Wednesday 28 February 2018

The Civil Wars of Early Wargaming

The History of Wargaming Project has accrued one of the largest archives of private correspondence from the early days of hobby wargaming 1960-1990. As I continue to collate and digitise the material, I find myself feeling bewildered how wargaming ever managed to survive long enough to become the minority, but well-known and established hobby it is today. It is known by those interested in the development of the hobby, that there were major clashes such as Tony Bath v Don Featherstone, Fred Jane v RN, magazine editor X with Y, American A with American B, etc. Many of the key personalities in early wargaming were at war with each other for intellectual supremacy and hobby domination. They were rude, vitriolic, harsh and unreasonable.
I now realised why Don Featherstone kept his distance from WD and some innovations in the hobby; they would have consumed his time and energy and Don’s key contribution to the hobby of books would have been heavily impacted.

Paddy Griffith was a key innovator in wargaming and military history who inspired many to develop new and interesting ways of wargaming. Paddy launched WD in response to the demise of Don Featherstone’s Wargamer’s Newsletter (Don as was bribed to cease publication, but that is another story). However, Paddy was then on the receiving end of a regular diatribe from random people around the world. Many were just seeking his advice or accessing his vast knowledge based in his head (as this was before Google and the Internet), but some were venting their anger and he was just caught in the cross fire. I am amazed he was so tolerant of their correspondence.
John Davis was a key instigator of large games. He took Don Featherstone’s efforts and made them workable command post type exercises. This was along with Paddy, David Candler and others. In 1981 John Davis ran a mega game on Crete and Paddy then received many complimentary letters about the game, but many less complimentary.

I am still not quite sure why Paddy became the focus for these controversies and I am equally perplexed why he spent hundreds of hours typing his letters in response to them. I am certain that the time he devoted to these less productive correspondences significantly impacted on the amount of time he had to make his major and lasting contributions to wargaming and military history.  
If anyone thinks I am exaggerating about the letter driven civil wars of wargaming, here is an example of a letter sent to Paddy about the Crete mega game that was led by John Davis.

“This is not a critique but a bitch against some of the things that I felt were wrong in the mini-campaign played on Sunday 15 September.  As a member of the German planning staff I was involved in the campaign for a number of weeks prior to the game itself.  We were congratulated on the planning papers produced but I feel that this was only to be expected as we had an experienced group of players writing the overall plan and the tactical assault plans, Pete Merritt laboured under particularly difficult circumstances having to change his plan at the last minute.  It became obvious however that many of the Umpires had not read, or had not had the time to read, these papers in detail and this continued on the day as a number of orders/plans were not implemented properly by the Umpires, the best case being the deaf, dumb, blind and invisible Italian submarine which was a result of two misread orders.
We built a certain level of detail into our orders and these did not seem to come out at the time the Umpires did their calculations, this was a problem particularly felt by our Air player, Mike Horah, who commented that it did not seem to matter whether he put in an 80 aircraft strike or 8 groups of 10 aircraft, I will not elaborate on this point but there is a difference when the aircraft are sent in as a 'cab rank’ for continuous aircover and the ground players are not informed of their availability.  There seemed to be a total lack of understanding of airborne operations on the part of the Umpires and this was particularly noticeable in the scatter of battalions during the assault operations. 
During 1005 sorties flown by the transports on the two assault operations only 1 aircraft was shot down and two damaged which would indicate very light opposition to the actual drop and yet 2 Bn's, 1 on each lift, were dropped directly onto airfields, which are clearly defined and not their drop zones, and 1 complete Bn. was dropped in the sea. We pointed out to the Umpires that all our drops were in daylight but we still lost a complete Bn. during a frenzied period of aquatic sport.

This lack of understanding also reared its ugly head amongst our opponents when at the debrief one of them, who shall remain nameless but works at RMA Sandhurst, stated that it would take para's 6 hours to organise on the ground (if this is true why were so many para units used during W.W.II?) and he had been led to believe that 6 to 1 odds were required to eject his men from prepared positions (when most para attacks in reality were against the odds and a high proportion of them successful).  If I had been told this prior to the game I would have had serious reservations about going to Crete.  I could expand on these points, and many more, but this must not turn into a book of the game of the plan of …
This is beginning to sound like sour grapes but in fact we won, I think.  In conclusion, I must apologise to one of our juniors, at one point I received a message timed 0950 am from one Umpire and this was followed by his arrival as the runner for another Umpire to tell me it was 2000, he was then forced to retreat pursued by a stream of abuse.  I apologise and thank him and the other juniors for their endeavours through the day.

These lessons are that Umpire teams must be properly prepared, briefed and organised, they must co-ordinate their work and be seen to be working smoothly.  Also, it is an asset if they understand the subject/problem under consideration and have at least an equal knowledge to the players so that they can reason out a situation and subsequently justify the result from a position of relative security.  I do not believe that Umpire decisions should be justified by statements similar to "I'm the Umpire here, so tough".   Also, from what I heard at the debrief it sounded as though the Umpires used dice to an alarming extent.”


  1. Amazing! I suppose that some of the early conflicts between wargamers was due to the rather strong personalities that were around at the time. Each seemed to have a bit of an 'I'm right and you are wrong' mentality, particularly when it came to the written word.

    Of the people mentioned, I only knew Paddy and John Davis, and although Paddy and I did have our difference of opinion at times, they never became personal. To me it was more to do with our different approach to things rather than our personalities that clashed.

    I always wondered why Don Featherstone did not seem to want anything to do with WD, and this blog entry goes some way to explaining the situation.

    WD also suffered from adverse comments in the early days (this is far less prevalent now, but we still cannot get an entry on Wikipedia thanks to it!) and we were accused of all sorts of heresies and non-conformities. Because we tended to try ideas that did not always involve painted toy soldiers on model railway-like terrain, we were obviously trying to undermine the hobby ... although the reasons how and why was never adequately explained by the detractors. Some thirty seven years on, WD is still seen by some as being an elitist organisation that does very little to develop wargaming ... but I doubt if most wargamers have even heard of it, even though they probably use wargaming techniques that were developed by its members.

    All the best,


    1. My understanding is Don did not take to WD initially be formed by invitation only, not was just not Don. He also thought their was little future (and book income) in developing realistic wargames. Don was probably right, there are few tabletop wargames that are realistic.

  2. In a recent book titled, Great at Work, the author suggests that one of the key collaboration skills is the ability to "Fight, Then Unite." I would expect any successful domain or sub-discipline to have key personalities willing to argue about specifics in the attempt to shape the sub-discipline.

    The question this naturally brings up is this: "do the letters ever show an attempt to 'unite' after the fighting is over?"
    Mark Jones Jr

    1. The model is the group forms, then their is storm while they sort out who does what, then once the group has the worked out how it works, it then does stuff.

      The early wargamers never united and in the end the free market of wargaming decided what prevailed. Boardgames, fantasy/ science fiction games dominated by one company, and a lot of D6 games with individual figures where you roll to hit and roll to save. To me the realistic games such as DBA, DBM, Peter Pig Rules etc... are minority stuff compared with the glossy commercial rules that emphasis fun over history. So in the end, Don's flavour of wargaming holds sway in the UK.

  3. Reminds me of Don's "Staff and Command" editorial when the WD split from the US original in '62 as reprinted here: Courier Timeline

  4. Mike Horah said,

    Perhaps some of this lies in the tension(?)between simulation and game and the struggle to reconcile the two. A good simulation may not be a good game and vice versa and there are inherent weaknesses in all games with models - for all I enjoy them enormously even more than I used to. Megagames like Crete ( and I helped design and run a good few in the 1980's) were , from my perspective, at their best when they were command and decision making games, with limited info, timelags fog of war etc . I don't recall the timing of Crete but I am pretty sure it was after my year at the RAF Staff College in 1979 so I was probably a bit precious about that stuff! I knew Paddy and was very fond of him and so sorry to hear of his premature death. We miss him.

    It is the nature of hobbyists I think to get a little feisty, not just wargamers (Kate Fox in “ Watching the English” is very entertaining on this). The quest for the perfect rules set - the one to rule them all- is of course fool's gold , but worth the effort to learn improve and develop wargames in general.

  5. Dave Barry is an American humourist. My favourite quote of his is, "There's a fine line between 'hobby' and 'mental illness'."
    Less nastily, one could also recast the wry remark about academia - the battles are so intense because the stakes are so small.

    To me, it seems not so much strong personalities as rigid ones; people who go to great lengths to have everything spelt out in the rules, and if it is not written, it shall not be done.
    I'm with Paddy, Bob, John, Tom & co. and salute WD for the amazing job it's done of expanding people's minds as to what wargaming can do, and what games in general can bring to their (open-minded) participants!

  6. John
    Today March 20th is Donald Featherstone's Centenary
    Thanks for all you have done with the Featherstone reprints to make his work afforadabke and accessible again. Mark

  7. Re the comment on umpires, having worked as an umpire at several WWII tactical reenactments here in the US, we were personally briefed by both sides command team on their plan of battle and we personally walked the ground before hand to get a good grasp of the terrain and its likely impact. Having also participated in a number of kriegspiels over the years - yes, umpires need to be read in and even trained on their role.