Saturday, 21 April 2018

Guisbrough Fight – The Abbeys Campaign Battle 2

Despite all the pseudo-academic-ising which has been the lot of readers of this blog over the past couple of weeks, some wargaming, or at least, some painting and terrain making has been proceeding, in fits and starts, in the background.

Those of you with long memories may recall that the object of this activity is the second battle in my ‘Abbeys’ campaign. The first was the landing of Spanish troops on the open beach north of Whitby, which, as the Spanish commander Don Pedro noted, was rather a lot easier than he, or anyone else really expected. The English militia had, more or less, simply run away.

Not daunted by unexpected success, Don Pedro got his troops and equipment unloaded and Roman Catholic masses said at the partially ruined abbey on the hill overlooking the port. He then proceeded inland, determined to exploit his success. The road inland proceeded over the moors which would have been unpleasant in winter, but in August were merely an inconvenience.

As related in an earlier post, a ‘captain’ of the local militia has offered to hold “Guisbrough Bridge” for the Spanish, allowing them to capture the town, which is the next objective and also has a ruined priory. It is Don Pedro’s aim to brush the English militia army aside and celebrate mass in the ruins by evening, aided by Captain Trousdale and his merry men.

The terrain for the engagement looks something like this:

This is the view from the west of the battlefield, looking east, that is. Guisbrough Town is self-evident in the left centre. This is where the English army is billeted. The Spanish will enter from the top right corner, slightly cramped between the hedge which marks the boundary of the Priory Park and the woods and hills which are slightly beyond the southern edge of the table.

The creation of this terrain has taken some time. The short stream sections, ponds, short river sections, bases of the bridges and shorter road sections are all new. The houses at the near and far end of Guisbrough itself, plus the church (St Nicholas) are also new, obtained in early February and finally painted by me (finished, at least) yesterday. The Manor House in the Priory Park is also new, of the same batch and vintage. These are all Leven Miniatures and very nice they are too. However, I think I erred in undercoating the timber framed buildings in black, as painting the wattle and daub bits in white was fiddly and I then had to go over the timber frames again. I also know that, originally, black and white buildings were not necessarily black and white, but other colours do not really look right.

The other buildings are Timecast and old Baccus hovels, with a Hovels barn on the home farm in Priory Park. The cart lurking behind the farm hovel and the cows in the Park itself are Irregular. The hedges are by a company I forget, I am afraid, and are quite elderly. I bought a pack of ‘bocage’ hedges from them and was rewarded with an enormous number. I have now painted and mounted some of them (so they are at the same height as the roads). I still have a fair few left.

The observant reader will note the existence of two bridges. Captain Trousdale is guarding the near one, which he described as Guisbrough bridge but which is on my 1840’s map of the area as Chapel Beck Bridge. This too is an old Baccus creation. The other bridge is not graced with a name on my map but does exist still. I doubt if the stream turning to a river was called Chapel Beck in the 1580’s (although it is possible); I would imagine it was originally called Priory Beck as it seems to have its origins in the ponds in the Priory Park which would, I suspect, be used to supply fish for Fridays.

The view from Guisbrough looks something like this:

Tactically, the English are simply aiming to stop the Spanish crossing the smaller of the two bridges. They have a couple of artillery pieces with which to disrupt the Spanish deployment, and hope to deploy their arquebusiers to deny the Spanish the crossing. The English are rather ignoring the Park, in the hope that the Spanish will too. The Spanish could attempt to outflank the town by crossing the Park, but that would entail crossing two hedgerows and the stream and ponds.

Aside from that the Spanish seem to have two options. The first is to assault the bridge directly into Guisbrough. This might work and the Spanish are certainly confident enough (or dismissive enough of the English) to try it. Alternatively they could march across the face of the English and try to link up with Trousdale’s men deployed at the other bridge. This would both outflank Guisbrough and cut it off from the rest of the country and reinforcements. The English are (probably) unaware of Trousdale’s treachery. Mind you, it might not exist and his men might not agree.

As you can probably tell, I am rather pleased with the look and feel of the battlefield. I have no particular reason for this, except, I suppose, that it is rather better than my usual efforts and it is something I have given time and energy to. In this sense it is a result of ‘craft’, as Yarwood’s paper discussed. The bits of the battlefield are bought, but I painted them, made some of them, and pulled the whole lot together. I claim the rights of mixing my labour with that of the manufacturers of the buildings, figures and other pieces.

Beyond that, there are the effects of miniaturisation. My 1840’s map puts Chapel Beck Bridge quite a lot further from Guisbrough than it is represented here. The ruins of the Priory are just to the east of the table; the Priory Park would probably have been delineated by a wall, not a hedge. And so on. The relation to reality is a bit vague, yet it is, in my head at least, recognisable. This brings us around, I suppose, to the question of the balance between the game and the real. This is even more pointed in this case where the location is real but the battle is fiction. But that might be a question of another post.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Mapping My Mind?

Further to the last two blog posts, I suppose it is time to try to assess Yarwood’s paper against my views and experience of wargaming as a hobby. Not that my experience of wargaming is any more valid than anyone else’s, of course, but it is mine, and therefore I can explore it.

Firstly, I have to say I agree with a great deal of what Yarwood has to say. Wargamers are, on the whole, male, well-educated and from some sort of social elite – by which I suppose is meant professionals with a degree of money and leisure time. Guilty as charged. Wargaming also tends to be something of a hobby of words – rules and history books – and so does probably depend on a core, at least, of wargamers who are prepared to do leisure reading. Come to think of it, this could be a reason why it is harder to interest younger people in wargaming generally – leisure reading, vicarious experience in local schools suggests, is not something the present generation of children undertake in any great numbers.

A lot of what Yarwood argues about historical miniature wargaming resonates with some of things I have been trying to say here over the years of the blog’s existence. For example, there is a performative element to playing the game: ‘I charge the guns’ is a distinctly performative element, at least within the game world. Overheard by a bystander ‘I slash you with my broadsword’ sounds a bit alarming, but that is because the bystander is not within the game context. The wargamers (or role players in the latter case) understand perfectly what a performative utterance in the game world is and means, and what is an utterance outside the game world (say ‘I’d love a cup of tea, thank you’). The bystander might not have the cues to tell the difference.

The questions of creating miniature spaces and the distortions inherent in creating models are also coherent with some of the things I have written about here. Thus a model is not the real thing, and cannot be. It has to be selective. The question arises as to what the model selects of reality in order to be a functioning model. Wellington stopped the representation of the Prussians at Waterloo. A model of ranged combat will, almost certainly, neglect the characteristics of musket balls in smoothbore barrels (an interesting thing in itself, at least for early modern rivet counters like myself).

Creation of a miniature world is exactly what we do as a wargamer, and it is possible that Yarwood over-emphasises the disconnect between the original and the wargame. While he does recount a description from a wargame of the Battle of Cambrai, which relates the wargame to the events in 1917, he does emphasise that the wargame world is not the real one. However, it perhaps could be made clearer that there is some relationship between the two. Of course, in much wargaming the relationship is less clear. Many wargames, including my own, are only vaguely related to anything historical. Thus my Abbeys Campaign is based around a highly unlikely historical scenario, a ‘what-if’ that almost certainly would not have happened. My  360 BC campaign, similarly, is perhaps based around the nations and armies what existed at the time, but further than that it does not go. Fuzigore is, of course, an imagi-nation (or rather, an imagi-continent) which has, again, assorted historical armies but they are in a non-historical setting. Nevertheless, there is some sort of mediation of what happens by history. I suppose we have a sliding scale from a recreation of a given battle to something which is a game between ahistorical match ups.

Beyond this, I find in myself the definite inclination, at least recently, to distance my games from the reality of war. There are no casualty figures in the Abbeys Campaign. Shaken markers are blanks. In the Ancients wargames, the markers have casualty figures on them, but I have never been really comfortable with that. Partly I justify this historically and in wargaming terms by suggesting that in battles from ancient to early modern casualties ran, for both sides, at about five per cent of the participants. It was the pursuit phase which caused the casualties on the losing side to mount to around fifteen per cent. This phase is not represented in most wargames; after all, pursuing fleeing troops and chopping them down is not much of a game.

Similarly I have decided to ignore civilians – the Mayor of Whitby came to make his peace with the Spanish. I am also ignoring logistics and the fact that an army, even if it could pay for food and fodder often did not bother and, even if it did, would quickly run through the resources of a given local area. I suspect that most wargames are similar, partly because, while we know that civilians usually suffered in war, we choose to ignore it, but also because it is, again, a fairly boring bit of warfare to be modelled.

As I mentioned last week, I think it would be interesting to evaluate the effects of the different scales in wargaming on miniaturisation. I am a 6 mm gamer, for reasons of space and economy, not because I want to employ massive numbers of toy soldiers on the table. Granted most wargamers use 15 mm and above, but I do wonder what sort of effects, in terms of representation and distortion the different scale have on a game. You can, of course, use the same rule for differing scales, but I would wager a very small amount of money (if a) I had any and b) I were a betting person) that there are some differences, if not in how the game is played then in how it is perceived. But that will have to remain speculation on my part.

So, to summarise, I think Yarwood’s paper is very interesting and significantly captures some aspects of the experience of wargaming. I also think, inevitably, it could be pushed further, but that is the consequence of decent research. I must also look at some of the references and see if they are at all interesting.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

More Maps of Wargamer’s Minds

A number of you will, by now, have read the article to which I am referring, namely:

Yarwood, R., 'Miniaturisation and the Representation of Military Geographies in Recreational Wargaming', Social & Cultural Geography 16, no. 6 (2015), 654-674.

But I shall continue, partly for anyone who does not have access to the article, and partly for my own engagement with it. Yarwood notes three reasons for focussing on historical miniature wargaming. Firstly, it permits an exploration of the concepts and effects of miniaturisation. A scaled down world can block reality and immerse the viewer in a miniature world. A miniature wargame, it is contended allows greater opportunities for self-expression and creativity than a video game. Secondly, as noted, miniature wargames have relatively little input from the military. A miniature wargame is a co-production between commercial manufacturers, individual wargamers, amateur historians and key figures in craft consumption. The representation of warfare differs considerable from that produced by MIME-net, the argument is; amateurs are more likely to admit the impossibility of authenticity. Thirdly, Yarwood is interested in the representation of the military. Scale models are widespread, and often represent the military, yet military spaces (of a sort) are produced by playing with them.

Yarwood notes that a great deal of effort goes into producing terrain, particularly for convention games, and painting the models. He does not explore the effects of the various scales available on miniaturisation. This is perhaps a shame (although, as a major part of the research involved wargame conventions, perhaps the options were a little limited). He does note that there is a sense of enchantment, delight or wonder, a respect for the skill and effort put into creating a game. My experience is that this can even (perhaps bizarrely) be true for solo efforts as well. Or perhaps I am just a self-regarding narcissist.

Playing the game reveals imaginative possibilities in the miniature world. Different versions of ‘what might have been’ are available. A wargame enables an action to be run and re-run. Yarwood notes that Deluze argues that a battle is not one “true” event. There is never an overarching view such as the wargamer obtains.

The wargamer can, therefore order and control the space and time of the wargame, as well as the participants in the miniature world. Time and skill are devoted to collecting and painting the models. Collecting armies is a never-ending process. History is classified, moved from temporality to a fixed order. History is rearranged to suit the needs for the wargamer and the rules, partly at least through the medium of army lists. The world of miniature armies enables a creative self-expression. For example, some wargamers prefer underdog armies. They allow exploration of less known aspects of military history as well as an assertion of individuality. Often these statements of individuality are co-produced, however – a wargamer persuades another to collexct the opposition.

Yarwood then turns to playing the game. Rules, obviously, are important, as is chance. However, wargaming is not just about chance, and rule writers try to balance playability and authenticity. Rules enable different sorts of imaginative possibilities. Ahistorical match-ups are possible, as are tournaments or tests of particular tactics. A wargame starts with various possibilities which resolve into a distinctive narrative. A wargame presents its own ‘what-if’ reality. Wargames resemble not only warfare but other games. Thus, Yarwood argues, wargamers can disengage from uncomfortable aspects of war.

A game is a safe, sanitised simulation of war. Death, mutilation, civilian casualties and so on are represented only as the abstract removal of figures, of addition of counters. War is denatured. Generally, casualty figures are not used – the dead and wounded are simply removed. Death and dying are not widely represented in wargaming. Airfix boxes have heroic scenes. Only Charles Grant’s Battle has a casualty on the cover. Wargaming ‘others’ groups such as civilians, women and children. It presents a male gaze of warfare and focusses on tactics rather than social or political impacts.

That said, wargaming hardly promotes militarisation, being largely sedentary and not the sort of hearty outdoor masculinity that the forces seem to encourage. Playing wargames does not encourage aggression, as video games have been accused of doing. The space of wargaming is removed from reality. Imaginations are used to increase the gap between the game and the reality represented. History happened – a wargame is not going to change that. Some wargamers are uncomfortable with ‘ultra-modern’ games (including me). Fantasy and science-fiction games increase the gap and are, often, much more bloodthirsty than historical wargames.

In wargames we see the spectacle of war. There is a contradiction running through argaming of the juxtaposition of fun and death. In play, death is not final; the figures rise again, live to fight another day. Yarwood quotes Sabin as arguing that, in fact, historical wargaming creates well informed participants with a good understanding of the horrors of war. Wargaming can even be viewed as a sort of remembrance of the past and its futile deaths over causes we cannot recall or understand.

Wargames are, in a sense, political acts. Realities are pushed aside (the models of war distort) and war is presented as a banal cultural activity, rather than a political one. Wargames are, superficially, apolitical; try suggesting that the Waffen SS should not be presented on the table.

Miniaturisation is hybrid. It is a social construct supporting certain political visions of the world, yet it relies on a scalar narrative to live. The models represent the wargamer’s interiority. They transform space and open up imaginative possibilities. Miniature wargames may make geopolitics banal, focussing on only one aspect of reality and ignoring or distorting the rest, but that does not make the meaning of the wargame banal. Everyday experiences, perhaps possibly those of choice, such as hobbies, might indicate how we negotiate broader political discourses, or explore social and cultural boundaries.

As a cry for taking historical miniature wargames a little more seriously than they often are, even by wargamers, I think the paper is very useful and interesting. At least, it relates, mostly, to my experience of wargaming. My current campaign, much delayed as it is, is precisely a separate world, a ‘what if’, granted, but a world where the armies are well fed, the civilians uninvolved and the battles are bloodless. Not only that, but I can justify why this might be the case.

Still, I have run out of room, so my own responses to the article will have to wait. In the meantime, if you have read it and feel I have missed something important (or even apparently trivial) out of my summary, please feel free to point it out. And if you have been piqued by something and haven’t read it, don’t be shy…