Saturday 18 January 2014

Communities of Wargamers

It is actually quite interesting to ponder the various communities of wargaming. At least, I find it so, and as I am the one writing the blog, the rest of you will simply have to put up with it. But the Fact is that communities of practice come with histories and those histories are, by the nature of the world, contingent. Things could have been different.

Now, I am not about to launch on a history of wargaming. I do not have the time, skills or, to be perfectly honest, that much interest in it. Wargaming is a hobby; it might be of interest to sociologists or social historians, but I am, in fact, a wargamer. Such sociological studies or histories may be of some peripheral interest to me, but I am not the one to create them.

Nevertheless, a quick perusal of wargame blogs do show some pervasive influences. The influence of, say, Don Featherstone is widespread. Most blogs mention him at some point, or one of his books. And that was the case even before he died.

Another unsung hero of the hobby is whoever invented the six sided die. Without such a tool how on earth could we actually wargame. I know that several rule sets use more esoteric die shapes, often imported from the world of role playing games, but the six sided die is, as it were, the workhorse. Many rules use only those die.

What is, then, the influence over the game of the shape of the die? It does limit, in some way, the possible outcomes of the question which is put to it. I mean, a simple sort of question would be ‘hit or miss’? You have six options to map onto these two, on a single D6 roll. Of course, you can throw two dice and increase the options, or you can throw matched pairs of dice and subtract one from the other. By these options you massively increase you range of outcomes, but those outcomes are still dictated by the shape of the dice.

It is an interesting question as to how we actually arrived at this point. My guess is that early wargames (or rather wargamers) simply purloined six sided dice from, say, Monopoly games or similar. The six sided die is pervasive because it was available. It is, of course, so widely available because it is easy to make, I suppose.

Similarly, the early wargames were often made up of Airfix figures. I started with such, and recall my surprise when I encountered in, I think, Tony Bath’s Battles With Model Soldiers an Airfix Plains Indian chieftain figure on a horse masquerading as Carthaginian light cavalry. Charles Grant’s Battle was full of Airfix WWII figures, and so on. I confess to having been somewhat startled recently at my local gardening emporium to discover they have started to stock Airfix kits and figures again. I was sorely tempted, of course, but I have quite sufficient wargame projects going n at the moment, however.

Clearly, though, even the “big names” of early wargaming were not above pressing suitable (or even marginally suitable) figures into use. Without Airfix plastic figures could wargaming have got the boost it did? I am not going to attempt to answer that question, but it might be worth pondering. Furthermore, if, for example, Airfix had actually managed to produce, say, English Civil War figures, might the relative popularity of the period be greater than it is now?

All of these factors, and many more besides, all feed into the history of the wargaming community (or communities) as they are now. We do, as a hobby, have a history. As a result, we have some aspects of the hobby which are, to use a rather charged word, rituals. Again, a swift perusal around the blogs indicates that the ritual of attending a wargame show is quite common. I confess, I hardly go to shows these days, because living next door to nowhere rather precludes attending, but when I lived nearer to civilisation I did usually go to one or two a year.

But why?

I suggested above that wargame shows are something of a ritual, and I think they are. You get to meet people. You get to put faces to traders and, in modern times, faces to bloggers. You see the latest trends, the latest releases, try out some games for yourself, and, of course, see what is becoming trendy. The overlap of this and, say, scientific conferences that I used to attend is quite significant, I think. It is about creating and maintaining a wargaming community, probably inducting new members into it as well.

Some of the blog reports of shows I have seen bear a startling literary resemblance to Pilgrim’s Progress – a group set out, have adventures on the way, tell each other tall stories and arrive at the destination. At that point, of course, the tall stories carry on, and lots of purchases are made. Mind you, judging by the quantity of pilgrim badges you could buy in medieval Canterbury, some things clearly do not change that much.

The point, if point there be, of this ramble is that the community of wargamers, in its broad sense, is informed by this sort of history. I have only picked out a few bits and pieces, more or less at random, to indicate the sorts of contingencies which make up the hobby as we know it today. But the claim I would make is that it could have been a different hobby, if things had turned out differently.

Thus, I would claim that wargaming has a history, which is contingent, and which shapes the sort of thing that wargaming in the present is. This does not mean that wargaming in the future is not going to evolve, or even take some startling jumps in content and process, but that it will still, in all likelihood, be within the contingent history which will remain behind it.


  1. Given that 6 sided dice, in their current configutation of a cube with dots, are literally prehistoric in design, form and in a broad sense, use, it is not surprising that they were eventually adopted by wargamers. HG Wells did try flipping a coin to add a random element to deciding hand to hand combat but fell back on calculation finding the coin to be too luck dependent and Shambattle in tbe 20's used a spinner to do the same job but as we know, by the 1950's dice were commonly used.

    Similarly long before Airfix provided their cornucopia of figures, wargaming was rapidly spreading using either 'standard size aka 54mm' toy soldiers which were widely available in several periods, prepainted, or flats or the new tiny 20 & 30mm metal figures which had to be ordered.

    It seemd to me that as integral as airfix and dice are to the hobby as many of us came to know it, they are just a superficial aspect of one phase of it and not an essential part of the core or idea. Wargaming would not be exactly the way we know it without them but it would be recognizably the hobby if we were still using spinners and 54mm figures.

    Rather interesting to me is that none of the early wargames that I've seen, from before say the 1950's, were 'historical wargames'. Instead, they were based on contemporary warfare with no outside context. When I was introduced to the hobby historical and wargaming were generally treated as synonymous apart from those playing fantasy games. There has always been an undercurrent of fictional backgrounds, competition games and other non contextual games but usually without acknowledgement of the separation from actual history. I have been slowly exploring ths older aspect of the hobby overtly. At what part does a hobby split become two (or more) separate hobbies with a shared history?

    1. Of course Airfix and six sided dice are, in some sense, contingent, but I'm not really sure if the hobby would have spread so quickly without them, or some sort of similar product. As it is, we had Airfix and dice, and I do suspect that the former rather defined the periods of interest for the hobby once they got going.

      I'm not sure about the advent of historical wargaming; history as we know it today is, after all, an invention of the 19th century. Before that most history was either moral philosophy or current events, so perhaps it is understandable that wargaming took a while to catch up.

      At what point does a hobby split? Good question. To some extent I guess it never actually splits as it is always possible to transfer from one community to another, but perhaps the overlap falls below a critical number of people doing so to keep them roughly in step?

  2. Interesting post, as ever. I am interested in some of the behavioural aspects of communities - firstly, a lot of communities seem to exist primarily to demonstrate their rejection (or exclusion) of non-members (golf clubs seem to exist primarily to tell people what they can wear while drinking, and to restrict where everyone can park their cars, and there is a big stake in excluding people that don't match the entrance requirements). Secondly, though in times of collective danger they may pull together and have common aims, this behaviour seems to change once their survival is not an issue, and the members of some communities invent detailed reasons to subdivide into smaller "chapels" - subcommunities? My favourite hobbyhorse group is that of jazz fans who - once the existence and validity of jazz is established - then fall out over factions and leading issues such as "that lot over there are enjoying the wrong stuff" and "what i listen to is the only true jazz". A particularly interesting aspect of this is that the splintering, name calling and umbrella-rattling has caused all the British jazz radio stations to close down, since the advertisers couldn't handle all the strife. That wasn't awfully smart was it?

    Wargamers have been known to do this as well - I have been an outcast for years because my battlefields are usually covered in hexagons, which are - to quote a correspondent - the spawn of the devil. Right. I probably also choose to ignore a pile of guys because they are blind followers of everything the Perry twins are involved with, or do something else which i can't quite identify with. The important point is - if it came to a war, I'd pitch in on their side. I take a pride in the broad church which is wargaming, but please don't anybody bother irritating me with their views on what i do myself….

    Less contentiously, I like the consideration of the 6-sided die. I have a bit of a resistance to 20-sided decimal dice, because they tend to roll for ever, and sometimes it is not clear if they have settled properly. True luxury is a special 6-sided die - Commands & Colors dice are good fun, and I used to be fascinated by the special dice required for Von Reisswitz's Kriegspiel game. I'm not sure why this is so appealing, but I do know that once you have used customised dice, the chore of remembering that a 4 is a hit unless the target is in cover becomes worse than any sensible consideration might suggest.

    1. I do think that one of the functions of communities seems to be that of identifying them and us; part of the human condition, I imagine. We judge people by what they wear, own, look like and so on. If you don't have the 'right' toy soldiers, you are not one of us. I experienced this at a club with some snide comments about 6 mm models ('versatile' was the politest one). I didn't go back; I was not one of them.

      If you think that D20s are tricky to roll, try a D4. The term 'roll' does not really apply, of course, but when sliding they can knock models over and / or move them quite easily.

      Customised dice are a nice idea, but I suspect I'd change things too rapidly for them to be much use to me...