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.
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Time Machine

When I was about 10 years old, I discovered a curious book in my local bookstore. It had a mean looking dinosaur on the front cover, which I immediately identified as a Tyrannosaurus Rex – I was that kind of kid (mind you, that was way before Jurassic Park, when liking dinosaurs was still the mark of being a colossal nerd). I got excited because the book looked like it was a story – not just a popular science volume – revolving around dinosaurs. My excitement grew when I found out that I could influence the story by taking decisions at certain key moments! I bought the book, headed home and finished my first game book that same day.

For some reasons, I never read many game books and the big titles like Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy never caught my eye – perhaps because I wasn’t really into fantasy at the time, being more a sci-fi kind of guy, or perhaps because the bookshops I frequented didn’t carry them. However, I did read several volumes of a series called Time Machine, translated as Merlins Zeitmaschine into German. Search for Dinosaurs (Im Land der Ungeheuer) was the second book of the series. The premise was that you were a time traveller looking for proof that birds evolved from dinosaurs by finding and observing an Archaeopteryx. I liked the concept of a game book and enjoyed the story very much. There was even a clever meta episode hidden somewhere: You can meet another time traveller and accidentally accompany him jumping into the present – where you end up in a bookstore, as the other guy hadn’t bought his book! The clerk makes you pay for the book again and throws you out, so you have to start all over again.

I later bought all the other volumes of the series that were available in German. There was a medieval one, one with Samurai and one taking place in the age of pirates. And then there was this:

The cover is a bit wacky, with the sinister looking Rebel and his strangely positioned tiny cannon, but this is the book that sparked my interest in the American Civil War. However, despite the title, most of the story of Civil War Secret Agent (Spion im Bürgerkrieg) actually takes place a bit earlier. Your mission is to investigate the fate of a slave named Thomas Dean. You have to join the Underground Railroad and meet Harriet Tubman to achieve that goal. In between, you also visit several key events of the Civil War.

When I recently re-read the book, I was surprised about how much it teaches about slavery, abolitionism and the Civil War. There’s none of that revisionist Neo-Confederate nonsense in there. Telling the story from the perspectives of the fugitive slaves make it abundantly clear that slavery was at the core of the war, that the South was a society based upon that institution and that there was nothing noble about the Confederate cause.

However, at the time, what really stayed in my memory was this image:

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It’s the battle of Hampton Roads! In the book you end up on the USS Minnesota and witness the fight between the Monitor and the Virginia. I remember gazing at the image, fascinated by the strange shape of the ships. When I had finished the book, I immediately got a popular history book on the American Civil War from my library.

The Time Machine books were a key contribution in establishing my love of history. Even more, they also laid the foundation for my love of role-playing games and perhaps even for wargames.

Several of the Time Machine series of books are available in English as pdfs from ANNARCHIVE

Currently Reading

Summer’s coming, we’re getting settled in the new house and the whole family is working in the garden. What better time to bury oneself in books?

I’ve decided to start a small new project I’ve been thinking about for a long time now: The French and Indian War. Several of my wargaming chums have started collecting and painting FIW miniatures for Sharp Practice and, what’s even better, they are doing it in 15mm! How could I resist? So, apart from getting a couple of the nice Blue Moon figures, I bought Empires at War by William Fowler.

Fowler

Fowler aptly gives an overview of the conflict, setting it firmly into the context of European power politics while still dealing fairly detailed with the actions in North America and Canada. He outlines the quarrels between the different colonies, the role of Native Americans and even the impact of events in Europe, the Caribbean and in India. There are moments when his style almost becomes ironical, but considering some of the whimsical events of the war one can easily understand the temptation and it makes for an entertaining read. Highly recommended if you want a first overview of the FIW.

My main reading diet is still the American Civil War. Having recently finished Noah Trudeau’s excellent book on Gettysburg, I looked for other titles from the author. Trudeau writes very well, he builds up a narrative and tension without getting carried away by his subject. In Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, he manages to tell an engaging story while still keeping an analytical distance – not something that can be said from all authors writing on battles in the ACW…

 

Trudeau has written a couple of other books, all of which look interesting and most of which can easily be found at second-hand booksellers. I’m now finishing Out of The Storm, an account of the last weeks of the Civil War. Starting with a fairly detailed retelling of the events that lead to Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Court House, he presents several episodes, among them famous events such as Lincoln’s assassination and the capture of John Wilkes Booth as well as less famous but equally dramatic affairs like the sinking of the steamboat Sultana. The book is a bit episodical as there is no real overarching story. However, Trudeau manages to capture the atmosphere of an epoch ending very well, not the least because he is very apt at chosing quotes from contemporary sources – something he also showed in Gettysburg. I’ve already ordered his book on black soldiers in the Civil War.

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In contrast, Earl Hess’ new study Civil War Infantry Tactics looks like a rather dry and scholarly affair. I haven’t had chance to read it yet, but my cursory browsing nevertheless left me looking forward to delving into it. Being very much interested in how small units operated, I hope to finally learn all about the intricacies of infantry drill and formations.

I read most of my science fiction books on my e-book reader. Sometimes, however, I’m in the mood for a ‘real’ book. A trip down to the bookstore got me Andrew Bannister’s debut novel Creation Machine. Although I follow forthcoming sci-fi books on the excellent tor.com blog, this one seems to have escaped my attention. At the moment, I’m about two-thirds through and like it very much. The world-building is great, with some grand and at the same time whimsical ideas, and the main protagonist is engaging.

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The evil guys may be a bit too much over the top for my taste, but the story is developing nicely and I’m curious to find out what’s going on with the strange setting. In some of its ideas and in the general approach, it reminds me a bit of Charles Stross’ early space operas, which for me are still among the most imaginative of the genre. Highly recommended if you fancy a sci-fi adventure with an original background.

Review: Zones of Control

Zones of Control. Perspectives on Wargaming is an ambitious 800-pages volume published last year by MIT Press. It is a collection of 60 essays by a great variety of authors which covers a lot of ground. Hobby and professional wargames, board games, military simulations, computer games and miniature games are all discussed. Articles from designers are paired with articles by historians and people from the humanities who investigate the cultural impact of such games.

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Coming myself from the humanities, I found those articles the most fascinating. The historical overview on the development of hobby wargames by Jon Peterson is an excellent read. Bill McDonald’s vindication of Toby’s garden wargames as described in the novel Tristram Shandy is great fun, while Ian Sturrock’s and James Wallis’ short history of Games Workshop is quite enlightening. Unfortunately, it’s also the only text dealing explicitly with miniature wargames.

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Cpt. Toby Shandy, the original wargamer!

I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that the book’s emphasis definitely lies on board wargames of the hex-and-counter variety – not something I’m particularly interested in. Most of the designers’ texts are by people working in that area and many of the scholarly articles also cover them. This leads to a bit of tunnel vision, as the development of board wargames is treated as a pretty closed tradition. I’m sceptical about the claim that the concept of the ‘scenario’ (in contrast to ‘monographic’ games dealing with one specific battle) was invented by Avalon Hill in 1970 – the idea that rules are ‘War Engines’ which can be applied to different situations has been a part of miniature wargames since H.G. Wells’ Little Wars.

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Not really my cup of tea…

The book gives the impression that the most important innovations happen in board wargames design. However, while there is a lot of discussion about combat mechanics and Combat Resolution Tables, there is not that much on command and control. Concepts such as friction, which have become central in miniature wargames, are barely mentioned. It would have been nice to read a contribution by, say, Richard Clarke of TooFatLardies and get some discussion of innovative rules design in miniature wargames.

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C&C, Lardies style.

Still, due to the sheer amount of information in it, reading and browsing through Zones of Control is a rewarding experience. It’s fascinating to get so many different perspectives on wargaming and there are lots of surprising and inspiring discoveries to be made. Also, I felt like I could glimpse something like a big picture in the end. One thing I found especially interesting is the repeatedly uttered observation that there is a “strong manual and tabletop ethos” in wargaming – even in professional wargaming. Several authors stress that despite the availability of computers, tabletop games offer many advantages. One of the most important is that they are not black boxes: Design choices are immediately visible and can be discussed while rules can be changed and tinkered with – and all this without spending lots of time and money on employing programmers. The tenor of the book is that tabletop wargames still have a future – something I find rather encouraging.