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Wot I Think: Wargames - From Gladiators To Gigabytes

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Have you ever stopped to consider the origins of wargaming? Have you ever contemplated wargaming’s constantly changing relationship with the slavering hellbeast that is War? Martin van Creveld, an Emeritus Professor at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, has. He’s been thinking about questions like these for the last 25 years. The result is a new book called Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes. I’ve read it and this is Wot I Think.

If, like me, you wince when someone describes Call of Duty or Company of Heroes as a ‘wargame’, Martin van Creveld’s use of the word is going to seem alarmingly reckless at first. The author believes “practically all modern workers in the field [of wargame studies] have committed a fundamental error: their definition of wargames is both much too broad and much too narrow.”. By concentrating on map, board, and computer-based activities and using the term to describe economic and political simulations as well as military ones, modern writers have consistently cold-shouldered vast swathes of history and produced conclusions too abstract or parochial to be useful. Eager to “reintegrate wargames … with wider human culture” his response is first to deploy a definition of ‘wargame’ that’s roomier than an Avro Lancaster’s bomb bay, and then to plunder the past with the ruthless enthusiasm of a Baghdadi museum looter.

Our digital diversions get their helping of high-brow scrutiny but are forced to wait 250 of 320 pages for it. The startling inclusivism (To van Creveld, any fighty or war-themed activity that involves strategic/tactical interplay between participants, and abstracted or rule-restricted violence, qualifies as a wargame) together with a strict chronological approach means chapters devoted to ritualised tribal battles, gladiatorial combat, medieval tournaments, and duels, troop past before anything resembling a hex makes an appearance. If these sections weren’t strewn with fascinating historical details and abuzz with PC gaming echoes (many of which the author appears not to notice) then the march to modernity might have been wearying for a wargamer eager to read about the direct antecedents of games like Combat Mission and Unity of Command.

Actually, the Nineteenth Century forerunners of CM and UoC seem positively drab in comparison with some of the outlandish combat games covered in the first half of the book. Ever heard of the extraordinary intra-tribal ‘great fights’ conducted, until relatively recent times, by people like the Mae of Papua New Guinea, the Maori of New Zealand, and the Higi of Nigeria-Cameroon? In the case of the Marquesas Islanders, these pre-arranged scraps involved two skirmish lines hurling stones, nuts, and fruit at each other until a specific number of participants slumped to the ground or everyone got bored and went home to bed. Deaths weren’t unheard of, but, in contrast to the vicious internecine warfare that occasionally gripped the islands, were never the object of the exercise. You fought to prove yourself, vent aggression, settle a dispute, or gain prestige for your tribe. You fought because there are few things more satisfying in life than watching an unripe breadfruit arc across a 100m ravine then clout an enemy combatant right between the eyes.

One of the longest and most thought-provoking sections explores the cruellest wargame Man has yet devised. In Chapter 2, van Creveld systematically explores the origins of Roman gladiator fights, examines the motivation of participants and spectators, the usefulness of amphitheatre aggro as war training, and period attitudes towards the ‘sport’. The topic, like others, is dealt with very much in isolation, but it’s impossible to read descriptions of the rigid gladiator class system with its darting veles, lumbering crupelarii and tricksy laquearius without noticing striking parallels with contemporary deathmatch delivery systems. Apparently, balancing was a thorny problem for event organisers, and even back then there were worried souls fretting about the effects of violent entertainment on vulnerable young minds:

“In [Augustine’s] Confessions written just before AD 400, he described one of his fellow students at Carthage who had long resisted attending the shows. When his fellows dragged him to the amphitheater he kept his eyes shut, determined not to watch. Then a roar from the crowd caused him to open them:”

“When he saw the blood, it was as though he had drunk a deep draught of savage passion. Instead of turning away, he fixed his eyes upon the scene and drank in all its frenzy, unaware of what he was doing. He revelled in the wickedness of the fighting and was drunk with the fascination of bloodshed … He watched and cheered and grew hot with excitement, and when he left the arena he carried away with him a diseased mind which would leave him no peace until he came back again, no longer simply with the friends who had first dragged him there, but at their head, leading new sheep to the slaughter.”

The chapters on medieval wargames, trial by combat, and duels teem with game design inspiration and familiar motifs. Tournaments appear to have spawned the first recognisable wargame scenarios and play modes – “A popular form of combat was the pas d’armes. In it, one or more knights swore to defend a bridge or pass against all comers using either blunt weapons or sharp ones; on one occasion they did so for no fewer than six weeks.” Scandal-mongering journos in the late Nineteenth Century were such frequent duellists that some papers including Le Figaro and Le Gaulois, maintained special facilities where their reporters could practise. Sod amnesiac assassins and embittered ex-cops and soldiers, I want to play an FPS where my investigative muck-raking has made me the most hated/hunted hack in Restoration Paris, and the handiest with a blade and pistol.

After analysing chess and its forerunners, and documenting attempts to mod it into a useful military instruction tool, the text finally enters the realm of miniatures and board wargaming. Unsurprisingly, HG Wells’ ‘Little Wars’ and von Reisswitz’s Kriegspiel are the focus of some serious scrutiny. The latter was almost certainly the first wargame to suffer from Squad Leader-style rule bloat. In 1876 a Prussian Colonel (wargaming was huge in Germany in the 1800s), Julius Verdy do Venois, published a book arguing that Kriegspiel was too complicated. “It required a sixty-page booklet of rules and statistical tables. Subsequent modifications, many of which aimed at increasing realism by updating and adding more and more details, made the game more complex still. Play tended to last forever and was often abandoned before it could be brought to a conclusion”.

The changing military attitude towards wargaming is a constant theme. By the 20th Century many armed forces were using a mix of board, map, and umpired ‘free’ wargames to train staff and assess plans. Van Creveld’s descriptions of German and Japanese wargaming in WW2 are particularly fascinating. Operations Barbarossa and Sea Lion were both thoroughly gamed using rule sets and approaches that emphasised ‘friction’ – “information overload, incorrect reports, out-of-date reports, unintelligible reports, unexpected requests by neighboring units that interfered with one’s own operations.”. The IJN gamed the strike at Pearl Harbour for the first time in 1927:

“It was launched by two Japanese carriers, the only ones available, which were accompanied by destroyers, cruisers, and an advance guard of submarines. However, the umpires judged that the damage the Americans had suffered was minimal. Not only was the ‘Blue’ commander, Lieutenant Commander Tagaki Sokichi, criticized for his “rashness,” but as the game developed the ‘Red’ side went on to mount a two-carrier attack on Tokyo itself. … The game ended with those carriers making their escape in spite of their attempts to locate and intercept them”

During the 1930s the scenario was regularly updated to reflect changed thinking, and new Orders of Battle. The last series of playthroughs in 1941 helped resolve important questions related to route selection and stealth, and prompted the planners to increase the number of participating submarines and carriers.

Politics, economics, and nuclear realities played an increasingly important role in government wargames of the Cold War era. The USA’s ‘Sigma’ Vietnam War simulations of October 1961 proved scarily prophetic, predicting increasing Chinese involvement, growing numbers of American troops on the ground, and the souring of global public opinion. Tragically, they also failed to produce workable solutions or convince the powers-that-be to alter course.

In the space of a couple of chapters, we move from the history-impacting wargames played by nuclear-armed governments, to the frothy fun of Laser Quest, paintball, and re-enactments. The latter push the author’s definition of wargame to the very limit (apparently, some re-enactments feature challenges called ‘tacticals’ that do involve a degree of competitive interplay). Certainly, if the activities of Civil War LARPers, SS impersonators and their ilk warrant fourteen pages of coverage, then recreational computer wargames deserve far more than four.

Van Creveld chooses to sum up the evolution and achievements of PC wargames via two familiar titles. The first, Chris Crawford’s Eastern Front (1981) is reasonably well chosen, the second, Western Civilization Software’s Forge of Freedom (2006), though a fine game, less so. Describing the essentially backward-looking FoF with its tactical layer and representations of “fatigue, morale, supply, facing, formation, time of day, reinforcements, command and control, weather, and even battlefield smoke” as evidence of “dramatic” progress, is an unintended kick in the teeth for all those wargame designers who have shed blood, sweat and tears over the years, dragging the genre from the Dark Ages of hexes and turns. If Wargames ever gets patched a second edition, it would be lovely to see the pioneering efforts of folk like Panther Games, Battlefront, and Major Holdridge acknowledged.

After a decent potted history of the computer-based sims and games used by the military, the book stumbles, like a well-meaning but fuddy-duddy uncle, into the tangled territory of the shmup and the FPS. The mechanics of Spacewar and Space Invaders are dutifully outlined. Halo, Call of Duty, and Gears of War are name-checked. Doom is described fleetingly as a game notable “for allowing players a wide choice of guns”. There’s rational reflections on concerns over addiction and exposure to violence, but, disappointingly, no attempt to highlight the many ways contemporary videogames mirror and ape the wargames of the past.

Addressing the question of why relatively few women play wargames, the author jumbles the salient and the silly, assigning slightly creepy paragraphs to mud-wrestling and nude chess, while completely failing to mention the influence of testosterone or socialisation. Analysis of Lara Croft as a female gaming role-model, and observations that women tend to prefer games that emphasise socialising rather than violence, will all seem desperately old-hat to the well-read gamer.

At its best when rummaging through pre-1970s history, Wargames’ unusual purview, logical structure, and clear, concise language, make it an extremely readable tome. There are no revolutionary conclusions – no dragons are slain – but the wealth of carefully selected historical examples and thoughtful reflections, are sure to leave you with a new perspective on this bizarre, violence-peppered hobby of ours.

Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes  is published by Cambridge University Press and is available in paperback (9781107684423) at £17.99 or hardback (9781107036956) at £55.00. 

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