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Tiny Tin Men :: Archives

How historical is your wargaming?

August 1, 2005 4:13 PM - Posted by Phil - Category:

There’s an interesting letter in the latest issue of Wargames Illustrated. It’s titled “Dude, Where’s my Hobby”, and is written under the nom-de-plume D.I.S.Gusted. At first, I thought this was going to be another rant about the state-of-the-hobby, and how back in 1971 one could go to a convention, “buy 300 25mm figures, 10 pots of paint, some new rules, have a few drinks in the bar, and still have change left from a 5-Pound note” (this last quote from another letter in WI some years ago :-)). However, this letter touches upon another aspect: the lack of history in historical miniature wargaming.

The author claims that history and historical research is dissappearing out of historical wargaming, and that much more emphasis is being put in setting up games which might be visual attractive, but have little to do with historical wargaming as such. One example he mentions is the popularity of Victorian SF / Lost World / Adventuring in the 30s type of games. Although these games might be fun and pretty to look at, they have little or no relation to historical wargaming, and belong more to the type of wargaming advocated by Games Workshop.

The letter makes a plea to spend some more time on research, and try to design games and rules that model some part of military history, rather than design rules that work well as a game, but might have no relation whatsoever to the ‘history’ of the period one is trying to model. The letter ends with a short evaluation of various rulesystem in this light, although this last section is very short.

This letter got me thinking again about what defines ‘historical miniature wargaming’, specifically in relation to other forms of miniature gaming. It is somewhat pointless to discuss classifications (“Is Victorian SF historical?”, “Is a DBA fight between Romans and Aztecs historical?”), but I think it is more useful to discuss whether good historical research should be present in wargame design. In other words, when designing a specific ruleset, should one try to simulate certain historical events, or should one write rules with a focus on gameplay, and then try to fit them to perceived history? The problem with the latter approach is that one uses maybe one source or even a movie as a basis, while historical research requires that you consult many different sources to get things right.

E.g. suppose one wants to design a game about tank vs. tank combat in WW2. Historical research would assume that you look towards % of casualties, likelyhood of damage after a succesful hit etc. The second approach assumes you design with the game in mind: a game might last 10 turns, and we want each tank to have a 50% probablity to survive the game, so that means a specific %chance of knocking out a tank with one shot etc… Note that this is an othogonal design issue w.r.t. simple or complicated rules. You can have elegant and overly-complicated rules using both approaches.

I have to admit that for all the rulesets I’ve written so far, most of them were designed using the second approach: maximum emphasis on gameplay, and only a small focus on getting things right from a historical point-of-view. So, am I still an historical wargamer?

Comments on this entry

So, am I still an historical wargamer?

Yes, definitely. The question you raise wrg to game design is not so much whether it is still an historical game as what you want to provide for your players. On the one hand, you describe an historical simulation, on the other hand you describe an historical game. In other words, your question is orthogonal to the historicity of the game :)

For me, historical miniature wargaming means I play with toy soldiers in games that are inspired by history. Note the emphasis: they’re games, not simulations, and they’re inspired by history, not intended to recreate history. Of course, one still wants to get the troops decked out in the correct uniform (within reason) and have games where the result approaches something that might have happened historically, but we’re basically playing a game, not a simulation.

In that way, historical wargaming does not differ all that much from fantasy and SF — we just get our inspiration elsewhere.

August 1, 2005 4:37 PM - Posted by Robartes

Interesting comment, Phil. For me, you are first a gamer and then a historical simulationist. At least all the games I’ve played with you have been fun because of the gaming side. Maybe that just reflects my own preferences?

For me the key thing is to have an interesting game, either a real chess-like contest (this is why I like dba/dbm) or a satisfying games mechanism (but generally this is only in board games, though our current miniatures favourite - BKC - is pretty good) or an amusing miniatures game, such as Bart’s Darkest Africa or your Te Wapen.

If the game pretends to be vaguely historical, such as BKC, then it should try to deliver results that seem to fit the history books. And you then want to have toys with proper uniforms.

Then there are more serious games, that I find interesting in concept - Principles of War is an example - but a bit tedious in execution. There I enjoy the preparations, research and campaign rather than the actual tabketop battle, which can be a bit boring.

Perversely, I even tend to the idea of using historical figures and fighting fictional campaigns. Then I can draw silly maps and have some - gaming - fun, rather than be bound by history.

After all, the more you read about any battle the more you realise that it is virtually useless to try to recreate or simulate it.

Sorry, that was a bit long.

August 1, 2005 8:24 PM - Posted by Alan

It’s called warGAMING, isn’t it? If it would be warSIMULATING it would have to reflect all aspects of the actual battle in which case the victor of the battle would be forcebly the victor of the game and you would have to play Napoleon at Waterloo with a bad stomach…

Besides, with the benifit of hindsight, historical knowledge and towering hundreds of yards above the table, how do you expect it to be a “simulation”? It’s a game where for most periods one has a choice of rules, period.


August 2, 2005 9:48 PM - Posted by Rudi

I think one can easily combine the two. It is more of a definitional issue than anything else. A simulation can be a good game and vice versa. Its an issue of focus. Quite simply, as has been said, you can never duplicate every factor of war.

I enjoy a game most (either a board game or tabletop) when the designer chooses one or two aspects upon which to focus (e.g. Command Control, coordination of all arms, etc). What were Lee’s basic choices at Gettysburg? What two or three fundamental decisions did he have to make? The rest should flow from that.

Ideally, I like to be confronted with the types of basic decisions that a commander would have had to make. If you are filling the role of a brigade commander, you should have to make the decisions that a colonel or brigadier would have to make. Leave the staff work to a smoothly designed system. If you are a sargent leading a skirmish squad, you have a different set of basic decisions, but within the context of 30 minutes of action, you should focus on the key issues that an NCO would face when in combat.

In addition, a good historical game should reward the proper use of historical tactics and doctrine. This can all be done very simply and does not require the sort of rules that we all faced in the late 70s (i.e., penetration of 2 pounder solid shot at a 30 degree angle against hardened face plate armor on a Pz IIIj - this is now best left to computer games).

Bottom line? We are all playing with toys. Hopefully, we can gain a few insights into the decision making process while having fun.

August 3, 2005 10:02 AM - Posted by Bruce Rogers

I have read the article by D.I.S. Gusted in Wargames Illustrater August 2005 and I must say that I agree with much of what this gentleman said.

Many wargamers I have met appear to completely misunderstand what is meant by realism in wargaming. Yes, you are physically able to see what is going on over the table although it is possible to limit this problem by the use of maps or movement counters until such time as units are able to see each other. You are not going to be dirty, hungry, scared or shot at. If this is what people such as Rudi think realism is then it is crystal clear that they have no concwption of what the term means.

What we actually mean by the term realism is that we are playing a game where the input, decison making and results are similar to what happens in real warfare.

The wargamer in the role of a World War 2 battalion commander is responsible for decision making in regard of the axis of attack, dealing with crisis and perhaps having some input into resupply issues

When we refight a historical battle on the tabletop we are not going to get the samee result in the same manner. If we moved the figures in the sam way the troops were moved historicaly, removed the same proportion of casualties (just how would we know that?)etc this would be a tabletop demonstration, not a simulation of combat in the period that particular battle occurred. Wargamers in the role of a historical commander may make exactly the same decisons OR he could make completely diffferent ones. The chance factor provided by the dice to determine the probabilty of a result may cause a completely different outcome to history. this could cause events to move in a completely new direction. That is the GAME part of wargaming. A different result, for example D’Erlon’s attack at Waterloo breaks Wellington’s center leading Napoleon to commit the Guard during the early afternoon would result in a completely new series of events. Do the French achieve a decisive victory before the Prussians arrive or can Wellington’s generalship stablize things until Blucher is able to support him. What if Wellingto is killed ot seriously wounded and Uxbridge takes command?

What is meant by realism is that the effects of weapons, morale, movement and so on is, subject to the amount of time reasonably close to historical results.

The problem, in far too many rules today, and with far too many wargamers, is that they don’t research the subject enough, and, in the case of a number of people I know, not at all.Some rules designers take advantage of this fact and efectively con most of the wargaming public into thinking that their rules are realistic. I for one am not conned


August 24, 2005 3:25 PM - Posted by Lucas Willen

I read the same article and had to agree with the general comment. Certainly the wargaming magazines seem dominated by ‘fantasy’ and ‘pretty’ wargaming these days. Does this matter though as surely everyone gets out of the hobby what he or she wants. I play every Thursday with two friends. We tend to get fixated on a given period and play at length - at the moment its WAB ancients and in particular Hannibal and similar periods. Last week I played using a Greek army against my mate Nick’s Carthaginian army. Nick is a competitive gamer - he likes to win and delights in finding the ‘perfect army’. So on this occasion he’d drafted in ‘elite’ single units from a couple of allies which the Carthaginians were allowed to use. Nothing wrong according to the rules, but completely wrong if you want to recreat history. I on the other hand went straight with a ‘historic’ reproduction of a Spartan army of a given period - I used to be like Nick, but now enjoy reproducing a given army even if its not perfect. The point is we both enjoyed picking our army out by different means, and actually both enjoyed the game - in particular I enjoyed killing these elite units! For the record I just won the game, Nick went away to re-sharpen his army and it will come back again I am sure more ‘perfect’ in his eyes. I’ll probably read a good book about the Bruttai or someone and try and form their army. The point is we both enjoy this and at the end of the day it is a simulation and supposed to be a fun game to relieve a stressful week.

May 10, 2006 3:41 PM - Posted by Dom Cook