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!


Neil Patterson said...

I suspect the references to Kriegspiel are twofold; TFL publish them, so product placement never goes amiss ☺
Secondly, the wish to be taken seriously, especially if it's your day job....

IIRC, wasn't there even a predecessor to Kriegspeil? If you wanted to push it, it would be possible to argue chess or the Indian games that predated it or Go are the original wargames....

The more military history I read, the more certain I become that we are playing with toy soldiers. This notion of "simulation" should be consigned to the same place as all those unplayable " realistic " rules from the 1970s and 80s.

What we do is based on the imperfect knowledge of history and in particular conflict; we base our rules on the "facts" established from a view of the past filtered through these imperfect lenses. Even "plausibility" should be considered in this light. To anyone who declares "they did this or that" or proclaims some incontrovertible "fact" is often simply repeating frequently repeated "wargamer's knowledge" that has no basis in history . Anyone expressing such certainties should be challenged with, "oh, so were you there then?"

Worse still are those who conclude they are military geniuses after playing a game and winning as Napoleon or Hannibal etc. Such self delusion is no doubt comforting for their fragile ego, but depressing.

You can strive to understand war by reading, but the insights gained through gaming are likely to be minimal if not misleading. It won't stop people trying though!

Keith Flint said...

Aha! I'd forgotten they published Kriegspiel. There's a little mystery solved.

Phil Dutré said...

The worst that happened to wargaming is that both hobby and professional wargaming are both still called wargaming - while in essence they are quite different things with different goals.

Hobby wargaming also has become more self-referential. Back in the Featherstone days, a wargamer would read about WW2 and then try to recreate some of thata ction on the table, or do his own research. These days, most of the historical background is provided by the rulebooks. It's not WW2's history, it's the "setting" of Fow or Bolt Action. Gamers these days don't play WW2, they play FoW or Bolt Action.

Pan Marek said...

I will concede that perfect "simulations" of warfare are an exercise in impossibility. And those rulesets of 40+ years ago with minutia for every eventuality and every step in an action, are so dense as to be completely unenjoyable.
Those things said, if we completely abandon any notion that our games are based on historical warfare, are we not just "playing a game" that is no different than Fantasy gamers?
Are the differences in rules for the Hundred Years War, SYW and WWII merely just different game conventions rather than attempts to bring some flavor of the period onto the table?

In short, have we historical gamers given up? Is any attempt to reflect any given war on the table an exercise in futility? I got into historical gaming 50 years ago because I was interested in history. Is is all for naught?

Graham C said...

Interesting to read your thoughts and views. Despite what Mr Skinner may have been hoping to achieve in seeking to give some serious credibility to the hobby it is just that a hobby played with toy soldiers. Whilst I’m generalising I think you touch on a key difference in the hobby now to when I started 50 years ago, then we read a lot about the period, to understand it’s history, to digest battles and perhaps naively think of recreating major battles using the rules of the day.
Now the emphasis seems to be on the gaming with many gamers not knowing anything about the period or the armies other than what’s provide by the rules or it’s supporting books. Is that wrong ? I don’t think so it’s just different to how it was.
I like rules that give a flavour of the period in terms of how it reflects formations, tactics etc but would never claim it’s a simulation.
Having said that it doesn’t stop me re fighting historical battles or campaigns.
I guess in summary I’m saying the hobby has diversified much to the benefit of the hobby. I still like to read, understand and challenge myself but I would never delude myself to say I’ve fought a historical simulation.

rross said...

This kind of references back to a couple of other recent blogs where the question has been posed about realism in rule sets and simulating a particular era/battle versus just playing a game.
I find it quite ironic that it is one of the Lardies whom mounted his high horse to pontificate about simulation. I really enjoy their rule sets, but to me, they are definitely on the "game" end of the rules spectrum....and certainly no worse for that!
It seems to me that the general trend in gaming is towards smaller level action, what is generally termed "skirmish" level....and I include myself in that trend. However, to unfairly target one particular rule set, Pikemans often would you suppose that a few groups of twenty to fifty supporters of the King or parliament, set about each other in the local common land in 1643? Virtually never, would be my's a game created to allow gamers who like a small skirmish with a few troops, to have the opportunity to collect and paint nice ECW figures!
I guess for simulation of actual command and control or tactical decision making ( the only potential part of warfare that playing a game can possibly help us understand) the scale of figures and size of engagement need to go the other way....large battles where twenty 2mm figures represent a unit.
To answer Pan Marek above, I don't think we really do anything more meaningful than sci fi or fantasy gamers, we just use different figures and base our rules on what we think happened at the time, versus what might happen in an imaginary future!
My final words are from a gaming friend who will often pick up anyone who tries to justify a rule mechanism or table top manouevrre with the words "realistic" or "realism".
"There is nothing realistic about's a game!" he will say. 😜

Keith Flint said...

Pan - don't despair! Historical wargaming as we both knew it when we started is still going strong, in my opinion. Just look at LWTV - they do the historical research, but still have fun and don't take themselves too seriously.

We also have a great choice of rule sets that cover a wide variety of periods, most of them written by fellow gamers who are enthusiasts for military history.

Neil Patterson said...

In response to Pan, I would reflect back his statement:
"if we completely abandon any notion that our games are based on historical warfare, are we not just "playing a game" that is no different than Fantasy gamers? "
If a game is "based on historical warfare" how different is that from a game based on a fantasy novel? Both are games; both are constrained by either our notions of a particular period of historical warfare OR the world and actions contained in a work of fiction.
Take two games; a recreation of a battle in Middle Earth laboriously researched from Tolkein which uses what little we know of ancient and medieval warfare to produce rules, OoB, equipment etc. Secondly, a "hypothetical" WW2 engagement set in 1944 on the Western front where the Germans field a full strength Tiger II battalion where tanks never break down nor run out of fuel, where aircraft are omitted from the game, so no need to worry about "Jabos". The Germans are all veterans; if not in a tank, are riding in armoured personnel carriers. No sign of any dodgy Polish conscripts or "ear" / "stomach" battalions or sailors without ships.

Which is the better simulation? More "historical" or even " better" game?

The problem with "historical" games is that unless you laboriously refight actual battles or actions, they are in essence playing a game that's " fantasy "; that is they never happened. Likewise, the moment you diverge from the course or decisions made in a real battle, it never happened so the best you can hope for is something that vaguely resembles your understanding of what actually happened in the real event. It's possible to convince yourself it is "plausible" but in reality it's as much a game as the Tolkein one above.

It's partly the best reason to use imaginary invented armies as it means you are never chasing the chimera of a historical simulation; it also means accepting that you are playing a game which happens to use toy soldiers....


Pan Marek said...

Keith- Thanks for the encouraging words! I'm really not down in the dumps!

Neil- A wargame "set in 1944 on the Western front where the Germans field a full strength Tiger II battalion where tanks never break down nor run out of fuel, where aircraft are omitted from the game, so no need to worry about "Jabos". The Germans are all veterans; if not in a tank, are riding in armoured personnel carriers." is, indeed, a fantasy scenario.

I don't want to come off as a curmudgeon, but I am into the history, and even if its a hypothetical scenario, I try to avoid setting up something that is very unlikely for the period. We play with toy soldiers, that's for certain. But if we take the history completely out of our games, I think we might as well play chess. Or poker.

N. E. Pete said...

First time commenting here, and let me note I always enjoy your blog.

It seems some hobby participants feel required to justify their interests. Golfers, sailors or even football fans (U.S. or rest of the world) don't feel a need to excuse their interests, but those who like model soldiers or model trains often bristle because society views us as "odd".

I recall the 1970s when there was a determined effort to re-cast "wargaming" as "conflict simulation" - because war was bad (which is true). One of the principle publishers of board games was "Simulations Publications, Inc". During the same time frame the U.S. Army bought and distributed to various units terrain boards, GHQ miniature vehicles and modified versions of WRG rules for armor miniatures as a training aid - so "game or military exercise"?

Our hobby is broad enough that there are indeed people who play games with "army men" miniatures, as well as those who do deep research on uniforms and equipment of various periods. Those who play games like "Flames of War" (I have heard it likened to "40K WW2") and get all their research out of the many manuals published are but one branch of the hobby. Most gamers I know at least read the Osprey publications on various parts of military history, others do more detailed research even to primary sources.

Ben Cato said...

Some great comments and perspectives! I really like these discussions as they help me to focus on the types of games I enjoy.
Thanks Keith for the post and thanks everyone else for the comments.

Norm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Norm said...

Above deleted for spelling - It was too obvious to let go!

The terms wargamer / wargaming are just umbrella terms and so unsurprisingly they cover a host of preferences and levels of interest and certainly the overlap of simulation meets game. It is possible for us all to sit at different points on that spectrum, though I imagine many of us are commonly grouped towards the middle of ‘gaming’ and then towards the extremes things thin out.

I am passionate about my wargaming, but I am happy to think about it as a heavily themed activity, rather than anything deeper and more meaningful and I don’t confuse it or justify it with some sort of academic learning, though knowledge does expand by the associated reading of books etc that surround our interest.

I do however like things to feel ‘right’ and not ‘gamey’, otherwise I may as well be playing Ludo!

I remember as a keen teenager, just exposed to the hobby and writing my own WWII rules, asking my father, a serving front line soldier in WWII, what the effects of the 2” mortar would be - he retained his usual composure of calmness, I seem to remember the question being less helpfully than I was looking for, probably avoided rather than answered, but I have regretted the insensitivity of the question, more-so with passing years.

So I am happy with my games to be themed, with abstracted mechanics and to enjoy the artwork of boardgames and their chess-like manoeuvre and to enjoy the beauty of figures and what better way to use them than to parade them around on a table, pretending that I am involved in a moment of history.

I suppose in one way, you could encapsulate this whole thing by imagining an outsider looking in finding it somewhat distasteful at me ‘doing war’ and me failing to explain properly that I don’t!

Steve J. said...

A thought provoking post as always Keith. First and foremost I see wargaming as a hobby, which I always say is 'playiing with toy soldiers', that has several facets to it:

- Collecting and painting my miniatures, which is really where I think we all started.
- Reading and researching a particular period, campaign and/or battle. This ties in with my love of history in general and military history in particular.
- Creating a plausible game and/or campaign based upon my understanding of the period to be played.
- First and foremost this must be FUN, as I've played too many games over the years with other players that whilst having a nod towards plausibility, were not FUN for many reasons.

With regards to the Gettysburg example, when playing Chris Pringle's superb Bloody Big Battles and actions from the Austro-Prussian or Franco-Prussian War, I have gained a greater insight into why things turned out the way they did, from playing the game. In particular how terrain really affected what was achievable along with opening deployments etc in relation to the campaign itself. So having read the 'book', when playing the game certain actions etc were made clearer as a result. So I think wargaming can be a valuable tool to gain insights into historical actions, but still be fun at the same time.

I hope to find time to listen to the podcasts, especially the LWTV one at some point, ditto to watch the Youtube video, so thanks for the 'heads up' on these.

 Ashley said...

Thank you for the work you put in to write this piece. I have one observation, driven by my professional background in psychology.

It all boils down to definitions and assumptions.

The oft used 'dig a hole in the garden etc..." counter-argument is not at all helpful in discussing the differences between wargaming being a hobby or a military simulation.

Depending on the assumptions it is possible to have a wargame that meets the criteria og being a simulation that is also a hobby. It is also possible to play a miniature wargame that is a simulation of a military exercise.

This I would argue is down to choice.

Should people be force to choose, or forced into either? The answer is , no.

Personally, I'm happy to say I play with toy soldiers. There again I've happily spent weekends out in the field, at night playing at soldiering too. It was my choice.

Now, if you want to argue that wargaming is not warfare, then I would agree that it is a vast overreach to confound one with the other.

Keith Flint said...

Many thanks to everyone for your thoughtful responses. The post was prompted by my surprise at Nick Skinner's seeming inability to describe our hobby with clarity, linked with finding the Donald Featherstone quote.

I think 'playing with toy soldiers' is an excellent start in explaining our hobby. I always think the nearest hobby to ours is railway modelling, rather than military simulations or re-enactment. It's about inputs, not outputs. But perhaps I was underestimating the value of top-quality operational level games like BBB.

pancerni said...

Huh, the old discussion, some earnest thoughts have been expressed.

I am from the "you buy your ticket, you takes your chances," group. The nearest I have been to 'real thing' conflict is mid 1970's Reforger exercises. That is as close as I want to get. I don't care for 'gamey' mechanics but also expect a reduction in omniscient abilities of the gamer to be in the rules.

At lunch a few weeks back, one of my 'younger' brothers, who just started Medicare eligibility, asked me why I played mostly Napoleonics. He wasn't impressed with my answer. "Because they are pretty," was my response. A lack of clarity on my part, but then he is not a wargamer.

If someone that close in age and experience is that much different in outlook, you concentrate on what is common experience, like the interaction between their beagles and our dachshund.

GDW Command Decision and Picquet 's L'Grognards are my favorite sets, although recently playing Frostgrave and Galactic Knights are the time sinks at present.

arthur1815 said...

Good afternoon, Keith. I tend to agree with those who believe that certainly most learning about warfare is done before playing a wargame, from the research and reading that goes into mustering a miniature army, devising rules and scenarios. These days, I'm perfectly happy to play toy soldier games set in ImagiNations like those of Charles Grant senior, rather than try to recreate historical armies.

There may be the odd insight to be gained from a wargame. Years ago a game of Paddy Griffith's Men Against Fire, a game based on SLA Marshall's analysis of fighting in the Pacific in WWII, led to a 'friendly fire' incident, which brought home to me how easily such things could happen in close terrain with separated groups who cannot see each other. And did not HG Wells write that the confusions and mistakes made by military men when playing Little Wars show what a blundering thing real war must be?

It does seem that many younger wargamers nowadays simply play a commercially produced set of rules without doing much study of the periods and armies being portrayed, which is a pity, IMHO, as one of the best aspects of wargaming is its stimulation of imagination and creativity.

Keith Flint said...

@ pancerni - playing Napoleonics because the figures are pretty? Sounds like a perfectly good reason to me!

Independentwargamesgroup said...

Im lucky enough to own quite a few Wargames Digests and have always been impressed by the quality of the pioneering magazine created by Jack Scruby. The article Featherstone fell out with Scruby over what was for me a really interesting one by a man who had fought in South Africa during the Boer War. I always thought Featherstone was way over the top with his rude tirade and suspect he was looking for a way to start a magazine in the UK. At one stage he even contemplated using Wargames Digest for the title. But I digress.As one becomes a wargaming veteran you realise that wargaming can never resemble war. Oh we can spend eons over the figures, making certain the correct regiments are used for some battle etc, but after that the resemblance ends. To read accounts by people who were actually there gives us a better understanding although even their accounts can be deceptive, when one is fighting to stay alive who remembers much of what was going on. Only afterwards can one realise what happened and even then its only a very small part off the whole business. One has to accept wargaming is an excuse to read military books, paint lovely figures and enjoy the company of likeminded people while playing a game.

Owen Elliott said...

The US and Canadian armies used the same rules (give or take) as you use for Poland in 1939 as a training aid in the 1970s and 80s. They amended them to make them more "realistic", you've amended them to make them more "fun". I've participated and run many wargames at work, including some using models. They're useful for examining complexity - the inter-action between multiple factors. They don't prove anything (I have to warn people against thinking they're predictive), but they do suggest things you might not have thought of, which can be tested against "common sense" (albeit the latter suggests the world is flat..).

Keith Flint said...

@ Independentwargamesgroup - "One has to accept wargaming is an excuse to read military books, paint lovely figures and enjoy the company of likeminded people while playing a game."

Amen to that. Spot on.

Neil Patterson said...

"I don't want to come off as a curmudgeon, but I am into the history, and even if its a hypothetical scenario, I try to avoid setting up something that is very unlikely for the period. We play with toy soldiers, that's for certain. But if we take the history completely out of our games, I think we might as well play chess. Or poker."

I don't think you are curmudgeonly and I hope you don't see my comments as implying anything about you or your views.
Sadly, I have seen supposed historical games that may as well be chess or poker; either they have glaring errors or inconsistencies, or worse in the quest for "historical accuracy" give Napoleonic French / WW2 Germans / ACW Confederates abilities or factors or advantages that skew the deck in their favour as it were.

I suspect what you mean is there should be some consistency in rules that reflect the historical period, so that in horse & musket games, artillery fires further than muskets, cavalry move faster than infantry, as oppose to certain popular non-historical games where a single character can wipe out units with magic or psychic powers. But in extreme situations, I've seen historical games be just as unbalanced where the French always win and the Spanish always lose. Should you allow the same factors? Many would howl in outrage at such a situation; but getting the subtle balance right is not easy. Strangely, if it were army blue v army yellow it would be different one feels.

Something only touched on slightly in the comments is perhaps more important. Who you actually play with.
I suspect this is the most important issue in wargames. If you play with someone who shares your ideas and take on history, it's unlikely you will ever disagree about how historical the games are or not; it's also likely you share the same taste in rules and outlook. Someone who thinks it's about playing with toy soldiers v someone who thinks he has an accurate facsimile of a historical army which is engaged in a simulation of real war are unlikely to find any common ground. Most of us are not so extreme, but we all have our own view of whatever it is we are doing as a hobby. Perhaps that's why it's so difficult to explain?

Archduke Piccolo said...

This is a vast topic, so I thought I would pick just one aspect brought up by the suggestion that (hobby) War Gaming is (can be) a 'learning tool'. I reckon one could easily write a 2000-word essay on that topic alone.

'Learning tool' suggests War Gaming to be a 'means to an end'. What end? For mine, war gaming has never been a 'means to an end' any more than chess has been (I learned chess and was hooked years before I discovered war gaming was a thing - such a lost youth!). Except may a means of telling a story. War Gaming is a narrative art along with performance arts, literature, film...

A heck of a lot of learning does in to developing a war gamer - as much as any given hobbyist might desire. And it never ends: there is always something new to discover - about history - military and otherwise; military methods, tailoring and millinery; equipment - design and performance... you get the picture. At the end you get a game that satisfies (or not) one's criteria (well defined or 'gut feel') for verisimilitudinousness (verisimilitudinosity?). Do I have an impression of 18th century horse and musket warfare? Napoleonic, World War two...? You don't war game to see how far and wide a 12pr round of canister spread, and its effect upon the pbi in front of it. You find these out so that you may include 12 pr cannon in your wargame with commensurate effect.

In sum War Games is more the product of learning than the process.

HAVING SAID THAT - I don't think the 2FL guy is completely mistaken, however much he might be overstating the case. For one thing, hobby war games have been known to be adopted by professional militaries for training purposes. But I can't help being reminded of H.G. Wells's remark towards the close of his was games Magnum opus. “You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be. Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion …” (Wells). That is not learning nothing.

That several games of Gettysburg, or Waterloo, or whatever, suggest the likelihood or unlikelihood of, say, a result other than historical, I think is a reasonable inference to draw. Conclusive? Probably not. Were it so, 'Gettysburg' would be practically dead as a hobby war game. Persuasive, then? Probably, and not unreasonably so.


Archduke Piccolo said...

'Historical' war games, written post facto, make certain assumptions based upon actual results. It is not easy to vary from those results. I long ago noticed this about Don Featherstone's 'Battles for war gamers' - a dichotomy he could never quite resolve. Having outlined how events panned out, he would introduce some allowance for chance that events might vary, and even the overall outcome overturned. 'Military probability allowed for Lew Wallace to take the right road, or for A.S. Johnston's leg would not to be life-threatening, or for Buell's army to have been half a day farther off, or that Sherman was NOT surprised at Shiloh...

This sort of thing prevented the exercise becoming a tedious following of the original battle, episode for episode, to a foregone conclusion. BUT, he would intone, introducing such military probabilities introduced increasing chances of the action diverging so far from actual events as to constitute a whole different battle - one that has nothing to do (say) with the events of 6 April 1862.

With war games, you takes your chances, come what may. If there is anything I have learned from war games, is that you CAN NOT COUNT ON PROBABILITIES. Ever. Here is what I have learned from a long study of the esoteric arcana at the shrine of Hexahedra, the Goddess of Table battles:
1. There is no such thing as a 'long run' in war games.
2. Granny Weatherwax was right: 1000 to 1 shots crop up nine times out of ten
3. If only a '6' will save you, you are certainly doomed.
4. If all you have to do to survive is not roll a '1', the odds of rolling a '1' are at least directly proportional to the just how bad it will be if you do roll a '1'.
5. All battles, and all outcomes from battles (and wars in general, come to that), are subject to chance.
6. If the outcome of a solo war game is unexpected, you're doing something right.


Keith Flint said...

Great comments Archduke! Telling a story is such an important part of a good wargaming experience."Wargaming is a narrative art" - a nice insight, and something to bear in mind when trying to improve our gaming experience.

Regarding dicing, point 5 stands out for me. Which is why wargaming actual battles to try and learn about them can be such a misleading experience. A bit of chance or mischance, either in the actual battle or the recreation, can lead us up entirely the wrong path.

Thanks for taking the time to make such an extensive comment.

lewisgunner said...

There is a fundamental problem with a wargame as a predictor of actual performance. Rules are crucially dependent upon the author’s estimation of the performance of one side’s base unit against an opponent’s similar unit. If I am playing Hannibal against a Roman army I have to calculate how long my Gauls and Spaniards will hold up against Roman Legions whilst my Africans work around the Roman flanks. I am also dependent upon the predictability of the Carthaginian cavalry beating the Roman cavalry and getting round to attack the Roman rear. If Hannibal has those calculations wrong then Cannae cannot happen. Similarly the calculation of how German and Italian tanks against British armour is crucial to the Western desert in 1941. Its fine for us as wargamers and base our numbers on the outcomes of history, but Kriegspiel was intended to be predictive. How Prussian troops performed unit v unit against the French was crucial to the calculation of how many battalions would be required to hold or to destroy the likely number of French battalions because that informed the Prussian players how many battalions would be needed to take a position and how many would be available for manoeuvre.
The same is true for smaller unit clashes. A large part of what broke the German army in 1918 was that British ( and presumably French ) small unit tactics with LMGs and Mills bombs ( and clever artillery and air cooperation and tanks) were highly successful at trench clearing without suffering high casualties. A similar disparity to how stormtrooper tactics had been a year earlier. The choice for rule writers is whether they are depicting combat at a level in which the low kevel tactics have to be replicated by the player, ir are they just assumed. A partner in the early incarnation of WRG said ‘ Romans always beat pikes so our Romans will always beat pikes’ Do we see that Romans always have a guaranteed success or do we set the Roman player to use one of the successful tactics or to fail in front of the hedgehog. Having tried several of the ‘new style’ rules for WW2, for example I have yet to see one which replicates fire and movement as opposed to simply making sure tgat you use all available weapons against one enemy group at a time.

Keith Flint said...

Quite right Roy. It's hard to learn anything when the battles/games one is fighting are themselves based upon a set of assumptions you yourself, or the rules writer, have come up with.

Chris Gregg said...

Gosh Keith what a big subject and what a wonderful selection of wargaming intelligensia have commented, many of whom I'm lucky enough to know.
As you know I'm a big-battle fan and one who likes game scale (unit footprints, ranges, overall battlefield frontage etc) to be "realistic". The reason for that is that a big part of the hobby to me is reading the real history and then trying to make it plausible on the table top. Having the exactly uniformed troops is less important than making sure General A has to deploy a Division not just a Brigade to dislodge General B from his objective (Bathtubbing? - yuk!). Recreating a scale battlefield, especially after visiting the real terrain, is hobby heaven for this nerd, and seeing a plausible game played over it that gives an alternative outcome (such as JP's D'Erlon's Assault is just magic. It's not about "FUN", I'm afraid, but the sense of history coming alive that does it for me. The fun comes from the company you keep. I've had Imagi-nation games where the background is amusing and the players wonderfully humorous but the game is not fun due to some major failure in game design, or trying to do "too much" in too small a space because you just can. Conversely I've had "serious" attempts at big historical battles where the players are competitive, the history well "simulated", but there is still fun to be had by the players being "in character" - Marshal Ney at Waterloo: "No Napoleon I will not do as you say, you are off table with stomach trouble at the moment!". To me it is not "playing with toy soldiers" it is "using model soldiers to play a game with other people". Cheers Chris G

Wargamer Stu said...

Having played many rules / written a few I think that the most you can achieve is to simulate one or two aspects of a specific period in your rules and give the players some meaningful choices.

I think Armati does well on keeping your battle lines, DBA handles skirmishers quite neatly and Chain of Command is good on LMGs dominating squad tactics.

The big shift for me was DBA as it broke away from realism = every more detailed stat charts and into a world where you abstract things to give a series of interesting choices. I think if you can capture in your rules some level of "feel" and produce a few dilemmas for the players you are likely to have produced something enjoyable to play.

Keith Flint said...

@ Chris & Stu - thanks guys, more interesting comments. It's great to know both of you as you both have your own distinctive and original approach to the hobby.

"History coming alive" and 'give the players meaningful choices" - both concepts that I will reflect on in the future.

James Fisher said...

This hobby has a wonderful range of aspects and approaches that have been expressed so well by people who have commented above.

You can come at it, for example, from painting figures and wanting to see them 'in action' on the tabletop; reading history and wanting to understand more about what you have read by seeing it 'in action'; putting pretty figures on the table, throwing a few dice and having a few laughs with mates (whilst trying to one-up them in a game), and so on... Plus a myriad of combinations of these and other parts of the hobby that gave you the bug in the first place. One may even have different approaches for different periods due to one's interest in each, or perhaps interests, drive and reasons have changed over the years (and may continue to change)?

Like all models, a set of wargame rules can be used as a tool for learning, even if it's just to appreciate probabilities or to learn how to lose with dignity! :) You may get an 'ah hah' moment that makes you look up more about an aspect of the period or the history of the battle, but it is not a requirement.

For what it is worth, Chris' comment about his approach and what he likes to get from his hobby fits best with my own—except that I don't have his enormous talent nor the application to produced the sensational terrain that he does. A simple over-cloth and laid on terrain pieces suffice for me. That said, I can enjoy a game in a period that does not grab me particularly, using rules that I would never purchase, purely for the fun of having a game with mates. But only on occasions. Meanwhile, in my own wargaming den, I'll focus on what interests and drives me to spend too much, yet never enough of my own time.

Regards, James

ChrisBBB said...

Great post, Keith! I see I am a little late to the fray. I suppose there are a couple of points I'd like to offer.

1. Learning by doing is much more powerful than reading. Refighting historical battles has embedded them in my brain far more deeply than looking at books and maps ever did. To that extent, yes, historical wargaming IS a learning tool.

2. At my preferred level of game (entire C19 battles), a wargame can be a sufficiently accurate simulation to draw useful conclusions. While the vagaries of commanders' personalities, troops' morale, fog of war and other chance effects are hard to quantify, the major outlines of the battle - troops, time and distance (terrain) - are much more quantifiable. Represent those faithfully and you can reasonably explore the viability of alternative plans. You might conclude eg "OK, so that left hook that looks attractive in principle was unlikely to work in practice because those woods would slow the corps down too much and make it difficult to launch a coordinated attack". Basic force-space-time equations work and can be useful.

Game vs simulation is an old debate. I offered some thoughts on what we want from our wargames here:
and also addressed the "it's all fantasy anyway" argument as part of this discussion:

Finally: thanks, Steve J and Keith, for the kind mentions of BBB.

Keith Flint said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keith Flint said...

Thanks for chipping in Chris. I think I already mentioned that maybe I was mistaken regarding operational games like BBB. I certainly take your points.

I would perhaps say that your wargaming experience - a distinguished list of re-fights of historical battles at an operational level - is fairly unique. You and the guys at the OWS play such re-fights almost every week, and you will certainly have built up a store of knowledge as a result. Lesser mortals such as myself are happy to play at toy soldiers, with usually fictional battles at the tactical level.

It's good to receive a broader view from gamers such as yourself. Maybe we'll meet up at a show this year!

Jennifer said...

I work as a librarian for teens, and I subscribe to the viewpoint of Dr. Richard Bartle, who pioneered the first computer interactive online games (now known as MMOs) and teaches their design professionally. His point is that a good educational game doesn't set out to teach.

What does this mean? That it's possible to learn by osmosis. If you focus on education, you get not fun education but an unfun game. If kids must learn the locations of nation-states in order to win, for example, it'll be a chore - but if they learn it in passing without requiring it to play and win, it'll stick. My example is that I learned where Irkutsk and Kamchatka are by playing Risk. I didn't need to know that Kamchatka and Alaska are next to each other (you can play Risk without any labels on the board) but the names are right there and my eyes had to pass over them every time I attacked from North America to Asia. Did that help me learn about the Aleutians campaign or the Bering Strait migration? No, but it didn't hurt either.

I run DnD and the occasional wargame for teens and kids at work. I'm planning a version of Fort Wagner for Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of slavery. They may not learn much about the battle itself, or the causes of the war - but they will learn, just by looking at the minis, that Yankees wore blue, Confederates wore gray, that Massachusetts and North Carolina were on opposite sides, that the battle was on a beach, and that period earthworks looked blocky but were pretty darn tough. They might learn a little math by trying to work the Combat Results table. And since I'll be doing this in the teen tech lab, they'll be taking photos. I'll be talking up a storm and providing tidbits of trivia. Maybe play a few Civil War and anti-slavery songs.

Education doesn't have to be deliberate. The fun is the important part, and what learning there is - when you're doing it right - can be accidental without being any less enlightening.

Chris Gregg said...

Jennifer , what a lucky class you have with a teacher like you.
Chris G