Playing with History

History has a tendency to not stay dead. In many countries, it is evident how issues of the past still shape the political landscape.

Although I’m not American, after the events in Charlottesville, after president Trump’s statements and after reading discussions in ACW forums, I felt sick with gaming the American Civil War for a moment.

What follows is my attempt at trying to clarify my own stance towards wargaming controversial subjects. Perhaps some of you might find those rather rambling thoughts interesting. If not, have no fear – normal service will be resumed shortly.

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I have to admit that I’m generally a rather squeamish player when it comes to periods that have an impact on current politics. I normally avoid WW2 games and only play them with people I trust, because the ideology of National Socialism is still alive in certain parts of Austrian society and I just couldn’t stand it to spend my evening with someone who downplays Nazi crimes.

Now, many people might say that ‘we’re just playing games’. This is, of course, true, if we mean that we shouldn’t take winning or losing too seriously, that no one gets hurt in our games and that we – fortunately! – miss the danger and the suffering experienced by the people we base our games upon.

However, it does not mean that those games have no meaning. Historical wargames always represents something. To say that ‘this is just a game’ misses the fact that we play a game with stories and symbols that still touch people. For example, SS units are not just elite assets on the tabletop, but they represent mass murderers, men who were willing accomplices of a genocidal regime. Swastikas are not just historical symbols, they are still used by political extremists.

As could lately be seen in Charlottesville, the same is true for Confederate symbols. There are people who would prefer to rewrite history and tell us that the Confederates were not racist at all, that it was not about slavery and that their cause was a noble one. This rightly enrages others whose ancestors have made a different experience and who themselves make different experiences each day of their lives. A half-way honest investigation of its history shows that the CSA was a nation based on the suppression of African-Americans, and to deny that is to not only deny the historical experience of slavery and racism, but also the fact that racial inequality still is an experience for many people today.

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This does not mean that we shouldn’t play with this history. But at least for me it means that we should do so respectfully – respectfully not only towards the men (and women) who fought and died in that conflict, but also towards the people who are touched by this history today. This, in turn, means having an open ear for their stories and concerns and not dismiss them by saying they are ‘easily offended’ or ‘politically correct’, or by using any other of those intellectually lazy phrases that signal nothing but an unwillingness to accept that there are other perspectives than ones own.

And before anyone says that this takes out all the fun – really, it’s not that hard to have fun without being a dick!

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By painting figures, writing scenarios and playing games we always tell stories, whether we intend to or not. But we also have it in hand to choose which story we want to tell. For my Civil War gaming, I do not want to repeat the trite and deluded narrative of the chivalrous South and its noble cause. Instead, I want to tell other stories and bring different actors into the foreground: The 1st South Carolina Volunteers, an African-American regiment, for instance.

Which does not mean that I won’t collect, paint or play with Confederate figures. But I will always remember what happened more than a 150 years ago and I won’t whitewash the conflict or downplay the issues that were at stake.

Review: Class Wargames

In 1977, the French artist, political activist and founder of the Situationist International, Guy Debord, published a game called The Game of War. The game was a derivative of chess insofar as it was played on a checkered board and managed without a random element. However, in setting the game in a specific period, namely horse-and-musket, and including a whole set of differentiated troop types, Debord incorporated elements of the then-popular board wargames. Nevertheless, the success of the game failed to materialize and while the political theories of Debord have influenced generations of leftist activists, his wargame has been sneered upon or ignored.

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The aim of the group Class Wargames and the book at hand – which, at the core, is a report of the group’s activities – is to explore what this game meant for Debord and what wargaming in general could mean for contemporary political activism. Class Wargames is a collective of leftist artists, academics and activists, many of them old-time wargamers like Richard Barbrook and Mark Copplestone. Since 2007, they stage wargames in galleries and at art festivals. Apart from Debord’s game, they have played a miniature wargame by Chris Peers set in the Russian Revolution, a couple of specially developed scenarios for Command&Colors: Napoleonics and games of H.G. Wells’ classic Little Wars.

The book is a sort of companion to these activities: It provides a history of Guy Debord’s Game of War and of the political left’s tradition of wargaming, it presents the story of Class Wargame’s own activities, it gives historical background to the battles fought and finally develops a theory of the function of wargaming for leftist politics.

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Class Wargames in action.

So what’s in there for the hobbyist wargamer? Readers interested in the history of wargaming will be fascinated to learn that there is a veritable tradition of leftist wargaming and of games and toy soldiers in art galleries, ranging from the early 20th century avant-garde to the 1960s penchant for performances and pop culture. The historical background to the games is interesting, albeit it won’t present much new to the historically keen gamer.

Where the book shines is in its numerous reflections. Barbrook continually explores the meaning of the games the group stages and draws attention to the narratives they produce. For example, in 2008 they staged a Russian Revolution game at the very place where an important moment of the Revolution happened, namely the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg. Using miniatures by Mark Copplestone, Reds vs. Reds presented a critical rereading of what has become the official Russian version of this history. Games such as this, Barbrook argues, can show that historical developments we take for granted were once fiercely disputed. Similarly, the Command & Colors scenario for the Haitian Revolution sheds light on an episode of the Napoleonic Wars that is often neglected. By making the insurgent slaves the heroes of the game’s story, it challenges our perspective on history.

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C&C: Napoleonics in the Haitian Revolution.

Even though I wouldn’t subscribe to all the theoretical analyses brought forward, I enjoyed the plethora of ideas and references. In fact, the only criticism I have is that Barbrook perhaps packs too much into the book’s 330 pages as I sometimes felt like losing the thread. On the other hand, the varied content also makes for fascinating discoveries. And it is never a dry read, as Barbrook succeeds in combining the thrill of intellectual curiosity with the joy of playing a wargame. Highly recommended if you fancy something out of the box.

This review was first published in Miniature Wargames with Battlegames 382.
A digital version of the book is available for free on the Class Wargames homepage.

Clearing out the Rebels – Sharp Practice AAR

At the moment, I’m playtesting a series of scenarios for Sharp Practice. My intent is to have them eventually published in some shape or form, but before this can happen, they have to be researched, written up and playtested. All of them depict historical actions of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, one of the first African-American regiments of the American Civil War.

The objective of this scenario was for the Union to clear out the Rebel pickets and burn huts so as to establish a defensive perimeter. K. played the Union, while I took the Confederates.

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The first two Union groups deployed in line at the center, no doubt intent on heading straight for the central building, which also served as the Confederate secondary deployment point. K. also sent a group of skirmishers to her far left flank. To counter the thread in the middle, I deployed two groups in line behind the fence so as to defend the house. Two other groups marched along the road at my left flank.

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I also sent both of my skirmishers to protect my right flank, where K.’s guys were running towards the house with spirits & tinder box. They managed to check the Union advance. However, K. then deployed her regimental chaplain, who rallied all the shock, bringing the skirmishers back into the game.

However, an even more dramatic turn happened on the other flank. K.’s second group of skirmishers worked their way around the flank of my second line of infantry, which was taking up position to blaze away at the Union center. I had to detach one group to chase away the pesky guys. At first, they duly fell back.

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However, before my guys could react, they turned around and charged them! The Rebels, who had unloaded muskets at the time, were pretty surprised – which must have been the reason for the disastrous result of the melee: The group lost by a margin of 4, fell back and broke, taking the Rebel commander with them.

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The lone Confederate group on the road was now in a bad spot. I made my biggest mistake by deciding to get them behind the fence in the center, were they could join the other Rebel leader. However, I somehow overlooked that to do this, they would cross the line of fire of a Union formation which had not yet fired a shot. A controlled volley later, and those Confederates were also running.

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The Union skirmishers were now free to advance towards the leftmost building and set it ablaze.

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There was still an intense firefight – with lots of smoke! – going on on my right flank, but K. was starting to divert one of her center groups to this action and my Force Morale was at 2 while hers was at 8, so I conceded.

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A very enjoyable game with some unexpected turns! This was actually the second version of the scenario. The first proved to be far too hard for the Union, but this was quite balanced. It’s never easy as the attacker in Sharp Practice, especially if there are objectives to be fulfilled. But we both agreed that the scenario offered plenty of options how to attack and how to set up a defense.

Review: The Cousins’ War

When this game was mentioned on the Meeples & Miniatures podcast, I immediately pricked up my ears. I’ve been interested in the Wars of the Roses for a long time and I like innovative games that can be played in a short time. The Cousins’ War, published by Surprise Stare Games, promises just that at a rather low price.

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The game comes in a sturdy and small cardboard box. In fact, the box easily fits into my bag, making this a perfect game for travel and holidays. Nevertheless, the production value is high: The board is made of very sturdy cardboard and the gaming pieces are made of wood. You also get a deck of cards and three dice.

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The game has a built-in turn limit: It will end after turn 5. The objective is to control all areas of England, or, when the turn limit is reached, to control more areas than your opponent. This is done by placing wooden cubes, which can be moved by playing action cards. Each turn, there is also a battle, the winner being allowed to place his surviving cubes onto the board.

Battles are resolved by a clever bluffing mechanics which introduces suspicion and second-guessing – very thematic for a war in which commanders did occasionally change sides right on the battlefield.

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Action cards can be played for the specific action that is stated on them or for their Command Points, which enables the player to do different things, such as move his or her cubes to the battlefield or to a region of the board, or even to try to remove the opponents cubes.

Action cards also have secondary actions which may benefit your opponent, so it is important to watch which card to play at which moment. A surprisingly large number of actions and combinations of actions are possible. This enables strategic planning, but also introduces an element of uncertainty and even chaos, because the other player will do something completely unexpected. Again, all this makes the game very thematic – the Wars of the Roses were full of surprising turns and double-crossing.

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Normally, K. doesn’t like bluffing, but in this game, it is only a small part and it feels right. We are both not used to it, though, so lots of grinning and giggling ensued. We both enjoyed our first game very much. The nasty Lancasterians won after turn 2, but I’m looking forward to a rematch.

Highly recommended if you fancy a quick and portable game that nevertheless has a strong theme and feels like you are playing out an epic conflict.