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.


  1. I think perspective and scope are key to finding the dramatic bit to wargame. In your example of the Russian militia battalions, played as a divisional type game, probably not that interesting. But as a brigade game, a kind of Russian Islandlwana, something could be made out of it perhaps; and a skirmish game focusing on individuals' experience could be quite good too.

    1. Oh yes. I think the important thing is to focus on the drama. A French corps brushing aside a couple of battalions is never going to grab the imagination on a broad brush view. But whether Sargent Vasili and his section survive is a lot more interesting.

      I guess we have to pick the right level for our interest.