Wednesday, September 22, 2010


The public perception of historical wargaming tends towards endless refights of famous battles as the wargamer strives to change history. Gettysburg and Waterloo being the most common for some reason (and yes, I've done both). 

But while this is a facet of the hobby, its not really where the roots of the modern hobby lie.  What little we know of 19th Century Kriegspiels lean towards their being developed for studying/training contemporary warfare (for someone in the 1840's examining Napoleonic Warfare was still examining Modern Warfare). When we pass to HG Wells and Stevenson  playing with Toy Soldiers, the games are still based on contemporary war, and the same is true of Captain Sach's game.  

I'm not sure exactly when the "Historical" part crept in. A casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that it sprang Athena like, fully formed from the foreheads of Don Featherstone and Joe Morschauser but both books report on a small but well developed hobby of miniature wargaming set in historical settings (mind you its easy to forget that in 1962 WWII was still a contemporary war, closer in time than the 1st Gulf War is now with WWII veterans still on active duty and weapons such as Bren Guns, T34's and Sherman tanks still in service).

In any event, the idea of miniature wargaming as either a history based or fantasy/scifi based hobby is now commonly accepted. Just how historical those historical wargames are can vary pretty widely.  Many wargamers will take part in refights of historical battles from time to time but most want the freedom to make their own choices and after all, even something as simple as the decision to allow d'Erlon to be committed at Quatre Bras slips from "history" to "alternate history" or "speculative history". In fact, while there are some gamers who only wargame specific historical battles and only deploy exactly the right regiments in the right uniforms, in the right postions, the vast majority of games whether historical scenarios, table top teasers, competetion games, campaigns or pick up games are "based on" and "inspired by" rather than "recreating" history and there is nothing wrong with either approach. 

Within that large tent of "inspired by" there has always been an element enjoying an additional touch of imagination which shows itself by the invention of fictional countries and wars. These can range from narrowly disguised historical campaigns to those who blur the line between history and science fiction or fantasy. There are those who raise an eyebrow  at such frivolity but it goes right back to the roots of the hobby and Red Army vs Blue Army.

For over a decade now, I have been intermittently working on a serious exploration of this frivolous aspect of the hobby. Somehow a collection of glossy Victorian toy soldiers just calls out for a setting less serious and exacting than only the recreation of actual past events. The question has been, should I make a serious attempt at alternate history, go whole hog and invent fictional lands and armies or settle somewhere in the middle. Having poked a tentative toe into each of these waters, they each have their own appeal and their own difficulties.

Alternate History: The idea here would be to explore a real historical possibility, in my current context that would mean taking one or more serious war threats between the US and Britain in the  middle of the 19thC,  speculating on how and why they turned into actual conflicts then following through in a plausible manner. Investigating the actual history and finding plausible alternate events is a lot of work but interesting as one examines politics, economics and recorded historical deployments and contemporary wars. This only gives you a starting point though and as the campaign progresses, one soon loses all historical context for plausibility. That's not the problem. The problem is that serious alternate history is as limiting in its own way as actual history.

By the end of the Aroostock "war" there were something like 40,000 men in arms in the Canada's, and perhaps 20,000 more in the Maritimes (the colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick not being considered as part of Canada) in each case a mix of British regulars with volunteers and militia. Even given the wide geographic area and the need for garrisons etc,, still more than enough to allow for some decent wargame clashes and if there had of been a real war, that number of troops might have been doubled. If we go west however, it is unlikely that eiother side could have thrown 3,000 men into the Columbia District (Oregon Territory) and any battles for that half of the continent would likely have been skirmishes between a few hundred men at most. Fair enough, one can make an interesting wargame of such an encounter but the point is that there is no way to make a plausible alternate history campaign involving armies of 30,000 men maneuvering across Oregon in 1846. 

FICTION. So what about the "imagi-nation" or fictional contry route? I enjoyed creating Faraway and Oberhilse, dipping into fabricating history and dabbling in designing cultures as well as campaigns and I can see the attraction but while I was happy enough for one side to be completely invented, even if most uniforms were copied, on the other side the army was a thinly disguised British army and even that thin disguise was irksome at times. It was fun to field the New Dundas Highlanders but the urge to paint and field historical units never faded and it was hard at times not to turn supposedly fictional places into thinly veiled real ones. That's not necessarily wrong but it meant the solution wasn't perfect.

Historical Fantasy. Here is a route that I haven't intentionally explored yet though looking back I can see that I have been there many times. What do I mean by historical fantasy? Simply wargame campaigns or battles between broadly historical armies but without any attempt at a plasuible setting and often incorporating implausible elements. This was long common between ancient wargamers as they pitted say Alexander's pikemen against Caesar's legions but could also be seen in horse and musket games as a Russo-Anglo-Austrian alliance takes on a Franco-Spanish army or what have you. In effect, this is a thinly disguised traditional Red Army vs Blue Army wargame. 
On the surface it seems to solve all my issues as I can field what troops I want and give them a campaign setting without worrying about plausibility but while, in theory, I am in full favour of frivolity and escapism in an appropriate setting and even indulge in such behaviour occasionally, I fear that my imagination may not be up to the task and that the implausible bits will be a source of secret guilt! . 

Only time and an attempt will tell and at least any historical units painted for this campaign will be usable for potential future ones.  (unlike the Faraway Field Force artillery and Blue Guards!)


  1. Ross,

    These are all valid approaches - though one of the less attractice aspects of the pure historical approach is the descent in "hat fascism". I have frequently seen games decried as unrealistic becuase the 18th Such and Such weren't wearing bowler hats on that occasion.

    I always find it such a bizarre objection - here stands the wargamer playing with a much reduced number of men, on a simplified field which ignores many of the complexities of the ground, with a helicopters eye view of the battle and a lack of attention to millinery is what breaks the illusion for the viewer.

    It was enough to drive me to drink.

  2. Ross,
    To me, the advantages are with the Historical Fantasy approach. You don't have to make up maps but can use existing ones, yet if you want to fudge the existing one to enhance the campaign, you can. You don't have to decide on uniform details but can base them on their historical counterparts, but if you really want to field a regiment of lancers with pearl-gray tunics over hunter green trousers, you can. You can arrange the OOB to taste. You could shamelessly include some historically unlikely events in the form of chance cards that may or may not actually take place, in theory adding even more variety and excitement to the campaign.

    Now if I could only get myself to loosen up that much in regards to my east front armies...

    and always a pleasure,

  3. Essentially a matter of personal taste: some of us paint / convert / model more than they play, some play isolated battles while some prefer elaborated campaigns, some play skirmishes while some play only *huge* battles...
    Some use historical maps, some design (following the exemple of C. Grant in 'The War Game') a pair of embattled statelets -or a whole Hyboria-like continent.
    Independently, some enjoy to design original uniforms and flags (and for the 'tricornes' era David's "NBA" templates are so convenient) while some prefer to keep to purely historical ones (can appear in 'historical' games -actually the minis are moonlighting in 'Imagi-Nations' campaigns; and easier to sell when your interest changes). But, even the most 'hardboiled historical' contributors to the 'Emperor vs Elector' collective blog succumb to the temptation of designing an unit of their own or three: Der Alte Fritz' 'Milady de Winter's Black Legion', Tidders' Wittenberg 'Free Korps' and 'River Marines'...
    Just find what suits you best!


  4. An interesting and thought provoking post...

    I suspect one of the reasons for the rise in historical gaming may well be as a result of something you yourself posted... "mind you its easy to forget that in 1962 WWII was still a contemporary war". A lot of these guys would have been in the war (I know Featherstone was) and it may be that the memories were still a little too raw for gaming such a recent war... in effect the move to historical gaming was as an antidote....

    W.r.t your approaches - while I can understand the desire for 'imaginations', I've always know it wasn't for me - real history is so endlessly fascinating, with so much potential for "what if's" that I'm always going to find myself in the historical fantasy camp...

  5. Hi Ross,
    some readers may misunderstand the title of this post: it's true that 'Fantasy' does not necessarily imply supernatural elements, only 'imagination unrestricted by reality' - but many people understand 'Fantasy' as 'with magics / paranormal' (and such wargaming campaigns are indeed quite possible in a 'Horse & Musket' setting, re. 'Pulp' adventures in Pangaea and 'Melnibonean Elves' in Ameri-Go).
    When does 'historical fiction' turn to 'historical fantasy'? Rather than a theoretical definition I prefer to propose an exemple: if during a wargame campaign 're-enacting' Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt Nelson is killed earlier, the French Navy wins at Abukir and the French situation in Egypt is more than satisfactory: historical fiction.
    Then if after several campaign-months or years Bonaparte, having followed the steps of Alexander the Great and conquered Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan, is now battling with Wellington for overall control of India -and even if the balloons he took with him to Egypt have not in the meantime evolved to dirigibles- the setting departed enough from 'reality' to be deemed historical fantasy.

    Is a 'What-if?' situation / campaign historical fiction or historical fantasy? I suggest it depends on -the 'weirdness' of the 'what-if?' -the time elapsed since this 'what-if? imposed to the storyline a divergence from 'our' History. In the novel 'Pavane', Elizabeth the 1st is assassinated by a Catholic fanatic; 380 years later, the Pope is the real overlord of the whole 'Western' world; telecommunications use chains of semaphores, primitive steampowered land trains crawl on the highways and the matchlock musket is the nec plus ultra of military technology.

    (I tried to discuss these various points on successive comments, prompted by threads mainly on TMP, accumulated over years to my own ' historical games?' post).

    In the context of this post you may be interested in what his creator calls a "'What-if'-Nation" he carefully sets apart from "Imagi-Nations": historically during the WSS Catalonia tried to resist the new, Bourbon, king of Spain. So he re-fights the campaign and if the war (and diplomatic context) turn propitious to Defiant Catalonia, then independent Catalonia would be a "'What-if'-Nation"...
    Btw, regarding uniformsn his army at first is made only of historical units: but he catched the virus and ordered some minis for a (very unconventional) 'unhistorical' regiment: be careful, it's highly contagious!

    Best regards

  6. Thank you all for the comments.
    Conrad, yes its been 12 years now since I organized an online group "bring your own" 54mm Battle of Chippewa game at a convention and while striving to arrange for people to come with the "right" units, was told that "a shako was a shako". We decided to allow any toy soldier with a musket and a good time was had by all.

    John, don't worry, you can expect to see Larsen's Lancers, fresh from Bengal via China, galloping across the great plains in the shadow of a hot air ballon.

    Steve, you may be right but Featherstone amongst others were avid gamers of WWII so perhaps it was just inevitable that students of history would adopt the idea of wargames?

    Jean-Louis, What can I say? Tu as raison, mon ami.

  7. As a curiosity the WSS Catalan / Galatan unconventional regiment is just disclosed...