Saturday, 14 December 2013

On Ideas

Sometimes, ideas for wargaming come from rather unlikely sources. As some of you may have worked out by now, I read rather a lot and, often, read stuff which are not, in particular, wargame or history related. Nevertheless, you can still find interesting concepts, scenarios or ideas for rules, or wargames, or even writing slightly pretentious blog posts.

A case in point is my recent (and, as yet, unfinished) reading of the Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought c 350 – c 1450 (ed Burns, Cambridge University Press, 1991). Not, on the face of it, an obvious choice for a wargamer, nor as a source for wargame rules or writing. That is not to deny that it might be interesting, of course (it is, although a bit dry in places), but it just is not on the face of it likely material for a wargame.

I was, however, reading my way through the section which ran from c 750 to c 1150, and the text was commenting on the situation in France after the fall of the Carolingian ‘empire’. The kings of France had, obviously, lost control of most of France at that point, being confined to the Ile de France and not even all of that. The kingdom was very fragmented and unstable at this time, as you could imagine, with every lord with a half decent castle taking control of the few miles around his castle and entering into alliances and wars with their neighbours.

Of course, the king had a few advantages. A few more resources, naturally, and, of course, the huge ideological boost of being a king. Quite a lot of ink was spilt over what advantages this in fact gave him, but it did give some, certainly. So the king, as king, could do some things to his putative vassals, like demand that they stop fighting each other and live in peace. Not only that, but if they ignored him, he could legitimately go and lay siege to their castles until they became less recalcitrant.

The possibilities here for a wargame campaign are, surely, obvious, even to a bear of very little brain like me. All I need would be a few early medieval types, probably some sort of Normans and Saxons, and a map. I even have in my possession a nice castle. Sieges, of course, are a bit boring, but there are some nice dice based resolution systems out there, or even a bit of a skirmish game could be had. Additionally, the threatened lord could come out and fight like, well, a lord.

Part of the interest here, of course, is in the politics anyway, specifically in the making and breaking of alliances, changing sides at unexpected moments and so on. If one were feeling ambitious, the role of the church could be included. Does the king accept the overlordship of the Pope? If he does, then his enemies can be preached against, but, on the downside, if you start losing you might find yourself displaced by another, as losers, clearly, do not have God on their side.

Slightly anachronistically, of course, you could also be sent on a crusade or have to obey the Peace of Christ, even though your enemies do not. Given all this it is no wonder that medieval kings supported canon lawyers and theologians at their courts.

So, there you are, a simple paragraph in an obscure academic tome which opens the door to a whole wealth of wargaming possibilities. Taking this core of an idea, of course, together with borrowing from, for example, Tony Bath’s Setting Up a Wargame Campaign or C S Grant’s book Wargame Campaigns and you are off for many a long winter evenings interest in medieval high jinks and skulduggery.

Ideas, then, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, or, at least, from different places. I have mentioned before considering local history as a source for such, but there is no reason what someone else’s history could not suffice. The point is to find an angle which is fresh and reasonably new, rather than just hacking through the same old sources, putting the same old battles on.

Since I am banging on about ideas and sources, can I just put in one plea. Please do not get me wrong in this: I like and have many of the classic military history sources, such as A H Burne and Oman. They are very useful and, for people like Don Featherstone, just about the best there was to be had. They did, however, have a certain view point, a certain world view generated by their own location and context in history. Things have moved on, historiographically. I have to confess that my heart really does sink a bit when an article or rule set cites them as sources.

Military history is not, of course, popular in the academy, which is a bit of a problem in getting away from Burne and Oman and their ilk. But it is not impossible. In order to keep the hobby looking and feeling reasonably fresh and intelligent, not to mention interesting to potential new wargamers, I think we have a responsibility not only to present new wargames, but to present all wargames with the very best information and interpretations that we can find.

Now, it might be said that I have an unfair advantage, working as I do on the edge of the academy. That might be true, but the wonders of the Internet open all sorts of possibilities, such as finding the original sources, often for free, and also tracking down some recent interpretations, or even some old but obscure ones. It might take a little time to get into how to find stuff, but once you do there are some real gems out there, not necessarily from the academy or behind pay walls.

That said, of course, we still need imagination. Research of all kinds does, in fact. The popular conception of research proceeding logically and certainly towards a goal is nonsense. Serendipity and imagination are also required. So why not have a go?


  1. Another interesting post. I do enjoy reading your thoughts, even if I don't post comments that often. Anyway enough flattery. I agree completely that we should actually put some effort into our games so that they reflect the current state of knowledge as much as is possible. It may take a bit more effort, but I find the satisfaction of a well-researched game to be immense, and it is not that hard to find what is out there and to request it from the library if it is not freely downloadable. My local village library, which is about the same size as my home office, has done a sterling job of tracking down obscure texts for me. I make a point of using them whenever I can, because I want it to stay in the village, but that is another point entirely.

    As for serendipity and imagination, my own research would never have got as far as it has without serendipity, at least! Sometimes the texts just jump out at you, even when you were not looking for that particular one. :)

    1. I bet your local librarians really like your challenges. so much more interesting than tracking down the latest offering from Mills & Boon for the elderly spinster ladies which seems to be their usual fare. And most people don't realise that usually the cost is subsidised, as well. Some journals charge you several arms and legs for buying copies of journal articles.

      But yes, even a quick Google and a scan through Amazon can yield much information about battles which is outside the remit of the usual wargamer's source suspects.