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Some thoughts on historical gaming and military history

As a younger historian, I am always looking for ways to share my passion for history and engage with others. I also look for unique outlets to incorporate into my teaching and work. This is what attracted me to reenacting as a hobby, which I have done for almost five years. Last summer, I ventured into another fun hobby that I feel has a lot to offer in terms of understanding military history: historical gaming.

We all have played games for most of our lives. Games are meant to be fun and stimulating, while, hopefully, teaching us how to play nicely with others, be humble in victory, handle defeat, and learn from mistakes. They can also serve as educational tools, providing valuable lessons packaged in a fun way. While some will argue that games are pursuits best suited for children, I find that historical games have a wonderful niche within military history and can provide a wonderful outlet for practitioners of the field.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of historical games that have been on the market at one time or another. In addition to actual games, many can recall playing with toy soldiers, fighting out mock battles on living room floors, or elaborate tables, which I would classify as a form of historical gaming. In time for the most recent Christmas shopping season, T.S. Allen, a junior officer with the U.S. Army, wrote a thought-provoking piece in the New York Sun extolling the virtues and benefits of playing with toy soldiers for children, including girls.

Allen emphasized how such gaming and play shaped many prominent military and political leaders of the twentieth century, including Winston Churchill. He noted that toy soldiers (he focused on tin soldiers that were popular in the two decades prior to World War I) represent the best simulation for youngsters to how the real world can act on them as they grow up. Allen leveled a harsh critique of the current trend of electronic war games, especially those filled with violent imagery. While not explicitly stating it, he hinted that play with toy soldiers showed the “combatants” the larger scale consequences to war, when large portions of the army are lost as casualties, tipped over, reflecting a potential mistake by one force’s commander. Perhaps the most obvious benefit to such play is the ability to learn conflict resolution.

So what does all this mean in terms of military history? Historical wargaming is a unique way to introduce the larger field to the masses, especially youngsters. Not only does it present history in a package that many children can appreciate (game=toy=fun), but a good historical game bases itself on research into the real period/event it is attempting to simulate, with enough wiggle room to allow for different outcomes. I am aware that some in academic circles frown upon counterfactual history, but, if done properly, it offers some interesting perspectives on the significance of the actual event’s history and how different the subsequent timeline would be if things occurred differently.

With that said, I would like to briefly analyze the two genres of historical gaming that I am familiar with: miniatures and board games, and use examples of a couple games from each that I have played to illustrate their value as tools to expose others to military history and start conversations.

Miniature War Gaming

Miniature wargaming provides a wonderful, three-dimensional simulation of historic combat. They are quite popular in Commonwealth countries (I have my own theory on this, but will not get into it), though America is getting into it too. There are games covering historical periods from ancients to the twentieth century, with several companies creating miniature figures and models, as well as diverse rule books. With all that competition for one’s time and hard-earned money, it is important for these companies to create a product that people enjoy and want more of. However, this does not mean that historical authenticity always suffers.

With games dealing with periods prior to World War II especially, several historical miniature games can provide a wonderful illustration of tactics and combat in bygone times. Some good examples are games developed around Warlord Games rules Black Powder, which covers gaming during the age of musket. Warlord Games also produces Hail Caesar for ancient warfare, Pike & Shotte for early modern warfare, and its World War II game Bolt Action. I have played both a scenario from Black Powder based around the Seven Years War (1756-63), as well as Bolt Action and found both to be interesting, if a bit complex at times.

In addition to Warlord Games (out of the UK), New Zealand-based Battlefront Miniatures produces Flames of War, a World War II miniature game that I have played and have enjoyed quite well, as I have my own forces and terrain. The major differences between Flames and Bolt Action lie in scale (Flames is 15mm, or 1:100, while Bolt Action is 28mm, or 1:72) and diversity of forces. Bolt Action is more of a squad-based skirmishing type of game play, while Flames of War organizes around larger platoons and companies, allowing larger forces to be present on the table.

What these various miniature games offer from a military history standpoint is the chance to see past armies and tactics displayed in smaller scale. Players often research particular units and attempt to paint their figures/models as close to historically accurate as possible, with some room for personalization and customization.

These game systems also allow to a degree the change over time in technology in warfare. For example, Flames of War is divided up into three distinct periods, Early War, Mid War, and Late War, with available figures and models limited to what was used during those distinct periods by the various sides, with overlap for those units and vehicles that were used throughout much of the war. The adherence to such limitations allows for the mock battles to simulate combat during World War II with opposing sides representing actual historical units. Thus players are forced to learn a bit about the unit that they intend to field, which will hopefully lead them to researching in genuine historical scholarship to find out the information they need. It also prevents a player from bringing 1945 technology to a 1940 battle. The various rules for the games also attempt to deal with the fog of war and other contingencies, some better than others, but I will let you all debate those.

Board War Games

There are also several table-top board games available that deal with historical periods. Many of us are likely familiar with that old classic Risk, where you wield armies and attempt to conquer the world. The imagery throughout the game lends itself to the Napoleonic Wars. Some, myself included, probably played the World War II game Axis & Allies. These games are mass produced and are readily available in many stores and are fun and can ignite that spark of knowledge in a person to seek out the real history surrounding the games. Like those reliable classics, several other good games have been developed over the last few decades to wet the appetite of historically-minded players.

One company that has made several popular historically-themed games is GMT Games. This company produced the Napoleonic warfare game Manoeuvre, which is a great, fast-paced game. In this game, players choose one of eight nations to face off on a small board that is made of four sections of available board cards, with many possible combinations. The eight powers selected represented nations involved in some capacity with the broader period: Russia, Prussia, Austria, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, the United States, and the Ottoman Empire, with actual historical units represented on the game pieces. Players form their armies and move them along the board, seeking to defeat their opponent by either destroying sufficient units, or controlling more of the opposing side of the board. Combat and other actions are determined based upon cards played from the national deck, which offers a degree of randomness to the battle. The potential combinations of battles and national combinations offer delightful scenarios, but it may also foster an interest in researching more on the Napoleonic period.

GMT also produces what remains the #1 game on Board Game Geek, Twilight Struggle, which deals with the Cold War. Players play either the US or USSR and seek to exert influence over the various states of the world as part of the larger struggle for global supremacy, all while attempting to avoid nuclear war. Through this game, the larger diplomatic side of military history is illustrated. Such a broad-based game is similar to the game Diplomacy, which allows players to assume one of several powers in pre-World War I Europe, seeking to influence other powers and attempt to attain a position of strength. I played this game with several history graduate students several years ago and it was an enjoyable time.

Another board game that I have played, but am still trying to figure out is A Few Acres of Snow, which deals with the French and Indian War. You play as either the British or French and attempt to control enough points in North America to overwhelm your opponent and win the war. Players do this by building playing decks to control and settle locations, build military forces, and besiege locations. Additional options include use of fur traders, Native American forces, and support from home. Though a little complex, this game covers the many factors that influenced the course of the very real war.

Board games offer several benefits as opposed to miniatures. The most obvious is ease of cost, as you get the entire game. With miniature war games, one must purchase the figures and models at varying costs, and usually must purchase more as they build their armies to play the game. In addition, they are often easier to set up and take less time to play, especially since they do not require the setting up of a terrain table. The rules are often shorter in length and easier to comprehend.

Some enterprising folks with an interest in history will develop a game to teach about a period of history. A great example is the upcoming game Wilderness Empires, which also focuses on the French and Indian War. Full disclosure, I funded this game’s Kickstarter campaign, because I liked the product idea and the reason behind it. The game’s creator, a reenactor, who sought to engage his young son in history, created the game as an easily playable game, dealing with the many facets of the war.

I hope you will take a look at the games I have mentioned, as they have a lot to offer. Are they perfect? No, but can they offer the potential to spark an interest in military history, especially among younger folks, which is always good. This does not diminish the importance of taking the time to read and engage the scholarship on military history, as that is the best stuff. However, nothing compares to the fun of trying to recreate past armies and fight it out on facsimile battlefields with friends, sharing a passion for the past and human interaction. Gaming is a part of us as humans and helps us to learn many important functions that carry over into our broader lives. So, get out there and start waging war.

Note: A great book on wargaming is The Wargaming Compendium by Henry Hyde.

Book Review of Strategy in the American War of Independence: A Global Approach

Donald Stoker, Kenneth J. Hagan, and Michael T. McMaster, editors. Strategy in the American War of Independence: A Global Approach. Cass Military Studies series. Abingdon, England: Routledge, 2010. ISBN 978-0-415-36734-9. Notes. Tables. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvii, 244. $145.00.

Originally posted in International History

Strategy in the American War of IndependenceThe international aspect of the American War of Independence (1775-1783) has traditionally been downplayed by American historians. Important exceptions would be Samuel Flagg Bemis’ The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (1957) and Jonathan R. Dull’s A Diplomatic History of the Revolution (1985). In Strategy in the American War of Independence: A Global Approach, an international group of experts contribute essays that show the global and multilateral angles of the conflict from a strategic perspective. The authors demonstrate that the American struggle for independence “was inescapably enmeshed in the military and diplomatic affairs of the rest of the world” (p.xvii). The American War of Independence was a very complex global conflict.

Battle of Bunker Hill (1775)American strategy was slow to develop. In their essay, Dr Donald Stoker and Dr Michael W. Jones, both Professors of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Monterey, California, examine American colonial military strategy. They show that the leaders of the Continental Army employed a Fabian strategy in military operations, supplemented by the waging of partisan warfare. American leadership “understood that success in the American Revolution depended on preserving the Patriot center of gravity, the army — in the north and in the south — and demonstrating success through incremental victories that in turn fed the colonials’ ability to preserve their army” (p.30). This strategy allowed the Patriots to make effective use of their limited resources and build British frustration and disillusionment with the conflict. Dr Kenneth J. Hagan, Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, adds to the discussion of colonial military strategy by illustrating the beginnings of American naval strategy. As such, Hagan points out that the American colonies at first lacked a strategy against Britain. But, slowly the colonies developed a naval strategy to consist of commerce-raiding, coastal defense, a reliance on frigates instead of ships-of-the-line to engage like British ships, avoidance of battle on the high seas, and the projection, albeit limited, of naval power on distant shores.

Battle of Yorktown (1781)There are three essays that explore British strategy in the American conflict. Dr Jeremy Black, Professor of History at the University of Exeter in England, addresses British military strategy. Black stresses that Britain had the clear political goal of pacifying the American rebellion, and getting the Americans to return their loyalty to the crown (p.58). He notes that Britain treated the Americans with leniency compared to the military suppression of the Jacobite rebellions in Scotland and northern England in 1715-1716 and 1745-1746. The task of militarily reconquering America was too great. British leaders realized that they would need to negotiate a settlement with the Patriots to get their return to British rule. However, the declaration of independence (1776) proved to be a stumbling block. Moreover, the Patriot success at the battle of Saratoga (1777), with the resulting Franco-American alliance, made it virtually impossible for Britain to achieve its political goal. In the end, Britain, according to Black, failed to develop and implement a strategy that could achieve this political objective.

Battle of the Saints (1782)In the second essay concerning Britain, Dr John Reeve, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of New South Wales in Australia, explores British naval strategy. Reeve states that “Britain was generally without the naval strategic initiative for most of the war due to lack of resources” (p.76). Even so, Britain had amphibious successes at New York (1776), Philadelphia (1777), Savannah (1778), and Charleston (1780). The Franco-American alliance (1778), followed by Spain declaring war against Britain (1779), the creation of the League of Armed Neutrality (1780), and the start of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784) made the American War of Independence a global conflict. The British Royal Navy had to develop a strategy to deal with American, French, Spanish, and Dutch warships in Europe, North America, the West Indies, and the Indian Ocean. The overstretched British fleet was on the defensive. It also had troubles obtaining naval stores from the Baltic Region. As such, Britain even stopped patrolling the Mediterranean. By 1780, Britain’s naval strategy focused on the defense of the British Isles and trade. Reeve stresses that British naval operations steadily improved during the conflict. By early 1782 Britain had a fleet comparable to the size of the Bourbon Powers of France and Spain. This fleet achieved a major success at the Battle of the Saints (1782) in the West Indies, giving Britain considerable diplomatic leverage in the peace negotiations.

In the third essay about British policy, Dr Ricardo A. Herrera, Historian on the Staff Ride Team, Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, provides a discussion of the role of Loyalists in British strategy. At first, the British army mostly ignored the Loyalists in military efforts. But Loyalists volunteered and ably served Britain. After France joined the conflict and British resources were stretched thin, George III’s army placed more emphasis on recruiting and training Loyalists. Herrera believes that the British waited too long to make good use of the Loyalists, and when they did, they expected too much from them (p.116).

Battle of Virginia Capes (1781)As for the Bourbon Powers, Dr James Pritchard, Professor Emeritus of History at Queen’s University at Kingston in Canada, assesses French strategy. France sought a return to preeminence as the Great Power in Europe. Louis XVI’s France also looked for revenge for the French defeat by Britain in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). France’s anti-British strategy led to involvement in the American War of Independence. France initially concentrated on the West Indies. But, in this struggle, France needed, sought, and gained Spanish involvement against Britain. As such, French leaders had to support the Spanish objectives of attacking British-held Gibraltar and Minorca. The Bourbon Powers also threatened to invade the British Isles. Pritchard says that “French naval strategy took the form of an interlocking relationship between the center and periphery, between the European and American theaters” of operations (p.159).

Siege of GibraltarIn his essay, Dr Thomas E. Chávez, recently retired Executive Director of the National Hispanic Culture Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, discusses Spanish strategy. The policy of Carlos III’s Spain included secretly aiding the American Patriots while maintaining a “neutral” stance for the first few years of the conflict. Louis XVI’s France needed Spanish involvement in the conflict. The Spanish government made a hard bargain with France for active participation in the War of American Independence. For an offensive alliance, Spain sought such things as French support for the reacquisition of Gibraltar and Minorca, the removal of the British from the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi River, and the restoration of Mobile and Pensacola (p.167). After France accepted the terms, Spain agreed to the Treaty of Aranjuez and declared war against Britain in 1779. The Spanish navy gave the Bourbon Powers naval superiority over Britain. Chávez states that Franco-Spanish involvement in the conflict created “a world war based on the Spanish idea that the two allies, along with the American rebels, had enough resources to stretch the British thin. The British would have to decide what was more important to them: Central America, their West Indies trade, the 13 American colonies, Gibraltar, Minorca, India, or even, defense of the homeland” (p.169). Spain attacked British interests in the Mediterranean, along the Mississippi River, Mobile, Pensacola, Central America, and the Bahamas. Chávez goes on to say that “the totality of Spain’s actual involvement in fighting, continued financial support and diplomacy actually proved pivotal for the eventual victory” (p.169).

Ile_de_Saint_Eustache_en_1781Dr Victor Enthoven, Associate Professor in History at the Netherlands Defense Academy, examines Dutch maritime strategy. The United Provinces sought to maintain neutrality to protect Dutch world-wide trade and shipping interests. However, the British naval blockade of the American colonies reopened the dormant Anglo-Dutch controversy over the trading rights of neutral powers. British interference with Dutch commerce and the possibility of the United Provinces joining the developing League of Armed Neutrality led to the outbreak of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War in 1780. The Dutch Republic, however, was ill-prepared for a naval war with Britain. Enthoven states that the Dutch navy “was outnumbered as well as outgunned” (p.188). Even so, the United Provinces was embroiled in a global naval war. The Dutch struggled to defend possessions in the Dutch West Indies and Guiana, West Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, India, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In the course of the conflict the British took 324 Dutch vessels. Enthoven argues that the Dutch Republic was clearly a second-rate power, and “must be counted among the largest losers of the American War of Independence” (p.195).

The League of Armed Neutrality is addressed by Dr Leos Müller, Associate Professor in History at Upsalla University in Sweden. The League developed from Catherine II of Russia’s proclamation of armed neutrality in 1780. What exactly was armed neutrality? Müller writes: “Specifically, armed neutrality . . . concerned the neutrals’ rights to conduct trade and shipping under wartime conditions, without being ill-treated by belligerents, the British in particular” (p.202). Russia, Denmark, and Sweden formed the League of Armed Neutrality in 1780. Russia approached the Dutch Republic, the top neutral carrier, to join the League, but Scandinavian rivalry with the United Provinces and British reaction to such talks delayed any agreement before the outbreak of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. Prussia, Austria, Portugal, and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies eventually joined the League of Armed Neutrality in 1781-1783. Müller believes that Catherine II, having little economic interest in wartime shipping and trade, pushed the concept of armed neutrality to stress Russia’s independent status between the warring powers of Britain and France. Within months Russia began returning to a traditional foreign policy, one aimed at interests in Southeast Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

This in an important work that brings together the research that shows the global context of the American War of Independence. The study is a great addition to the growing literature reflecting the international aspect of the conflict. Unfortunately, the hardback version of the book is rather expensive. But a paperback edition (ISBN 978-0-415-69568-8) is available for $49.95. Other studies that explore the international aspect that might interest the reader are Richard Middleton’s The War of American Independence, 1775-1783 (2012), Hamish M. Scott’s British Foreign Policy in the Age of the American Revolution (1990), Piers Mackesy’s The War for America, 1775-1783 (1964), Jonathan R. Dull’s The French Navy and American Independence: A Study in Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787 (1975), William C. Stinchcombe’s The American Revolution and the French Alliance (1969), Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt’s The Dutch Republic and American Independence (1982), and Isabel de Madariaga’s Britain, Russia and the Armed Neutrality of 1780: Sir James Harris’s Mission to St. Petersburg during the American Revolution (1962).

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota