Saturday 21 January 2023

Wargame Heresy

I hope you are in a forgiving mood, because I think I might be about to commit the unforgivable sin of a wargamer, and that is to say that I am not, in fact, that keen on one of Featherstone’s books. Before you rush off to join the lynch mob, please note that I live in a relatively inaccessible and overlooked part of the country, in a small village, where the lamp posts are not strong enough to support the requisite rope and noose arrangement which is traditional in these things. Additionally, it being the middle of winter, lighting a bonfire might be a bit hard, because most of the available wood has been collected by the peasants to warm their toes (and other appendages).

So, what has caused this outburst? What could I possibly say that might occasion a mob of outraged wargamers descending on the village where I live? (If you do come, try one of the local hostelries; they serve a decent pint and good food).

As you know, I have been reading through the classic wargame library, and I have, finally, made my way to:

Donald Featherstone’s Wargaming Campaigns (ed. John Curry, History of Wargaming Project, 2013).

Perhaps the reason for my relative disappointment in the book was my fond memories of it from my teenage years. I frequently borrowed it from the library. It was a tome I perused in great detail, and attempted to use in my own games. I discovered, after some experimentation, that I could repurpose the content to match my figure collection, and there was even an English Civil War campaign included.

I think the reason for my less-than-impressedness with the work is that it has not really aged well. To be fair, it was first published in 1970 and things, including historiography, have moved on rather in the fifty or so years since. The most pressing example is in the introduction to the Vikings, the first potted campaign chapter (p. 93). ‘… they wore iron helmets sometimes fitted with horns or raven’s wings…’ No, I believe that they did not. The paragraph on berserkers is similarly, I think, out of date.

I think the problem here is relying on Victorian historiography, which I suppose was still fairly rife in the 1960s. It takes a while for academic revaluations to permeate popular history, particularly, I think, military history. These sorts of statements, however, are simply untrue by today’s measures.

I am not sure that reliance on out-of-date historiography is my main problem with the book. The main cause of relative disappointment is that the campaigns are short, mostly on a very small scale and, in some cases, resolved by a single action. This seems to me to be rather an abrogation of the phrase ‘wargame campaign’.

Now I grant that one of the problems with wargame campaigns is that the scope often suggests that a single wargame can determine the outcome. However, that, in my view, is something to be worked against. Why go to all that trouble for a single wargame? I admit that my Jersey Boys campaign admitted only three actions, one of which was very small, which might not be a great return on investment, but a single action is surely even worse.

Another irritation was the constant intrusion of tactical rules into the campaign scenarios. This might have been appropriate in 1970, I suppose, but it did rather annoy me after a while. This issue, however, is probably more of a matter of taste than anything else. On the other hand, wargaming has moved on rather from singly mounted figures and bang-you-are-dead (except for a saving throw) rules. I know there are exceptions to that, but really I think that of all the older books I have read time has treated it least kindly.

That is not to say that the book is without merits, of course. The enthusiasm is there, as ever with Featherstone’s works. The campaigns have potential, even as one-off game scenarios rather than as wargame campaigns in their own right. There are some good ideas. I particularly liked the description of the English Civil War club project, where the only forces permitted to be deployed were those of the players who actually turned up. It makes an important point, I think, in these days of army lists and careful selection of units: historical commanders had little or no control over the constitution of their army.

Perhaps the fault is mine. I recalled this book with great affection, but I last read it over thirty years ago. Maybe distance in time had graced it with a rose-coloured glow that it did not deserve at the time. Or, perhaps, by comparison with other works on wargame campaigns, such as Bath’s ‘Setting Up….’ its scope and aim feel to be a bit diminished. The aim is a variety of periods from medieval to World War Two. Bath’s aim was an imaginary world. Maybe I veer towards the latter.

The early chapters are quite useful still, at least in posing the questions that aspiring wargame campaigners have to tackle, such as movement, lines of communication, and so forth. The solutions may or may not be as useful; as with so many things, a lot depends on what you want to achieve and how you intend to get there. And as I said the scenarios, albeit more suited to a single wargame than what I would call a campaign, are helpful.

So far as I can tell this work more or less finishes my wander down memory lane. Some other works have escaped, of course, including Grant’s books, The War Game, The Ancient Wargame, and Wargame Tactics. The first two were good fun, and the latter was a very good book, but I’ve not seen it for years at an impoverished wargamer’s price.

So the wander down my teenage wargames reading comes to a close. It was fun, even though the last book of the sequence was less inspiring than the others. That, I suppose, is the cost of being a (tiny) bit older.


  1. Yes, often have mixed feelings revisiting those early touchstones. Is it better to just remember them as they were?

    1. It can sometimes feel like it. Actually, on further reflection, it is not that bad, but it does not feel like it really is about campaigns, more sort of extended battles and tactics. Not much strategy, really.

  2. Not to worry, we are bringing our own scaffold!

  3. I think we've come a very long way since the pioneering days of wargaming. Volley and Bayonet was hated by many as only needing minimal numbers of figures, but it was streets ahead of DF's original ideas. A unit is a marker at the end of the day. How much you want to suspend disbelief is up to players. As usual, as with any human endeavour, collective opinions tend to shape the actual play - at least now we have enough independence to ignore 'experts' as much as possible and wargame our own way.

    1. It may be that you'll be joining me on the top of the heretic burning pyre...
      But yes, different ideas take a bit of embedding and getting used to. DBA was a similar hiccough for some, I think. Suspension of disbelief, or what to sacrifice for a good game is an interesting question as weel It is what makes some of these older works interesting, to see what assumptions and compromises lie behind them.

    2. Disappointingly I am old enough enough to remember wargaming in the early seventies. We would deploy our units on the table and play out an encounter. I think what the admittedly misnamed Wargames Campaigns did was introduce us to the possibility of pre battle manouevre. And maps that allowed hidden approaches or deployment. One small step for mankind, one, well frankly, one small step for mankind.

    3. Thank you. I don't feel so bad about it now. I suppose DF's view of a campaign was from below - an expansion of the wargame table, while Bath's was from above - imagi-nations. Either work, of course, and expand horizons. But memory plays tricks and I was a bit downcast by re-reading it. Mind you, the battle / campaign reports are still fresh as ever, though.