be 20mm (or more specifically 1/72 and 1/76 kits and miniatures). This would allow me to explore something else I have wanted to do for quite some time – using traditional soft plastic figures for wargaming. This is an oft overlooked source of good value miniatures for wargaming and I was first turned on to this by the excellent Wargaming Compendium written by the Henry Hyde a few years ago.

While Henry’s focus in the book was on Napoleonics, the principle is the same- there are a lot of them out there, they are cheap and readily available and a really good way to build up large armies quickly.

From a manufacturer perspective we are looking at the big scale model kit manufacturers here, the likes of Airfix, Italeri, Revell and so on. My initial plan is to concentrate on British and Soviets as my opposing forces. Finding figures for 80s style British infantry was slightly harder than I imagined.

My first two purchases – another advantage of going the soft plastics 1/72 route is cost. Each of these cost only about a tenner for a significant number of figures.

I picked up a box of Italeri NATO troops which included a handful of Brits, however some of these were armed with the SA-80 rather than the SLR, which put them slightly later than my desired early 80’s timeframe. Therefore I also picked up a box of Revell Falklands British Paratroopers and House of Campaign British Infantry of the 1970s (which I am yet to start) which were closer to what I needed in terms of small arms.

The former were interesting in that they were actually sold as 1/76 rather than 1/72 scale. However a scale comparison using the excellent resource that is the Plastic Soldier Review website showed that these wouldn’t look too small if mixed in with other figures. The latter were interesting in a different way in that they were very familiar – it turns our that these are scaled down versions of the Brittains toy soldiers I had as a kid (ironically probably about the time I am looking to represent!).

Example of the Italeri NATO troops figures on sprues. THe detail on tese is excellent.
Some of the Italeri figures based and ready for undercoating.

Once I had gathered all the necessary figures (I also added in an Italeri Warsaw Pact box of figures from Italeri) I set about preparing to paint. I have never really painted soft plastics before, but was aware of their reputation for not necessarily holding paint well. Therefore I made doubly sure that any figures I was working on were thoroughly washed in hot soapy water before giving them an undercoat. A lot of advice I have read also advises an initial coat of watered down PVA glue before painting, but I decided to skip this step and went straight to an undercoat (in white).

Note that isn’t a red cap badge on the chap on the ledt but a piece of rogue red glitter from my daughter’s crafting! (From teh Revell Falklands Paratroppers set.)

My biggest challenge with painting these guys (over and above the slightly smaller scale than I am used to) was to effectively represent the DPM camo of the time. I ended up referencing a number of Osprey books and online sources and went for a very basic representation using a Vallejo Uniform Green as a base coat with camo gently stippled and painted using Army Painter Basilisk Brown, Vallejo Flat Earth and Citadel Abaddon Black. The whole thing was then tied together with a Athonian Camo shade (green) wash from Citadel. I mixed things up with the uniforms a bit, leaving some with plain trousers (as per some of the reference materials I looked into). For these I used a Citadel Death Guard Green again with the camo shade.

Revell 1/76 miniature – showing the mix of green trousers and DPM camp top. Note that I used black Citadel contrast paint for the weapons.
Revell figures. While most of the sculpts were good the fella on the left has quite a nasty mould line on his face, but at gaming distance (rather than close up like this) I am more than happy with the quality of the figures and the paint job I have achieved.

A key part of choosing the 20mm equivalent scale was the desire to single base the miniatures. Some of these have been based on 1p peices, but I eventually invested in some 20mm round plastic bases from Renedra.

The majority of these figures are from the Revel 1/76 Falklands Paratroops box. I chose to paint these all up as regular infantry rather than paras, hence the beret colour.
From the Italeri NATO troops box – at 1/72 there is very little difference in size between this infantry man armed with a GPMG and the figures from the Revell set.
Another figure from the Italeri set – armed with an SA-80 this dates him slightly later than I am aiming for, but again pleased with the way he had turned out.
A mix of the Revell (left, right) and Italeri figures (middle) – showing the very slight difference in 1/76 (Revell) and 1/72 (Italeri)

In addition to the British infantry I have also started painting up some of the Warsaw Pact Italeri figures. Not much done so far, other than this Czech tanker (who fits in quite nicely with the 1/72 scale Plastic Soldier Company T55 I’ve also painted). Once completed and dry all finished models were given a good going over with Testors Dullcote.

Czechslovak tank crew.

With 1/72 scale being so ubuquitous in the scale modelling world I have no shortage of potential models to add in for various games and scenarios. Referring back to my ideas about narrative scenarios earlier, here are a selection of kits that might fit in nicely. (The Matchbox kits I purchased from eBay over the last few months have a particular nostalgia for me, as long prior to my gaming hobby I used to buy and build kits like this from the local newsagent or model shop.)

Next up will be some armour for the British. I’ll be looking at firing up the 3D printer and getting some Chieftain tanks on the table.