11 December 2019
The past is another world
It often seems like the bitterest divide in the world of wargaming is between historical and non-historical gamers1. Some historical gamers are convinced that any non-historic wargame isn’t really a ‘proper’ wargame, whilst non-historical gamers (those who prefer sci-fi and fantasy games) can’t understand what all the fuss is about and resent not being able to use their orc miniatures for American Civil War battles.
The divide between these two camps is silly. The reductive argument, of course, is that all wargaming is fantasy simply because it’s playing pretend war with little toy soldiers. This may be true, but isn’t exactly helpful. If you re-read the admittedly rather click-baity heading of this post you’ll see that we’re not claiming that there’s no difference between the two genres, only that there’s no firm border between them.
The argument is as follows. For a start, what we understand as history is often far less rigid and objective than we may think. Beyond the granular facts of an event (and even then, when facts are missing, as they often are), much of our knowledge of history relies on educated guesses and extrapolations to knit together a coherent narrative of the past. I’m no historiographer, but if you want to explore this further then a really good book that talks about this is Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations by the historian Simon Schama. The main point is that history is very much a weave of fact and fiction, and that the two are more often than not inextricably bound together most of the time.
On a less academic level, there’s also a more straightforward argument. If a historical wargame doesn’t exactly follow history, can it really be called historical? It may look historically accurate – with men in period uniforms and terrain made out hills and trees – but that’s not an argument in of itself. That’s like saying ‘ye olde taverns’ at Renaissance fairs are historically accurate just because they blend in with the aesthetic. If you play a game of Bolt Action, for example, but just set up the terrain and armies for a general game rather than recreating a specific battle, does this really count as a historical game? Arguably, what you’re really doing is playing out a sort of ‘what if’ scenario, where players see what would happen if they were to pit their wits against one another using a given group of period soldiers and weaponry placed in a particular environment. What would’ve happened if a German force comprised of X and Y met an Allied force consisting of A and B, in terrain that looked like this or that?
Even if you are playing a specific scenario, the problem doesn’t go away. Because besides the fact that any recreation of a historical battle in wargame format is going to need a few leaps of imagination (was there a hedge here? How do we balance the armies?) as long as there’s any uncertainty about the results then you’re deviating from what actually happened. But if you don’t deviate at all from what happened – you move your troops in exactly the same way as they moved during the real battle, and the side that won then wins now – then you’re no longer playing a wargame, but engaged in historical re-enactment.
In short, as long as you’re playing a game, you’re going to need to sacrifice historical accuracy – partly because that’s the nature of a wargame to begin with, but also because if you didn’t the game wouldn’t be much fun to play. And if you’re not following fact, you’re of necessity following fiction, or, in other words, engaged in a kind of fantasy. So suddenly it’s clear that that game of The Pikeman’s Lament you’re playing may not be so pure after all!
Perhaps not so fantastical after all
The argument works the other way, albeit to a lesser extent. Fantasy, by a common definition, occurs in universes that not only never have been, but never could be either. It’s this difference between settings that could conceivably exist and ones that patently couldn’t that is commonly invoked as separating science fiction from fantasy.4 Star Wars, for example, might better be labelled as a work of science fantasy rather than science fiction; even though it’s got advanced technology and inter-planetary travel, it treats the laws of physics as we know them more as vague guidelines rather than hard borders. In what universe, after all, could spaceships fly through the vacuum of space like World War 2 fighter aircraft making pew-pew-pew noises?
Granting this, one can look at science fiction as a sort of ‘what if?’ genre, looking at our own universe and trying to see what would happen if certain things did or didn’t happen (this is certainly how famed science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov viewed it). As we’ve already seen, historical wargaming is asking the same question. If you retort that historical wargames only ask this question for events of the past, you run into the problem that science fiction tends to encompass not only the future but alternative timelines as well. Is a historical wargame where the Axis, or Napoleon, or the Vikings win a particular battle when they didn’t in real life suddenly transformed into a science fiction game? Besides, what about science fiction set in the past? The obvious example is the Steampunk genre, which in its less fantastical forms tries to extrapolate how the 19th and early 20th centuries would have turned out if certain lines of technological development had been pursued further during that period. In that sense, is a steampunk game (or at least, one that uses feasible steam-powered machinery) to be considered less ‘historical’ than a historical wargame that pits troops against one another in ways that never happened in real life? And this isn’t even to begin unfolding the whole thorny issue of wargames set in the present day, with one foot in the past and the other in the future!
If it's acknowledged that the borders between historical fact and fiction are never clear cut, then it must be admitted that games based on the two are going to overlap in some ways. Rather than seeing historical and non-historical games as belonging to two totally different camps, a better way is to view them on a sliding scale of historical accuracy, with a fair bit of grey in between. Whilst games at the far ends of the spectrum are going to look very different to those at the other extreme, it'd be unfair not to acknowledge any common ground. Apart from anything else, as a niche hobby wargamers need to give the other party a chance, partly for reasons of good sportmanship, and partly because it's already difficult enough to find others to play games with! Hopefully these arguments may help to ease the rift between the historical and non-historical camp. This guy certainly hopes so, as he’s waiting for that day when at last he’ll be able to play a version of the battle of Waterloo featuring a mech-suited Wellington fighting a dinosaur-riding Napoleon!
1 The other divide is between those who favour true line of sight vs those who prefer theoretical line of sight systems. Of course, this debate is far less acrimonious, mostly because anyone with any sense knows that theoretical line of sight is the ONLY logical option.2
2Of course we’re only kidding.3
4 Even at this point you’ve got difficulty. After all, who’s to say what could and couldn’t exist? We might not know how to make zombie serum now, but how can we be so sure it couldn’t happen in the future? It’s a good argument for always keeping a store of baked beans and shotgun shells nearby.