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Board wargames – an introduction (Part Three)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted October 19, 2015

The term in the hobby which committed wargamers most frequently call themselves, is probably “grognards” – derived from the name of Napoleon’s veteran soldiers.

Here are some examples of popular formats of wargames:

-- mini-games / microgames – small-format, quick-play games, e.g., Steve Jackson's Ogre -- human armor, mech, and infantry against a huge cybertank in the 21st century;

-- "beer & pretzels" games -- quick, easy-to-play games dealing with popular topics, e.g., World War II battles, that can be finished in an afternoon;

-- "serious simulations" -- games with intricate rules to simulate in-depth aspects of a battle or campaign;

-- "monster-games" -- e.g., Terrible Swift Sword (regiment-level Gettysburg);

-- heuristic, manual-intensive simulation games -- only one produced, Campaign for North Africa (World War II) (on a battalion/company level);

-- multi-player power politics games, e.g., Diplomacy;

-- both naval (and especially modern naval) and air games should probably qualify as separate genres, because of the large differences involved in simulating these types of combat.


Here are some suggested main types of historical gamers (overlap of categories possible in one person):

-- "beer & pretzels" gamers;

-- "power" gamers;

-- game, service/branch, or period devotees, including "national" gamers;

-- "historians";

-- collectors;

-- amateur game-designers.


These are the main levels of games (most games will fall into one or another of these categories):

-- low tactical (man-to-man; squads or individual vehicles);

-- tactical (platoons or companies);

-- grand tactical (battalions or regiments) on one battlefield, especially, Napoleonic or American Civil War/War Between the States;

-- operational (basic units -- battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions, corps) (especially in World War II) -- also regiments, brigades, divisions, corps on one battlefield, especially, Napoleonic or American Civil War/War Between the States

-- strategic (basic units -- divisions, corps, or armies, covering up to a theatre of operations);

-- high strategic (units could be divisions, corps, armies, army groups, or abstract “points”, simulating entire theatre of operations and above).


These are some of the favoured periods and genres of games:

-- "Nato, Nukes & Nazis" themes, i.e., Nato-Soviet conflict (hypothetical), Nazis vs. Soviets (WWII), Allies vs. Nazis (WWII) – there was actually a game produced by the XTR game company with that title, which was set in an alternative-history where the Third Reich survived in Germany and most of Eastern Europe, into the 1990s;

-- "land-games" (as opposed to air or naval) generally preferred;

-- World War II by far the most popular period;

-- American Civil War/War Between the States;

- contemporary (including Vietnam; hypothetical Nato-Soviet; Arab-Israeli wars);

- Napoleonic;

- "Ancients" (such as Greek and Roman battles and campaigns).


There are some enthusiasts of the science fiction, alternative history, and fantasy subgenres.

There have been some examples of wargames in popular culture. Many villains in James Bond movies are portrayed as “wargamers” or “armchair generals” – with miniatures as well as electronic simulations. Many “right-wing” or corporate villains in various productions have been depicted as interested in historical miniatures. Some decades ago, I happened to see, in a daytime soap-opera, a villainous general of a fictive military dictatorship playing a historical miniatures game with the American hero, as part of a psychological-pressure process. The prominent movie with the title Wargames is not about board wargames, strictly speaking.

In more traditional societies, male children, particularly children of important figures, were given "toy-soldiers" in order to stimulate their interest in the martial ethos. For example, there is the scene in Young Churchill where he is playing with a large army of toy-soldiers. Since toy-soldiers have declined in popularity (as toys for children), there was a time in the 1970s when wargames could be seen to have taken their place, at a somewhat later age in the child's development. However, board wargames have now been largely swept away by electronic games, especially of the FPS type.

In contemporary society, the phenomenon of wargaming could have been linked to a discernible type of individual -- the white or Asian male North American geek. This type was the usual wargamer in the 1970's and early 1980's. Wargamers have often been considered as "right-wing", with some hysterically accusing them of being "young fascists".

Sociologically speaking, wargaming could be considered a "community" of a sort, with its own forms of "standing", for example, ownership of very many or rare games; acme of skill at a single game, e.g., the Soviets invading Germany by 1943 in Avalon Hill's Russian Campaign; or, a person generally having a level of skilful play, whatever the game, with clever tactics and maneuvers. Obviously, it should be realized that wargaming is only one of many "communities", and one should not become immersed in it to the point of excluding almost everything else. The number of wargamers who can become professional game-designers and make their living that way, is actually quite small, especially in today’s world.

After the early Eighties, historical gaming lost much ground to RPGs, and went into a general semi-decline (a lot of older collectors now). An interest in history and military history is now somewhat "pejoritized" by prevailing social trends, although World War II documentaries, books, catalogues of military hardware, etc., are very popular. The high point of wargame pop-culture visibility was probably SPI's ads in "men's magazines" (Playboy and/or Penthouse). SPI – Simulations Publications, Inc. -- was the major wargame company of the 1970s.

Computers have enormously impacted the level of appeal of historical boardgames (i.e., downward). A good meshing of computer and boardgame is not easy as one might suppose. It could be argued that the disadvantage of computers is that, even today, a paper map is probably a bit easier to properly comprehend than a computer-graphics map; some people feel a better sense of "concreteness" moving counters around on a real map; most computer-games are either "arcade-style" or fantasy role-playing games.

The more committed board wargaming population probably reached about 110,000-150,000 in North America (U.S. and Canada) in the 1970s (with about ten percent of that in Canada), and has been dropping over the decades, perhaps getting as low as 15,000 by now.  It could be argued that wargaming requires a fairly high level of intelligence; an interest in history and military history; and considerable patience. These games can take an inordinately long time to play, and are not easy to learn at the beginning. It is not something that would appeal to someone with a short attention span.

What is the possible sense of satisfaction to be derived from historical wargames? One could say it is getting caught up in the grand sweep of history – of being an "armchair general"; of being able to change the course of history through your own actions (in a fictive sense); of the visual and aesthetic appeal of the maps and counters; of the feeling of being a great commander of men on the battlefield, or of entire nations in war. To a certain extent, it is a "voyeuristic" exercise and "power-fantasy" and "compensation" of intelligent, "socially-maladapted" male adolescents (especially of the 1970s).  But, apparently, a lot of the great men of history amused themselves in their youth by planning great imaginary military campaigns. Some decades ago, I read an article that Conrad Black and Hal Jackman were both miniaturists. When playing the Battle of Waterloo, Black usually played Napoleon, and Jackman, Wellington. Conrad Black had claimed his miniatures campaigns offered him strategic insights into the business world. One also recalls the quote from Sun-Tzu's Art of War which occurs in the original Wall Street movie. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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