I have, as some of you might know by now, obtained a small wargaming table. Now, I imagine that most tables are probably six feet by four feet, or even bigger. Certainly most pictures I see of people’s set ups suggests that size, as they say, is important. Some, of course, have bigger tables; I believe that someone once said that perhaps ten feet by six was the biggest practical, at least n one table.
I have no problem with this, of course. I used to have a six by four, which did sterling service for a number of years. The problem that I do have is with the numbers of toy soldiers that are placed upon said tables. I may well have moaned about this before in passing, and I may well, of course, contradict myself, but let’s see.
The issue at stake is, of course, the wargamer’s view that a wargame is not a wargame unless the table is full of troops. There are, of course, honourable exceptions to this general rule, but a brief investigation of some wargame blogs will probably affirm my assertion. Wargamers, in general, deploy everything they have across the whole width of the table.
Naturally, this is understandable. For one thing, most battles were straight on affairs. Most generals in his they could, attempted to secure their flanks by using impassable, or at least, difficult to pass terrain. Rivers, hedgerows, towns and castles have all been used to secure an army’s flanks. For another thing, sending a whole load of soldiers on a flank march is the luxury of an army that heavily outnumbers its opponents. After all, if the numbers are fairly even and a significant chunk of one army disappears, there is a risk that one or both bits will be defeated in detail before the others appear. For both these reasons, then, wargamers have it roughly right.
However, I do think that there are two things that do demand consideration. Firstly, flanks do not magically secure themselves. The choice of battlefield is significant in these circumstances, and is an important part of generalship. A general who is forced to fight with one flank ‘up in the air’ has to deploy forces to secure that flank, and this reduces the numbers available for the front line. Thus it seems to me that wargamers who do not engage in pre-battle manoeuvring are missing a significant chance to show off their abilities (or lack of them, of course. I know where I would fall on this spectrum, at least) at forcing their opponents to fight at a disadvantage.
The second aspect is, of course, that in real life no-one wants a fair fight. The aim of generals is to win battles, achieve campaign objectives and win wars. The aim of wargamers is to enjoy a good game. This tends to entail filling the table with pretty toys and slugging it out. The relative unpopularity of campaign games is testament to that, as is the relative paucity of naval games. One of the writers on naval games noted that a naval wargame without the campaign context is a lot more pointless that land based wargames. In the latter, a crossroads or town can be declared strategically important and fought for. There is a lack of that sort of objective in naval games. Even in my recent ancient naval effort there was a non-naval objective, that of getting the transports to the island intact. While such scenarios do exist on land (think of the Wagon Train scenario, for example) they do tend to arise more naturally at sea.
Once the table is filled, of course, the opportunities for manoeuver are limited. Most troops can only really advance straight ahead and attempt to clobber the enemy. We aim to make a breakthrough. The chances of flanking anything except the odd unit are limited. In this sense most wargames, it seems to me, land up a bit like the Western Front in World War One where the strategic flanks were, ultimately, secured on the Channel coast and Switzerland respectively. The only way was to break through to the green fields beyond, to coin a phrase.
I have mentioned that, in my new regime of wargaming, I have stopped worrying about filling the table, and this is, I think, a good thing. Firstly, I can avoid the drudgery of painting, for drudgery it is to me (although, over all, I spend most of my hobby time doing it). Secondly, I can now deploy small forces and still not have the flanks covered. I have, I think, always wargamed like this. On my tables, of whatever size, the flanks have been open to anyone who cares to wander into them. It probably says a lot about my strategic or grand tactical vision that this tends not to happen. Or it might simply reflect on my aversion to painting figures.
On the whole, though, I do think that flanks should get more attention from wargamers than they usually seem to. I have to admit, however, that I struggle to think of more than a few battles where a classical flank march, along the lines of that advocated in DBM, made a difference. I am not that well versed in military history through the ages, of course, but in my periods I can really only think of the Second Battle of Newbury, where the Parliamentary armies squandered a 2:1 outnumbering position and a few strategic cards by engaging in a risky flank march and then not really performing on the battlefield. The most recent thing I have seen about this, however, is that it might have been done deliberately, so a faction (including Cromwell) in Parliament could get rid of what they regarded as the dead wood generals, who may well achieve a compromise peace with the king if they emerged as the victors.
That is historical speculation, perhaps. But perhaps we, as wargamers, had better watch our flanks. After all, we never know what might be approaching ut of left field…..