Saturday, 22 October 2016

Wargame Frames

A wargame table is a frame for the action which takes place upon it. Whether it is a lovingly detailed miniature reconstruction of an actual battlefield, or a hastily slapped together chalk and felt concoction, it still frames the action. What I mean by ‘frame’ is a bit diffuse, though.

To start with, the wargamer has come to a decision, somehow, about where the game action is going to be. This might be as part of a campaign, whereby the narrative of the campaign drives the location of the action. It could be a scenario, or simply a player designating the crossroads as of strategic importance. By some sort of decision we come to the conclusion that this is where the action is going to be.

By this act we have ‘framed’, in an important way, the wargame we are going to have. In a wargame there are two distinct areas: on the table, and off the table.  What happens on the table is the subject of our attention. What happens off the table we need to make a conscious decision to consider.  The frame focusses our attention, and defocuses it on other things.

The same is true in a play or a film. The stage, the camera angle and location, frame what we see or do not see. In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s suicide occurs off stage. In part, of course, this is because it is rather hard to stage someone throwing themselves off a battlement (although they manage it in Tosca), but it also shows the distance that has grown between husband and wife. Macbeth shrugs off her death as something that would have happened anyway. The focus remains on Macbeth and his actions and inactions. The frame ensures our attention remains focussed.

In novels and other written works a similar, although perhaps more subtle, focussing occurs. I have spent a part of the last few weeks trying to convince some research students that they cannot just chuck everything they have done in the last few years into a thesis. Firstly, they will not have room, and secondly it will just be a confused mess. They have to pick their material, choose an angle, a viewpoint, and develop that. One of them quoted myself back to me: The hard thing about thesis writing is choosing what not to put in. That sounds a bit too profound for me, but it is probably true.

So it is with historical writing, I think. An angle is chosen, the data amassed, but a choice still has to be made. In the book on the 1659 Commonwealth, the frame, in this case a time frame, has to be chosen: April – November. The geographical frame is a bit easier, perhaps, it being Great Britain, but as I noted a week or two ago that is not too easy as foreign policy, both to outlying bits of England and towards other states has to be considered. Nevertheless, the material has to be organised and decision made about inclusion and exclusion, which to consign to foot notes and which to write paragraphs about. This is an ongoing exercise in framing.

Wargames are no different, I think. We choose what to focus on and, inevitably, choose what to ignore or downgrade. This sort of framing activity occurs across the different activities of staging a wargame. It can also have different results. For example, the fact that side A had five crossbowmen may be ignored in a game where hundreds of men are represented. Where each side is 20 men in a skirmish game, then those five crossbowmen take on a new importance. There is not just a frame of action, but a frame of scale.

The frame of action is where the attention is. Over the years I have read a wide variety of wargame rules, and one of the things that I find interesting to see is how the author deals with troops that go ‘off table’. They have left the frame of attention; how do we handle that? Some rules leave them there for a turn or two and then allow them to re-enter the frame. Some rules count them as lost. Some count them as half-value for the purposes of deciding who won, and so on. The point is that the unit being within or outwith the frame matters. We struggle to deal with such situations.

I think this point is exacerbated by the habit of wargamers of filling up the tables with troops. I confess to being guilty of this, but perhaps I have grown up (or grown lazy) and my table is now far bigger than the location of the action is likely to be. There are now no flanks anchored in empty space on the left or right wing. Troops rarely run off the table unless they rout there. The action is, of course, focussed in one part of the table, but at least I can see that part in some sort of context.  Of course, I have yet to solve the problem of the action taking place in one small corner of the table, yielding the same problems as above, but a big enough table is a start, at least.

Framing our wargames is something we cannot do without. Any realistic wargame of, say, Waterloo is not going to be able to cover the march of the Prussians and Grouchy’s  corps as well. In this case we can self-consciously wave the issue away with some sort of timetable for their arrival on table. Perhaps the more tricky issue is when we are not conscious of our framing and its consequences.  In a historical battle the time framing might be more important. You would get a different view of the options in many battles depending on what stage, precisely, you took for the start of the game.

So there are many facets, I think, to framing our games, and I have probably only touched on one or two here. There would be many more, depending on our reading of history, categorising of troop types and so on. I think the point is that we need to make ourselves conscious of our framing activity.


  1. A thought-provoking post as ever. One point you briefly touch on in the paragraph about historical writing is the historian's frame. A wargamer developing a game is already choosing a frame when they choose which historians to follow. Thus their game is a frame within a frame. I sometimes wish that more wargamers would realise this when they comment on topics on internet forums!

    1. I fear that it is ever more complex - frames in frames and then that is framed. It is probably why we try to avoid thinking about the whole thing....

    2. Heh, indeed. No need for a picture; it's frames all the way to the bottom!