Last Saturday my wargaming group - the excellent London Wargaming Guild - took a participation game to Salute. The day went well; we rarely had fewer than half a dozen players at any one time, often many more; there was widespread enthusiasm for the subject and model; and we won an award!

In fact we won two: not just Best Participation Game, which we'd all been hoping for, but Best in Show which given the competition took us by surprise.

For me though, the months leading up to the show were a blaze of frantic work, stress and disappointment that turned my hobby into a grind - and even the stunning success we had wasn’t worth that.

Salute 2020(1)

This wasn't the first time we'd run a game at Salute - that was Salute 2020, held for obvious reasons in late 2021.
At the time we were on a What a Tanker! and VBCW kick, and so mashed them together for some interwar tank (and boat!) action, with a battle royale format specifically because it would let us run the game as a drop-in/drop-out sort of thing. As a London club we decided that a London theme would be apt, and selected Tower Bridge as an obvious landmark.

The show itself was a smashing success; we estimated that a couple of hundred people had played our game, and in the afternoon the nice people at Wargames Illustrated handed us a shiny trophy for Best Participation Game.

Going One Better

Very pleased with ourselves, we all resolved to do the same again next time only bigger, better, and more organised(!), then disappeared to the pub. We didn't really think about it again until the summer of 2022.

This time around, we decided on the 17th Century. Wanting to stick to the same formula of London + large multiplayer game + drop-in/drop-out, we settled on the Vennerite Rebellion of 1657 - a great opportunity for the sort of small-warband skullduggery we had in mind.

How best, then to make it clear that the setting was London? There was the Tower of London, but we'd done that already. The other iconic London landmark of the period was of course London Bridge, but this presented us with a problem. To scale, the bridge would be something like four metres long - the entire length of our allotted space. A four metre by 30 centimetre playing area would have looked good but been unplayable, akin to trying to play Chess in Flatland.

A pamphlet printed on the ice during the 1608 Frost Fair. 
Attributed to Thomas Dekker, via Wikimedia Commons

This is where the idea of setting the game during a Frost Fair came in; the frozen Thames would make the playable width of the board much more reasonable (about a metre), as well as more visually striking, and provide further opportunities for the players to interact with London instead of just running about stabbing each other.

Group Dynamics

Before we dive into the business of laser cutting fifty-odd buildings from scratch, I’d like to look at some issues with group dynamics.

In this sort of volunteer-run project, everyone divides into one of two camps: the drivers and the passengers. The latter are happy to contribute - they'll turn up on the day, paint a few miniatures, assemble a house or two, and go home satisfied that they've done their bit. What they won't do is take the initiative, work out what needs doing or stick around to make sure it gets done. They certainly won't touch the organisational work needed to make anything actually happen - that all gets left to the drivers.

These categories aren't absolute - we've all been in both for different projects, and often people will drift between the two as interest wanes, complacency sets in or impending deadlines sharpen the mind - but for much of the lead-in to Salute I was the only driver.

Building London

As with last time, I ended up with responsibility for the terrain side of things, and went off to make plans. It quickly became clear that we weren't going to be able to do everything from commercial kits, and that there weren't enough of us capable of scratch building to cover everything that needed doing.

So I bought a laser cutter.

The thinking was that I could use it to design our own MDF kits, and then send them out to others for assembly and painting. This way (I thought, naively) the laser would end up doing a lot of the work, and I'd have more time to concentrate on the one-off pieces like Nonsuch House. I'd also be lying to myself if I said that I didn't want one anyway after seeing others’ work on Tower Bridge.

This introduced a further problem though - now, not only was I responsible for making sure the terrain got done, I was in the critical path for doing most of it, and that critical path involved using a complex machine I had zero experience with, without any real fallback option. All these things would come back to bite me.

The final piece of the puzzle needed to turn the project into a slog, fell into place in late December when the South London Warlords put out the list of games and we weren't on it. Cue several weeks of back and forth before the Warlords agreed to squeeze us in.

Beyond the wasted weeks and dampening effect on the group's enthusiasm, this meant that pulling out of the show would be humiliating.

The Grind

With no real way to back out, and time running short, I spent it working as hard and efficiently as possible - cancelling games and other hobbies to spend more time designing, finding reasons to work from home so I could cut another few sheets before work and at lunch time, squeezing in hours and half hours wherever possible.

As fast as I could, I turned out house kits ready for assembly. When not enough people volunteered to make them, I cajoled them into taking them on. When the laser cutter broke (which it did, again and again), I spent hours fixing it and manually cleaning up cut parts so they could go out for assembly. When people returned models partly done, I finished them.

The whole time, my biggest source of stress was the sheer burden of trying to drag a large group of people single-handedly towards what was supposed to be a common goal.

This is not a normal, or healthy, way to feel about a hobby that revolves around playing with toy soldiers.

The low point for me came the week before the show. We'd agreed to hold a dress rehearsal the Sunday before the game, to bring everyone together for a final playtest and to bring all of the models together so that they were in one place ready for the load-in on the Friday before the show. Of twenty-two people involved in the project, only two made themselves available, forcing us to cancel the rehearsal. I felt like I'd been hung out to dry.

The Final Week

I'd accepted my fate weeks before and booked the week before Salute off work; as with the dress rehearsal I'd been telling people this for weeks and begging them to come over at any point to help out. I worked myself into the ground, doing almost 90 hours between Sunday and Friday, as I frantically cut what could be cut and half-arsed what couldn't.

We spent most of Friday loading-in the game, and then once done I came back home and spent a further twelve straight hours assembling Nonsuch house, the supposed centrepiece model, which I finished up with the barest minimum of a paint job at 4:30 AM, then slept for three hours before getting up to head to Salute.

Learning from Experience

We had the usual problems you would expect for a project of this duration: troubles with the laser, family illnesses, delays with the table and so on. None of them were insurmountable as a group, but all funnelled towards me they made for a miserable experience.

Here's some practical advice on how to avoid the same thing happening to you:
  1. Be clear in advance about the workload involved. Don't take on responsibility for, say, making terrain without a good idea of what will need building. Likewise, if you know that you will need others to do parts of the build, make sure you have a firm commitment from them to do as much as is required
  2. Stick to your guns. On the day we decided our theme, I agreed to oversee terrain with the proviso that I wouldn't do anything else; I still ended up squandering precious hours running back and forth across London collecting figures from people.
  3. Don't be irreplaceable. By virtue of owning the laser cutter I had to be involved in almost every building. By virtue of having space to build terrain boards I had to be involved in those too. If you can't get yourself off every critical path, at least try to minimise the number.
  4. Give yourself a way out. I backed myself into a corner trying to deliver a project that couldn't be easily dropped, and which had few avenues for simplification. Have parts of your project that can be dropped without ruining the rest, and know where you can skimp on time and resources if required. If all else fails, know when to quit.
  5. Spare a thought for the driver. Lots of projects can run just fine with a majority of people taking a passive role, but if that describes you then ask yourself: who's driving? Are they coping? What can I do to relieve that pressure? And if you're driving, then be early, frequent, and loud in your demands for help. Don't allow people to fool themselves that everything is in hand when it isn't.
If you'd like to learn more specifically about designing a participation game for a show, Duncan has an excellent thread here.

In the evening after the show, trying to stay away long enough not to ruin my sleep schedule, I spent a few hours painting this rather nice drinks cabinet from Sabotag3d. I had to force myself at first not to rush; to concentrate on the process and enjoy doing a good job instead of an efficient one. I spent longer painting this tiny (and completely frivolous) model than I did the night before painting Nonsuch House, layering extraneous details on an unnecessary model for the sheer pleasure of it.

That, to me, is the essence of a hobby. For the last few months I lost that.

I'll be back next year with the LWG, hopefully with another wacky participation game, but next time I'll be better rested and less stressed. Feel free to come and ask me how well I kept my promises to myself!


I’ve spent a couple of thousand words complaining, so it seems only fair to conclude with some thanks.

Firstly, the fact that we had a game to put on was down to those who realised late in the day just how much work needed doing and mucked in. Thank you.
Thanks also to the people who bucked the usual trend, under promising and over delivering.
For all my whingeing, the people of the LWG are excellent and I love them dearly.

Two individuals deserve a special mention here:

Firstly my partner Hilary, who not only put up with the game taking over our house and my life, but put up with me becoming increasingly irritable and unpleasant to be around.

Secondly; he hasn’t mentioned it, but I’m pretty sure that Duncan made it his job in the last couple of weeks to keep me somewhat sane, and to corral others into helping as much as possible, and I’m very grateful for that.