Saturday 30 April 2016

Fleet Review

Now, the proof that I can finish painting projects, at least.

Here there are hundred and fifty one ancient ships. Triremes to the fore. Penteconters are to their rear on the left, merchant ships on the right. Triremes with sails are behind them, and quinqueremes at the left back.

Another shot:

Boats are 1:3000th scale from Outpost Wargame Services, painted by my own (deeply un-)fair hand, and photographed by the same. And that is, 

I think, the sorts of number we are talking about for a decent ancient fleet.

Saturday 23 April 2016

Shakespeare’s Birthday

I suppose that I should say something about the bard. After all, you can barely open a media channel at the moment without tripping over something Shakespearian, and being reminded that he died 400 years ago, and founded the English language and so on, and so on.

Perhaps I would feel a little better about this if we also remembered that it was the 400th anniversary of Cervantes, the Spanish author of Don Quixote. But being British, of course, we do not, even though we could suggest that most of our politicians and other glorious leaders tend to spend most of their time tilting at windmills. Incidentally, if you do feel like reading Don Quixote, the best advice I ever received was to skip the country stories, which are kind of cute but do nothing for the plot, or the characters, but do add several hundred pages to the book. If he were writing today, a decent editor would have made the Don’s adventures about half as long.

Of course, Shakespeare was a dramatist. I was once at a children’s holiday at a stately home type place (it was not that stately, at east after the teenagers had got at it) and there were some workshops about to happen.
Being slightly confused, one of the helpers shouted “ Andrew, where is drama?”
“Wherever there is conflict” came the reply.
“Oh, Andrew, you are such a luvvie.”  The rest of the helper’s room collapsed in mirth. Perhaps you had to be there in a sleep deprived state and fuelled by massive overdoses of coffee to get the joke.

Still, the point is somewhat germane to wargaming.  If, as I have suggested here from time to time, what drives a wargame and makes it interesting is the narrative, and if a narrative, in order to capture our imagination, has to be dramatic, then to be interesting a wargame has to involve conflict. I concede that given the nature of a wargame, this is not a startling revelation, but it does perhaps deserve a little consideration.

Shakespeare was, as I noted, a poet and a dramatist. His plays revolve about conflict of one sort or another. They do not necessarily involve war, and he depicts few battles and, when he does, they are only bits of battles that involve the characters of interest, such as Macbeth or Richard III. Incidentally, as an aside, I did hear one pundit on the radio this week musing that the strongest marriage in Shakespeare was the Macbeth’s.  I think we can put that one down and back away to a place of safety.

Still, a wargame without conflict would be pretty boring. A wargame which is so one sided as to be a push-over would also be pretty boring. Pitching the entire Grande Armee against a couple of battalions of Russian levies might prove to be a nice morning’s stroll for the French, but hardly counts as what we want from a wargame.

Interestingly, in the umpire’s notes for, I think, Runequest, it suggests that the umpire should have a few ‘random’ encounters ready to encourage the players. So, if they have had a particularly bloody and difficult encounter with some non-player characters, the umpire has half a dozen skeletons for them to beat up (in Runequest, skeletons tend to fall apart as soon as you hit them) and you can always have them guarding a cache of healing potions if the player characters need some limbs restoring. This does not tend to happen in wargames. It might be worth pondering why.

Anyway, while a totally one sided battle might be interesting for the occasional hero on the outnumbered side (Horatio holding the bridge, for example) , as a wargame involving drama and twists and turns it does not quite cut the mustard. The point of a wargame, then, is that both sides must have some possibility of winning, even if that winning is delaying the enemy by six hours, or something of that nature. In the case of heavily unequal wargames, the answer has to be to even the scenario up by some such rule.

Of course, this is also the idea behind the points system of some many rule sets. Since we might lack time and imagination to create a scenario, or develop and play a campaign to the point where an unequal battle makes sense, a points system yields the opportunity for a matched battle with no worries about fairness. The concept of a points system is to ensure balance, to ensure that both sides have an opportunity to win. We could possibly suggest that points systems are the resort of the time pressed, tired, wargamer.

Historically, of course, generals simply fought if they thought they could win, or they had no choice, with whatever troops they had to hand. If a general had delayed until he had the perfect array of troops for the job, and had the enemy precisely where they wanted them, then there would be far fewer battles in history for us to wargame. The problem which points systems engender is that they allow the player far more exact choices over the proportions of troops than any historical general had. I suppose the compromise here is between history and convenience, as it is in so many other areas of historical wargaming.

To sum up, I guess that the engaging part of wargaming is the drama of battle. There are other aspects, such as problem solving, resource allocation, the aesthetics of nice terrain and painted toy soldiers and so on, but without the drama (and, possibly, the pageant)  of the dramatic battle, there really is not much point. While the two Russian battalions could give an interesting and exciting account of themselves, the outcome is not really at stake unless they are part of a bigger picture. And that, it seems to me, would be a fairly pointless and boring wargame.

As wargamers, then, we need to have a context, a point for an otherwise unequal game, otherwise we will bore ourselves and go and play backgammon instead.

Saturday 16 April 2016

How Wargame Projects Succeed

‘All successful wargame projects are successful in the same way. All unsuccessful wargame projects fail in their own way.’

Well, Tolstoy might have had a point when he wrote regarding human families, but does it work for a wargame project? I think there might be a number of issues bound up with the idea of a successful wargame project. I doubt if I will be able to unpack them all, certainly in one go.

Anyway, the first thing we have to consider is what, exactly, we might mean by a successful wargame project. Assuming that the terms ‘wargame’ and ‘project’ are unproblematic (I do not think they are, but we do have to start somewhere), then the criteria of success have to be a bit problematic. After all, for most people, wargaming is a hobby and as such it does not have, necessarily, the ordinary working definition of success.

So, in wargame term, a successful thing is, given the hobby nature of the activity, something that we enjoy. A successful wargame is one which the participants enjoy. It is interesting, exciting, competitive, historical or whatever. Exactly what constitutes and enjoyable wargame is personal, and depends on what gives your landing craft sea-room. But I dare say we can all recall enjoyable games.

A project, of course, is a bit trickier. For a start, by its nature, it is a lengthier thing, and also tends to be more complex. A project might involve more than one army, for example. It might require testing rules, drawing maps, building terrain. All of these things, while they might be engaging of their own, have to come together to a final outcome. Without that, the effort spent feels a bit wasted.

So, the first thing I would suggest for a successful wargame project is that the outcome has to be clear, and the requirement for the outcome also have to be clear. By ‘requirement’ I do not mean the necessity of the outcome; we do have to remember that this is a hobby. But the outcome has to be something clear and that we are interested in. if the former is not there, we will never know if the outcome has been achieved. If the latter is unclear, then the project will never gain momentum.

For example, I bought a bunch of ancient galleys recently, and much of my hobby time has been spent slapping paint on them. In spite of inevitable hiccoughs, I have actually managed to complete them. Why? Why these and no, say, my Moorish army? The reason, I think, is that I had identified a need for the ships in my current campaign and realised that the campaign would grind to a halt unless I acquired some navies. I was also interested in naval warfare, and had read a book or two on the Athenian navy. So, I had a requirement and was interested.

Next, we have to ensure that the tools we acquire are suitable for the job. I suspect that many of us have had the experience of identifying an army that we are interested in, buying the figures and then realising, with sinking heart, that there is something awry somewhere. My example here is my Aztec army. The problem here is, according to recent research, that the ‘knights’ did not fight separately. They were the officer class, stiffening for the levies in mass battles. A similar charge might apply to Samurai armies, where the samurai were mostly officers in charge of ashigaru or levies. They did not, in mass battles, fight in mass Samurai ranks. I have never got around to un-basing, cutting and recombining my Aztecs.

Possibly the most important thing to maintain for a successful project is interest. It is so easy to develop a passing acquaintance with, say, a Hussite army, buy the war-waggons and paint them, but then discover that the main sources are still in untranslated German and Czech. English secondary sources can only take you so far. And we, as wargamers, become stuck because we would like to go a little further. Interest diminishes and the soldiers are consigned to the back of the cupboard.

I have to say that to maintain interest during a project, continuing to read about the period helps. Reading Lendon’s Song of Wrath while I was painting Greek navies certainly rammed home to me the importance of the maritime to the war. There were many naval actions and one major land battle in the whole ten years covered by the book.

I think the next thing to consider here is the setting of achievable milestones. Our eyes are bigger than our mouths, or, at least, our power to purchase toy soldiers is much greater than our ability to paint them. I bought 150 galleys, which does seem a lot, but they are small and fairly easy to paint. I did ten a week (roughly) until I got to the end. The goal was achievable. I see many blogs of folk painting stuff, and many succeed in painting, say, the whole allied army for Waterloo. But it is done one battalion at a time. Each milestone is celebrated in a post, with photographs. Momentum is maintained, achievement achieved, even if there are another 900 battalions to go.

The criteria for success of a wargame project are fuzzy. After all, the criteria for success for non-hobby projects are also fuzzy, often deliberately so. In my work I observe many projects. Some are celebrated as successes. For example a great celebration was held a few years ago for the achievement of bringing outsourced IT systems back in house. One of the project team admitted to me that what had actually happened was that the outsourced software had been rebranded with the in-house logo, but that management was desperate to claim some success.

Perhaps, in that sense, we should not feel bad if our projects do go awry or are incomplete and stay that way. The real world throws far more resource at its projects than we could ever muster, and they, more often than not, it seems to me, fail just as much as wargame projects. And, as Ruaridh observed a week or two ago, a wargame project that takes 20 years or so to complete is still a success, which is probably not true in the real world.

Saturday 2 April 2016

Slow Wargaming

I am sure you have noticed that life seems to be getting faster and faster. We are expected to be instantly available. Someone at work has taken a fortnight in the sun, but left her email address just in case there is anything she needs to know about. This is perfectly acceptable, of course, but if you stop and think about it, it is utterly weird.

Work, although it fills a lot of our time, is not the only place where acceleration has taken place. In spite of promises of less work, we work more. In spite of declarations that all meetings could be done via video link, we fly more to meetings in remote places (at least, places remote from where we are) than ever before. We order things online and then get testy if they are not with us in a day or two. In fact, we pay, big time, for things to be with us the next day. If we want stuff, we want it now.

I have just been reading a paper of slow scholarship. You might consider that, measured by microsecond transactions in our stock exchanges that all scholarship is slow, and, in those terms, you might have a point. But scholarship arises as the fruit of reflection, and reflection takes time. Kant, for example, had ten years of silence before he produced the Critiques. Good ideas, good, sound, thinking, is the result of lengthy pondering.

The point of the article (which was written in a North American context) was that the neo-liberal university is opposed to slow scholarship, where slow scholarship is equated with good scholarship. That is that a scholar is only rated as good by their institution if they are producing measurable outcomes, and doing it quickly. In my own (UK) institution, an academic is expected to list their next four publications, and these are supposed not to be the same four as were listed in the review last year. Slow scholarship is non-measurable, and hence is disregarded by the institution. ‘I was thinking’ is not an acceptable answer to ‘What have you done this year?’

I am sure that you have heard, more generally, of the ‘slow’ movement. It started, I believe, in Italy, as the ‘slow food’ movement, consciously opposed to the idea of fast food. The concept is about food not just as fuel, not as a rushed stuff it down job in the car at a drive through ‘restaurant’, but as food as an experience, as a social encounter, as taste and flavour, fellowship and enjoyment. The idea was to consciously slow down and enjoy the experiences of food, not just to cram it in and rush off to the next thing.

The slow movement has spread, and the concept has spread as well. There are a number of slow types around. There are ideas about slow cities, slow churches, slow gardening, slow marketing, slow travel and even, I believe, slow sex.

As the pace of life increases, the idea is that we need to do somethings in a more measured way. The philosophy (such as there is one for a disparate movement) is that we have to choose a suitable speed for doing each activity. It is not appropriate to do some things as fast as we possibly can. If we spend our holiday frantically rushing from place to place, how can we tell the difference when we return to work.

I have little doubt that most of you will have already worked out what this has to do with wargaming. There is, in our culture, a pervasive desire, amounting almost to a requirement, to get things done as quickly as possible. But is this, should it be, a requirement for a hobby?

I am therefore proposing that a new wargame movement is started, dedicated to slow wargaming.

By this I do not mean that we abandon all fast play rules, or short scenario based games, or anything of that sort. I have, after all, perpetrated a few of these myself.  But what I am suggesting is that we need to be careful, at least as wargamers, to take out time with the hobby, to enjoy it in depth and unhurriedly.

I have mentioned before my unsettlement at people who buy up ready-made armies from manufacturers, paint them according to a pre-set guide, have a game or two with them and then move on to the next period, the next army, the next set of rules. This, I think, is the MacDonaldization of the wargaming world; fast food takeaway wargames.

I am not saying that such a view of wargaming is invalid, but I would like to suggest that perhaps slow wargaming should, self-consciously, stand opposed to this sort of thing. A slow wargamer should delve into the subject in more detail, be prepared to critique the existing rules on the basis of what is found, perhaps even write their own rules. Perhaps the definition of a slow wargamer could be a wargamer who reads some of the books and papers listed in the further reading section of a relevant Ospery.

Perhaps, underlying this, there is an ethical concern, one which has been raised by the plethora of World War One games I have seen recently. WW1 had a huge impact on the societies and cultures it affected. In the UK and many other countries, each village has a war memorial with a score or so names of men who died in the war. Perhaps what I am trying to suggest is that a slow wargame might be a better tribute and memorial to the participants than a quick splash of paint and stick the battalion in the line of fire of a machine gun nest.