Saturday 20 February 2016

Towards the Homogenisation of the Hobby

I do, occasionally, get accused of being both pretentious and boring on this blog. There is, I suspect, a class of hobbyists in any activity that think that, in the case of wargaming, the game is the thing and any consideration of what it all means, or the ethics of wargaming, or anything except pushing figures around on tables to purchased sets of rules is dull as ditch water and worthy of posting yawns on social media.

Well, so be it. I am not about to waste any stress or sleep over the existence of such individuals. That sort of attitude is not my problem at all, so I would simply ask those who do express such views to stop reading now and move on to something they find more interesting, like the number of zip fasteners on Caracatus’ uniform.

I do want to express here a little anxiety about some aspects of the way I see the wargaming hobby developing. I will, almost certainly, sound like a crusty old curmudgeon in doing so, and it is not as if I am in a state or meltdown or moral panic about it, but it does puzzle me ever so slightly so I thought I would note it here, and if anyone can explain it to me, I will be duly grateful.

I do not attend too many wargame shows, partly because I live in a part of the country ill served by such events, and partly because, although I rather enjoy the spectacle and chatting to the few people I do actually know in the hobby, I usually come away slightly depressed from them. And I have been wondering why.

As a second thread to this, I do, from time to time, peruse the lists of book sellers and, at said shows, look at the book stalls attending. Readers might have noticed that I rather like books and read a fair bit. But, again, the lists leave me feeling slightly depressed, and this is for a similar reason, I think.

Let me give a slightly more concrete example. At a recent show (which shall remain nameless) I perused the shelves of a certain book trader (who will also remain nameless, but only because I have no idea which trader it was). On the shelves I found eight books about ancient warfare. There were about six about medieval wars. The rest, so far as I could see, consisted, in rough numerical order, of American Civil War, World War One, Napoleonic warfare and, far and away the biggest subject represented, World War Two.

Now, as the long term reader of this blog has worked out by now, my wargaming extends through history from the ancient Greeks all the way to the Wars of Spanish Succession, possibly as far as the ’45 if I am feeling expansive. Obviously, I have always known that mine are minority interests, and the fact that I can by suitable toys for such minority wars is, in my view, a jolly good thing. But the focus of the hobby on, so far as I can see, two main eras, those of the Corsican Ogre and the madness of the mid twentieth century does worry me a bit, although I am not sure exactly why.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have once played a Napoleonic wargame, and some of my first ‘proper’ wargame figures were 1:300th tanks from the Second World War. But I moved on from there to assorted ancients and renaissance armies. At least, compared to the tanks, they had a bit more style and colour about them.

When I wonder around wargame shows, however, I do get a bit bothered about the preponderance of World War Two, in particular. Perhaps it is just me; I do not have any particular interest in the period, although as a teenager I read a lot about it (for history at school) and talked to my grandfather a lot about it (he landed in France a few days after D-Day). But as a wargaming activity it has not interested me for some years.

Similarly, the era of Napoleon did interest me for a bit, when I was young and poor and could only afford packs of Airfix figures. I think this interest waned when the impossibility of representing anything on the wargame table (or ‘floor’ as it was known then) of any size or relationship to the original battles dawned on me, let along not knowing what a chasseur actually was.

Interestingly, one of the most popular posts on this blog ever (that is not to say that it is at all popular by most standards) is ‘Why I do not wargame World War Two’. There, I do not put forward a moral case for not wargaming the era, but a practical one. The size of table to do justice to the topic, even using some of the Megablitz style rules, seems to be to make the topic more or less impossible.  I suspect (but have not really thought about it) that the problem with Napoleon’s battles is similar. The only way I can see to do this is to go down the 2 mm route. I doubt this would work for WW2, but it might just for Waterloo.

One of the most beautiful, but perhaps better illustrations of what I mean was at a show I recently attended. It was a wonderful model of Plaicnoit (probably spelt wrong) the village where the Prussians arrived at Waterloo and fought the Young Guard for access to the battlefield. The village church was about as big as my coffee table, and could be seen from across the hall. The scale was 54 mm, and the beautifully painted big figures were arranged with helpful labels. The downside was that an entire Prussian brigade was represented by about 20 figures. It looked wonderful, but a bit odd in my view.

So, what can I conclude from this ramble? Firstly, that I am out of step with most of the rest of the hobby. No surprise there. Secondly, I am a bit perplexed as to why wargamers focus so much on the two eras which I have described. It seems to me that the compromises required, the mental gymnastics needed, to make such periods ‘work’ on the table are great. Or perhaps I am just lazy. Alternatively, I suppose that I should be told just to play the game, and not worry about what it all means.

Saturday 13 February 2016

History and Narrative

Someone asked, a bit ago, why historians do not write straightforward narrative. In other words, why does a history book have to have a ‘point’? I have been pondering this, and I fear it is one of those questions that looks simple at first sights, but is a lot more complex in the longer view.

On the other hand, a while ago, a friend of mine tried reading a book about British society in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Eventually, he gave up, and I asked him why. His reply was along the line of ‘it was too complex, because it assumed that I knew what the events were and the order that they happened in, but I don’t.’

So we, as readers of history, are in a bit of a bind. We need a chronology to hang bits of history on, but we need the bits of history to form the chronological narrative. As writers of history (not that I am one) we also need a narrative structure and a closer focus on whatever it is I am writing about. A bit of history fits into a context, and a context is forms of bits of history.

As wargamers this is also true of us. We have a chronology, mainly formed from the battles and campaigns of the wars which we wargame.  We also have bits of history upon which we focus: the battles. These also, of course, form part of the chronology. This is, of course, circular, but I do not think that the circle is vicious. We can happily start with, say, politics in Europe in 1700, and then move on to the Wars of Spanish Succession, and then to Blenheim, Ramillies and the rest of them. We could also start with Blenheim and expand the focus. The one informs the other.

When we write history, however, we do run into a problem of selection. In most eras there is more information available than we can put into a book of any sane length. History, if we want to conceptualise it as a method, has a three stage process. Firstly, we have to establish the historical data. This involves digging around, either in archives or in the ground, to establish the artefacts associated with the period in question. Once this is done we need to establish the critical editions of the texts, or the date, location, function and use of a material object. 

Once the data is established, we can attempt to interpret it. There are a number of parts to this, as we have to establish, say, for a text, what it means (it could be written in various languages – one of the problems with the history of the Thirty Years War is that the archives are in Latin, German, Swedish, Danish, French, Spanish, Polish, Russian and probably a few more languages as well. Even most historians do not read all these languages). The text might mean something different to us today than it did for the writer. It might have meant something different to the writer than it did to their readers. We have to try to work out what the writer meant, what the readers would have understood and attempt (which is difficult, or even impossible) to bracket out our own views.

Once we have established the probable meaning of a document, we then have to compare it with other documents. They might agree; they might conflict. If they do, how can we work out which is correct. Are they both telling the facts from the same perspective? Is one document reliant upon the other, and so on. This is not an easy task at all. While we might be able to assess the balance of probabilities for a given document or set of documents, this does not give us direct access to the events reported (even if the documents are reporting events simply). History is a lot trickier than that.

Finally, we have to do some reporting. We write history. But the history that we write is mediated by a number of considerations. Firstly, that the history has to be based on the historian’s interpretation of the available evidence. Evidence does not usually point unambiguously in a single direction. If it did, historians would be out of a job. Usually a piece of evidence can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and it the historian’s job to do the interpretation and to fit it into a narrative flow of events.  This flow needs, at least, to be consistent with both the evidence, the chronology and the scheme of interpretation the historian has chosen.

The job of the historian, then, is to select and interpret evidence in accordance with an overall scheme of things to find out what was going on in the period in question.  But this is inevitably a selective and interpretative task, and thus no historian can write a simple narrative. All history is, in some sense, a construct; it does not give access to the events of the time in question, but to some aspects thereof. The aim is an intelligible understanding of what was going on, not access to what was ‘really’ going on. After all, often the actors themselves did not know what was going on in their own world.

As an example, the history of the English Civil War has borne a wide variety of interpretations. It has been claimed to be due to the rise of the gentry, the fall of the gentry, climate change, the influx of precious metals from the New World, religious conflict, the conflict between the provinces and centralising government and so on. There are Marxist interpretations, capitalist interpretations, and conservative revisionist interpretations and so on. There are no straightforward narratives, because no historian can actually create one. Even CV Wedgewood, the narrative historian supreme of the era, has her viewpoint and prejudices. The evidence for all these interpretations is the same. The rest depends on the historian.

So there can be no straightforward narrative history of any period. There is, on the same basis, no straight narrative of a battle. It all has to be pieced together, bit by bit, from diaries, reports, and statistics and so on. Nice as the ideal of a straight bit of reportage might be, we have to accept its unattainability, and work with what we can find, not with what we would like to have.

There is, unsurprisingly, a lot more that could be said about this, and about how our interests condition what we look for, never mind our interpretations. But that is for another post, maybe. Sometime.

Tiny galley update: Finished 65, undercoated 10, grey 75.

Saturday 6 February 2016

Are You Sure They Should Be Black?

After a bit of a hiatus, caused by having a bit of a cold, the painting of very small ancient galleys is back on track, at least, insofar as there is a track to be back on. I did find that being all bunged up (I am sure there is a correct medical term for that, but I do not know it) made me even less inclined than I usually am to pick up a paint brush, even though painting very, very small ships is a lot easier that painting figures. There are, for one thing, a lot fewer colours.

Still, having recovered sufficiently to finish another batch last weekend, I now find myself in the position of having a sufficient number of ships for a small action. Of course, I have no rules, except for a vague idea which I outlined a few weeks ago. I am sure that you would like me to say I have been quietly beavering away and am about to unleash on the world a fully blown, all singing, all dancing rule set. I too would like that, but reality has rather precluded it.

I do have a few thoughts, however. They are not necessarily coherent, and may not stand the light of impact of the blue cloth and models, let alone dice. But for the record, they are jotted down below. Feel free to offer suggestions for improvements, but I reserve the right to misunderstand….

1 Models: The models are based on consistently sized bases, I use 20 mm by 10 mm, but I doubt it matters too much.

2 Ship types: the types of ship available are penteconter, trireme, quinquereme, hexereme and merchant. Penteconters are size 1, triremes and merchants are size 2, quinquereme and bigger are size 3.

3 Seamanship: each vessel will have a seamanship rating ranging from 1-6. This reflects the abilities of the captain and crew to manoeuvre the vessel both in and out of combat. 1 is ‘which end of this thing goes in the water?’ and 6 is ‘Oxford and Cambridge boat race? Pah! Amateurs.’

4 Formation: Ships can either be on their own or in formation. In a formation, the ships are in edge to edge base contact. The seamanship for a formation is the seamanship of the lead vessel of the formation which is usually the flagship.

5 Movement: Movement is at the rate of the slowest ship in the formation. Normal movement for an independent ship is three base depths (so, 60 mm in my basing system). Movement in formation is 2 base depths.

6 Manoeuvre: Ships not in formation can move in any direction is they have sufficient room (1 clear base depth in front of them). Formations may turn by wheeling; the inner ship remains stationary except for changing face, the outer ship moves its maximum distance towards the required direction, and the rest conform to that movement.

7 Combat: combat is by matched seamanship rolls. Each side adds to their seamanship a D6, and adjusts for tactical factors. In single ship combat the loser is rammed. In formation combat the loser’s formation is disrupted and the victor’s ships can close in and fight at an initial advantage.

8 Tactical Factors: +1 having a larger formation; -1 facing more than one group (unless you have more than one group); -1 single ship facing a group; +1 per size difference between attacker and defender vessel (see #2); +2 victorious formation closing in; +1 if corvus in ship to ship.

9 Outcomes: losers in ship to ship combat are rammed. Rammed ships are removed.

10 Command: each side receives 1D6 command points. An individual ship or formation costs 1 command point to start or stop movement. Each side may bid up to their total command points to obtain the first move in the turn. A turn consists of the movement of both sides and any combat. Command points unspent are lost at the end of the turn.

11 Terrain: most ancient battles were fought near shorelines. Ships and formations next to shore lines (within one move of them) must make seamanship rolls (one per turn) to avoid running aground. Formations failing seamanship rolls are broken up and next turn the ships must roll individually. Individual ships failing seamanship rolls run aground and are stuck until a seamanship roll is successful; for each turn stuck, a 1 rolled on 1D6 indicates the ship is holed and it must be removed.

12 Reforming: formations may reform (or form ex nihilo) if all ships in the potential formation are not in combat. A formation takes 2 command points per ship to form. An individual ship may join a formation for 2 command points.

So, there you have a set of rules for ancient naval wargames with big fleets. Hopefully they will be fast playing and not too complex. If you would like to, do have a go and let me know how you get on, but remember, the rules are worth exactly what you paid for them….

Tiny Galley Painting Update: finished: 35; painted and unbased 10; grey 105.