In a recent blog post (When is a Historical Wargame Historical?), the author puts forward the question of whether attempting to recreate a historical battle on the wargaming table can attain the desired goal. As an example, the recent Battle of Auberoche, fought between Peter and myself, was sited. My account of the battle can be re-read at Battle of Auberoche. Did this game recreate the battle faithfully? If not, can this action be classified as an historical wargame? Refighting Auberoche provided an exciting contest which came down to the wire but was this really Auberoche?
For those wargamers who enjoy refighting historical battles, the gaming objectives and approaches are many and varied. I suppose one question to ask is what is the desired goal in refighting a historical battle. Why do we do it? Does choice of rules matter? Does type of game matter when viewed along the Game vs Simulation spectrum? Do game constraints such as time, space, figures available, number of players,etc. affect these goals?
I admit that my preference leans toward refighting historical battles. Even given great care in preparation and research, are we still fighting an historical battle once the maneuvers and shooting begin? For me, these attempts at historical recreations are exercises in decision-making. Always keep in mind that the historical outcome may be one of a number of possible outcomes. The historical outcome is singular. Any historical battle may hinge on a single decision point, a singular battlefield occurrence, or a string of such events. Same holds for a wargame.
A well-designed, historically motivated wargame attempts to place players into the boots of their historical counterparts. The wargame may begin from the historical situation (or at least the author's representation of the historical situation) but as the game evolves, so does the narrative. Must the wargame necessarily follow the historical narrative? Of course not. We want to encourage the table general to make his (or her) own decisions without following the choreographed decisions made by the historical counterpart. If the situation and objectives are set properly, one might expect to see generally, historical results in repeated trials. That is, if the historical result represented the most likely outcome.
As GM, I want players to consider the choices made within the confines of the historical situation faced on the gaming table in miniature. When wargaming, I want to make meaningful decisions on the path toward accomplishing the goal laid before me. I want to gain insight from the experience.
Consider as a case in point the game currently on the table. On the table today is a recreation of the Franco-Austrian War Battle of Montebello.
Each player or team of players received a battle briefing beforehand containing a brief generalization of the situation and a specific assessment of known intel. The general briefing read,
On 9 May, Austrian FZM Gyulai’s uninspired offensive in Piedmont ground to a halt without ever contacting the enemy. Concerned that the French would attempt to turn his left flank by advancing upon Piacenza, FML Stadion’s V Corps was ordered (20 May) across the Sesia River and move on Casteggio and Voghera. This reconnaissance-in-force was determined to discover French dispositions, interdict the Voghera-Piacenza Road, and thwart these perceived threats.
As the Austrians approached Casteggio, they ran into Sardinian cavalry screens. The Sardinian mission, deployed east of Voghera, was to act as an early warning system to prevent surprise attacks from the Austrians. The Sardinian light cavalry were to hinder any enemy movements westward buying time for the French army to come up, if needed. The only means of crossing the River Coppa in this area are via two bridges: the bridge at Casteggio and the railroad bridge to the north of that town. Running from Genestrello north, the Fossa Gazzo can be crossed everywhere but with difficulty. The railroad bridge at Casina Nuova and the bridge near Genestrello are the best places to cross the Fossa Gazzo.
Being heavily outnumbered, the Sardinians traded space for time as they slowly gave up ground to the approaching Austrians. After reports arrived detailing the action earlier in the day and the fall of Casteggio, Forey’s division of the French 1st Corps quickly marched on Casteggio. In the meantime, Stadion had taken first Montebello and then Genestrello as the Sardinian cavalry retired.
This common background was augmented by battle specifics for each player outlining OBs and force objectives to help steer the players into a recreation of the events driving the historical battle narrative. In the interests of providing an engaging, multiplayer game, decisions had to be made to accommodate the number of players and the method of play (remote). In a multiplayer game, having players watching in while they await their command to enter the table as reinforcements would not do. Reinforcement timetables had to be compressed to allow all players to get meaningful commands into action almost immediately. Does this change or alter the historical framework? Perhaps not if the pieces can be molded in a manner to maintain the historical context.
Will this work? The first gaming session is in the books. Only time will tell as one more gaming session is needed to fight this battle to conclusion.
How would you answer the question of when is a historical wargame historical? I look forward to your insights.
To me it can either be a re-fight of an actual battle, letting the players see if they can do better than their historical counterparts. Problem being so many battles are well known and written about, most players can avoid the obvious pitfalls. I would also consider 'what if' battles as well. I once re-fought Froschwiller with the battle starting a day early as the initial skirmishes brought on the battle.ReplyDelete
Neil, I agree. Part of the fun of refighting historical battles is to see if we can perform better than our historical counterparts. Maybe learn something along the way too?Delete
Do you shift historical battles into a different period in order to disguise the original?
I have, used a few Seven Years war battlefields for my WSS gamesDelete
For me, either a re-fight of an historical battle, a what-if, or a scenario drawn from sources or imagination but usually based on some form of military reality - ambush, defend the crossing etc..ReplyDelete
What you say about decision making is key. But as the games evolves so changes the narrative and therefore the basis upon which decisions are then made.
I think putting a wargame in context (whether real or imagined) is the vital element. Historical re-fights bring their own context, but GMs can produce their own well-conceived back stories. Plus, campaigns (again, historical or imagined) serve to produce the context for the battle and its strategic significance... or otherwise. Increasingly, I have taken to asking the question of players, "if this was part of a wider campaign, at what point would you have withdrawn?" The answer has so far always been at a point well before they have been decisively beaten.
Lastly, in answer to you question. I'm not sure that, other than context and OOB, wargames are ever historical in execution even if the outcome is the same. But that doesn't matter. The game is still stimulating, challenging and enjoying.
I've rambled enough!
Excellent post by way.Delete
I appreciate your perspective, Richard. I reckon we are very like-minded in our wargaming philosophies. I enjoy the challenge of solving the puzzle that a historical battle or scenario presents.Delete
Glad you enjoyed the topic and post.Delete
This is a question I have found that often comes up when friends and family ask about the hobby. They understand that the terrain, orders of battle and initial deployment are the same as the historical battle, but often assume that all the moves must then follow the actual historical sequence usually followed by questions as to where the enjoyment in that lies when all the players already know the outcome. When I explain that the starting point is really the historical basis and the rest of it is about exploring different decisions that could have been made many then question how historical it really is after all.ReplyDelete
We played Talavera six or seven years ago and I was genuinely surprised at how much additional insight it gave me over the several books I have read on the battle. What was also interesting was how certain events, such as the Guards pushing too far forward and then routing back over the stream, unfolded exactly as they had done in the actual battle. The other thing that came home to me was how much more effective the French opening moves could have been if Victor had kept up his bombardment for another hour or so.
As you say though the fog of war is very difficult to emulate. Even what is depicted as perfectly flat terrain in games would often have, on the actual battlefields, gentle undulations into which advancing units can disappear from enemy sight. I remember another game where we tried to introduce such micro variations but became so bogged down in minutiae that we gave up after two or three long and ultimately uninteresting turns.
Lawrence, like you, I am not one of those in the camp of "it's just a game of toy soldiers with no lessons to learn." Refighting an historical battle for me provides opportunities to gain valuable insight into why and how the battles were fought. I learn something with every playing.Delete
Richard and his group enjoy fog of war and have asked for more in each game played. Hopefully, I am honing-in on the correct mix for them. for modeling undulating terrain, more often than not, I rationalize these terrain variations by the result of the combat dice. If a miss then the unit made good use of cover.
Thank you for your comments and insights!
I like the challenge of changing history. To see if the historical loser can win the day on the gaming table. Sometimes though it's impossible to change history, without stopping players doing unhistorical moves. Napoleon should always win Waterloo, if the French players can move the Guards for example. I'm all for fighting historical battles, but the what ifs, can sometimes make a better game.ReplyDelete
Ray, seems like many of us here enjoy a similar type of game. Perhaps that explains why we found each other?Delete
Hmmm - I seem to be in reflective mood at the moment. I should first say that I play a lot of boardgames, which tend to take themselves seriously as simulations, so this gives me a bit of latitude to look for something different from my figure games ...... so;ReplyDelete
Having been someone who has enjoyed research to get figure scenarios historically right, I am now wondering whether I would simply prefer to have a game that at best is loosely 'themed' on the real thing, rather than pedantically trying to re-create it.
I think my influences are partly a nod to gaming style of my very distant past, my preference towards less units on a dining table type space and maybe just wanting a bit more fun - or rather having things feeling a bit less serious. This might of course be just a passing phase or fad!
Norm, thanks for your feedback. We all play different types of games for different reasons. The rules I use for hosting remote games are, by necessity, less complex than rules that I might bring to the table for a solo game. A F2F game may have a different style of rules and game altogether. Each offers a different gaming experience similar to your flipping between boardgames to miniatures. I do the same with war boardgames and miniatures. Every facet and medium offer a unique perspective on wargaming.Delete
One need not be a pedant to produce an enjoyable, historical wargame.
I think it's a fool's errand (and something of a trap) to enter into some sort of search for (or defense of) a set of empirical metrics that can determine whether a game is historical (or replicating history) or not. In the end, I would argue that the better angle is a matter of genre (like literature) combined with method (like STEM vs Humanities). If the game is based on research of a specific era, and/or a specific battle, and/or a specific set of historical circumstances, and if the rules system (regardless of how it actually works) is intended to address a specific historical context, then it is a historical game. As far as whether it replicates history, let's be real: unless you are reaching across the table and maiming and/or killing a few of the fellows on the other side, and they are trying to do the same to you, and maybe setting your host's house on fire your way out just for good measure, then no, you aren't replicating a historical battle (and if you were, my guess is that you wouldn't be invited back to play).ReplyDelete
Good points, Ed. Where you and I may disagree is that I view Wargaming, in general, and refighting historical battles in particular as exercises and studies in command and decision-making rather than as futile acts of bludgeoning an opponent into submission.Delete
I think that bit at the end came across as more snarky than intended. Speaking as someone with a 20 year military career behind me, I would suggest that the futile act of bludgeoning an opponent into submission is the reality of war, whereas what we are pursuing in the (historical) hobby is as you describe: we are in agreement, I believe.Delete
We are in agreement.Delete
I have only occasionally played games based on historical actions (ironically I actually designed a whole series of AWI battles about twenty years ago, using details gleaned from Cassells Biographical Dictionary of the American war of Independence by Mark Boatner) so my comments aren't baked up by a lot of experience. I think I tend more towards the "it's a fun game with toy soldiers" side of things, I am not really convinced I have gained any great insights into the reality of combat in any era, from forty years of wargaming. Ok maybe that's wrong...no one expects to get an insight into combat, but rather the exercise of command and control over formations of differing sizes....but I am not sure I have learned a hell of a lot about that, either!ReplyDelete
I have played a couple of games where the GM specifically wanted the outcome to be as it was historically, and had rules etc set up to achieve this....not that much fun really, as I am sure you can imagine!
I don't think any of this ramble has addressed your original question, when is a historical wargame, historical....sorry! I guess it's when you set up the table, number of figures and some specific rules to recreate at least some of the historical events, so they drive the game in a similar direction eg if playing Guildford Courthouse, predetermine that the first lines of militia will fall back after one or two volleys, rather than allow them just to react as per the standard rules, and perhaps as a consequence of some very good dice rolling, they stay put and fire six or eight rounds at the British and more or less stop the attack before it even gets going.....
OK. I get it, Keith. You are a gamer first and foremost. I have never played in a game where the GM actually attempted to script the outcome. I think that defeats the purpose of tackling an interesting and challenging situation with You in command. I do not believe I would enjoy this scripted game so much either.Delete
Scenario specific rules are often needed to drive the contest toward its historically plausible direction. No harm in that.
Thanks for your thoughts!
I think your term “ historically motivated wargame” sums up my view. In any refights I have been involved in players rarely follow the course of the original battle. My preference is to use historically structured armies, using the tactics of the time, but in a situation that might be only loosely based on a historical event. I am not adverse to taking elements of a particular situation in one war and applying it to a different war. Once, for example, I used the situation of Stones’ River in the ACW and generated a Napoleonic game and it worked well.ReplyDelete
For me creating a scenario that has a partial basis in fact (even if it is from another era) is part of the creativity that gives allows me to extract joy from the hobby.
Mark, we look at Wargaming from similar perspectives. Scenario design and testing is a source of creativity providing much enjoyment. The historical recreation may not follow the precise historical path but I am not surprised when the ultimate game result mirrors the historical outcome.Delete
A very interesting post Jonathan and many thoughtful replies. I hope you won't mind overmuch if I chip in. Firstly the terminology: I do not think 'Historical Wargaming' is an accurate description, rather I'd choose 'Wargaming in a historical context'. The difference helps us to comprehend where the game diverges from the reality. Consider war for a moment: death, catastrophic injury, destruction, defeat and so on. Compare that with a wargame: no little lead corpses, casualties, widows, orphans; no destruction of property, no rape or pillage, no simmering resentment at defeat, and so on. For me there is no simulation in wargaming period. Secondly, even starting out from choices confronting the decision making of commanders is faulty as it lacks any jeopardy, personal or national. Wargaming for me is a game, rooted in history as compared to rooted in fantasy or science fiction, but first and foremost a game. Of course I'm confident that many will not see it this way and I'm not looking for an argument or debate, just throwing in my thoughts. I can man up and say I play with toy soldiers alongside my friends. That's all I ask really from my hobby.ReplyDelete
'no simmering resentment at defeat'? You obviously have a nice laid-back group of fellow gamers... :)Delete
Thank you, David! I appreciate seeing you chip-in with your thoughts.Delete
I get it. You are first and foremost a gamer at heart. Clearly, you are firmly in the camp of "it's just a game of toy soldiers with no lessons to learn." Perfectly fine approach as long as it provides enjoyment. The wargaming hobby caters to a diverse collection of interests and purposes. Plenty of room for everyone. No need to debate personal preferences and goals. We like what we like.
David in Suffolk,Delete
'no simmering resentment at defeat'?
Well, I have seen that outcome in more than one game of Diplomacy...
I think historical scenarios/refights are fine of course, though I suspect they will not often follow the course of the real battle for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is that the commanders in the game are not the commanders who were there on the day.ReplyDelete
I like to think of the line from 'Command and Colours' scenario briefs:
"The stage is set. The battle lines are drawn and you are in command".
The challenge is to see how you would deal with the situation that Napoleon/Alexander/Monty or whoever found themselves in - and your chance to see if you could better them..
Historical refights may not always follow the path of their historical counterparts precisely, no doubt. Having a benchmark with which to compare one's performance and those of others is a useful tool, is it not? When placed into a similar situation, being an armchair general offers much.Delete
Yet another engaging and thought-provoking post. This entry has been referenced over on the Society of Ancients boards and I took up keyboard to respond and remark. I won't bore your myriad readers with a copy and paste here, sufficed to say (again) that you raise a number of interesting points. When tackling such an issue, I often find myself referring to Featherstone's guidelines or principals regarding terrain and troops. There are also the ways in which historical games can be played. These appear to be on a spectrum from "wargame for its own sake" to a careful presentation of how the actual battle (at least according to available information) played out. This is more of an instructional approach then, and not a true wargame. Then, there is that middle ground, allowing for elements from both sides of the spectrum.ReplyDelete
In sum, I shall be thinking about this post for some time.
Thanks for another well written segment.
Chris, you are most kind!Delete
Since I did not start this discussion on the SoA forum, I must pop over to see how the discussion is progressing and especially to read your response there.
For historical refights, I reckon I fall somewhere in the middle-right of your historical wargaming spectrum.
Again, thank you for your continued support and encouragement.
A thought provoking post once again Jon and many excellent replies already. This is one of those topics that pops up every few years when chatting with friends during a game. So some thoughts from myself and in no particular order:ReplyDelete
A 'Historical' game needs to be set in the context of the campaign that it takes place in so that you can begin to understand the context of the battle. I love playing Bloody Big Battles by Chris Pringle and IMHO he has done a superb job in putting action into its historical setting. He then sometimes gives you some 'what if?' options based upon the movement of troops etc prior to the battle. So what would have happened if those reserves had arrived an hour or two earlier?
'Play the Period, not the Rules' is another important aspect as summed up by Rich Clarke and covered by Featherstone earlier. The rules, the set up etc should reasonably reflect the battle (I know I'm stating the obvious!) and the players should say move their troops in a SYW manner rather than Napoleon for example.
The oft sited that really the French should win at Waterloo is a case that sometimes vexes me. Yes they should if the French release the Guard at the start, but Napoleon kept them back to deliver the decisive blow if required, so I believe there should be a mechanish to prevent this until Turn ?, with some possible leeway or dependent upon how the battle is going. Then we enter the 'what if?' territory of the Prussians arriving earlier or not at all, what if it hadn't rained etc. But then maybe Wellington and Co would have retreated given they could afford to play the long game and Napoleon could not.
I'm sure there is more I could say but can't think of anything at present! But good stuff to get the grey cells going for sure:).
Steve! Happy to see that this post triggered some firing of your little grey cells. Very good result!Delete
You bring up a number of good points that require further consideration.
Play the period, not the Rules is a useful mantra to always keep in mind. For me, rules should allow for a smooth governance of play without getting in the way of the game, decision-making, or enjoyment. I want to be thinking about tactics and decision-making not about how to wheel left under fire in Section 126.96.36.199.
If you think of more to say, fire away!
The rules should certainly facilitate ease of play, with scenario specific rules, victory conditions etc then adding the 'historical context' for the players. Certainly with my group of gaming friends, we do play the period, we do generally re-fight historical battles and have lots of fun doing so. The post-game chats are always very informative as we discuss what happened on the table versus that that transpired on the battlefield.Delete
Another thing I've grown to enjoy very much is reading about a battle and then playing it out on the table, especially when using Bloody Big Battles. You then begin to appreciate why certain battles unfolded as they did due to the restriction of the terrain (think APW 1866), quality of the troops, C&C or lack of etc. IMHO this opens up another whole level of enjoyment for our wonderful hobby.
Too bad we are an ocean and most of a continent apart ...Delete
A thought provoking post, along with the original post by the Polemarch. I think Steve J has said what I think in a nutshell. I can feel I could write a whole post on it if time permitted. Much to factor in. Hmmmm!ReplyDelete
Release your keyboard!Delete
Interesting post and comments. I have written many scenarios based on real actions and found some to make bad games while others good games. Once the shooting starts it is generally a whole new ball game.ReplyDelete
Thanks, George. Scenario design is often an iterative process requiring a few adjustments along the way. Besides that, anticipating how players will respond is a Great Unknown.Delete
Other people have already said it better than me. Damn them and their swift replies!ReplyDelete
To me any game set in a historical context is historical gaming. It’s pretty simple for me. When I set up a refight of a specific battle I keep one eye on trying to be true to history and the other on play balance/ is this going to be fun for everyone. I’m primarily a gamer who loves history. 😀
Always time to add in your thoughts, Stew. Thanks!Delete
Which came first? Love of history or gaming?
History came first. Miniature games came way second. My first rules were warhammer 40k. Didn’t even find out there were historical rules for awhile. Then went ALL IN. 😀Delete
Going ALL IN was a good decision.Delete
"When is a wargame historical" well to me when it delivers a game that makes you think, yes, that gels with what I have read and I don't mean one book but several books, memoirs and second hand accounts, documentary's and if you are of a certain age the experience of your relatives. Does make it "realistic" probably not things have to be abstracted to make a game work, a game would be very boring if you took all of the eventualities into account, I remember certain rules from the 80s which were more of a maths exercise. Of course we all interpret things differently which makes this hobby so diverse and interesting, but if I am having a good time with friends it will do for meReplyDelete
Good answer, Phil! I think rules' design has come a long way from the 70's and 80's.Delete
Wow this has generated a lot of thought and feedback Jon. In my limited experience there is a fine line to tread between ‘historical’ and non historical gaming. My view and I guess they are all valid is the sweet spot is somewhere in between. I clearly lean heavily towards historical games these days but experience shows if you try to get too close it rarely provides an enjoyable game. But for me battles normally need context and some historical hook to make them enjoyable.ReplyDelete
Yes, indeed! A lot of interesting feedback generated from our familiar Band of Brothers. you sum it up nicely in having a historical hook or context makes setting the stage easier and adds interesting context to the battle. Having an historical benchmark from which to compare is useful too.Delete
Thanks for your thoughts!
An interesting, sometimes awkward topic. I'll start with the the whole " what consenting adults do etc etc" thing.ReplyDelete
Firstly, I like using historical battles following, as far as our research permits, the decisions and moves made by the historic commanders, to test a set of rules. If you play the battle say 5 or even 3 times and the 'wrong side wins most often, then usually either there's something wrong, either your understanding of what actually happened is wrong (historical post battle reports are often no more accurate than a politicians announcement) or the rules are wrong, the dice are lots loaded. or something.
Testing what ifs can be fun but may be more of a test of rules and players' knowledge and skill than history.
One thing I like, following CS Grant's example, are disguised battles, taking an historical action but disguising it as a generic scenario or changing the armies or even period. Obviously different periods, armies and generals make a difference but often the basic tactical situation and problems remain, even if weapons and tactics change.
Ross, you make a very good point about using historical battles as a testing ground for rules. Having the historical benchmark in place provides a gauge to tempering rules that may be generating ahistorical results. Yes, I know that we could fall into discussion on what are ahistorical results.Delete
I enjoy transporting battles into other periods as a means to disguising the battle. I do not do this often enough since I rarely run out of historical battles to fight. Thomas' OHW is a good source for these types of engagements.
Appreciate your thoughts!
My preference certainly is for refighting historical battles as well. It is rare that designing scenario and playing it out on the table doesn't yield considerable insight about the battle well above simply reading and account and looking at the maps! Battles that are a part of a wargames campaign are a reasonable second, as they have context that is beyond the tabletop in front of youReplyDelete
Peter, we have much the same wargaming philosophy. Campaigning certainly adds another layer of insight to an historical war.Delete