Saturday, 12 August 2017

Wargame Myths Again

‘Treating Spanish musketeers as the functional equivalent of Persian archers, or Swiss pikemen as updated Greek hoplites, is commonplace among those who wish to use the richness of the past to create situations or scenarios to instruct or entertain modern students. But this way of handling the past violates something deep within the historian’s conscience, effacing all that is distinctive and unique about the early period of firearms use and imposing a certain bland uniformity on the material. In the final analysis, such pattern making is only as good as the historiography that informs it’
Hall, B. S., Weapons and Warfare in Renaissance Europe (1997: John Hopkins, Baltimore, p. 6-7)

I mentioned recently that I had been reading about warfare in Britain 1485 – 1746 – Charles Carlton’s book about which I blogged recently. I noted then that I had, and had read, a number of the works Carlton mentioned. Bert Hall’s tome is one of them. I do remember reading it, but I cannot recall its contents. And so I now have a pile of books to re-read, as well as a pile to read.  Of the buying of books, of course, there is no end. I just need another few hours a day to read them in.

So, I picked up Hall’s book and, during a lunchtime at work, started to read it. Lo and behold, I ran across the quote above in the first few pages. Now, as an exercise, try re-reading the last sentence substituting the word ‘wargaming’ for ‘pattern making’. In fact, I shall do it for you below:
‘In the final analysis, such wargaming is only as good as the historiography that informs it’

I am, of course, making a heavy handed point here. We know, because we have seen them, and played them, that there are many wargame rules out there, and many wargame periods. We also know that there are many wargame rules which, by shifting period and troop types, think that they can sell a load more copies (do any wargame rules sell a ‘load’, I wonder) and not have to do much in the way of historical research or thinking about rule mechanisms.

Despite my protestations about this issue, there do seem to be increasing numbers of said rule types around. They may well, of course, have advantages. The rules, to players familiar with another period, might be easy to pick up. The core mechanisms might be rather good, or streamlined, or whatever it is that makes a good set of rules for a wargame. They may give a good, fun game, a cliff-hanger of excitement and engagement. Nevertheless, I think the modified quote from Hall skewers them quite accurately.

A set of wargame rules is only as good as the quality of understanding of the period which has gone into it. This is, of course, jeopardized if the writer of the rules approaches with a bunch of categories from another period. This is what Hall is saying: Spanish musketeers were not just souped up Persian arches facing souped up hoplites. Hoplites are hoplites and Swiss pike are Swiss pike. They are not the same thing, and should not be considered as such.

‘Who,’ you might ask, ‘rattled your cage this time?’ I admit it, I have written on this before, and yet it still annoys me. The specific issue I have is trying to find some rule set sufficient from the wars of Elizabeth Tudor. I have a few on my shelf which might be suitable: DBR and Renaissance Principles of War. I am sure you can spot the problem I have just referred to – they derive from rule sets designed for different periods.

I wold not mind quite so much, and would be prepared to use them (as I have in the past) for some fun games if I did not have a historical quibble with both of them This is that they both regard the Spanish tercio as a battlefield unit. The classic pike block with a block of musketeers at each corner is there in the rules.

‘What is the problem with that?’ you might ask. Well, it is fine if you are trying to reproduce the artwork of the time. However, there is no evidence that tercios, thus deployed, had any presence on any battlefield. A little thought from the rule writers might have convinced them of the fact. Spanish commanders were not lacking in common sense. Deploying half your firepower to a position where they could not do anything on the battlefield is not wise. There is no evidence that Spanish commanders were stupid.

‘Wargaming is only as good as the historiography that informs it.’ Granted, if you want a fun game with huge units blundering around, then deploying tercios under the rules will deliver. But it is sadly lacking in historical verisimilitude.  Spanish tercios were administrative units, not battlefield deployments. The art of the time is fun but not accurate. Deploying a tercio is not historical wargaming; it is even closer to fantasy than normal wargaming.

There used to be a rather good web page on the subject of tercios, but I cannot find it. However, the gist of it was, I believe as above. However, the myth of the tercio continues, I suspect, in wargaming circles, along with a whole load of other myths like the mid-seventeenth century musket rest, the caracole and the effectiveness of the pilum, not to mention the greatness of Alexander III of Macedon or Frederick of Prussia.

Nevertheless, I have not solved my rules problem. I would like a set of rules specifically for the ‘Elizabethan’ period – and I do know that the English were rather bit players in the wars of the time. And I would rather some rules, or at least army lists that noticed that the bow and bill armed men were recorded as ‘unarmed’ after 1585, and that the trained bands were not totally hopeless but selected and, well, trained.

Maybe I set the bar too high for a wargaming backwater period. I shall probably have to write my own.


  1. You're preaching to the choir here, as you know. Have you tried Spanish Fury from The Perfect Captain? I don't know if they meet your needs, but TPC does tend to focus on period specific rules.

    1. Ah, thank you. I had not remembered those as a possibility. I shall investigate further.

  2. Its hard to get around writing one's own rules if one really wants to agree with them but putting that aside I'll proceed with some thoughts which might appear to be random and unconnected.

    Without detailed first hand accounts backed by period manuals etc, it is hard to have more than a vague idea of many or most historical organizations and tactics. Most interpretations are naturally bound up in what information we can gleam crossed with what we can imagine based on our experience and by whatever intrinsic traditions, patterns or assumptions that we have inherited.

    I suspect that once we glue little men to a cardboard base and call it "a" "unit" we tend to forget that military organizations tend to have various levels of organization, both formal and informal. We also forget that people were smart, even way back when and they did things that made sense to sensible, experienced people that we don't always understand from our experience and that they rarely always did the same thing regardless of the situation.

    Reading Montluc's memoirs (alas edited and translated though I suspect reading 16thC French in the original would have taxed my understanding at the very least) showed a surprising degree of initiative and flexibility in early and mid 16thC infantry in which men could be detached from big blocks on occasion, even in mid battle, if the situation warranted it and the troops were well led.

    Without knowing anything about tercios other than at the usual wargame survey history level, I could easily see the formal organization as shown in art as being very useful on a battlefield, especially at the start and on the march. Firstly if the flanks were not going to be secure because of the fluidity of supporting cavalry and skirmishers but also as a way to keep a local reserve not initially committed but which could be used to respond to what ever threats emerged or to replace or reinforce the men committed initially. Many armies have found a reserve useful in battle it being much easier to react or reinforce using previously un-engaged troops rather than trying to extricate committed troops to redeploy them. I think the closest I've seen to this a set of "pike & shot" wargame rules that could handle something like that is the old George Gush WRG Renaissance rules where the various blocks would be "sub-units" of the main pike block and could be used separately tactically.

    As an aside regarding those 70's style rules with all their many fault, I was slightly shocked last year when rereading bits of Caesar's Commentaries to realize that his version of a battle sounded exactly like a 3rd ed WRG ancients battle, not that fielding an actual army at a 1:20 would fall under the heading of 'practical' in my books. The authors had however caught the FEEL of the battles as DESCRIBED in various ancient accounts.

    1. I suspect you are right. The website Ilya suggests below says (in Section 5) that bits and pieces of tercio were detached for various reasons, during battle as well as on campaign. In fact I seem to remember it being commented that in the Low countries, due to the nature of the fighting, tercios were rarely together anyway. I suppose that is the way of garrison duty.

      I think that the old version rules, while they may be rather dismissed today, are, at heart good systems, often created by people who knew a thing or two about combat and soldiers. Plus several of them were steeped in the classic texts for ancient wargaming. It was only the addition of chrome to some of the sets that started bogging them down. That and the inherent human propensity to continue tinkering.

  3. Was it this site that you were looking for?

  4. A really interesting post, thank you. Particularly since I've just written my own set of 2mm rules that encompass 1660 - 1914 in a single ruleset - I think that, provided you are playing large-scale games where tactical and operational nuances like this can be safely generalised, this can be a successful approach.

    I have tried this before with 10mm and 15mm games, and failed for much the same reasons you outlined above; in trying to do everything 'okay', I did nothing well. The key for me was changing the scale to 2mm, and making each unit a brigade. This of course changed the scope of the battles, since you could easily do even something like Gettysburg on a 6'x4' table in three hours.

    The crucial difference was that, at that scale, the nuances of deployment and tactics aren't big enough to matter. The only game mechanic is morale and momentum - shooting and melee is so generic as to be applicable for any period. Of course, that means it's a niche game, and if we wanted to game a battle from a period like this we'd have to pick some more detailed rules. But for fast , morale-focused games I believe it is possible to have a universal rules set without losing too much realism.

    (I did, however, set the early limit of the rules at 1660 - I don't think tercios would really work in my rules, hence why I cut them out).

    I'd be interested to hear what you think about army-scale wargaming like this using universal rules.

    1. Thank you for that. I think that it is entirely possible to write rules generically, but that usually they are not as carefully scoped as what you have written. The normal sort of thing we get is that these rules are for battles in (say) 1494-1700, and the implication is that they work for all battles in the period, at whatever scale.

      The best example I can think of is the claim that DBR works for battles of the Thirty Years War, ECW, Aztecs against Conquistadors and buccaneers against Spanish in the New World.

      I really don't think they can do so. But if we are clear about what we are doing and trying to achieve, and the evolution is not so dramatic as to cause problems, a certain generic quality is possible.

      I suspect that you might have a few difficulties at the edges of your time range, say pre-1700 and post the introduction of the machine gun and massive indirect artillery fire. But any rule set has difficulties at these edges.

      So yes, if you scope the game such that the options are truly generic, I think you can do it. But clarity of purpose and implementation is key. Too many rule sets say 'division' or 'brigade' but the wargamer worries about battalions instead.

    2. Definitely agree with the point about DBA. I think setting out to write generic rules is one thing, trying to import an existing set of rules wholesale into a new period is another.

      And yes, there are a few 'special rules' to allow for MG and artillery fire, our RJW games play very differently indeed.

      Thanks for the interesting post and your reply.