Monday 24 April 2023

"Is This a Hobby or a Military Exercise?"

The quote is from Donald Featherstone. He wrote the words in 1960, during a dispute over editorial policy in War Games Digest, the pioneering historical wargaming magazine that was at that time being published in alternating British and U.S editions. You can still source the full article here. Don wanted the magazine to stick to strictly recreational wargaming articles, whilst Jack Scruby (the U.S. editor) was happy to have general discussions of military history published as well as articles tending towards attempts at simulation - in fact he was happy to publish anything relating to military history or wargaming that he could get his hands on. 

The dispute ended in WGD winding up, and each side of the pond producing their own magazine - Don's Wargamer's Newsletter and Jack's Table Top Talk. The full exchange of views is also preserved online here. Who was right? I have sympathy with Mr Featherstone's view, but you can understand where Mr Scruby was coming from. He was short of articles, and was happy to have his magazine reflect whatever was being sent in. But who was right in this instance is not the point of this post. The point is the question posed by Donald Featherstone.

These days, historical wargaming with miniatures is pretty much acknowledged to be just a hobby. Right? We're into recreational wargaming. We're all just playing with toy soldiers. Well, recently I had the free time to check out a couple of podcasts, in both of which non-wargamers (but people keenly interested in military history) invited wargamers onto the podcast to speak about their hobby. And it appears that the idea of a military exercise is not dead.

The first podcast I heard was on James Holland's We Have Ways Of Making You Talk channel. It was called 'The Miniature War', and can be heard on Apple podcasts here. Their wargaming guru was Nick Skinner, well known as one of the Too Fat Lardies. I strongly recommend you listen to the podcast if you can. But I'm afraid Nick lost me when he started by saying "it all goes back to Kriegspiel". Personally, I thought it all went back to H.G.Wells and Little Wars. But, from what I heard, Nick seemed to be all about confusing military exercises and recreational wargaming. He certainly seemed to end up confusing James Holland, which is not surprising. 

Nick's main wargaming example was the recent Too Fat Lardies project that involved putting on some Chain of Command games at the museum in Arnhem. This was a remarkable and fantastic effort which succeeded admirably in entertaining visitors to the museum and publicising the hobby. But of course Chain of Command is a set of rules for recreational wargaming. It's a game between players. Kriegspiel was a predictive learning tool where members of the Prussian General Staff umpired (yes, you've guessed it) a military exercise, most famously trying to work out what would happen if Prussia went to war with France in 1870. Which doesn't sound like a recreational game to me.

You can ocasionally find a game of Kriegspiel being played at a wargaming show, but playing games of Kriegspiel is a niche hobby within a niche hobby. Sadly, the phrase 'playing with toy soldiers' never left Nick's mouth. He seemed very keen to convince his audience that the hobby of historical wargaming was some sort of serious 'learning tool' (a phrase he uses at one point.). This is, in my opinion, rather silly. But we can discusss that below. For the moment, I will say that genuine Kriegspiel and Chain of Command are very different things indeed, and mixing them together is a mistake.

A fine set of wargaming rules.

Those seeking to understand our hobby were on much firmer ground with the second podcast. This dated from 2019 and occurred on the Ready Room channel. It involved a couple of the leading lights from Little Wars TV. LWTV already have a succinct and accurate summary of the background to our hobby available as a YouTube video, so I expected a better result than Nick Skinner's effort. I was correct. The whole podcast goes on for 2 hours, and does diverge into non-wargaming issues towards the end, but the first hour is an entertaining discussion on what our hobby consists of. For LWTV fans such as myself, there is also some interesting background into how the club and its YouTube channel started out. This is another podcast I urge you to find time for.

There is no messing about in the Ready Room podcast. Our hobby is clearly described as just that  - a hobby. And no-one is shy about saying they enjoy playing with toy soldiers. To be fair, Gregg does say how regularly playing Gettysburg as a wargame over the years has taught him that the Confederates appear to have had little chance of winning that particular battle. But how far this means recreational wargaming is a learning tool is questionable and something I'd like to have a quick chat about. 

A Military Exercise?
The strap line for the James Holland podcast actually includes the words, 'What wargaming can teach us about the Second World War'. So, what can we learn about warfare from recreational wargaming with miniatures? The answer is, nothing. Or, to be more precise, practically nothing. The only exception I have come across is Professor Philip Sabin's Lost Battles. But in this book it is clear that he develops an academic modelling technique relating to ancient warfare rather than a game, a technique which is probably better run through computers than played on a table top. Simulations tend to make rather dull games.

There is an overall point here. I do not want to simulate war in my games, even if such a thing were possible. It has been said that those wargamers wishing to simulate WW2 should dig a hole in their garden in the middle of winter, then live in it for a least a couple weeks, whilst friends and family members occasionally throw the biggest fireworks they can buy at your hole - preferably in the middle of the night. War is about death and destruction and I do not wish to simulate it. I want to play with toy soldiers in a game based roughly on what is known about a particular period, and which results in historically plausible outcomes. 

But how do we know what an historically plausible outcome is? By knowing the period through research, mostly via the reading we do in books and online. This leads to my basic point, which is about the flow of information. Information flows from what we know about warfare into our wargames, not from our games into a body of knowledge. We make our games by knowing about military history, not the other way round. 

One might say that someone with little knowledge of WW2 tactics might learn the power of an MG42 by playing Chain of Command. I suppose my point is that they won't have learnt anything new. The knowledge about MG42s came from the rules author, who learnt it by reading books about WW2 tactics. You can't learn about the power of an MG42 by making a 1/76th scale model of it and putting it on a table. And, to be frank, you can learn a great deal a lot faster by reading than playing a wargame. The latter really is a very time consuming and cumbersome way of acquiring information that everyone who's interested already knows.

How about the Gettysburg example? Well, without wishing to deny Gregg's lived experience, I have severe doubts about recreational wargaming having anything real to say about the outcome of Gettysburg. So much of the outcome of a battle of that size is about command relationships and command decisions that can't really be gamed at a tactical or operational level. And the distance between a recreational game and a real battle is just so great that the chance of anything at all being learned seems like wishful thinking. Having a go can be very enjoyable, but then 'enjoyable' is not a good word to describe an actual bloody battle.

So, I was rather disappointed with Nick Skinner's description of historical wargaming with miniatures, and pleased to find a much clearer and rather more enjoyable description given by the guys at LWTV. Please, if you can, listen to both podcasts. I'd really enjoy reading your reactions in the comments section.

'Til next time!