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.


  1. I think you are onto something with the milestones (painted figures, books read, smaller games played with the figures). The wargamer that recognises and acknowledges the successful milestones may well be more likely to succeed, because they are internalising their progress. If you only look at the road ahead, the distance to be travelled could be dispiriting. Looking behind and saying "See how far I have come!" can be encouraging.

    I'm not sure the Tolstoy quote quite works though, if you apply it to the ultimate success of the project, although it may apply to the process with some variations allowing for different types of projects. I suppose success is individually defined and there may be grades of success. Painting all the figures you own for a particular army might count as a success even if you never play a game with it. Painting enough figures to play a game is a success even if the rest of the figures for that army never feel the touch of a paint brush. And so on. My Towton project only counts as a qualified success in mind, because we only fielded c.17000 figures out of the 25000 I wanted to field; logistical and project membership issues prevented this. Others saw the project as a total success because we painted lots of figures and took it round the shows. I suppose it has much in common with a PhD in that you can either have a perfect wargames project or a successful/completed wargames project, but you can never have both.

    1. Ah, yes. The number of times I've told students to get the book out of the door and get on with life. Including the one who claimed to be only able to write 50 words a day. On that basis it would take nearly three weeks to write one of these blog posts...

      Anyway, success is, I suppose, rarely total. Good enough is fine under most circumstances. My painting skills are rubbish, but I crank out troops for the table. They are sufficient for the purpose, and that is what I need, so I can rate a success even if some would look a bit askance at it.

      I think Towton counts as a success, though, even if the plan didn't quite reach reality. It certainly qualified for good enough.