A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Thoughts of a Toygamer

As an appropriate foreword, here is a clip from a thread on boardgamegeek.com (of which I am a fairly regular reader) which I offer as an example of something I have struggled with for a long time – including a few heart-searchings on this very blog, I believe.

The author of the clip has published this on the Internet, where everyone can see it, and appears even to be quite pleased with his idea, so I see no reason to change any details of it or protect his ID. Everyone is perfectly entitled to express their views (subject to moderation, of course), and it is only reasonable that everyone else is entitled to a free opinion of those views (without moderation), and of the sort of people who express them, and why they feel moved to do so.

Respect all round; fair is fair.

I don’t have a problem with this view – it seems a tad bitchy, maybe, but it’s quite amusing. Equally, I don’t have a problem with Martin’s most recent instalment of his serial emails to me on the subject of the evil that is Commands & Colors, and how it will never replace proper Old School wargaming. Martin has probably never thought of himself as a Toygamer, but he appears to be just that, and will probably be proud of the fact now that he knows.

So what is all this about? What is it that makes us (all of us, including me) pay lip-service to the enrichment which diversity brings to our hobby, while still taking every chance to stick pins in some “other lot”, because they offend some fundamental ideal which we’ve held so long we can’t remember where we learned it?

I don’t feel I ever got close enough to the human race to have a valid view on human nature – whatever that is – so I’ll spare you some embarrassment by grasping the opportunity to keep quiet on that one, but I had a couple of thoughts while shaving.

(1) Is it, in fact, a single hobby? Is a single hobby too straightforward? Do we all need some imagined opposing faction within it, to which we can feel superior?

(2) Are we all a bit defensive anyway, because of the traditional (imagined?) contempt felt for wargamers by the rest of the world? Is it easier to take out one’s touchiness on near relatives?

(3) I’m on shaky ground trying to produce unqualified generalisations about the hobby and its disciples – my own preferences and areas of interest are much too limited for that, and I do not have as wide a general understanding as I sometimes like to think. I can only have a go at analyzing where I am myself, and how I came to think the way I do.

(4) …and, because he deserves it, I’ll have a go at Martin.

As briefly as possible (not least because I have written all this numerous times before):

* I was originally excited by the same books as most wargamers of my age
* I’ve spent a great many years since then trying to make the games as enjoyable as I expected them to be when I started
* I’m still trying, but I’m more pragmatic about it now
* I love little painted soldiers in neat rows – the more colourful the period the better; this love is out of all proportion to any sensible reason for it, but it is a major influence on the types of games I like to play
* I was deeply shocked by board wargames; it took a long time before I would try one, but I was amazed at the clarity and completeness of the rules, the speed and logic of the play, and by the almost total lack of arguments
* However, I found the visual spectacle less satisfactory, and I missed the little men, so I spent the next 30 years looking for some satisfactory middle ground that combined the best of both worlds
* Commands & Colors (played with miniatures, in my case) has gone a long way to filling that hole for me; it doesn’t suit everyone, and it doesn’t provide absolutely everything I need either, but I wish the game had been around many years ago

At which point Martin appears and tells me I’m mistaken and that I have sold out to the enemy. He does it pleasantly and amusingly, of course, and his reasoning has an orthodoxy that I have come to recognise.

You see, my friends (whisper it) – Martin has also struggled with the disappointment which much of his wargaming has generated, but he has dealt with this by going back to the original books and starting again – back to the time when he was still excited. I can see a flaw here – it is something to do with failing to learn from history. If I were to go back 30-odd years – good heavens, it’s 40 years now! – I would recognise all the holes and shortcomings in the game which led to all the blind-alley tweaks and improvements and the eventual realization that boardgames had something which was useful and (more whispering) sometimes better.

I’ve got them all here – Featherstone, Wesencraft, Young, Morschauser, Grant. I really enjoy them – so much that I have actually replaced a couple of them that I had sold on eBay in a rash moment. But this is nostalgia, for the most part. Particularly Wesencraft’s Practical Wargames, which was the biggest influence on my developmental years – I sometimes have a mad urge to play a game using Wesencraft’s rules, but when I stop and consider how it will be – all the morale testing especially – I usually go off the idea.

So do I play a lot of board wargames, then? No – I own a good few, but seldom, if ever, do I play them. I recently bought a decent old copy of Ariel’s The English Civil War on eBay, entirely because it is considered an excellent instrument for conducting solo compaigns as a framework for miniatures battles. I haven’t used it yet. By the time I had checked that all the (rather dull) cardboard counters were present and correct I couldn’t face it. All those counters – all that effort to sort them out, change a 20-point cavalry counter for a 10 and a five and 3 ones after each action – as a solo experience I find this, I regret to say, dismal. I live in hope that I shall shake off this lack of fortitude and get on with it, but I find that handling large numbers of cardboard counters is a great chore, while – strangely – I will happily arrange cupboards and boxes and tables full of painted toys all day long.

Discuss. I also have to point out that the attraction of the cardboard squares is not helped by my dwindling eyesight, nor the fact that my fingertips appear to be changing into elephants’ feet.

Martin, meanwhile, is feverishly setting up games which look exactly like the photos in the original Charles Grant (Sr) books, and even fighting those same battles, in his rush to recapture the thrill. Good for him. He knows he is right, too.

As ever, I haven’t really got anywhere here, other than confirming that there are a lot more questions than answers, but often the consideration of the questions is useful. Or at least it passes the time until I can’t remember why I was doing it in the first place.

Which reminds me that my original intention was to say a few words about a book I am reading on my Kindle. It is Simulating War, by Philip Sabin, and I believe I was prompted to purchase it by a comment on one of the blogs I read – I can’t remember exactly where I heard of it, but if it was your comment then thank you.

I’ve not really got very far through it yet, but have found it fascinating. Sabin discusses many aspects of the theoretical modelling of warfare, and compares the approaches and relative success of professional strategists, educators and hobbyists, and the various strengths and weaknesses of paper layouts (which we might describe as boardgames) and computer games, which, briefly, he considers to have been less successful than expected, since they are market and technology led, and tend to be designed bottom-up. The criterion for success here is not commercial profitability, but Sabin’s central theme of the optimal balance between realism and playability – a subject which we could all bore the legs off donkeys with for many years.

I offer no kind of review here, other than to recommend the book if this is the sort of thing you find interesting. I did notice, however, that occasionally I found myself pleased because he had expressed something which I feel myself, but rather more skillfully and convincingly than I could have managed. If I am honest, I was especially pleased at the occasions where he was criticising some “other lot”. At other times I found he was sticking pins in my lot, at which point I would say to myself, “ah, he doesn’t really understand that”, or “that’s true, but it doesn’t really apply to me…”

That other lot have much to answer for.


  1. The best response would probably have been to nod knowingly and mutter "just so" (is there an emoticon for that?).

    To avoid tavern philosophy about the nature of human behaviours and to avoid hauling out my favorite anecdote about discovering that it really is different hobbies to different people I'll just voice an opinion that it is at least 6 different hobbies and that the vast majority of my friends and acquaintances indulge in at least 3 or 4 of those.

    On this side of the pond in the 70s, board wargames were the norm and in common parlance a wargammer played board wargames, a board game player played Monopoly and Miniature Gamer played wargames on a table. Since my earliest influences were English this annoyed me greatly since I considered my self to be a wargamer. However, recently I realized that I often play now on a board laid on a table and am thus actually just a board gamer after all.

    1. Indeed - and the situation is confused further by board games (such as Battle Cry) which include little men in the box as counters. For years I used a board-based game for campaign movement, and fought out the contacts on the tabletop, so I'm not sure what I was - never really thought about it until the last few years, when I started seeing comments on boardgamegeek and similar to the effect that games involving miniature soldiers were for babies.

  2. Really enjoyed this post. It certainly is a lot of diferrent hobbies in one. I take part in several of them. And I have to confess some of them are the antithesis of the others and I find I can love with contradiction and inconsistency of this without any problem at all!

    My favourite line in your post was "I Iove little painted toy soldiers in neat rows - the more colourful the better; this love is out of all proportion to any sensible reason for it". This is the heart of my hobby.

    1. Thanks Alan.

      A surprising number of guys get very animated about some surprisingly small things - I get a sready stream of gently disapproving email from people who know better on a wide range of topics, so I just accept that they know better and mostly I don't read it - seems a pity to compromise their intellectual edge. If effort goes into enjoyment then I don't care what form it takes - if it starts getting sidetracked into hostile criticism, or someone is upset because the other lot are enjoying it incorrectly then I lose interest. I find most of the war-game magazines a turn-off because they become a showcase for know-alls.

      The Bicycle News is alive and well...

    2. It's my favourite line, too! And that, I believe, is why I am increasingly drawn to the classic, 'old school' style game - at least as far as presentation is concerned, as I have neither the skill nor the inclination to produce diorama- standard soldiers and terrain - but with much simpler, easier to learn rules, such as Ross Mac's Square Brigadier. If anyone wants to call me a 'toygamer' that's fine by me.

  3. It's interesting, this 'them and us' stuff, as it seems that in some cases an individual will draw his or her own boundaries and woe betide anyone who can't see the clearly drawn line in the sand. Best let 'em carrying on playing in the sand, I reckon.
    I went to UK Games Expo last year, which is a mostly boardgame event, but does include some wargaming, cardgames and RPGs. Now I do play the occasional boardgame, though don't often buy them, and I had never realised that boardgaming was so big. Obviously, I don't step out of my bunker often enough.
    Anyway, I talked to a lot of people (What can I say - I'm a Yorkshireman; I'd paid to get in, that entitles me to bother people.) and got the overwhelming feeling that all the various types of gamer were happy to learn from each other and had probably tried other forms, but had lit upon their choice of game because it was what they happened to like. I didn't get any feeling at all of 'you lot are wrong because you don't do it this way...'

    There was one exception, which we have since termed Fortress Warhammer. This particular part of the show was held in a large, dimly-lit room (The drawn curtains clearly added to the atmosphere.) populated exclusively by boys in their 20s. The feeling of hostility to strangers as you went in was palpable. Now I've been a wargamer for over 40 years, but I'd never actually seen Warhammer played and was interested to know how it worked. I am sure my questions weren't SO stupid, but I struggled to get more than a one word answer out of anyone. I wasn't 'one of us', therefore not worth talking to.

    It struck me later that, when I go to our local wargames club, the average age of the members is probably early fifties and they are still the same people who were there 30 years ago.
    And 30 years ago, did we greet visitors in the same way that the Warhammerers do now? That might explain any poor impression the public has of wargaming.

    1. Excellently expressed - the Warhammer experience has only occasionally been inflicted upon me when I went into a GW shop to buy paint, and the salesman(?) addressed me as "dude". I've really only become aware of real opposition and factionism since i started this blog, and i get a surprising amount of email criticism (not all of it good natured) because of my enthusiasm for C&C, and my use of hex grids with miniatures (which predates C&C by about 30 years). Some of these chaps tell me about how wargaming was in the old days, which is a real laugh since i doubt if many of them are as old or as long in the tooth as I am myself. If I came to like C&C, it was at the end of a long period when I did most of the other things as well - it is oddly flattering to be considered as a rookie, but inappropriate!

  4. You will recall the Monty Python sketch about accountants being boring. I can remember John Cleese saying that he had lunch some time afterwards with an old school friend who was an accountant and rather worried how he would react. The friend said that he wasn't bothered because anyone watching the sketch would realise that it was about auditors and that he was a completely different sort of accountant and therefore he had laughed at the auditors along with everyone else.

    1. I find that I am happy to laugh at myself as long as it was my idea. Sneakiest way for someone to mock me is to claim that I thought of it myself...

  5. For my ten pence worth, I have played a board game twice and a card game once. While they did seem quite enjoyable as a game, for me, they missed the whole point.

    As you so rightly say "I Iove little painted toy soldiers in neat rows - the more colourful the better". That is the single most important part - pushing my serried ranks around the table safe in the understanding that I am doing it in a "grown up" fashion. And if I don't say "boom" or "dakka dakka dakka" as a Spitfire strafes a Nazi column out loud I am thinking it!

    1. I refuse to make any comment about the noises I make during battles - I will admit, however, that I have been known to play Napoleonic marches and fanfares and drum signals on the CD player, and have been working on editing a horse & musket soundtrack for some years. Sadly, the British Napoleonic period marches I can find have all been recorded with modern instruments, as far as I can see, and sound wrong. A saxophone in a Napoleonic band is not unlike a Gatling gun at Salamanca.

  6. A fascinating topic! I think we can divide war gaming - by which I mean any kind of game (from throwing marbles to professional military simulations) that take war and/or battle as its central topic - into several genres. So you have your board war games, miniatures war games, Fantasy war games, historical war games (for a given value of 'historical, be it noted), Army Men games, garden war games, Imagi-nation war games, role playing games, matrix games, et cetera, and so on and so forth. Already you will have observed that these genres are not mutually exclusive. We already know of board war games with figures (Shogun and Axis and Allies), and I have seen a fine attempt at translating DBM into a hex-field with counters.

    Historical war games that pit Catalan Company against Aztecs, or Romans against Samurai, aren't precisely 'historical', are they - not even sensibly 'what if' - so what can one call such games? They remain strikingly popular however (for, I admit, reasons I don't understand).

    But where to games like Shogun and Axis and Allies fit against games like 'Terrible Swift Sword' or 'Drang nach osten'? Or the 'War of the Ring'?

    I could rabbit on all day about this, but what it all comes down to is that war gaming is so vast a hobby that one has to pick and choose how one goes about it, the topics of interest, the proportion devoted to collection, model making, painting - i.e. preparation; to the actual game (I'll include scenario design here); and to post-battle activities (campaign diaries, write ups and blog postings).

    Rule sets I find problematic and broadly speaking prefer my own except in certain specialist areas. Do you play WW2 at 1-to-1 scale (e.g 'Panzer Marsch' or the 25 year old WRG set (still considered a very good set by the discerning), or something scaled up (e.g. Command Decision, Spearhead, or Megablitz)? The 'Us vs Them' gig can hinge on matters so ... fine.

    Do you like complexity or simplicity - how do you strike the balance between 'realism' and 'playability', anyhow? My Army Men project is quite emphatically and unashamedly 'Toy Gaming' - a fine appellation in my view for a distinct genre or war gaming. I do not see 'Toy Gaming' as in any way pejorative. As such, the rule set must be commensurate: playability and speed is the key; realism very much subordinated to those imperatives. Not that realism is altogether set aside, you understand. Merely that where the P vs R imperatives collide, the latter gives way.

    I'm finding now that this tiny comments panel is making it very hard to keep track of what I've written here. Which probably means I should stop now. :-)