Donald Featherstone Tabletop Generals Daily Herald article, March 21, 1961


Don Featherstone’s famous sandtable and American Civil War troops, 1961. A similar set up is shown in the ACW game in War Games 1962.

Tabletop Generals – Daily Herald article, March 21, 1961
A group of men who take toy soldiers seriously prepare for a council of war – article written by Jon Akass.

Refighting a war with hindsight often plays tricks with history. Donald Featherstone recreates a battle in the American Civil War.

Mr Donald Featherstone sent his cavalry charging towards me over the creek. I was pinned down, doomed.
“This,” I said, “seems a good time to surrender.”
“I see what you mean,” says Mr Featherstone, “but it goes to prove, doesn’t it, that you are not half as good a general as Stonewall Jackson.”
It did, too. For the battle we are fighting was one of the most elegant set-pieces of the American Civil War – the Shenandoah Valley in 1862, in which Jackson pinned down a Federal army which out-numbered him three-to-one.
With me in command, this classic encounter had turned into a dog’s breakfast.
Playing with toy soldiers is a very complex business. Mr Featherstone himself says it is like playing chess with a thousand pieces – and Mr. Featherstone does not exaggerate.

There are only about 20 wargame enthusiasts in the country and next month about half of them will attend a council of war at Mr Featherstone’s home in Southampton, another ten or so will come from abroad, one from Aden, another from Chicago.

[Man of TIN Note: the one from Aden must be Carl Reavley].
The basic rules for the British school of war games are usually taken from a book written, astonishingly, by H.G. Wells.
This is called “Little Wars” and involves actual little guns which fire actual little shells knock actual little soldiers flat on their backs.
“We have dispensed with the guns,” said Mr Featherstone, “because we now go to a lot of time and trouble to get the soldiers and uniforms exactly right.”
“We don’t want to knock them about all the time.”
Mr Featherstone, a rosily-fit physiotherapist of 42 was a sergeant in the Tank Corps, during the last war, serving in North Africa and Italy.
Modern wars, though, bore him. His speciality is the period 1861 to 1890.

“This was the last time colours were carried into battle and the troops wore elaborate uniforms. Modern war is too messy and the fire-power is too great to make a game interesting.”
He makes his own soldiers, mostly out of lead, moulded in plasticine and baked in a gas cooker. In the three and a half years since he took up the wargame he has collected 7000 soldiers ranging from Spartans to commandos.
A battle often last longer than a test match – and an entire war can linger on for years.
Playing against a Southampton accountant, Mr. Featherstone fought every ditch of the American Civil war over two years. This ended with the Federal troops screaming for mercy outside Washington.
“We sometimes get results like that because we can avoid the mistakes made by the losing side. The Indian Mutimy, for instance, always ends up with the total defeat of the British. We try to be as realistic as possible, but there are limits.”
Mr Featherstones’ version of the war games works like this.
The two opposing generals work out their first manoeuvres on maps, each trying to outwit the other, until they area ready to do battle. This usually happens at the same place as the original life-size battle.
They then go upstairs where Mr Featherstone has a table laid out with wet sand. The terrain is moulded and painted and a screen put across the middle so that the generals can deploy their forces in secrecy.
The screen is taken away and … bang. Well not quite bang. A wargame, like chess, moves very slowly and the contestants are lucky if they get through five moves in an evening.
Everything is taken into account. If a general loses two battles in a row he is deposed and the morale of his army goes down appropriately.
Troops moving across rough country are put at a disadvantage and special account is taken of things like fatigue, disease, fear and panic.
Incalculable factors like accuracy of aim, alertness, courage and so forth is taken care of by the dice.
“At first I was dissatisfied with the dice,” said Mr. Featherstone. “It seemed unrealistic. Sometimes you have a run of bad luck, throwing low numbers all evening.”
“But then, as I studied the subject, I realised that this made for more realism, not less. Even the greatest generals had days when everything went wrong. Many battles have been won through sheer good luck.”
A special refinement of Mr. Featherstone’s game is that tactics employed in a later war cannot be used in an earlier one.
“If you are fighting the Marlborough campaigns, you can’t use the tactics of the Napoleonic Wars,” he explained.
This makes an already difficult game totally impossible for the beginner – unless he is prepared to spend months mugging up on military history.
For all that, Mr. Featherstone’s game is simple compared with the variations of other players.
One enthusiast, a brigadier at Sandhurst, starts from scratch. [Man of TIN Note: This suggests Peter Young?] He has invented a completely new world, divided into completely new, peaceful countries.
When these countries quarrel as they must, they have to raise armies in relation to their budgets, industrialise, build munitions factories and engage in frantic diplomatic quests for allies. All this has a direct bearing on the outcome.
The game is conducted by post, many contestants live overseas, and the rules are so fantastically complicated that they baffle even Mr. Featherstone.
Another man, who plays all by himself at Exeter, is a stickler for realism. He specialised in the Russian front of the last war and has now carried the German advance as far as Stalingrad. [Man of TIN note: this must be Lionel Tarr of Bristol].
Americans have already adopted the war game for domestic use. For around £3 you can buy the “Gettysburg” kit, which comes complete with original mapboard and markers for the actual units used at this crucial stage of the American Civil War.
Individual soldiers are not used and the units can only be bought in at the time and place they really appeared. Opposing generals tick off their moves on the time-sheet divided into hours. At night a unit’s movements are restricted.
Advertisements for this “adult game” in sophisticated magazines like The New Yorker stress that “the South can win.”
It is all good clean fun and it goes to show jolly war can be. For generals.

Tabletop Generals – Daily Herald article by Jon Akass, March 21, 1961

Transcribed from the British Newspaper Archive by Mark at the Man of TIN blog. The Daily Herald ran from 1912 to 1964. The writer on the Daily Herald was Jon Akass (1933-1990)

I found this a fascinating  account of Don Featherstone’s early battles, admittedly at second hand through the eyes and lively pen of a Fleet Street journalist like Jon Akass.

This article was written the year before War Games was published in May 1962. Written in March  1961, when there were “only about 20 wargame enthusiasts in the country,” the next month  in April 1961 appears to have been the date of the proposed War Games conference in Don’s house. Pictures of his event can be seen here at

Some of the names of people are left out in the article such as the Southampton Accountant as Don’s early contestant, who must be Tony Bath, featured or mentioned in War Games 1962.

Blogposted by Mark, Man of TIN blog, 1st December 2017.


Donald Featherstone’s BBC radio talks 1962 1963


All we need to do is build a time machine and head back to the morning of Thursday the 19th April 1962 and tune in or listen in to “This is the BBC Home Service …” we could have heard Donald Featherstone on the radio.


DONALD FEATHERSTONE explains how a man of action can spend two years fighting the American Civil War in Southampton – and the South can win! He himself caused the Romans to lose the Punic War, and Napoleon to triumph at Waterloo.

Contributors / Unknown: Donald Featherstone

I doubt if a recording exists but  good news (from  a BBC archives email received today 1st December 2017) both scripts still exist, albeit I have been warned in variable quality,  at the BBC Written Archives at Caversham. I am having copies made and if transcribable, I  will discuss with John Curry whether (with suitable copyright / BBC permission) they could be reprinted in future.

1962 was a prolific period for Donald Featherstone. He published his first gaming book on War Games in 1962, around this time. He had also written  about wargames in Tackle Model Soldiers This Way (Stanley Paul, 1963).

According to his many obituaries, he had been wargaming as an adult since the mid 1950s and organised the first U.K. wargames tournament  in Southampton in 1961 with a national championship planned for 1963. He was involved with the UK side of The Wargames Digest around 1960 and set up Wargamers  Newsletter in 1962.

A year later in 1963 Don Featherstone was on the radio again and we could have tuned in to the programme TWO OF A KIND on the BBC Home Service (Basic) on Tuesday 15th October  at 9.05 am (and repeated on Thursday 17 October 1963 at 13.40). We would have heard Don as one of two speakers (hence the programme title “Two of a Kind”) on the theme of Models. The first speaker: Father’s Dolls by KATHLEEN BINNS
Playing with Soldiers by DONALD FEATHERSTONE
Introduced by presenter JACK SINGLETON.

This BBC genome website was based on old copies of the Radio Times.

From Battle Interview Peter Gilder interviewed by Donald Featherstone in 1978 Battle magazine, shown in / courtesy of Peter Gilder A Life in Wargaming website.

I came across this BBC Radio scripts link whilst searching online for an article or interview that Donald Featherstone wrote for She Magazine (a women’s magazine) around 1962. Peter Gilder was shown the She  magazine article about Don’s  wargames by his wife, and the rest is gaming history …

I wonder if anyone still has that 1962 She magazine edition, if that is the correct magazine in Gilder’s memory many years later?

I asked John Curry who knows Featherstone’s books well and neither this nor the BBC scripts has not been reprinted in any of the excellent Featherstone reprints by John  Curry.

Is it in some gamer’s scrapbook?

It seems rather improbable that Donald Featherstone should be writing in or be featured in a woman’s magazine like She Magazine. As a sports physiotherapist,  he had written a book on Sports Injuries in 1957 and later on dance injuries, Dancing Without Danger (1970/71) but I can think of no obvious link.

I have done a quick online search. Past editions of women’s magazines from 1962 seem pretty scarce on EBay and other old magazine sites, unlike the many hoarded back issues of men’s magazines on transport, modelling  and hobbies.

I have recently found an early press article or two about Featherstone which I will transcribe shortly. Donald Featherstone’s first book War Games was published in this period and as one of my favourite gaming books, it is good to recapture the early improvisational spirit of these games.

Blogposted by Mark, Man of TIN, 29/30 November 2017.