Saturday 2 November 2013

A Wargame Dialogue

Socrates: Greetings, Bellus. What brings you to this part of the city on such a dark night?
Bellus: Oh! Socrates. How nice to see you.
S: What is in your box?
B: Oh, it is my wargame army.
S: You have an army in the box?
B: Only a model one, Socrates! I’m not planning an insurrection.
S: It is just as well, for if you could carry armed men in a box, the city would be in trouble. Anyway, my fine fellow, what is a wargame?
B: Oh, it is a game, of warfare.
S: I could tell that from the name ‘wargame’ Bellus. But what do you do?
B: Well, Socrates, we have armies of toy soldiers, all arranged like the units of real battles, and on tables made to look like battlefields, and we are the generals and order our troops about thus and so, with rules to tell us what we can do and what happens. Oh, and dice as well, because things always are a bit random.
S: Can you show me one of these fantastic battles?
B: Certainly, Socrates, step into here and there will be a feast of them for you.
S: This corridor is a bit shabby, do you not think?
B: Well, Socrates, we are wargamers, and the venue is cheap.
S: And yet you must spend a fortune on those toy soldiers; that box you are carrying seems very heavy.
B: Wargamers like to spend their money on the important things, Socrates, like soldiers and rules, not on ephemera like paint on the walls. Now, here we are, this is the club, and all these chaps are wargaming.
S: Let me look at one in more detail. What is this one?
B: This? This is an American Civil War battle, Socrates. See? That army over there, in blue, they are the Union, and these here are the Confederates.
S: I see. And what is the glass doing on that hill?
B: That is containing the Unionist general’s beverage, Socrates.
S: So this is a wargame on a historical battle?
B: Well, I’m not exactly sure about that, Socrates. It is a battle with armies from the American Civil War. It is a historical wargame.
S: But which battle?
B: I don’t think it is a particular battle, Socrates. It is a representational battle, something that could have happened.
S: And are the armies authentic, too?
B: Of course. All of the uniforms and flags and formations are entirely accurate, if scaled down.
S: But did they all fight together, at the same time, in an army?
B: Well, possibly not, Socrates, but I’m sure they were all in the American Civil War.
S: Then what does it mean when you say they are authentic, my fine upstanding historical general? While the sides are correct, the battle is imaginary and the armies constituting them are not from the orders of battle of a given action, because it didn’t happen. So how is it historical?
B: I suppose, Socrates, that it gives a flavour of the American Civil War, and that flavour is authentic.
S: A flavour, eh? How can a flavour be known to be authentic? But no matter, those chaps over there seem to be doing something else.
B: Ah, yes, Socrates, these chaps are playing a board wargame.
S: I thought you said that you needed toy soldiers to have a wargame.
B: Well, Socrates, I suppose that in some senses you don’t, because the figures on the table are tokens for units, and these counters are tokens for units in the same sort of way.
S: And the map is the substitute for the hills and green cloth and such like on the sort of American Civil War battle we have just seen?
B: Quite so, Socrates.
S: Then, although almost everything is different, you say this is still a wargame?
B: Well, it is still a game based on a battle which happened in real life.
S: Is that your new definition of a wargame, Bellus?
B: It will do for now, Socrates.
S: So what is happening over there?
B: Oh, that is our role-players.
S: You’re what? Explain, my fine fellow what those chaps are doing.
B: Well, they are all player characters in the game, and one of them is the game master, and they use magic, fight monsters, rescue damsels in distress and find buried treasure, Socrates.
S: All in one evening? That is impressive. But how is that a wargame?
B: Well, I suppose they do fighting. But I admit that not much else is the same. I don’t talk to them much.
S: But they could be playing a game set in your American Civil War?
B: Well, Socrates, I suppose they could. But it wouldn’t be realistic. We don’t know much about real small units rescuing damsels in distress in nineteenth century America.
S: Yet it might give you a flavour of the American Civil War?
B: I suppose so, Socrates.
S: What is that chap doing over there?
B: Oh, he is our demonstration game co-ordinator.
S: What is he doing?
B: Um… He is working out the order of battle for our next demo game at the show next month. And co-ordinating the making of the terrain; you see the map? And of course he has the timetable for the action, to see which activity needs to take place on which turn for it to be accurate.
S: Accurate according to what?
B: Accurate according to the historical accounts, Socrates. We want our demonstration of the battle to be as much like the original as possible.
S: So this is the true authentic wargame? Not just a flavour of a war, but as close to the real thing as you can get in a model?
B: Well, yes, I suppose so, Socrates. But it doesn’t get a huge amount of enthusiasm from the club members.
S: Why on earth not, my fine fellow? Surely, this is what you are all aspiring to, with counters, pencils or toy soliders!
B: Well, maybe, Socrates, but when it comes down to it, it’s OK for a demo game at a show, but it is a bit boring, really.


  1. I love it. A post in the style of Plato - I have been thinking of doing one in the style of Dan Brown, but I'd have to pay for a bigger broadband contract, and I can't afford the lobotomy. I'm still thinking about it.

    The game vs demo issue is a nippy one. I have limited experience of it, but I have attempted a couple of sizeable walkthroughs of Salamanca and suchlike, and I discovered a couple of things about them (or maybe about myself):

    1 - since there is nothing unexpected in them, there is no stimulation or motivation apart from the sheer spectacle - in my case that lasts about 15 minutes, tops - I have hardly ever completed one. Setting it up is fun, the idea is quite fun, organising it is sort of fun, but acting it out is a lot of work - who cares?

    2 - Something odd about scripting a demonstration - outcomes turn on minute events - the things which ultimately prove to be significant in the course of a battle may have had unlikely, obscure beginnings which no-one noticed at the time. Often enough, we have no doubt about what happened (though the sequence of events is often debatable), but just why it happened is very difficult to sort out.

    This is why the exact timing of Wellington abandoning his chicken lunch at Salamanca becomes a matter of interest.

    1. Glad you like it; it was inspired by my comment last week about doing the Socratic thing and asking questions. So I thought 'why not?'

      I think the issue is about contingency and how things could have proceeded differently. Drake, after all finished his game of bowls before defeating the Armada. What would have happened if Wellington had decided to linger over his coffee?

      i suppose that this is what make history fascinating, and also why wargames need built in randomness. after all, we cannot really model the Iron Duke's caffeine needs as part of a set of rules..

  2. Great stuff!
    But now imagine the same dialogue applied to, say, football:
    "Pray tell, Bellus. What is the significance of the Bovril and the Balti pies?"

    1. strange rituals these earthlings indulge in, Socrates....