Saturday 21 June 2014

History – Can Wargames Help?

Wargamers, at least of a historical nature are, almost by definition, consumers of history. That is, your average historical wargamer reads a fair bit of history, whether historical sources material (usually in translation), secondary sources or, I suspect most frequently, popular accounts of history.

Certainly my shelves are groaning under the weight of history, or at least historical tomes of varying sorts, ranging from the inevitable Oman (you have to have him to be a wargamer, I think) to the slightly more abstruse or, at least to a wargamer, peripheral, such as Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down.

The point is that, however we construe it, as wargamers we not only consume toy soldiers, paints, rules and so on, but we consume history. Many other people, of course, consume history; you do not have to be a wargamer so to do, but as historical gamers we perhaps attempt to go one step further. We not only consume history, we attempt to make (or, strictly speaking, remake) it.

I have wittered on before at great length here about the process of doing history, the philosophy of history, if you like. I concluded that, more or less, Collingwood has the right sort of idea when he argues that history, for the historian, is the recreation of events mentally which are then written down. The writing down is thus an attempt to to instill the same insights in the reader’s mind as were in the historian’s and, hence, to communicate an understanding of historical events and why they might have happened thus.

History is, of course, contingent. As inquiring minds read about historical events, it is nearly impossible not to ask questions about them. If so and so had known such and such, would the outcome of history be different? Slightly different circumstances, different knowledge, differing motivations could significantly change history, given the contingency of the flow of events anyway.

One way historians can and do work with this is to ask these questions. What, for example, could the Confederate South have done to win the American Civil War? What other resources could have been bought into play? What other strategies, military or political or diplomatic could have been used and would they have materially affected the outcome of the war?

Of course, some answers are either trivial or assume such wholesale changes to previous history as to render them more or less irrelevant. The South could, theoretically at least, have been a non-slave area, and, thus, there would have been no pretext for the war. The problem with that counterfactual is that it would require significant changes to the history of the previous two hundred years or so. It is thus not a counterfactual about the American Civil War, but about the foundation of the colonies and their subsequent history. The problem with large scale alterations of history such as this is that they rapidly lose focus and become hand waving fantasy, not anything grounded in the world in which we live, or are trying to question with our counterfactuals.

To work, therefore, our counterfactuals need a tighter focus, something more narrowly defined in the scheme of things but which, nevertheless, could have an effect on history. For example, the cotton factories of Lancashire were dependent on the cotton exports from the southern United States. The British Empire has the largest navy in to world at the time. What factors could have persuaded the British to intervene and break the blockade and, probably, assist the south by trading manufactured goods for cotton? How could this have changed the outcome of the civil war?

At a smaller scale, of course, other questions arise. If Prince Rupert had not received an ambiguous letter from his uncle before Marston Moor, would he have decided not to fight the battle? What happens then? The Parliamentarian Scottish army is still around York. Rupert needs to maintain his mobility and cannot afford to get trapped there.  Nor is there a lot of point in him simply leaving and letting the city be besieged again. You are Prince Rupert; what do you do?

Perhaps, in that case, the answer is obvious, particularly if you are an overconfident solider with a very high regard for your own and your soldier’s abilities. But given the context of the decision, was it inevitable? Could an alternative be found?

It is, perhaps, here, that wargaming could help. Now of course, a wargame is fraught with a whole load of other factors, such as the “accuracy” of the rules, the world view of the players, and so on. But possibly, by considering the potential in a given situation, and, if necessary, by fighting a wargame to try to define the manifold of outcomes, we may gain some insight into the original situation and why it might have evolved in the way it did.

Some historians, for example, might argue that Rupert did, in fact, have to fight. Some would argue as well that the letter from Charles was not ambiguous but an instruction not only to relieve York but to defeat the besieging army. On the other hand, a case could be made that the Parliamentary army was quite likely to go its separate ways after the siege was lifted and that if Rupert had waited, he could have defeated one, at least, in detail.

Thus, with a wargame, we could explore some of the counterfactuals, trying to assess the considerations the original actors had to contend with. However, we do have to admit some limitations of our efforts. Firstly, the outcomes will only be as good as the rules. Any refight of Agincourt with the original actors making different decisions will be undermined if the rules make the English archers like machine gunners.

Secondly, the outcomes will only be as good as the players. If the player acting and Henry V decides that Rommel is the correct model for the commander, the outcomes could well be skewed.

Finally, we cannot press the counterfactual far, as history is too complex. Some counterfactuals start with, say, a draw in the American Civil War and finish with the avoidance of World War Two. This is fine, but it is fantasy, not counterfactual history any more.


  1. I think most wars are so complex that it it would be hard to have enough confidence that the game designs have an accurate enough foundation to make most counterfactual exploration worthwhile. Maybe some of WW2 has been picked over enough to have a go.

    I think where it can help is in designing historical refights and then finding a certain decision made by commanders in real life just could not make sense when replaying it with a given sense of rules. So, for instance, certain ideas about squares (you can't move and attack effectively in them but they are easy meat to other infantry) cannot survive a Waterloo refight if you try and make the same decisions as the commanders on the spot (the Imperial Guard attacking in square at the end of the battle, a brigade or two of Allied infantry in square seeing off a division and a half of attacking French infantry etc.). Now I don't think designers are daft, I think it is because looking at the tactical decisions in this way can quite effectively test the model of understanding which led to the way the game was designed in the first place.

    And perhaps when we are happy enough with our model then we can proceed to some very limited counter-factuals.

    Do you feel this way about your two Polemos rulesets? Can your ECW set usefully be used to evaluate different battle strategies for ECW battles, do you think?



    1. I suspect that, as you imply, any set of rules has to be too abstract from any given event to 'explain' the event in a given battle.

      On the other hand, i do think there is some mileage in looking at larger scale questions, such as the approach to Naseby, and trying to see what the logic of the situation meant for the participants.

      For example, given that human rationality has not changed that much, why did Rupert decide to redeploy just before the battle? Given what we know now, it seems illogical, but it must have made sense to him, and we can try to explore why.

      I think the rule sets can offer some sorts of insight into real life. For example, the difference between gallopers and trotters is probably a bit overblown (and oversimplified), but the point about different cavalry tactics could make someone pause and go back to the sources to see what really happened.

      Rules, including PM, are all a bit too game oriented to give real insight, though I think that they can focus the mind about, say, troop capabilities and the art of the possible.