historical boardgames

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

16.4 (Fall 2016)


The Polis and Pop Culture



War on a Rainy Afternoon: Boardgames and Myth-Making (Appendix One)
Mark Wegierski

Historical boardgames have declined in popularity lately, and have e en drawn charges of being the preserve of militaristic right-wing fascists; yet the keen sense of history and the logic and concentration they demand likely has much more to do with their fall from the consumer’s favor.

The following piece is a coda to the series of shorter pieces that appeared in Praesidium, vol. 4, no. 1 (Fall 2004), pp. 19-27. It is a fuller discussion of some near and distant relations of historical boardgames, a look at various subgenres of the hobby, and a sociological sketch of the hobby.

I want now to look at some near and more distant relations of historical boardgames.

Here are some “closer cousins” of historical board wargames:

  • “pure-air” and “pure-naval” boardgames can be said to constitute separate subgenres because of the large differences involved in simulating air and naval, as opposed to land, combat;
  • near-future/contemporary, science fiction, alternative-history (such as, “What if Napoleon invaded England?”), and fantasy boardgames are often very similar in basic look and mechanics to historical boardgames, except for the different milieux, but are often played by different audiences—near-future/contemporary and alternative-history generally played by the wargame crowd—science fiction and fantasy boardgames might sometimes be played by the Dungeons and Dragons crowd;
  • wargames that are specifically designed to be played solitaire, i.e., without a human opponent;
  • historical miniatures (often a bit snidely called “toy-soldiers”): small, die-cast, painstakingly hand-painted representations of soldiers, usually from the Napoleonic period—hundreds of them are lined up in rows on a geomorphic representation of battle-field terrain, marshalled and engaged in combat according to an established set of miniatures rules;
  • science-fiction or fantasy battle miniatures: similar to historical miniatures, except that a different milieu is involved (e.g., the very popular Warhammer 40,000 A.D. (or 40K) and Warhammer Fantasy systems);
  • RISK (by Parker Brothers), an abstract, “conquer-the-world” type of game, has given birth to a whole subgenre of similar global games, often involving quasi-fictional alliances and countries, like “Canarctica”, in the Supremacy game—these are usually simple “geopolitical” games;
  • Diplomacy, a multi-player political-interaction game loosely based on the World War I Great Power conflict, has attracted a large following, and given birth to a number of such games, e.g., Cosmic Encounter, Machiavelli (politics of Renaissance Italy)—though historical boardgames tend to be two-player, there are also ones designed especially as multi-player situations;
  • “mass-market” wargames are those produced by major “mainstream” game companies, often having expensive components and very simple mechanics—early examples are Stratego and its derivative, Admirals—there was also the Milton Bradley line of wargames, including, among others, Axis & Allies (World War II), Conquer the Empire (Romans), and Fortress America (a hypothetical future invasion of the U.S. by European, Asian, and Central American powers), as well as the Shadowlord sci-fi/fantasy game (Parker Brothers);
  • the famous Sandhurst Military Academy in Britain produced 5 games that originally sold in an album-book for $20—apparently, despite the low price, the publication failed to sell successfully—even in earlier decades, there seemed to be no truly mass-market for wargames.

Here are some more “distant relations” of historical boardgames:

  • role-playing games (RPG’s) or fantasy role playing (frp) games, especially Dungeons and Dragons (D & D)—some prominent non-fantasy role-playing game milieus include science-fiction, occult-horror, cyberpunk, Medieval Japan, Star Trek;
  • Sherlockian role-playing / detective games;
  • in earlier decades, there were “campus-craze games” like so-called K.A.O.S. (“Killing as an Organized Sport”)— “staking out” and “shooting” people with rubber-tipped darts from toy-guns;
  • the “survival” or “adventure” game—two large teams with goggles, rough clothes, and paint pellet guns, chasing and “shooting” each other in a large, fenced-off, rugged outdoor area;
  • traditional games with military or strategic aspects, e.g. Chess, Go, and Chinese Chess;
  • tabletop or electronic sports games and simulations.

A large area of interest is historical/battlefield re-enactors, especially those focussing on the American Civil War/War Between the States; the American Revolutionary War; the War of 1812; and Medieval/Renaissance eras.

There is also military and government wargames and analysis:

  • mock-up terrain models of the German countryside shown some decades ago in the media;
  • computer simulations of tactical combat;
  • elaborate computer gaming / modelling of nuclear exchanges and strategic conflict;
  • board-based simulations used as teaching devices (e.g., SPI’s FireFight) (SPI – Simulations Publications, Inc.—was the major game company of the 1970s);
  • “live-scale” mass military maneuvers and training exercises;
  • “gaming” or “playing-out” of operational military plans.

There is also a branch of social science called “game theory and analysis”. This is the scientific study of probabilistic situations and paradoxes, e.g. “the Prisoner’s Dilemma”.

Finally, there is computer gaming in general. All the various genres above are available on different types of computers and the Internet, and there are, of course, arcade-style military games.

There was an intermediary period when wargame style mechanics continued in electronic formats, before the so-called “First Person Shooter” games took over. For example, there was Conflict: Korea (1992), by SSI (Strategic Simulations, Inc.). That highly effective game could have been seen as revolutionizing paper wargaming. The regiment and division-sized units were calibrated down to the individual man and individual rifle or piece of equipment. Fantastic detail was possible—for example, when units move in the game, they automatically lose a slight amount of strength due to stragglers and equipment breakdown. Many of the time-consuming and difficult functions of paper wargames were handled by the computer, which also provided an effective AI opponent. For example, there was no need to add combat factors; one simply directed by cursor which units attacked where, and the computer applied the results.

Two renowned computer strategy game series are Sid Meier’s Civilization, which combines military conflict and economic/technological development, with diplomacy and variable geo-strategy (and effective game AI); and Total War, which combines turn-based strategic conflict, with tactical “real-time” resolution of individual battles (and elaborate game AI on both the strategic and tactical levels).

However, in future years, there wasn’t much of a flowering of computer games with wargame-style mechanics. The videogame audience usually preferred the more personalized and more graphic FPS-type experience.

I would like to look now at various subgenres of the hobby, and examine it from a sociological standpoint.

The term in the hobby which committed wargamers most frequently call themselves is probably “grognards”—derived from the name of Napoleon’s veteran soldiers.

Here are some examples of popular formats of wargames:

  • mini-games / microgames—small-format, quick-play games, e.g., Steve Jackson’s Ogre—human armor, mech, and infantry against a huge cybertank in the 21st century;
  • “beer & pretzels” games—quick, easy-to-play games dealing with popular topics, e.g., World War II battles, that can be finished in an afternoon;
  • “serious simulations”—games with intricate rules to simulate in-depth aspects of a battle or campaign;
  • “monster-games”—e.g., Terrible Swift Sword (regiment-level Gettysburg);
  • heuristic, manual-intensive simulation games—only one produced, Campaign for North Africa (World War II), on a battalion/company level;
  • multi-player power politics games, e.g., Diplomacy;
  • both naval (and especially modern naval) and air games should probably qualify as separate genres, because of the large differences involved in simulating these types of combat.

Here are some suggested main types of historical gamers (overlap of categories possible in one person):

  • “beer & pretzels” gamers;
  • “power” gamers;
  • game, service/branch, or period devotees, including “national” gamers;
  • “historians”;
  • collectors;
  • amateur game-designers.

These are the main levels of games (most games will fall into one or another of these categories):

  • low tactical (man-to-man; squads or individual vehicles);
  • tactical (platoons or companies);
  • grand tactical (battalions or regiments) on one battlefield, especially Napoleonic or American Civil War/War Between the States;
  • operational (basic units—battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions, corps [especially in World War II]—also regiments, brigades, divisions, corps on one battlefield, especially Napoleonic or American Civil War/War Between the States)
  • strategic (basic units—divisions, corps, or armies, covering up to a theatre of operations);
  • high strategic (units could be divisions, corps, armies, army groups, or abstract “points”, simulating entire theatre of operations and above).

These are some of the favoured periods and genres of games:

  • “Nato, Nukes & Nazis” themes, i.e., Nato-Soviet conflict (hypothetical), Nazis vs. Soviets (WWII), Allies vs. Nazis (WWII)—there was actually a game produced by the XTR game company with that title, which was set in an alternative-history where the Third Reich survived in Germany and most of Eastern Europe, into the 1990s;
  • “land-games” (as opposed to air or naval) generally preferred;
  • World War II by far the most popular period;
  • American Civil War/War Between the States;
  • contemporary (including Vietnam; hypothetical NATO-Soviet; Arab-Israeli wars);
  • Napoleonic;
  • “Ancients” (such as Greek and Roman battles and campaigns).

There are some enthusiasts of the science fiction, alternative history, and fantasy subgenres.

There have been some examples of wargames in popular culture. Many villains in James Bond movies are portrayed as “wargamers” or “armchair generals”—with miniatures as well as electronic simulations. Many “right-wing” or corporate villains in various productions have been depicted as interested in historical miniatures. Some decades ago, I happened to see, in a daytime soap-opera, a villainous general of a fictive military dictatorship playing a historical miniatures game with the American hero, as part of a psychological-pressure process. The prominent movie with the title Wargames is not about board wargames, strictly speaking.

In more traditional societies, male children, particularly children of important figures, were given “toy-soldiers” in order to stimulate their interest in the martial ethos. For example, there is the scene in Young Churchill where he is playing with a large army of toy-soldiers. Since toy-soldiers have declined in popularity (as toys for children), there was a time in the 1970s when wargames could be seen to have taken their place, at a somewhat later age in the child’s development. However, board wargames have now been largely swept away by electronic games, especially of the FPS type.

In contemporary society, the phenomenon of wargaming could have been linked to a discernible type of individual—the white or Asian male North American geek. This type was the usual wargamer in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Wargamers have often been considered as “right-wing”, with some hysterically accusing them of being “young fascists”.

Sociologically speaking, wargaming could be considered a “community” of a sort, with its own forms of “standing”, for example, ownership of very many or rare games; acme of skill at a single game, e.g., the Soviets invading Germany by 1943 in Avalon Hill’s Russian Campaign; or a person generally having a level of skilful play, whatever the game, with clever tactics and maneuvers. Obviously, it should be realized that wargaming is only one of many “communities”, and one should not become immersed in it to the point of excluding almost everything else. The number of wargamers who can become professional game-designers and make their living that way is actually quite small, especially in today’s world.

After the early Eighties, historical gaming lost much ground to RPGs, and went into a general semi-decline (a lot of older collectors now). An interest in history and military history is now somewhat “pejoritized” by prevailing social trends, although World War II documentaries, books, catalogues of military hardware, etc., are very popular. The high point of wargame pop-culture visibility was probably SPI’s ads in “men’s magazines” (Playboy and/or Penthouse). SPI—Simulations Publications, Inc.—was the major wargame company of the 1970s.

Computers have enormously impacted the level of appeal of historical boardgames (i.e., downward). A good meshing of computer and boardgame is not easy as one might suppose. It could be argued that the disadvantage of computers is that, even today, a paper map is probably a bit easier to properly comprehend than a computer-graphics map; some people feel a better sense of “concreteness” moving counters around on a real map; most computer-games are either “arcade-style” or fantasy role-playing games.

The more committed board wargaming population probably reached about 110,000-150,000 in North America (U.S. and Canada) in the 1970s (with about ten percent of that in Canada) and has been dropping over the decades, perhaps getting as low as 15,000 by now. It could be argued that wargaming requires a fairly high level of intelligence, an interest in history and military history, and considerable patience. These games can take an inordinately long time to play, and are not easy to learn at the beginning. They are not something that would appeal to someone with a short attention span.

What is the possible sense of satisfaction to be derived from historical wargames? One could say it is getting caught up in the grand sweep of history—of being an “armchair general”; of being able to change the course of history through your own actions (in a fictive sense); of the visual and aesthetic appeal of the maps and counters; of the feeling of being a great commander of men on the battlefield, or of entire nations in war. To a certain extent, it is a “voyeuristic” exercise and “power-fantasy” and “compensation” of intelligent, “socially-maladapted” male adolescents (especially of the 1970s). But, apparently, a lot of the great men of history amused themselves in their youth by planning great imaginary military campaigns. Some decades ago, I read an article that Conrad Black and Hal Jackman were both miniaturists. When playing the Battle of Waterloo, Black usually played Napoleon, and Jackman, Wellington. Conrad Black had claimed his miniatures campaigns offered him strategic insights into the business world. One also recalls the quote from Sun-Tzu’s Art of War which occurs in the original Wall Street movie.

A frequent contributor to these pages for years, Mark Wegierski is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada.  He has devoted special attention in recent issues to Polish issues and Polish-Canadians.