Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Shambattle: Classic Toy Soldiers Game


H.G. Wells’ book “Little Wars” is considered the cornerstone from which wargaming developed. I first came across a reprint of it in the early 1970s. Wells’ game is simple and rational in design. He obviously wrote it for the toy soldiers of his day. The game is based on classic warfare from the late 19th Century. “Little Wars” requires firing spring-loaded cannons at the troops.

In 1929, an Army Lieutenant named Harry G. Dowdall was stationed on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. Dowdall concocted a game of his own for toy soldiers. The game eliminated the actual firing of guns. In collaboration with a fellow named John H. Gleason, Lt. Dowdall published the rules in a book entitled Shambattle: How to Play with Toy Soldiers.

Apprised of the book, I decided to obtain a copy. It is expensive on the second-hand market. However, I found a copy relatively cheap, mainly because it was missing a couple of pages. No problem. A fellow hobbyists sent me copies of the missing pages.

Shambattle was presented in three levels: Lieutenant, Captain and General. They depict the game in increasing levels of complexity. The rules use a 3 by 5 foot area with towns, a river, bridges and other terrain. Movement is simple, too. The games uses a 6-inch long movement stick. Rules include medics and fire from a cannon and machine guns. Combat can be resolved by the flip of a penny, roll of the dice or a spinner.

Shambattle is played on a map.

Scenery is drawn. One does not need special scenery. Towns, rivers, woods and swamps are simple drawings on which the soldiers maneuver.

Shambattle is quaint. Its major flaw is that the roll of the dice decided everything. Victory was more luck than strategy. The book itself is ponderous to read.

.Shambattle was written when most armies still had horse cavalry. There are no concessions made to armored vehicles. Everything is at the speed of horses and men. It is a game of infantry and cavalry. Judging by pictures in the book, it was meant for the traditional toy soldiers that were popular at the time.

The basic system of movement and terrain is good for games in limited space. Resolving combat left a few things to be desired in the original game. Nonetheless, Shambattle is a good game for budding wargamers. Children can easily learn the basics of toy battles in a format that is relatively simple and lots of fun.

Unlike Little Wars, you can play Shambattle without worrying about damaging your favorite figures!

I saw the potential of the game and decided to write an version that was easier to understand. I also added an optional rule that changes the game from random dice rolls to strategy. Another improvement was a better way to use the movement stick. This newer work is entitled Shambattle: A Game for Old Fashioned Toy Soldiers.

The game also had potential for other toy figures. I devised two other versions based on Shambattle: Knightly Fightly for medieval figures, and Wild West Shambattle for Cowboys & Indians.

The movement and terrain system of Shambattle was a good start. A little innovation and adaptation make it useful for modern skirmish games. With a little effort, it was refined and improved for the OMOG series of skirmish games. Shambattle was also the basis for two “Spy Agent” games made about ten years ago.

There is a Shambattle and OMOG toy soldier games discussion on Facebook at 


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You can obtain a reprint of the original Shambattle: How to Play with Toy Soldiers and the other Shambattle rules here:


You can download free copies of OMOG and other games. OMOG games use a movement system inspired by Shambattle




You can find free Shambattle paper soldiers here:



Anomalous Soldiers

Most of the toy soldier illustrations in the original Shambattle depict figures common to makers like Britains, Johillco and Lone Star. One particular illustration baffled me. At that time, none of the English makers produced a figure quite like the fellow in tin helmet charging with bayonet. I figured it was just some artistic license on the part of the illustrator. 


I came across these tin fellows who were almost exactly posed like the illustration. They were made by Theodore Hahn, a company that had a small range of soldiers produced between 1921 and 1927. They operated out of 16-18 Hopkins Ave in Jersey City. The building is still there.

Along with common doughboys, Hahn made a few figures with swivel arms like Britains as well as mounted soldiers. The doughboys were painted as shown ,or with red pants and either blue or green jackets and helmets..Blue soldiers were supposed to represent French troops. Green ones were just an uncertain “foreign” army. 

One anomaly: bases are often marked "France." It is assumed that the molds may have been acquired from France.

Here are some pictures:

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