Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

Few Battles, Many Wargames


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I recently was part of an exchange of emails from a gamer deciding what period to paint figures for next. There were many arguments back and forth about the merits of several periods, but one criticism came up which got me to thinking about wargame periods in a new way.

The opinion was advanced that some periods are not really worth consideration because so few battles were fought in the actual war. The exact period in question was the Great Northern War where it was asserted only four major battles were fought over twenty years of fighting, so what could a gamer really expect from the period? This was contrasted with the American Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars where dozens of good sized battle were fought. Other periods such as the WSS and even the American Revolution certainly had fewer major battles, and in the case of the AWR the ones that were fought were minuscule in size of the armies compared to European actions of that same time.

Just a bit of thought on this matter brought me to not only reject this line of argument, but to actually see some merit in wars that had fewer battles!

First of all, unless one limits one’s gaming in a period to recreating actual battles and refighting them, the lack of battles in a period is not really important. Even in periods with many battles, most gamers find themselves refighting three or four favorite “Old Warhorses” and ignoring most other engagements. I bet there’s a hundred Napoleonic gamers that have refought Waterloo, Salamanca, Leipsic or Austerlitz multiple times to every one gamer that has refought Ulm or LaRothiere. Likewise, Gettysburg seems to be the recurring ACW game, and Pea Ridge is only for the truly committed ACW miniature gamer.

More importantly, the VAST majority of games I’ve been in or seen played were fictionalized engagements built around a scenario that, though based on historical considerations, was entirely created for the purpose of playing a good game with challenging premises and not any actual events. Sometimes these fictional games were a form of alternative history where a real battle was altered in numbers, location, or timing and based on real events, but more often they are just created out of whole cloth. Again, great consideration was given to the historical technologies, drill and command limitations of each army, and even to insuring realistic terrain and uniform correctness, BUT the tabletop battle itself was a creative fiction, an act of imagination and artistic design. These are often great games, and are a VERY common form of historical wargaming at conventions as well as in private gaming.

As long as there is enough of a historical record to accurately estimate the effectiveness of arms, each armies tactical skills, and the quality of leadership and command, you can create battles for the tabletop that will be fun and historically instructive. In fact, there is a case to be made that periods with fewer battles encourage more of this historically imaginative gaming, which may be more rewarding and challenging than recreating actual battles.

If you know the Prussians will arrive in late afternoon at Waterloo, or that there’s nobody in front of you at Chancellorsville, or any number of certainties that the actual commanders did not have at that time, you will be making decisions on the basis of a science-fiction novel as you foresee the future, and the possible outcome from past strategies. Talk about unrealistic! However, if you are fighting a battle with no historical precedent, no sure timetable, and no precognition of bad or innovative tactics, you are far closer to a real commander’s experience than in a historical refight. In a fictional scenario, history is yet to be written, and you will write it!

Periods with fewer historical battles free you from the mindset and approach of historical predetermination. It is also true that there is NO LIMIT to the number of creative scenarios and fictional battles you may play in any period! You may fight many, many more battles in the WSS or the GNW than the actual commanders ever did! It is still historically accurate, perhaps more fun, and inspires creativity and not just filling in an order of battle. To be sure, a period must have enough battles and comparative data to accurately recreate its conditions, but as few as three or four engagements are sufficient. Minor actions, raids, and skirmishes also abound in almost every period to add to the information required.

So pick a period you like. If it has intriguing personalities, great uniforms, interesting tactical considerations and limitations, and good amounts of published scholarship, then the last thing to worry about is whether there were one hundred battles or just five! Just as in travel, where the best experiences are often staying and eating where the tourists seldom go; so in wargaming the periods that are a bit off the well-beaten path will often be far more rewarding!

Speaking of beating paths, you might want to beat a path to Nick Wragg’s new Kickstarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/eborminiatures/swedish-army-of-the-great-northern-war-by-ebor-min?ref=live