Saturday 8 October 2016

The Spirituality of Wargaming

Now, there is a title to send most readers, of whatever religious persuasion, running for the nearest hill, or, possible, loading up their intercontinental ballistic armoury of arguments for God / atheism /whatever-ism you might choose, and aiming it in the general direction of chez Polemarch. Please don’t. A blog post is hardly a cause for a flame war and, anyway, if that is what you are thinking of doing, this blog post will be a sad disappointment to you.

The estimable Mrs P has been reading a book about the spirituality of wine. Yes, really, she has and, I am told, it is very good, written by a real vintner. It is now on my book pile, but I thought I would pre-empt my reading of it by pondering what sort of spirituality goes along with wargaming. You might consider that the answer to that is ‘none’, but I think I might, by the end of the post, respectfully demur.

Right, well, obviously, wargaming is about toy soldiers being pushed around on tables. Actually, that is only one sort of wargaming. Role playing games may also have miniatures, but they do not have to. Similarly, computer games have figures, but they are not material. And that is surely the first point about spirituality and wargaming. A wargame happens much more in the mind than on the table.

I have mentioned before that the wargame figures, singly or in blocks, on the table are a sort of counter, a symbol of the unit they represent. To some extent the counter has resemblances to the original (assuming that there is one, in fact or fiction). It shows us what the unit is, horse or foot, perhaps something about its capabilities too. But the fact that, for example, coloured pieces of lead or cardboard mean something is imputed by the human mind. A wargame is not, or at least, not only, something material. A lot of it goes on in our heads.

There is something, therefore, transcendent about a wargame. It is something beyond the material, empirical world of the figures on the table. The figures are only part of it. The rules, similarly, are part of but do not exhaust the wargame. We need them to conduct the game, granted, but in all honesty, as someone who has perpetrated a few rule sets, they are pretty dull. Reading a set of wargame rules is not going to convert anyone to wargaming as a hobby.

The real part of a wargame, I suspect, which does get the pulses racing (albeit in a rather relaxed, staid sort of way) is the imagination. The figures on the table, the terrain, the rules and so on go together to make something interesting, and that interest is sustained by our imaginations. The lancer’s charge on the square is interesting. It captures our imagination. We crane over the relevant dice rolls to see what will happen. Our joy or disappointment is due, at least in part, to our imagination of the drama of the event.

A boring wargame, therefore, is one which does not do this. That does not mean, I think, that a one sided wargame is necessarily boring. There are always dramatic incidents along the way. The drama is in, say, how many of Blue force can escape before they are trapped. The fact that Red will inevitably win does not necessarily to create a dull game. A boring game is one where there is no drama.

I suppose I could go on along this theme, but I think there are other things going on with regard to the spirituality of the game. Why, for example, do so many of us spend so much time and effort in painting figures to the best of our ability? I suspect that the answer is something to do with the transcendence of the game. We want our figures to represent the best we can do. This of course varies from one wargamer to the next (I am, I happily confess, a fairly rubbish painter. But it is the best I can do). As objects of our imagination, our figures seem to somehow represent us. ‘This is what UI can do’ they say. Somehow, the figure is me.

All of this seems to add up to a statement that materialism is wrong, or at least that empiricism is not the whole story. Our wargames mean something beyond the mere pushing of objects around a table. The figures mean something to us, and within the narrative of the wargame itself. The narrative of the game is something that is hard to project. Many blogs ‘write up’ the battles the author engages in. I confess, I find them hard to follow. Even a large quantity of pictures and a good description does not ease this difficulty. I think that is because the word and image cannot capture the drama of the game.

A further point might also be that the drama of the game is intrinsic within the game itself. The dramatic crux of the whole story is one that can only be seen in retrospect. The story of, say, Marston Moor could have several cruxes, so to speak: the Scots running away early crying ‘Wae’s us, we’re all undone’, or the destruction of the Parliamentarian right could have been the points at which the battle was lost and won. As it happens, they were not, but that was not obvious to the participants. It is only in retrospect that the importance of these and other events can be described.

Thus, at least in the sense that a wargame is more than the material, a wargame is spiritual. Of course, any pure empiricist out there will be spitting nails by now, or priming their missiles, as described above. If so, I hope they try to identify, before committing to launch, exactly why they are so upset. I fear they might find that it is nothing to do with the empirical realm. It might just be because their beliefs, those things so hard to pin down empirically, have been undermined.


  1. Excellent post, providing plenty of food for leisurely thought. Thanks you sir!


  2. Interesting thoughts, and, while I concur with the thrust of your argument, I'm not sure I would have used the word 'spiritual' to describe what is going on. Maybe that is just my flawed understanding of what it means to be spiritual though.

    1. I suspect that, in general use, it is 'spiritual as opposed to material'. I think here it is in the 'for want of a better word' category...

  3. As a teenager something hit a button that gave me a life long passion for wargaming. I feel that others have the same thing whether it be photography, the love of flying or art or craft or whatever. There just seems to be an inner part of us that is touched. The 'button' is very personal, so it is hard to share someone elses' passion in another subject matter, other than to perhaps recognise it.

    Perhaps the spiritualism of wargames (or anything else for that matter) is the element that you can't quantify and you can't explain it, you know it is there and the drive is strong and that it is the thing that allows all the other 'real' (i.e. Material) things of your hobby to be more than the curiosity that it would be to somebody else.

    1. Yes, i think that is right. I guess that everyone has a different story as to how they became a wargamer (or whatever), and it is very personal. I'm not sure I can actually describe how I became one, but it did happen somehow.

      The part of us that becomes a wargamer is the part that links it all together, agreed. We link all the bits up - the models, the rules, the narrative. It isn't something 'out there', but 'in here'. And that is a bit of a puzzle, sometimes.

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  5. No missiles or brickbats being primed here, just thanks for an interesting post.
    To my mind, spirituality might describe either the investment we make in a hobby, or the benefits we derive from it, though these might seem like two faces of the same coin.
    For the investment, I would say that if a gamer is willing to consider the human dimension of what is being represented on the table, such as the courage of the lancers racing into the charge, or the grim doggedness of the infantry readying their square, even empathizing with the actual soldiers who once did these things, then that might be described as spiritual in the sense that the gamer is considering something very human as the game unfolds. On the other hand, if my opponent is merely calculating the modifiers and odds for his charge to succeed, with no emotional investment in the game other than as a system that he wants to manipulate to win, like then that to my mind falls short of my very subjective threshold of spirituality. I once played in a medieval campaign with a chap who plunked down as shoddy a set of figures as I have ever seen, with no real regard for the medieval period, but he had learned the rules so well and practiced them so much at home that he won every game. His gloating did little to endear us to him. Was that a spiritual attachment to the game? Not in my eyes, at any rate.
    A second, more interesting definition of spirituality is what we derive from the game. If we are lucky enough to form bonds and connections with our opponents, to learn from their experience and wisdom and love of a period, to share the joys and sorrows of real life with them and to develop a shared narrative over time of our exploits on the gaming table, and even, as I have done once or twice, to go to their funerals and think of them fondly in their absence while rolling dice, then I would call that spiritual.

    1. Interesting, thank you.

      It seems to me that a lot of wargaming is a function of the imagination. If you don't have much, then it is a matter of pushing counters, rolling dice and trying to win within the rule set defined.

      If you do have imagination, the a game becomes a much deeper experience, of courage and perseverance, for example. And it is often noted that in a campaign game, things are different again; winning at all costs is no longer an option.

      And, of course, man is a political animal, and so will form interest groups, and the links between members of that group will go far beyond the actual focus of the group itself.

      Wargaming is not all in the mind, but a lot of it does seem to reside there...