I am an avowed historical wargamer, dedicated to recreating historical battle situations on the tabletop and then seeing how players' decisions and fickle dice make them turn out. I find this immensely satisfying in several ways and it is definitely my preferred wargame format. However, my impression is that among my fellow wargamers this is very much a minority sport. People may make a special effort to depict a particular battle for a convention game, but on a routine club night or home-hosted game most seem happy with something non-historical: perhaps a points-based competition game; perhaps a cunningly devised tactical puzzle that may or may not have some historical inspiration; perhaps something entirely unscripted beyond fielding whatever armies take the players' fancy on a given evening. And that's without even counting all the fantasy and science fiction armies alongside the 'real' ones.
I've been involved in some rather good non-historical games myself in recent weeks. Therefore, rather than harp on tiresomely about why everybody should change their ways and do what I usually do, in this week's meta-musing I thought I'd ponder on the many good reasons for NOT refighting historical battles but doing a non-historical game instead. Here are some I could think of, in no particular order.
Researching a battle and turning it into a playable scenario takes a lot of time and effort. Not everyone has that time to spare, not everyone enjoys it, and not everyone will find the results worth it.
Historical battlefields are generally more complicated than the average wargames table, particularly in terms of hills and valleys, which can be difficult to portray. Even an extensive terrain collection can find itself stretched and run out of roads, or streams, or mountains, or villages. Then there is the set-up time required for faithfully representing a historical battlefield in detail. Especially for a club night when time is limited, that can be a serious limiting factor.
I don't have the troops!
I was going to make this a reason, but on reflection, no wargamer worth his salt would accept that. Not having the troops isn't a reason for not fighting a battle, it's a reason to buy more troops! (And until then - use proxies.)
We're doomed, so what's the point?
A significant proportion of historical battles were one-sided affairs which are bound to end in a more or less crushing defeat for the historical loser. I've seen that offered on several occasions as a reason not to touch the Franco-Prussian War at all, for instance, because people have a prejudiced view of it as a walkover for the Germans. Understandably, while a "damned near-run thing" like Waterloo (to paraphrase Wellington) is enduringly attractive, the destruction of Napoleon III's army at Sedan is less popular with gamers, even if clever victory point schemes can make it possible for the loser to "win".
But the [insert favourite regiment, tank, etc] was just so awesome!
We all want to field the cool kit or the funky fun units, even if they never actually made it onto the battlefield. I have seen six 60cm Karl mortars on the table, which was perhaps overdoing it, but I can see the appeal. And among the competition gamers, I have seen niche stuff like T34/57s or double-mounted archer camelry go through phases of tremendous popularity because their tabletop effectiveness far outweighed their historical footnote status.
Never mind the historical battles, I want to fight a campaign
And as soon as you start making campaign decisions, you will inevitably change the shape of the resulting battles. I have quite a lot of troops in 1891 uniforms they never fought in, including an entire (small) Portuguese 1891 army, all painted purely for campaign purposes and necessarily only ever used in non-historical games.
What if ...
... the Aztecs fought the Samurai? (Or whoever.) Or if the D-Day invasion had been aimed at the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy? It is quite natural to think about armies that never met and wonder which would have won, or for armies that did meet, to consider battles they might have fought if they'd made different strategic decisions. Non-historical what-if games let you explore those questions.
All that button-counting is just annoying and trivial
Among us historical types there is certainly a tendency to obsess over details that, while fascinating to us, can seem irrelevant to others. The player who just wants to have a game doesn't really enjoy being told their tanks are in the wrong camouflage scheme, or any other such unhelpful "advice" aka smug derision of their harmless amusement. In that respect, historical devotees sometimes do our own cause more harm than good.
All that historical detail actually gets in the way of the game
We historical scenario designers can get too carried away with our Great Work, too in love with all the esoteric detail we have discovered, too eager to incorporate every last precious nugget of our arcane knowledge into a 3-hour bash. The game may drown in a plethora of scenario special rules and infinite variety of confusingly nuanced unit differences. (Guilty as charged, m'lud - I know I've done this at times.) A game "inspired by" a historical situation but with all the clutter stripped away may be a much better game than an excessively faithful recreation.
I just want to put some nice armies on the table and have some fun
There is a lot of aesthetic pleasure to be had from beautifully painted figures on a finely crafted layout. Who cares if this lot in their 1809 uniform are next to some others in anachronistic 1815 garb, and are fighting an army that was actually their ally, so long as it looks good and the game is exciting?
Why limit your imagination?
With a historical battle, there are so many limits on what the game can include and what can happen. Throw off those shackles! Play Fantasy, Science Fiction, Pulp, Alternate History! Mix periods, mix genres, create crazy cocktails to delight your gaming palate!
Well, that's it. I've pretty much persuaded myself. Time to throw out those nerdily researched historical armies and splash out on more orcs, space marines and steampunk machines. Goodbye accurate orders of battle, hello cunning calculations of 400-point armies. Roll those dice for random terrain, missions and deployment, and have at thee!
Update added 17/10/2021
I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of comment this generated – well over 100 responses on various threads on various forums. Rather than respond to them all there, let me provide one collective response here, with a big thank you to all who took the trouble to comment. The forums where these many thoughtful and fascinating comments are to be found are these:
The first thing I need to address is the old chestnut, “it’s all fantasy anyway” (aka the “Claudia Schiffer gambit”). I disagree with that, except in a trivial semantic sense. There is obviously a major category distinction between games whose divergence from actual history rests only on human decisions (and are in that sense “possible” alternative history) and those that involve things that never existed and cannot exist – magic, monsters, etc – and are thus “impossible”. (If you’d just made different life choices, Mike, you could have impressed Claudia …) Rather than use words like “fantasy” or “fiction”, how about if we talk about “explorations of history”? Thus:
- - Refighting an actual battle is an exploration of the history of that battle;
- - fighting fictional battles generated by starting from an actual campaign situation explores the history of that campaign;
- - fighting fictional battles between historical armies (whether or not those armies ever met) could be regarded as explorations of historical weapons and tactics.
Having dealt with that, let me endeavour to group the respondents’ reasons into a few major headings.
“We know what happened!”
This includes the problem of surprise (or lack of it). Often the reason a battle took the shape it did is because a commander was deceived or ignorant of some major factor, be it terrain, enemy strength and dispositions, etc. It is hard to recreate that when players know what happened. Artificial constraints on what players are allowed to do are not entirely satisfactory – it is important not to make things too ‘scripted’, otherwise why bother having players? That said, it can be done, witness our recent games of Hegyes or Gitschin where one side’s strategic objective changes mid-battle. Player knowledge didn’t seem to prevent these being good games and decent depictions of the battles in question.
Another aspect of the “we know what happened” problem is that players can be unhappy of the refight turns out differently from the historical event. But if we allow (as I think we should) that people could have made different decisions – whether generals giving different orders, or private soldier choosing when to fire or whether to stand or run – then we should be OK with getting different results. In fact, seeing whether different plans (or even the same ones) could have succeeded or failed is part of the attraction.
And another: translating the history we know onto the tabletop is difficult, and “we all love a good scenario – but have probably suffered too many half-baked ones that didn’t quite work – which is why the basic two sides line up and charge format is so often favoured”. Well, I recognise the problem, but the fact that something is difficult to do doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t worth doing. When it’s done right it is so much better.
I already addressed the challenge of terrain. Others raised “depth of the battlefield and how many forces are packed into small spaces … it’s quite a shock to see the set ups for Dresden, Borodino, etc, where troops are piled on top of troops”. Or similarly, “Most sets of rules focus their command/unit representation too low to do a whole historic battle.” I suppose my answer to that would be that’s simply a problem of choice of ruleset – have you tried BBB? 😉
People have different notions about what historically happened or could have happened, so historical refights can create disputes. Well, if these are constructive discussion, that’s interesting, isn’t it? And if they’re blazing rows, the problem is probably that you’re gaming with the wrong people, not a problem of the game per se. (Though as one respondent said, “it’s hard finding like-minded people”. In that respect I’ve been very lucky.)
There are not enough historical battles!
That’s a fair point: if you’ve gone to the trouble of painting your Bolivian army for 1880, you might want to use it for more than just endless refights of the battle of Tacna. That said, my own focus on the whole of the 19th century has kept our group entertained for the past decade and more, without having to learn new rules (we fight them all with BBB), and with no prospect of running out of battles any time soon.
Fighting smaller actions that never reached the history books
This was a good one. Particularly for skirmish-level games, a more generic ahistorical approach can be just fine, eg for pre-modern wars where records don’t exist, or for modern wars on such a scale that almost any skirmish scenario ‘could have’ happened (and again, not everything at that level was recorded).
Some feel it’s disrespectful to those who gave their lives if we trivialise their sacrifice in a game, hence eg the appeal of gaming with ‘Imagi-nations’. I disagree – I have enough combat veteran gaming friends to think if it’s OK for them, it’s OK for me – but I entirely accept this as a reason for those who do feel that way.
“Modern sensibilities” were also mentioned, as in it being considered distasteful and insulting to suggest one nationality was inherently better than another. I suppose that could put people off recreating certain conflicts.
I’m just not that into history
People get different things from our hobby. Some are more into the craft element (the painting and modelling), or the social occasion, or the competitive aspect. Not everyone cares about the history.
What’s the point? You won’t really learn anything
Some dismiss the idea that you can gain any deeper insights or understanding of a battle or period by doing refights. Hmm: perhaps whether anything can be learned from a refight depends on both the learner and the lesson? We all learn in different ways. A refight can be “learning by doing” – I know that refighting historical battles has imprinted them on my memory better than all my reading about them – and the better crafted a scenario is, the more we will learn from it.
I hope that’s a fair summary of the many points raised. Apologies to any to whose comments I haven’t done full justice – hard to reply to >100 in sufficient detail! Thanks again to everyone who engaged with my blog post and created such an interesting discussion.
Incidentally, I have now added a new label on the blog, “Reflections on wargaming”, which links to a few similarly broad-themed blog posts that have generated similarly rich discussions. Please do have a browse.