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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.