Tuesday 12 October 2021

Reasons NOT to refight historical battles

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.

Preparation time

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.

Terrain challenges

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:

[TMP] "ReasonsNOT to refight historical battles" Topic (theminiaturespage.com)

Reasons NOTto refight historical battles (pendrakenforum.co.uk)

»Topic: Reasons NOT to refight historical battles (thewargameswebsite.com)

Reasons NOT to refight historical battles (leadadventureforum.com)

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.

Tabletop representation

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).

It’s disrespectful

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.  


  1. Wargaming by its nature is all about compromise, space, scale, money, skill, time, to name a few and gaming pure historical games can be challenging. As you correctly point out some gamers are perceived experts in their chosen period and at times can be slightly over enthusiastic in their approach to gaming.
    I believe that historical games are best played using the concept of fighting a particular battle ie troops, equipment, tactics but leave the planning and fighting down to the leadership of the gamer.
    However one of the biggest problems of fighting historical battles is lots of gamers read history and at times use out of period tactics to fight battles, I have found that fantasy / 40k gamers when playing a historical game play the tactics and period better as they listen to the briefing and game rules / notes without being clouded by preconceived notions of how a particular battle was fought.

    In essence I believe historical battles can be fought but game them using the imagination concept of gaming, ie have the rules, troops, equipment, battlefield, tactics.  Then roll the dice and let battle commence and may the best player win.  


    1. Thanks, Willz. Indeed - keep the history, but let the players change the human decisions.

  2. Points? Orcs? Oh, perish the thought!
    I am a history nerd and will remain such.
    I do tell the other Fencibles that if they learn and run the rules and provide both sides I'ii play it. But I am not rushing to buy/paint lizardmen or dragons. I'd rather count buttons.

    1. Perhaps you could have your historical cake and eat a fantasy one too: count buttons on lizardmen? ;-)

  3. For me one of the main problems with wargaming historical battles is hindsight: either one knows what not to do, or one labours under the burden of trying to equal the tactical brilliance of the original victor. I'd rather engage in a wargame battle where I have limited knowledge of the terrain and the enemy and must rely on my own skill and luck, as in other games.

    Another reason is that I've come to doubt that tabletop battles are really capable of being more than just enjoyable - but fundamentally unrealistic - games on a military theme, so it seems in questionable taste to recreate historical battles in which real people were killed and wounded. But to fight engagements between the fictitious VFS and Duchy of Lorraine like Charles Grant doesn't give me any moral qualms.

    1. Thanks, Arthur. Of course, games with true fog of war provide a different experience from those with hindsight in play. I believe both have value.

      I don't share your moral qualms about recreating historical battles, but I respect your view.

  4. 1891? What (didn’t) happen in 1891?!

    1. As a teenager I was given a beautiful book, "The Armies of Europe", printed in 1891, with OBs and colour plates for them all. Naturally I built all the armies and fought a campaign with them.

  5. I agree with arthur1815's point about historical battles: Too much is known about them. A lot of the tactical challenges are 'pre-set' and original outcomes known. "I'd rather engage in a wargame battle where I have limited knowledge of the terrain and the enemy and must rely on my own skill and luck, as in other games."

    His other reason, I don't agree with so much.

    1. But the 'pre-set' tactical challenges can nonetheless be interesting to explore, try different plans, etc. And history provides much subtler and more varied challenges than any I could invent.

  6. Repetition. To just use an Alexandrian Macedonian army to fight a half dozen battles over and over is sad. Similarly with most ancient armies. And it is usually the same throughout history as armies evolved.

    1. Thanks, Khusru. That's a fair point which I hope I addressed adequately in the update.

  7. I recently played Star Wars X-Wing, lots of fun. But I still like my historical battles, inclduing the work on the OB, etc. And hypothetical battles with historical battles too.

  8. Hi Chris, if your German army vehicles & tanks are not in Grey/Brown up until July 1940 then they are painted wrong. Might as well just paint them SandGelb and not worry about it

    1. Thanks, Drew. Confession: all my early war Panzers are in plain panzer grey. Excuse: the army was a gift. They'll serve.

  9. Great post Chris. I am starting to be a bit turned off by historical war-gaming due to the fact that too many people are still politically invested in things that took place 500 years before. I.e the nationalism has started tiring me, and I question if I should play along with it (anarchism loading as the young un say)

    1. Thanks, Konstantinos. Sorry to hear you are being put off the historical side. I'm sure you yourself are capable of standing back from and being objective about the grim events we recreate on our tabletops, but I know it can get wearing when others aren't so objective. Enjoy some escapist fantasy gaming, and I hope you get your historical mojo back soon.

  10. Well, I am afraid, based on my experience, that some people are even politically invested in what will happen 500 years from now in a fantasy science fiction... but alas some people are just a PITA...

    As for the real topic I tend to side with Chris. Refighting historical battles is stimulating, enjoyable, and also enlightening. I also like all the background work. Plus I do not find these battles boring or already spoiled by insight in advance. As Dr. Simon Trew (RMAS) once said once you play the first turn things starts to change. Plus there is also the entire debate about wrong/good decisions. More often than not one author masterplan is another bane. So a game could shed indeed some light on them. OF course there are limits in that, but, contrary to others, I have become more and more put off by the dismissve 'let's play with toy soldiers' crowd who seems to repeat the same argument without sound justification, dismissing academics and military practitioners, and, IMNSHO, doing it more for a perverse form of snobbish attitude than everything else. As for the popularity of historical battles... if we look not just at miniature wargaming, but at the whole wargaming, probably they are more popular than random match ups.


    1. Cheers, Arrigo. Looks like we agree about the "it's all fantasy anyway" business, then.

  11. I like a mix of real battle refights and what if encounters using historical orders of battle. I will even mix non historical opponents as long as both sides are using realistic army compositions. I do like to run games that are disguised real actions. That’s because my main issue with full historical refights is the knowledge available to players and how it influences their approach to a particular refight.

    Where I do tend to play pure refights is in solo games as both players are on the same page as to why the game is being played 😀

    1. That all sounds reasonable to me. Thanks for commenting.


Comments welcome!