Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

Fantasy as Historical Salt and Pepper

Louis XIV's Wine Wagon

I have stated on this blog in the past my general disinterest in fantasy gaming. Part of the reason may be when I got into wargaming it didn’t exist. (Well, that certainly dates me!)

I got into miniature wargaming in the mid-sixties, after a few years of Avalon-Hill board wargames. At that time, all miniature wargaming was historical as fantasy didn’t truly arrive on the scene until the early 70’s as a reflection of the popularity of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Little did any of us grasp what a change that would make to the hobby. Now, some 44 years later, fantasy is by far the largest element in wargaming, far outnumbering historical gamers at almost every convention except Historicon, where it is now one of the largest “eras” of games played at the premier “Historical” wargame convention. I should be clear as to my definition of “Fantasy” as including pure fantasy, Sci-fi, and alternate universes such as victorian steam-punk, the AVBCW style games, as well as combinations such as Victorian Mars, etc.

My own interests are determinedly historical, as I have always seen the hobby as a doorway to historical inquiry, and an intellectual challenge to portray aspects of the real world as it existed in history. The history aspects of games and game design imposes a limiter and a discernible, researchable, information and data base to examine and attempt to reflect. Fantasy is less confining, and demands little in the way of research other than an internal consistency to the imagined world, and even then, is often nonsensical (30 foot walkers that are prime targets to even present day weaponry) or simply disconnected from physics and fact. Instead of demands for reading many, often conflicting or incomplete sources, and trying to find the best explanation and means of portraying the effect in a game, one simply reads a few very short codexes, and Voila! you are an expert!

Excerpt from Fantasy Wargame Rule set

I’ve also come to the point where I think Historical rules may need MORE fantasy, not less! “What” You say? “How can that be?”

It’s been a growing feeling on my part that too many Historical miniature games have become too serious, far too pedantic, and, well, more like a dissertation, than a fun game. This is counter-posed by the dummyification of historicals by truly banal, and derivative rules, that are so simple that there is no challenge to the game except rolling the dice and working through to the tedious outcome. This is often a blatant attempt to appeal to the younger, fantasy gamer, that doesn’t want to read, but just play a game.

So we have a diminished middle in historical gaming. It’s either dissertations or History gaming for non-readers. Neither speaks well for historical wargaming’s future, which will depend on gaining some new converts from the young as the old gray hairs fade away. The too intricate will slowly descend into cult status with a few die-hards, and the dully simple will gradually turn Historicals into a bad reflection of Fantasy games. The latter is the more likely for many reasons, among them the lack of barriers to entry. It is also true that fantasy is generally speaking, simply representations of Medieval warfare ala Tolkien with magic added, representations of WWII with Space ships substituted for ships, and “Earthman’s Burden” representations of the joys of Colonialism with Martians and all forms of monsters substituted for natives and “alien” cultures of the East.

What fantasy games do have is (occasionally)humor, a firm “personality” narrative, and a dedication to “Fun” that has gotten too lost in our Historical rules. Historicals need to take these things back into our games, while not tailoring the rules for a sixth grade reading ability or lack of sophistication.


There is an old story about Winston Churchill that admonished us to carefully and precisely use swear words in daily speech as too frequent use brands the user a lout, and lessens their effect, and not using them at all gives up the impact and punch that they can add to a communication. He advised that they were like the salt and pepper of language-too much ruins a dish, but too little makes it bland and uninteresting.

What historical war-games need now is a small dash of seasoning, to make the dish more appealing and enjoyable. The most easily integrated, and the elements that will most add both humor and fun are Personalities, Narrative, and the “What the F#*K!?” moment. Let me explain.

As I pointed out in my article, “What History? The Markerdom of Tin Armies” The original historical war-games of Stevenson, Wells, and the other “Earlies”, were based on a strong narrative. This was made up of officers and units who had a real personality-specific traits or qualities that made them subtly different from other officers and units. You got to “know” the officers and their foibles over the many games you played.

In Stevenson’s case it was as simple as one unit where the castings had spindly legs, and were very unstable. The means of adjudicating artillery and rifle fire in his Davos Attic games was either a metal projectile from spring-loaded cannon, or a thrown cufflink. The slightest hit and the whole regiment of “Spindlies” would collapse! They had a reputation for failure that rings throughout the tales of the Davos a\Attic campaign. Wells had a similar affection for a certain officer casting which he imbued with near god-like capabilities in his games-including being saved from wounds quite arbitrarily. These are simple, and not very sophisticated, differences, but putting strong personality traits into certain units and officers adds a lot to fun game-play, and supports an on-going narrative that contributes to much laughter, and good-natured ribbing over a number of games or even years.

Many historical rules have provided mathematical differences to officers and units, but too few have gone beyond some simple numerical advantage, or some pluses and minuses to actually inject personality into the gameplay. There should be some stated “soft” differences such as a bad temper, a feud between certain officers in the same army, an officer that is uncommonly loved that the troops would follow anywhere, the stupid son of an important political figure that too often does something stupid with his command. There should be units that have a reputation for excellence quite beyond their type or random chance, and, of course, the reverse corollary of the unit that is always near disaster. Many such ideas ,and the specific qualities of temperament of historical leaders, may be easily found by reading good histories in any period.

These traits can be assigned and overlaid on the basic game rules, or they can be acquired by chance events that happen on the table. In our last game a battery of British Light guns had a brilliant role in the victory by the allies. That has been noted on a database, and a plus will be added to their die roll on their next game’s rating. They may also acquire a “soft” addition to the unit’s reputation that may manifest itself in surprising ways. (Hint, Hint)

Having a narrative requires an ongoing history-all games with that unit or officer should have a thread that connects them and simple records should be kept,even if there is no formal campaign. Even more detailed narratives and traits can be created if there is a formal campaign.

One other thing, there are simply too few “What the F#*K???” moments in many historical war-games. The history of battles and wars is fraught with complete surprises, amazing escapes, and unlikely turns of events. To be sure, the randomness of die rolls can introduce some of this, but the results are often too little of this occurring, and what does occur is not too much of a surprise, or very different from the predictable norm other than in slight degree. This is where cards really shine as a means of introducing the unexpected. It can also be done by scenario, or a combination of the two. Sam Mustapha’s surprising appearance of bad terrain cards in Longstreet, Brent Oman’s Bazaine card appearing in an FPW game of FOB, or my use of the Creative Moment card in DF as a mechanism; all work to do similar things. They are a shock to the gamer, that he must deal with. They break the sheer mathematical march of certainty that only happens on a wargame table. They are wonderful fun in gameplay...for some. (I will admit that there are those that simply can’t deal with things that are not literal, predictable, and unexpected)

Also, there is nothing wrong with introducing plausible, but only quasi-historical, elements into the game. My Louis XIVths Wine Wagon as a permanent part of the French Armies Train is such a device. It adds color, and also holds out the delightful possibility of success being rewarded with a glass of good red wine from a special bottle in my cellar to some lucky players. They may cease to care if they win the game!

All of these things must not become the main course, but remain, as Churchill suggested about foul language, the seasoning, the touch of spice that adds great flavor to the game. But they will allow so much of the nature of real war and battles into the game! No battle existed without some of these personal and surprising events influencing in a major or minor way the outcome. So it is an irony that by introducing more “fantasy” into historical games we make them more realistic!

I know I’m doing it!