Saturday 9 March 2013

Seven Things I Have Learnt from Wargaming

I thought I might try to ponder what wargaming has meant to me as a learning experience. This is partly based on an idea from Ulrich Betz, in a BJET article a while ago, about what your children (or you) can learn from fantasy role playing games. I confess that the main thing I learnt from playing FRPG was the maxim ‘don’t split the party’.

First, it is important to recall that few beverages are improved in flavour by having a paint brush dipped in them. This might seem very obvious (but then it is the first point), but I have found it quite easy to forget when in the middle of painting a bunch of toy soldiers. I suppose that the human mind, or at least the half of it which is supposed to belong to the male part of the race, is not cut out to multitask, and so consuming a beverage and painting is beyond us, and we somehow combine the two. That said, while the paint may not improve the flavour of any drink, with some of these modern fruit combination squashes on sale these days, a good douse of Vajello’s finest may well improve the appearance,

Secondly, it is important not to believe what historians say we should. All history is something of a reinterpretation of another history, probably disagreeing with it. As a corollary to this, any book claiming startling new discoveries or insights or myth busting or any of these sorts of claims is quite likely not to be worth the paper they are printed on. This is particularly true if the book in question is written by a non-expert, and start off ‘As I was sitting on the sun drenched beach on Crete looking out across the azure sea of the Ancient Mediterranean, I realised that Homer was right and every other interpretation was wrong, and that Troy was, in fact, right here…’. This is neither speculation nor history, but simply nonsense. Nor is it even good journalism.

Thirdly, research into wars, battles, campaigns and the like is, in fact, more than reading the Ospreys on the subject. Now, do not get me wrong, here, I like Ospreys, but we do have to realise that they are very short, not terribly nuanced and based, often on selective information. They have to be. Some Ospreys are very, very useful, and some are not. All in all, you do need to be highly selective when parting with your hard earned beer tokens.

Fourthly, I think I have learnt that you will never reduce the size of your unpainted lead pile. In my case, I have a large plastic box which contains all the unpainted lead I own. Except for the armies which are not in that box, because all it contains are my unpainted ancient armies, so the renaissance ones are in the cupboard. And there are probably a few more hanging around in other boxes. My current project is aimed at painting all the ancient figures which I currently own. It should take a decade or two. Furthermore, in order to make armies out of these figures, I will, of course, need to buy some more to fill in the gaps. For example, I recently painted some chariot bases to double the ancient British army. I now have sufficient to place two standard PM: SPQR ancient British armies on the table at the same time. But when I finished them, I realised that I could only just manage this, and if one side rolled for extra chariots, I would be stuck. So more are needed. Finishing is not in sight.

Fifthly, I have realised that reading widely is the only way to tackle wargame fatigue. I am sure you know what I mean. You look at your massed armies and think ‘do I really want another battle with this lot’. You (and I) get stale and staid. Reading something, even if it is out of period, can give you fresh ideas and comparisons, new vision and impetus. So I read the Greek and Roman historians, interleaved with some philosophy, ethics and early modern and medieval stuff. How else do you think I manage burbling on here on a weekly basis?

Sixthly, it is quite possible to wargame entirely happily on your own. I suspect that more wargamers do this than we imagine. Certainly the solo wargaming Yahoo! Group is a far size now, and it seems to keep growing. Furthermore, I think that most wargamers spend much more time planning, reading books, rules and army lists and particularly painting than actually putting figures on the table and ‘having a battle’. As an extension of this, I also think that few people, although they may pay lip service to campaigns and how wonderful they are, actually settle down an fight one out. Many historical campaigns were, after all, settled (more or less) on a single battle. Why not cut to the chase and miss out all the boring map bits?

Finally, a few tips about running your own wargame blog. Mostly, these seem to be used for demonstrating the wonders of the wargamer’s own wargaming life, in painting wondrous figures in practically no time at all, putting on amazing battles with knife edge results which all involved agree was the best experience since the last one, or explaining how many figures have been painted, based and, of course, purchased at the most recent show (or required an articulated lorry to deliver, and even then one of the axles was bent). If you can compete with this, and most of us cannot, then do not bother writing a blog about your wargaming activities. You will only be read by a handful of people, particularly if you insist on considering the ethics and philosophy of wargaming, and not proclaiming your painting skills, ability with a camera, and luck with the dice from the rooftops.

And on that note I shall shut up, for the time being anyway, and await other people’s comments, if anyone does actually read this…


  1. Interesting post, as ever. The last paragraph was a bit downbeat, I thought. It depends why you are writing the blog - if, like most bloggers, you are doing it because it is an enjoyable activity and it gives somewhere to record stuff that would just be lost, then anyone who reads it is a bonus - often a surprise bonus. If you're consciously writing for an audience who you believe require to be told something, then you can be disappointed, I agree.

    I enjoy your blog very much, just as it is. I don't imagine you would change it to increase its mass appeal, and you might well lose a few followers if you did.

    If you get fed up with it, then you can take a break or pack it in as you wish - you can even change it if you want to - but I think it's important to avoid looking over your shoulder or using words like "compete"! It could be that some of the more gripping blogs are written by guys who are easily pleased - who knows?

    Keep up the good work - please. Tony

  2. Hi,

    I suppose the look of slightly grim faced irony didn't come over in the text, and I refuse to sink to the level of using emoticons...

    Anyway, the blog is for my own pursuit of my own slightly odd objectives, and I've got no intention of stopping any time soon. But I do need occasional pointed comments to spark new ideas, so keep them coming.

    1. I believe my irony detector is alive and well. My experience with my own daft blog is that sometimes (not often) I write something I'm quite pleased with, and get no comments and hardly any hits, but a quick, easy-option photo of a new painted unit will get interest and comments in plenty. I guess people are attracted by the obvious end of the hobby - I have become pretty much relaxed about the fact that the world doesn't give tuppence for my considered views on the Ludic Fallacy and suchlike, and the world is probably quite correct, at that. Doesn't matter - I still enjoyed writing it!

      As often as not, I find it valuable to be forced into the discipline of writing down my thoughts - it puts a linear coherence into them which, as often as not, clarifies to me what it was I was thinking in the first place. There is a slight risk that the aura of published competence which a blog can impart will sometimes encourage us to take ourselves seriously.

      Not very often, though - and not for long. A former boss of mine used to have a fine phrase about "erecting a silk umbrella over a midden".

      Onward and upward. If we can't win them all, let's at least scrape the occasional no-scoring draw.

    2. Someone once said 'how can I know what I think unless I write it down?'

      It fits me.

      At one point I was considering pacifism, and someone asked me 'how can you be a pacifist and a wargamer?'

      Good question, I thought. To some extent the blog is an occasional effort to answer it.

      Still, I doubt if this blog with have an air of competence about it. Like Xerog and Nierev, I'm sure I keep failing the command rolls...

  3. The sixthly fits me to a T. What I have learnt from gaming is that I enjoy reading history, probably more than gaming. I started solo gaming mainly as I had not gamed much for 10 years, had 2 small children, and had lots of figures that I felt sorry for.

    Blogging. As you state - blog for your own reasons, not to be popular. Unless the reason is to be popular, then that is as you say lots of time and effort!

    I don't like the idea of emoticons, but use them sparingly anyway. My prose always seems to come across cold and dispassionate (as my wife and others tell me). It is probably from a lifetime of work spent writing reports, briefing notes, plans, options analysis etc. I find emoticons help me out.

    1. Ah, yes. sometime I must explore this idea of feeling sorry for your toy soldiers, and so getting them out just to make them feel better.

      Actually, the original post was written when I was struggling, wargame wise, something along the lines of 'why am I painting yet another batch of Roman Auxillia?'.

      Mrs P., who has had to put up with this sort of thing for years, spotted the problem and said 'why don't you have a battle?, so I did.

      And I'm better now. Honest.

    2. I don't feel sorry for just toy soldiers - I rearrange stacks of plates and bowls so that the ones on the bottom get a chance to be used. My dad did this as well so it is genetic, habit or family tradition...

      I gave up on painting years ago - I don't mind it, but it is the least interesting part of the hobby for me - and focus on playing and reading history.

    3. I think that my painting is so, um idiosyncratic that I'd never be able to get someone else to do the job so badly that they'd fit in with what I've already got...

  4. A fine post, Mr Polemarch (if that is indeed your real name...).

    Your second, third, fourth, sixth and seventh lessons in particular struck chords with me.

    I will disagree with you on emoticons though - I have come to find them quite useful over time. My sense of humour does not always translate well into blogger comments, facebook notes, quick and cheerful emails and the like, so I have learned that it can be diplomatic to put a smiley in here or there. They also make a welcome change from the exclamation mark, which I now overuse terribly online, but that is another story.

    I agree with Shaun and MSFoy above, as well: blogs should be done for yourself. It's a chance to write a few things down, order some thoughts, take the odd photograph (or not), make some hobby notes, motivate (or demotivate) yourself by setting goals, assessing what you have/ have not done, keep your hand in at reviewing games / books and so on.

    I'm pleasantly surprised that anyone bothers to reads my drivel, and if people take the time to comment, it's even better.

    As I've said here before, I really enjoy your posts, and the web would be poorer without them.


    1. Well, the blog is called Polemarch, but it isn't my real name...

      I do think that the blog is for my own personal witterings. If anyone else is interested then it is a bonus. The blog started as a way to try to document my ideas with respect to rules for ancient Greeks, but kind of drifted in subject matter.

      Still, it is great if anyone does read, and better if they comment. I need ideas for future posts, but I'm not planning one about the use of emoticons...

    2. A blog that drifts in subject matter is a rare blog indeed. When I started mine, it had a specific focus; which then drifted...

    3. True, but I didn't expect to drift quite as far as I have done.

      After all, there must be few blogs out there which have linked quantum mechanics and writing wargame rules...

    4. With respect, that may be one of those "do you realise that you wrote that out loud?" moments.

      A blog for personal witterings is an excellent thing, and I think all contributors here have agreed that readers are a bonus but a potentially valuable one.

      If at any time any of us finds that - even a teensy bit - we are writing a blog to comfort ourselves over how exquisitely clever we are, that might be an example of a good time to stop and have a think about it.

    5. Well, the post in question was actually about the concept of elegance in rules, and QM was an example of how elegance can vary even within a given system and its descriptors.

      So I really wasn't trying to be pretentious. It may, of course, have come out that way, but that would be an unintended consequence.

      My vision, such as it is for the blog, is something akin to 'Socratic dialog', where questions can be asked, and some sort of answer groped for, in conversation with others of different views; of course, final answers are usually never to be found, so the blog could be fairly endless, but as with Socrates, we might learn something along the way.