Saturday 29 October 2011

Why do we wargame that which we do wargame?

Now, there is a clumsy title, but what I want to explore is why we chose to wargame the periods we wargame. This sort of follows on from last time’s comments on why we wargame at all, so in a sense I’m trying to drill down to the bedrock of an individual’s hobby (in this case mine; I can’t speak for any other individual).

In another sense I am also trying to explore the culture of wargaming, and whether what we choose to wargame is, in any sense, culturally conditions. Put another way, we can ask if wargaming is totally an escapist fantasy which only bears a passing resemblance to real life, or if what we choose to game has anything to do with what is going on in our world.

I used films of Shakespeare’s Henry V last time to try to illustrate what I mean. Another possible cultural icon is, as I’ve mentioned before, the Battle of Marathon. Moving on a few years chronologically we have, of course, the film 300. Now, I’ve not seen the film, but I do wonder if the choice of Thermopylae was, at least in part, culturally conditioned. I’m thinking along the lines of a few brave men (western, of course) against a horde, betrayed but fighting to the last, and so on. This is orientalism, as I’ve mentioned before, and it goes back to the Greek historians, but I cannot help but wonder if, somewhere in the background are recent events in Iraq and similar places. Perhaps, however, I’m being too cynical.

Anyway, the question of interest is whether those sorts of cultural and socio-political events influence our choices of wargaming topic. In the 1970’s, Paddy Griffiths caused a ripple in some wargaming circles by suggesting that there were ‘gray’ wargames, or what we might term forbidden subjects. Among his candidates were the 16th and 17th century struggles in Ireland and the 1939-40 campaigns in Poland and France.

In the first place, he suggested that the Irish campaigns were unpopular because they still had relevance to modern politics. A wargame which showed the Irish and English in mortal combat would, he suggested, make us feel uncomfortable, and so we wouldn’t wargame it. The 1939-40 campaigns show, of course, the “bad guys” winning, and that too makes us dubious of playing the wargames.

I could not honestly say the Griffiths raised a storm with his comments, but he did provoke a bit of debate. Some argued that his list of grey wargame periods was not grey at all, but simply too boring or one sided to make a good game. The Irish campaigns of the sixteenth century were classified in this camp. It was also argued that there was too little information around about some campaigns to actually be able to set up a wargame based on it. The Polish campaign of 1939 was placed in this category; there was also the problem of the lack of figures and models for the battles.

Now I’ve noted before that wargaming is an individualistic thing, and the choices we make are, broadly speaking, unconditioned by anything outside our own moral world (for want of a better expression). While there may be some who would be happy playing, say, a game set in the ‘Wild West’ which included killing American Indian women and children, many of us might get uncomfortable with that.

The point I’m drifting towards here is to wonder how we choose which periods we wargame. Now, of course, you might argue that ‘I wargame Napoleonic British because Fred collects Napoleonic French’, and Fred is your normal wargame opponent. But even if that is the case, Napoleon had more opponents than just the British, so why choose them?

There are, I think some constraints on our choices. Firstly, there is the availability of information and models for our games. Lots of people are interested in Napoleonics and World War Two (not just wargamers) and so there are vast quantities of books, DVDs, model soldiers and so on about these topics. I would suggest that this interest, at least in Britain, is because these were ‘heroic’ times for our country, where “Britain stood alone against the tyrant” and so on. Even if, as our reading of history and understanding of the period nuances these claims, we are still, somehow, joining in this narrative.

We also have the counter-cultural, as well. I recall someone telling me that he played Napoleonic Turkish because they were rubbish and everyone knew they were rubbish, so it did not matter if he won or not. In fact, if he did win, he could make bigger claims about the fact. But, perhaps, that is a little unusual.

Another response I’ve seen, I think on the old DBM-list run out of Stanford, was to advise the choice of an army you could love, even when it had lost. This was quite widespread advice when someone came asking for a suggestion for an army, and all the odder because of the way it was phrased. Perhaps it is just me, or that I’m particularly sensitive to language use, but to suggest that an army of model soldiers can be lovable seems to me to be a little strange.

Nevertheless, it is clear that people do make choices of armies, campaigns, periods or whatever that they can ‘love’, whatever than term might mean. For myself, I rarely wargame anything post-1700, as those of you who have read these witterings for a while might have deduced. Why that should be the case I am not sure, but it is probably due to starting out with the English Civil War and being able to visit some of the battlefields and other associated places, plus the fact that the source material is mainly in English and widely available.

But what about you? Why did you choose the periods in which you wargame? Answers on the comments button, please!


  1. I play mainly Napoleonics and WW2 battles - but the reasons for this are quite hard to pin down! I think it was a combination of the following:

    1. Playing in exciting games in both periods when I was a child just starting out.

    2. Lots of good reading material available in English, both for the uniforms and the organisations, and for the history of the wars themselves. This serves as both initial inspiration and renewal of it. This

    3. Lots of rules to choose from, so if I don't like one set I can easily find another.

    4. Wide availability of complete ranges in the scales I want to game in from the manufacturers I like in the styles of sculpting I like. This comes out to be a suprisingly big factor when I think about it. I've mainly collected models in 1/72 plastic and Baccus 6mm. This means that the C16 itch I've had for the last year or so remains unscratched, because there are no ranges I've come across that I've found suitable.

    5. I think, in general, horse and musket games work 'well' as wargames (and so do fantasy and SF games); I think that pre-gunpowder games and C20 games are harder to do well, because 'traditional' tabletop games find it easier to concentrate on the things that horse-and-musket warfare was about. I think this is why I play more Napoleonic games than WW2 ones.

    I play skirmish games in lots of periods though.



  2. Well, I'd estimate that WW2 and Napoleonics are the most popular historical gaming eras, with 'ancient's in third place [as you may have noted, I don't much like 'ancients' being an era tag alongside, say, 'Seven Years War'].

    I do wonder what would have happened to wargaming if Airfix had produced more ranges for earlier periods. Most of my Airfix toy soldiers were WW2 or Napoleonic. Mind you, I tend not to game Napoleonics or WW2 for precisely that reason (!). Perhaps I'm just contrary like that.

    The availability of reading material is an interesting one. How much, I wonder, does the ease of finding books on the subject determine what we play. I mean, some wargamers become experts in really obscure subjects, but most follow what they can find, say, an Osprey, about, which seems a bit limiting but understandable for those who are time poor.

    As for your C16 itch, I'd say go for it; it is actually a really interesting transition period.


  3. Wargaming was a progression from listening to Dad's war stories, watching Kelly's Heroes, reading Commando comics and finding there was a game I could play with my Airfix kits.
    If memory serves I think I got into the France 1940 period (I discovered this to be a not so grey a period as Griffiths alleges) mostly as a reaction against the late war massed German tank armies I often faced as a teenager. There were only a couple of 6mm French tanks available then and there was no internet for research! Today, I like to think I am keeping a less popular niche of World War Two history alive, with its mostly rubbish tanks but occasionally rather satisfyingly effective anti-tank rifles.
    As for cultural choices of period and locale, I have dabbled in 6mm Romano-British and ECW as well, simply because as a youngster I could go out into the countryside and stand in the overgrown forts of past battles. Sigh!