Saturday 8 July 2023

Advanced War Games

Just when you thought it was safe to get back into the nostalgic water, along comes another wave, this time

Featherstone, D., Donald Featherstone’s Advanced War Games, History of Wargames Project 2022

Strictly speaking, for me, this is not a trip down memory lane, as I had never read it before. First published in 1969, it is subtitled Ideas for Wargaming and, as with most of Featherstone’s books (or the ones I have read) that is an accurate description of the contents.

To dispose of the negative points first. The book is clearly created in the HoW project using optical character recognition. The problem is that sometimes OCR doesn’t. That is, it does not recognise characters and so you occasionally get some garbage. Unless the documents are checked (that is, proofread) the garbage gets into print, and so it is here with occasional gibberish reproduced. I have railed before about proofreading. It is really not that difficult and does not take that long. I suspect that the problem is more along the lines that the computer is always right more than anything else.

Anyway, the book comes in various sections – moving, firing, morale, mêléeing, ideas of automated war-gaming, solo and multi-player wargames, creation of armies, and improving wargaming. As usual, there is a welter of ideas, some incompatible, mostly inventive, some requiring the construction of assorted odd-shaped devices, and others relying on extensive tables. In short, a snapshot of what inventive and creative wargamers were doing in the 1960s.

As you might expect, some of the ideas have worn better than others. The automated wargaming ideas may well be rather outdated, and the arrival of the personal computer has probably made them more obsolete than might otherwise have been expected. On the other hand, they do point to issues and problems that are still extant in the world of wargaming. For example, the Timms War-games Computer (p 125 – 35) might not be to everyone’s taste, requiring a large quantity of file cards, paper clips, and preparation, but it was designed to address a specific problem which is still around, that of including all the various factors which contribute to the outcome of a battle or action within one: morale, esprit de corps, training, equipment, physical state, command, leadership and so on.

As the perpetrator of some sets of wargame rules, this is still a problem. A long time ago now I wrote a post about complexity. It is still a puzzle. In Polemos: SPQR the complexity is contained in the 20 or so factors for combat. I contended then, and still do, that DBA is just as complex, but the complexity is in the combat outcomes rather than the combat factors. I suppose the bottom line is that combat is complex, and various attempts at automation, whether it be the Timms computer, wargames rules as software or anything else is probably not going to solve that.

Another example is the Miles Rounders (p 137 – 143). These devices are aimed at giving the outcome of a modern tank combat at the flick of a finger. They consist of various round devices with two layers so that the wargamer can rotate the lower level to look at the specific situation, roll a die and obtain an outcome. Neat idea but, on the whole, they do not seem to have caught on.

Still, there is a lot of interesting stuff here; as I said, a lot of problems which are still extant in wargaming. Another example would be: what do we do about civilians? This is a matter of taste, of course, but somehow a method needs to be decided upon whether that is to ignore them or include them as participants, targets, or potential resistance fighters. This varies as the game varies.

I suppose one thing we get from Featherstone’s writing is that he was a bit of a wargaming butterfly. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, we all do it. But there are loads of ideas here, as in his other books, some of which are a bit underdeveloped. Now, that is, as a wargame writer, perhaps the best outcome. The idea is to stimulate the imagination and creativity of another wargamer (the reader), not to lay down specific rules and procedures for every situation and outcome. In today’s world that might be a bit more difficult than in the 1960s when the culture was more free-wheeling than it is, perhaps, now.

The book, therefore, does what it says on the (sub-)tin. It provides ideas for wargaming, to take, leave or develop as the reader wishes. It also fleshed out some of Featherstone’s other writings. For example, in Wargaming Campaigns there is a chapter of the French and Indian War where the French are mainly a single regiment a side, the Hampshires for the British (37th Foot) and the Royal Rousillon Regiment (37th Foot) for the French. Here (p 176-7) the actual structure of these forces is described. Each battalion formed of around 200 Spencer Smith figures. It must have looked, en mass, spectacular.

There are also contained some of the more standard things of wargaming that are often neglected in favour of a game. Couriers are given a page, the weather is discussed, the use of mercenaries gets a mention as do logistics and engineering problems. In short, there are a lot of ideas, pointers towards other things and, as the avid reader of Featherstone’s books will have noted, concepts that are repeated and fleshed out in other books, perhaps most notably the chapter on solo wargaming.

It is easy to dismiss these sorts of works as of only historical interest. After all, Featherstone, as I have complained, was a child of his age. More recent historiography has cast some doubt, perhaps, on the veracity of some of the military history he based his wargames around. He may also suffer a bit from the sort of colonialism that was perhaps still around in the days of rapid decolonisation. I am not sure. But the book as a whole is useful, not least as a pointer to some of the issues we still have to face today in reducing a real battle to a wargame table.

1 comment:

  1. Proofreader here.
    11th paragraph, 4th line, 2nd usage of "French"-substitute "forces"?
    11th paragraph, 7th line, "en mass" should be "en masse"

    Where did I put that petard? :D