Saturday 16 July 2016

Varieties of Wargamer

As with so many things in human life, we, as the humans with those lives, are forced, somehow, to cope with it. Largely we do this by categorizing things and people that we encounter. Thus, we say of something with four wheels and an engine ‘it is a vehicle’. If we want to be more specific, we say ‘it is a car’ or ‘it is a truck’, or whatever. Once we have categorized the object in such a way, the details of it are of less interest to us. It is a such-and-such and thus will be have in this sort of expected way.

This way of thinking is as old as Aristotle, and quite probably a lot older. Aristotle divided the world by genus and species. We have a tree, it behaves like a tree. We have another tree. It is not the same as the first tree, but it looks similar, so it is the same species. We have a third tree, which is also a tree but it is different to the first two. It is a different species but the same genus. All of them, by whatever means, are recognised by us as trees.

This sort of thing can, of course, break down. We categorize things that orbit the sun as planets. But then we find asteroids, and have to work out if they fit into the genus planet or are something else. Similarly, we can classify Pluto as a planet, and then change our mind and call it a planetoid, and then, perhaps, change our minds back. Our neat categories do not fit nature quite as well as they seemed to before we encountered this sort of data.

We might wonder if this really matters. After all, so far as we know, Pluto is not sentient, and is unlikely to take economic sanctions against Earth as a result of us being able to decide if it is a planet or not. On the other hand, the arguments over the status of Pluto do make it sound that something is at stake in the classification, even if it is rather hard to make out what that something is, exactly.

Humans do this sort of classification all the time. We classify rocks, life, planets, stars, activities and food, to name but a few. And our classification systems tend to overlap: food can be nice or nasty, good for us or not, fattening and pleasurable, and healthy and dull. Out categories overlap and, if we stop to think about them for a few minutes, can be overwhelming. But mostly they work, even if it would be nice if ‘experts’ could work out whether eating, say, chocolate, is bad for us or not. I suspect the answer is ‘it depends’, because so many things are driven by context.

Which brings me, in a roundabout sort of way (mmm, chocolate) to wargaming. We do a lot of categorizing in wargaming. Our troops are heavily categorized, for one thing: infantry, cavalry, light or heavy, we categorize by weapon, tactics, training, morale, expectation of performance and so on. Of course, this is how we make wargame rules work. The rules, the models, have to accommodate everything into as few categories as possible.

We do the same for battles, of course. We have set piece battles, ambushes, encounters, skirmishes, sieges, escalades and so on. We also write rules for the specific sort of battle. We have ‘big battle’ rules, skirmish rules, role playing, and, I dare say somewhere, rules for medium sized wargames as well. We read history (itself a category, incidentally, wargamers, at least those who do read history, tend to read military history, a sub-genre of the species) and work out the sort of battles fought, according to our schemes of understanding.

In this way, of course, we can all stand accused of imposing our categories upon the world. Now, I am no Kantian, but I think there is a grain of truth in his claim that we impose our pre-conceived categories on our world. The best discussion of this is, in fact, I think, Douglas Adams’ concept of ‘someone else’s problem’ fields. The general idea is that we do not see some things because we think they are someone else’s’ problem, and thus we ignore them. We impose a pattern on the world and miss things out which we do not want to see.

I suppose the danger here is reading our histories of battles in this way, or reading the battle narrative with a certain point of view, set of rules, or array of models in mind. This scheme we already have can, and probably will, dispose us to read history in a certain way. Depending on what we think about say, imperialism, colonialism can be read as either bringing the benefits of civilization to the benighted heathen, or as the systematic destruction of a functioning society for the gain of metropolitan centres. Of course, there are also all points in between, and considerably more nuanced points of view, but the point is that what we already think, what we already conceive the world in categories as, will affect how we read and what we make of it.

So finally, to wargamers themselves. We assess other people in categories, of course. How else can we survive? My cat categorizes the world into unfriendly and friendly, and runs away from the former. I might categorize other wargamers into historical and fantasy, or role player and figure gamer. In fact, as I’m sure we all could agree, there is not a huge difference between these categories, and they are, anyway, flexible to an almost unbelievable degree. But we have to do it to make any sense of the world, and it does have unfortunate consequences.

One of the most powerful ways in human experience to gain fresh insights or new ideas is to find a synergy with something else. This is usually beyond the bounds of our categories, or at least, across the boundaries of them. Harry Potter, for example, crossed the categories of school story and fantasy novel (and made the author very rich into the bargain). As wargaming is a relatively small hobby, can we do the boundary crossing thing and gain from it?


  1. OK, I'm struggling to finding anything to contribute beyond nodding my head.

    As for the last question I will confess that I only know a very small number of wargamers who fit solidly into one and only one category and I'm not sure I could name any of them. That might be the tribal thing where, even on line or at conventions, we are more likely to contact and associate with those with compatible views despite the rich opportunity to learn from those with differing views and experience.

    I have also known a few of that very baffling creature, the Casual Gamer who occasionally plays but does not spent significant amounts of time and energy on thinking and reading source material be it history or fiction, and collecting/painting figures etc, playing games, thinking about games, tabletop tactics, browsing catalogs, etc, etc. A rare creature indeed and hard to classify in what seems to often be a very obsessive hobby.

    1. Sounds like my son. Enjoys a game, has contributed very little in the way of painting figures, whose only 'background research' has been to watch Waterloo. And usually beats me the jammy b****r!

    2. I think there has been some profitable boundary crossing between role players and figure wargamers. It often seems to me that most wargamers will play anything, whether they know anything about the period or not. That might well land up with a demand for generic rules which work across swathes of history. but as regular readers will know, I am not a fan of those.

      The Casual Gamer is a strange beast indeed. usually they do come in a beat all comers, and then go off and take up tennis or golf, doing the same.

    3. I have a couple of friends who are Casual Gamers in the sense that they read and enjoy history, and know just enough about my games to be happy to make up the numbers if I want to run a bigger battle. They enjoy the evening (I always use very simple rules, mind you) and then go home and return to their reading, without ever wanting to get closer to the hobby. Next time I phone them they are enthusiastic to join in.

      Casual Gamers?

    4. Casual Gamers of a different sort, I suppose. Enjoy the game, the spectacle, but have no wish to actually engage in setting one up. An interesting category.

  2. When I saw the title, I hoped for a complete taxonomy of wargamers and wargames.

    So, can we gain from crossing boundaries? I don't know. I'm not convinced that all types of wargame are sufficiently different in the first place for there to be much to borrow. You can borrow scenarios and re-skin them for different eras or theatres of war, but that's as far as my imagination will stretch at this time on a Saturday night. Perhaps wargaming is too small a category for useful synergies to be found between its component elements. If so, then we shall need to look further afield and borrow from entirely different areas. Derrida: The Wargame, anyone?

    1. Figure and board wargammers? Traditionally have significantly different game mechanisms and scope. Board games tend to be specific battles or campaigns whilst miniature wargaming tends towards generic rules for all battles in a period. So perhaps these two groups could learn from each other. (Don't ask me what though).

    2. I think that we are open to learning from anyone (or should be). Or at least, I'm always open to borrowing new techniques and information from others - imitation is, after all, the highest form of flattery.

      As for Derrida: The Wargame I can see a combat of rule deconstruction and very strong cigarette smoke....

    3. I've no idea how it would work, but I do like the idea of trying out different modes of thinking, different theoretical tool-kits, on wargames rules. Derrida is probably not really a great example, because the rules would be badly written and opaque. However, his theories of deconstruction seem to have been taken on board by certain gamers of my acquaintance, while others appear to have adopted a more Dadaist or surrealist approach to interpreting the rules.

      What about different rules based on competing theoretical approaches to history? Are they too high level to be useful for refighting battles? Could we create a game based entirely on, say, Oman, and then write a competing set of rules based on Halsall or some other modern historian? It would be interesting to see how the different historians' approaches could be recreated in a rule book. Or maybe that is too much navel-gazing for the day ...

    4. Mmmmm.. Surrealist wargaming: I've just rolled Fork!

      To some extent, some rules seem to be based on Oman, or at least some players play them as such. Oman would have 54 mm heroes, 25 mm generals and 2 mm soldiers, presumably.

      Postmodern rules would have just fragments, and no means of working out who won.

      Materialist rules would count how many toys you have and the one with the greatest number wins. Determinist rules would simply state the winner; no point in beating about the bush, after all.

      i think this idea might have legs...

    5. You just made me laugh out loud. Good job most of the department is not here or they would be coming round to tell me off for being happy at work. :)

    6. Aye, well, I'm on my own here, which is just as well given that HR policy is 'The beatings will continue until morale improves'. By laughing at unauthorised jokes, I'd be in breach of policy....

    7. I've worked places like that. I think that may be the case here too, but I'm in a pure research post, so miss out on the worst of HR.

  3. The Courier once published a tongue-in-cheek universal set of rules in an "April Fool issue. It was entitled "1 million years BC to 1 Million years AD", essentially a chart that added (or subtracted) factors depending on wether you carried a stone axe or a ray gun. I received several letters (before the internet)asking when the full set would be published as the had an interest.
    There is a "type" of gamer that has become most prevalent in Historical Miniature gaming circles ( I cannot speak for other flavors of wargames - but I'm sure that they are there). That is the gamer who owns no figures, owns no rules (except for perhaps a pirated Xerox of them), never writes a scenario nor umpires one - yet is always the first to the game.

    Dick Bryant
    "No scenario survives first contact with a wargamer"

    1. Ah, yes, I've heard of them.

      Should we call them 'true wargamers' or 'parasites on the hobby'? Perhaps a bit of both: "Come on! have an original thought!"