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.


  1. Or possibly you should be told to just live and let live. I wouldn't worry about being pretentious though; it's a badge of honour.

    And by the way, it's well known that Caractacus used velcro.

    1. I'm sure I read in De Uniforme Caractaci that he wore a duffle coat with wooden toggles.

  2. I am pleased to see that I am not the only one that comes away from wargames shows disappointed. I have not attended a show in a few years now due to impecunity, but before that state impinged upon my personal activities, I used to attend the shows within easy reach of Hull as much as I could. However, in the latter years of my show attendance I found myself increasingly dissatisfied with the experience. I was not bedazzled by the spectacle any more. Instead I found myself jaded. I suspect that the increasing preponderance of 28mm figures contributed to this feeling. My abiding memory from the last show I attended was of a table filled with beautifully painted 28mm WSS figures. It was a large table perhaps some 12' x 6' or even longer, and the figures were packed on in such numbers that it was almost impossible to visualise the narrative of the game. Furthermore, the terrain was too 'clean', too pristine. The overall effect was of a clinically clean display cabinet. Instead of inspiring me, it left me feeling underwhelmed. Yet, this game won the prize for best in show, a prize that I would have awarded to a completely different game at that same show. Clearly, I too am out of step with current fashions. I also found that I would buy things and then suffer terrible buyer's remorse on the way home, especially if it was more figures. I already have enough of those to paint for some time to come, so buying more, even when they are for a project I am actually working on, contributed to the sense of dissatisfaction. The one thing that shows did give me, and that gave me a boost, was talking to traders and friends. Shows work very well as social events, if you know you will meet up with friends. The displays and games then become secondary, something to talk about rather than the reason for your attendance.

    I think we went through the issues with WW2 in the last post you wrote. I am happy to play WW2, but not Napoleonics. This latter just does not interest me at all for no reason that I can fully fathom. Perhaps it is my experience of rabid Nappy gamers. Who knows? The former I enjoy, especially the Western Desert and the 1940 campaign in Norway. From what you write, I suspect that you feel you should be manoeuvring whole armies to do justice to the period, while I am happy to play battalion-level actions and smaller. I would suggest, though, that it is not so much a case of mental gymnastics and size of table, as it is the scale of game you desire that is the problem. I can fight a 6mm battalion-level action comfortably on my 6'x4' table. It looks and feels right to me, and I am happy with that. For an operational game anywhere other than the smaller theatres like Norway, I would have to resort to a church hall though, or to a board game/map game, which might present the need for mental gymnastics to make it playable. It's all horses for courses though. I think that people play what they want, and that the homogenisation occurs more at the show level than at the local level.

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who goes to shows and tries not to buy things. some of my longest stalled projects are figures that I bought at shows.

      I dare say that some WW2 (or Nappy) games can be played in a reasonable area, but I do get a bit puzzled when, according to my estimates, a Matilda tank can fire 2 metres on a table. Now, of course, it probably never would have done, but my brow creases and the cogs in my brain start screeching when I try to think about scaling down such ranges. But it probably is just me.

      I do recall some rather odd and other slightly nasty Napoleonic wargamers. Mind you, wagamers can be a bit off no mater what scale or period they prefer. Perhaps it is just whoever you encounter first.

      It might be true that I prefer army level operations, but the problem is, I guess, that battalions rarely operated in a vacuum. What is going on on the flank beyond the table edge? Should I deploy C company to defend against a non-existent attack? Knowing that the flanks are unturnable can be a problem in a game, but I guess you know that.

    2. If you are playing out a game with a ground scale of 1:300, a Matilda could theoretically fire 11'. If your terrain is open enough for the Matilda to be able to see something 11' away, I would suggest that you don't have enough terrain on the table to represent the average battlefield. That said, I play Command Decision where one model represents a troop of tanks. The ground scale is 1" = 100 yards, so the single 1:300 scale model occupies approximately the same space that a troop of tanks would have occupied. This works for me and reduces the firing range of the Matilda to approximately 11". Much more manageable on the tabletop, and not much different conceptually from having a stand of 36 6mm figures representing a much larger contingent of HYW archers, whose arrows could shoot approx. 36-48" on the table. Increasing the size of the figures or indulging in skirmish games compounds these problems of scale, but then I don't really think we are talking about those.

      Regarding the battalion assault, tactical doctrine needs to be considered. If I recall correctly, formations were given their own area of operations and expected to stay within them. They would follow the line of advance and expect the guys on either side to do the same. I'm not sure about the danger from flank attacks as a result of advancing too quickly, because of this doctrine, so it may be safe to ignore the flanks except for specific scenarios. Also, I am not sure to what extent a battalion commander would even be aware enough of events on either flank until he suddenly found himself being attacked from the flank. If you want to introduce the danger of a localised counterattack against your flanks, you could use random event cards that allow for this contingency or dice for the ongoing fight on either flank to see if you or the enemy get any reinforcements. Any results you generate would need to be in keeping with the historical tactical doctrine and plan of the forces in play for the period/campaign/scenario. I can imagine some WW2 armies severely castigating a battalion commander who redeploys his troops to support a neighbouring commander instead of driving on to his objectives. The real danger of pushing onwards ahead of the rest of your regiment is getting caught in a pocket and having to defend it while your side relieves you or having to break out of it again. That is a subject for a follow-on game though.

      I seem to have rambled on more than I intended. Sorry. I sort of understand your position, but the objections do not compute for me, because I have reached a different accommodation with my toy soldiers.

    3. All fair enough, but I do think that the distortion required in the ground scale that any more modern game needs is greater than in earlier periods. Perhaps it is just me.

      Mind you, while I can cope quite happily with a base of figures standing for a (say) cohort, I do find it difficult to visualise a tank model as a troop of tanks. Again it is probably just me and the failings of my imagination.

      As for the battalion thing, I agree with you, but it seems to me that you need a wider context for a game of that scale, and so get drawn inexorably into a campaign, if not a brigade - division - corps - army game anyway. Again it is probably just me. Maybe I like the bigger picture too much.

      That said, I did read someone's account of a platoon in the Western Desert 1941-2 as a solo game, from first action to surrender, and that did seem very interesting; so I guess it can be done.

    4. It's just different approaches to gaming, and different perspectives, I guess.

      I find it easier to have one tank represent 4-6 real tanks than I do to have one base of infantry represent a cohort, even though some of the rules that I have used for ancients use the same ground scale as the WW2 rules.

      I think we are both agreed that knowledge of a period is essential to gaming it properly, and I think that's really the case with WW2 gaming as well. You can make a believable scenario without mental gymnastics or a campaign if you know the period and how things worked. I do suspect that your preference for the big picture may be at work here though!

      Do you have a link to that solo game? It sounds like something that might interest me. I've been meaning to get together an LRDG campaign for some time and it might inspire me to finish painting the figures.

    5. Ah, I feared that might be the question. It was in a Miniature Wargames article from at least a decade ago. I have it somewhere in my archive (read: plastic box collection). I'll see if I can fetch it out.

      I think we are looking at different angles on the same thing. I struggle with the idea of one model representing several vehicles in much the same way as I do one ship representing several in my naval games. Perhaps I need a different perspective - it would certainly reduce the number of models I had to paint!

      It may well be my preference for the big picture; most of the WW2 stuff I've read tended to be the big battle / campaign stuff rather than unit histories, but then, I've only got so much time. Sometimes I do tend to think alarmingly big, like the 1618-Something campaign that landed up covering most of the world...

    6. Heh, no worries if you can't find it. I'm temporarily estranged from my wargames stuff due to moving to Ireland for a wee while, so I can do little with it anyway.

      I agree. We are both looking from different perspectives. I also have the same problem with ships. Fortunately, I invested in the old Knight Designs Jutland pack. This means I have all the WW1 ships I am ever likely to need. Better yet both fleets are painted and fit in a single VHS case! :-)

  3. At times it is a struggle not to worry myself overly that people, esp youngish people are having fun the wrong way and spending buckets of money. I try to make it to a Con in the US every year and about 10 years ago it bothered me that it seemed like more and more gamers appeared to have become mere Consumers, buying what was shiny and doing exactly what the system manual told them the way it told them but recently I've been gratified to see more variety and initiative, independence etc re emerging.

    re the preponderence of some book subjects, as mighty as the gaming market might be, it is a drop in the ocean to the larger worldwide market for books about wwii, acw etc

    An endless topic for discussion so I'll stop here.

    1. Aye, endless, and i agree. Apparently the only non-fiction books that really sell are titles like 'Belt Buckles of the Third Reich, 1939-41'

      Now that really worries me, but is not about wargaming.

  4. O.K., let’s start with a disagreement and work on from there. I don’t agree with Ruarudh in that, as a general rule, I don’t believe people play what they want. While it’s true of a percentage of wargamers, I think there’s a significant number who play what the rest of their club plays (or they don’t get much chance of a game against a live opponent) or they play what they think they ought to be playing or they play the latest fad, which is probably just a slight variation of the second case. My nearest club seems ideal if you like any of the pre-packaged games (DBX, FOW and the like), but there’s little evidence of variations on this or original thought. Birds of a feather and all that and there are clubs which appear to be the epitome of a three ring circus with all sorts of games and projects coexisting, but I wonder which model holds sway. (I don’t really because there are certainly more interesting things to wonder about). No surprise that I’m almost exclusively a solo player then. By the way, this isn’t an aggressive disagreement, more of an “Oh, I dunno, I’m not sure” thing.

    I don’t have any particular issues with any of the historical periods or campaigns we’re able to simulate or play other than the First World War which, while I find many aspects of this conflict interesting, I think it’d be sheer drudgery as a game. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed Sir Sidney Roundwood’s trench raiding game a couple of years ago, but I think that had more to do with the quality of the figures and terrain and Sidney’s engaging personality. One of my many character flaws is that if I’m not interested in the historical period, then I won’t game it; a trait which has occasionally had unfortunate consequences in other areas of life. Oh yeah, I can’t be doing with sci-fi and fantasy games, but I’ve never thought of them as wargames anyway.

    I’m not the greatest attender of shows because I’m lazy and they’re all much of a muchness. I rarely feel inspired or uplifted by a visit and honestly only enjoy chatting with friends I meet there. ‘Salute’ – it’s just Tesco for wargamers. The ‘buyer guilt’ is common to many, many wargamers and I’m all too familiar with it, but if it involves a book, I feel not guilt at all. I think that the preponderance of Second World War titles isn’t so much a reflection of the popularity of the period as the ease with which they can be produced. There are so many texts, memoires maps and photographs available, along with a wealth of statistical analyses, that pretty much anyone with a modicum of intelligence can cobble a book together. The difficult part is sorting the crap from the candy.

    Unfortunately, as nobody’s come back to clarify the subject, one’s lifespan is finite and at my age it’s becoming more finite on a daily basis. Ergo (how’s that for pretentiousness?) I’m quite selective how I fill my waking hours and I make no apologies for going my own wargaming way. As pater was wont to say “This is the route this bus is taking. If you don’t like it, get another bus.”

    1. I accept your point, Gary, in part at least. You play what the club plays, because it's the only game in town, but you still have to want to play it to put in the effort. It might not be the precise rules you want to play, but I don't know anyone that would paint an army that they had no interest in. Also, if you find the rules utterly dull, then there will be no enjoyment in the game, so I cannot see a person continuing to play those rules. That said, I have never been to a club where they only played one set of rules or period. The (very few) clubs I have attended had a range of games going on, so there was room to find people with similar interests to me. Thus I got to play the games I wanted to play within certain limits.

      Fads may be a case of playing what you want to play too. This is more a case of getting caught up in a general enthusiasm though, rather than a genuine long-lasting interest.

      I totally agree about the books. I have never regretted buying a book. I have frequently regretted not having the time to read all the books I own properly, but certainly not buying them.

    2. Speaking as someone whose unread book pile has only just dipped below the 30 mark (and that is just the ones on the 'must read' shelves, not the strategically hidden ones), I agree on the tomes part.

      I've only been to a couple of clubs, and then only once or twice, but it seem to me that the choice of what to play is a matter of both taste and negotiation, but if no-one else has your taste, there is nothing to negotiate over. you have to find someone who is interested, persuade, or do something else not as interesting. But that is part of living in society, i guess.

  5. Polemarch,
    You must have missed the 60s, when there was almost nothing available but WWII, ACW, Napoleonics, Medievals, and Ancients, in 20, 25, or 30mm scales, at least in the States; and not many published rule sets. The 70s was an exciting time, when many more figures (and scales) and rule sets (and board wargames) became available. When I go to a show now (or more often, read about them) I see every historical era represented, including naval and air actions, as well as fantasy and sci-fi battles; and there are hundreds of rule sets available, including many excellent ones you can download for free. I would think you would judge any perceived homogenization based on the games being played and the rule sets available, not the history books being offered -- and I am not seeing it. I do agree that there is a tendency for groups to settle on pre-packaged rules rather than hash out their own, like back in the "good ol' days", but that may just as well be a reflection of a more frantic pace of life and lack of time for such niceties. It also probably avoids a lot of arguments.

    Personally I no longer play miniature games at shows or even with local gaming clubs because there are so many nothing-matters-but-that-I-win types that ruin the experience for me. I don't mind losing a good game, but I despise cheaters; and it seems the organizers will usually overlook such behavior in the interests of having "a friendly game".

    From my observations, it appears that solo gamers are usually more ummm... mature (vintage?), while younger gamers are more gregarious. At least, I didn't start solo gaming with miniatures until I was in my 40s (board wargames are another story). The youngsters are still going to bars/clubs while oldsters are less likely to be. And the youngsters are more prone to be interested in fantasy and/or sci-fi, sometimes exclusively. Human nature -- it is what it is.

    What's great is when you see someone with enough passion about their hobby to blog about it. Thanks for that.

    John Ferryman
    Ohio, USA

    P.S. WWII is my main interest since Fast Rules (1972); but I also enjoy fantasy and horse and musket eras. And reading battle reports /scenarios / rule design for any era.

    1. I think there is a theory that if you can remember the sixties, you were not there.... :)

      But yes, I am a bit too young for them; my real wargaming teeth were cut with the growth of 15 mm gaming, which did give a plethora of figures and periods.

      Rules are an odd one. m,any people claim to prefer to write their own, but rule writing is a difficult and frustrating pastime. Buying rules does reduce the argument potential and gives a common language, even if that language can distort the period (hoplites are hoplites, not Irrg Sp(I)).

      I suppose that it is all a bit of a matter of taste, but I am still puzzled over the relative popularity of WW2 and Napoleonics. Maybe I'm just missing something.

  6. I'm not sure that I understand the point about Napoleonics. There were a handful of battles which were absolutely massive, true, and a couple more that were very spread out, but were 98% of them so very different from the bigger battles of the WSS, or the Turkish Wars, or some Ancient battles?

    1. I shall confess my ignorance: I don't know. But ancient battles were fairly small, and ECW battles were tiny (only a handful can really be called battles at all). I think that until the later 17th Century, logistics determined the number of combatants, so 20,000 a side was fairly normal.

      as the use of depots, better roads and transport came in, numbers could grow. Mind you, I think Napoleon used different routes of movement and coordinated the divisions onto target, plus the French Revolutionary armies lived off the land. But until then, at least, large armies starved and small ones lost.