Saturday, 6 April 2013

Infidel! - My Somewhat Rambling Fascination with Historical Wargames (Part 1)

So we find ourselves looking over the crusader camp at the Battle of Dorylaeum, with the massive Seljuk Turk army just visible in the distance. At least this is a quick photo I snapped of the Dorylaeum scenario from GMT's Infidel boardgame. It's the second in their Men of Iron series, this one focusing clearly on the huge cavalry battles of the early Crusades. Whilst I have the pikemen on display here, they tend to be a little..squishy in battle, this is really all about the mounted units and their movement.

It's currently set up on the desk in our bedroom much to my wife's dismay, but I'm taking my time playing it solitaire and trying to absorb the rules, and it really does work for me as something to dip into now and again when I have the time. It's also quite brilliant, and as a good example of why I enjoy historical wargames I thought it would serve as a nice little introductory post about my fascination with this area of gaming.

So why do I play these games? It's certainly not for the shiny components, the one above is a pretty good example of the genre but even this one consists mostly of small cardboard counters and a paper map. You can't really see it in the picture, but the perspex from a poster frame is covering the map, just to make it playable. Things are definitely improving all the time, but for gamers into massive heavy boxes full of intricate plastic miniatures, then these board wargames really don't compare.

It isn't for the cost either. It's not like they are hugely less expensive for not having those mountains of plastic or wood. Actually thinking about it, almost all of my most expensive games are wargames. I think that's largely down to it being a niche within a niche, small print runs, and the added cost of all the shipping given there aren't many companies producing them in the UK.

So why then? Well it all started, for me at least, with...

Solitaire play - When I first got back into boardgames this was almost a necessity, I hadn't yet found a local group, and I lived a fair way from any of the people I had gamed with before. More than that though I enjoy it, always have done, sometimes I read a book, sometimes watch a film or some TV, sometimes it's a game on the  PC or console, but if I'm in the mood I really enjoy sitting down with a board or card game. So in my hunt for good solo boardgames, a lot of the recommendations were for wargames. Whilst there are many great "designed for solitaire" wargames, I also discovered that many wargamers will solo games not designed for one player, playing each side to the best of their ability just to enjoy the process and see how it all played out. I'd found my people. :)

One of the big draws for me when playing solitaire, is the ability to take time, and really study the...

Complexity - Now this doesn't necessarily mean the rules have to be complex, though that is something I enjoy, and it is something you would need to get used to if you were to explore the world of historical boardgames. Sure, many of the rulesets are more complex than your average boardgame, they are after all modelling complex situations, and even when abstracted there can still be a lot going on. It's also the emergent complexity I'm interested in though, the idea of a relatively small set of rules producing a complex simulation. This ties back to some of the academic work that interested me most, and I find the whole "cardboard machine" idea fascinating to peer at. Then there is the simple satisfaction of learning a new set of rules, I enjoy the process which seems bizarre given how much I avoided it during my academic years.

Another side of the learning that goes hand in hand with these games is the...

History - I've always been fairly science focussed when it came to education, hence my fascination with the mechanics and modelling aspects, but my interest in these games has opened up an interest in the history that they portray. I've read so many more books, and articles on history since getting into wargames than I ever have before. There is something very satisfying for me about playing a game, and also reading around that subject, though that tends to lead me off in different directions reading more history. The end result however is that I know far more about the world, and some of the conflicts that have shaped it than I ever did, and that's all from playing some games.

It's partly the rich history that creates a great....

Narrative - I do like a good story, and I particularly enjoy a solitaire game if it creates an interesting story. Wargames are very good for this, there is so much going on you can't help but get caught up in the story. This ties in with the above part about history, where you read about these great battles, and then watch them played out before you with the ability to try different approaches. Infidel is a great example with this constantly moving battlefield with charges and counter charges and reaction fire turning these beautiful lines and formations into chaos before they regroup for the next clash. Some of my favourite though are the squad based tactical games, which often play out like scenes from a great war movie.

...and at that point I think I'm going to break. Lets call this part one, as I'm in danger of rambling for far too long and I still have more ideas milling around. I'll pick up where I left off in part two.

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