Monday, 25 August 2014

Playing With Toy Soldiers

I did think of calling this post New House, Old Magazines 2. I have been reading through the old wargames magazines which I unearthed when moving house. The main result was the realisation that I was keeping most of them for old time's sake only - there was nothing in the majority of them that really interested me, and I would never read them again. So most of them went in the bin. But I did keep a select few with thought-provoking or useful articles inside.

Particularly thought-provoking were a series of articles on the use of toy soldiers in wargaming. Now, I think of my hobby very much as playing with toy soldiers, though I suppose 'miniature wargaming' or 'wargaming with miniatures' is more like the official title. So an article entitled 'The Case Against Toy Soldiers' (MW 13) was bound to jump out at me. Some of you (those of a certain age, shall we say?) may even remember the article. Basically, it was Paddy Griffith being deliberately controversial by making the point that those looking for any sort of realism in their games would be better off trying some other sort of wargaming than that variety which uses model soldiers. Paddy rather patronisingly lets wargamers such as me off the hook early in the article with this statement,

Please note that the points I want to make apply only to games which are aiming at some sort of historical realism. You can ignore them if your aim is just to have a bit of knockabout fun with your toys, or if you are into fantasy.

Yeah, cheers Paddy. Though having 'a bit of knockabout fun' does describe my attitude to wargaming reasonably well. What really struck me was how firmly Paddy completely missed the point about the hobby.  Model or toy soldiers are not peripheral to some practical attempt to recreate the warfare of the past. They are the central factor in a lighthearted pastime that at most aims to create 'historically plausible results' (to quote Henry Hyde). Paddy reckoned that around 50% of wargamers were 'informed members of the wargame hobby' (thanks again) who were seriously into realism in their games. I don't really think that was true when the article was written in 1984, and I'm sure it's not true now. Thankfully, whatever tosh people used to believe about recreating or researching warfare through recreational games has faded into the past. Indeed, how Paddy got to thinking that that was what the hobby was about after reading Donald Featherstone or Charles Grant is beyond me. 

What his article pointed up is, I think, an aberration (or, more accurately, a dead end) that surfaced as wargaming began to develop during the late 70s and 80s: the aberration that we really were trying to research past warfare through gaming, and/or that realism was the holy grail of the hobby, and in particular the holy grail of its rules. This seems to be confirmed by the 3 articles in reply to Paddy that appeared in  MW 17, one of them by Phil Barker. None of them makes the obvious point that Paddy was just barking up the wrong tree. They all try to justify how toy soldiers really can help you out in your simulation of warfare, or how said soldiers really aren't such a problem as Paddy makes out. I won't bore you with the details of the arguments. They were all rather unappealing I'm afraid.

A little later, there appeared a three part article in three consecutive issues of MW (21, 22, and 23 in 1985) entitled 'The Wargame: Game or Simulation?'. This was by another member of Wargame Developments called George Jeffrey. I remembered these articles as soon as I found them - I had read them with considerable care in 1985, thought about what George was trying to say, and finally concluded he was talking bollocks. Again, summarising the arguments would be tiresome, but after assuming that a move towards 'simulation' was the goal of all serious gamers there was some largely inexplicable stuff about games moving from 'decision point' to 'decision point', and what happened between being calculated by applying known casualty and movement rates. Known casualty rates? Fat chance, I thought, even in 1985. How all this could be made into a workable set of rules was unclear, and certainly not laid down in any examples. Most tellingly, nothing along the lines George was suggesting has ever appeared in any published set of rules, at least as far as I know.

Thankfully, this kind of thing then seemed to die out. We all know the results - rules started to get simpler, easier and faster to play, and wargamers began to return to what the hobby had started out as - a bunch of grown men (and the occasional woman) playing with toy soldiers. Unfortunately, those articles coloured my idea of what Wargames Developments was about. Apparently they were a bunch of wargamers who looked down their noses at people like me, and wrote patronising articles pointing out what the rest of us were doing wrong. But they certainly weren't the only ones thinking along those lines. 

I don't know a great deal about what WD get up to, even now, but good luck to them in their quest for new ways to play games, with or without toy soldiers. They deserve more publicity. However, I know which branch of the hobby I'll be sticking with.


Bluebear Jeff said...


I suppose that I count as a "grown man", but I suspect that I am still really a child in an old man's body.

In any event I still much prefer mucking about with toy soldiers to pretending that they represent "reality". I'm just having fun (and learning a bit of history on the side as well).

I agree with your stance (but I'm still a little boy at heart).

-- Jeff

Phil Dutré said...

Another symptom of these shifting ideas about wargaming can also be seen when one reads the old wargaming books by Featherstone et al. The early books still emphasize the toy soldier as a figure - and one can see chapters in early books on how to paint figures and what the different uniforms looked like. I guess this was because wargaming back then still had strong links with the military modeling hobby, and "historical realism" was all about making your soldiers look visually plausible, rather than making the gameplay historically plausible. In other words, early wargaming was about visual realism, not tactical realism.

I suppose that this emphasis on the individual figure also drove the wargaming rules that were designed bottom-up: starting from individual figures and working your way up towards entire units, rather than start from the unit as a basic playing piece and merely using the toy soldiers as a convenient playing piece.

Of course, from the moment one starts to think about tactics on the battlefield as the main design goal, then the figures are relegated to some sort of afterthought. So yes, I can see the reasoning of Paddy Griffith, but I agree with you that he therefore missed the point w.r.t. *hobby* wargaming. It's all about visual appeal!

Phil Dutré said...

BTW, a slightly related issue about "what miniature wargaming is all about" sometimes crops up when digital tools are discussed. Some think that once we have large digital iPad-like tables, we can move figures around, and all stats etc. are managed by the software. But this also misses the point. Miniature wargaming is an analogue hobby about pushing toy soldiers around, rolling dice yourself etc. That is the core idea.

It's almost as if telling someone who practices bow shooting that using a pistol is much more efficient in hitting the target. Yes, of course it is, but that's not the point. The point is to use the bow and shoot an arrow, not hitting the target al all costs.

Ross Mac said...

Spot on Keith. I was an impressionable young fellow in the 70's when I first encountered Jeffreys and Grants Napoleonic books and WRG 3rd ancients with their emphasis on constant scale.

It didn't really sunk in at the time that the latter two talked about it and then threw it away once they got to the table for an actual game. Took me even longer to appreciate that my earlier books that focused on the look and feel crossed with how they encouraged players produced better games more fun and just as accurate.

I still struggle with these things some days when the constant scale ghost catches me or find myself being overly sensitive to silly suggestions that a game that is not an "accurate siumulation" is no different that tiddlywinks.

Steve J. said...

I still view my hobby as 'playing with toy soldiers'. I want a fun game that gives me a feel of the period etc, alongside which I will learn some history. What I don't want is a very realstic simulation. I remember a post on the Blitzkreig Commander forum by Major Dave Fielder (rtd) who had 'suffered' such simulations as part of his training. When he wanted a wargame, he wanted one that was fun, noy one that was a simulation.

James said...

I think a huge part of the issue in the 80s was the idea that to get an accurate 'simulation' you had to cram in as much technical detail as possible. So game play got lost and very often the 'simulation' got also lost in the forest of irrelevant factoids.

Richard Clark of Too Fat Lardies has some very good ideas on being able to simulate something while still having a good game. You just have to pick what you want to simulate and then abstract the rest.