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.
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.
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.
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.