Saturday 12 March 2016

The Knowledge

As I am sure I have often, possibly too often, mentioned, there is a tranche of wargamers whose approach to the game is simply to play waqrgames. I do not have a particular problem with that; wargaming is, after all, a hobby, a leisure activity from which we can detach the mundane, day to day existence which we all, in the West, at least, have to put up with.

I only have a problem with this ‘just play’ approach when it seems to hit some ethical and / or authentic problem. By this I mean the historical wargamer whose French Napoleonic is entirely made up of Imperial Guard units, or the World War Two wargamer whose German army consists of SS units and more Panther tanks than were ever produced. At some level, really, I do not have a problem with even this. After all, so long as it is not illegal, immoral or fattening, whatever people choose to do in the privacy of their own homes is up to them.

However, I do start to doubt whether such armies, and the wargamers who produce them, can still claim to be ‘historical’ wargames. Armies of the constitution I have just mentioned might be based on some sort of historical precedence, but they did not exist in history. I start to suspect that we have, in these sorts of wargame armies, an example of what is called in roleplaying games ‘munchkins’. By this I mean those rather immature role playing gamers who try to maximise the effectiveness of their character by buying every super weapon, gory torturing machines or whatever simply to win, rather than to play a game. We could possibly add to this to occasional wargamer with Emperor-Hero worship traits as well.

I am sure we have all done this. Army lists, after all, are largely produced firstly to permit this sort of munchkin-ness and secondly to prevent a medieval French army from consisting entirely of (for example) Regular Kn(S). For the sake of balance, it does have to be said that under most rules such an army is unlikely to win much, but many, many people do go out to try to maximise the fighting power of their forces.

I dare say that there are two responses to this. The first is ‘I don’t do that’, which is highly laudable. I know that some readers prefer to play armies that are usually rated as poor performers, like Napoleonic Turks. I think this is a fine example of some wargamers, at least, treating the hobby as an opportunity for having some fun using history, rather than as an opportunity to win at all costs. More power to your paintbrushes.

The second response is to say ‘so?’ For example, competition gamers of a serious nature (and they do exist) can argue that all they are trying to do is to maximise their opportunity to win given a set of constraints imposed by the rules and army lists. This is fair enough. Wargaming often comes down to a game of resource management, and the soldiers on the table are one of the prime resources. This is not to say that we could not accuse such players of munchkin-ness, of course, but it is a relevant response given the nature of wargame competitions.

The thing that does vaguely concern me about all of this is something which, for want of a better word, could be referred to as ethics, as I did above. Fielding a WW2 German army that is all SS units and Panther tanks (I admit, I am exaggerating for effect) seems to be to be a bit of an insult to those people who had to face such forces in real life. I am not saying that such units should not be represented on the wargame table if the historically based games warrants them, but it does leave me feeling a little uneasy.

Again, I am probably showing my ignorance of World War Two history and wargaming. I am sure that there are good wargames to be had from the period, and also that the armies involved are as far away from munchkin armies as can be. Nevertheless, it is a spot within wargaming which I do pick away at, as regular readers (if there are any) are probably painfully aware.

I do not think that this unease should go away with other periods. After all, we could say that medieval wargamers who favour the HYW English army are only reproducing a force which was a political instrument (are all armies not so?) and which engaged in a fair amount of looting and so on along the way. That is true; does it mean then that we cannot reproduce any army that fought anything other than a defensive war?

It is certainly true that WW2 has a particular hold on the popular imagination. When I was a child there were many war comics; we even had them at school (wouldn’t be allowed now, I dare say). The only role of the German soldiers in most of them was to should ‘Himmel!’ from time to time and ‘Aieee’ when the heroic defenders of freedom shot them. There was no moral ambiguity; the idea of a ‘Good German’ did not, so far as I recall, form part of the narrative. That said, would not a similar consideration apply to all other wars? Was there ever such a person as a ‘Good Assyrian?’

It seems to me, then, that wargaming is trapped in an odd sort of moral ambiguity. We want to represent forces as accurately as possible (and reduce the munchkin effect along the way), and yet we have to admit that all sides in a conflict may be morally unacceptable (this does not apply to WW2, I think, as the atrocities carried out by the German and Japanese forces were in a moral class of their own, far removed from those of the Western allies). War can be a highly moral act, at least within some parameters, but only for one side.

Can a wargame, therefore, be a similar sort of moral act? As World War Two slips from the memory of all but the oldest of the population, is a WW2 wargame, say of the storming of Berlin, moral or not? If it isn’t, is a wargame based, say, on the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD a moral act? If there is a difference, why is there a difference? Is it just the passage of time?

Maybe I should take a leaf from David Hume’s book and, when he had more or less proved to himself that he didn’t exist, went for a game of backgammon to remind himself that he did. Maybe I should go an play a wargame to remind myself that it is fun.


  1. Regarding the munchkin types, I think they are playing a different game from the rest of us. Their game is a construction game based around using the tools available to construct the best 'army' they possibly can. The wargame is merely a testing ground, not the focus of their gaming.

    I'm not sure a wargame can be a moral act without some greater purpose than playing the game. It might be that commemorating the dead is such a purpose, but I am not sure. I recall a large D-Day game that was put on with a similar purpose. I think it was also a charity event. Some of the veterans who saw it considered it immoral because the players were making a game of their suffering. Others were less critical. Not sure what that says about moral acts or convincing oneself that one does not exist, but I throw it out there for consideration with the rest of the musings.

    1. The moral thing does seem to be horses for courses; my grandfather was in the British army for WW2, and quite happily painted my toy soldiers (of WW2).

      One the other hand I could see that some people might get upset. Possibly a wargame of an uprising in a concentration camp would be roundly condemned.

      I suspect there is a fine line somewhere. It might be different for different people.

      As for munchkins, well, they do happen. Often it is a 'win at any costs' mentality, but whatever way, it still loses contact with any sort of reality.

    2. Yes, I think that the line is different for different people. It makes it difficult to come to a hard and fast conclusion about the morality of our gaming, goes back to earlier posts that suggested that it was a matter of taste more than one of morality.

    3. I suppose that there is a part of wargaming which is generally acceptable, a bit which is generally unacceptable, and then everything else, which may or may not be acceptable, and which contains most wargames.

    4. Up to a point I think I agree.

  2. I think I will largerly side step the morale questions in this format except perhaps to say that having wargamed with some combat vets makes me a bit easier about it but I have come to prefer fiction (fantasy really but I'm not talking monsters and magic) as a basis for exploring history rather than recreating specific historical events and even then avoid games involving things like raids with points for rape and pillage etc.

    So yes, bring on Lawford and Young's made up 18thC armies used to fight scenarios based on WWII battles that they fought in or Well's Red vs Blue (mind you his game was based on contemporary tactics not history).

    Questions about things like a table full of the Old Guard are interesting because having one battalion of Old Guard thrown in to a stray engagement would usually be less correct since the Guard was most often employed in large chunks if at all. So its akin to an ancient wargamer choosing a Spartan army rather than an army from an alliance of minor states or at least Spartan with allies. Several of my favorite Ancient wargaming memories come from the 80's (wrg 5th iir) when I delighted in bucking trends and used as historical armies and tactics as possible to beat reportedly unbeatedable players using cheap trick tactics (ie rules exploitation) and armies full of super troops, which usually turned out to be not worth the points spent if the opponent was not playing with the same attitude. the rules did not enforce historical tactics, or even reference them it merely allowed them to show their worth if players did their homework.

    1. It is nice when someone wins using history, rather than by max-ing out on the most effective troops. I suppose this is where the leisure and historical gamers part company. Why use historical tactics when max-ing out removes the need to think, or read? If the other guy is doing the same thing, there is, of course, no problem.

      I do think fiction is a good way of exploring issues around our history, myths (in the technical sense) and perceptions of how they relate to us today. Maybe a fully fictional wargame can explore these issues while removing some of the more emotive aspects (but then we might get accused of sanitising history by taking the nasty bits out).

      Someday I'm going to have to gather all this stuff up and really have a bit of a think. It won't be any time soon, though.

    2. I once went to a DBR tournament with an ECW Royalist army and was roundly trounced because I tried to use historical tactics. The types of people and armies I encountered there put me off that sort of tournament for life.

      Fiction is a great way to take the sting out of a subject so that you can examine it more objectively. I do like a good imagi-nation.

    3. Well, DBR and historical tactics don't, in my opinion, really mix. But tournament gamers put me off tournaments (and very nearly wargaming...) too.

      Can we deal with our own history though an imagi-nation, I wonder? or is it simply an escape from the complexities of the real world. My own are the latter, I think.

    4. I completely agree about DBR. It's Polemos:ECW for me from now on (or possibly Basic Baroque). Prior to that tournament I had played it in a gentlemanly environment. This involved generally using historical tactics and playing nicely, so the tournament came as a real shock.

      I think we can deal with history through imagi-nations if we choose to. It's not much different from speculative fiction in that respect. It can be an escape, a way to avoid the messy complexities of real life, but it can also be a means of creating sufficient emotional distance to be able to assess things more objectively. Each of us will approach it how we feel is best for us, especially in a solo environment. In a group environment there must be some negotiation of approach, but even then there is room for differing approaches.

    5. I suppose it depends really what you are trying to deal with in imagi-nations. Len Deighton's SS-GB would be such a thing, I suppose, although what we might deal with using it might be moot. It would suggest things that perhaps the British national myth is uncomfortable with, such as the fact that everyone didn't pull together in the war...

      My own take on imagi-nations is precisely the escape and simplify thing, and roll a few dice until you get a battle to wargame. And anyway, who really wants to play the bad guys...?

      I used to play a lot of DBR, solo, and never had a problem with un-historical tactics, but it was a very odd rule set, really, and I disagree with a lot of its assumptions.

    6. Your comment about Deighton is pretty much what I meant. It is an opportunity to talk about those things that make us uncomfortable, if we wish.

      My gaming buddy and I have a couple of imagi-nations that are really an excuse for a bit of banter and rolling some dice too. In our games, the other party is always the bad guy, but both of us recognise that it is a matter of perspective. My own version of the imagi-nation is a parody of a dictatorship while his is a parody of a monarchy, and each claims to be more English than the other which is why both are always at war. There is humour there but also a recognition of something more sinister underneath should we wish to explore it. I really need to post more propaganda on my blog, now that I think about it.

  3. I used to max out on elite and other high points cost troops when playing WRG 1685-1845 rules in the late 70s. Purely because you needed fewer figures so it was easier on the budget. I still lost too often. (I still maintain that Irregular Soldier Cavalry were too effective at only 10 points each ;-) )

    1. I confess I did once plan a late C17 Polish army on the same basis. Under Tercio rules it came to about 20 figures of Polish lancers, but my impoverished state still meant that it was too expensive.

    2. I've been known to play with lists purely for the sake of seeing what happened. Small armies of elite troops have always been attractive because I hate painting, but it is fun to try out other configurations. Still, that is not the same as sitting down and trying to 'break' the army list for a competition.

    3. As I recall, after a break from DBM, a couple of editions had passed and everyone had switched from obscure but powerful armies to 'WoC' armies. it took me a bit to work out, but these were Inca and Aztec, whose bases could die in hordes and only needed an occasional lucky roll to take out their 'superiors'.

      I wondered, vaguely, why the Conquistadors had ever succeeded, but decided it was none of my business to ask those sorts of questions. It did make the armies huge and expensive (in money).

      I later discovered that WoC meant 'Wall of C**p'....

    4. I've tried that approach before in some games. It can be fun, but if the rules encourage it over other types of army, then there is something wrong somewhere. You don't get those balance problems to the same extent with historically-opposed armies using period-specific rules and a good scenario.

    5. I agree. I think the problem for DBM was that each edition tweaked the rules and favoured a different army or type of armies. This is inevitably going to be less important with a more time and geographically limited set.

      An Aztec vs French medieval match up is not going to really yield a sensible result, and nor should it. i suppose that if it does (and we can determine what 'sensible' means in this case) we really should start to worry.