Saturday, 4 May 2013

What is a Wargame?

Everybody, I imagine, who is a reasonably regular reader of this blog, knows what a wargame is. The thing is, though, that I suspect that a wargame is something that we know when we see it, rather than have a hard and fast definition of it. In this, wargames are no different from a lot of other human activities, of course.  A game of football is recognisable as such whether it is a dozen children with a ball and piled up jumpers for goalposts, or Premier League players on a pristine pitch at Old Trafford.

It is probably, I think, worth thinking a little more deeply about wargaming and exactly what a wargame is. This is because it may, in the fullness of time, add some context to considerations of wargame ethics and how the things work in the first place. So I will attempt to develop a description of a wargame in fairly general terms, and see if it helps.

The first thing that we can describe a wargame as is a complex set of symbols. Whatever attention we give to our wargame figures, they are symbols; they stand for something else. For example, a figure of a 1854 21st lancer may stand for 20 such ‘real’ lancers, or a squadron thereof, or something similar. No matter how historically accurate the figure is, it is a token, a symbol of something else.

Two sets of such tokens make up two armies, and in most wargames there are these two symbol sets, moving over a third set of symbols, which is the wargame table and terrain. The army tokens and the terrain are in some sort of relationship; the latter can influence the movement and history of the individual tokens in the army symbol sets. Similarly, the individual tokens in the army symbol sets can interact with each other, in a way which is mediated by yet another set of symbols.

This next set of symbols is typically written, and is the rules of the game.  These specify how the army symbols and tokens may move, when they may move, and how they interact with the terrain symbols and with each other. The rules usually incorporate some sort of randomising factor as well, and delimitate the possible outcomes of the interactions of the army tokens.

At this point it may be worth mentioning the three level model of the wargame which I have written about before. Essentially we can see a wargame as a table level, a rules level and a real world level. The wargamers inhabit the real world, but are also actors in the table world, in so far as the army tokens are not going to move themselves. The interaction between the players as wargamers and the tokens is via the rule set, which mediates real world decisions to the table, and relays table information to the players. I am not saying that this is how it works consciously, but it seems to me to be a reasonable description of how a wargame does happen.

So, on the table level, we have three sets of symbols, the two armies and the terrain. At the rules level we have another set of symbols, the written ones which constitute the rules. At the top level we have the wargamers, who act on the table tokens via the medium of the rules, as well as acting directly by moving the toy soldier tokens around.

I do not think that this is a particularly radical understanding of a wargame, but it does have some implications.

Firstly, as I think I have mentioned before, we tend to collapse the levels when we play the game. Thus ‘the French Grand Battery opens fire’ becomes ‘my cannon shoot you’, to the possible consternation of passers-by.  This is the cause, I suspect, of some of the suspicion which occasionally accrues to the hobby, along with accusations of glorification of violence and so on. However, on this model it is simply a packed up use of language.

The second implication is a bit more serious, at least in theory. In a historical wargame, at least, the symbol sets relate, in some way, to the real, historical world. That is, our army symbol sets relate to the English at Agincourt, or the French at Waterloo, or whatever.  I think that there are two implications for this. Firstly, we expect our armies to represent or model the original, and secondly that they behave, tactically, in the same way. There is also the issue of the terrain to consider, as well.

These last points are, of course, where the rules symbol set comes in. It specifies how the tokens move and interact with the terrain and with each other. Again, we expect the rules to reach out beyond the table to a historical context where “what really happened” is normative for the rules, and the rules and other sets of symbols can, in some sense, model the outcome.

This, I think, is where the other ethical issue might arise, and it is a little more important than ‘my guns open fire at you’. As rule writers and wargame players of a historical bent, we have to have some eye on what really happened, so far as we can know it. It is, therefore, perhaps our ethical duty to ensure, so far as we can, that what really happened in the original battle is at least reproducible in principle on the wargame table.

This is, I think, a cause of some unease among some wargamers and members of the public. What if the RAF was defeated in 1940? It can happen in a wargame; indeed, half the players of such a game would probably be hoping that it will happen. The idea of clearing the path for a Nazi invasion of England might well cause some to hesitate before winning.

On the other hand, there are plenty who would cry ‘it is only a game’ and get on celebrating the victory of the Luftwaffe.

This is, of course, something that I have vaguely explored before, and I might come back to it again. But I hope it is a long time before I have to type the words ‘symbol set’ quite as often.


  1. Hi there - this is my first comment to one of your posts, which I really like. (And perhaps I should mention, that I'm not a native speaker of english, so - have fun... *g)

    Perhaps we can relate wargaming to historical fiction? That is a kind of fiction with different 'rules' than other fictional literature. All romances of course have their rules, but these are totaly self-defined rules. You may have dwarfs and dinosaurs in a romance, but not giants or whatever the definition, the rule, of this fictional world is. As long as the fictional world is consistent, everything is possible.

    In historical fiction this kind of anything-goes isn't possible, because the tale is related to the 'real world' - or what is defined as real in a given society by historical research and public discourse. And that is, of course, open to interpretation.

    One possibility in historical fiction is a kind of alternative history - 'what if'-history, so to say. This, I think, is very similar to wargaming.

    The main difference of course is the player, who is not a reader, and mybe that is the point, where the ethical problems do arise. As a reader we are distant to the text, someone else has written it, we are not responsible. In a game, the rules mybe from someone else, but our decisions are not.

    Thinking in university disciplines, maybe we can learn from literary studies (my profession, by the way) as well as games studies (not really mine, but I'm working on it).

    Well, only some thoughts.

    with my best wishes, Ralf

    1. Hi,

      Welcome aboard.

      I think that wargames are some sort of narrative construction, and, historical wargames at least, do have some sort of framework of what is acceptable in the narrative and what is not. Even in historical studies 'what-ifs' are becoming more popular, at least as a way of trying to understand the contingencies of history.

      I think that you are correct in that a wargamer is, in some sense, responsible for what happens on the table, in a way that a reader is not, but then the framework of the historical background ensures that choices are somehow limited.

      Wargaming as literary studies? Now, there is an idea. Perhaps an analysis of some after action reports on blogs would yield something interesting (but I'm not going to go there).

      Lots of good ideas, there, thank you.

    2. Well there are some connections between war and literary studies as well.

      We have done some research about speeches given by military commanders to their generals or troops in early modern times (inspired, by the way, by a lot of good red wine and Kenneth Branagh as Shakespeares King Henry at Agincourt - 'we band of brothers'. I love it.) It is often very difficult to decide if these speeches where really delivered or an invention after the event.

      And very often fictional speeches like Shakespears tend to be used in real life. For example we know that the Duke of Cumberland has delivered a speech at Culloden, but travelling south to London it got more and more sophisticated, and at last, as a collegue from Britain puts it, it was very like Henry the V at Agincourt - again. So I think these speeches are a kind of liteary genre, but a special one constantly transgressing the boundary beetwen fiction and real.

      Another connection to literary studies you have proposed yourself in a way and it can also be found by John Keegan, who mentioned somewhere about historical battle research that most of it is more like a choreography for a ballet perfomance. Meaning a kind of literary genre in itself with its own rules, but very different from the real event.

      Maybe with some literary studies (and game studies too) we could find interesting connections bewteen fiction, war, wargaming and war discourse. Doing wargames then is a special way of writing and reading in this very wide discourse on war, and a very intersting one, because there is something from everything in it: fictional narrative construction, historical research, simulation, passive reading, active gaming and so on.

    3. It is odd that no-one bases their inspiring speeches on 'Once more into the breach, dear friends... and fill up that breach with our English dead'. Perhaps it is not quite so inspirational?

      I would think that there are connections between war discourse, wargaming and historical writing, at least, if only that we tend to project our own concerns onto our historical ones. There are several books now on the British in 19th Century Afghanistan, for example, while a few years ago the campaign would have only been known to nerdy readers of Sherlock Holmes.

      I think you list of connections shows how complex this phenomenon of wargaming is, and why I never seem to get very far in these posts. But I'll persevere as best I can.

    4. Well Hollywood likes this kind of speeches, remember King Theoden in the last part of 'Lord of the Rings'. And that is totaly inspirational, but only fur us, munching popcorn in a cinema. Why is it always shivering fun to see others go to certain death?

      But I'm shure that we will find a lot of so-called speeches created after the event full of gloomy heroics. But yes, in real life soldiers like to survive...

    5. Interesting; do you think Hollywood is responsible for the re-invention of the heroic speech?

      There is some interesting work on 'fearing fictions' as to why we are scared by (say) a horror movie, when we know that we are safe in a cinema. We get involved in films and books and make believe play. And there we hit wargaming again.

    6. Is Hollywood responsible? Interesting question. I suppose there must be a lot of heroic speeches in 19th century up to first World War, but I don't know much about it. Maybe after two world wars we are (or where?) more reluctant in heroic speeches.

      But for most of my students these bloody experiences are nothing more then more or less boring tales from the past. Maybe they are open again for the heroic? So, maybe, Hollywood is in way reinventing heroic speech. Well, a lot of maybes, I'm really not shure.

      You have written some time ago about wargame narratives, narratives about wininng and losing, as far as I remember. But there are a lot of other narratives, I think, like 'the last stand' or the 'death ride' (the Light Brigade, von Bredow and so on). I'm mostly a solo gamer, and some of this games are in my memory because of this kind of heroic events. And sometimes I'm doing really stupid things on the table to get this heroic narrative, like sending my polish hussar in an attack against swedish horse they can not survive, but will go down in a wonderful glory... And I always hope that this is only gaming and does not happen in real life.

    7. Yes, indeed. i wrote about wargame narrative and our own, as a way of getting a handle on ethics and wargaming.

      But I would agree. A wargame is a set of narrative - a heroic stand here, a cowardly rout there, some brilliant generalship and some stupid ineptitude, possibly both at the same time. And sometimes the dice just do not allow a nice clean description as cowards or heroes.

      But then this does parallel life, except that our units are not composed of flesh and blood dying horribly, being mutilated or whatever; on the other hand, nor are they being courageous or heroic. Maybe there is a balance.

    8. The parallel to real life is intriguing - when, lets say, a french corps commander 1870/71 orders his cavalry in one of these futile attacks, did he perhaps follow a certain narrative more than any miltiary logic? And maybe the cavlary soldiers, who did these attacks again and again where following these narratives too. I don't know for shure in modern times, but in medieval times let say Charles the Bold last battle at Nancy in 15th. cent. follows a very feudal narrative of Honour. In strict military logic it was something very stupid.

      So, in wargaming we are playing/writing narratives, but these are only in part our own, most of them are variations of well established military narratives. Wargaming then can be defined a kind of 'serial literature'. Umberto Eco has written a lot of interesting essays about this, by the way, defining serial literarure as a kind of pre-modern storytelling, that suvived beneath the surface of the great psychological romances. Constantly undervalued and treated as trivial, it is a kind of storytelling getting to the surface again with modern media like television.

    9. I think that people like Charles the Bold did follow a discourse of military behavior, that made what seem like odd decisions to us perfectly logical.. Things like, for example, what a battle was, and the function of a general in the battle, and what chivalrous behavior might be.

      So our wargaming behavior is also constrained by our own views of these things; they inform how we make decisions, what we think the role of the general might be and so on, with additional constraints by the rule sets trying to make us do historical things.

      Added to that that the essence of a wargame is a compelling narrative, and we have a complex of stories running at the same time, drawing us into a (hopefully) enjoyable afternoon's wargame.

  2. I was musing over a pint in the 'Cottage of Content', having read your blog the other day. The telly in the corner was showing snooker - not normally something which would hold my attention for long - but I took to comparing it to wargaming using your description. There are obvious similarities, although I suppose the playing pieces in snooker don't represent anything other than what they are.

    However it was as a new game was set up that a huge difference struck me. The pieces always start in the same position - the same battle is fought over and over again. I murmured as much to Mrs G, who said that each game is different as soon as the first move is made, but then so it is with a wargame. I don't think any wargamer would be content to constantly refight Waterloo, for example, ad nauseum. All these ball games are pretty much unchanging - not even alterations to the terrain. I have often thought that football certainly would be much improved by the addition of a few obstacles on the pitch, or a nice trench system. I found myself giving thanks that I chose a hobby of such infinite variety.
    Which just leaves one question - do I drink too much?

    1. The other answer is, of course, that you did not drink enough...

      I think that in terms of a refight as a wargame of a historical battle we do have some interesting choices. Do we slavishly follow the same orders and behaviours as the original and create something that is as close as the model we are using to that original, or do we, for example, let Ney's cavalry at Waterloo have their horses piddle in the gunpowder barrels and disable the artillery?

      If the latter, we are no longer fighting Waterloo as a historical re-enactment, but are creating something, a narrative, that has diverged from the (contingent) historical original.

      As for improving other activities, a friend of mine always thought that motor racing could be much improved by adopting cross-overs as in Scalectrix, as a test of reflexes, brakes, and luck. Otherwise, the cars are just going round and round; boring, eh?

    2. Thanks Doctor! I'll accept your diagnosis.

      Bad example, in a way. As a Napoleonic wargamer for the best part of 40 years, I have fought Waterloo ....a few times. Never actually seen it played following historical orders though. Sometimes the game will start with troops in more or less historical positions, but it always diverges as soon as orders are issued. I think wargamers are more creative than that. Either way, I wouldn't want every wargame I play to be the same.

      I think we should start a movement for more creative sport. I was advocating the 'Useful Olympics' last year but no-one took it up; speed ironing, freestyle car washing, cycling with a basket full of groceries, that sort of stuff.

    3. I guess it is a problem with any historical event. You can start in the right place, but not force people to make the same sort of historical mistakes.

      As a more obscure example, I've never seen a refight of Cheriton go the historical way, as there is no way of persuading Bard to commit suicide, unless the Royalists are forced, by some non-historical prompt, to do so. It is a fairly obvious losing move to the wargamer, not so to the historical generals.

      Useful sports? How about the teenager speed fill of the dishwasher?