Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Language of Wargaming

I mentioned last time how I find wargame shows slightly discouraging. Part of that, I think, is the rather similar language that I have heard at every show since I was, well, not quite a nipper, but since my parents could trust me not to get lost or kidnapped.

It is not a specific language that disheartens me, but a use of concepts and ideas which are very general. So, for example, I have heard one wargamer, enthused by some new models, say to another ‘Aren’t those Waffaduet infantry lovely?’ His colleague replies along the lines ‘Yes, but under army list N or rules M, they only count as irregular infantry, minor weapons, scarperers, so they are not worth anything.’ Or words to that effect.

I am not trying to change either the wargamer or his colleague. Each, after all, to their own. But the language of wargaming  is such that these sorts of generalisations are a problem. Under rules M, the Waffaduvet might be fairly useless, but there seems, to say the least, a bit of a lack of critical thinking going on here. What evidence, for example, is there that the author of rules M is correct in their assessment of the Waffaduvet infantry? To simply accept the author’s assessment is, of course, the line of least resistance, but does not say a lot for the wargamer’s independent thinking.

I have noted before that very general sets of rules have their place, but should not be mistaken for sets of rules that actually aim to reproduce warfare from a certain time and place. History has not confined all troops to fit into certain categories for the convenience of wargamers. Nor, incidentally, has history created a nice points system to add up the relative strengths of the troops on each side to create a nice, balanced game. History in general and generals in particular, are not searching for nice balanced battles where either side can win.

But to listen to some of the language that wargamers use, you might be forgiven supposing that all troops armed with a pointy stick could be classified as ‘spearmen’, or that Napoleon and Wellington disposed of 400 army points worth of troops at Waterloo, only to have their nice even match disturbed by those pesky Prussians. It is also possible that wargamers might believe (or at least argue) that Napoleon or Hitler could have conquered Russia, if only the winter had held off a bit longer.

This latter point has two responses, of course. The first is that it is possible that either could have conquered Russia, but the nature of that probability has to be understood. Like winning a national lottery, the chances are remote, but non-zero. Of course, being human and therefore irrepressibly optimistic, a non-zero chance is still a chance, isn’t it? Taking a leaf from my thermodynamics days, there is a chance that all the molecules in the room you are sitting in will be gathered into the corner furthest from you. Fortunately for your ability to breathe air, that chance is tiny, albeit non-zero. Napoleon conquering Russia is, possibly, slightly higher than that, but is still, in absolute terms, pretty near ‘not going to happen’.

The other comment of course is Monty’s ‘Third Law of Warfare’: don’t start a land war in Asia.

Of course, we can argue quite successfully, that as wargamers were are not interested in this grand scale of things. We can focus on (as Ruraigh suggested) much smaller level encounters and still enjoy wargames. And that is, of course, right. Most companies of infantry in Russia were not really interested in the grand play of strategy, but just wanted to survive this battle, find some food, not get shot for desertion, look after their buddies and get home safely. This is, perhaps, the human focus that as humans ourselves, we can understand. After all, the great epics of literature develop their themes by placing individuals in the sweep of history. This is the case in, for example ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as well as, I believe ‘War and Peace’. The prevalence of human interest stories in the news could be produced as further evidence.

So, we come back to language, or at least, that part of language which holds the tension between the human and the big picture. Do we speak of the decisions of generals in throwing that brigade against that fortification? Do we speak of the struggles and sufferings of the men of that platoon as they struggle towards the target which has been assigned to them by a remote authority? It would seem that we cannot do both.

We can, of course, drill down through the layers. We can start with the big picture, the strategy, move from there through the grand tactical, the tactical, the unit, the sub unit and their activities and so on down to the individual and the hedge he is hiding behind. But we do not seem to be able to, either logically or linguistically, inhabit all these worlds at once. I can draw on the individual’s diary for building a picture of the overall battle, but that individual has a limited viewpoint and involvement with the bigger picture.

I suppose, then, that the language of wargaming is stratified, and this perhaps explains why I have a bit of difficulty with wargaming World War Two. In my stratification, a tank is a major asset and should be represented as such on the table. This is a view from the bottom. For a section of infantry under fire, a tank would be a major asset. From above, the general’s view, a tank brigade is a major asset. The individual vehicles are less so. From somewhere in the middle, of course, a squadron of tanks might be the right level, or a tank of two could be detached to support infantry under pressure.

And so I seem to have rambled my way around to suggesting that what is, perhaps, most important is the language we use to speak about wargaming. For ancient battles, I like to speak about armies. For more recent conflicts I seem to like to talk about individuals. I dare say that if I had the slightest idea way, I would have a far better understanding of myself than I do.


  1. Ah, language. A favourite topic of mine. Yes, as wargamers we express ourselves in the argot of wargamers (some more than others). Our relationship to the battles we represent is very different from other perspectives on those battles almost entirely because the language we use both reflects and shapes our own perspective. I remember my first conscious encounter with wargamerspeak. It went along the lines of "These Chinese troops are ace because they are HCh JLS 4 blah blah blah". Ok, so I tuned out as soon as it became incomprehensible, but it was clearly not a discussion grounded in the real world. Instead it was a very game specific (WRG 6th or 7th, I think) comment on the troops but expressed in a manner that indicated the speaker was overlaying the game onto the real world. I know I have been guilty of doing it myself but I do consciously try to avoid it now, because somewhere in there the real experience of the PBI on the ground is lost, and it is that human connection that roots the games in history, I think.

    I most certainly agree that there is often no evidence that a particular rules writer has sufficient specialist knowledge to make an informed decision about whether a unit is good or bad. With these general rules it is worse because they often cover several hundred years for a single army and it all comes down to an averaging out of perceived abilities. For me this really makes the case for period/battle-specific rules so that my games head more toward the simulation end of the scale. I'll happily play the more general rules if that is what is on offer, but I also tend to get a bit shirty when people try to make reality claims about armies based on their experience of using them under the general rules.

    Anyway, I've completely lost track of what point I might have intended making, but I do find these posts of yours thought-provoking.

    1. I think 'general' language can serve a purpose, but we tend to overestimate how much it can be used; we land up in situations where we try to compare French Medieval armies with Roman ones, just because the language can be the same.

      I suppose the ultimate would be to argue that wargames have no reality claim within them, and any such claim is fictitious, but I guess that would be slightly over stating the case the other way. "Spartan hoplites wouldn't do that" is a different claim to "Reg Sp(S)" wouldn't do that, after all.

  2. The problem comes, at least in part, through trying to reduce real life in all of is permutations and possibilities down to a 35-page rulebook, albeit with (these days) lots of pretty photographs, and a quick play sheet. Can't be done. So, we are stuck with generalizations about troop capabilities and combat results. I've probably missed the point, but it is early Saturday morning, and I need another mug or two of coffee to get anywhere near half-speed.

    Best Regards,


    1. Oh, I agree, and having tried to do so admit that we have to paint in primary colours. The danger comes when we forget that the painting is is primary colours and start mistaking it for some sort of reality, or reality analogy.

  3. I think Stokes has hit the nail on the head there. Focusing on individuals gives us all the reward of narrative and emotional engagement, but if one must engage with all individuals equally that effect is lost. Like so many things in wargaming as in life, a compromise of some sort is required. Where exactly that compromise occurs is a matter of degree and individual taste.

    1. Yep, life is the art of compromise. I think, chez wargaming, however, the degree of compromise gets shaded out, and possibly we confuse different levels of compromise.

      In a 48 figure battalion, where each figure shoots, what is going on? I'd say a degree of confusion, others might claim 'old school wargaming'; I'm not claiming to be right, of course.

  4. Yep, I agree with everyone!

    During our wargaming lifespan we adopt the language of our approach to the hobby, with some gamers becoming simulatneously bi or even tri-lingual depending up on choice or circumstance. It's not unusual for wargamers to be avid skirmish gamers while, at the same time, being devoted to map based gaming. However, even though we coalesce into groups/tribes, our separate languages contain dialects just as English has regional dialects. We're much more mobile than we are in the real world and we can be comfortably schizphrenic (or maybe it's just me). Manywargamers live in a worl of continual compromise. I often game with a chap I've known for about fifty years. In a 'grand tactical' game, when he moves a unit (brigade or whatever) of cuirassiers into the attack, he's simply moving a chess piece, although he can appreciate the aesthetic aspect presented by the figures and the board etc. When I do likewise, my cuirassiers take on a far more exciting character with waving swords, cheers and thundering hooves. We're using the same rules on the same board and the same sort of figures, but I find my 'dialect' far more comfortable than I do his.

    I still zone out when surrounded by wargamers who can achieve orgasm from an army list, but I haven't actually killed one yet. I'm evolving into a devotee of Conrad's more enlightened view.

    1. Yes, we can swap from one level to another - I can wander around a show and see a skirmish game next to a grand strategic beginning of WW1 game without experiencing any cognitive dissonance at all.

      But within a set of wargame rules we need to live at the one level, or things will get confused (or over-compromised, anyway).On the other hand, what a wargamer does in the privacy of their own imagination when the cuirassers charge is up to them!

  5. Oh boy, it would be easy to write a response that was longer than the post but thankfully I won't, it wouldn't help if I did.
    1) It is unfortunate in many ways that the term "Wargame" has come to mean several very distinct though related things which occasionally overlap. (usually framed as game vs simulation but thats not really accurate either nor does it cover all the options)
    2) Keep in mind where points originated. They began not with military Kriegspiel but with published games for civilians like Polemas and Littlewars. Points and lists have nothing to do with recreating history but are a tool for balancing games, much like basic chess lays out what pieces are used and where they go. Gamers have been known to misunderstand this but in many cases they don't care since they are discussing games value not history. Different hobby.
    3. To recreate everything at once is beyond human capacity at this point. Preferences are fine but comparisons between low level tactical games and higher level games and campaigns are a bit like Chocolate ice cream vs a ham sandwich.
    4. Whatever level one looks at there are, to be simplistic, 2 main approaches, bottom up looking at input factors and trying to stack them so that if correctly replicated they will recreate the process and give the right result, or top down, starting with the answer and trying to figure out which factors need to be considered to get the right outcome without bothering with replicating the actual process each time. To put it another way, keeping in mind we almost never have enough data either way, one can start by identifying and classifying everything about that non-generic spearman and his environment and if you get the model right then on the table top he will behave like his prototype. Or one can look what we know about their history in battle and say that the evidence says that in this situation X was the result in n% of the time and Y was the result the rest of the time. Either way, as soon as we drop them in a different situation we are guessing but they are both valid approaches depending on what it is we are interested in.
    To look at it from another angle, playing Platea with a dozen or score of "units" on a small table is a very different experience from playing it with 10 players and 2,000 miniatures on a large table and may highlight different aspects even if they give the same outcome.

    More than too much already so I'll stop here.

    1. 1000 words is not really enough to scratch the surface, much less capture any nuance of a subject, so comments are even less so; mind you, I suspect an 80,000 word PhD thesis might not do it justice...

      I do agree with the points but I guess the questions come in when your two simulations of Plataea give different results: how do we work out which is the better, and what does 'better' mean in this case. A historical event is contingent anyway, so a different result from the historical one might be a better result in some sense than the one which gave the historical outcome.

      But now my head is starting to spin and I think I shall, also, bail out for another coffee.