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Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Civil Wars of Wargaming Part II- the cost

Having established the fact that many of the early wargamers were at war with each other in a loud, aggressive and often abusive manner, what were the consequences? When wargaming emerged in the 1970’s as a new hobby, it was considered by some a potential educational tool. One to transform the study of history, politics and international relations. If you played a committee game in French, it could be used in language classes. However, this was not to be. From my random sample of correspondence in the History of Wargaming Project archive, I found that teachers, academics, several clergy and historians had unfortunate encounters with the hobby during the 1970's.

They went along to their local club and were soundly thrashed by competition gamers who were interested in the rules and winning, and with scant regard for history. Perhaps they even took pleasure in shredding an interested academic just to demonstrate that the academic clearly knew nothing about history (and therefore did not deserve their job). These professionals, who could have been champions of the hobby, became the reverse and the hobby suffered. Even RMAS got rid of its wargaming club due its treatment of visiting senior officers and academics.

Fortunately, the hobby has largely changed. There is the competition set, but most wargamers at most clubs play games, enjoy chatting about some history and sometimes they win. At large conventions, there are the battles to win fought by uncommunicative wargamers, but most people putting on a game are happy to stop to chat about the game, the rules, the scenery, the makes of figures etc. Stop by the Society of Ancient’s stand at a show and the people manning the stand will be happy to discuss the detail of ancient warfare with knowledge equal to any undergraduate on an ancient history degree.  These ‘average’ wargamers have finally managed to overcome the historical stigma of the competition gamers of the 1970’s. Wargames are flowing into the curriculum at all levels.

During WWII the Fletcher Pratt game in New York was visited by the Admiral of the South Atlantic and his staff. They took command of one side and their fleet of 45 ships started to get hammered by the female curtain makers on the either side. They were up against a profession that estimated distances in inches for a job. Although only a game, an admiral and his staff + his team of 40, losing a naval wargame would not be a good idea. So, Inga Pratt (her husband being on a carrier in the Pacific) grabbed the RN destroy captain from the bar. The captain took command of the destroyers on the admiral’s side and launched a brilliant and devasting torpedo attack. The Admiral’s side won. Honour and face was saved. Perhaps this tale gives some idea why the fletcher Pratt Naval game attracted 200+ people in the evening in war time New York. Modern hobby wargaming could learn something from this historical example.

16 comments:

  1. Well said John. As they say manners maketh man. Cheers Greg

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    1. From my own limited UK based observations, I think wargaming has grown a lot politer and more encouraging of those dabbling at the edges of the hobby. In the UK for example, I suspect at almost any wargaming club, people are happy to lend new players armies, dice etc.. However, I also know in some countries the convention is you can only play when you have a painted based army of your own. Gosh, I am being a bit controversial now.

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  2. That is really interesting, I had no idea it was like that at the time. How did Paddy Griffith get on in that environment? I take it that this would be the first beginning of the road that ended up with WD?

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    1. Well, that is a question and a half. My perspective is that Paddy was a champion on wargaming for professional military education, teaching of history and controversially for understanding history.

      At RMAS he challenged those who still believed education was about lectures, Paddy was in the new active education movement that wanted education to be a lively mix of lectures, seminars, guest talks, debates, questions, discussion, essays etc...

      He statement that realistic history based wargaming could help understand history won him no friends in the academic world. Dr David Candler used wargames, but others such as Keegan were vitriolic in their attacks on all aspects of wargaming. Keegan wrote a marvellous book, the Face of Battle, about the experience of war. Paddy then said actually a lot of wargamers understood a lot about military history due to their hobby. He even said reenactors could add to our understanding. The problem to some academics was wargaming was a new tool that might undermine a lot of existing military scholarship and that might include theirs. I remember wargaming undermined the cult of 'military probability' and the 'application of the principles of War from World War to ancient warfare'.

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  3. Was there also a sad mind-set of "knowledge is power"? In many ways the Internet seems to become a great leveller in knowledge dissemination? Books were precious and hard to come by in the old days (listen to me I was knee high to a grasshopper in 1970) and toys were a lot of "make-do". The wealth of wargaming materials available now is staggering by comparison and spread wide into all manner of specialist niches. My thoughts on rules layers best not be printed. Was the rudeness a reflection of a product of the times . My club experiences of the early 1990's were limited but I remember you 'took peoples word for it' whereas by the late 1990's you could check just about anything on-line for yourself.

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  4. Good discussion. I don't disagree with anything said so far. Some random comments. Paddy was a great stirrer and certainly liked to challenge people. He certainly disliked WRG and challenged the "research" that went into producing their rules which dominated the market at that time. This and a number of factors lead to WD. Although he started with miniatures for wargaming he came to see their limitations by the last 1970's. I know there were a number of factors that lead to his demise at RMA not the least the very conservative (Maggie Thatcher) environment. All things considered, Paddy was a true British eccentric and unfortunately he just rubbed some people up the wrong way. Cheers Greg

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    1. to me Paddy was an academic in the finest British tradition; questioning, testing and seeking new knowledge. The problem is he did not always understand that some other people misunderstood his intellectual quest. They took offense and Paddy was sometimes bewildered why. I will publish more posthumous books based on his writings in due course.

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  5. Great stuff. I remember seeing a photo, in grainy b&w, of a bunch of women playing a naval wargame on a floor in an apartment in New York. I wonder if it was the same one you mention?

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    1. The photo you refer to was taken in the Pratt's New York apartment, probably before the war. The game was unusual and men and women were allowed to take part on an equal footing.

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  6. This discrepancy between wargaming as a game and wargaming as an educational tool will never completely go away, because the wargaming hobby itself has never (and still hasn't) properly resolved this issue. Of course you can use wargames as a tool to teach officers (that's where the whole idea comes from), but in my opinion, the games you see at the hobby club or at cons are far removed from that. These games might be inspired by military history, but that doesn't make them a teaching tool. Admitting that there is a whole spectrum of wargaming is something that many hobby wargamers still have trouble recognizing, a significant fraction still think they are the equal of a Napoleonic general ...

    But I guess this is not dissimilar to many other professional fields. I am an academic computer scientist, trying to delve deep into the theoretical foundations of algorithms. Nevertheless, the kid around the block who likes to play games and build a website also knows something about computers. But although the tools are the same, the worlds are far apart, because they do different things.

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    1. Also, what clouds this issue is that "wargaming as a teaching tool" is sometimes confusing as well. Teaching what exactly? Teaching current-day officers in leading troops? Teaching current-day high-level staff officers in planning a war? Teaching anyone about how military leaders of the past led their troops? Teaching about why certain battles in history were won or lost?

      These are all different topics that might (or might not) be taught using a wargame, but not being explicit about such goals adds to the confusion of what a wargame is supposed to be.

      If you see wargaming as a "game with toy soldiers inspired by military history" (as I believe 99% of current hobby wargaming really is), it makes things much easier. As a hobbyist, I know that there is "professional wargaming", but that's usually not what I do. To put it bluntly, I want to shuffle toy soldiers around, which is (I imagine) something quite different from learning staff officers how to deploy troops in the field.

      If you look at the history of wargaming (John, you know I have read a lot of your publications ... :-)), I see two big schools of thinking. The first is what I would call the toy soldiers way of thinking, which really is a bottom-up design of a wargame. You start with an individual model soldier (which you want to paint accurately), and then you want to play a game with that model soldiers. You see this also in Featherstone's games. The early books are about soldiers first ("Tackling model soldiers this way"), games second. Even his book Wargames (1962) starts with a discussion about the various types of toy soldiers (flats, rounds, demi-rounds, ...). Hence also the emphasis on uniforms etc, since that matters if you have to paint a toy soldier. The strong focus in many rules on the technicalities of troop formations, weapons, and even the firing and movement procedures is also a consequence of this. At its heart, those game are focused on the toy soldier, and try to do soemthing fun with it.

      The second mode is top-down. "How was a battle conducted, and can we turn this into a (teaching) game?". The focus is on the procedural aspect of commanding a battle, not on the intricacies of soldiering or the individual soldier. Hence, the focus is much more on command, control, intelligence, morale, etc., and you might end up with using toy soldiers as tokens for running the game, but often, that's not even necessary. The toy soldier is a possible afterthought, not the toy that drives the game.

      What you see in the miniature wargaming hobby these days is (still) very much a bottom-up way of thinking. Perhaps that's because most gamers (and designers :-)) do not properly understand what it means to command and run a complex organization as an amry of 100K men. But most of us can imagine loading and shooting a rifle. If you want to understand Napoleonic warfare, you have to understand how a Napoleonic army staff functioned. Whether a battallion deployed in 2 or 3 ranks, or whether cavalry can break a square, are anecdotical side issues. Nevertheless, the latter issues are what most wargamers think of what made Napoleon lose Waterloo :-)

      My apologies for my rambling thoughts ...

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    2. this is very interesting and well made points. Can I publish them in the Nugget, the Journal of Wargame developments as I think they would find the interesting.

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    3. ... and my apologies for my broken grammar. It's not always easy to put together coherent thoughts using the comments interface provided by Blogger ;-)

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    4. Phil, Mike Horah asked me to post his response to your thoughtful comments



      I think Phil your binary analysis may, perhaps have its limitations . Not all wargames for hobbyists are with miniatures – board games, megagames. TEWTs for example - I have done them all. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Sure some are more adaptable for teaching, learning and academic purposes than others. Miniatures, I concur are the least suitable for that use although I do think naval games with models have fewer limitations than they do for land ops. Few people today have any experience even marginally on what it was like to sail and fight a ship of the line and a miniatures game is as good a way as any, to try to understand the limitations of that type of warfare- not something re-enactors can dream of trying . Almost impossible to simulate without deep real experience knowledge of sailing.

      In that context watching, meeting with and talking to re-enactors can be illuminating – just feeling the weight and of weapons and examining and handling the accoutrements and asking what it is like to move around and march in them for example .Learning by doing in their case.

      I also suggest games can seldom teach leadership ,however shaped and created. Exercises with service personnel are sometimes referred to, lazily, in the press as “wargames”. At the Staff College when I was there what were actually wargames were always “exercises” so names are misleading!

      Not all learning is formal and in an institutional context and one can learn things even from miniatures games. Historically based games can be about exploring military history, testing a hypothesis. And I don’t mean “ what ifs”. In broad terms ,hindsight makes “what ifs” hard to do. Perhaps “ hidden scenario”s can – Austerlitz ( or whatever) set in the American Civil War . Needs umpires for that and to create the fog of war.

      I find I learn for example using miniatures games in exploring warfare in the era of the chariot “ host”, which is not well understood even by historians .In the Napoleonic era the rules etc I helped write are very much focused on the problems/task of handling a combined arms Corps d’Armee operating at the edge of “grand tactics”.- and not based on handling a battalion , or even a brigade , nor yet a whole army. To do that we had to design it “ top down” not bottom up.

      One learns by playing how to do it better . It can also be a way of understanding what Napoleon was up to in Italy in the 1790’s and what made him so different . That does not, make one a good Napoleonic Commander - but then many generals of the time ( and in other eras) were not either! One can learn far more from cock ups that successes!

      I suggest any wargame/ ruleset /game design should not try to do too many things – and it is a game not a simulation. Over fascination with weapons technology for example is often the bane of games. As is the device of “points” for so called balanced armies. Asymmetrical opposing forces are much more fun I find. The definition of success changes.

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  7. I totally agree that there are many forms of wargaming, and that a "wargame" (whatever the definition) can be used as a teaching tool.

    However, if we talk about current-day hobby wargaming with miniatures (the stuff you see at the cons and in the glossy magazines), these are simply games inspired by military history. Granted, some rulesets might have required significant research on the part of the designer, but in the end, we are still dealing with a game, not a teaching tool. Those games are fun, and they might learn us indirectly a little bit about military history, but I doubt very much whether they can be used to gain deeper understanding of (historical) military tactical doctrines.

    Part of the reason - in my opinion - is the focus on toy soldiers as playing pieces. There is nothing wrong with that, I enjoy games with toy soldiers. But using toy soldiers from the very start, constrains what you can do in the game and defines what people expect. Using toy soldiers implies that moving toy soldiers around becomes the main activity - that's where the fun is. Using toy soldiers also implies you have to arrange them on the table, hence the focus on formations. It also implies a focus on uniforms and hardware. Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it puts limitations on what you can do, and it does steer the designer and gamer (subconsciously?) in a specific direction and mode of thinking of what a wargame can or should be.

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