Saturday, 8 January 2011


What makes a wargame period?

Conventionally, we see a certain set of wargame periods:
Ancient and medieval: 3000 BC – 1500 AD
Renaissance: 1500 – 1700 AD
Horse and Musket: 1700 – 1900 AD
Modern: 1900-2000 AD

As a broad sweep of history, I suppose that this is all right, but it is painting in broad brush strokes and on closer investigation starts to look a bit dubious.

Take, for example, the end of the medieval period. This is set as 1500 AD. Why? Did things change suddenly at the end of 1499? I think not. I suspect that the real reason is that original wargame rules went to 1485, which was regarded as the ‘end of the medieval era’, closing the War of the Roses with the Battle of Bosworth and ushering in the ‘modern’ Tudors.

Now, of course, we know so much better, and are no longer so hidebound by arbitrary western historiography. So the date has shifted from 1485 to 1500, which is, after all, a nice, round, number. Political correctness is satisfied because we have removed ourselves from a specifically Anglophone viewpoint, and everything is spiffy again.

Well, not quite. Those poor Italian War wargamers are going to be a bit confused, what with their actions falling on both sides of the boundary, but you can’t please everyone. The fact that muskets become alarmingly more effective in most rules after 1500 is just an artefact of perceptions and the unfortunate consequence of writing rule sets. We all know that there is continuity across the boundary, but we busily ignore it because, well, there isn’t much else we can do.

The eagle eyed among you will have noticed (should you have read it) that the Christmas day post put the Polemos: Polemous date range as 490 BC – 330 BC. Why, you might have asked, is this? Similarly, when (or if) the Imperial Rome rules see the light of day, it will be noticed that they cover first century BC to second century AD. In the light of what I’ve just said about the boundaries being arbitrary, hadn’t I better start justifying myself, and quickly?

To some extent, of course, I cannot do any justification. Any boundary in dates is going to have a degree of arbitrariness to it. Take 330 BC. Why choose this date? More or less, it is the end of the Persian Empire, and the triumph of Alexander the Chancer (I beg your pardon, I mean ‘great’). With that, perhaps the world did change, if only a little, and so it seemed a reasonable, if entirely arbitrary date. It might be argued that it is better than, say, 323 BC, which only marks the death of Alexander himself. While on the ‘great man’ theory of history this is the terminal date for the period, the collapse of Persia could be regarded as being a little more important.

The beginning off this time span is marked, of course, by Marathon. While, it is true, Herodotus does describe a few battles earlier than this, they are not presented in enough detail for even the most imaginative wargamer to be able to reproduce the action. Marathon is about as early as we can go with a decent description. You could argue that we can’t really reproduce Marathon, but we can at least have a go.

The upshot of this is, of course, to merely redefine the arbitrary boundaries to dates other than those of conventional wargames usage. While covering a much narrower time range, the terminal dates are no less sudden. You could argue, quite correctly, that Chaeronea in 338 BC marks a reasonable turning point when the Macedonians defeated the Greeks. The pike, it could be claimed, thenceforth dominated over the spear armed hoplite.

Alternatively, you could argue that the period should be extended to the end of the second century BC or 168 BC when the battle of Pynda marked the end of anything approximating to the Alexandrian Macedonian Empire. But even that is dubious, because the Ptolemys ruled in Egypt until Cleopatra. History is made of continuities, not of disjunctions.

Perhaps it is best to define rules actually as having a core period and a peripheral one. For example, many of the rules describing themselves as ‘renaissance’ in fact have quite well developed English Civil War rules, and maybe one other period, depending on what the author has been reading. For example, some rules do quite good French Wars of Religion, or Italian Wars, or even Williamite rules, without quite getting, say, Poles against Muscovites or Ottomans right. In this case, ECW or FWoR are ‘core’ periods to the rule set, while the Turkish Wars or Time of Troubles are peripheral. The rules might work OK, but they might not. Caveat imperator, eh?

So for the Polemos: Imperial Rome rules we can say that they should work OK for what most people think of as the wars of the Roman legions, while those who try to push them back to Pynda or forward to the Sassanid Empire do so at their own peril. And I suppose that the Polemos: Polemous rules will work the same way, with the core being the Greek – Persian rules and the Greek – Greek ones, with everyone else having to take pot luck.

So perhaps, instead of a paradigm troop type for a rule set, we should have a paradigm set of interactions, or possibly just a single interaction. For example, hoplite vs. Persian infantryman would be the paradigm. Everything else is assessed relative to this interaction. So, was a lightly armed man better or worse than a Persian infantryman? How did Persian cavalry rate against hoplites? And so on. As the net spreads wider, so the accuracy of our comparisons get poorer. Eventually, they must land up distorted, or we would be answering the question of how a Hittite spearman rates against an SA80 wielding SAS man, or at least a Roman legionary against a dismounted French knight from the Agincourt era. And we wouldn’t want to do that, now, would we?


  1. If any rules should fall foul of this, it should be WRG, no? So where would you say DBM (or any of the equivalent rulesets you are more familiar with) falls down in representing Roman Legionary wars? Or Greek-Persian warfare?


  2. Ah, a difficult question which I've studiously avoided answering above.

    I've not actually played much DB*, not because I don't like the rules but because my attention was elsewhere when they were released. That is why my comments were mainly about "Renaissance" period rules, which is what i was doing then...

    That said, I do think that DBM, at least in the version I played, didn't do 'warband' terribly well - I think that the general had too much control over them.

    But then, one of the few competitive games I've had in the last decade or so was Gauls vs "Marian" Romanns. I was a Roman and we got pasted, so perhaps my view is biased.

    However, I used to read DBM list quite a lot, and it does seem that some of the main victorious armies were very hard to win with (the Romans being a case in point), and some quite marginal ones (like Inca) could be sucessful.

    However, I also suspect that this is in part because the WRG rules landed un in hoc to competitions.

    That said, I did quite like DBA for Aztec warfare before the Conquest. And, IIRC, DBA was designed with Romano-Gallic wars in mind.

    So i can't give a particularly definitive answer, I'm afraid, due to ignorance of other ancients rules. But I do wonder how anyone ever thought that 3000 BC - 1500 AD was a viable wargame period.


  3. "But I do wonder how anyone ever thought that 3000 BC - 1500 AD was a viable wargame period."

    Just because the first wargames rules were quite technology-based really, in their own simple way and 'a spearman is a spearman' seemed to be the way it was looked at. DBx isn't so different really if you substitute "battlefield role" for "weapon+armour". I don't remember seeing that command/control/styles of warfare got much of a look-in.