Saturday 13 October 2018

Why I Wargame Early Modern

I have, in the past, been slightly curmudgeonly about wargaming both World War One and World War Two. I have also griped about colonial games where the native is mowed down by machine guns. I am not sure I have done so, but I could also grumble about Napoleonic games, mostly because of the impossibility of painting some of the uniforms and the vast numbers of figures needed to make a viable wargame. I might also be able to swipe at the eighteenth century, with their interchangeable forces except for the coat colours. Not only that, but I could dismiss medieval wargaming as too difficult because of painting heraldry and, anyway, battles were settled by the charge of a few knights mowing down the commoners, so it was all a bit pointless.

Now, all I am left with is the ancients period and early modern wargaming. These, of course, are my own personal favourites, and so stand above all criticism, at least by me. And, if your blood pressure is rising (or has risen) because I have denigrated your favourite period, then I do know that all the above comments about the different periods (and ones I have not mentioned) can and should be nuanced. On the other hand, some might be offended that I have not mentioned their own period. Life and people can be odd like that.

Anyway, as the last few posts might have convinced you, I have returned to the ‘early modern’ period. The period name is interesting in itself. It used to be called ‘renaissance’, but then it was pointed out that the Renaissance happened, at best, in the early part of the period and that, in fact, there were several renaissances in Europe. Another name might be thought to be ‘pike and shot’ but the problem there is that the pike was a distinctly European weapon, at least in this period. So the rather ugly term ‘early modern’ was invented or at least came about. It isn’t my fault.

The name ‘early modern’ of course indicates itself a transition from whatever happened before to something recognisably ‘modern’, whatever that means. The early modern period exists largely because it is neither medieval nor modern, although even counting the French Revolution as modern is stretching things a little.

There is a degree of flexibility at the boundaries of the period as well. Lots of people count it as being from 1485 to 1713, but that is a peculiarly British (English?) point of view, running from Bosworth to the end of the War of Spanish Succession. Other views point to 1492 as a start date, when Columbus detected the Americas and the French invaded Italy with lots of cannons. Again, that is a peculiarly Euro-centric view. After all, the native Americans had been merrily waging war on each other for generations prior to being discovered, and, for themselves, did not need discovering at all.

A slightly more viable start date might be 1453, with the Ottoman capture of Constantinople. This is at least an even on a slightly wider canvas; on the other hand, it did not make much material difference to warfare, although it did to the cultural and intellectual life of Europe. Scholars fleeing the siege brought with the Greek texts of various sorts which, between them, gave a fillip to academic life, philosophy and (you could argue) started the trends that led to the Reformations.

The end date is equally contested. 1660 has been mooted, but that is due to the Restoration in Britain. 1688 is another Anglo-centric date. I have mentioned 1713, and a few use 1750 (which seems a little arbitrary; I suspect it is just for neatness). 1721 is, of course, the end of the Northern Wars, while 1792 is the French Revolution. There are arguments as to whether the Revolution marks a discontinuity in warfare or a development thereof. Another mooted date is 1815, and the final defeat of Napoleon and a new legal order in Europe.

All of these dates can be defended and equally contested. I am not going to enter into the endless and rather pointless debates that can ensue. As the Estimable Mrs P observes ‘I thought it was a hobby. My own limits to the period are from 1500-ish to 1700-ish, with a bit of wriggle room at each end. How is that for being decisive?

Anyway, the question of the post is why this period, whatever it is? I suppose there are many answers to that question. A choice like that is not made easily, suddenly and is often more whimsy than anything else. A reason was Stuart Asquith’s articles in Battle / Military Modelling on ECW battles. Another was my gradual realisation that there was quite a lot more to that period than Charles I and Cromwell bashing away at each other, including the surprise of my history teacher that I had even heard of the Thirty Years War. And then later (and still ongoing) realisations as to the connectivity of things in the period.

One of the attractions I find of the early modern period is the general weirdness of it all. It is recognisably the world we live in, except the ideas we live with are somewhat half-formed. It is also a period where, for example, Stone Age societies (or at least, technologies) can battle it out with firearms, with a chance of winning. In fact, you can throw pretty well any sort of troops on the table, except, I suppose tanks and similar, and find a society and culture that used them. Elephants? Check. Rockets? Check. Submarines? The idea was around, as, in fact, so was that of tanks, of course. I dare say that similar things can be argued for other periods; I am not trying to suggest that my period has a monopoly on either weirdness or half-baked technology, but it is an interesting time.

 Finally, I suspect that the era is under-represented in wargaming terms. I have lost count of the number of Napoleonic, World War Two and One and even ancients wargames I have seen at shows or in the blogosphere. Not so many (although not none) in this period. And apart from in my list of armies to rebase, I have not seen some of the interesting match ups that there are in the period. Ming versus Manchu, anyone?


  1. ahh, actually, I have seen several 16thC miniature wargames with scratch built Leonardo da Vinci tanks....

    The wide range of equipment, tactics, cultures etc and the ability to have such a wide mix of styles of warfare at every level from raids and skirmishes through pitched battles to sieges and so on has always been a major attraction for me.

    Back at the turn of the the century a relatively new friend and I sat down to see what else we had in common that we could base a convention game on. He had a small collection of Italian Wars troops, I had a long standing (as opposed to well informed) interest in 16th C Scottish warfare. Given an existing collection of Landsknechts, gendsdarmes and lancers and my preference for Scottish pikes and highlanders, English Bills and Bows, border horse etc, it seemed unlikely that we could find a mutually agreeable historical battle to base the game on but I remembered a reference to French troops and to European mercenaries being deployed to Scotland and it didn't take much digging to find that the siege of Haddington included a place for every unit we had or wanted.

    A wargame era for all seasons.

    1. Ah, yes, the campaign in Scotland for the Rough Wooing is a fascinating exercise in all sorts of things - assorted troops, naval support, logistics, bad politics and diplomatic failures. All it really needs is a Leonardo tank, of course.

      What other period can you have a stone age war band type army take on cannon wand win, after all?

  2. Are there any nice 6mm figures out for Manchu vs Ming and is there a good book in English (or French, I guess) that one could use to design scenarios for the conflict?

    1. For 6 mm there are no specific figures that I am aware of, but I've cobbled together some suitable armies from Colonial / Boxer / Medieval wars ranges. They work for me but would probably give a purist hiccoughs.

      The only book I've found (and not read) is 'The Military Collapse of China's Ming Dynasty' by K. M. Swope. There is a chapter in Parker's 'Global Crisis', and another in Black (ed) 'War in the Early Modern World'. The big battle is the "Chinese Hastings" is the Battle of Shanhai Pass, 1644.