Saturday, 22 October 2016

Wargame Frames

A wargame table is a frame for the action which takes place upon it. Whether it is a lovingly detailed miniature reconstruction of an actual battlefield, or a hastily slapped together chalk and felt concoction, it still frames the action. What I mean by ‘frame’ is a bit diffuse, though.

To start with, the wargamer has come to a decision, somehow, about where the game action is going to be. This might be as part of a campaign, whereby the narrative of the campaign drives the location of the action. It could be a scenario, or simply a player designating the crossroads as of strategic importance. By some sort of decision we come to the conclusion that this is where the action is going to be.

By this act we have ‘framed’, in an important way, the wargame we are going to have. In a wargame there are two distinct areas: on the table, and off the table.  What happens on the table is the subject of our attention. What happens off the table we need to make a conscious decision to consider.  The frame focusses our attention, and defocuses it on other things.

The same is true in a play or a film. The stage, the camera angle and location, frame what we see or do not see. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s suicide occurs off stage. In part, of course, this is because it is rather hard to stage someone throwing themselves off a battlement (although they manage it in Tosca), but it also shows the distance that has grown between husband and wife. Macbeth shrugs off her death as something that would have happened anyway. The focus remains on Macbeth and his actions and inactions. The frame ensures our attention remains focussed.

In novels and other written works a similar, although perhaps more subtle, focussing occurs. I have spent a part of the last few weeks trying to convince some research students that they cannot just chuck everything they have done in the last few years into a thesis. Firstly, they will not have room, and secondly it will just be a confused mess. They have to pick their material, choose an angle, a viewpoint, and develop that. One of them quoted myself back to me: The hard thing about thesis writing is choosing what not to put in. That sounds a bit too profound for me, but it is probably true.

So it is with historical writing, I think. An angle is chosen, the data amassed, but a choice still has to be made. In the book on the 1659 Commonwealth, the frame, in this case a time frame, has to be chosen: April – November. The geographical frame is a bit easier, perhaps, it being Great Britain, but as I noted a week or two ago that is not too easy as foreign policy, both to outlying bits of England and towards other states has to be considered. Nevertheless, the material has to be organised and decision made about inclusion and exclusion, which to consign to foot notes and which to write paragraphs about. This is an ongoing exercise in framing.

Wargames are no different, I think. We choose what to focus on and, inevitably, choose what to ignore or downgrade. This sort of framing activity occurs across the different activities of staging a wargame. It can also have different results. For example, the fact that side A had five crossbowmen may be ignored in a game where hundreds of men are represented. Where each side is 20 men in a skirmish game, then those five crossbowmen take on a new importance. There is not just a frame of action, but a frame of scale.

The frame of action is where the attention is. Over the years I have read a wide variety of wargame rules, and one of the things that I find interesting to see is how the author deals with troops that go ‘off table’. They have left the frame of attention; how do we handle that? Some rules leave them there for a turn or two and then allow them to re-enter the frame. Some rules count them as lost. Some count them as half-value for the purposes of deciding who won, and so on. The point is that the unit being within or outwith the frame matters. We struggle to deal with such situations.

I think this point is exacerbated by the habit of wargamers of filling up the tables with troops. I confess to being guilty of this, but perhaps I have grown up (or grown lazy) and my table is now far bigger than the location of the action is likely to be. There are now no flanks anchored in empty space on the left or right wing. Troops rarely run off the table unless they rout there. The action is, of course, focussed in one part of the table, but at least I can see that part in some sort of context.  Of course, I have yet to solve the problem of the action taking place in one small corner of the table, yielding the same problems as above, but a big enough table is a start, at least.

Framing our wargames is something we cannot do without. Any realistic wargame of, say, Waterloo is not going to be able to cover the march of the Prussians and Grouchy’s  corps as well. In this case we can self-consciously wave the issue away with some sort of timetable for their arrival on table. Perhaps the more tricky issue is when we are not conscious of our framing and its consequences.  In a historical battle the time framing might be more important. You would get a different view of the options in many battles depending on what stage, precisely, you took for the start of the game.

So there are many facets, I think, to framing our games, and I have probably only touched on one or two here. There would be many more, depending on our reading of history, categorising of troop types and so on. I think the point is that we need to make ourselves conscious of our framing activity.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

More Spiritual Wargaming

There is usually a range of opinion regarding some of the posts I make to this blog, and last week one on ‘The Spirituality of Wargaming’ is no exception. As you have probably already noticed, the term ‘spirituality’ was intentionally left vague. Any attempt to nail it down runs the risk of becoming like those sociologists of religion who try to understand what people mean when they say they are ‘spiritual but not religious’. To be honest, that expression reminds me of a Not the Nine O’clock News sketch called, I think ‘The Agnostic’s Creed’, which began ‘I believe in God, or at least it stands to reason that there is something out there, doesn’t it; did you see that program on BBC2?’ I dare say someone can dig up a YouTube clip of it….

Anyway, I chose the term ‘spiritual’ to differentiate some parts of wargaming, those which go on in our heads, from the material components of wargaming, the soldiers, terrain and so on. One of the things that does go on in our heads is the narrative component of the game. Someone on The Miniatures Page commented that the last post was a long winded way of saying that we liked the narrative part of the game. That would, I think, be true (I’ve never made claims to brevity, here) but I do not think it is the whole story.

Another comment was to the end of someone plonking badly painted figures on the table and attempting to use all the rule tricks in the book to win the game. There is nothing, I suppose, intrinsically wrong with that, but it is not really helping anyone else whose interest might be in the narrative flow, the imaginative parts of the game. We could describe our figure plonker (for want of a better expression) as a wargaming materialist, in the sense that the other aspects of the wargame mean less to them. That is not to say, I suppose, that winning is a material aspect of the game, but that the material parts, such as just using the figures as counters, count for more.

This is, I think, where it starts to be shown that even the material aspects of the game have a spiritual expression. The Estimable Mrs P used to tease me massively about the advent of ‘Grey Armies’, those unpainted figures that you just wanted (at least, in the first flush of youth) to get onto the table and have a game with. Maybe it was an expression of enthusiasm, or youthful callowness, but now, as a solo wargamer, I still shudder a bit to recall that I did use unpainted figures. It is not something I would consider doing now.

The point, at which I am slowly and long windedly aiming, is that the material components of the wargame can also have a spiritual dimension. In the book about the Spirituality of wine, which started this whole idea, the author comments that there are few pleasures in the world better than slowly sipping a glass of well-crafted wine in good company, and preferably with good food as well. In terms of human social activity, she is probably right.
In terms of wargaming activity, what is the equivalent? I think, and I am becoming more convinced of it as I get older, that a wargame with nicely painted figures on nicely made and laid out terrain, with a good reason for having a wargame (a scenario or as part of a campaign) is probably as good as wargaming gets. The rest is down to the company. Using half- or un-painted figures detracts from that. Having a game just because you want a game also detracts from it. It is not that such a sort of game is a bad thing, but that it is not the best. In the same way that industrial-technology wine turned out by the million bottles is better than no wine at all, any wargame is better than none, but should we not, as wargamers, be aiming for the best games that we can have, the best overall experience?

Most wargamers, I think, would agree. The quantity of effort that goes into, say, demonstration games at shows is remarkable. The figure painting, terrain making and so on are true creations of a craft form which, in many other walks of life, is being squeezed out. And, perhaps, there, in that last sentence, it the key to the pleasures of wargaming, and also, maybe, to the paradox of the hobby.

If nothing else, wargaming, as I have described it, is creative. We create our soldiers, our units, our armies. Even though many of us buy toy soldiers, their painting and basing is our creation. The terrain too is ours. The Estimable Mrs P looked in on a Fuzigore game once, there the Romans were being ambushed, and noted that the terrain was creative, the game narrative was so as well. As a hobby, wargaming can release our creative expression, even if the rest of life consists in sitting in front of computer screens.

The paradox this reveals, of course, is that warfare is anything but creative. Wars, at least as they have been practiced in the twentieth century, are the ultimate in the capacity of the human race for destruction. Even before the unleashing of the destructive powers of the military-industrial complex, wars could be seriously destructive. You only have to read Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis to realise that.

And yet some part of humanity can work with that destructiveness and turn it into something creative. Even a Second World War Russian front game can have an aesthetic creativity to it. It is most emphatically not my thing, but I can accept that, to those interested, the wargaming activity can be a thing of aesthetic pleasure. Perhaps it is just that there is nothing so awful that humanity cannot redeem it a little bit. I am not sure. But I can see it happening.

So I shall leave this one on this note of paradox. Creativity in chaos; a wargame full of craft and aesthetic delight from a field of destruction. What will we think of next?

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.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Constructing the Past

It would seem that I am back. I confess, my enforced silence over the last month has not been all due to eye problems, but a severe outbreak of Real Life has also contrived to drive me from the keyboard. Still, RL seems to be settling down into its more usual torpor, and I have nearly finished the treatment for the eye, so I think it is high time to get back into the saddle and ride off on further adventures in the weird world of wargames.

I have not, as you might imagine, actually done an awful lot of wargaming in the past month or so. I did finish off the wargame which was on table at the point of my eye giving up. The Persians won, in case you were interested, defeating the Thracian horde and occupying the port. They did not even need to burn it. I learnt a lot about my rule set from the game, mostly glaring bits that I had missed out.

Aside from that, I have attempted to regain my painting mojo, and did fifteen 6 mm Moorish cavalry figures. They are now awaiting basing, along with the other lot I did in, um, January. My only excuse is that I painted 151 ancient galleys between the two. But painting has not been going well this year.

The point of the title is, perhaps, a bit contentious. The argument behind it is that we cannot reconstruct the past. That is, we do not have sufficient evidence to reconstruct the past. The mind set of, say, a first century AD Stoic is inaccessible to us. To read, say, the Letters of St Paul, about how his flock once were pagans asleep in their sins but now they have turned to the true Way is not, really, to give us any insight into what pagan worship was, nor what the people thought they were doing when they did ‘turn away’ from their sinful lives and put on Christ. We simply do not have access to the world view that might have made sense of this.

To put the same point another way, we know that units of the Roman army built altars and sacrificed on them to the gods. Exactly what they thought they were doing or achieving by this is obscure. We know that it happened; it is just that the world view is alien to us. There is a gap, so to speak, between the evidence of something occurring and an understanding of why it occurred.

Of course, we can use intelligent guess work. There is a certain amount of evidence of, for example, thank offerings for safe return of individuals from perilous journeys. It does not take an awful lot of imagination to suggest that perhaps the units were making offerings for similar sorts of things, or perhaps just general thanksgiving for getting through  another year. Whatever the regime, the human soul will usually find a way of celebrating something, somehow.

However, we do need to be cautious. Ezra Pound once wrote a fragment of a poem in the style of Sappho:
Too long…
What tends to happen is that the blanks are filled in by enthusiastic editors and translators:
Spring [sends forth the flowers, but for me]
Too long [have I suffered with desire for the lovely]
Gongyla [who has departed]
The bits in square brackets are the editorial insertions. They tell us nothing about Sappho, even assuming that the fragment came from her. They tell us a lot more (often, an awful lot more than we want to know) about the editor, the translator, and their times.

In part this is inevitable, but we need to be careful. The first annals of Alexander the ‘Great’ we have were written four hundred years or so after his death. Granted, Arrian may have had access to ancient sources. He certainly claimed to have done. But what can we really be certain of? After all, Paul’s letters were a lot more contemporary with his subject than Arrian’s Anabasis was to Alexander.  As I mentioned, despite Paul’s letters, access to its world view is difficult, if not impossible.

The problem is, then, that we insert our own ideas and concepts into the ancient text. We can view Alexander as a great man, a glorious general leading an obscure, peripheral nation onto the world stage. In that sense we can project ideas of, say, Nelson and the British Empire back onto the ancient world. Here is a man who did everything, beat the odds and so on.

On the other hand, we can view alexander as a destructive force, exporting war to otherwise peaceful parts of the world, destroying nations and ways of life. He can be portrayed as a ruthless power-monger, and drunken, deluded despot. One modern view of Alexander has him as ‘a reckless alcoholic, a vicious psychopath, and a destructive barbarian.’

How true are these views? Did Alexander export destruction of Greek civilisation? Is the former view, that of a despotic destroyer, a child of our age of anti-imperialist suspicion? Is the view that he exported what later became known as Hellenism only important because the Romans made it part of the civilization of the western world? Of course, there is the possibility that the collapse of the view of classical civilisation as being the highest point of aim for society could also play a part in our turn against Alexander as a good thing.

This does affect us as wargamers. Firstly, there is an issue of epistemology in history. We do not know many of the things we would like to know about the military forces we put on the table. We have to approximate, make best use of the sources and, in short, guess. History was not written for us.

Secondly, our view of the past is inevitably shaped by both our zeitgeist and the historiography that we read. If we stick with early twentieth century history, we may well find a historiography that is approving of empire building. The second half of the century is probably the opposite view. Exporting civilisation becomes imperial colonialism. What Alexander did moves from a glorious campaign of bringing enlightenment to the masses to a despotic, nearly fascist, destruction of an alternate world.

Which should we wargame? Does it really matter?