Monday 23 October 2023

You say po-tay-toe and I say po-tah-toe...

 Wargaming isn't a single hobby.

You could launch many different articles from that one sentence.  It would be easy to show the many disparate elements - figure painting, research, rules design etc etc.  You could easily differentiate between recreational wargaming and professional wargaming for study of real-world conflicts and strategic planning... but let's assume since I mentioned it as a hobby, we're purely focussed on the recreational side.

One point of differentiation that people often fall back on is the difference between Historical and... let's call it Fantastical wargaming, so as to allow for both sword & sorcery and science fiction.  That's... almost what I'm talking about, but not quite.  If you talk about Modern and Old School wargaming, you're equally close, but coming around from another direction.

I tend to think of it as the Commercial hobby and the Independent hobby.

I'm of an age where my introduction to the concept of playing with toy soldiers using rules and dice came from the golden age old guard of post WW2 gamers whose books crept their way onto the local library shelves.  My "first" was "Battle: Practical Wargaming" by Charles Grant (no initial) found on the children's library shelf, but having devoured that starter and hungering for more I'd soon gotten permission from a sympathetic librarian to venture into the big, scary Grown Ups (tm) library where I found and quickly devoured a treasure trove of Featherstone, Wise, and Lawford & Young.   This was a hobby of folks who put together their own games by repurposing toy or model soldiers (and vehicles) and wrote their own rules. For years this was the hobby for me, albeit one viewed from afar in isolation.

When as a teenager I finally discovered the existence of my local wargames club and connected with the wargaming world as it was (rather than my rose-tinted vision of it from books written in the 60s and 70s), wargaming was on the cusp of a change.  The biggest companies producing wargame material were at the cottage industry level at most, with most still being 1 or 2 person operations.  The closest thing to an 800lb gorilla in the UK marketplace was Wargames Research Group, whose 6th Edition ancients rules along with their contemporary Horse & Musket and Modern rulesets were the de-facto standards at the club.

To be honest, I didn't adapt well to this new paradigm.  Mr Barkers rules with their endless tables and calculations seemed a world away from the older rules in those hardback library books.  My heart still belonged to those old Independent wargamers.

But every couple of meetings, these two guys would show up with a bunch of elves and orcs and play Warhammer. 2nd Edition Warhammer Fantasy Battles as it was then.  While I felt more at home with the way that game seemed to play compared to WRG 6th, ironically it would bring about the birth of the Commercial wargame hobby, that would leave me feeling more estranged than ever.

So we all know what happened, Games Workshop exploded in popularity, largely on the back of the science-fantasy game Warhammer 40k.  Production quality shot through the roof, with full colour hardback rulebooks replacing typeset foldover A5 bookets with the ubiquitous coloured card reference sheet.  They also introduced the commercial concept of producing a range of figures hand in hand with a ruleset.  For a while you could reasonably consider the "Games Workshop Hobby" as constituting 99.99% of the Fantastical wargaming hobby, as compared to the Historical wargaming hobby, but that would soon blur.  Games like Flames of War, the Warhammer Historicals and Bolt Action would start applying the GW commercial model to historical periods, with high production glossy rulebooks and multiple supplemts for different armies and theatres of war.  To anyone coming to the hobby this century, *this* is what wargaming was, invented by Games Workshop with the advent of Warhammer 40k 4th edition.  Before there was nothing but a fuzzy prehistory... something about H.G. Wells wasn't it?

Today we have the Commercial wargame hobby as the default. A wargame is produced, usually with an accompanying range of figures which if the company is particularly grabby will be a slightly different scale to the last game covering the same subject so you have to buy new figures for it.  It will have a lifecycle, being heavily promoted initially, having a series of supplemental releases over a fixed period of time until either sales start to waver or the game runs out of subject matter to cover, at which point it will be quietly dropped and become a "dead game" that for some reason nobody wants to play.  If you're lucky it might get a 2nd edition but otherwise it'll be onto the new hot game and either way the whole  cycle starts again.

Luckily we still have a streak of independence keeping the other hobby alive.  From those wacky boffins at Wargames Developments with their cardboard box tanks and their "What if we modelled the Fall of the Roman Empire using tiddleywinks as the primary mechanic?" games... to the growing trend for miniatures agnostic small-press games. Look at the meteoric success of One Page Rules, who started off on the very shaky legal ground of One Page 40k, a homebrew streamlined reimagining of that game.  Now they have better legal advice, a range of miniatures agnostic games with their own original settings and figures (even if most will want to use them with existing 40k figure collections)

My heart still belongs unapologetically to the Independent wargaming hobby. And with the advent of 3d printing, we can become our own figure manufacturers, just like those old veterans in the 60s and 70s casting their own lead figures in rubber molds. 

At the very least we're in a new Guilded-age of the Indie wargaming hobby.  And I'm here for it.

(Note: I had been planning to discuss the rules I've been looking at and the games I'm interested in playing, but what started out as a necessary introduction turned into a longer philosophical piece I had to get off my chest. Maybe next time.)


  1. A very interesting post and one I can't argue with, pretty much agree with everything in it. I find myself increasingly looking at old rule sets and old figures as a lot of new stuff leaves me cold. This hobby is a very wide one with something for everyone, which is a very good thing and one I totally embrace, we are as you say in the Guilded-age, which is something to be thankful for.

    1. I think it's possible to have the best of all worlds, if you approach it with the right mindset. Take the best bits the Commercial hobby has given us, mix in some of the great indie modern game design and own your own hobby the way those Old School gamers did. I'm planning to discuss how I see myself doing that in the next post.