This article also appears in the February issue of Wargames Illustrated
In October 2016 The First Annual Walter Scott Roundtable on the Middle Ages and Popular Culture: Gaming With History was held in Edinburgh, Scotland. We asked the organizer Professor Gianluca Raccagni to tell us what the event was all about, and speaker and Games Designer Dan Mersey to summarize his talk for the magazine.
Professor Gianluca Raccagni
I am a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, and on 4 October 2016 I organised there a roundtable on gaming with history, which brought together game developers, gamers, historians, students, the general public. It all started when Nicola Cervellati, from the Quintet club in Ravenna, Italy, introduced me to historical wargaming last year. I realised that it was a great way to look at my research from a new angle and share it with the public. I am currently working on the controversial crusades that were fought against fellow Christians in the thirteenth century, and most of my sources are unadorned parchments. Gaming allows me to create material and visual representation of my research, and have fun interacting with it. Nicola and I will post gaming scenarios based on my research on our blog.
That activity made me wish to know more about the games world, its use of historical topics, and how historians can interact with it, which were the topics of the roundtable. It was a successful evening, which raised awareness of the issue and provided much food for thought. I am grateful for their support to the University of Edinburgh, to our host, Blackwell’s Bookshop on South Bridge, and our fantastic speakers: Daniel Faulconbridge, the editor of this magazine; Daniel Mersey, author of various games including Lion Rampant; and Hans Wolfgang Loidl from Harriot Watt University, who discussed computer games. I also wish to thank Claymore Castings, Supreme Littleness Designs, the South East Scotland Wargames Club, and our students, led by Malin Sandell, who ran games after the talks.
We are setting up a network group to carry on exploring gaming with history, and we are keen to hear your views on it and on crusades against fellow Christians. If you are interested please contact me (email@example.com) or visit our blog: www.gamingandhistory.blogspot.com
Since childhood I’ve had a love of games – pretty much anything that involves a tabletop, playing pieces, and other people. And as a kid I also made and painted model aircraft and tanks, lined up row upon row of toy soldiers, and read about all kinds of history. I discovered ‘choose your own adventure’ reading books, and started looking at ways to combine these different interests, inventing all sorts of badly thought out games of my own (usually written so that my favoured side would win). Then came Dungeons & Dragons, other roleplaying games, and an interest in miniature wargaming and boardgaming.
All of these aspects of my life have been thrown into a melting pot at some point, and I’ve bubbled to the surface as a game designer. I’ve had several sets of miniature wargaming rules published, have a couple of boardgames under way, and help other people to create their own gaming ideas. (1)
I’m going to cover a few aspects of gaming and game design as I speak: (2)
• Types of game
• Types of gamer
• My approach to designing a game
• And other aspects of game design
With my background, I mostly talk about historical miniatures gaming; but a lot of my observations are valid for boardgames too. Many games are about warfare, especially if gaming with miniatures. But there are plenty of other historical and non-historical subjects covered by games – railway building is very popular, as are civilization building and resource collecting games.
THE GAMING UMBRELLA
The variety of games available is a key point about gaming and history – although we use umbrella terms such as ‘historical tabletop games’, ‘historical miniatures games’, and ‘historical wargaming’, what goes on under that umbrella has a variety of catalysts. Most gamers fall into one – or more – of the following categories:
• Those who just want to game for the fun, social, or competitive aspect of it, using a historically themed setting.
• Those who want to interact more closely with their historical reading, and immerse themselves in a gaming world based on reality, fighting battles between historical opponents in scenarios based on actual events.
• Those who like to explore the ‘what ifs’ of history.
• Those who enjoy the modelling, painting, and creative aspect of the hobby, with an interest in gaming but a real pleasure in researching uniforms, finding historically accurate figures, and so on. The game is a way to ‘do something’ with their collection.
As a game designer, this is very important. You need to know your audience – which of those groups are you writing for?
A set of rules for players who wish to game competitively will need to be tightly written to avoid arguments, and present balanced armies; bizarrely enough, some of the most badly written rules I’ve ever seen are in mainstream family boardgames – hence the traditional Boxing Day family argument about Cluedo or Monopoly.
A set of rules for gamers interested in recreating historical scenarios will be different – a battle may be unbalanced, for example, or there may be asymmetric victory conditions. Or the rules may reflect only a brief period of warfare to allow a closer examination of the specific requirements of that campaign.
For an audience that primarily consists of modellers and painters, simple rules allowing them to use their models without spending days memorizing a rulebook is often the key to a good game – certainly this is the kind of level I pitch my own game design at. But each type of gamer, with his or her own reasons for playing, is equally valid and can find games well suited to their needs.
A recurring theme throughout is this diversity of gamers and styles of gaming. In reality, if a gamer says he or she doesn’t like a specific game, it’s usually because the style of game doesn’t match his or her own interests within the hobby rather than it being a ‘bad’ game. (3)
In the same way that ‘miniatures gaming’ is an umbrella under which various types of player shelter, it’s also true of the style of games played:
• Some games are designed to be simulations, very in-depth and usually pretty complex. (4)
• Some games are designed to be true games rather than attempting realistic simulation.
These are first and foremost about having fun – often involving dice – rather than aiming to explore history or strategy in intricate detail.
• Most games sit somewhere between the two. (5)
It’s a very broad umbrella, encompassing many styles of play and levels of historical accuracy. Sadly, few helpful shorthand terms exist to describe gameplay. Perhaps the most used are ‘simulation’ and ‘beer and pretzels’ or ‘light’ games, but these mean different things to different people. (6)
Boardgames perhaps exemplify the variety of styles better than miniatures games do. At one end of the spectrum, there are extremely complex games with reams of rules that are very much simulation-based. Examples include 1970s-style hex and counter wargames. They generally rely little on luck (so dice rolls are a minor part of the game), but more on strategy. A late 1980s Avalon Hill game named Gulf Strike was actually used by the Pentagon to help plan the First Gulf War and the game’s designer was placed on the US military payroll – that’s the level of simulation boardgames can offer. (7) Kreigsspiel was a nineteenth century training tool for Prussian and German armies; first created in 1812 and played on scale maps, this game bears many of the hallmarks we’d associate with modern simulation games.
At the other end of the spectrum are what are usually termed ‘light’ boardgames. These have simple rules and the theme is usually tacked onto the mechanisms of gameplay – for example, Carcassonne involves players building a landscape broadly themed around the medieval French walled town of the same name, but the theme could easily be swapped for something different.
SIMULATION, LIGHTWEIGHT, OR IN-BETWEEN
A good example of an in-between game is Twilight Struggle, which has consistently been one of the most popular games available over the past decade. This game uses a world map and action cards reflecting real life Cold War events to replay the political and small-scale military action of the East and West post-WW2. The mechanisms of play are quite straightforward, but the game still does a good job of modelling the Cold War. Not to the extent where political planners could have used it in the manner of Gulf Strike, but certainly enough to immerse players in the theme. Most miniature wargames fall into this category, too – there’s enough detail present to make units and weapons perform differently and ‘feel right’, but they are still games played for enjoyment rather than as professional simulations.
And so what is the role of the game designer in making historical detail work alongside the mechanisms of game play? I’ll speak from my perspective, which is tilted towards ‘game’ rather than ‘simulation’ play.
You’ve probably already realized that there’s no set audience for ‘gaming’. As a designer, part of my job is to establish what style of game – simulation, lightweight, or in-between – I am going to create, and also to think about the audience: is this a game for competitive hardcore gamers, or more a set of guidelines to enable people to spend an evening rolling dice and chatting across a tabletop?
It’s a broad hobby, so you must choose and know your audience. The same applies for historians wishing to interact with the hobby – where on the spectrum are you looking to be involved?
HISTORY IN MINIATURE
My first involvement with miniatures gaming was to write articles for the hobby magazines that presented the up to date information I’d gathered as an archaeologist. At that time, especially for my main period of interest – the British post-Roman period – the historical data being used by gamers was 10 to 20 years behind current thinking. My first book was part wargame rules and part sourcebook, gathering all of the material I’d built up during my degree and presenting it for a wargaming audience. (8) That book was very popular with gamers interested in post-Roman warfare, and still gets referenced today, even though I’m aware of the irony that it is now itself nearly 20 years out of date. What this does show, though, is that if historical evidence can be presented in a way that gamers find helpful, there is definitely an audience for it.
With a few exceptions, all of my miniature wargames are based around periods of history that I’ve studied in detail over the years, so my background research has been done many times over before I start on the rules. For an unfamiliar period, my first step would still be to absorb as much relevant data as I could – but I’d need to put in months of research before starting to think about the rules I’d write.
My data comes from academic and popular histories, taught courses, specialized military history books, and for some games, movies too. A good example here is a set of colonial wargame rules I’ve recently had published (9) – I’d much prefer to play a game based on Hollywood’s version of colonial history with Bengal lancers, Zulu charges, and so on, rather than the rather more one-sided reality of actual colonial battle. I like my soldiers in red coats and full warpaint. So long as I’m up front about my influences and what I’m trying to recreate, I feel this is a valid approach – those wishing for a more ‘serious’ game will find rules better suited to them elsewhere.
I do this research so that I can make a list of the key elements and themes of warfare in that period – I want my rules to broadly reflect this summary. Even if the game itself plays simply, there would be no point pinning a historical setting onto rules if they bore no resemblance to war in that setting. So these key points inform the direction my rule writing will take, and ultimately give the game its historical flavour.
From my list of key points I start to think about the rules mechanisms I’ll use. This is informed partly by what’s practical to do in a tabletop game with model soldiers, what my target audience is, and what’s on the list of historical key points I’ve made. Once the key elements of my rules are in place, I start to backfill the rest of the game, to round it out and make it playable. The Holy Grail is to design a super simple set of rules that everyone can remember after playing for only a few minutes, that also accurately represents warfare in a given period. And that’s something that honest game designers will tell you is hard to get right.
A big consideration for me is what to leave out of a game. It’s actually fairly simple to write a set of rules, chucking in all the fancy mechanisms you can, along with long lists of tactical and psychological modifiers, and adding layer upon layer of detail. But that doesn’t often make for a good game. It doesn’t even guarantee a good simulation. There’s an art in non-simulation game design, and that art is getting the right balance between something people perceive as a ‘game’ in the traditional sense, and something that captures the essence of a historical period.
I try to present streamlined rules that reflect the key aspects of battle in a given period, rather than covering all eventualities or claiming to design an accurate simulation of war. My approach to the hobby is historically-themed fun. My games generally don’t intend to educate a player about history, but do attempt to give people who enjoy history a tangible outlet for their interest. Other designers seek to achieve different results, including using games as a tool to model historical outcomes – which is fine, but requires more in-depth rules than my games provide.
I generally use broad brushstrokes about warfare – I focus on command and morale more than the weapons used or armour worn, but again, different game designers emphasize differing aspects of battle. In my mind at all times is the idea of a ‘game’ – is what I’m creating fun to play? Is it sociable and does it promote interaction between players? Is it fairly balanced?
I also think about whether the rules have enough history in them. For me, there’s no point creating a Viking-era game – for example – which has no bearing on the period’s history, or that encourages players to use tactics from a different era. I assume there’s a reason the player decided to choose a Viking era game instead of a WW2 or Napoleonic game, for example. My guess is that they’re interested in the period’s history or weaponry to a greater or lesser extent. And as such, they’ll want to be able to recognize the gameplay as giving somewhat of a ‘Viking’ vibe.
So gaming should be informed by history, even if it doesn’t try to explain history. When I design a game, by using that list of historical key points I’ve drawn up, I’m able to make my rules mechanisms model the results or possibilities I’d expect. Because most games introduce an element of chance through dice rolling, there should be some possibility for unlikely events, but for example, if a unit of heavily-armoured, well trained infantry is fighting a smaller unit of less well-armoured and trained enemies, they should be expected to win on the majority of occasions. The outcome of a game should be based on historical precedent, but to be a good ‘game’, the outcomes cannot be too scripted or channel players down too narrow a path. Heavyweight simulations – those lying beyond hobby games and used as professional modelling tools – increasingly remove the element of chance, or use it in moderated form.
Debate swings back and forth in the hobby about what is historically accurate, and what is just ‘game play’. As I mentioned earlier, some gamers just want to collect miniatures, paint them, and game with them. Others wish to explore history in more detail, or prove a historical point. My personal view – and this is just a personal view – is that historical accuracy in gaming is mostly reverse-engineered: being based on what’s written in history books, the history they are ‘proving’ or ‘validating’ is based on modern thinking in the first place. Proving ‘why’ a battle evolved as it did, based on the findings of a tabletop game, doesn’t convince me beyond the very basics that could be deduced without playing a game. (10)
The closer in time a conflict was fought to the present day, the more accurate a simulation may be played, or at least the historical detail used may be more complete or rounded. Going back to Roman warfare, for example, much of our understanding is based on extremely limited sources, and a general understanding of military history as a whole. Some players care about this, others don’t – this goes back to my earlier point about the types of gamer and why they’re interested in gaming and history.
To me, so long as the game’s designer is clear about what they’re trying to achieve – a historical model of battle, a fun game played with historical miniatures, or whatever – that will help players to find the rules that are best matched to their requirement. From what I’ve seen in the hobby over the past few decades, there is always a group of gamers interested in what you have to share – you just need to find the right group.
A HOBBY WHERE HISTORY MATTERS
To wrap things up, I’d say that gaming is a hobby where history matters. It matters more to some gamers than others, but there can be very few people who play historical wargames and boardgames who don’t have even the most passing interest in the period behind their game. Some gamers play because they’re exploring history in a tangible way, others because it’s a theme to pin a game on. I’d suggest that exploring why people wish to game is the key to discovering the best way for historians to interact with the community. Ultimately, most gamers want ‘more’ historical knowledge – it’s just a case of working out what type of knowledge they want, and establishing their preferred balance between gaming and history.
1. I’m still surprised that the University of Edinburgh asked me to do the talk – I think it’s because the organizer very much likes Lion Rampant! I’m still always surprised when anyone has heard of my games.
2. The audience was generalist: a mixture of boardgamers, miniatures gamers, academic historians, and interested (as yet) non-gaming third parties. This speech was as much an introduction to gaming as to game design.
3. It’s fair to say that several of the audience disagreed that there are few bad games, judging by the murmuring at this point.
4. Simulation is used in this context to represent professional simulative modelling, way beyond the scope of most miniatures games. What miniature wargamers might describe as a ‘simulation’ in the context of our hobby is described in the third bullet.
5. As noted, most miniatures games fit in here in the wider context of gaming. But see also the next footnote.
6. This was proven later that evening, talking to a wargamer who had a very different interpretation of ‘simulation’ to me, considering many miniatures games to be simulations, despite my suggested definitions!
7. Interestingly this caused raised eyebrows in the audience and some nervous laughter. It wasn’t a joke.
8. Glutter of Ravens.
9. The Men Who Would Be Kings.
10. Many designers would disagree of course, hence my ‘personal view’; Professor Philip Sabin’s Lost Battles being one such example.