Saturday 2 August 2014

Wargame Readers and Reading

I’m not sure when the last time you went to a wargame show was; for me, it was in February, and is also a fairly rare experience. However, one thing that does tend to happen is that you have large quantities of paper confronting you at a wargame show. Obviously there a dealer catalogues and rules for participation games, along with explanatory panels for demonstration games, but for a hobby which has a fair obsession with the material and visual, there is an awful lot of printed pages around.

Not only are there the mechanics of the hobby in print but also, of course, there are rule sets which, no matter how many pictures they include, are word based. Even worse, in fact, some of them contain arithmetic. No wonder it seems hard to recruit new members of the hobby when adding up, subtracting and comparing numbers is so inherent to it.

Finally, of course, there are book stalls. Lots of book stalls, often selling multi-volume tomes on wars which most people, quite frankly, have never heard or cared about and, if they have, have rather hoped would be forgotten. In the present globalised economy, memories of the Opium Wars, or the burning of the White House are generally embarrassments to the real-politic of international relations, or have been thoroughly apologised for in the fervent hope that they would go away.

But still the band of non-politically correct, pre-postmodern wargamers carry on stirring up the past and wanting, in some form, to recreate it. Even though, as present day sceptics and consumers of 24 hour news programs we know that history is only a matter of opinion, they still try to have historical battles and argue about who won. As if it matters.

Well, I am not going to dive back into the questions of history and what history is when it is being done, but there might be a little mileage in pondering this thing about texts and the uses to which they are put in a wagamer’s hobby.

Firstly, I have already written about hermeneutics, and I am not really intending to repeat myself (I have done enough of that already). There are hermeneutic issues about reading an ancient text. The world of the text and our world do not match. In hermeneutic circles, this is something like the incompatibility of two veiwpoints, two horizons. It takes a lot of effort to fuse them into something coherent. Lack of understanding of this point does, I fear, wargamers no good at all in the long run.

However, source texts are not the only texts that we consume. We also, for example, consume rule books. So far as I can tell, wargamers consume more rule books than they can ever possibly use, and some are honest enough to admit that they bought the rules but never fought the battles. Nevertheless, I would guess that most wargamers have at least perused the rules that they have purchased (at great price, most of them these days).

Based on my own extensive experience of buying rules and reading them, I can comment on what I am looking for in a rule set. It boils down to one thing: ideas.

Somewhere on a shelf or in a box, I have a rule set called ‘Have Pike Will Travel’. I cannot at present find it, so I cannot tell you who write it, nor who published it. But it is an interesting set of rules for ‘skirmishes’ in the vaguely Italian Wars period. It uses 25 mm troops, and I have never played it as is. But it is a very interesting set of rules, because it spends most of its time setting up a campaign / role play system and establishing goals for the players which are not simply variations of ‘destroy the enemy’. Admittedly, some of the rolled up goals can be a little annoying, such as ‘get such and such a character killed because you fancy his wife’, but the goals must make for unpredictable games.

Of course, I have not used the rules much, but they did, when I read them (in fact, I think I reviewed them) cause some amusement and some thinking about how a wargame should be conducted. And that, surely, is the point. The question such rules stimulates is along the lines of ‘should we treat our units and commanders as automata?’

Of course, we have dice rolls to give some unpredictability. But one unit suddenly retreating to expose another unit commander to likely death is not really going to be reproduced by those dice rolls. The question then is should they be?

For each wargamer or rule reader, there is probably a different answer to that question. The reading that the gamer has done will inform the answer, as will other games played and also other issues, such as outlook. Some wargamers take their games terribly seriously and probably would not tolerate a bit of speculative adultery affecting the behaviour of the unit. Others might find it simply fun, a laugh, not something to be analysed in any great detail. In hermeneutic terms this depends on the horizons of the players, the rule writers and the cultures (and / or subcultures) in which they move, and their interests and abilities to explain and understand.

So these hermeneutic horizons do not only affect how we read ancient texts, but how we read modern ones as well. The texts can still question us – ask if this is how humans behave and behaved, and if and how we are comfortable in modelling it. Furthermore, it can also ask us about what we think is important. For example, the old Tercio rules had fear factors, where most troops fighting, say, the Turks had a minus one because of their fear of them. This is a question for us as wargamers: do we believe this? Is it a suitable modelling of the reported effect, or simply a fudge factor because we cannot reproduce the numbers of Ottoman armies on the table?

I am not, of course, sure of any of the answers to these questions, but I do think they should be asked, and it is, in this case, the rule writers who are asking them.

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