Saturday, 25 April 2015

Wargames with Meaning

Readers of relatively recent posts might have discerned a possible line of thought that wargames might be speaking into our current world, even if they actually refer to past events. We might be conditioned to look at past events through, as it were, the spectacles of the present. Actually identifying such wargames is a bit tricky, however. We are not blessed with hindsight into our present situation. So, what I want to consider is what such a wargame might look at.

Now, commentary on our present situation is quite a frequent topic in what I shall have to call cultural objects (because I do not have a better expression). For example, I believe there was a recent US film of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘Eagle of the Ninth’. It was rather hard not to interpret the legionaries marching into Scotland, all mountains, unknown paths, uncertain natives and rarely seen enemies as an allegory of the US intervention in Afghanistan (and, it must be mentioned, slightly more subtle than the ‘ISIS fighters’ of recent posts). Now this itself has to be interpreted in some cultural matrix. For example, there is a strong strand of anti-imperialism in US culture and politics; it is also possible that the original novel was conceived and written in a different matrix that either today or the implied audience of the film. And so on. Interpretation of these sorts of things is never easy.

On a similar vein, history too can be infected by the curse of being contemporary and fashionable. In fact, in the UK, academic history has to make itself fashionable in order to survive. The demands of the Research Effectiveness Framework (or whatever it is called) demand that the public be both informed and able to understand the work as disseminated. It is possible that this is why we have seen so many Black Death graves being excavated. Everyone love a good, gory, epidemic, as long as it happened a long time ago.

On this theme, however, we do start to see some resonances with contemporary politics. I have somewhere a book about Cromwell and the Scots. Towards the end, having dealt with Dunbar, the invasion of England and Worcester, along with all the machinations of the factions and politics, the author remarks that he wrote the book, more or less as a warning against the Scots and the English self-defining as different nations again. As I recall, the volume was released with the first rumblings of the idea of the recent Scottish Independence Referendum. What would have happened if the vote had been ‘yes’? The implication is that things would not have gone well for the Scots, although probably rule by Major-Generals was not on the table.

And so we head to more or less wargaming territory, and ask the question what would a historical wargame with contemporary resonances look like? Mr Grice suggested that a wargame of the 1689 Siege of Derry/Londonderry might not play too well in, say, Belfast. That is a game of a historical event which is still very much in the current consciousness of some people. It is fairly obvious that it might offend or, possibly, outrage some folk. But is there a more allusive sort of game we could get away with without running those sorts of risk?

I suppose that the sort of thing I am looking for is a game which, in and of itself, raises no eyebrows, but might cause a thoughtful onlooker to ponder anew the sorts of things that are going on in the world. For example, the play and film ‘Children of a Lesser God’ was, on the surface, a love story between a teacher and a deaf girl. At a slightly deeper level it was about how we treat those people who are perceived to have disabilities. The teacher’s attempt to get the girl to say his name was an attempt to force her into his world, the world of the hearing, the normal world, rather than the equally valid world of the deaf.

So, I am looking for a wargame which it, itself, a good game, but which also can be conceived to have contemporary resonance. I have in the past suggested Alexander’s problems in Bactria as a paradigm for recent conflicts in Afghanistan, but how about something like a 1980’s Third World war in Europe. There are, shall we say, issues with Russia and the west / NATO. It is perhaps not beyond the bounds of possibility to envisage an invasion. How would NATO have fared in the Eighties? Would they do any better now?

Perhaps that one is too obvious. Maybe a Roman invasion of Britain scenario would have resonance with the debates over immigration in the current general election campaign. Perhaps a Spanish Civil War game would have a light or two to shine on the growth of the far right in today’s Europe. It is also possible (although I’m not convinced about this) that the ‘Very British Civil War’ stuff I see around, set in late 1930’s England featuring assorted factions, some of them far right, might be a reflection of modern politics. I am not sure because I suspect it is more to do with using that early war British stuff that otherwise rarely appears.

Of course, we can define our wargame to be about something. We can claim that the Roman invasion of Britain game is about imperialism and its brutality, or colonialism and its consequences. We could move on from there and point to a similarity between, say, the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq and post-Roman Britain. All sorts of warlords, weird sects, and military entrepreneurs and so on enter the scene as the superpower pulls out. The point of this, surely, would be to demonstrate that however it works out, the population will be the ones who suffer.

As I am sure you can tell, I do not have that many ideas along this line. My mind is not that of a dramatist or playwright. Perhaps you can do better in looking from this perspective than I.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Problems of Campaigns

I do not know about you, of course, but I like campaign games. The idea of a campaign is attractive; a motivation for each battle is given. Personalities emerge, units become heroic and carry all before them in game after game. And so on.

There is, however, a problem with a given campaign game. I have been following with interest Prometheus in Aspic’s English Civil War campaign. It has been carefully planned, tested; the troops and armies have been lovingly assembled, and so on. The rules have been adjusted, the scenario tweaked and games have been played.

Now, here, unfortunately, is the rub. After two battles, Mr Foy has more or less defeated one side. As umpire, of course, he is throwing in some extra forces, having a final big battle and thus deciding the war. But I suspect that there is a bit of a twinge. With all that set up, do we not deserve a bit more return?

Here, I think, is one of the problems of a campaign game. We set it up carefully, thoughtfully. Enjoy the map moves and manoeuvres. Fight the battles. And one side wins. Often, it seems to me, in a campaign, one battle is enough to decide the outcome. I think it was Don Featherstone who remarked that in one of his ACW campaign games, after a couple of battles, one side was in no state to continue.

This seems to be a terrible down-side to a campaign game. In my own case, while Fuzigore is set up just to provide a narrative reason for a few games, the time I did set a campaign up ‘properly’, that is drawing maps, plotting moves and so on, it did finish in one, large and decisive, battle. All that work for a relatively limited quantity of gain. Perhaps I could have just placed the figures on the table and got on with it straightaway, as it were.

I think, however, that most real life campaigns, at least before the world wars, were similar. I cannot really think, for example, of English Civil War campaigns which had more than one or two battles in them. Marston Moor, for example, had the siege of York, and Rupert’s blast through Lancashire (I do not recall any battles there, though, a few places were captured and relieved), but the main event was the Battle of Marston Moor and that was pretty well that for the campaign.

So far as I can recall, most other ECW campaigns were of a similar nature. There might have been the odd skirmish before, perhaps a rear-guard action afterwards, but even when events did interlock there was not much in terms of continuous campaigning; even for something like the Cropredy Bridge to Lostwithiel to Second Newbury campaign, there were substantial breaks in the movement of troops, recruitment and reinforcement and, of course, some truly awful decision by assorted high commanders. There were, of course, a number of battles along the way, but the whole thing lasted from April to October and so the number of battles per month was not that great. A wargame reproduction of the campaign would probably have lasted about half an hour, and resulted in the Parliamentarian capture of Oxford at the beginning of June.

In the last paragraph, I might have exaggerated a tad, but the point might be germane. As wargamers, as people conducting wargames as our hobby, we actually want action. In real life (or history; the two do not necessarily correlate) often commander do not, particularly, want to join battle. Again, in the run up to Cropredy Bridge, the Royalist high command was actively seeking to avoid battle. The main action was to take place in the north and the aim of the Oxford army was to tie Waller and Essex up in knots, but not to actually fight. As it turned out, of course, Waller and Essex proved to be quite capable of tying themselves up in knots and were defeated in detail. Better cooperation could, quite possibly, have ended the war a year or so earlier.

I think there is also a question of scale, or scope, of the campaigns. Most campaign games seem to me to focus on limited areas, limited forces and limited objectives. Given these parameters, it is quite likely that the game will end with a decisive victory in a battle by one side or the other. In that sense, a campaign game is perfectly accurate: many campaigns in history were ended by a major battle, with perhaps a few extras along the way. Even the Waterloo campaign only had four battles, in three of which the major strength of the armies involved were not deployed.

Larger scope campaigns could remove the feeling of a lot of work going into a single battle. If we imagine a campaign of the whole ECW, then as well as Marston Moor and Cropredy, there would have been battles in Scotland, Wales and probably Ireland as well. While these are separate campaigns, they also interlink and become strategic drivers for further operations. Mr Foy has also run a Spanish Peninsular campaign which has not run out of forces, so far as I am aware, although the scope might be limited by having to invent the rest of Europe as drivers.

The problem with the bigger campaign is, of course, the increasing amount of work which might be required to keep it going. For some, like Fuzigore, this is not an issue, because I decided to ignore things like unit histories, the relationship between land, taxation and armies, and so on. I have a narrative driver or two and do not worry about the rest. The idea is to generate interesting (and not necessarily balanced) wargames with the minimum of fuss and bookkeeping. This may not appeal to everyone.

So, while I (and others) do recommend the campaign game as a way of keeping interest in wargaming and avoiding the lack of motivation in continuous single battles, campaigns do not come without a whole new set of problems of their own. But they are worth a go.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Disciplining Wargames

It is interesting, from time to time, to consider what wargames might be, if things had developed differently. This might appear to be a rather pointless exercise, but the history of wargaming is as contingent as anything else, and presumably therefore could have turned out differently.

Of course, fundamentally, wargaming would have been rather different if warfare, particularly western warfare had been different. If, for example, the highest point of western warfare had been something like the Flower Wars of Central America, then we would not be frantically painting up hordes of Napoleonic infantry for our Waterloo anniversary games. We might be carefully finishing our exquisite figures of Wellington, Blucher and Napoleon for the re-enactment of the show down a La Haye Saint, and perhaps adding in a few spectators, but aside from that we could not be worrying about the mass.

There is also the issue, I suppose, that wargaming, as a human activity, has all the advantages and disadvantages of the nature of human activities. If you look around the world, you will see that society, and the different bits of it, organise themselves in distinct patterns, and these patterns often reproduce themselves.

For example, I pay taxes. I do not much like doing so, but I do so because if I do not I will be punished. My society does not tolerate people who do not pay taxes (unless I have clever accountants and lawyers employed to help me avoid taxation liability.  In which case the rulers tend to wink at it because they are doing the same thing.) I am disciplined into paying up; more so, I am, in fact, paying up even before I see the money, because my employers kindly remove it from me before I see it. Again, if they do not do that, and I do not declare my income, we would probably all land up in prison.

And that is part of the point, of course. If no-one paid taxes, the government which demanded the tax could not, in fact, put everyone in prison. After all, there would be no money to build and staff prisons, and no staff anyway as they, too, would be of the criminal fraternity at that point. Given that there would be no health services, education, mass media and so on, it is probably as well that this does not happen, but the point it that we collude, consciously or not, with the prevailing culture. We have been trained or disciplined to do this.

In a democracy, of course, this is all well and good. The defence that the government cannot spend my taxes responsibly is only a partial one. Various people have tried, for example, withholding part of their taxes on the grounds that they disagree with government policy over, say, nuclear weapons. The courts have not upheld these cases. Where self-discipline fails (or, worse, people start to think for themselves) punishment steps in. To add insult to injury, the people still have to pay, even when they are let out of prison.

By now, I expect that you are starting to wonder what all this has to do with wargaming. Possibly you will have spotted the link already, but I shall try to be explicit. The same sort of thing happens in wargaming, although obviously without the punishment associated with the judicial system. Nevertheless, we are still disciplined, consciously or not, by the wargaming system.

A minor example of this might be role playing games. Now, many wargamers are, or have been, role players, but not that many actually admit it. RPGs appeared in the 1970’s and were deemed to be insufficiently wargaming for many wargamers and their clubs. Role playing was banished to back rooms or out of the clubs entirely. It developed its own culture, and probably started to discipline its own members in a similar sort of way. The role players learnt that their sort of behaviour was not acceptable in serious wargaming circles. Many wargamers who have or still do play RPGs simply keep quiet about it.

I am not saying, of course, that there is no overlap. Wargames do pinch ideas from RPGs and vice versa. I know of Flashing Blades campaigns which have landed up with big battles fought out as formal wargames. Often, role playing lands up with the individuals engaged in far bigger actions than RPGs can cope with. A change of scale is required. Similarly, wargames are often focussed on specific individuals, be they commanders, a particular squad, of whatever. While we, as humans, like our categories, the boundaries are a lot more fluid than we give credit for.

Be that as it may, there are still accepted norms within wargaming which we have to work within. We need figures, and rules, and dice, and measuring devices. If we try to create a wargame outside of these things, we are probably no-longer recognised as wargaming. The activity defines itself as having these things, and not having them is exclusive. By the mere fact of its existence and the activities associated with it, wargaming disciplines itself. It has no power to punish (except, perhaps, by ridicule), but it does know what wargaming is and what it is not, even though there are some grey areas.

As an individual wargamer, then, I self-identify with the activity of wargaming, which is determined by the activities of painting toy soldiers, reading military history, and playing games designed, roughly, to represent that history. Stepping outside the accepted norms is usually no longer accepted as wargaming. There are some exceptions, of course. Innovations do count, and take time to be accepted. A couple of decades ago, for example, 6mm figures were only vaguely on the fringes, except for micro-armour. These days, they are much more accepted, although not totally so. The point is that these things come into the culture, and can be accepted or not.

As I might have mentioned before, there is no overall locus of control or power within wargaming. But I think the point of the ramble above is that there does not have to be. We are trained to discipline ourselves within the hobby. And if we step outside it, we cease to be wargamers.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Wargaming – A Liberation View

For my sins, I have been reading a bit about liberation theology. Now, before you all rush off in despair about the ‘t’ word, I just want to use some of the ideas (as I understand them) to try to critique some bits of wargaming. It probably will not work, but I might get a medal for trying. I did, in fact, ask a local radical feminist theologian to comment, but she just muttered something about even asking the question being patriarchal and then flounced off to wash her hair in a mass of contradictions.

The last sentence above is, of course, a feeble attempt at a joke, but does raise a more serious point. Liberation theology (or politics, for that matter) is something that looks very different from the global south than it does from the global north, and so my witterings here will be form the comfort of my middle class armchair, rather than a place where I cannot afford an armchair at all.

Be that as it may, it is possible to argue that wargaming and wargamers are attempting to live in a world dominated by the male and by aggression. This, of course, also includes science fiction and fantasy wargames, even if female characters are included in the games, the violence is still male generated. As wargamers, it could be said, we live in a fantasy where male violence is normative, and an acceptable way of resolving disputes.

Now, of course, historical gamers (and, I suspect, everyone else) can say ‘yes, agreed, but that is just the way it is’. At, to an extent, they would be correct in that. Warfare has been overwhelmingly the province of males, usually, in its organised form, ordered and undertaken by males, and the results of the wars have been related to male-dominated hierarchies of power. A historical wargame, therefore, is simply representing a past which was male dominated.

The problem with that (and I’m not convinced it is a real problem, but it is a possible argument) is that by re-enacting, in whatever form, such activities, we are attempting to relocate them into our worlds where, perhaps, the (post)modern male has much less power, much less of a monopoly of the means of violence. The reproduction of power dominant behaviour of the past is an attempt to legitimize similar efforts in the present.

On a similar line, it could be argued that colonial games are an effort by some citizens of a failed Empire (or a failing one, if one views the USA as such) to reclaim domination over the world. A colonial wargame is an attempt by a reactionary faction of the metropolitan state to recapture the days of power and glory, at the expense of the colonised, defeated and enslaved peoples of the world. In a colonial wargame, the argument might run, the aim is to re-enslave the native peoples of the land, to re-exploit their legacy.

Now, of course, I am not claiming that these arguments are valid, true or even useful, but I do think they might make us pause a little and consider what we are actually doing when we wargame. Naturally, the overriding activity is one of recreation. Wargaming is a hobby (at least, I guess, for more or less everyone who reads this blog). We play wargames for fun, for entertainment and for interest. There might be a few misguided wargamers out there who think that by winning a game they have humiliated their opponent, for example. I have heard of this sort of thing, but it is rare (fortunately).

But, despite this, there is a little nagging doubt as to our motivations. Our choice of wargame could be a political one, in the sense that our choice of, say, a British Expeditionary Force dispatched to Darkest Africa could be because we do, perhaps subconsciously, hark back to days of glory and daring do. Our interpretation of history might be something along the lines of ‘white rule was good for Africa’ and an attempt to justify that by re-enacting some aspect of it.

I do not think that this is the case, but I do think we, as a hobby, might need to be aware of it. By extension, the argument could be made, in a similar way, about those who insist on wargaming the Axis powers in World War Two and, if proven, the implications of that could be more unsettling yet.

From, as I said above, a global north perspective, this all seems fine and dandy. There are few issues, ethical, moral or political, about fighting colonial wargames or World War Two. From a global south view, however, things may not seem quite the same. World War Two could quite happily be dismissed as a European Civil War with unfortunate consequences for the rest of the world. A wargame based around the Warsaw Ghetto could be quite acceptable. A wargame based around, say, the Ashanti campaigns could be viewed very differently, however. For us, it is just another Victorian small war. For someone who is an Ashanti, it is likely to be much more than that.

It has been noted here occasionally that, for example, there are some bits of English history that do not tend to be wargamed. The bit of the Hundred Years War after the death of Edward II, for example, when the English lost decisively, is largely ignored. Similarly, the rest of the HYW after, say, the Siege of Orleans tends to be passed over in silence, at least until the glorious failures of the last couple of battles. Again, viewed from a global south (or even, in this instance, French) perspective, these eras of operation might be entirely acceptable and interesting.

Perhaps, then, it is just a matter of where you sit. If we accept that in principle anything is possibly wargamable, then it is only our perspective, our horizon, our prejudices and biases which limit the possibilities. This might suggest that, in fact, we should game those things that make us slightly uncomfortable.