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

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Toygaming - some afterthoughts

Nothing childish here...
This additional post is merely a follow-up to the previous one, after the comments and some further emails (for which thanks to Martin and Louis) and a bit more reading of the Sabin book to which I referred last time. I propose to reproduce a couple of paragraphs from it which I found thought-provoking – I have no permission to quote these, but if they interest you then I recommend you purchase the book, which is Simulating War, by Philip Sabin, published by Bloomsbury Academic, so I can sort of justify it as promotional if pressed!

Philip Sabin is Professor of Strategic Studies in
the Department of War Studies at King's College, London, UK
The passages I chose are not because I have a particular axe to grind (well, no more than usual), simply things which I felt might stimulate some interest and fire up a few neurons. It must be borne in mind that the Professor is approaching his subject very largely from the point of view of education (both of academic students and of future generals), and thus his position might be regarded as a little rarified.

Firstly, on the subject of playability:

The fetish for wargame detail and complexity famously reached its greatest extreme in 1979 with The Campaign for North Africa, a multiplayer monster with five big mapsheets, 1800 counters, and nearly 200 pages of rules and charts that seemed to cover every conceivable logistic and tactical consideration. It is said that not even the designers themselves had time to complete the full campaign game. One later reviewer wrote that: ‘This game is just too involved to be played by a small wargame club with finite resources’, but that it might be ‘instructional to a graduate history seminar’. Nothing could better illustrate the growing disconnect between the dwindling band of traditional wargames enthusiasts and the rest of society over what ‘playability’ really means. There is a reason why a popular game such as chess has only 64 grid squares and only 32 pieces, of which each player may move only one per turn. That is quite enough to generate subtleties and complexities that have engaged the greatest minds for many generations. One does not need to go much beyond these parameters to produce wargames that offer challenging and thought-provoking simulations of real military campaigns. The great majority of published manual and computer wargames are, unfortunately, too complex, time consuming or unrealistic to be used directly in an academic context, but they do offer a mine of ideas on which one’s own more tailored designs may be based. Above all, it is crucial to remember that a simple wargame that is played will be more instructive than a detailed wargame that is not.

Now on the subject of the tension between games developed for military and hobby purposes (note that the games he refers to here will normally be board-type games):

The relationship between military and recreational wargaming over the past 50 years has been decidedly double-edged. On the one hand, professional wargamers, already sensitive to the negative connotations of the word ‘game’, have often been embarrassed by any link with hobbyists, especially given the blurred boundaries between recreational wargaming and playing with toy soldiers or the popular enthusiasm for fantasy gaming. As Allen reported: ‘“This is not Dungeons and Dragons we’re doing here,” a Pentagon officer indignantly told me in a discussion of what he called “serious modeling and simulation”.’ On the other hand, many professional wargamers themselves play recreational wargames in their spare time (Dunnigan reported that around 20% of hobbyists were in the military or related government jobs), and dissatisfaction with the cost and unwieldiness of official games has often prompted officers to investigate cheaper and more accessible commercial alternatives. Dunnigan himself has been an enthusiastic advocate of this approach, although he claims that: ‘[T]he existing government suppliers of wargame technology did what they could to discourage the purchase of these “toys” (commercial wargames), as the “toys” were a lot cheaper and more competitive than the multimillion-dollar military wargame projects that kept so many defense consultants (and many government employees) comfortably employed.’

Since I am on a bit of a roll here, regurgitating the wisdom of others, I'd like to end with a fine quote from CS Lewis, of which I was most kindly reminded by the Honourable Conrad Kinch. Since the word "childish" seems to appear in, or be implied by, most of the forms of disapproval to which wargamers of any shade react badly, it is worth remembering that it is a word which, most typically, is employed by children themselves. Children, lest we forget, are also noted for their ability to learn and take on new ideas, and for an innate creativity and sense of fun:

CS Lewis
“Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Personally, I am not very interested in people who know everything, though I do seem to meet a great many.


  1. I enjoy my games and painting for the escapism (which is a grown up word for "fun"), the same way I like riding my bike (despite my recent reminders that it hurts when you come off!). Ultimately most hobbies have their roots in our childhoods (fishing, football etc.) so why us "toygamers" should be more sensitive than a bloke in silly trousers hitting a ball into a small hole while avoiding the occasional sandpit is beyond me.

  2. I read Simulating War a few months back after it popped up as one of those “books you might be interested in" section on Amazon. I vaguely remembered it being referred to in the Polemarch blog so I ordered a copy.

    It is a thought-provoking and stimulating book as you say. The key thing I took from it was that, simplicity is good if it helps drive home the key point that you are seeking to convey/teach/understand. To that extent simplicity in a war-game can actually aid "realism" rather than be its enemy.

    Some of the sample games he gives in the book achieve (relative) simplicity by focusing on some very specific aspects that he wanted to cover in his course syllabus whether it be small unit infantry combat in built-up areas in WWII or grand strategy in the Punic Wars. Further, each game has very specific objectives for the players. By having such a narrow focus, a game can be both simple and realistic” in a way that more generic wargames cannot. Especially traditional war-games with miniatures where rules are attempts to allow gamers to play multiple scenarios sometimes across many years and countries. I suppose this is where boardgames and miniature wargames tend to differ most - not in the types of counters they use to represent their forces.

    In some ways this reminds me of the modern business imperative to keep things brief and "to the point”. Even when the subject matter is not simple and when simplifying a problem actually does not do the subject matter justice. It sometimes feels a bit, well, wrong. But then I think, perhaps I’m just not very good at explaining my subject! And I greatly admire those who can find true simplicity in the apparently complex, and then make others understand it.

    * Neil Thomas’ 19th century rules are the closest to achieving this synthesis of playability/simplicity and realism that I’ve seen (but then he uses lots of scenario specific special rules)

  3. FWIW- Quoting a couple of paragraphs from a book almost always falls under the "fair use" doctrine of copyright, so you're fine on that point.

    I've seen the last part of that C.S. Lewis quote before. That last sentence should be on a t-shirt.

  4. I have in my head a war games magazine article 'In Defence of Unrealism in War Games,' It never did get written, much less published, as the local magazine, 'Southern Sortie' died miserably of indifference nearly 20 years ago.

    A lot of it had to do with over-complexity slowing down the pace of the game such that command decisions took a long time not only to make but to carry out. I've always liked the faced paced game where you are under pressure to decide quickly from a number of possible courses of action. That doesn't stop my having minor tactics playing out in army level games, but part of that has to do with the story telling and physical appearance of the games in question.

    But I have also found that a good many complexities have to do with what the rule sets try to legislate against, as if that sort of thing were unrealistic. I had certain views on that. Let's take a f'rinstance. A general IS able to 'see' more than what his eyes are telling him, because he and his subordinate formations have staffs and runners to inform him. Or a unit can indeed see what is over the crest as its CO or a trusted subordinate has undertaken a personal reconnaissance, or the sound of drums, trumpets or marching feet can be heard from the far side, or, most likely, the commander is acting on the assumption that the enemy is there until he knows different. I have never yet seen a rule set forbidding a player reacting to there being NOTHING on the hidden side of the hill...

    That is why I incline to the view that too much is made of the gamer's overall view of the battlefield. It does make the role of reconnaissance problematic, sure, but it is not insuperable. Otherwise, I see this as representing incoming intelligence - information passed through the army's communication channels to its head.

    I'll leave it at that (the article would probably have run to several issues), but I used to hope it would have provoked a lively discussion. These days - I'm not so sure.