As I am sure I have often, possibly too often, mentioned, there is a tranche of wargamers whose approach to the game is simply to play waqrgames. I do not have a particular problem with that; wargaming is, after all, a hobby, a leisure activity from which we can detach the mundane, day to day existence which we all, in the West, at least, have to put up with.
I only have a problem with this ‘just play’ approach when it seems to hit some ethical and / or authentic problem. By this I mean the historical wargamer whose French Napoleonic is entirely made up of Imperial Guard units, or the World War Two wargamer whose German army consists of SS units and more Panther tanks than were ever produced. At some level, really, I do not have a problem with even this. After all, so long as it is not illegal, immoral or fattening, whatever people choose to do in the privacy of their own homes is up to them.
However, I do start to doubt whether such armies, and the wargamers who produce them, can still claim to be ‘historical’ wargames. Armies of the constitution I have just mentioned might be based on some sort of historical precedence, but they did not exist in history. I start to suspect that we have, in these sorts of wargame armies, an example of what is called in roleplaying games ‘munchkins’. By this I mean those rather immature role playing gamers who try to maximise the effectiveness of their character by buying every super weapon, gory torturing machines or whatever simply to win, rather than to play a game. We could possibly add to this to occasional wargamer with Emperor-Hero worship traits as well.
I am sure we have all done this. Army lists, after all, are largely produced firstly to permit this sort of munchkin-ness and secondly to prevent a medieval French army from consisting entirely of (for example) Regular Kn(S). For the sake of balance, it does have to be said that under most rules such an army is unlikely to win much, but many, many people do go out to try to maximise the fighting power of their forces.
I dare say that there are two responses to this. The first is ‘I don’t do that’, which is highly laudable. I know that some readers prefer to play armies that are usually rated as poor performers, like Napoleonic Turks. I think this is a fine example of some wargamers, at least, treating the hobby as an opportunity for having some fun using history, rather than as an opportunity to win at all costs. More power to your paintbrushes.
The second response is to say ‘so?’ For example, competition gamers of a serious nature (and they do exist) can argue that all they are trying to do is to maximise their opportunity to win given a set of constraints imposed by the rules and army lists. This is fair enough. Wargaming often comes down to a game of resource management, and the soldiers on the table are one of the prime resources. This is not to say that we could not accuse such players of munchkin-ness, of course, but it is a relevant response given the nature of wargame competitions.
The thing that does vaguely concern me about all of this is something which, for want of a better word, could be referred to as ethics, as I did above. Fielding a WW2 German army that is all SS units and Panther tanks (I admit, I am exaggerating for effect) seems to be to be a bit of an insult to those people who had to face such forces in real life. I am not saying that such units should not be represented on the wargame table if the historically based games warrants them, but it does leave me feeling a little uneasy.
Again, I am probably showing my ignorance of World War Two history and wargaming. I am sure that there are good wargames to be had from the period, and also that the armies involved are as far away from munchkin armies as can be. Nevertheless, it is a spot within wargaming which I do pick away at, as regular readers (if there are any) are probably painfully aware.
I do not think that this unease should go away with other periods. After all, we could say that medieval wargamers who favour the HYW English army are only reproducing a force which was a political instrument (are all armies not so?) and which engaged in a fair amount of looting and so on along the way. That is true; does it mean then that we cannot reproduce any army that fought anything other than a defensive war?
It is certainly true that WW2 has a particular hold on the popular imagination. When I was a child there were many war comics; we even had them at school (wouldn’t be allowed now, I dare say). The only role of the German soldiers in most of them was to should ‘Himmel!’ from time to time and ‘Aieee’ when the heroic defenders of freedom shot them. There was no moral ambiguity; the idea of a ‘Good German’ did not, so far as I recall, form part of the narrative. That said, would not a similar consideration apply to all other wars? Was there ever such a person as a ‘Good Assyrian?’
It seems to me, then, that wargaming is trapped in an odd sort of moral ambiguity. We want to represent forces as accurately as possible (and reduce the munchkin effect along the way), and yet we have to admit that all sides in a conflict may be morally unacceptable (this does not apply to WW2, I think, as the atrocities carried out by the German and Japanese forces were in a moral class of their own, far removed from those of the Western allies). War can be a highly moral act, at least within some parameters, but only for one side.
Can a wargame, therefore, be a similar sort of moral act? As World War Two slips from the memory of all but the oldest of the population, is a WW2 wargame, say of the storming of Berlin, moral or not? If it isn’t, is a wargame based, say, on the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD a moral act? If there is a difference, why is there a difference? Is it just the passage of time?
Maybe I should take a leaf from David Hume’s book and, when he had more or less proved to himself that he didn’t exist, went for a game of backgammon to remind himself that he did. Maybe I should go an play a wargame to remind myself that it is fun.