I have been further pondering the reasons why I really do not like more modern wagaming. By this I mean that I have never, in fact, wargamed anything seriously (insofar as wargaming can be serious) later than the Napoleonic period, and that was only because I was a guest. All right, I have, somewhere, stashed away, some very old microtanks. I can only plead teenage ignorance for that.
Still, I do feel somewhat uncomfortable with games from, say, the start of trench warfare onwards. The reasons for this might be manifold, of course, and I can think of a few, but overall I suspect that there is one overriding reason.
Let me deal with the lesser reasons first. To start with, wargaming in World War One has often been thought to be boring and lacking in tactical interest and finesse. I do not think this is a particularly good argument, largely because it is not terribly true. Granted, there were only limited options for getting men from these trenches to those, but the war shows immense grappling with how to do it effectively. Innovations such as poison gas, tanks, hurricane bombardments and mining all showed efforts to solve the tactical problems of the mastery of defence.
A second objection to twentieth century and later wargaming is that it is not pretty. Armies had (mostly) gone to ground and were wearing field grey, khaki and similar uniforms. Even American Civil War armies had colour, it could be argued. A World War One game, on the table, simply looks a bit dull, because that was the effect the armies were looking for. As an objection to the period this is, I think valid. Compared to a full blown Napoleonic game, a First World War one is simply not going to have the same visual appeal, and visual appeal is part of the wargame. Of course, this is a matter of taste, and mine might not be yours. On the other hand, the aesthetic quality of a game is not the sole determinant of whether it is worth playing.
Of course, we could go on with these sorts of objections. I am sure there are many more which could be bought against any particular period. For example, Second World War wargaming tends to focus on the tank, with its problems and opportunities. Much of the fighting, however, was between troops where the tank was of less use or, in some cases, was simply a liability. Another problem, which I have mentioned before, is the simply range of the weapons. A tank gun is accurate up to (say) two thousand meters. That needs a big table at any scale. Artillery ranges, of course, are even longer. This can, of course, be handled by ‘off the table’ guns, but given the intrinsic appeal of models, where is the fun in that?
None of the above, however, are the reason why I recoil somewhat from these games. I suspect that the real reason is related to the issue of what is known as ‘total war’. This is a term which begins to be applied roughly from the American Civil War onwards. It describes a situation where the countries at war are regarded as fighting each other, not just the armies, rulers or governments. Total war requires the employment of all the resources of the state to defeat another state. Given that this is the case, the war is conducted against civilian populations as well as armed forces.
We can see this in a number of ways. For example, the British defeated the Boers by rounding up the civilian population, denying the enemy the protection and support they needed for a guerrilla campaign. Similarly, Germany declared an open submarine campaign to try to starve Britain into surrender. The target here were not combatants, nor, in fact, necessarily British merchantmen, but any ship sailing to Britain. The nascent bombing campaigns towards the end of the war were similar cases, and these things simply grew in the Second World War.
Total war, therefore, is a matching of state against state. Economies are placed on a war footing. Civilians are targeted deliberately, as the production facilities and government capabilities are attacked. Furthermore, the advent of truly industrialised killing, through high explosive artillery and machine guns made the casualty lists incredibly much longer. I seem to recall that the casualties at Waterloo on all sides were about 47,000. The British army lost 60,000 on the first day of the Somme. Total war pushes our ability to wargame, I suggest to its limits.
I am not saying that we cannot wargame such battles as the Somme. I know that there are many sets of innovative rules which permit such actions to be played at the tactical, grand tactical and strategic levels. It is not, I think, a matter of whether such games can be played, but what is represented when they are played. For example, the Somme was only possible due to a huge effort of production and stockpiling artillery shells before it. Without that, the battle could not have begun. Is this to be represented in our wargame?
The answer to that question is dependent on the level at which we are gaming. But the question pulls other questions in. Do we represent the air raids on defenceless civilian populations, which might reduce the rate of production? Do we simply ignore the supply problem, assume that our guns have infinite supply and distort the game another way? These and many similar sorts of questions have to be either tackled 9in which case our rule book is going to be massive) or tacitly ignored. In short, total war is vastly complex as well as devastatingly bloody. How can a wargame represent, even in part, the problems of the real armies and nations?
Most sane people, of course, ignore these problems and simply play a wargame. But the underlying uneasiness seems to be still there. There is a slight defensiveness from, for example, players whose armies are the World War Two Germans. I suspect that this is because, whatever the claims to the contrary, the army was involved in some of the other acts of the German government, if only because it was defending the nation from some of those acts being stopped.
I am not sure I have advanced my thinking much, here, but I have tried a little. I do think that there is some mileage in the concept of total war, and that, probably, we try to wargame such conflicts too simply. But I’m still not sure.