Wargaming: a Philosophic & Resource Guide

Wargaming: a philosophic and resource guide

A cover shot of a popular boardgame, Runebound

Whole Earth Review, Summer, 1990

by Ty Bomba

The Roman poet Lucretius wrote that in the first century B.C., but it aptly describes the fascination we in the hobby of wargaming have for military history today. Wargaming, in fact, allows you to do far more than just “witness great battleplans of war”; it provides a handy and bloodless way to explore the might-have-beens of the past and the what-ifs of the future. If you’ve seen chess, you’ve already seen a wargame. That game has antecedents going back to at least 2000 B.C., when it served to teach battle tactics to the males of the royal houses of the Middle East. (And it’s actually not a bad simulation of the clumsy and lock-step kind of warfare prevalent in those times.)

Much later, Napoleon brought modem war onto the tabletop when he began the practice of map-gaming all his campaigns, to test possibilities before actually launching them. Later in the nineteenth century, the Prussian General Staff introduced its own officer-training Khegspiel, and from there the idea spread. By 1900, wargames had pretty much become a standard part of all western military establishments.

Civilian-oriented, commercially sold wargames had their direct beginning in the late 1950s, when a man named Charles Roberts founded The Avalon Hill Game Company. Today there are one or two handfuls of wargame companies, most privately held and all tiny by Wall Street standards. They service somewhere around 250,000 gamers in America, and perhaps up to another million scattered elsewhere around the world. Going by the survey data I’ve read and collected, today’s typical wargamer is a thirty-something married male (less than 2 percent are female), with a bachelor’s degree and some graduate schooling, and an income of $30,000 or more a year. About 30 percent describe themselves as political conservatives, another chunk that size call themselves liberals, and the rest break down fairly evenly into all the other categories between and beyond those two poles. Less than 10 percent are currently serving in the military.

Today’s typical wargame has three main components – there’s the map, the counters, and the rules. The map, usually printed in color on thick paper, is generally no bigger than 34″ x 22″ inches. When the two (or more) players unfold it and set the map between them on a table, what they’ve got is a representation of the terrain that actually covered the area over which the historic battle or campaign they’re about to game-out was fought. That is, the hills, rivers, deserts, cities, swamps, etc., that shaped the history are on the game map. And beyond that, there’s usually also a hexagonal grid printed over the whole thing. This serves to regulate the movement of the game pieces the same way the squares do on a chess board. (Hexagons, or hexes,” are much preferred over squares in wargaming because they allow for equidistant movement in all directions.)

The counters, also usually in color and printed on stiff cardboard about a sixteenth of an inch thick, must be punched out of their die-cut holder sheet when you play for the first time. Separated, each represents one unit – which can range in size from individual soldiers on up to whole armies or army groups, depending on the scale and scope of the game you’ve chosen – and will serve as your chess pieces during play. The rules are always the most imposing element of the games, at least to hobby newcomers. The simplest wargames have at least four to six pages of them; “intermediate level” games average eight to twenty-four, and the complex “monster games” can range up to 64 or more. And, certainly, having to read between 6,000 and 60,000 words before you can start to play a game is a daunting prospect for most people. But there are several mollifying factors that can help with those long rules. First off, you need to understand that the lengthy rules result from the fact that, aside from being “games,” these things are also “simulations.” (And just where game” ends and “simulation” begins is a debate that’s been argued in the hobby since the beginning.) That is, they’re supposed to model a reality – and war is a very complex reality – as well as to provide tabletop competition and fun. So, for example, if you’re gaming a campaign wherein supply, air power, ships, severe weather, political considerations, etc., etc., all played significant parts, you’ve got to have rules to adequately explain and integrate those things into your play.

Sometimes events that were whole chapters in the real participants’ lives can be condensed into a couple of rules paragraphs. For instance, in my latest published design, Sunrise of Victory, which covers the middle period of the Russo-German War of World War U, I was able to boil down the entire behind-the-lines partisan battles that raged in Russia to just two paragraphs.Labels: , ,


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