Saturday, 23 March 2013

What I Have Not Learnt From Wargaming

In a desperate attempt to follow up a previous desperate attempt at something approaching humour and possibly getting someone to read this stuff (no chance of the latter, I know) I thought I might have a go at outlining what I have not learnt in my wargaming career, such as it is.

Obviously, there are a lot of things that I have not learnt from wargaming. For example, I did not learn about wave particle duality while reading Phil Barker’s finest, nor did I come to even a very slight understanding of Kant’s transcendental idealism by rolling dice. However, within some sorts of limits around the central idea of wargaming, there are some things which I have not learnt by being a wargamer or indulging in wargaming.

The first thing I have not learnt anything about is history. I have, it is to be admitted, learnt a fair bit about history along the way, but I do not think that any history has been learnt as a result of a wargame, or of wargaming. On the whole, historians tend to look down on wargaming and wargamers as being somewhere beneath living history re-enactors in the food chain, and only just above pond slime. Of course, this does not stop retired historians banging off a few books about military stuff to pad out the pension, much of which may be bought by wargamers, but it does not stop the pond scum viewpoint.

The second thing I have not learnt anything about is statistics. Now, we can all analyse dice rolls to those nice bell shaped curves of the roll of two six sided dice beloved of school probability projects.  However, even when you try to use them for writing or checking rule sets, the laws of probability only give the results for a single encounter. Wargames (let alone real battles) are much more complex than this.

The third thing I have not learnt from wargaming is any sense that historiography has, in any sense, developed over the last fifty years or so. Wargamers still refer to the weighty tomes of late Victorian and early twentieth century military men for interpretation of campaigns and battles. Now Oman and Burne and their colleagues did their best, but they were constrained, as we all are, by their view of history, politics, life and what armies were like. This may not have been how armies actually were, or, at least, how we now think armies might have been. Wargamers seldom catch up with this, and so the older descriptions and discussions are maintained.

The fourth thing I have not learnt from wargaming is any sense of proportion, especially when related to buying wargaming figures. Walk around any show and you will find vendors happily selling wargamers huge bags and boxes of figures, terrain, books and other paraphernalia of wargaming. Both parties must, surely, know that the bulk of the figures will remain unpainted, unbased, unloved, and the rest might be used or looked at once and then never see the light of day again. Now, of course, it is entirely possible that the vendors know this and really cannot do anything about it. After all, they have to make a living and a toy solider sold is a toy solider sold, whether or not it ultimately gets painted. You might have thought, however, that the rest of us might have wised up a little, but we do not seem to.

As an example of the above, you might be aware of my doubling project, the plan being to double each Polemos: SPQR army that I have, given that most armies of the era spent most of their time fighting each other. To that end I ordered a pack of Roman archers. I needed 4 strips of archers to make two bases for my second Early Empire Roman army. But then I thought: paint an extra one or two, because the random rolling might give you armies with more archers. So I did, and then thought again – just a few more. And so on, until I painted the whole pack of archers and now have, in total, eight bases of archers.  Now, while that has much reduced my unpainted lead pile (well, slightly reduced it) I have to confess that I’m unlikely to need all those archer bases. But I do now have archers for any possible eventuality…

The fifth thing I have not learnt from wargaming is the information I need to be a wargamer. I suppose that this is linked back to the issue about history and historiography, but the information that I want, deployments, numbers of troops, command chains, uniforms and so on is simply not out there. Some authors, for example of Ospreys, do their best. But if you try to track down sources and chase the assertions to their origin, you find that most of our understandings of practically any period of history is at best built on air, or a single statement of something.

Even sophisticated wargame authors occasionally fall into this trap, treating, for example, Herodotus’ list of Xerxes’ forces as a real list of units (if not their numbers), when it is just as likely to be a rhetorical device aimed at raising tension an emphasising the Great King’s power. At least the latter method of understanding the list means we do not have to argue or wave away the actual numbers Herodotus comes up with.

Modren wargamers should not be looking smug at this point, either. For all the bureaucracy of modern states, it is often not knowable which units were up to strength, or what the actual TO&E of a particular unit really was, rather than what it was supposed to be. Matching reports from unit diaries and individual recollections, where they are available, with the official paperwork is a game that has defeated many professional historians, after all. And that still assumes that the paperwork exists.

So there you are; five things I have not learnt from wargaming. I am sure there are many more, not least time management, in that I spend too much time writing a wargaming blog, and not enough time wargaming…


  1. Hmmm, I've done the same thing you did with your archers, but in 15mm! I started off with modestly sized armies, and then decided that to make the battles look better (and to account for those battles where I might need more of a particular troops type) I needed to use double the number of bases. I'm now starting to think of doubling the number of bases again.

    I agree; I doubt think we'll ever really finish painting our ancients armies!


    1. And so, the 15,000 point army was born....

      All I need now is a table big enough to deploy all those archers, and all the auxilliaries, and...

      Is there not a twelve step program for us addicts?

  2. I think I'd disagree with your first point. You have learned a great deal about history from wargaming; you have learned to exercise a healthy scepticism about history as she is written for a start. You have learned that history is not a tame lap-dog to walk at your heel, but is likely to take a big bite out of your bum as soon as you think you know what it is doing. This is something many professional historians never realise, and they are dogmatic about it as a result.
    So, if wargaming has taught you not to be dogmatic about historical 'facts', because you know these facts were directly related to the perceptions and purposes of the compiler and your experience of recreating them on the table top has caused you to think a little deeper, then I think you have learned a great deal.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your fourth point. I once bought a nice Essex 25mm knight just to paint up; before I knew where I was I had two mediaeval armies of over 200 figures each. Still thinking I ought to get more.....

    1. Well, I suppose that wargaming does teach that history is contingent, but I'm not sure I have learnt as much from wagaming about history as I did from an extremely frustrating Open University history course that I once did.

      It is quite interesting as a point, now, of course, with the UK government demanding that our school children are taught historical facts, and half the academic world going 'hooray' while the other half says 'what facts?'

      We think that history, being in the past, is something which is well defined, and reading about it certainly undermines that view. I guess the thing I'm not sure about is whether wargaming has, or can, do the same thing for me.

  3. When I think about what I have learned from serving in the military and from being a reenactor, I think I learned a lot about tactics, about now ground and terrain works and constrains military operations, about the physical constraints of pain, weather, endurance, thirst, etc. I certainly didn't learn any of these things from wargaming. At the skirmish end of the hobby, I don't think most gamers consider how the bulk of their forces are likely dehydrated, hungry, scared, confused, embittered and unmotivated, which may be why so many soldiers surrender. Skirmish level wargames typically last as long as the last man standing.
    As far as the larger problems of historiography, I leave those problems to you Ancients Gaming chaps, who as your Herodotus example shows, have to construct whole armies on fairly flimsy source material. How you do it so well, Lord knows. It's hard enough figuring out how many tanks Division X really had running at Kursk.
    What I have learned from wargaming is that life is precious and short, so choose your gaming friends well, don't play with stupid rules more than once, and paint what you want to paint how you like and damn the critics.

    1. I defer to your greater experience on the skirmish games; I think in general wargamers do not take account of ground. Even slight terrain features can be important, and we ignore them. I saw some work on a slight fold in the ground at Culloden that directed the highland charge into a nasty position. I doubt that would happen in a game.

      In terms of wargame blogging, of course, I write what I want to write; if anyone wants to read it, well and good, and I hope it might persuade some people think.