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.