Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Nomadic Wargamer

For someone who has been a wargamer since teenage years (and that is getting a fair while ago) my set up has always been rather nomadic. My first ‘proper’ wargames were fought on my parents circular dining room table.  Looking back, the geometry made for an interesting wargame, as the flanks were all fairly secure.

My gaming became slightly less nomadic when I was bought a six foot by four foot wargames table, which would sit snugly on the kitchen table. This was used for a number of years both for my fifteen millimetre English Civil War and medieval battles, and also as the main table for my A level years role playing games group. University, of course, put a stop to all that. Gaming, in particular role playing, became entirely nomadic once again.

Life went on, and ‘settling down’ occurred. However, this was in a tiny flat, and so the rekindled wargame hobby had to fit in. the armies were of six millimetre soldiers now, and small in base numbers at that. While the variety grew, the numbers of bases that could be placed on the table remained small. My foray into DBR allowed armies from around the world to be collected and painted, but the size was limited to one hundred point armies. Mostly, wargames were fought out on a two foot square coffee table.

That is not to say that wargames, and definitely enjoyable wargames, did not happen. One of my favourites was the rise of the Aztec Empire game, where the player had to go out and conquer the surrounding cities. I devised a random system, using cards, for the opposition, and a points system to see if the terror of the Aztecs made cities submit before the army got there. It worked very nicely, and I had a large number of wargames as a result. The system eventually beat me. My fear points were dropping and I needed a spectacular victory, so the emperor attached himself to a base of Jaguar knights. Unfortunately, they were taken in flank by some recalcitrant subjects, and my empire collapsed.

However, age is taking its toll, and I no longer feel able to bend over a coffee table for such lengthy periods, nor to carry boxes of soldiers and terrain up and down stairs. The desk here in my ‘study’ has been performing the work of a wargame table as well, but work (I have an unenlightened employer  whose policy on staff working from home takes some believing, especially given their loudly proclaimed green credentials, lack of car parking spaces and desperate efforts to look like a right on institution. However, in some cases, as this week when my car decided it needed a trip to the local hotel / garage, my line manager takes pity) and study sometimes covers it with books and papers to the extent that its surface vanishes and if I covered it with my wargame cloth I could be fighting in the Himalayas.
After some frustration and a real dearth of wargames, I decided a different solution was required. Now, all my more recent bases of toy soldiers have a bit of magnetic strip underneath, so they remain secure in their boxes while being sorted out and dropped. I therefore possess a fair number of bits of steel paper and a spare cork notice board. One morning, therefore, I spent some time working out if the steel paper would stick to the cork, and how many pieces I would need to cover it.

I was just wondering how I was going to cut the steel paper neatly enough for it to be acceptable as a playing surface when the Estimable Mrs P. returned. She does take an interest in what I have been doing and so, over a nice cup of coffee I explained the problem and showed her my projected solution. It has the advantage, I explained, that I could pick the board up and store it without the soldiers falling off.

Now, I should explain that we have, at least temporarily, gone up in the world since our one bedroomed flat. We currently live in a rather large four bedroom detached house in a highly desirable village location. I should add that we do not own it, just in case anyone thinks that we are worth burgling. Nevertheless, with just the two of us (and the cat) there is a fair amount of room, much of which is taken up with stuff we have not got around to throwing away.

The Estimable Mrs P was not too impressed by my solution to the wargame problem, I confess, and I was a little disappointed at that point. However, she had a far better idea. One of the downstairs rooms is hardly used, except for the storage of our collection of home-made wine and our more presentable books.  Why not, she suggested, get a table and set up the wargame operation in there?

Some head scratching and measurement ensued and despite my protestations over the expense the process of setting the room up has begun. We pondered the nature of the table for some time, and finally decided (prompted in my case by a comment in the introduction, I think, to DBA) that a card table would be just the ticket. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that it has to be a ‘nice’ one and a rickety plastic one from Amazon was not acceptable.

The question of storage was solved by moving a semi-redundant wardrobe downstairs, which has plenty of room for the boxes of soldiers and terrain, and for the cloths (I have three – green, sand and blue). An unused wall mounted bookshelf has been located for installation for the storage of rules and my small collection of directly wargame related items.

The table itself arrived yesterday. It is about eighty centimetres square and fits in the room very nicely. After some tests, I have discovered that the width will accommodate twenty bases of my armies side by side. As even wargamers rarely line their toys up shoulder to shoulder across the board, this is fine, and of course the depth means that waggon trains and camps are required features, rather than conveniently being left off table.

And so here I am, nearly, at least, no longer a nomadic wargamer. The next week or so should see the finishing touches applied and the armies and other bits transferred. The painting operation will, I think, remain here – I don’t want to paint on a card table. But now I should be able to wargame without too much sweat and too many tears.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

The Languages of Wargaming

For my sins, which must be very many, I have been doing a little reading on deconstruction. As I am sure that you all know, deconstruction is broadly associated with the French thinker Derrida. Despite Derrida’s claims to the contrary, it is true that deconstruction has become a major tool of literary criticism, and its influence has been a bit limited elsewhere. Partly, I think, this is because Derrida was French, and therefore widely ignored in Anglo-American philosophy. Further, I think, it is because he draws on a philosophical tradition which was (at least) not widely understood (or translated) in that Anglo-American tradition. Thirdly, it seems, a common understanding of deconstruction is that it, in fact, lands you up precisely where you were before, just more confused and with no map of where to go.

Those warning shots fired, I propose to consider what a simple (and simplistic – I am trying to avoid reading Derrida) approach to the languages involved in wargaming through a form of deconstruction might look like. Of course, in the confines of a blog post I can only hint at some of the issues, but I hope it might give an interesting view on some of the knotty problems that do lie beneath the surface of wargaming.

Firstly, we have to ask what sorts of language are there being used in a ‘wargame discourse’ (an ugly term, but I cannot think of a better one)? Off hand, I can identify three main ones: history, rules and narrative. Now, even in deconstruction these language do not need to be in competition, but the aim of deconstructing them is to see what power claims might be being made through privileging one or the other.

So first, we have history. Historical wargaming, obviously, and, I submit, other forms of wargaming not so obviously, are all reliant in some form on history. As I have said endlessly here, we, as wargamers, read a historical text, and we read it in a certain way. We are not too worried if, for example, the Marquis of Montrose started to write dodgy poetry at times of stress in his generalship. We simply want to know what he did, how good he was, how many men he had and how they were armed and organised. Nevertheless, there is a way in which the historical discourse controls wargaming. We privilege the language of history, because that is what happened and, therefore, in a wargame, that is what should happen.

Secondly, we have the language of the rule set. Each is different, of course, although they tend to overlap. The rule set discourse consists of things like definitions of units, ranges, time frames and so on, and defines the interactions between these things. Thus you can get a discourse of wargaming which has almost entirely abandoned, at least on the surface, any semblance of historical discourse. Thus we can hear (and I have heard it)  “My irregular knights(I) will charge your Reg Ps(S)”. This is, of course, gibberish to anyone who does not also speak the language of the rules. It is also nonsense to anyone who is speaking a historical language. Irregular Kn(I) are, in fact, say, chariots. Within the model and discourse of the rules this nomenclature might make perfectly good sense, but not outside it. In this way we can see that different discourses within the wargame can compete. The rule set discourse language can, for some wargamers, out compete the historical discourse. Perhaps, in those circumstances, a historical wargame is no longer being played, as such.

Thirdly, there is the narrative language, that of the game itself. As I noted before, often this is formed in play by a series of speech-acts and actions – ‘My chariots will charge your skirmishers’. The outcomes, determined by the language and model of the rules, then determine the next set of speech-acts and actions. The wargame continues, with interconnected speech-acts and actions, until the end, the whole forming a narrative. The precise form of the narrative varies, of course. It can be informed by either of the other two languages. Usually they do not mix – we rarely get ‘My Kn(I) charge your skirmishers’. Perhaps our narratives actually reveal which of the other two discourses we are using, which we are thinking in terms of.

Deconstruction is not really used to make any advance. Part of its function is to reveal hidden ideological and political biases. Thus feminists can use deconstruction to reveal underlying male biases in our language and hence, since it is thought that language determines much of our thinking, underlying patriarchy in our thinking and thus in the structures of society.

My aims here are rather more modest than that, but I do think that there is an interest in stopping and considering that wargaming we see about us and the sorts of discourses involved. The discourses I have outlined are not, of course, exclusive, and the weight we give to them will, of course, very from time to time and game to game. I think, though, we can see how broadly wargames vary.

Firstly, you have the gamer that switches readily from one period to another without really worrying about any historical discourse associated with a given game. The game is the important thing. Such a player will be using the rules – narrative theme of the discourses of wargaming I have suggested above. Similarly, I suspect (although there will always be exceptions of course) tournament gamers will tend to land up in this strand.

Naturally, we can all land up as gaiter-button counters, and this might put us into the realm of the historical discourse, although often it simply lands us in a different world, that of pedantry and not being able to see the wood for the trees. Nevertheless, a second type of gamer we do see is the historical-narrative type, for whom the historical verisimilitude is more important than the exact execution of the rules. As regular readers of the blog might infer, I would tend to place myself in this category. What about you?

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Western Design

I have just finished reading June’s History Today. I know that it is still May (or it was at time of writing), but that seems to be part and parcel of the wacky world of magazine publication. Anyway, there are a number of articles which I, at least, find interesting, although mostly they are nothing to do with wargaming or warfare. Two, however, stand out. One article is on the Spanish fiasco at Djerba in 1560. The other is on the English fiasco in the Caribbean in 1654. Perhaps it is only me that noticed the links between the two. At least, they are both related to islands and amphibious warfare.

Anyway, I might come back to Djerba, but for the moment I want to consider Cromwell’s Western Design. This, the author (Carla Gardina Pestana) has been largely forgotten. I suspect, as with the comment of Plataea a few weeks ago, the response might be ‘Not by wargamers it hasn’t.’ Perhaps. I have heard of it, but maybe that is because I have been reading about the English Civil War and its aftermath since I was a teenager, and that is a fair number of years ago now.

I am not wholly convinced that the Western Design is forgotten. Antonia Fraser’s massive ‘Cromwell, Our Chief of Men’ devotes 16 pages to the expedition’s conception, dispatch and outcome for which, in a book covering the great man’s whole life (admittedly over 700 pages long), ‘forgotten’ does not seem to be the correct adjective. S. R. Gardiner’s History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate has a chapter and a bit on it, while even Clarendon devotes a few paragraphs to the expedition.  I have on my shelf 'The Western Design: An Account of Cromwell's Expedition to the Caribbean', by S.A.G. Taylor (1965: Institute of Jamaica and Jamaica Historical Society). A bit old, but it does not suggest the Western Design is totally forgotten. That said, the author does suggest there are many reasons why the Design has been largely ignored. Firstly, it was reckoned a failure. The aim was the seizure of Hispaniola, from where it was beaten off, rather too easily, perhaps, by an outnumbered and ill-equipped Spanish force.

The seizing of Jamaica is usually viewed, therefore, as a consolation prize, and the incarceration of Penn and Venables upon their return to England in the Tower of London is regarded as just punishment from a government which expected much, much more. Further, there is the vexed question of both the guerrilla war with the remnant of the population of Jamaica and the fact that, in the next century, Jamaica turned into the major port of destination for the slave trade. The accomplishment of the Western Design is tainted by this issue, although it certainly was not on anyone’s mind at the time.

Gardiner reckons the expiation to be a significant one, on the basis that it was the first move of the British government (for it was British, even though by conquest rather than agreement) to assert, forcefully, sovereignty of the seas. It was also a double expedition against Spain. At nearly the same time Blake set off with another fleet to attack Spain itself. Given that Charles I’s government could barely sustain a few ships at sea each summer, this in itself is a remarkable achievement.

The major change that Pestana sees in the Western Design is not control of the seas, but that it was the first state sponsored attempt at colonial expansion. Previously, efforts had been carried out by private individuals, perhaps operating as a company and under licence from the government. Some plantations survived and even thrived, some did not. For the Western Design massive state resources were employed. Jamaica, the prize, was a state possession. Clarendon records that Cromwell, after the disappointment of the results, acted quickly to reinforce the island.

Pestana also notes that the seizure of Jamaicia, and the attempt on Hispaniola, marked a change in geo-politics. A wider war with Spain was prosecuted and shifted its focus from the West Indies to Europe. This continued in the Caribbean until 1670 when a peace was signed whereby Spain recognised the English colonies in the Americas. Further, of course, other foreign powers followed, including France. Pestana observes that the Caribbean could be termed the cockpit of Europe as a result of this. European wars were fought out there, as well as in the manoeuvring of armies on the Continent.

Aside from the fact that Pestana ignores Blake’s fleet, she does raise some interesting views about the Western Design and its aftermath. From a wargaming point of view, of course, it presents a wonderful opportunity to employ often under used forces from the ‘New Model Army’ in an unusual and unfamiliar place. It also should focus our interest on logistics and on the often under-valued role of the Navy in early modern warfare.

After 1655 warfare in the Caribbean became much more complex as state fought state. Often, due to communication delays wars were fought there after peace in Europe, or before war officially broke out anywhere. Again, as I think Tony Bath suggests in setting up a Wargame Campaign the possibilities are large in this area. Future governments might have been less interested in foreign escapades and not sent reinforcements. Ships might be deployed to the Caribbean and then sent on elsewhere. The possibilities for an astute wargamer to run an unusual campaign are great.

Finally, of course, there are significant opportunities for a degree of role playing. As with many early modern (and, for that matter, more recent) colonial adventures, the decisions that mattered were the people on the ground. If it was convenient to them, they could claim that there was ‘No Peace beyond the Line’ and carry on raiding. Further there were also significant ‘irregular’ forces around, in the shape of buccaneer (or pirate – it depends on your point of view) forces who lived off prizes and illegal trading with the Spanish (this could be illegal on both sides, of course). While fiction, Dudley Pope’s ‘Corsair’ series sets up some nice small scale actions for us.

So: Forgotten? Not by wargamers or, at least, upon reading this post, hopefully someone will decide that it is interesting. Pestana, incidentally, as a book entitled The English Conquest of Jamaica: Cromwell’s Bid for Empire (Belknap) out this year. Mr Amazon says it was published in April.