Saturday 1 February 2014

Stubborn Questions in Wargaming

Firstly, we have to ask how historical is historical wargamng? Of course, the answer to this is “it depends”, but a bit of a deeper think throws up all sorts of questions. For example, what, exactly do we mean by the word ‘historical’. Does it actually have to have happened? Does it just have to be one of the might have been moments? Do the armies simply have to be based on historical prototypes?

If it is the latter, of course, a whole gamut of other questions are raised. For example, are Charles Grant’s Seven Years Wars states historical, because they are self-consciously based on historical prototypes? Are my Fuzigore campaigns historical because they use armies of Rome, Gauls, and so on?  So a question is then asked of what we mean by historical.

Of course, it is slightly worse than that, given that history itself is not a coherent object. Each generation, probably each historian, approaches history with different questions in mind and, as I think I mentioned recently, different presuppositions. This means that different data is selected, different historical narratives are written and presented and so we, as wargamers, land up, well, possibly confused when we start to ask for historical accuracy.

We could argue that all wargaming is a form of fantasy. The relations between the real battles, the real terrain, the real problems and outlooks of the commanders, cannot be reproduced on a wargame table. I have commented before about the distortions of space that our figures and terrain, and the rules make. This is probably also true of time. Would it not be better simply to give up on this complex history thing and just play the game?

Naturally, many people simply do this. And that raises other questions. For example, can someone switch from say, commanding a World War Two Panzer company to commanding the chariots of a Sumerian army without one affecting the other? If it is fantasy anyway, does it matter if they can, or if they cannot? If they attempt to use the chariots as Tiger tanks, what sorts of issues does this raise, and why?

To some extent, these sorts of questions come down to whether we are historical minimalists or maximalists. Do we assume that our historical accounts are full and exhaustive, or that they only give a bare bones account, and lots of other stuff might have happened. If the former, then our rules presumably should permit only those events, those outcomes. If the latter, then the limit is only the imagination of the players.

In turn, this then means that the more maximalist our reading of history, the more restrictive our rules have to be. I am not arguing that any given rule set is at either extreme of this spectrum, but there is a continuum between them and a rule set has to sit somewhere on it, even if the author has not consciously considered their view of the history.

Another stubborn question is one which I have discussed several times here already, so I shall try to be brief. This is the relationship between chance and necessity. It seems to me that this is not as straightforward as we might like to think. Our dice rolls limit the immediate options to, say, six, or thirty six, or ten, or one hundred, or whatever we might like to create from our different shaped dice. These then may (but do not have to) limit our ‘black swan’ events and, also, might make some historical outcomes either highly unlikely or too probable for comfort.

A related issue is that we cannot calculate the probability for a rare event on the battlefield. We can, though some sources and recreation, have a reasonable guess at how many hits of a unit sized target a musket volley might obtain, but we have a good deal more difficulty guessing the probability of a cavalry unit routing a formed square of steady troops. A maximalist would, conceivably, argue that this must be covered in our rules. A minimalist might argue that it was so rare as to be discounted. Most rules would probably try to accommodate small possibility, but then we are back to the granularity which our event resolution process (rolling dice) creates.

Following on from that, of course, is the whole issue of emergent probability. One thing leads, inexorably, to another, but only one other thing follows. There is a system of cause and effect, but a given cause can create a whole manifold of effects, but only one is selected by the process of resolution, whether that be firing a cannon or rolling some dice. This seems to me to imply that there is an irreducible narrative to a wargame. Cause and effect is writ big, but we like our effects to be proportionate to the causes, even if real life does not quite work like that.

A final, fairly stubborn question is the one that is often at the back of my mind as I write these posts: what are we doing when we are wargaming? I imagine that I have written enough over the last few years to prove the point that wargaming is a complex cultural phenomenon and, thus, there is no single or simple answer to that question. Nevertheless, I do think (of course!) that it is a question worth asking.

One answer is that we are simply taking part in a pleasurable hobby, a bit of light escapism which just happens to have some sort of historically conditioned basis. Another is that we are some sort of amateur historians, attempting to recreate in our imaginations an event from the past, so it becomes intelligible and we can thus have an attempt at obtaining a deeper understanding of it. In the latter case we are, possibly, approaching what a professional historian might be doing when they settle down to write about their research.

Again, the escapism – recreation axis is a continuous one, and we may not actually stay in any one place on it. But it does seem to be a question about wargaming that will not go away, from my mind at least.


  1. I got a bit confused about whether your "recreation" was re-creation or a leisure activity, but I got there! All of the above is true and valid. My own efforts have eventually boiled down to setting up armies which are like historical ones, using (playable) rules which are not inconsistent with what might have happened in those days, setting the scene in a territory which is very like the historical one, and then just letting it rip. It is consciously not historically authentic in the sense of being a re-enactment or a walk-through of a real event - this is because my own efforts at replaying an actual historical battle have almost without exception been disappointing - and the harder I tried and the cleverer I was the more inept they seemed. It is also because there is always a point in a miniatures re-enactment (and i recognise it when it comes) when i wonder why i am doing this - if it follows history then it will be predictable and only slightly interesting, if it does not follow history then i will have done it wrong, if only slightly. There is just a whiff of rather complicated paint drying - not a great thing to watch. This is just me, of course - I can watch, and have watched, other people's walk-throughs with great interest, but my own stuff just never worked.

    So for me it's a game. There is a small part of me that feels it would be nice to dignify it a little by claiming more realism, or greater historical accuracy, or just any kind of additional merit or scholarship which it does not really deserve. I think this is actually a common issue - there are a great many people who have to add gravitas to their hobbies in some way, to avoid giving the impression that it might be in some way childish, or a waste of time or money, or too much fun for Presbyterian taste (or whatever). My dad used to spend many hours in his beloved garden, but it wasn't because he enjoyed it - oh no, that would be self-indulgent. It was because he could save money by growing his own vegetables. Yeah, right.

    I have come to terms with this - I like my games to be rich enough to be rewarding, but they are only games. I play games; I devote part of my precious time to them, and yet I am (at last) comfortable with myself. They do not have to be impressive, or especially worthwhile - that isn't the point.

    It's OK.

    1. Hm, thank you for that. There is certainly something in this idea of 'richness', or, maybe, in different language, a 'thick' as opposed to a 'thin' description. A thin wargame would simply follow the historical script. A thick one could start to examine reasons for events actually happening as they did (albeit probably still in a naive way).

      As for re-creation or recreation, I knew what i meant at the time... It just turned out ambiguously.

  2. I wonder if it might be be helpful to rephrase your "minimalist-maximalist" axis as "narrative vs description", which have a relation to one another similar to the relationship between historical fiction and historical description/analysis.
    One of the appeals of historical gaming, I think, is that it offers enthusiasts of a period the chance to immerse themselves in it, even recreate it after a fashion. Once one enters the period, the choice is whether we use the game to tell a story (the narrative aspect) or to reconstruct an event (the description aspect). By structuring the choice as a game, there is always the tendency to push the endeavour towards the narrative axis - think of the old Avalon Hill box descriptions, which would say something like "The forces of X or Y are ready and at your command, can you rewrite history?" However, if one wants to build in descriptive factors, making the game as much of a simulation of an historical event as possible, then you build in a tension which may harm the game. For example, last fall I spent a day walking the Antietam battlefield, and then read several books on that battle thereafter. Because the two sides are numerically unbalanced, if one wants to push the narrative aspect, the Union player will likely win because he can do things that McClellan refused to do. If one pushes the descriptive aspect, one has to limit the Union player's freedom to better simulate McClellan's cautious nature, while giving the Confederate player advantages based on models of the abilities of Lee and his subordinates, which are historically defensible given that most historians agree that in 1862 Lee and his generals were the best in the business. But, would a highly descriptive model of Antietam still be a game, or as Foy notes, would it be a walkthrough, and who would spend time or money in such an endeavour if one could just read a book?

    I suspect that the Charles Grant approach to the SYW, which you mention, and which lives on in the many SYW Imaginations blogs out there, reflects the appeal of the Narrative aspect in wargaming. These blogs, while entertaining, seem to me to be comparable to historical fiction, in that they have some footing in history but also show the pleasurable appeal of imagination, if not outright fantasy. There are also SYW blogs which show the appeal of the descriptive, featuring learned debates on the role and effectiveness of light cavalry and the like, but they are in the minority. My suspicion, at least of my own gaming motivations, is that the Narrative axis has the greater appeal because, like the Avalon Hill boxes used to say, I want to be in control at some basic level.
    Thank you for a most entertaining train of thought over breakfast.

    1. Yes, I think narrative - descriptive is a good axis along which to try to classify wargames, although I think I need to consider its relationship to minimalist - maximalist a little more. The latter actually comes from the classics - did Herodotus say everything that needs to be said about Marathon, for example. if so, then our rules need to reflect that, if not, then what needs adding?

      That said, i do think that for some the narrative drive is strong (I confess, that would be me), while in other the descrptive one would probably be stronger, in the sense at least of trying to work out what would have happened if such and such an event had taken place.

      The problem is that sometimes the two descriptions both fall apart - our historical ignorance is too great to bear the weight of either the narrative or the descriptive. I suspect that wargaming is quite a good way of showing the gaps in our knowledge, either way, but have not really given it enough thought to be sure.

      Still, I'm glad it brightened up your breakfast.

  3. Another excellent post which has hit on things I've been mulling over for a while. The depth of a gamer's historical knowledge doesn't necessarily reflect the style of game they prefer. An extreme example is a friend of mine who is very well read and has a good grasp of historical analysis and research techniques, yet has developed a set of 'black powder' rules which are simplistic to say the least. He's purely interested in the 'game' and, as I've said to him, he might as well be playing Ludo. My current gaming axis runs from 'play' to 'simulation', but that needn't reflect the game's complexity. Efficient mechanisms can make game at the simulation end of the scale run smoothly so aiming for a more accurate representation of warfare needn't lead automatically to overly technical rules and long winded games (though anyone who's used 'Valmy to Waterloo' needs the commitment and stamina of a Olympic athlete).

    Now, quite a few gamers simply go with the flow and will follow their club's projects and rule preferences while others maintain a consistent drive to find or develop a set of rules for their preferred period(s). How do they know what they're looking for and when they've found it? Usually they say when the rules give the right 'feel' for the period/games. It's this, I think, where the crunch lies in that their perception of what that 'feel' is is purely personal. It's certainly not scientific because a large element of that qualification relies on personal preference which, in turn, moves the said rules up or down the 'game'/'simulation' axis. The more proactive gamers engage in rule tweaks. house rules and, sometimes, even complete rewrites, whereas others will blindly follow the book (which are habitually open to debate as regards historical accuracy/playability/style).

    I think the fundamental issue we have to acknowledge with wargaming is that it's a mix of influencers, often contradictory, which are brought together to provide a level of escapism which in itself' is subjective. The list of personal drivers (or combinations of them) must be phenomenal because a person is unlikely to have but one.

    Nevertheless, this maelstrom is thankfully going to keep you going for years and I'm all for that! ;O)

    1. I think that the diversity is healthy, but makes it difficult to generalise about wargaming in particular. And even when you have got (or think you have got) to a useful generalisation, looking a bit harder makes it dissolve.

      A lot does depend on 'feel', but often feel seems to me to mean 'fits with my expectations / prejudices'. Often, I have found that my understanding of feel actually means 'like the first game I played in this period', and rather discounts any further reading I have done.

      I guess is that a lot of this is not rational, but really about 'enjoyable' and 'logical' - emotional reactions to the game rather than analysis of it accuracy. Play is an important component of being human as well, and adds extra layers of complexity to our reactions.

      So, yes, there is lots to go on with here. My only problem is to try to say something sensible about it, and to generalise from my own experience to something about the hobby as a whole. And, of course, when I get it wrong, I have a welcome set of readers willing to put me straight and change my ways of thinking.