When browsing a glossy wargames magazine lately, I was reminded of a term coined by the science fiction author John Scalzi: the Flying Snowman. It refers to a detail of a science fiction or fantasy movie that you are unwilling to accept. His example was from the Lord of the Rings movies: You may be perfectly happy with orcs, large spiders, talking trees and magical rings. But when a character is depicted as slowly sinking into a pool of lava, you are suddenly bewildered: “What the… That’s not possible! Lava is nothing like water! You don’t sink in lava, you are immediately incinerated! That’s all wrong!”. Of course, the detail you object to has more to do with your own background and willingness to be immersed in a fictional world than with any ‘objective’ criteria for truthfulness – after all, a movie is not a faithful depiction of the world but a fiction aimed at entertaining.
So what could be the Flying Snowman of wargaming? Of course, it will be different for everyone. For me, it is a low number of figures representing a unit when wargaming big battles. That was what struck me when browsing the magazine: I looked at what was supposed to be an epic battle and saw a brawl.
But why was this the specific thing that bugged me? After all, there are lots of abstractions I easily accept. As I have stated elsewhere, I play on a felt mat, which many gamers consider rather tasteless. My terrain does not evoke the trompe l’oeil-effect of a high-end railway layout. I actually like markers and stuff and use them instead of casualty figures. Also, I am not that much into ‘realism’, prefering a quick and fun game over a cumbersome simulation. So why do small units bother me?
I think it boils down to what, for me, left the biggest impression when reading about medieval warfare. In Verbruggen’s masterly The Art of Warfare in Western Europe During the Middle Ages, there are numerous citations from sources which describe the preparation of a knightly charge in considerable detail. The one thing that struck me was the number of men and horses involved in such an attack and the impression it must have made on onlookers. This is something that is beyond our own experience. It is almost impossible to simulate in real life. Reenactements, while sometimes looking quite impressive, have the same problems as wargamers in using small numbers of people for their units. I once saw a BBC documentary on the Battle of Hastings that tried to simulate what it would feel to receive a charge by Norman knights. The presenter stood on a field while a dozen horses charged at him at full gallop. Now, I guess that must have been a scary experience and I certainly would have been frightened like hell. But I think it has not much in common with a charge by medieval knights. Most likely, they would not come at you at a full gallop, but rather slowly compared to what was seen on TV. However, there would be not a dozen, but several hundreds of them, packed tightly, all in heavy armour and brandishing lances. It was probably not so much the dashing speed of the approaching horses but their sheer mass that made foot soldiers prone to break and run away.
This is one of the reasons why I am not really interested in doing big battles in 28mm (I happily play very small skirmishes, such as the Ganesha Games rules cater to). Sure, the figures look great and when painted by someone who knows their business they are quite a sight to behold. But unless you have a huge collection of miniatures and a very large table, you end up with a unit being represented by something that looks like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. For medium to large skirmishes, I am very happy to use 15mm. And I probably will stick with skimishes for the time being – the tactical dynamics they offer, the opportunity to use lots of terrain and the incentive to play narrative scenarios all appeal highly to me.
However, should I ever delve into large scale battles, I strongly suspect I would do it in 6mm. I can only recommend the homepage of Peter Berry of Baccus miniatures, which contains a visually striking comparison between a phalanx in 28mm and one in 6mm. His arguments have pretty much convinced me that, if I ever feel the desire to start a project on large battles, I would try 6mm. It allows for a mass effect that is only achievable in 28mm if one has substantial amounts of time, space and money. (But then, I might compromise with 15mm because I am terrified by the prospect of building (and storing!) another set of terrain…).
My point is not to denigrate other people’s ways of gaming. Far from it! Rather, I want to scrutinise my personal idiosyncracies. Call me old school, but if there is anything that arouses my irritation, it is not shabby terrain or wrong uniforms. It’s a small number of models representing a huge unit. Of course this is a highly subjective irritation based on what excites my imagination when reading about medieval warfare. There is nothing inherently right or wrong with that, and I am sure everyone has his or her own Flying Snowman. So what’s yours, and why this and not something else?