Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Wargame Wall

As I peruse the blog sphere and ponder the meaning of wargames, it seems to me that there is always something lurking in the background. Sometimes bloggers just disappear, perhaps for a while, perhaps for ever. Sometimes they admit that there is a problem and absent themselves from wargaming for a while. Some take refuge in Featherstone books, returning to declare themselves cured. But most of us, sometime, suffer from it.

I’m talking about the wargame wall: that moment when you hit the edge of your wargaming horizon, the end of your current wargame rope. When you cannot be bothered to get the toys out and paint them, or place them on the table. Even the idea of thinking about a wargame fills you with a curious feeling of dread.

The reasons for hitting the wall are probably as many and various as there are wargamers. Similarly, I suppose that the experience of the wall, and any strategy for getting over, around or through it are varied and multiple. Nevertheless, I think that acknowledging that the wall exists and that we sometimes hit it. Naming something somehow makes it less scary.

For me, I am currently, I think, en-walled. I have a game in my campaign to play out, but have not managed to get around to it. I have a Spanish army to paint, with the first few troops undercoated, but in the box they remain. I even have a stack of nice looking books about history to read, yet I have tended to choose something else. Somehow, wargaming seems a bit too much of an effort at the moment.

Seasonal effect of course can have an impact. Traditionally, as I understand it, in the UK the winter has been the wargame season. Most of the shows are between September and April, after all. When summer beckons so do holidays, trips out and gardening. That is not to say that wargaming does not happen, but that the time available is less. However, winter has its wargame problems. In my case, my study / wargames room is cold, unless I heat it, and if I heat it, then the family room is cold. To paint would involve moving the painting operation to the family room, and that seems a lot of effort for something I’m not that keen on doing at the moment.

Seasonal effects are, of course, seasonal. There are underlying issues at stake as well. Perhaps it is recent political events, but my reading of history recently has tended to suggest that most world leaders in history are rather stupid, definitely ill-advised, grasping and do not act with the best interests of the ruled at heart. A wargame, therefore, of, say Agincourt, is the upshot of a decade or so of real princely treachery, mistrust and power and money grabbing on one side, and arrant opportunism on the other. Similarly, seventeenth century Europe (and, in fact, the wider world) was led to disaster by princes who thought their honour and glory were worth much more than the lives of their subjects.

On that theme, I have just read a book on the Siege of Vienna in 1683. The remarkable fact is that swathes of Europe, notably some of Germany, Austria and Poland, came together to beat off a threat to Vienna, the heart of Europe. That this campaign was launched by the Ottomans for their own reasons – namely that foreign success staves off internal dissent – is somewhat beside the point. The fact is that Louis XIV and his allies saw it as a marvellous opportunity to chomp up bits of the west while the Hapsburgs were occupied in the east. And many people think that Christendom only collapsed with the French Revolution….

People are, of course, people. Louis XIV, for all his pride, honour and assumed glory, was probably no smarter than anyone else. He just happened to be a king, and to believe his own propaganda and the sycophancy of his courtiers. Thus central Europe nearly fell to the Ottoman Empire. Short term goals and ambitions sacrifice longer terms security all through history.

For those of you interested, January 30th also marked the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I. The Church of England regards him as a martyr, and some bits of it venerate him as a saint. On the other hand, recent historiography regards the Civil Wars as being largely his fault. I hope I do have a bit of a balanced view on this, but I probably do not. C. V. Wedgewood remarked that he might have been a wonderfully cultured figure as a noble, but he was a bit of a disaster as a king (or words to that effect). The C of E rather glosses over the fact that he was executed not for starting the first civil war, but for starting the second – the epithet ‘that man of blood’ referred to (mostly) scattered, bloody fighting in 1648. But we rarely use history in this sort of balanced way.

All of this has, perhaps, impacted on my wargaming. Perhaps I could be accused of overthinking it. It is a hobby. It is not meant to reproduce history. Historical events have happened and we cannot unpick them. Perhaps all we can do is remember them and work to prevent them happening again in our time. Maybe part of my wall is that, in certain interpretations and certain respects, I do see history repeating itself.

In all probability I need a game to cure my blues. As I said, I have one on the books, but have not got to it. Maybe I need to rev the heating up and get the toys out and chase away the dark clouds. But it would be interesting to know, from my loyal reader, if you have found a wargame wall and, if so, what you did about it. Maybe you are much better than I at separating current events, history and wargaming. 

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Reasonable Wargames

As I have noted before, it would be quite easy to lapse from being a wargamer interested in the history of the world’s conflicts, to being a cynic about politics and international diplomacy. Perhaps this is as a result of reading too much, or, indeed, of modern historiography (or at least, popular versions thereof) being too much of a surface reading. Often, it seems reasons for a ruler or country going to war seem too unimportant to justify the action.

As a slight aside, I recall doing, as many of us might have done, the Tony Bath thing and setting up a mythical continent in which to conduct our battles and campaigns. My continent was a small island, upon which ECW Royalists, Parliamentarians, Covenanters and Montrose Scots each had a country, with a capital, cities, towns and economies. There were, as I recall trade relations between them. After a lot of work, including drawing maps and creating characters for the leaders, I sat back and examined my creation. It seemed a happy little world. No country had a reason to make war upon another. The leaders all seemed like nice and reasonable people.

I rolled the map up and put it away. Clearly my imagination was too limited to start a war, there anyway.

Now, of course, I have learnt a bit of sense. My campaigns do not have such a level of detail. Indeed, they have more or less no detail at all. The maps are just blobs. There are no towns, no trade, and no economy. Rulers simply rule and direct their armies. International relations are determined by a chart with numbers from one to six indicating war to peace. Occasionally I might have a personality or two around the place, but mostly the people, from the poorest landless peasant to the Emperor are helpless pawns in the hands of an implacable fate, and a bunch of dice rolls.

It seems easier this way.

That does not mean, of course, that the destruction is any less. A unit that runs away in battle is likely to be lost totally. One of the notable things about ancient warfare, anyway, is that a campaign rarely lasted for more than a single battle. The losers lost, the winners won, and there was an end. Any further dispute usually was held over to the next campaigning season.

On this basis a lot of pfaff is saved in investing time and energy in maps and manoeuver. Ancient armies, particularly non-Roman forces, did not go in for grand tactical moves, feints and shimmies.  I dare say there were some, but mostly it was a case of getting forces to the battlefield (itself something of a major achievement), lining them up and charging the enemy. The outcome was in the lap of the gods, and depended on the bravery, or otherwise, of the warriors.

Thus, my ancient campaign system, such as it is, does not deal with the minutiae of scouting to find the enemy, logistics, flank marching and so on. It focusses on the day of battle, and what each side has in its forces. Recruitment, desertion and losses are abstracted but present. Thus, one of the Spartan King’s forces deserted in my 360 BC campaign when he joined forces with the Thebans against his co-ruler. No Spartan would countenance that.

As I noted recently, what is important in this is a sense of the logic of events, of the reasonableness, or at least explanatory intelligibility of them. Things do happen at random, granted. Auguries and events can change a general’s view of the world and how it will develop. But there is a reason for that, even if it a reason from a totally different world view from our own. A battle not happening on a give day because of a flight of birds is a reason, even if it is not one which yields to our present logic and understanding of the world.

Perhaps, then, to have a reasonably authentic feel to a wargame, the narrative intelligibility of the battle needs to remain largely intact. Generals may well have bad days at the office. Indeed, an innovative general, like Hannibal, Marlborough or Napoleon can become rather predicable and hence be out thought at the last by a rival who has studied their methods. Even so, this needs to be accounted for in the logic of the game.

The upshot seems to be something like this, a wargame, to ‘feel’ authentic, needs to be intelligible, in the sense that we, as the wargamers, can see what has happened and give an account of why it happened. This is a privilege which is probably not available to the participants in a battle. As wargamers we hold an overview of the battle which is not even available to the generals on the ground, no matter how good their communications, at least until post-WW2 battles (and even not then, mostly).

 A historian, too, wishes to give an account of a battle (at least, those who might be interested in battles do) but historians can simply claim lacunae in their sources and erect mystery barriers if they do not wish to advance reasons or guesses as to why the Tenth Foot ran away. Historiography tries to remain within the ambit of its sources. Wargames, of course, are expected to be completely explained within the game and the rules. Cause and effect here is necessary, within the limits set by dice rolls. History is rarely quite so cut and dried.

Thus for my island continent, the logic of the countries seemed to be against war. A rational mind could not find a reason for causing the chaos of conflict. I dare say that my fictitious politicians and generals felt very differently about it. As we found out again last year, politics and international relations are, in fact, rarely guided by logic and reason, or, at least, not by those human traits alone. Putting those into my campaign world proved rather more difficult than I expected. Fortunately these days I simply declare that a war is going on and have the battles (with full reasonableness, logic and intelligibility, of course) anyway.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

All At Sea Again

The devoted reader of this blog might have noticed that I have an interest in matters naval. After all, only an idiot or a devotee would paint 150 ancient galleys with only a vague idea of how to use or what they were for. I have to also admit to further offences which should be taken into account by the court. A load of renaissance galleys, for example, and a whole pile of seventeenth century ships, augmented by occasional Napoleonic era warships and merchantmen. Oh yes, and some ‘armada’ ships, too.

I throw myself on the mercy of the court.

All this introspection was sparked by an article in History Today (Vol 27, Issue 2, February 2017) on the British Civil Wars at Sea. The BCW did, of course, have a naval element. Anyone who has read anything about it must have noticed that, if only the story of Queen Henrietta Maria landing at Bridlington under fire and going back to collect her dog. You might also have read that Plymouth and Lyme were sustained in sieges by the navy, and that Hull, too, was relieved by warships.

That, however, is about it. In fact, there is only one book, as I recall, about the navy in the Civil Wars. I have read it, and I don’t recall its name or the author, and it is somewhat hard to find, but, among all the literature about the Civil Wars, one book is about it. It is not even, as I recall, a particularly good book. It works from the assumption that the King had a strategy of a three pronged attack on London, by the northern army, the south western army and the Oxford army, and, somewhat gleefully, describes how the navy bent back the first two prongs, by relieving Plymouth, Lyme and Hull.

Whether the Royalists ever seriously had such a strategy is rather moot, I believe. It is, first of all, a bit of a simple minded plan. Secondly, it rather ignores the distances involved, and the likely forces of opposition. After all, it is unlikely that the Eastern Association would have simply roiled over and let Newcastle’s army pass through, even if the EA army had been defeated somewhere in Lincolnshire. Finally, as both sides seem to have known from the outset, the Civil War was decided on the battlefield, not by besieging and capturing the enemy capital. As some contemporaries observed, this set the conflict apart from the European wars of the period, where sieges were more decisive.

What role, then, did the navy have? Firstly, we note that most of the navy, in the first Civil War, was Parliamentary. This led the Royalists into a problem, in that they could not, as a general rule, rely on imports of arms and personnel from Europe. Further, the merchants, of course, were mainly based in London and needed the access to European markets which was protected by the navy. Thus, their loans to Parliament were self-interested. The mere existence of the navy on the Parliamentary side had an immediate, if indirect, effect.

This changed somewhat when the Royalists captured Bristol, a viable mercantile port. Bristol ships could then compete with London, and an armed navy, of a sort, could be put forth. Of course, any ‘blockade’ by either side was as full of holes as a fisherman’s net, and ships had always got through, but the major ports could, naturally, handle much larger vessels and quantities of cargo. The Royalists always seem to have been a bit on the edge of a logistical crisis – at First Newbury they more or less ran out of gunpowder – and this was in part because of the lack of port facilities, and in part because of distribution problems: Gloucester was a nuisance, to say the least.

Parliament always had an Irish Sea squadron, as well. Partly this was to block supplies to the Irish Confederates, but it was also to interdict communications between Irish Royalists (and pro-Royal Confederates) and the Royalist port of Chester. Again, some troops got through, most notably Colonel Monk and his men. It could have been a lot worse for Parliament if the squadron had not been there.

The problem with all this, as a wargamer, of course, is that there are no decent fleet actions to be had. Even in the Second Civil War, when the Royalists had a decent navy under an active commander, they achieved little, and were basically shadowed to death by Parliamentary squadrons. Even though the strategic options were much wider – Rupert got to the Caribbean – there was not a lot of actual action. The wars were sets of ship to ship, privateer on merchant, small group fighting, rather than big pounding matches.

This is, of course, an area largely ignored by both historians and wargamers. There was nothing particularly exciting about it. There are, as noted, few books on the subject, although there is, according to the article, a forthcoming tome ’The British Civil Wars at Sea’. Unfortunately it is to be published by Boydell and Brewer, which means that us ordinary mortals will have to extend the mortgage to acquire a copy. That is a shame because most available sources have a distinctly Whig history approach to the subject – Parliament represented progress, the future, industrial revolution and empire, while the Royalists were backward looking, sentimental, feudal and so on. That does not, of course, explain why the navy mutinied in 1648….

Wargames at sea, in fact, seem to benefit from a small number of vessels being employed. Most write ups of naval games I have seen are of a few vessels, with different aims and missions. I could easily imagine a few Royal armed merchants attempting to get through to a Cornish port, harried by an even smaller Parliamentary squadron. Three to five vessels a side would seem to do the trick. Integrated into a land campaign the success, or not, of each side could be reflected in ammunition levels and weaponry of the armies. At least it would make the point that the Civil Wars did not all take place on dry land.

Saturday, 28 January 2017


I fear that I am becoming a bit of a one dead horse beater, having written far too much this month about text, interpretation, authority and all that stuff. Important though I think it is, it is not the be all and the end all of the wargame world, even of my wargame world. I suppose, therefore, it is high time to find something else to talk about.

To start with, I could review my wargaming 2016. It did not go all that well. While a played a few games and ditched major parts of the rules, progress was limited. On the painting side I was decidedly hampered by an eye problem in the summer, but I did manage to finish my doubled Moorish army. Actually, I cheated a bit. My first aim was to finish by the end of November, and then I could justify obtaining more shiny metal at Battleground. I think Mr Berry was a bit surprised when I demurred from any purchase there. I was 24 figures from finishing. I actually completed the painting on New Year’s Eve, but basing took into January. Still, they are finished now.

The major project of the year was 150 tiny, tiny galleys. They were done by the middle of the year (I think) but for all my efforts, the campaign has yet to yield a naval encounter, so they remain in the box. But it is nice to know they are there. In fact, I think most of my painting effort is directed at knowing that I could field x army or navy at a moment’s notice, but that I rarely, in fact, do.

Along the way I somehow also managed to paint five houses, or, rather, four hovels and a house. These were Leven Miniatures Arab / Mediterranean range, I think and they painted up quite well, even given my limited abilities. They, at least, have been in action, masquerading as Asiatic Thracian homes in one of the main battles of the year.

I started to paint some of Irregular’s big classical buildings as well, but somehow they dropped off the road map after being partially undercoated and stuck on bases. The reason for this, if I recall, was that I noticed after having started that the insides needed painting as well as the outsides. As it has been snowing here as I write, I could be quite envious of a Mediterranean climate.

As far as the blog goes, discounting the hiatus in the summer, a lot of the recent posting has been about how to read ancient texts. I guess that this is something of a niche activity for most wargamers, even those of a historical bent. We prefer our history processed and dished up for us, I think, rather than having to chew on the raw data and interpret it for ourselves.  But I have been writing about that far too much recently, as I said above, so enough, and move on.

Reading has continued, and there have been some fine works consumed over the year, including Mary Beard’s SPQR and Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis.  As I said at the time, and in the Christmas Eve post, the latter is an amazing work of historical synthesis and unutterably depressing. I followed this up with a stab at the fourth volume of Sumption’s Hundred Years War series. I only made it half way through before the greed, stupidity and playground politics approach of most of the participants annoyed and depressed me so much that I had to give up. I fear that the resonances between both Parker and Sumption and contemporary politics were part of the mix as well. I will return to it, sometime.

Enough, I hear you cry! What of the future? A new-ish year beckons, vistas lie open before you. What are you going to do?

Well, next up on the painting table is another Spanish army. This is part of my doubling project, of course, and I am hoping that it will not take all year, this time. I have already undercoated a large number of skirmisher type figures, so the intent is there, even if the execution is a bit lacking. I also have the aforementioned classical buildings to finish (or, viewed from another perspective, properly start) and a few bits of a Roman marching fort to complete as well.  Having entirely failed to acquire any more figures or buildings in 2016, everything this year is eroding the unpainted figure pile, which has to be a good thing.

In case you are wondering whether there is a plan here, the answer is, inevitably, vaguely, sort of. I have noted that a certain Mr Hannibal used a fair number of both Spanish and Moorish troops and so my ‘master’ plan is to complete them and then I might have less to do if I ever decide to go for some Punic War activity. I am not holding my breath for that, however. Maybe when I retire….

In terms of reading stuff, I shall certainly continue doing that. I really ought to get around to Livy and Polybius, Xenophon (his other writings, not the historical ones) and Plutarch, but I doubt that will be this year. I have a fair pile from my winter reading box and a few Christmas present books to wade through (no, that is the wrong term – I enjoy them). I have a few of wargaming interest, such as Plataea, the Siege of Vienna and a biography of Cato. Interestingly, one of the selling points of the latter was George Washington’s use of Cato in the Valley Forge. Either that is an unlikely historical link or a cunning marketing ploy by the publishers, given that most people’s reaction to ‘Cato’ is ‘who?’

I will of course, continue to blog about the failure to achieve most of the above, and report on the very occasional success. As to what will appear on the blog aside from that, I have no real idea. I tend to blog, these days, from week to week, and it depends on what I have been reading, thinking about or trying out. We shall, hopefully, see.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Amateur Historians

The problem, as I have tried to state it, is something like this: historical wargamers, as wargamers, read the historical texts in a certain way, which is not the way that most historians read them. Thus, a wargamer reading a secondary text, assuming that that text is not a wargaming text, is unlikely to find the answer to the questions they would like answered.

The upshot of this is that wargamers, not being, in general, professional historians, will read texts, and generate answers to their questions, which might raise the eyebrows, somewhat at least, of a trained historian. As a wargamer, I want to know, for example, the effective range of a Greek bow.  A historian is more likely to want to know the social class of an Athenian bow wielder. To some extent, at least, the two will rarely meet.

As an example, I am currently reading ‘Democracy: A Lifer’ by Paul Cartledge (Oxford: OUP, 2016).  Cartledge is a bona fide classical historian, and does know a fair bit about classical warfare, given that a number of his works relate to it. But battles are not his real interest. The focus in Democracy is, naturally, the rise of Greek democracy, particularly in Athens (because that is where a lot of the evidence comes from). As it happens, a fair bit of Athenian democracy was related to the rise of the hoplite class, at least initially, and then to the requirement of the Athenian Empire (Delian League) for manpower for the trireme fleet. The need for large numbers of free men to man the triremes led to political power being, in part, relocated to the poorest citizens. If they withdrew their labour, the state was imperilled.

One of the problems with the discussion of Greek democracy, of course, is that our sources (Thucydides and Xenophon, mostly) were not keen on the idea of the masses (even the masses of citizens) having any say in affairs. Thus their accounts of Athenian 9and other) democracies are rather biased against it. So too, roughly, with Aristotle. People who come from the educated elite tend to rather look down on the uneducated masses.

Be that as it may, the issue is that Cartledge is not particularly interested in the details of Athenian fleets or the machinations of campaigns, alliances and international politics, at least in this book. That is not to say it is not a good book (it is good book) but to admit that the focus is not where most wargamers would want it to be.

That said, of course, most of the historical texts do not focus on what wargamers are interested in. While there is a reasonable amount of information around on some of the bigger battles, it is often not cast in a form the wargamer needs to answer their questions. As I noted before, a wargamer really wants answers in the form of ‘there were X thousand hoplites, Y hundred cavalry and Z thousand light troops present’. While this does happen, it is rarely the focus of either original historian of secondary work author.

Wargamers, thus, are forced to make their own interpretations of historical texts, and it is here that the incautious can make mistakes. It is very easy to read an ancient text as if we were reading a newspaper report. We can and, I suspect, often do, simply flip through the pages until we find something interesting, like an order of battle or an account of a skirmish, and ignore the rest. After all, as a wargamer, we want the armies and the battles. Give us the numbers and array, and we will be happy.

Unfortunately, textual interpretation is rarely that easy. The author almost certainly has some sort of agenda. We also forget that history, as a subject for academic study, was a nineteenth century invention. Prior to that, it was relatively rare for someone to questions the sources accuracy or consider the inherent bias of the author. A naïve reading of the text is often nearly as bad as no reading at all.

For a made up example, it is possible that an ancient author, opposed to the idea of democracy, would inflate the size of ‘democratic’ armies over oligarchic ones, and accuse the former of being undisciplined and hence lucky to win a battle over the latter. This has little or nothing to do with history, and a lot to do with ideology. If we do not read the rest of the author, we might land up considering that democratic armies were fairly useless but, as democratic, simply big enough to win.

We therefore land up, if we read a text with sufficient suspicion, presenting ourselves with, perhaps a range of possibilities. Within these we have to make decisions about army size, quality of generals, discipline, training and so on. The text might present us with a ball park, but only our interpretation can decide where within the field the historical army was to be found.

As another example, if you read Tacitus (and I hope you do) one of the things that frequently happens is that a Roman army on the frontier becomes lax and ill-disciplined because the general is more interested in a life of luxury or political scheming. A new general is sent out and makes the soldiers do dawn marches and plenty of battle practice (which they love) and then leads them, in the next campaigning season, into a successful, victorious, battle. Everyone is happy. The soldiers get pay and loot, the general kudos and promotion and so on. But this happens again and again in Tacitus, leading us to suspect that other motives are afoot in the writing, more to do with the politicians and generals Tacitus liked and disliked than any real difference in the efficiency of the army.

The upshot of this is, of course, that textual interpretation is tricky. I do not mean that we should not do it, or that we should leave the interpretation to the experts and rely on those who have material we need (largely because they tend to be Dead White Males of a previous age and outlook), but that we need a sufficient dose of caution in our interpretation, a dash of suspicion before we try to reconstruct what might have been going on.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Wargamer’s Readings of History

I have noted before that wargamers have, in all likelihood, a particular view of history, and a particular use for the texts thereof. Wander around the book stalls of your local wargaming show and, I suspect, two things will become clear to you. Firstly, wargamers are, even in these days of the Internet, a fairly book-ish tribe. Secondly, they are interested in politics, campaigns, battles and military dress, and very little more.

History, of course, encompasses much more than this list of what, I think, historians would conceive of as fairly minor sorts of interests. I once read that professional historians were little interested in the battle of Agincourt and its outcome, but much more interested in the Treaty of Troyes and what it tells us about medieval kingship. This always struck me as slightly odd, partly because I had just read an article by Austin Woolrych bemoaning this attitude among historians, and secondly because Troyes would not have happened if Henry V had gone down under the weight for the French attack in 1415.

Woolrych observed that, when he started being a historian, it struck him that some idea of how things turned out, of who won the battles, for example, was quite important. Professional historians, he discovered, did not really agree, which he found very strange. For myself, I do find that historiography’s focus on thematic analysis is only of any use when you have a firm understanding of the chronology of the period in question. Otherwise it just gets confusing. That chronology is often not present in academic historiography, and thus it seems, at least, to split itself off from events. Sometimes, it seems, history can spend its time examining the lichen on the bark of a tree, and forget that the wood exists.

In spite of all this, of course, the spate of respectable history books by professional historians published about Agincourt around 2015 was rather large. Whether or not the main focus of the profession is on the Treaty of Troyes, some historians clearly have an eye to the popular history main chance, and what the book-buying public might be interested in. Battles are, if nothing else, high drama which even Eastenders or similar soap operas find it hard to compete against. When it comes to conflict, battles are hard to beat.

Nevertheless, it is true that wargamers, as a community, have a different set of interests, and a different set of readings, from people who are following, say, church history, or medical history, or the social history of dustmen, or whatever. We read the same texts, perhaps – in ancient history particularly there are only a limited number of texts to read – but we read them in a different way, asking different questions and finding answers that satisfy those, in whole or part. A medical historian reading Arrian might be interested in Alexander’s wounds, their treatment and his final illness. A wargamer would be interested in the numbers of troops in the armies.
In terms of the authority to interpret, what we have here is a diverse set of interpretative communities. The medical historians and the military ones, let alone the wargamers, probably have little to talk about beyond the interpretation of certain words. This is not strictly because they talk past each other (although that happens) it is just an indication of diverse interests. The secondary literatures that build up around these topics are usually only of interest to the members (more or less peripheral to them) of that community of interest. Interpretations are then relative to that community.

Thus, for the wargaming community, the interpretations we seek are those which aid the community in the fulfilment of its aims. The aim of the wargaming community is, of course, to play wargames, and to enjoy them. As has been noted a few times here, while that aim is not incompatible with having an interpretation of history which is acceptable in a wider historiographical community, such as professional historians, it does not entail that a wargame is historical. A wargame may be a reasonable and acceptable interpretation of a historical event, but it does not have to be.

The acceptability of a wargame, therefore, is not a simply function of its historicity, nor is it one of the fun of the game. It is, rather, a complex function of the two, plus a few other aspects, such as aesthetic appeal, playability of the rules, sociability and so on. But it is, I think, a mistake to suppose that a ‘good’ wargame is a historical wargame, or a wargame played strictly for fun. As with so many things, the truth of what a good wargame is lies between these poles.

Interpretations of history of interest to wargamers thus tend to evolve. Wargaming started, perhaps, with the view of the activity of the individual solider, what he could do in a certain time. As understanding of battles and their concomitant activities evolved, some aspects of wargames became more unit based, and the interest switched to what a unit could achieve in a certain amount of time. Of course, there was a backlash to this as, perhaps, a more ‘romantic’ view of the soldier as hero reasserted itself. History as written and interpreted is an aspect of this, but only one of the inputs to the debate.

Who, then, has authority of interpretation in wargaming? The answer is, perhaps inevitably, no one. But the reasons for making that the answer are at least a little interesting. There are active debates in wargaming between the unit and the individual, and that debate is articulated through big battle and skirmish type rules and games. What we actually think are important aspects of military conflicts is shown though our activities. Not that, of course, our opinions do not shift, but consider this: if you fight a wargame with a set of skirmish rules, and the same wargame with a set of big battle rules, you are almost certain to get a different outcome.

Nevertheless, Einstein encouraged sociologists of science not to listen to what scientists said they do, but to watch what they do. How much, I wonder, of wargamer’s commitments to interpretations of history can be seen in the games that we play?

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Completely raving, of course, and what on earth has it to do with wargaming? ‘Kiss Me Kate’? Has he gone mad?

Well, of course, the excesses of Christmas and the New Year may well have driven me over the edge, but to quote the Bard (my, how the girls will flock to the blog) ‘It may be madness, but there is method in’t.’ Yes. Quite. It might take a bit of digging to find it though.

Actually, the point I am trying to make with this sudden excursus into Cole Porter is about interpretation, again. In January 2017’s issue of History today magazine, there is a profile of Natsume Soseki, Japan’s Charles Dickens. He came to London in the early 20th century, sent by the modernising Japanese government to assess which bits of modernity Japan should assimilate, and which bits it should not.

Soseki was a scholar and author, and had studied English literature. However, he arrived in England full of English studies of Shakespeare. In his opinion, only an Englishman could interpret Shakespeare, so his interpretation of the Bard had to be dependent on English interpretations.

As Soseki lived in England and did English things (including trying to learn to ride a bicycle) he revised his opinion of how to interpret Shakespeare. His interpretation, he concluded, was as valid as anyone else’s. Meiji Japan’s assimilation of many things modern and western could be considered to be highly unfortunate for both Japan and the rest of the world, but that is hardly Soseki’s fault.

The point of all this is, of course, to ask the question: how do we interpret Shakespeare? After all, he lived 400 or so years ago and, as I tried to suggest last time, the past is different to the present. What his plays meant to the original audience may not be what they mean to us. Occasionally, of course, some bright spark of a theatre director has a go at doing something different, making, for instance, Macbeth set in 1920’s gangster led prohibition, or The Tempest on a Greek island receiving refugees or something (I have made those up, by the way, although I think someone might have tried the Macbeth thing). Immediately the critics are sharpening their pens, crying ‘It is not authentic!’

Who really knows, or cares, whether such an updated production is authentic? Or, in other words, why do people get so upset when a Shakespeare play is “updated”. A classic, after all, is a classic. Part of the definition of a classic is that it speaks afresh to each generation, and that each, returning to it, can find something else in its depths. If we can interpret A Winter’s Tale as a post-nuclear apocalypse dystopian warning, then who, really, is there to object?

Nevertheless, people do object. The authority to make these objections comes from an idea of what an authentic production of a Shakespeare play should be. Similarly, I suppose, wargamers have an idea of what an authentic wargame might look like. New interpretations, new ideas, tend to be rejected initially. Max Planck once remarked that new ideas in physics are only accepted when the current crop of professors either retires or dies.

No-one, therefore, really has the authority to interpret Shakespeare. His plays are a gift to the world, for the world to make of them what it will. That does not mean, of course, that a scholarly community cannot make some sort of general introduction or guide to his works. Nor does it mean that any interpretation goes. New ideas, new concepts, new interpretations have to be tested and accepted by a wider community. The claim that ‘They laughed at Galileo’ does not mean that my new ‘theory’ of gravity should be taken seriously. Galileo, after all, was steeped in the physics community of his day. He knew what he was doing, and what he was rejecting. I would need a thorough understanding of the present state of research in General Relativity before I could claim a new theory of gravity of which the community should take note. So it is with Shakespeare; new interpretations do not emerge from a void.

In these communities, then, there is some sort of authority, derived from the group think of relevant people. So it is in wargaming, of course. Even for us solo wargamers out here on left field of the community the authority of the rest of the wargaming world has an impact. Only by recognising and understanding the thinking of the community, and the reasons why the community thinks in that way can my ideas have any sort of impact. The main vehicle of this impact is, of course, the wargame rule set. Rules are accepted or not by the wider community. They can become, in some sense, currency for discussing wargaming, as DB* did, for a while.

This is no bad thing, of course. We need a language to discuss the hobby, and successful languages will tend to come to the fore. Paradigms tend to change, of course, and what was acceptable wargaming language in the (say) 1970’s may well not be (except in some quarters) today. The evolution of wargaming can, probably, be traced through the popular sets of wargame rules. But no-one makes anyone use this or that particular set. There may be popular rule sets, but there is no authority, no verifiable claim to authenticity that a particular set can make.

And so we return to Bill S and interpretations. A Japanese interpretation of Shakespeare is quite likely to look very different from a performance staged in Stratford-Upon-Avon. One cannot claim more authenticity than the other. Similarly, a battle of Waterloo wargame performed with one set of rules cannot claim greater authenticity then the same battle under different rules (assuming that the rules pertain, of course). In that sense there is no authority of interpreter or interpretation. After all, someone pointed out here once that the accounts of Waterloo vary over what time the battle started, to say nothing of the events.

The authority, such as it is, in the world tends to arise, ultimately, from the nation state and the control of violence. Where who controls violence is disputed, civil wars (which are among the most uncivil sort of conflict, of course) tend to occur. But in areas where the state is not interested, or which it has relinquished control over (such as wargaming and theatre), there is no authority beyond the interpretative community (or communities) involved. Exactly where that leaves us, as wargamers, interpreting our texts, is a subject for another time.