Saturday 30 July 2016

Respectable Wargaming

You might wonder, amid all the pontificating here, when the author has time to actually commit wargaming. I mean, it must take up most of his limited mental capacity just writing this stuff, let alone the time it takes to read some of the obscure tomes he refers to, to make actual wargaming a practical impossibility.

You would, of course, be right.

Nevertheless, occasionally wargaming does happen. For the last few weeks (or possibly months) I have been working up towards having a battle, as the estimable Mrs P calls it. Why, you might ask, has it taken you so long?

As those of you with very long memories might recall, the current campaign of choice is one set in around 360 BC in Greece and the surrounding seas, islands and bits of the Persian Empire. The first, and so far only, battle we an episode in a Spartan Civil War where one king and his allies defeated the other, with a little help from his Theban friends.

For battlefields I usually use a random terrain generating system, and takes what it throws at me. For the Spartan battle I landed up with a ditch running across the battlefield, and so had to pause while I created some ditches. This was not too hard, but it did take some effort and a tiny bit of ingenuity, and the resulting battle, with the new terrain, was an interesting success.

This time, my random campaign system (OK, it is not quite that random, but it does throw up some interesting battles between groups that the Greeks would probably not have recorded) yielded an encounter between a Persian punitive expedition and some recalcitrant Thracians. Needless to say, my mind’s eye was filled with famous episodes from wargame history, such as Charles Grant’s Wagon Train Table Top Teaser, and Donald Featherstone’s punitive expedition to the North-West Frontier as described, if I recall correctly, in Wargame Campaigns.

I accordingly reverted to my random terrain system, and started to roll. And here everything unravelled, of course. I rolled a settlement (fair enough, we have to have a target for a punitive expedition, after all), a road, and a river. And that was it. Not much for the Thracians to hide behind and jump out at the Persians from.

A little thought and a few more dice rolls yielded the fact that at least the Persians would have to ford the river to attain their target. A few more dice rolls also established that both sides were, in total, employing more peltasts that are in my collection. However, a little sweep through my collection and pondering yielded the Persian peltasts being re-interpreted as earlier Persian infantry, possibly militia types left over from the invasion of Greece a century or so before.

This left me with only three further problems. Firstly, there was the fact that my terrain box had no rivers in it. Secondly that my road sections were both inadequate and, if looked at sideways, nearly as tall as the figures. Thirdly was the problem that my buildings did not, by any stretch of the imagination, cover a town and port on the north coast of Turkey.

The road problem was the simplest to solve. A number (about 5, I think) of new road sections were produced, consisting of ‘fun foam’ with glued and dusted banks. A lot lower than the originals, and something that the troops can see over. I also managed to make a junction piece, and some curved sections as well. A great deal of terrain for minimal cost and effort, I thought (rather smugly, as it turns out).

The rivers were a bit more problematic. I did the same again with the banks, but then thought that it would be nice if the water bit were, at least, slightly shiny. I painted the bed in a rather fetching cappuccino brown colour, and then applied a coat of gloss varnish. That should do it. After it dried, I showed it to the estimable Mrs P, who asked if I had varnished it yet. Another coat was applied, and then another. Finally, a surface which was a little shiny was obtained, and so I left it at that. A bit shiny is good enough for me.

This left me with the buildings. Some Middle Eastern flat roofed houses and some Middle Eastern shacks were painted. Fine, but not enough buildings were painted for the area to cover. I went through my buildings, but even I cannot quite justify Saxon longhouses as Greek or Thracian homes. A few Roman bits were added, but I really thought that I would have to make the various bits left over from my Irregular Mediterranean town. Fortunately, I found a half-painted Italian farmhouse, that was going to double as a mansion, and I am now in the process of finishing that.

And this ramble has, finally, led me to the point. All this is very fine (if very slow, I’ll grant) wargame fare. Perhaps I have given myself too long to think about it. But is a wargame where one side sets out to destroy the homes of the other really a respectable game?

I have even written rules for the length of time the Persians have to occupy the town to consider their mission accomplished. I cannot deny that such missions did take place, and probably did during the Persian Empire (certainly they did under Alexander, and the Romans did a lot of punitive expedition-ing). There is no doubt, really, that the game is historically justified. The war might even be legal – the Persians, to measure them by a later yard-stick, may well be entirely justified in their actions. So, too, might the Thracians. But as I, as a wargamer, justified in creating the battle, involving the (admittedly fictional) destruction of people’s homes and livelihoods?

I am almost certainly not going to let this qualm put me off, of course. It is, after all, fiction. I have no pretence that my town would look like a Greek town in Persia, not that my 360 BC campaign bears anything like resemblance to the ‘real’ thing. But just occasionally I do get a little bit wobbly about this. Someone tell me I don’t need to, please.


  1. You don't need to.....there feel any better?
    I have had the odd qualms myself (but the ointment the doctor gave me has cleared it up! Badum! ), but seriously, I have known a couple of gamers who threw it all in for model trains.
    Occasionally you see the "I never game with SS" argument raise its head and contemporary conflicts and mention of ISIS periodically causes ripples of moral panic.
    The problem is, that unless you adopt the Bruce Quarrie approach ("I don't approve of flamethrowers so won't write any rules for them") and attempt to sanitize war to meet your own prejudices, you have to accept it's a horrible business. However,as wiser people have written, at the end of a game there are no plastic or wooden widows or orphans; admittedly some of your troops may end up missing parts (normally weapons with or without hands and the occasional head) but as far as we know don't suffer any pain or penury. Paint can be replaced.
    Morality in wargames is (like many other things) a continuum; I suspect a game set around Auschwitz would be beyond the pale for all but the most crass of gamers, but I've heard of role players who delight in slaughter and rape, so who knows.
    What normally allows us to make a game out of war is the abstraction; the more distant and abstract the game the easier it becomes. Two elements of hoplites clashing in DBA is far removed from the sweat, blood, urine, terror, fear and bloodlust of the real thing, even were we able to put ourselves into the psyche of an ancient Greek.
    Ultimately war games are theatre not documentaries; consider Gaugamela as musical theatre without the jazz hands or even any music (unless it's a stirring soundtrack).......

    1. I suppose it is all rather to do with the fact that my troops and generals are nice liberal westerners at heart, who believe in the good of everyone, being nice is better than being nasty, and it will all be all right if we just have a cup of tea and talk about it.

      Burning down people's houses is not really a part of that mindset. Perhaps my Persians could just take the town and explain to the mayor how he has been a bit naughty and paying taxes is a good idea.

      But agreed. A wargame is a performance, not a reality. All rules, I imagine sanitise warfare, somehow, and it is just a matter of deciding how we do so.

      Mind you, I fear that someone, somewhere, will have written 'Gaugamela: The Musical:
      'Come on Darius! Now's your chance - get that chariot into their arms!'
      I think it closed on Broadway before it opened...

  2. As most moral issues I favor personal standards which is doubtless a subconscious cover for moral cowardice.

    The first 2 centuries of Europeans in North America warfare involved a lot of military vs civilian action on all sides Native American, French, American, British, all guilty, all victims. Having staged a game where victory included points for civilian captives I realized that I was no longer comfortable with making a game of such sorts of events and decided to focus on military vs military clashes, preferably involving largely professional or volunteer forces. There may have been just as much violence but either they had signed up for it or it was an occupational hazard.

    I also realized that however incomplete my knowledge of military tactics, my knowledge of how best to rape, plunder and pillage was completely lacking and I have no drive or desire to rectify that so I could emulate it properly or measure success on the table top.

    Of course, given such moral cowardice, it's not surprising that this internal discussion also began a slow nudging away from true historical gaming towards fictional gaming although I'm not quite ready to turn all wargames into a form of parchisi or chess either.

    So in terms of a similar raid I might recognize the strategic value of the action and fight for control of the village without representing on table the damage done by tax collectors and punishment details anymore than I represent what goes on in a field hospital in detail.

    Moral cowardice, personal limit or merely focus on one aspect at a time?

    1. I suspect that you have hit the reason why 'age of reason' games are so popular - they present as a nice, encapsulated game, between consenting adults, in which dying is a possibility, but heroic and gentlemanly conduct is much more highly rated.

      Unfortunately, I don't think the historical record bears that out, but it is a nice fiction for us to work with. Moral cowardice, perhaps; maybe a refusal to recognise the reality of warfare in any era; Perhaps it is just that we like to focus on the game, the tactics and battle, rather than the effects.

      I'm not sure. My Persians only have to occupy the town for a finite time before they can all go home to tea.

    2. Ah, Age of Reason, well I'm sure that Marlborough had a reason to order Bavarian farmlands and stores to be pillaged and burned as did Wolfe for ordering the destruction of thousands of Canadian farms capable of contributing supplies to Quebec.

      That last campaign is a good example since it's a campaign zi dabble in now and then. I will happily fight not only the handful of small pitched battles but also the petit Guerre of raids and ambushed as long as both sides are armed. I might give victory points for destroying military supply depots but not for taking scalps since that was banned by both sides so the continued practice was a mstter of personal vendettas and cultural and not contributing to the military outcome. Neither do I attempt to make a game of unopposed punishment details burning farms. No sport in it if nothing else.

      Generally my approach if opposed would be similar to what you mention. The military objective given to the commander is to take the objective. What happens afterward is political and thus outside the context unless you were looking at something like a very bitter civil war. To my mind there are too many less bitter wars to be gamed to bother with the bitter, ugly ones. Yes dead or maimed is still dead or maimed but in the absence of bitterness enemies still often become friends again, sometimes even after civil war.

  3. Not apropos to anything but several years ago I saw and advt from a well known figure manufacturer (who shall remain nameless) who offered the following "pose": "French Guard, raping". There was a hue and cry from mothers of you want-to-be wargamers who bought the magazine that the advt appeared in.

    1. These things do happen occasionally. I seem to recall a contretemps at a UK show over 'manga' figures which looked unpleasantly like child-sex figures, and were on open display.

      For myself, I really cannot see any need for these sorts of figures.

    2. That should have been "young" want-to-be wargamers.