Saturday, 6 July 2013

Imagining an Imagi-Nation

Started off as low level commander, then he had
to have his own army, then a country, then an
empire. Then decided centimetres were better
than inches... but enough about me, here's a
picture of Napoleon (think about it, it will click*).
As those of you who have been following this for some time will know, I have toyed with setting up several abortive imaginary settings for my games. My chief failing has always been that they were very poor renditions of real wars. Not a big deal perhaps, but to me, if you are going to do that, you may as well just game the real thing. The whole point of creating something imaginary, is surely that; it's something different from the real.

In the case of A Very British Civil War, for me the point was to open up a period where the various Interwar designs, which didn't make it as far as WW2, like the Hawker Fury or the Vickers Medium Tank, got their moment of glory. My interest in WW2 ends approximately with the entry of America into the War (-ish), so the things I would like to use in my games are generally the low-end, technologically speaking, of what was to come. Shermans, Panthers and Tigers don't fit into this utopia, hence my dabbling in VBCW and other potential Inter-war conflicts.  

A justifiable excuse for creating an imaginary setting, or an imaginary war in a real setting, is when the real thing doesn't meet up to all of your needs, particularly when you want to generate some form of cohesive narrative to your games over a long period of time. While the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, or similar conflicts offer this, if you are into the Wars of the Roses, for example, it's not so easy, as it was an intermittent struggle, fought over thirty odd years, with vast periods of inactivity between runs of battles.

Fighting a campaign in such an era is difficult, as effectively there was barely any peripheral fighting outside of the main scene of events and once the forces have met in a single conclusive engagement, it's all over bar the executions. The closest thing to a full-on campaign, is the period from York's return in 1459, to the Battle of Towton in early 1461, or to a lesser extent, the Barnet - Tewkesbury one of 1471. These are fine for one-off campaigns, lasting several months, especially in a club setting, but for something of longer duration they are somewhat lacking.

In some cases the chosen theme might be 'sensitive' for some reason; maybe you want to game an ultra-modern conflict, but want to stay clear of 'Iraqistan' comparisons or anything else in living memory even. Empress have taken this step with their Dragons and Devil Dogs Kickstarter, by creating a fictitious near-future war in the Pacific, instead of a real conflict... a 'what if', rather than going down the 'current affairs' route. Modern gamers have been doing this for a while of course, right back to playing out the 'Soviet Steamroller' scenario, which thankfully never happened. They could of course have played out the Arab-Israeli Wars, or the India-Pakistan conflicts... but none of these clearly fitted the bill, for whatever reason.

Cold War action at the Wargames Holiday Centre. General Sir John Hackett and Harold Coyle both provided some great background material for the war that never happened. Oddly nobody ever criticises the people who played these games... is it the acceptable face of 'Imaginary Wars'?   

In the modern period particularly, there is a distinct lack of stand-up country versus country wars, in the same sense that there are in other periods. While I do like counter-insurgency style wargames myself, I have also wanted to game something more symmetrical, if not necessarily like a modern-era Battle of Kursk. I have myself looked down this road and envisaged a war resulting from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This largely ticked all of my boxes, as it pitted the full range of Soviet equipment to that date, against what was effectively a US Military in transition between the Korean War and The Vietnam War.

In terms of nice toys it ticks all my boxes, almost without fault... providing you don't consider the overwhelming air-power the US would have bought to bear on the island, which would have made the air attacks preceding 'Desert Storm' look insignificant. It also has legs, you could play out the Revolution years, move onto the 'Bay of Pigs' era (with or without alteration) and eventually move onto the war resulting from the Missile Crisis itself. Due to the island's size (it is longer than Great Britain, although in land area it's somewhat smaller), a potential split into an 'East' and 'West' Cuba and a whole alternate future is also possible.

Totally creating your own setting is another and usually more frequently chosen option. A setting based on real places and events can be limiting and can often involve as much research as the real thing, if it's to be convincing (and presuming that bothers you). If you can't be done with all of the in-depth research for a particular era, or what there is available, is patchy, or in a completely different language, then creating your own setting is somewhat simpler.

Back in the days of my youth, I used to read 'Battle for Wargamers', which used to have a feature called 'Tabletop Teasers', written by Charles. S. Grant, son of Charles Grant, who wrote   'Battle - Practical Wargaming' and 'The Wargame', back in the day. Subsequently Junior also wrote two compendiums of new scenarios for Wargames Research Group. Essentially, each teaser (the tradition of which has been continued in Miniature Wargames), was that a particular tactical conundrum was established and outlines of two opposing forces laid out, with which to fight it out.

'Battle Gaming' soon became 'War Gaming', as any tabletop warrior invariably thinks bigger than he should.

The scenarios were usually quite generic and could be used for virtually any period (parachute assaults etc, not withstanding). In the magazine ones, the scenario was usually followed the subsequent month, by an after-action report of that scenario as fought out by father, son and/or the members of their wargames club. While there were different periods played, regular (and popular) appearances were made by the respective horse and musket forces of the mythical Vereinigte Freie Stadte (VFS) and the Grand Duchy of Lorraine.

Initially I gather that it was just a case of names being given to generals and regiments, but over time it all took on a life of its own. The generals became characterised by their previous victories or defeats and the regiments by their victories or ignominious defeats. Eventually individual battles became linked together in miniature campaigns and then the campaigns themselves became larger. Before long, individual generals were writing open letters to each other and each state had its own news sheet, which regularly scandalised its opposition and which were used in part, to illustrate the scenarios for the reports.

The reason that I mention this, is that it is a prime example of something simple, which developed as time went on. Most of us and I include myself here, try to go the whole hog from the word go. I have lost count of the number of blogs, which have set out as 'Imagi-nations', or similar, which have set out all you need to know about the country, its climate, its politics, its economy and every other aspect of its existence, which then grind slowly to a halt before a game has ever been played.

The legacy lives on.

While 'Top-Down' planning is generally a good thing, it can also be the bane of any project's life. By looking at what we want to achieve in the long term and how we imagine it will all work out, before moving onto the detail, inevitably puts us into the realm of the 'Grand Design'. I have done it myself, so I know where you are coming from. I'm not saying don't have a vague idea of where you want to be one day, but start small. A skirmish game with the first few figures you have painted can lead onto bigger things... look at the relationship between the Jameson Raid of 1895 and the Boer War, or John Brown at Harper's Ferry in 1859 with the American Civil War.

The Grants began with what they had; a somewhat vague collection of 18th Century figures and units. While they had enough 'French' for the Duchy of Lorraine, they had to amalgamate all their other units, from a variety of nationalities, to form the VFS. That then became the concept for the country, it was a federation of formerly independent city states. Other than snippets in the prologues of the games themselves, no great amount of detail was ever set down. Despite this, the setting of these two countries locked in war, is as well known as, or in some cases, better known,  than some real wars.

Both of Games Workshop's universes, that of Warhammer and 40K, both started off as somewhat vague background fluff for the figures they produced, yet look at the volume of material out there for them now. There have been other successful settings for games produced within these two extremes and the one thing they all share in common, is that they began from veritable acorns, becoming in time, mighty oaks, albeit of varying sizes. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed creating both Hispañola and Bulonga, with all their detail and background, but where are they now?  

Love them or hate them, you can't argue that the background to the world of Warhammer isn't both deep and complex. If it wasn't for the Orcs, Elves, Magic and all that other guff, I would happily use this as a wider setting for Medieval or Renaissance games. What might have started off as a rip-off of what Tolkien created, now has a life, history and culture all of its own.

The only real example of a 'Top-Down' approach I know of that worked, was Tony Bath's 'Hyboria', which had the virtue of being based on the lands featured in the 'Conan' stories and that the players involved, already had the armies that were to stand in as proxies for the states featured in those stories. The hard work of the background was already done in the main, so with the exception of the campaign rules, almost immediately it could all begin. To be honest though, the level of detail and the effort that must have gone into running that setting seems phenomenal and for me the approach taken by the Grants is far more sensible.

I intend to run with this topic in future instalments and having, to paraphrase Thomas Edison, instead of getting it wrong, I've discovered several ways of not producing a working setting, I'll be offering my views and opinions, as well as showcasing some of the people who got it right. Thanks for reading!

*Napoleon was the name of the megalomaniac pig in George Orwell's Animal Farm.


  1. I've tried to create some imagined periods at times. Recently i imaginged one that the Frech king was killed at the Battle of Poitiers and England annexed France and afterwards when on to take almost all of western Europe, and after the fall of Richard II fell under the rule of tyrants. The games would be based on small groups of 'freedom fighters' against the 'Imperial English'. I didn't get very far though but i still like the idea.

    1. Another option is that Henry V doesn't die so young and has to keep making war to stave off bankruptcy, a somewhat vicious circle.

      The Medieval era, like all pre-industrial eras, is ideal for Imaginary nations too. Nobody will notice an additional German state or two. Having said that, what went on there in reality is somewhat hard to beat!

  2. Jim, what a fantastic blog post! I really enjoyed reading it. There's so much to applaud here, right from the starting point of having a Wargaming imagi-nation, to the best way of going about it. I think the best way is starting small. I'm a big fan of having an over-arching narrative or background which shifts according to the ideas of the players (not necessarily with any fixed rules - sometimes a kind of alt-history discussion),and then fitting in the rules-based scenario around that background. So, that gives you the chance to, say, imagine what would have happened had the Normans followed the Vikings to try and develop a Greenland colony, or one even further south on the North American seaboard, and follow at up with more rules based details for the games themselves.

    Just to say, I am really loving your series of imagi-nations posts!

    1. Thank you Sidney! ☺

      There isn't any 'right way'... it's what suits your needs that's important. Small can be big too...

      I often think back to that old movie 'The Warlord', with Charlton Heston. It was just a village in the sticks, yet there was almost a whole mini-campaign setting right there and very similar to the 'Greenland' setting you mentioned. Norman overlord comes to remote village to lay down some real 'culture' on them, so there's two sides straight away... then there are the Frisian 'Vikings', who add a third dimension.

      I agree there doesn't need to be any campaign rules as such, unless that is what someone is really into... the thought of having to work out a yearly income and having to take into account whether it was a bad harvest year or not, plus deciding how many mail shirts I need to buy for my men... well, let's just say it doesn't float my boat, yet some folk love that sort of thing.

    2. Jim, one classic old school campaigning booklet is Bill Lamming's "Medieval Campaigns in Miniature". That was a fantastic little resource booklet which allowed you to set up your own medieval campaign, calculating the natural resources for each square of your campaign map, including how many sheep you had!! I loved that as a teenager, playing with my friend Michael and setting up our own campaign island. I doubt I would do that kind of thing again, but at the time is seemed very cool!

    3. The old WRG 'Setting Up A Wargames Campaign' by Tony Bath was my old school favourite, although I never saw Bill Lamming's set. They sound similar in terms of depth, although as might be expected, the WRG book was quite a tome.

      I can't imagine running something that detailed nowadays though, it all seems like so much hard work!

  3. I've created my own 18th Century Imagi-nation recently, the Duchy of Ascane-Pommern, basically a Danish principality made up of the tiny island of Ascane in the Baltic, the Danish town of Helsingen, and part of Swedish Pomerania annexed by the Danes during the Scanian Wars. The young Duke Karl Sweinsson secretly amassed a mercenary force made up of Danes, Saxons, Swedes, Scots, and even Polish and Hessians and broke away from the Danish crown. That at least is the beginnings of my little state.

    1. Congratulations! I hope you have a lot of fun with it. It's always good to have a back story that makes sense of it all.