Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

Is Historical Wargaming History?

I don’t go to many wargame conventions as I tend to find them to be not very enjoyable. Something about the press of the crowd, the sometimes oafish behavior of a few, and the ambiance of an all male, Big Lebowski, Bowling Night crossed with a cheap Vegas casino, has never really appealed to me. I do like to shop the dealers, which is one positive motivator, but the best reason is to meet a few good friends and fellow game designers over dinner. If the dealer area is small and few people I know are going to be there-then I happily pass.

However, I recently did go to a local Denver Convention and strolling through was reminded of the significant changes the hobby of wargaming has undergone since I first starting gaming. I roamed the halls and found a mere five or six historical games being played and two of them were a board game knock-off (Battle Cry) and something with mammoths, which, while historical, was only marginally military.

At the same time, an entire hotel ballroom was occupied by GW 40K games-table after table lined edge to edge with tanks, flying-what-nots. and troops so thick they looked like a SYW battalion-standing shoulder to shoulder. There were absurd “walkers” which would be juicy targets even for current day weaponry. While colorful, they were being used with rigidly enforced codices and rules that seem to have more in common with the battle of Hastings, than anything reasonably futuristic. For people that define fantasy as creative, the rigid adherence to these codices and “official” rules seems to argue for more lockstep, authoritarian, and legalistic attitudes than freethinking creativity.

Throughout the other halls fantasy, Sci-fi, and strange blends of history with fantasy-such as VSF, totally dominated the gaming. To be sure there were a few RPG vampires, werewolves, and winged creatures strolling about drinking cokes, but not even one hint of any historical being.

It then struck me, Historical gaming may be dying out in the US! Could it be?

When I began in the hobby, it was close to 95% historical in nature, and rules and figures were committed to attempting to illustrate historical facts. This may have been done poorly or very well by various rule sets, but the goal was the same. With the introduction of fantasy and Sci-fi the hobby has changed radically. Now worlds are invented (though often depressingly similar in a Tolkien/King Arthur/Starship Trooper sort of way) and rules are freed from being anchored on anything-except a bad novella, comic book, or TV series. Subtlety, humanness, and the “gravity” of reality are gone and shallow and cartoonish considerations are foremost. Sometimes the premises are so light-weight-that it is a good thing the figures are heavy or they would float away (maybe the plastic ones do)! Then again, maybe it IS the figures that drive the fantasy/sci-fi juggernaught, and the invented worlds, rules, and reading are decidedly secondary.

Often the companies behind these efforts show a cynical greediness in changing rules, bringing out new figures and cashiering old ones, as well as an unending list of add-on units that make for some high profits, but much lower goals in design, and cleverness, on their part. It makes no difference to many of the followers, perhaps forgivable to the collection mania of an adolescent- but less attractive in a grown adult who should know when he’s being taken for a ride. Maybe those Zombies HAVE eaten their brains!

But at the core of it, maybe history has ended. My English friends tell me that it is alive and well in their country and still is in the majority-some of them claim that this is a reflection of their better education in history, and their proximity to so much of it. All of the major historical wargaming publications are located in Europe and the UK. Even on-line the fantasy dominance of figures, rules, and websites is very much evident, and the majority of historical figure companies is, again, to be found in the UK and Europe.

Admittedly, many gamers do both, and there is a very WWII aspect to most Sci-Fi wargames, and not much except magic and freakishness to distinguish the fantasy games from Dark Ages warfare, but even at the premier historical wargame convention, Historicon, there has been a huge influx of fantasy based gaming in the form of VSF, GW, and quasi-history ala AVBCW and DBM. The board game industry has been the one area where historical gaming has held its own, but, then, board game publication has seen a decline over the years.

Is this a bad thing? Who knows? One thing is certain, Wellington, Napoleon, Jean d’Arc, Marlborough, and Grant may all be endangered species with their ecological gaming niche being taken over by ghoulies, and geesties, and three-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night.