Saturday, 16 April 2011

Aesthetics and Wargames

One of the (probably many) things I’ve not commented on about wargames so far is the aesthetic of them. What I mean by this is the experience of viewing a nice wargame, with good terrain, well painted figures well based and so on.

My experience is that using nice figures on nice terrain gives a positive impression and leaves us feeling better about life in general, than using unpainted figures in a piece of chipboard with roads marked on in chalk.

This seems to link back to what we were saying the other week about imagination. It is a lot easier, perhaps, to imagine what is going on, to get into the story, as it were, if the terrain and model soldiers are good, as in well modelled, painted and looking fresh.
Consider going to a wargame show, at least in the UK. Usually, there are a number of games on display, and, mostly, they have beautifully painted figures and a terrain that would grace most model railway layouts. Generally, the displays represent some sort of historical or quasi-historical conflict, and the board is surrounded by explanatory information.

This sort of display is eye catching and is the sort of thing that many gamers aspire to, even though the actual effort of putting such a display on is considerable.

Now consider looking in the ‘competitions’ room. Now, I’m not a competitive gamer, but I have wandered through a few tournament game rooms, usually when I’ve been lost. Of course, you could not expect the same level of terrain as for the demonstration games. Mostly, after all, the terrain is only decided just before the game is started. But usually what I’ve seen has been a few bits of felt which, so far as the non-involved can tell, could be fields, woods or hills. In extreme cases, I’ve just seen a few chalk scribblings.

In terms of aesthetic value, I dare say we would all agree that the demonstration games win hands down.

My own experience is so. I started off as a youngster with Airfix HO/OO figures, straight off the sprue. The terrain was provided by the floor, furniture, maybe trenches dug in the flower beds outside in the summer. Moving on from there I started with 15mm Romans and ECW armies, which I painted, very badly, and based on bits of cardboard. Not very aesthetic, I’ll grant, but better than not painted at all. I will say, by way of defence of my younger self, however, that unless you washed the plastic figures, the paint simply flaked off anyway.

Then, for me, role playing games took over, and with that some more nicely painted 25 mm figures, although, it has to be said, no terrain to speak of. In role playing games, I think, the dominant force is the narrative driving the imagination.

The case of tournament games is slightly different. The constraints are, if you like, fairly similar. The terrain is unknown until the game starts, although in role playing games the scene shifts a lot more quickly. But as a self-consciously competitive game the aesthetic quality come last to the narrative within the battle and the competitive nature of the interaction.

The display game is a self-conscious ‘advert’ for some quality of the hobby and the people putting the game on. The modelling skills and painting are to the fore, and the eye catching displays of both wargame and background information are the important factors.

How about club or solo wargames? Of course, club games can suffer from the same constraints, or nearly so, as tournament games. There is a need for speed, to get the soldiers out and have a battle before the bar closes or the time in the venue expires. Nevertheless I think most club games (at least, in my very limited experience) have a higher quality of terrain than tournament games. At least clubs can and do have terrain items for use by members, and they do get used.

For individual or solo gamers there are two factors. Firstly are resources. I cannot afford to buy nice terrain pieces, and, if I’m honest, most nice terrain pieces would fill up my table. I can, however, practice improving my painting and basing of my models. While this blog does not do eye candy (there are many others, much more popular than this which do), I do get pleasure out of using nicely painted (so far as I am able) and based (ditto) soldiers.

The second factor, of course, goes back to imagination and narrative. The terrain needs to be sufficient to draw the imagination in to this particular situation, this battle, this story. I used to think it didn’t much matter, and had cardboard cut-out trees and roads marked by bits of wool blue-tac’ed to the table. And that was fine for the time.

Now I’m (quite a lot) older, and maybe my imagination just needs more help, because I find that I much prefer terrain which looks the part. Thus I’ve got some nice thick felt blankets of reasonable colours, and some professional buildings, and even proper trees. While I don’t often get a wargame played (some may argue that I spend too much time pontificating here for that), when I do I do get pleasure from handling the soldiers in that model terrain, which is a lot nicer than I recall my teenage games being.

So somewhere in this ramble is a factor or the aesthetic appeal of wargaming. Somewhere it connects to some value of art deep within me, anyway. But clearly this is not the case for everyone, or all situations. But now I’m starting to get confused, so I’ll stop.

1 comment:

  1. I think most people prefer well-painted figures on nice-looking terrain. I wonder whether the real conflict is actually between the beauty of terrain and its utility - step hills are normally easier to use (both in terms of the figures and the rules) than realistic sloping hills, for example. I've never played a competition but I imagnie one of the benefits of using chalked-on terrain is that it is actually easier to use in many situations. I've played vietnam games with chalked on terrain for example - realistic jungle terrain looks great but it is very hard to play a game with figures on (it is hard to get figures to run 'through' bushes. The same thing applies to all periods of course: using a 'base' system like Polemos ECW, it is hard for a battalia to be divided by a fence or ditch, for example.