What Is Wargaming?
When I mention to people that my hobby is wargaming I generally get one of the following replies;
"Are you that lot that dress up like New Romantics, call yourselves the Soiled Nuts and bash each other with long poles?"
"Uh ... do you really enjoy shooting globs of Day-Glo emulsion at each other whilst dolled out in army surplus dungarees and snorkeling masks?"
"You look a bit old to be hacking on that interweb thing."
The truth is worse than this, much worse. We play with toy soldiers.
It was the Germans, bless 'em, who came up with wargaming as we know it. Games based on strategy and manoeuvre, such as chess, have a long history but during the Napoleonic Wars the Prussians introduced proper wargames as a training tool for their officers.
The game consisted of moving wooden blocks, representing units such as regiments and battalions, around a model terrain or map. Rules for combat were devised and it wasn't long before dice were introduced to reflect the element of chance that plays such a large part in warfare.
HG Wells was one of the first people to take up wargames for entertainment rather than as part of professional training. His simple rules, outlined in the book Little Wars used matchstick-firing toy cannon to knock over lead soldiers.
Many disparate souls dabbled in isolation until the fifties and sixties when people such as Brigadier Peter Young, Charles Grant and Donald Featherstone started to form clubs.
The advent of formal rules, whose aim was to reproduce warfare as accurately as possible, and both suitable plastic 'toy' figures and proper metal wargames figures meant wargaming soon became popular in Britain.
Nowadays there are wargames clubs all over the English speaking countries and Europe, and a burgeoning of clubs in the Far East. National and international competitions proliferate and it's a rare weekend that doesn't have a wargames show somewhere.
Most wargamers paint their own figures, though those that profess to be either too cack-handed, too cross-eyed or simply too rich, buy their armies ready painted.
One of the great attractions of the hobby is researching formations, tactics and uniforms, and then letting your hidden artistic talents loose on something that you will actually use (rather than gather dust in the downstairs toilet).
Wargames cover every form of combat you can think of. I have even seen rules for the Cod 'War' between Britain and Iceland in the 1970s, Doctor Who taking on the Daleks and even football hooligans biffing each other before the big match.
Each period, be it Ancients, Napoleonic or Far, Far In The Future has its own rules. Most have several sets though usually one reigns supreme, for a while anyway. The model soldiers come in different sizes too, most commonly from 6mm tall to 30mm.
New rules, including all sorts of innovations and twists-on-a-theme, regularly burst upon the scene. Every set of rules is eventually superseded by another, improved set. This continuous evolution is one of the big attractions of the hobby - it never stands still.
Is there a justification for playing at war? War is without doubt the worst thing we have visited upon our world. However this does not stop people watching graphic representations of war, death and suffering in films and on TV. Wargames may seem like a sanitised exercise a million miles from reality but the depth of knowledge and research required to properly participate in the hobby leads to a better understanding of what war really means. We keep the past alive. Indeed wargaming has provided academic research with a good deal of insight into ancient warfare. If nothing else it keeps us off the streets.
A typical game starts with the protagonists glaring at each other across a six by four foot table. Arranged before them on the green baize are the serried ranks of determined lead men, neat in their tightly packed formations.
Bright green polystyrene hills and scruffy trees pinched from last year's Christmas cake lay scattered at random. The harsh glare from the community centre lights glint off the tin swords. A set of rules, collection of dice, extendible rule and pint of beer complete the picture.
Battle is joined, dice are thrown (sometimes at opponents). Obscure regulations are excavated from the deepest recess of the rules, argued over and cursed by one side for all of eternity.
After two or three hours the game is won and lost. One of the protagonists makes his happy way home exulting in the glow of victory, blessing his little men, his happy few, his band of brothers.
The other will curse the rules for their complete lack of realism and swear to nail shut for ever his box of figures. Just before sleep covers his weary eyes however, a thought smoothes his furrowed brow; "Next time I'll use exploding cows" *
* Ming Chinese thunder-bomb oxen, see De Bellis Multitudinis (DBM) Book 4, Army 73.
"Seeks painted trifles and fantastic toys,
and eagerly pursues imaginary joys"
"Whose game was empires and whose stakes were thrones,
whose table earth, whose dice were bones"
"C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre"
"Life is a game in which the rules are constantly changing; nothing spoils a game more than those who take it seriously"
"We are the hard-luck folk, who strove
Zealously, but in vain;
We lost and lost, while our comrades throve,
And still we lost again"
The song of the Unsuccessful
"O perdurable shame! Let's stab ourselves.
Be these the wretches that we play'd at dice for?"
"The game's afoot: Follow your spirit;
and upon this charge cry
'God for Harry! England and Saint George!"