|Gilder vs Griffith: Gettysburg on the telly - a Type (2) game?|
I was pondering a gentle conundrum from my experience of wargaming during yesterday morning's walk on the beach. Naturally, I couldn't just keep it to myself...
I guess that most of us started off in the hobby with a handful of soldiers and a couple of books or magazines, and we got fired up by the published photos of other people's efforts, and we maybe visited a local club, and we probably filed away a vague ambition that one day we would fight Waterloo (or Cannae, or Gettysburg) on our very own tabletop. And quite right, too - what could be more reasonable, or motivating?
I had a total sabbatical from wargaming for a period of maybe 12 years, and then from about 2001 until a few years ago I usually played solo, which is OK to a point, and I took the opportunity to try out some gaming situations that might not sit too comfortably in a social context. I played some very unbalanced games and some very long-winded ones - sometimes cued by a campaign narrative, and I tried some experimentation with sieges, computer-managed miniatures rules, various things. In a solo session, it is instructive and entertaining to see what happens in a game that would not necessarily be optimal for a social get-together. This is not to claim any particular advantages in having no mates - it is merely making the point that solo games do work, but have to be approached in an appropriate way.
Of course, historical scenarios are always appealing. I believe, however, that it's necessary to approach them with some caution. During yesterday's beach walk, I was trying to consider the various flavours of this.
(1) A deliberate walk-through - a demonstration, maybe for a public event, or even TV (which is what we had before YouTube). By this I mean that the tabletop proceedings are entirely scripted, there is no randomising element, and the presenters are normally not given any freedom to depart from the historical narrative, though they may, of course, make reference to decision points and possible alternative courses of action which were available to the original participants. Typically, these events are very luxuriously presented, and have to make allowance for the fact that the audience is going to include:
* true enthusiasts, many of whom will feel the need to disagree with just about any aspect of the scenery, the OOB, the recorded facts, the uniforms, the figure scale, the personalities etc etc.
* people who are casually interested in the topic, and are keen to see it demonstrated - these will normally be less difficult.
* those who have no real interest (they arrived with their brother, or kids, or boyfriend, or just came in because it is raining), but may enjoy the spectacle of the set-up - these people can be alienated within about three minutes if the presenters forget about them.
This is such a specialised sort of event that it probably falls outside the scope of what I was thinking about. I have, on very rare occasions, been involved in such things - usually as a gopher or box-carrier, and the pressures are mostly connected with logistics, rehearsal, thorough research, professional-standard presentation.
(2) A game scenario - an actual game, played competitively with rules. Such games are usually subtitled as a re-fight of the original. The scenario may be fudged a little, to give each side a chance of winning, or to simplify some tricky aspect of the real battle. Typically, play will start at some key point (not necessarily the beginning), and it may be limited to some localised part of the action (the Russian left flank, the second day, whatever). The design of the scenario will reflect the rules and the game-scales in use, and may also show traces of personal (sometimes patriotic) bias. There are likely to be some scripted events within the game - thus your Waterloo-scenario game will feature the arrival of the Prussians around tea-time, and it is a safe bet that there will be a lot of fighting around La Haye Sainte.
(3) A game, based loosely on a historical event. It may be that the generals are given their original OOBs and allowed to set up as they choose - any degrees of freedom are possible - for example, the game may feature some what-ifs, to explore what would have happened if the background to the battle had been different. The essence here is of a game which has some similarities to a historical event.
That's probably enough to be going on with. In both of (2) or (3), the players are starting the game with some information which their historical counterparts did not have.
* What actually happened, and why - there may be a tendency to follow the history, even if it is a dumb thing to do (I write with some sorrowful experience here); if we decide to do something else, the reasoning behind our choice will still reflect some unrealistic level of knowledge, or received analysis. The scenario rules themselves may be tweaked to fit the history.
* The players, having turned up specially for the day's event, know that they are here for the Battle of Waterloo, for example (which the original soldiers did not), thus it is very unlikely that a preliminary contact between skirmishers will be followed by Wellington marching his army off the table towards Antwerp.
All this is perfectly acceptable - a fine time will still be enjoyed by all - it would be naive to expect any unreasonable correspondence between the battle and the game. The game itself is the thing.
What has intrigued me recently has been my own involvement in designing such historically-based game scenarios. My usual starting place is looking at someone else's scenario, and deciding I'd like to improve upon it, to give a different size of game, or to correct (perceived) distortions in the field or the troops, or to produce something more suitable for my house rules. I admit that I do not need a particularly convincing excuse to get involved in this, because it is the most enormous fun - books all over the dining table, with index cards stuck in key references - Martinien, Oman, Elting & Esposito, Dr Nafziger, Uncle Tom Cobley, and masses of online searches. Sheets and sheets of scribbled notes. I have a terrific time, getting stuck into this kind of thing.
The resulting game may not be perfect, admittedly, but it will certainly have engaged a lot of sincere effort to produce it. The thing which has struck me is that it may be a reasonable game, but if I take part in it myself I find I can be distracted by all the things which I have thought about during the research. In short, a designed scenario is maybe more satisfying for players who have had less previous involvement!
I've always seen a strong appeal in the situation offered by Howard Whitehouse's Science vs Pluck game system (set in the Sudan Wars), whereby players are each given just as much knowledge of the military situation and of the rules as they need, and a god-like umpire who knows everything there is to know (or is authorised to make it up on the spot) runs the game. I have no direct experience of such games, but I can see how that would make sense.
Anyway - none of this is any problem at all - it may be a small argument in favour of the game designer being the umpire rather than a player - it's worth thinking about. What intrigues me about this is that the designer's previous work on the research may actually give him a disadvantage in the game, which seems counterintuitive!
Fortunately it wasn't a very long walk, so that is as far as I got with my ponderings. Here are some gratuitous beach pictures.
|Early morning vapour-trail graffiti - Scottish saltire?|
|In it's day (when it was still working) this is reputed to have been the smallest working harbour in Britain|