Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

Picking a Wargame Period

Selecting the periods we chose to war-game in is a key decision in our enjoyment of the hobby. This is particularly true when we are new to the hobby and “All Things are Possible,” but it is a constant issue as we game over the years. Heaven knows, there are many temptations along the way that can tempt us to try “just one more” period. There are also fads of brief interest in periods that are either little known or unusual that can lead us to scatter our interests and figure collection. This leads to the “hundreds of figures and no finished armies” problem resulting from a lack of focus that I mentioned in my “What I’ve learned from 50 years of wargaming” article.

So what should we look for in selecting a period?

Is it an interesting period? Of course, we would choose a period of interest to us, but is that enough of a reason? Are there other things we should ponder when making a choice that will commit us to a good bit of money and a number of years of study and painting or collecting the figures that are needed for a game?

Here are my thoughts:

1. Make sure you are VERY interested in the period. You should have some attachment to the period that is both emotional as well as intellectual. Do you find the historical personages admirable? Are they interesting as people? Does the history have an appeal to your own family history? Does the period just appeal to your personal tastes? It should have an emotional appeal to you that is much higher than you may find in other periods.

2. If the period marks some sort of watershed in military history, it is likely to have more intrinsic interest. There are several of these transitional periods that come to mind; The rise of cavalry in ancient warfare transitioning into the medieval period. The rise of gunpowder weapons in the 16th and 17th century, The transition from pike and musket to pure musket formations in the 1690 to 1710 period, the rise of light infantry and artillery in the late 18th century, Napoleonic “Nations at War” and the Corps System replacing “Wings” and “Lines”, the first modern wars in the 1860’s and 70’s; and, finally, the transitions that brought forth massive artillery, automatic weapons, tanks, and aircraft in the early to mid 20th century.

3. It would help if the period has a good level of literature and historical writings available. Certainly periods such as the Napoleonic era, ACW, and WWII are amply supplied-almost too much - as there is a LOT of crap and comic book-level history that often overwhelms the quality efforts. There is the old joke that a Light-year is the distance that all books on the American Civil War would cover if placed end to end. Other periods may suffer from not enough readily available information, but usually EVERY period has a few excellent works that can get you started. One of the keys to enjoying a period is developing a good bibliography, AND READING IT! This is the key challenge to historical war gamers, they have to read more than one work, and they may find excellent histories that differ on the factual record. Fantasy gamers read one codex and it is the TRUTH!

4. The search for uniform information is one of the joys of historical gaming, and I, personally, prefer a little bit of a search rather than having information too readily available. It adds to the joys of the hunt! In most periods, one must guard against becoming too literal and pedantic, by realizing that uniform information ( and tactical movement) are often imperfectly known, and open to more variation than the pedants seem to be willing to grant. There is much room for variation and personal taste in EVERY period, but some periods-such as Ancients, Napoleonics, and ACW seem to have more than their share of those that “Know what they know, and that’s the end of it!” All three of the above are very popular, but popular art, music, and movies might serve as a warning about “popular” being a positive description!

But the rest of military history has many wonderful periods that have not been overcropped. The 100 years War, The ECW and The Wars of Louis XIV, Marlborough The Great Northern war, SYW, The Wars of the French Revolution, The unappreciated FPW, and a number of inter-war clashes in the 1930s and into the early WWII period, all offer some very fresh and fun periods that haven’t been done to a crisp.

5. Figures are a key. NEVER go into a period where there are only one or two suppliers of figures. Wargame hobby businesses are notoriously ephemeral, and when the one maker of figures for some minor period goes under, you’re left holding the bag. But small companies that augment periods where figures are readily available from a wide number of suppliers are excellent sources for variety and for unusual units. I think it is wise to use a variety of figure makers as long as the figures aren’t too dissimilar in size. The different styles give good visual variety, and if used within the same unit can give a hint at the variety of sizes among the humans they model. If their size differential is too great then confine the overly large or small figures to one unit and do not intermix them. Units may vary greatly in size, but go unnoticed if not intermixed.

Occasionally, a figure maker comes along that offers such striking figures that one is attracted to a period solely because of their aesthetic appeal. In my next article on the WSS, I will explain how EBOR figures made me the WSS buff I am today. They are simply some of the best figures I’ve owned in all my years of wargaming, but more on that in my next posting.

These days it’s important to check if some manufacturers offer plastic figures in the period. If so, then the period becomes even more attractive. Plastic figures offer an inexpensive entry into a period by newbies, and are an excellent way to flesh out an army to a greater size than would otherwise be affordable by veteran gamers. When painted and mounted, plastics may be freely intermixed with metal units with no damage to the battlefield’s appearance. There is no real downside to using plastics figures that adding a little weight to their bases won’t cure!

6. Rules are a tricky area (and one where I am an interested party). Some periods offer scant variety in rules, or less than interesting rule systems, while some periods have too many options, so sorting the chaff from the wheat is very difficult.

All too often group think dictates which period will be played and with what rules. This has two immediate downsides; a tendency to go for a set of rules that are “Lowest Common Denominator” that are easy enough that a 6 year old can play them, or, even worse, a group that has played together for so long that the rules are incredibly complex with MANY house rules. Groups also gravitate to the most common periods WWII, ACW, Napoleonics, Ancients and seldom explore much else.

Having said that, they do provide a way to test out rulesets and periods before substantial sums are invested. They can provide, if you’re lucky, a good social atmosphere and exchange of ideas.

My own feeling is that a gamer, after a brief introductory exposure to rules, figures, and periods, should do his own thing. It’s your hobby, so find a period that you are interested in, select rules you want to play, buy figures that you find particularly good. Now, this requires that you commit to buying BOTH armies and completing suitably sized forces for each force. That is more expensive than “sharing” the cost between several people, but it has the signal advantage of you have ownership of the armies! If your friends move, or you move, it’s no matter-you can still play! If the group goes off on some fad, or the latest rule set, you still are in control of your own hobby experience. I have also found that if you provide the table, forces, and rule set-they will come! You will not lack for players in your games simply because you choose a separate path.

So be in control, build both armies in a period you enjoy, select rules you want to play, create a table and terrain that you find pleasing, and you’ll never lack for gaming partners and you’ll be doing what YOU enjoy.

7. Finally,do not become too narrow in your interests, both within a period, as well as curiosity about other periods you do not game. Broaden your interests to a more general love of history; read challenging authors-especially the ones that challenge the accepted truths; expand your interests into the arts and literature of a period, the diplomatic histories, and new scientific inquiries. DO NOT become the guy who counts buttons on a tunic, but has no idea what the Treaty of Paris was, or worries incessantly about the true description of the color “Aurore” but has no idea how Beethoven’s Third Symphony relates to Napoleon Bonaparte. Your choice of a war-game period can broaden your interests, increase your understanding of the world, nations, and even present day world affairs, and can, concurrently, make you more interesting to other people, or it can make you as small as the figures you paint, and with your intellectual horizons limited to the 4X6 foot war-game table.

In the next blog entry, I will extol my love of the WSS and how it happened.