Saddam Hussein's tanks barely had stormed into Kuwait before Mark Herman's tanks rolled onto his war game board.

Literally hours after Iraq's lightning strike Aug. 2, Herman and dedicated hobbyists like him in the Washington area began fighting the Persian Gulf conflict vicariously using ultra-realistic war games such as Herman's Gulf Strike, their own home-grown variations or scale-model miniatures.

And predictably, several companies are now racing to put out the first game specifically tailored to the current Middle East showdown, sporting such names as Butcher of Baghdad.

"It's amazing what you can learn from a game," said Herman, who founded the Baltimore-based Victory Games in 1982. "They let you take the raw data and you can decide what's going on."

Herman, who is now a defense consultant with Booz-Allen & Hamilton, has his Gulf Strike game set up in his Crystal City office and plays out every conceivable scenario based on information he gleans from the newspapers.

Whenever a military crisis erupts across the world, game-players immediately seize on the situation. During Britain's Falkland Islands excursion in 1982, one small Chicago-based company produced a game and had it in the stores before the short-lived conflict was over.

"There's an armchair general or president in all of us," said Temis Delapena, manager of the Compleat Strategist in Falls Church, one of the area's oldest war game shops.

These are people who squirrel themselves away in dens or basements nearly every waking, nonworking hour to re-create the conquests of Alexander the Great or refight the Civil War.

They play on meticulously detailed maps with literally hundreds of individually designed, die-cut cardboard pieces representing armored units, infantry brigades and bomber squadrons. A single game turn can sometimes take hours; whole games played only on weekends can last for months and, in some extreme cases, years.

Although die-hard gamers profess to be history buffs, not warmongers, some candidly admit that the Persian Gulf crisis couldn't have come at a better time for the hobby.

Glasnost had them worried. The collapse of the Iron Curtain suddenly removed one of the choicest confrontations for war-gamers, East vs. West, and many gamers retreated to the safety of ancient history with games simulating the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars and the like.

Now contemporary games are back.

Army Col. Gary "Bo" Eldridge, who flew Cobra helicopter gunships in Vietnam and has played war games since 1961, is in a race to finish his Butcher of Baghdad game in time to publish it in Command, a bimonthly magazine for war-gamers, by early 1991.

A Springfield resident who works in the Pentagon, Eldridge watched the Iraqi buildup on the Kuwaiti border in the days before the invasion and had an idea for a hypothetical war game: What if Iraq actually invaded and the United States responded?

"I put it in save {on a computer}, went on leave for five days and while I was gone, all hell broke loose," he said. "I wish I was in Saudi Arabia eating sand. What the heck; if you can't be there, design it."

Ty Bomba, editor of Command and president of XTR Corp. (his shorthand for Cross The Rubicon), is sold on the game but wants to wait to publish it until the real-life situation has become more settled.

He's been burned before. Last year, he prepared to publish a game called Iron Cross '92 postulating what could happen if the East Germans revolted against the Soviet Union.

"And then, of course, peace broke out," he recalled ruefully, "which is good for the world, but bad for marketing."

Meanwhile, in Texas, author Austin Bay finished his version of Saddam's war in just 11 days. Arabian Nightmare: Kuwait War, with 200 game pieces and a 22-inch-by-30-inch board, is scheduled to ap- pear in the centerfold of Strategy and Tactics magazine in November.

The complex game attempts to replicate not just military capabilities but political maneuvering as well.

The Iraqi player can go on television with hostages, kill American television reporters such as Ted Koppel or try to repair relations with Syria. Such moves can produce political victory points or backfire and cost points, depending on a roll of the dice.

For example, if the Iraqi player uses chemical bombs against Israel, he could suffer dire consequences by drawing more enemy troops against him and risking missile strikes against Baghdad. But if he rolls double sixes, he becomes regarded as the new pan-Arab leader and scores many victory points.

"The thing about war games . . . is that they are not attempts to predict, they're attempts to project possible outcomes," said Bay, who has taught at the Army War College and worked as a defense consultant.

Having finished his game design, Bay isn't all that impressed with Saddam's military machine.

"The Iraqis really are overrated," he said. "These guys are not swaggering juggernauts."