A long, long time ago, I wrote something about how wargames are framed. As I recall, this was based around some comments by Gadmaer which focussed on how paintings and plays, in particular, ‘frame’ the action. That is, there is on stage action, and off stage. Until recently, for example, most rapes and murders in plays were committed off stage. On stage we see the consequences of the activities both on and off stage.
All of this is, I think, still true. In film and television programmes too, much activity takes place off screen. It might be represented in flash-back in some examples, and of course the late modern fascination with the pornography of violence, let alone plain pornography, means that often the rapes and murders, sex scenes and so on are presented to us in glorious technicolour.
The second point therefore is that the framing is done in both space and time, and is informed by the culture of the day. The murders in Shakespeare, for example, are usually off stage. In the average cop film, they are in frame. We might consider that this is something to do with the technical ability to show someone being killed who isn’t being killed, but it is also to do with the acceptability of the scene in the first place. Culture ultimately, I think, trumps what is technically feasible.
A wargame table obviously operates as a frame. I was reminded of this when taking photographs of the end of the Guisbrough battle. As I mentioned when I wrote about setting the battle field up, it is framed in space, and consciously so. The ruined Priory is off the field. The hills and woods to the south of the battle field are off table. Partly this is because I could not find a suitable representation of the Priory. If I could, I probably would have given it a go. Partly, in the case of the hills and woods, it was because I did not want to clutter the actual battlefield any more. The hills and wood would, I think, not have added much to the action.
Perhaps a little more subtle than the geographical framing is the temporal. A wargame is, by necessity, a linear time frame. One thing happens and then the next thing. Cause and effect are firmly entrenched. I have not hear of too many wargames which play with the linear nature of time. Modern novels, of course, do so from time to time. For example, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Gate of Angels starts in the middle and works both backwards and forwards. I have not heard of any wargames that do so.
Nevertheless, a wargame does frame the time. We focus on the battle. We might pay lip service to what has gone before. Articles in wargame magazines often frame the battle in this way – starting from the political situation, the war, the campaign and the moves leading up to the action. But the bulk of the article, the bulk of what we, as wargamers, are interested in is the battle itself – the orders of battle, terrain, deployment, plans and movements. We, therefore, frame the battle in a certain way.
My narrative style of wargame campaigns is, of course, doing the same thing. I have given up on the idea of plotting map moves in detail, and of keeping track of logistics and reinforcements. These things can, of course, add a great deal to the game, but I have opted to frame my wargames in a certain way, skipping over the detail and focussing on the battle field activities. This might, of course, offend the purist but, I suspect, most honest reflection by wargamers would admit that this is more or less what everyone does. A pick up scenario is but one manifestation of the same thing; I’m just trying to connect mine a little bit.
The third thing we do, of course, is miniaturise the whole thing. As mentioned in my discussion of Yarwood’s paper a few weeks ago, miniaturisation enables us to overlook the whole battlefield. In fact, of course, looking at a map of a campaign is doing the same thing. Most generals do not have this advantage. I believe it was General Slim who remarked that the British army fought its battles on the side of a hill, in the pouring rain, at a point where two maps met. As wargamers, and, for that matter, consumers of military history, we get an overview of a miniaturised world.
As I think I noted before, there is also surely an effect of the degree of miniaturisation. While all wargame rules in fact distort the figure to ground scale, there is a limit to what we can get away with before it starts to look a bit silly. A representation of, say, Waterloo on a six foot by four foot table with 54 mm toy soldiers might push credibility for some people. Similarly, a representation of Kursk with 15 mm tanks on an eight by four table might strain some credibility in some quarters. There are limits to what we seem to be able to get away with, and I am starting to think that those limits are aesthetic rather than anything else.
Normally, of course, we get away with the credulity strain by scenario-ising the action, making it part of the whole. Our 54 mm game becomes the defence of Hougoumont. This fits into the overall narrative of the battle of Waterloo. Our level of miniaturisation has led us to frame the wargame temporally and spatially in a certain way. In fact, we have given up the advantage of miniaturisation, to some extent, as we can no longer gain an overview of the whole battle, just this part of it. But this yielding of overview is to make a playable game which we can believe.
There are, then, lots of interacting factors which go together to make up a wargame. Miniaturisation is but one of them. Temporal and spatial framing are others. Even though for most people most of the time these factors are not explicitly considered (‘Just put the stuff on the table and play!’) the look and feel of the wargame is, at the end of the day, what counts.