Monday, 11 July 2016

It's all fantasy!!!

On various internet forums, there's with regular intervals a discussion about the nature of fantasy wargaming. Usually the discussion starts with someone asking "What's fantasy wargaming exactly?". Then, invariably, the discussion veers off towards the following statements, also usually in this order:
  • Fantasy is D&D!
  • Fantasy has dragons and wizards!
  • Fantasy is ancients with magic!
  • Fantasy is ancients as the ancients themselves believed the world to be!
  • Romans vs Aztecs is fantasy as well! (I blame DBA :-) )
  • Actually, any non-historical army list is fantasy!
  • If you invent your own orders of battle, it's fantasy!
  • Any "what-if scenario" is fantasy!
  • Operation Sea Lion is fantasy!
  • Any battle that did not take place in history is fantasy!
  • Since we are playing with toy soldiers, it's all fantasy!
  • We are all playing fantasy!
  • "I'm not!"
I always get very tired of this type of discussion, and I say that as a wargamer who does both like historical and fantasy wargaming. The latest reiteration of these arguments came in one of the columns of my favourite wargaming magazine (Miniature Wargames with Battlegames #399), and I was a bit taken aback. Not because of the particular author or column in question, but because it always seems as if fantasy wargamers still have to defend themselves against the idea of not being "real wargamers".

Let me explain:
  1. Although I do understand people could be confused about the nature of fantasy wargaming when it gained popularity several decades ago, should we not all know by know that the "fantasy" in wargaming has the same meaning as the "fantasy" in "fantasy literature". To quote from Wikipedia:
    Fantasy is a genre of fiction that uses magic or other supernatural elements as a main plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common.
    Yet, many wargamers bend the discussion about fantasy often in the direction of a different meaning of fantasy, indicating anything that has not actually happened (see bullet list above). This is always weird - as if people do not know fantasy wargaming is based on an established literary genre. It's difficult for me to believe wargamers do not know that difference. Actually, I do think they do know, but enjoy bending the meaning to make some sort of point and cause confusion. Sci-fi wargaming, btw, does not suffer from this.
  2. Fantasy wargaming has been a genre in wargaming since at least the 70s with rules and figures based on Tolkien's Middle Earth - although Tony Bath fought his games back in the 50s in the imaginary continent of Hyboria, based on the Conan universe. Perhaps Bath's wargaming was not fantasy as we know it today (we would call it imaginations these days), but anyway, it's not as if fantasy wargaming is the new kid on the block. Why does fantasy wargaming still evoke such emotions? Isn't it an established genre by now?
  3. Fantasy wargaming became big in the 80s (Warhammer!), and many wargamers of my generation (I'm turning 50 later this year) have enjoyed fantasy wargaming tremendously as youngsters. Actually, I still like playing fantasy games, although I heve evolved beyond Warhammer. Fantasy wargaming is part of the DNA of many, by now "older" wargamers, and the Oldhammer phenomenon clearly illustrates this. I am therefore still surprised there is a faction of gamers that still want to question the validity of fantasy wargaming as being "real" wargaming.
  4.  Usually, the sentiment is raised by historical gamers whose games are firmly rooted in historical research, and base their games on a methodological approach about the period in question. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that - I have done this myself for some of my favourite periods - but it is by itself not the "one and only true" approach to wargaming as many want others to believe. This particular brand of wargaming also only came to the foreground in the 70s. If you read the wargaming literature of the 60s, you see quite some liberal interpretation of history as well. Look at the writings by Grant and Featherstone. Although their wargaming is inspired by history, it does not try to replicate history. Grant is famous for his 18th century imaginations, and Featherstone was the one who condemned the "Staff and Command Boys" in War Game Digest in 1962, arguing against an "aura of pseudo-science of what is a pastime" (look it up - you can find info about this debate online!).
  5. Although one's motivation might be different to play with toy soldiers (historical research vs exploring an imaginary universe), the end result is surprisingly the same: same props, same rules, same army lists, ... This is of course not surprising since much of fantasy literature is based on (often medieval) history. But - and this is not unimportant - the enjoyment or fun one gets out of it might be different. One wargamer enjoys seeing an historical plausible military encounter developing on his table (and perhaps gaining some insights in militory history), while the other enjoys seeing a military encounter in an imaginary world coming to live on his table (and perhaps gaining some insights in the fictional universe). Hmmm, perhaps not so different after all?
  6. Many wargamers do not limit themselves to pure historical or pure fantasy. Almost every wargamer I know plays - or has played - various genres next to each other, and this even extrapolates to other gaming hobbies such as roleplaying games or card games or computer games ... So, if people switch with ease between different spectra of gaming, why insist on hard divides?
My take? In essence, I don't think there is much difference between various wargaming genres, since they have much more in common than they are different. I see gamers playing with toy soldiers rolling dice. And although the motivation to play a game might be different, that doesn't make it a different hobby.

Me playing a game of Warhammer - one of my earliest wargaming photos, probably late eighties. As a historical gamer, fantasy wargaming is a significant part of my gaming DNA.


  1. Interesting take there Phil- Some of which I agree with- quite a lot actually and some I don't. Motivation is all important. By your analogy Monopoly is a game similar to risk- they are both on a board and roll dice. Yet I'd play neither by choice Likewise most fantasy games- there is simply no motivation to play.
    However I see no reason why Fantasy gamers have to justify or defend themselves but then neither should anyone be denigrated for putting in the Historical research if he chooses to do so.
    There is now an element in all of society(and not merely our tiny corner of it) which denigrates any kind of intellectual effort so it is hardly surprising that it happens within our ranks

    1. Andy,
      You're absolutely right about being denigrating, there's no reason to. However, as for miniature wargaming, I do think the form (i.e. miniatures on a gaming table) is unique in the gaming spectrum, and so the similarities between several subgenres are much bugger than the differences. That doesn't mean everyone should prefer to play any given game, but it also doesn't make the different subgenres different hobbies.

    2. I see what you mean about form and commonality as all form arose from the same root but it is also about application and use of that form. All cars come from the same root but I KNOW a a 1970 VW beetle perForms and functions very differently from an Astom Martin DB9.
      I'm not saying that there are not similarities because they are obvious but the accent is very different -even in parts of the same genre let alone between different genres.
      Speaking personally I simply can't take fantasy remotely seriously- possibly becasue I'm primarily a games player. Ideed I have difficulty taking the games in any genre completely seriously- hence the daft joke on my blog BUT I do take the history and "non-dice -rolling bits a little more seriously but that just me....

    3. What probably isn't entriely clear from my original post (I should write an addendum :-)), is that the statement "It's all fantasy!" is indeed denigrating to both fantasy and historical wargaming. It diminishes fantasy as a genre (cfr what I said about fantasy literature), but it also denigrates historical wargaming when pursued in the spirit of historical research into uniforms, tactics, etc.

      I disagree with the notion that "it's all fantasy", seen both from the fantasy side as well as the historical side.

      W.r.t. variety in historical wargaming (what-if scenarios, imaginations, etc.), I tend to see my wargaming as inspired by military history. For me, that's good enough, but I completely accept that some fellow wargamers want to go the extra mile and strive for some deeper historical content in their wargaming. Personally, I don't care that much about accurate uniforms, but I do care for correct tactics. That's why I'm happy to pursue 18th century imaginations, as long as historical tactics are correct. For other wargamers, the balance might be different (more uniforms, less tactics).

      I also am quite interested in the technicalities of game design, and there a see quite a lot of similarities between all genres of wargaming.

      So, in the end, wargaming for me is a continuum, in which each wargamer should find the equilibrium he's happy with.