I fought the Milanese and the Milanese won

I don’t usually write about gaming on this blog, seeing as how I have a whole other blog for just that purpose. When history and gaming interact, however, I do post about it here. And they interacted for me this past weekend, when I went to the UK’s largest miniature wargaming convention, Salute.

In addition to all the shopping and chatting to friends, I spent much of my time playing a game of Lion Rampant, a medieval wargame. We were refighting the Battle of Lodi Vecchio, a 1239 clash between Milanese crusaders and the inhabitants of the town of Lodi, backed by the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. You can read a blog about the game’s development here.

The game was only part of a larger project being run out of the University of Edinburgh about gaming and history. They hosted a roundtable discussion last year, which got a write-up in Wargames Illustrated. You can read about that here.

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This is a topic that comes up a lot — lots of historians are gamers, after all, and plenty of gamers are history buffs — and I think it’s interesting to see it explored. A lot of people think of gaming and history as sort of … putting some sugar on top of boring old history to get dumb kids interested in it, which I think a) doesn’t work, b) is kind of insulting and c) assumes that one part of the equation is the most important.

On the other hand, it clearly sort of works. Every year in my history class, I get one kid who is surprisingly knowledgeable about the military history of the ancient world. The first time this happened, I thought it was just weird but when it happened twice I realised that the kids were just big Total War fans. And although they get some funny ideas, they are genuinely pretty well-informed, so clearly something is working.

The other question that gets asked is whether we can use gaming to learn something about history, and here I’m a little more skeptical. Ultimately, simulations encode assumptions about reality, from kriegspiel to its digital descendants. The ideas is to teach people practical skills based on your real-world knowledge. But I don’t know how you take that and turn it into a research tool — creating the terms of the simulation requires provisional answers to the very questions you’re asking. I suppose you could just run a bunch of simulations with different assumptions and see how they come out differently, but even then I have some gut reservations about games as simulations.

I do actually use a simplified wargame in one of my history classes, but I’ve never used miniatures in it, if only because it would be a pain to transport them from class to class and I wouldn’t really have a place to put the map in one of my classrooms. Perhaps that will be different in the coming year? I would just need to paint some Turks and Egyptians.

Maybe.

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I fought the Milanese and the Milanese won

Historical simulation is weird; alt-historical doubly so

I do not have an opinion on this topic; I’m just thinking out loud here. I don’t have a solid view about how wargamers think about history, or even how I do in this context.

As will be no secret to anyone that knows me, I am a wargamer, albeit more of a prepare-to-wargamer. I paint little metal and plastic models, I build little scenery for their battles, etc. In short, I’m not at all cool, but then if you thought I was:

  • Thank you, but
  • you really haven’t been paying attention so far.

Anyway, so. On the one hand, I have lots of little orcs and ogres and mutants and Cthulhu monsters and so on, but it’s not them I want to talk about today. It’s more, as befits the blog, historical models. Like these guys:

Imex Vikings

 

I seem in particular to have quite a lot of vikings: I have viking armies in 6mm, 15mm, 1/72 and 28mm scales. That is quite a lot.

But I have also played various Late Roman dudes, Crusaders, and occasionally some WWII Brits and Americans.

But playing a game about Vietnam would really creep me out. Or a game about modern-day Afghanistan. I mean, people play them and that’s fine; our creep lines are all in different place. But they would creep me out.

Now, I’m under no illusion about the Viking Age being somehow nicer than Vietnam or whatever. This is just another case of the pirate thing.

(My pitch for this series is that these guys steal a boat and they go around robbing people. And if the people turn out to be Catholics they torture them. No, no, it’s cool, they have cool hats.)

But somehow it’s weird and I don’t like the idea of playing in those conflicts.

Now, this turns very interesting when you get into alternative history. Consider if you will the case of 1938: A Very British Civil War.

Now, this is a series of system-agnostic sourcebooks that posit the abdication crisis erupting into a full-on civil war in Britain, with the anti-Edward Anglican League clashing with the BUF and then various worker’s militias and so on also piling in. It’s interesting to see how people interpret this. For some people, the situation is played as farcical, with the Anglican League being uptight English stereotypes and the BUF resembling Roderick Spode’s blackshorts:

Now, you could say that in one way this represents its own bias: an English Civil War in the 1930s is inherently funny; that stuff happens elsewhere.

But there are some other ones where the scenarios are played a little bit more straight, and these have engendered controversy of their own. For instance, I once read a scenario in which the BUF were raiding a neighbourhood, with their intention being to round up all the minorities and other social undesirables and march them off to the camps. People were very weirded out by that, and I’m not sure I’d want to play that side in a game. And it’s not that I like to play good guys in general — I play bad guys in a lot of games.

So why is that so weird? Is it because it’s closer to home? Many people base their VBCW campaigns in and around the places they actually live, so that could be it? It’s not because it’s something that really happened, which is why people usually explain why they don’t like playing the Nazis but they don’t mind playing worshippers of Khorne the Blood God.

I don’t know. But I think it’s an interesting thing.

Mind you, I love the VBCW concept, and I love the amazing work people do in building their armies. My personal preference would lie on the farcical side of things, but I think it could be a lot of fun to play. Might do it in 1/72, though. Cheaper.

If you want to see more images of, and writeups of, people’s games, you should look at the relevant Lead Adventure forum. 

 

Historical simulation is weird; alt-historical doubly so