Saturday 12 March 2011

Historical Wargaming

One of the main discourses in historical wargaming is, of course, the idea that a wargame can have any relationship to history. If this claim bears no scrutiny, then we really are playing with toy soldiers in fantasy worlds.

I suppose that there are several ways in which historical wargaming does bear a relation to the real, historical world. Firstly, they model soldiers are historically accurate. By this I mean that the uniforms, weapons and other equipment are accurate representations of the soldiers of the time claimed to be represented. Thus, we would expect that if we travelled back in a time machine and waved a well painted figure of the Imperial Guard under Napoleon’s nose, he would recognise it as such.

Secondly, the terrains of our battles resemble those of the battles of the historical era. Obviously, I’m considering historical match ups here, not Zulu vs. Aztec ahistorical tournament games. Thus, to keep up the Napoleonic link, our battle of Waterloo would need representations of Hougomont, the ridge and so on. There has to be both a resemblance of the troops and the terrain to give a historical wargame.

I do not mean that we always have to slavishly follow only real battles, but that there must be some ill-defined “historical feel” to the game. For example, a fictional battle set in Normandy in 1944 between the British and Germans would ‘feel’ wrong if fought on wide open spaces with Chieftain tanks. Thick hedgerows and Churchills should be the order of the day.

The third element is related to this, and is about the units our model soldiers are grouped in. It would feel strange to find Macedonian pike deployed as skirmishers, as it would to encounter Tommies in Normandy lined up shoulder to shoulder. We expect our models to represent not only themselves – that is the real soldiers – but also the configurations they found themselves in, the squad, platoon, company, battalion, regiment and so on.

The next element concerns the rules. Again, there is an expectation that, for example, Napoleonic musketry is not like taking a machine gun to a football crowd. There is an assumption that the results, however obtained, will bear some resemblance to the fact that while a musket volley could be damaging, it was not usually decisive by itself. Similarly, we expect that infantry charge in flank by cavalry will generally come off second best, and so on. So the rules have to conform to some conception of the warfare of the period they are trying to represent.

This discourse of historical wargaming thus covers the models, terrain, units and rules.
The next question is along the lines of how much can we expect from each element in this set? Clearly, accuracy per se declines as the centuries roll back. Therefore, we have to ask how historical is historical?

This is where things get a little flaky. We can, of course, still argue that our models and terrain are as historically accurate as possible. There may be some discussion over what colour tunics Roman legionaries wore, or the designs on hoplite shields, but in general, as far as knowledge goes, we can be accurate. But the problem comes with the units and rules. What do we mean here by historical?

Now, we get into all sorts of problems. For example, DBR is rightly criticised for allowing or encouraging ahistorical deployment. But I can’t think of a rule mechanism which would force a wargamer into a historical deployment. Encouraging ahistorical deployment is clearly a bad thing and may indicate some missing element to the rules, but most wargames I’ve seen don’t do, for example, reserves. I suspect that from a professional soldier’s viewpoint, most wargames resemble 7 year old boys’ football games where all 22 players chase the ball. Without using some clunky mechanisms I think it would be hard to make players keep reserves. What we need is a more subtle mechanism to persuade players to keep reserves, but that is very hard to achieve, in my judgement.
So the rule element is probably the hardest to make historical. The combination of poor or non-existent knowledge, complex activities both in real life and around the wargames table and the necessary compromises of the tabletop activity make the whole activity of rule writing a precarious one.

I suppose that is why, as opposed to some recent rule sets, I’m trying to encourage people to discuss and experiment with Polemos: Imperial Rome, when it sees the light of day. I’m not claiming that my interpretation is right, or the best, or that the game is subtly balanced in ways the players wouldn’t understand. But it is the rules that seem to make the wargame (as opposed to the models) historical.

On the other hand, we do make claims about the historicity of our wargames. We expect a certain conformity to historical outcomes of battles, and a certain logicality in the process of achieving those outcomes. Going back to Lonergan’s Insight, it is these judgements of our common sense, in the situation of the wargame, which makes us agree or disagree that the wargame is historical or not. If the cry often goes up “that wouldn’t’ve happened”, then perhaps historicity is compromised.

Where does this leave us? We have to rely on our readings and interpretations of history, plus our judgement and logic in deciding how the discourse of historical wargaming is determined. In writing rules we need all of that, plus the ability to abstract the historical evidence into a set of mechanics that can apply to any possible situation. That, I submit, is difficult, and is why so many rule sets don’t seem to work that well for what they are designed to do.


  1. I agree with your position(s), figuures, scenary and formations occur but to make the figures behave like soliders of the period is difficult as people generally do not like to loose. I have palyed with many sets of rules over many periods and the rules that provide values for the troopies are by far the more popular, but we all not that battles of equals generally did not occur. The whole aim of the "strategic" battle was to avoid this situation - it should my most at your least, we are here to win not fight an equal battle. We need to ability to move troops strategically around the battlefield as a reserve and several sets of rules do this sort of. And once the troops are strategically placed we go tactical (the footy game). But alas this set of rules are not quite here yet

  2. Thanks for your comments, and I think I agree.

    The problem is somewhere in the region of command and control acting at an appropriate level, and that C&C in real life is very different from that on the wargame table. So we land up with a tactical system trying to make grand tactical or semi-strategic moves, and somehow it just doesn't work.