Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wargame as Game Pt 3 Illusion vs Abstraction

Renovations are still holding my games room (and me) hostage but last weekend, I did manage a quick game at a friend's place. A CS Grant scenario played with 15mm troops using Blitzkrieg Commander adapted for use with Hexon hexes deployed on a dining room table.  I lost, (1939 Poles not quite blowing a bridge) but it was an enjoyable couple of hours. The puzzling thing is, despite this being, on the surface "the usual", as I drove home, I realized that it had felt like a "game" as opposed to a "wargame". Why? What did that mean?

Well after much thought and various lengthy but aborted blog entries, I think I have some idea. Most historical miniature wargamers are probably familiar with the description of the hobby as a blend of gaming, modelling and history. Expanding the gaming section, I have come up with another set of overlapping  interests:

a) recreation of history (or of the chosen background if doing non-historical gaming).
b) imagination including role playing and story creation and story telling, essentially pretending that you are "there" on the table, taking part.
c) competition or playing a game according to fixed rules.

Now when I was fiddling with the following digram, I hadn't put it quite that way so the 3 sectors are labelled History, Imagination and Game.

 The Green area in the middle is my particular sweet spot,  a prefect mix of a regulated, competitive game, recreation of history and a chance to exercise my imagination as I pretend to be there amongst my toy soldiers, leading them to Victory.

The areas with no overlap are the Prime ingredients that go into the gaming aspect of wargaming. An example of the pure Imagination area would be a boy (of any age) playing with toy soldiers, no rules, no attempt to recreate history per se, just imagining himself as the hero of some adventure.  Risk might be considered an example of the Game portion, while a re-fight of an historical battle by historians as a learning exercise might be considered to fall into the recreating History portion.

The areas where 2 circles overlap are getting closer to my sweet spot. The original Little Wars would be an example of a mix of Imagination and Game with no taint of history while a role playing game using miniatures and an historical setting might be set where Imagination and History cross. After much thought, the Yellow zone is where I found myself last weekend.  The game was challenging and fun and reflected history and indeed whenever we found ourselves in an ambiguous situation, we were as likely to make a decision based on what was likely possible historically as what was legal under the rules. But, I never really imagined myself as "being there".

Why not?  I don't believe that it was any one thing, it was the convergences of several factors, some definitely personal and some perhaps more general. The personal ones included such things as being somewhat distracted by a call from home (a non-problem as it later turned out) and the fact that I was not using miniatures that I had painted (its silly but my imagination and sense of engagement increases when using my own lads)and was playing a period (Poland 1939) that I have only a superficial knowledge of. A possibly more general one is that the game was fairly abstract with a small number of small figures on a hex grid. Now, I am not a "moving diorama" guy, more of a toy soldier sort, but a single 15mm figure standing in for a squad felt like a playing piece and while the hexes were darned convenient for measuring and movement, they also detracted a little from the illusion. Its harder to imagine yourself on the radio. ordering "Red Two This is Red One move 2 hexes to your left".    On another day my imagination might have been strong enough to overcome the abstractions but at least it was a fun day as it was.

The point? Well, unfortunately, there isn't one really! Its just another view to think about.

I'll leave this with an excerpt from  HG Wells' Littlewars, just to show its not just me:

 "And suddenly your author changes. He changes into what perhaps he might have been—under different circumstances. His inky fingers become large, manly hands, his drooping scholastic back stiffens, his elbows go out, his etiolated complexion corrugates and darkens, his moustaches increase and grow and spread, and curl up horribly; a large, red scar, a sabre cut, grows lurid over one eye. He expands—all over he expands. He clears his throat startlingly, lugs at the still growing ends of his moustache, and says, with just a faint and fading doubt in his voice as to whether he can do it, "Yas, Sir!" "

Lurking in ambush,waiting anxiously for the signal to attack as the enemy marches slowly past.


  1. Interesting, Ross. I think that I need to think about this.

    -- Jeff

  2. Ah, the Venn diagram of wargaming. :)
    I suppose my inclination is at least a bit tilted towards the Imagination side, with a bit of Game and History (or Story) thrown in.

  3. Fascinated by the 3 circles - I suspect my own games, especially the biggest ones, are a bit short on the Imagination aspect (as in "imagining what it would be like to be there").

    I had a ponder about that. I'm not so sure now - I seem to have a bit of blurring between the History and the Imagination circles. There's a nice transcript of a discussion from Historicon '00 (which you have almost certainly read) at

    If I had any energy I would re-read it now, but Jim Getz (I think) makes the point that he and a number of friends used the old Napoleonique rules for years without any arguments and without anyone trying to exploit the holes in the rules, because they were there to facilitate a Napoleonic battle rather than to win one. This gets a bit close to a previous post of yours, but, again, this is ponder time.

    I'm never likely to witness a real Napoleonic battle (thank God), so watching the thing unfold and seeing what happens is a big part of the appeal for me, and I guess it does require some imagination to map what you see back against what you read in the books. Sometimes I worry that this aspect of my involvement is a bit passive, but I think I'm OK with it now. Generations of model railway enthusiasts have done exactly this - you have to be pretty devoted to go up in the loft to watch the 09:25 set off on time yet again!

    Once again, you got me thinking - that has to be a good thing!

    Thanks, as ever - great blog (should be an oath!)


  4. Useful diagram Ross. I think I'd ideally want all three to be present. Game is the dominant and essential one for me, as it provides the tension and excitement, but without History and Imagination it wouldn't be wargaming, it could be poker or whatever, which would be fine but not the same thing.

    I think having one's own figures on the table, with a strong identity and back story really helps the History and Imagination. I've lately been pondering this with my mid/late 19thC interests, as the regimental distinctions tended to have greatly diminished by then and it's difficult to tell one battalion from another.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

  5. Seen the 3 circles before- I'd tilt mine personal set only a lttle more towards history and a little away from game but all in all much the same- the imagination bit would be about the same - at least some of the time.