Thursday, 11 September 2008

Wargaming 2008: a personal view

Surely there are not very many wargamers who would dispute that historical (as opposed to fantasy) miniature wargaming has never been healthier. (Fantasy wargaiming may well be in the same happy state, but this branch of the hobby is not my subject). Historical gamers have an unrivalled set of products to choose from whether in figures, terrain, accesories or rules. We also have unrivalled access to those products and other wargamers via the internet.

I have read that wargames shows might be feeling the pinch recently (particularly the smaller ones), but without conducting a detailed survey I can only say that the one's I take an interest in (the large ones) seem to be in the rudest of good health. In the latest Battlegames, Henry Hyde encourages us to attend the smaller shows to support the hobby. As usual, Henry is on the morale high ground here, but as a frequent sinner myself I will say that small shows are often hardly worth the journey. After an hour you've seen everything and are wondering why you came. Of course, if people don't bother to come, small shows will never become big ones. But I tend to feel that the show circuit finds its own level. As long as I have one or two decent size shows within a reasonable distance each year, I'm quite happy.

Shows apart, the main reasons for the exceptional condition of wargaming would seem to be twofold. First, the age of the wargames fraternity. Mostly we are at least thirty, and have disposable income to spend on our hobby. There is also a significant proportion of us with the experience and resources to run businesses manufacturing and marketing wargames products. This maturity is, I think, a central part of the strength of our hobby. One will sometimes encounter hand wringing over the limited number of youngsters involved in the hobby, and the way that Games Workshop have cornered the market in teenagers. This doesn't seem a problem to me. Children and teenagers will naturally gravitate to a highstreet product which is easily available and fully packaged. I'm confident that the Games Workshop experience will provide a number of recruits to historical wargaming in the future. There certainly seem to be plenty of people younger than me (I'm 50) at the conventions I visit. It was also recently pointed out to me that the founding fathers of our hobby were mostly in their thirties and forties when they started wargaming in the 1950s and 1960s.

Secondly, the internet. This could have been designed for a hobby such as ours. The increased access to products, the way small manufacturers can make their goods known and available, and the vastly increased communication between gamers, are all enormous benefits. The number of specialist sites which provide for the exchange of views and information have given wargaming a whole new dimension. I myself particularly appreciate the availability of photos of games and miniatures which provide inspiration and ideas.

You will find the odd older gamer who refers with nostalgia to a more do it yourself past, but the DIY option remains open to anyone who wants it: and surely no one would really want to go back to the days of the sixties and early seventies when we were scratching around for resources to make our games possible. There may however be some mileage in the view that the abundance of resources has made some gamers a little more willing to be spoon-fed rules systems and period background. The usual suspects here would be the more commercial rules sets like Flames of War which are linked to a range of miniatures and an ever growing series of scenario books. This type of thing smacks rather too much of the default bogeyman for historical gamers, namely Games Workshop. Here everything you know about your wargaming world (whether it involves your Bretonnian Knights or your Space Marines) is provided for you. No independent research is either necessary or, indeed, possible. However, I feel that the possible transfer of this problem into historical gaming is more apparent than real. The wargamers I come into contact with (either personally or on the internet) all seem to be taking advantage of the plentiful and steadily growing range of books and internet resources which allow us all to increase our knowledge of our chosen period.

I am also heartened by the view now common amongst most wargamers that the hobby is basically about playing with toy soldiers and indulging an interest in military history. If this seems an obvious statement, gamers of a certain age may remember the time when there were people involved in the hobby who were only too ready to use the word 'simulation' and encourage us to change our games to achieve this object. Usually this involved increased complexity or fundamental changes to the way our games were to be played. This type of exhortation seems to have died out, and good riddance. I am firmly of the belief that wargames with miniatures are of no real use in 'simulating' anything to do with war. To claim that we in any way recreate the experiences or choices of the commanders in our chosen period (let alone those of the troops themselves) is to misunderstand the meaning of the word 'recreate'. What we do is play a recreational game incorporating modelling and collecting, which draws its inspiration from military history. Although we like to use our research to inform our rules, this does not mean that terms like 'realism' have much meaning. The current tendency amongst gamers seems to be to recognise this. Increasingly the rules I see published emphasise easy game play, allowing players to concentrate on the tactics they can use within the game. Also alive and well is the idea that having an enjoyable game which gives a flavour of the period is more important than winning.

All this makes the hobby of miniature wargaming more accessible and enjoyable than ever before. I personally find it refreshing that the activity I choose to devote a fair bit of my relaxation time to is mostly free of negative influences. I can just get on with having a good time, in my quiet and slightly nerdy way. What can one say except relax and enjoy!