Saturday, 27 October 2012

Terrain Troubles II – The Countryside

My grumbling about the problems of getting the correct balance between figure and ground scale for terrain items a few weeks ago have led me off down a slightly different path. I do, now, have something of a solution to the original problem (of which more later) but the question which was posed in my mind was:

‘What did the Gallic countryside look like anyway?’

This has turned out to be rather harder to discover than I expected. I kind of expected to amble out into the electronic environment, or at least the scholarly one, and be overwhelmed with studies explaining the varieties and techniques of ancient farming and, at least, to be able to deduce from those what the environment looked like, and how it could be represented on the wargame table.

I have been disappointed. Perhaps I have been looking in the wrong place, but I have not been able to find anything particularly useful, certainly about Gaul. Of course, it is possibly because I am, after all, a monoglot, and pre-Roman and Roman Gaul is not a major item of interest in Anglo-Saxon parts, but it has to be said that even British agriculture of the period is a bit of a stuggle.

I did find, however, one extremely useful web site, that of Butser Iron Age Farm ( This covers quite a lot of what I wanted to know, and a few bits and pieces in Peter Salway’s ‘A History of Roman Britain have helped  to flesh out some of the rest. That is not to say that there is a definitive answer to the original question (how could there be?), but there is probably sufficient to create a suitable wargame terrain.

Butser suggests that, at least in the south of Britain (and hence, I hope, by extension, to France, agriculture was focussed on fields around settlements. Depending on where you were, the settlements could be stockade or not. It is not entirely clear if the stockades were for defence or to keep grazing animals out of some areas.

The fields could be of wattle fencing or of live hedge, and would be rather small. If you Google for ‘Celtic fields’ images, you will see a large number of pictures of small fields in various parts of the country. These suggest that field boundaries could be of banks and ditches, or of dry stone walls. I suppose that local materials were used, whatever was available, pretty much as they are today.

It would seem that quite large areas must have been under arable cultivation, as the estimate of the area required to fill a storage pit is about three and a half hectares, which is eight and two thirds acres, more or less. Salway quotes the director of Butser as saying that the problem is really to identify areas where there was no prehistoric agriculture, not where there was.

That said, the Celtic fields do not seem to be sufficient to supply the grain required by, say, an occupying Roman army, so the question of where the major source of arable land was has to remain open. Outside the enclosures around the settlements, however, animal ranching of sheep, goats, cattle and horses was a major occupation.

Within the fields, a variety of grains were grown, spelt, emmer, einkhorn, wheat and oats, barley and rye. The yields were not great, but would probably have been sufficient for some trade for luxury goods. Interestingly (or at least, it was to me) if you plough frequently perpendicular to the slope of a field, the soil slowly settles in a downward direction, giving you terraces, with a bigger one at the bottom. This is called a ‘runrig’, although I would guess that most of you already knew that.

Interestingly, the advent of the Romans does not seem to have disturbed this pattern too much. The Roman villas were generally placed to be central to (and sometimes in higher places than) the native farmsteads, and presumably served as the focus for the collection and storage of the produce. Hence, and again this is probably only of interest to me, the French word ‘ville’ meaning town, and the English ‘village’.

So, in wargame terms, what should the countryside look like?

The terrain is probably reasonably heavily settled by, effectively, small farming communities. There may be some local overlord, either in a villa once Romanized, or a local hill fort or oppodia. I have not been able to find out thus far if, in England, the diversity of settlement shapes found in medieval times operated. I mean the fact that some villages in England are focussed around a centre to keep the good arable land to a maximum, while some are linear, with each plot having its own paddock, indicating a more animal focussed farming. It is possible that this happened, but I am not at all sure.

Outside the enclosed areas, the land would have been for grazing and growing other crops such as timber. Wetlands would have been used for water meadows and for growing willow, and of course hunting and fishing would have been happening too.  Orchards would also have been kept, and grazed by pigs.

So, far from a largely unpopulated landscape, much beloved of wargamers (who prefers to fight battles on a flat plain?), we are looking here at a complex, heavily used countryside with a distinct stamp of the hand of man.

So, now, my solution to my terrain problems:

I have decided that I need to roll with the problem of the two scales. The areas of woods, settlements and fields will be marked out by pieces of felt (or, hopefully, some nifty bits of thin foam stuff that I have run across). These will be in the correct ground scale. The terrain items (houses, fields, trees) will be the correct figure scale, but mounted on the same bases as the figures (or double bases, to be exact; even roundhouses can be quite big). They will, thus, be interchangeable with figures if the units move into the areas of terrain.

I have nearly finished the first of my new tree bases, and am pondering the enclosures. If I am happy with the results, I might even post a picture here, but I would not hold your breath, because ‘nearly finished’ can still mean 'quite a long time off' in my world.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Why I Stopped Buying Wargame Magazines

It is a sad fact that I do not buy any wargame magazines any more, I I suppose that asking the question ‘why’ is a reasonable one. After all, in my time I have subscribed to a few, both mainstream and amateur, and even contributed articles to both kinds.

So I suppose the question is: why did I stop?

I am not so na├»ve as to suppose that there is a single reason for my ceasing to purchase such publications. Firstly, the price kept going up. When a subscription to a magazine starts to look like the same price as a decent sized army, then one has to look to one’s priorities. Nevertheless, being reasonably happily employed means that price could not have been the overbearing issue.

Another reason could be the range of articles in an issue of a journal. The mainstream journals, in general, claim to try to keep a wide spread of articles. As far as I can tell, not having done a major survey and statistical analysis, the journal I mostly read always has a World war Two article, usually a Napoleonic or Seven Years War one, often a modern one and, from time to time, an ancients or medieval article. I suppose this was for a few reasons.

Firstly, the editors can only print articles that they have to hand, so if no-one had sent in any ancients material, it could not be printed. Secondly, the editors, presumably, know their market fairly well, and the two most popular wargame periods are, so far as I know, precisely Napoleonics and World War Two. So it is inevitable that the articles written and published will be in there two areas, at least in the main.

Now again, I am not suggesting that this, either, is why I stopped buying the magazines. I am, after all, a solo wargamer and quite prepared to borrow good ideas from any period you might like to mention. If a good mechanism is described in an article on, say, the Battle of Balaklava, and it would work for my Romans, then I am absolutely not averse to using it.

It was not even the photographs of miniature figures that stopped me buying the magazines. These, I suspect, are also linked to the issue of which articles are printed, it is true, and could be of varying quality. However, they were all better than the figures I can paint, so I am not going to criticise, although some of the image manipulation just did not seem to work well from my point of view. I also have to say that, having had a few articles published, the editor’s decision about what formed suitable pictures to accompany a given text sometimes seemed a little bit, um, interesting. But then I am not an editor of a magazine, so who am I to criticise?

Finally, I did not stop buying wargame magazines because they are, in general, opposed to 6 mm figures. I am not convinced, despite recent issues, that they are, in particular, anti small figures, but I suspect that the editors simply feel that, except perhaps for World War Two, such figures are not mainstream and so fall outside what they want to publish. There is also, I suspect, an increased difficulty in taking pictures to satisfy the eye candy lobby who want to see the whites (and the pupils) of the figure’s eyes. As I said above, if the text explains a nice rule mechanism or bit of insight, it is still something I can  use. Furthermore, the nice colour pictures enabled Mrs P. to say “Oh, those are nice”.
So, having explained why it is not that I have stopped purchasing wargame magazines, I suppose that I should try to give some real reasons. My real reason for stopping buying magazines was that I got bored and irritated with them.

Magazine articles, I feel, fall into two types. Firstly, there are re-hashes of battles that have been described many times before. I finally despaired of historical articles on these ‘mainstream’ battles when I read the third one in a few years on, I think, Neville’s Cross (1346). This was a lengthy article but it essentially followed the description from, I think it was, Oman. Now, a lot of work has happened between Oman’s time, (1920’s or so), and now. I am not saying that Oman is useless, far from it, but he is not the last word in the subject. At least one book has been published on the battle recently, and a number of scholarly articles have been written, incorporating sources of which Oman was unaware into the story of the campaign and battle.

Your response to that may well be ‘so what?’, but one of the aspects of most historical wargamers is, I think, a wish to get the details right. If you set up your figures in accordance with Oman’s description, you will be fighting a nice medieval wargame, but it will not be Neville’s Cross. So my problem with this is the very limited range of sources that most wargame authors access. If you are going to write an article, base it on the latest work you can access, not on near hundred year old accounts.

The second type of article is based on research, but is on such an obscure wargame idea that you know, before you read it, that you are never going to wargame it. For example, there was a very nice and lengthy set of articles on the border wars in Thailand. I am sure that they were very interesting to someone (presumably the author), but quite how many people were inspired to follow suit I am not sure. There are few figures, books or other resources to cover these periods, and the effort to find figures and other items is greater than I, for one, am prepared to make.

So while mainstream battle articles tend to the predictable and outdated, the obscure ones tend to suffer from a lack of resources. So, for me, magazines became much less useful than they had, perhaps, once been. So I stopped reading them.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Context and Criticality

To summarize where I am at present in the ethics and wargames debate: I am not sure I entirely understand what the question is. I have proposed a number of positions, but I have found that none of them apply strictly enough to wargaming to really give a decent handle on why wargaming might be considered unethical.

A number of people have been kind enough to comment on the issue. Firstly, it was suggested that perhaps using utilitarianism and Mill’s harm principle was too broad. Mill argues that you can offend people, but if you do it does not count as harming them. The problem is that some forms of offence are counted, by many people, as being harmful, and so, practically, the argument fails. I have tried to answer this criticism by switching meta-ethical theory, and arguing from virtue ethics that wargaming armies from evil regimes makes us more likely to be evil. I’m not convinced that this works any better, but it is at least different.

Secondly, it was also suggested that ethical concerns are simply a reflection of our (perhaps overly) politically correct culture. It is certainly true that few people would have raised objections to wargaming a few hundred years ago, but then few people had the time, money or leisure to wargame. I reached a tentative conclusion that perhaps the ethical issue with wargaming reflects a broader ambivalence to warfare in our society.

Finally, at least at time of writing, it was noted that wargames are often played without context and without critical engagement with the two sides. In effect, both sides in a wargame are treated as ethically neutral, even though one may consist of an SS Panzer division. They are simply tokens on the table which are used to create an narrative between the two adversaries.

To quote Phil Sabin, quoting Tim Cornell:

“The trouble precisely with wargames which take you back into periods about which we know nothing, or very little, and cannot understand, is that you do it in a moral vacuum. I don’t think wargaming is wicked in itself, or that war is necessarily bad at all. I think there is a very strong moral dimension and you’ve got to have good reason to engage in war, and this should be reflected at the level of games too.”

Now, I know that this is a quote of a quote, and that the context of this paragraph might well be something different, but I think there are a number of things going on here.

Firstly, there is a very strong historical dimension to the idea of wargaming presented here. The periods, it is argued, are ones about which we know little and can know little. I am not entirely sure that the statement is quite accurate, put as baldly as that. It does need some nuance: historians can and do tell us a lot about many periods. We do not have to operate in a historical vacuum, we can choose, for example, to examine the origins of the English Civil War and decide for ourselves who was right and who was wrong.

Of course, the problem with history is that it does tend to move in fashions. With the ECW interpretations vary wildly, from neo-Marxist arguments about the rise of the gentry to revisionist historians arguing that the problem was really Charles I. With such variation in historical accounts, even within the last 50 years or so, it is hardly surprising that wargamers do not engage with this sort of historiography, but simply reach for the nearest Osprey and call that research.

Nevertheless, it is possible to contextualise our table-top armies, and perhaps it is a moral requirement of them that we do so. We can then wargame SS divisions knowing full well what they stood for in the broader context. I do wonder, however, if that should mitigate our pleasure when we win.

The second thing that is going on in the quoted paragraph is, of course, a projection of our moral dilemma, in a liberal, western democracy, over the use of force.  There is a moral dimension, and, it argues, we have to reflect that in a wargame. This is an interesting point, as it indicates an issue that I have touched on  in the past, and rather dismissed as not being very helpful.

The issue is that of the western tradition of the just war. This arose from the Judaeo-Christian context, and is still much debated today. For example, most theorists consider the first Iraq war to have been a reasonably just one, but considerable doubts have been raised about the second, as I’m sure most people are aware. Governments are accused of fixing the evidence and ignoring the precepts of the just war tradition.

Nevertheless, the just war does give us a yardstick to measure the justice of a given conflict against. The problem I have with it is transferring that from the real world (where it is usually an ideal but never fully implemented) to the wargame table.

To see the problem, let us transfer back to the World War Two example of, say, a US Marine company against an SS Panzer Grenadier one. Clearly, we have a moral context here. One side, most people would agree, are the goodies, and the other are the baddies. According to the just war argument, the baddies should simply surrender, or at least, not fight hard in a bad cause, or even deliberately lose to increase the justice in the world.

As I’m sure you can see this lands us up with no wargame at all.

So yes, I’m all for context, and I think it is vital that someone wargaming world war two Germans knows the context in which they are wargaming. I also think that such a person should undertake a critical look at what their army prototype stood for, and carefully differentiate themselves from that political position.

The problems is, so far as I can tell, knowing when to stop, so that there still exists the opportunity of having a wargame at all.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

When Did Wargaming Become Unethical?

Ruaridh asked recently whether wargaming would have been regarded as even ethically questionable in past ages. The short answer is, of course, that I have no idea. On a more considered reflection, however, I might be able to offer some tentative suggestions.

Firstly, there has always been a strand of peace, and yearning for peace, in our culture. A recent book, called “The Glorious Art of Peace” by John Gittings ((2012) Oxford: OUP) examines some of these aspects, as the subtitle says, ‘from the Iliad to Iraq’.

Gittings is not interested in wargaming, of course, but he does point out that in almost all cultures, peace has been an ideal, particularly as it is often associated with prosperity for the peasant farmers, who could and did lose everything when land was despoiled during campaigns.

An interesting start is to be made in, in fact, the Iliad. Here, Gittings argues that while about a third of the poem is devoted to battle scenes, many of them gory, Homer does not give unequivocal backing to the idea that war is a good thing. For example, the exploits of the heroes, their blessings in their own country, exploits, wives and families are often given; and then they die, gruesomely in most cases. Heroes, even in Homer, are not bomb (or even spear) proof.

A second Homeric item is the shield of Achilles, which was decorated with scenes of both peace and war. Gittings suggests that Homer is arguing that peace is the true aspiration of the human race; that what we really want to do is eat, drink and make merry, but the cares of the world (including warfare) often, if not usually interfere, and even the noble and heroic are not immune.

So, even as far back as the Iliad, peace and war are juxtaposed, in tension, and not to be accepted at face value. Of course, that is not how the text has necessarily been treated down the centuries. Alexander the “Great” is said to have slept on it on campaign, and it influenced generations of Greek and Roman scholars, poets and authors.

It is not just the Greeks, or the western tradition which has put forth this ambiguous view of warfare. In China the literature from the Warring States era also presents a less than fulsome picture of warfare. Gittings multiplies his examples from history, but the point remains: war has never been a straightforward issue.

It can hardly be a surprise, then, if wargaming has its ambiguities. If, as it does, our culture has a tense relationship with war, then a hobby which represents war cannot be without its own issues. What they are, exactly, is of course more difficult to define, as some of the posts on this blog have demonstrated.

So, when did wargaming acquire the status of being something polite society did not mention?

I am not sure, as I said, that I can really answer that question. However, we can, I think, see that it is linked with the rise of leisure time in the West. Speaking very broadly, before the Victorian era, (late 19th century) few people would have had the leisure to indulge in wargaming, and if they did, there was not much in the way of equipment to assist them. Of course, there are a few exceptions among the super-rich, and the Prussian army started to use wargames for professional reasons during the same century. However, it is Robert Louis Stevenson and H G Wells who start wargaming as a leisure practice in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Before the first world war there were, I think, two things going on. Firstly, there was a good deal of nationalism, jingoism if you will. This led, for example, to the Prince of Wales storming out of the first night of Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ when one of the actors inadvertently referred to the ‘British Army’ rather than the ‘Bulgarian Army’ running away. Even after the Boer war (and even, perhaps, particularly after the Boer war) the British army simply did not do that.

Secondly, there was what HG Wells called a lot of “whoosh” going on. Certainly from the point of view of the British (and probably US) middle classes, things were getting a lot better and were going to continue doing so.  The British authorities were shocked, for example, to find how many young men from poor areas were unfit for war service due to ill health and poor nourishment.  The society which was so forward looking was found to be mired in poverty.

Similarly, although revisionist historians have had a good go at this, the battles of the first world war were a profound shock, particularly as the Pals battalions were mown down and the war poets started to write (OK, not all of them, but Sassoon and Owen, at least). Now the view from 1918 or 1919 was that the allies had won, but the cost had been horrific. Peace movements (League of Nations, Peace Pledge Union and so on) grew and peaked during the 1920’s and 1930’s.

So I submit that, sometime around the end of World War One, wargaming (which was in its infancy) probably ran into ethical issues. Why, you can imagine people asking, would you want to wargame with the recent war to end all wars so vivid and awful in memory; when there are so many widows and unmarried women around because the death toll was so high?

I guess that this sort of question, which is akin to the ones Ruaridh was asked, are the ones that continue to dog the hobby to this day. On the one hand there are good reasons to wargame: to remember, to understand, to investigate what happened and why. On the other hand, there are the reasons not to wargame: it revisits the horror and pain, even vicariously.

So it could be the ‘wargame ethics’ debates we are having here are, in fact, related to our society’s ambiguous relationship with warfare, and that neither war nor wargaming have ever not had these issues hanging around the margins.