Saturday, 27 December 2014

Total Wargaming

I have been further pondering the reasons why I really do not like more modern wagaming. By this I mean that I have never, in fact, wargamed anything seriously (insofar as wargaming can be serious) later than the Napoleonic period, and that was only because I was a guest. All right, I have, somewhere, stashed away, some very old microtanks. I can only plead teenage ignorance for that.

Still, I do feel somewhat uncomfortable with games from, say, the start of trench warfare onwards. The reasons for this might be manifold, of course, and I can think of a few, but overall I suspect that there is one overriding reason.

Let me deal with the lesser reasons first. To start with, wargaming in World War One has often been thought to be boring and lacking in tactical interest and finesse. I do not think this is a particularly good argument, largely because it is not terribly true. Granted, there were only limited options for getting men from these trenches to those, but the war shows immense grappling with how to do it effectively. Innovations such as poison gas, tanks, hurricane bombardments and mining all showed efforts to solve the tactical problems of the mastery of defence.

A second objection to twentieth century and later wargaming is that it is not pretty. Armies had (mostly) gone to ground and were wearing field grey, khaki and similar uniforms. Even American Civil War armies had colour, it could be argued. A World War One game, on the table, simply looks a bit dull, because that was the effect the armies were looking for. As an objection to the period this is, I think valid. Compared to a full blown Napoleonic game, a First World War one is simply not going to have the same visual appeal, and visual appeal is part of the wargame. Of course, this is a matter of taste, and mine might not be yours. On the other hand, the aesthetic quality of a game is not the sole determinant of whether it is worth playing.

Of course, we could go on with these sorts of objections. I am sure there are many more which could be bought against any particular period. For example, Second World War wargaming tends to focus on the tank, with its problems and opportunities. Much of the fighting, however, was between troops where the tank was of less use or, in some cases, was simply a liability. Another problem, which I have mentioned before, is the simply range of the weapons. A tank gun is accurate up to (say) two thousand meters. That needs a big table at any scale. Artillery ranges, of course, are even longer. This can, of course, be handled by ‘off the table’ guns, but given the intrinsic appeal of models, where is the fun in that?

None of the above, however, are the reason why I recoil somewhat from these games. I suspect that the real reason is related to the issue of what is known as ‘total war’. This is a term which begins to be applied roughly from the American Civil War onwards. It describes a situation where the countries at war are regarded as fighting each other, not just the armies, rulers or governments. Total war requires the employment of all the resources of the state to defeat another state. Given that this is the case, the war is conducted against civilian populations as well as armed forces.

We can see this in a number of ways. For example, the British defeated the Boers by rounding up the civilian population, denying the enemy the protection and support they needed for a guerrilla campaign. Similarly, Germany declared an open submarine campaign to try to starve Britain into surrender. The target here were not combatants, nor, in fact, necessarily British merchantmen, but any ship sailing to Britain. The nascent bombing campaigns towards the end of the war were similar cases, and these things simply grew in the Second World War.

Total war, therefore, is a matching of state against state. Economies are placed on a war footing. Civilians are targeted deliberately, as the production facilities and government capabilities are attacked. Furthermore, the advent of truly industrialised killing, through high explosive artillery and machine guns made the casualty lists incredibly much longer. I seem to recall that the casualties at Waterloo on all sides were about 47,000. The British army lost 60,000 on the first day of the Somme. Total war pushes our ability to wargame, I suggest to its limits.

I am not saying that we cannot wargame such battles as the Somme. I know that there are many sets of innovative rules which permit such actions to be played at the tactical, grand tactical and strategic levels. It is not, I think, a matter of whether such games can be played, but what is represented when they are played. For example, the Somme was only possible due to a huge effort of production and stockpiling artillery shells before it. Without that, the battle could not have begun. Is this to be represented in our wargame?

The answer to that question is dependent on the level at which we are gaming. But the question pulls other questions in. Do we represent the air raids on defenceless civilian populations, which might reduce the rate of production? Do we simply ignore the supply problem, assume that our guns have infinite supply and distort the game another way?  These and many similar sorts of questions have to be either tackled 9in which case our rule book is going to be massive) or tacitly ignored. In short, total war is vastly complex as well as devastatingly bloody. How can a wargame represent, even in part, the problems of the real armies and nations?

Most sane people, of course, ignore these problems and simply play a wargame. But the underlying uneasiness seems to be still there. There is a slight defensiveness from, for example, players whose armies are the World War Two Germans. I suspect that this is because, whatever the claims to the contrary, the army was involved in some of the other acts of the German government, if only because it was defending the nation from some of those acts being stopped.

I am not sure I have advanced my thinking much, here, but I have tried a little. I do think that there is some mileage in the concept of total war, and that, probably, we try to wargame such conflicts too simply. But I’m still not sure.


  1. Good post - to play devil's advocate, I might suggest that all kinds of complicated (and unpalatable) factors can be broad-brushed over with Chance events (dice-rolls, cards, whatever) - the WW2 shells don't turn up, so the guys can't fire - the fact that Birmingham has suffered a heavy air-raid and that this contributes to the probability of the shells failing to arrive can be handled in a detached and abstracted way by adjusting the required dice-roll.

    Another aspect of total war which is awkward is the scale of operations, once you have the population and resources of whole nations to play with. Playing WW1 on a Diplomacy board gives a suitably complete picture - though you have to involve some imagination to give a role to some of the countries, and the actual hostilities are implied rather than seen. Playing a trench skirmish on a tabletop, with little men and all that, requires a fair amount of justification of why the table ends at this point, why we can ignore the edges of the table, and what is next door. I was very impressed a few years ago, driving along the Chemins des Dames, en route from Compiegne to Soissons - it is a huge area - i was driving past what is now a military monument for most of an afternoon. I can drive past the field of Bannockburn (assuming we agree where it was) in about 10 minutes. The earlier, limited actions fit more comfortably on a table.

    1. I do think the scale of operations, and the simple range of the weapons, makes some of the issues of actual wargaming something modern problematic anyway. At a recent show i saw a wargame of the opening moves of WW1. The map was huge, the figures (each representing a corps, I should think) were few. the issues in playing something like that were, it seems to me, enormous. I'm not claiming impossible, but just big issues.

      I suppose that any wargame (or game, for that matter) requires a suspension of disbelief to some extent. The table edge is the edge of the game qua game. Beyond it is the nothingness of not being in the game. Possibly.

    2. My point about the table-edge was recently demonstrated (to me) in a solo Napoleonic campaign I staged. To keep the scope within reasonable bounds, and to avoid having my brain explode, I restricted the theatre to something like the field of operations of the French Army of Portugal in 1812 - I made some bland declaration about the Army of the South and the Army of Catalonia being fully occupied elsewhere, and thus their activities and areas of interest where separate and independent, and lay outside the campaign - nothingness, in fact.

      It was a brave effort, but as the campaign ran, it became more and more apparent that ignoring the off-map world was not only daft, but eventually distorted the game. As soon as I had placed the campaign in Spain, partially based on historical events, it became necessary for me to have at least some regard for the surrounding areas - the dreaded factual history got in the way more than it helped! Eventually the artificiality of isolating the area took much of the enjoyment out of the game - I'll have to think about this carefully for the future!

      Boundary issues?

    3. I can sympathise. yes, I think there are significant boundary issues in any sort of game, and perhaps specifically in wargaming. After all, a wargame qua wargame is set in a world (which may not have any relationship with the real world) but which does contextualise it. After all, even a pick up battle to capture the strategic cross-roads in the middle of the table is already taking account of an external context.

      I suspect it gets worse with campaign games, as well.

      But I need to think about it as well.

  2. As an addendum, I feel that your line "I do think that there is some mileage in the concept of total war" is a maxim of the very highest calibre...

    1. I think the idea of 'total war' might be useful in some senses, at least in working out why I don't like playing 20th century games. On the other hand, it could just be some pretentious pseudo-historigraphical term which doesn't mean anything.

      I'm still working on it....

  3. Total war's not just 20th century on though is it? The Romans certainly played for keeps.

    1. Well, that is true, but the Romans usually played for territory and honour, not simply the total destruction of the other side and, in particular, its ideology. Plus, of course, the Romans never managed to organise their whole economy around war production.

      But nasty things have happened all through history, granted.

  4. It is nice to give oneself reasons and afterall its not like the Assyrians had a policy if sacking cities that resisted them and selling off any remaining men, women and children as slaves, or ad if the Greeks decided to raze Thebes and sell off the population when Alex asked them what its fate should be. And the business of salting Carthage isn't very total, and the Romans who escaped death at Carhae were probably happier been shipped off to central asia than being repatriated and the Celts no doubt benefited ftom having their language, culture, social, religion, political systems etc 4eplaced by first, Roman then Germanic ones and, well, so on.

    The real question is "are there any reasons we should wargame modern warfare if we don't have an urge to do so?"
    (And no I can't think of any off hand")

    1. I think that I'd agree that history is history, and, when viewed in the round, no-one comes out of it very well. The totality of modern war might be a little bit different than these examples, though. The organisation of an entire country towards war is slightly different than any ancient example I can currently think of, although I'm sure someone will be along to correct me.

      But yes, I agree with your final point; maybe it just isn't for me. But thinking about it is an interesting undertaking.

  5. I can't imagine wanting to play a simulation of total war unless the game is suitable large and/or abstract and it involves a range of economic and social factors such as deciding how many resources to allocate to munitions production, civil defence, rationing, etc. There are a number of Eurogame type games that focus on city planning, urban administration, etc (e.g. Powergrid) so I suppose there is a market for that sort of thing. Would it be a war-game? I suppose it could be, and perhaps it might be a more detailed and history-oriented version of Sid Meier's Civilization series, which can be about total war in that you build an economy and a military that extirpates other powers/players in the game. We call it Civilization but really, we could call it Total War.
    As far as whether one wants to simulate modern war, that's really just a matter of taste. While one person might find 20th century uniforms quite drab compared to fanciful Lace Wars uniforms or 16th century Landsknechts, someone else might (and lots of people do) get an aesthetic thrill from a British para Denison smock or a contemporary NATO disruptive camo pattern properly painted - de gustibus non disputandum est.
    I suppose most wargaming involves a suspension of moral or ethical judgement about whether the activity being simulated is total war or something close to it. Perhaps it's a matter of scale. For example, this year GMT released a board game about the Dambusters Raid, where the player is put in the role of a bomber crew trying to hit and destroy one of the Rhur dams. On the micro level, it's an exciting air combat game for some. On the macro war, it's total war - those dams help power German war industry, and their destruction will flood people's homes and farms as well as cripple economic production. But, as Ross M notes, is that sort of total war less brutal than the Punic Wars, or is it just more effective because of the technology?
    Wishing you all the best for the New Year, and looking forward to more thoughtful posts.

    1. I suspect that you are right about taste, and I'm not trying to say 'we shouldn't do WW2' or anything, but I think that some of my own prejudices should be examined as to why not. After all, no period of warfare is a pleasant experience for the participants, so why these ones are acceptable or not is an interesting question. Taste is a tricky thing; I suppose that my outrage could be your bad taste and his acceptable. Maybe it is just an issue of language after all.

      I think your point about scale is a good one, and tallies with Mr Foy's above. On what level of detail do we want to consider these things? I also think that the issue of technology is germane. The Nazis, after all, bureaucratized mass murder. In that case, perhaps the typewriter was a weapon of mass destruction....