Review by Mike CosgraveMike Cosgrave in his own words is a middle aged liberal historian and gamer - insert 'occasional' where needed!
Paddy Griffith is a military historian and wargamer whose work I always enjoy reading. The reporting of his famous Operation Sealion game in 1974 was my earliest exposure to wargaming and his writings on tactics in wars from the 1790s to the 1940s have added greatly to my understanding, and to my teaching. I was delighted therefore to get my hands on a copy of his Sprawling Wargames, but after reading it, I wish there was more of it.
Sprawling Wargames is a book which deals with the work Griffith has done in moving away from old style miniatures wargames into large scale conference style games, a field in which he has made huge contributions. It is hardly surprising that he would, as a professional military historian who worked at the Royal Military Academy, have become less enthusiastic about ‘battles with model soldiers’ and moved to conference games which eschew figures to focus on the flows of information and command decisions made by humans.
I think, and this is a lengthy aside, there is a difference between hobby wargaming in Britain and the US. In Britain, hobby wargaming has been dominated by miniatures gaming, with a lineage going back to H.G. Wells Little Wars. It tends very much towards the ‘Free Kreigspeil’ tradition. Miniatures wargame rules from the UK tend to be rough rules of thumb rather than detailed simulations in the US boardgame tradition. While there have been some miniatures wargamers in the UK who have been very knowledgable, and whose rules have been based on solid research, there have been many who have been mainly interested in moving and killing toy soldiers on the table rather than on representing how tactics really worked. This is not to say there aren’t US based miniatures wargames, nor am I saying that there are no miniatures based rules which are good simulations; because there certainly are. However, the type of ‘analytical history’ simulation which was the staple output of US (and some European) board wargame companies like Avalon Hill, SPI, Decision Games, OSG and others is not mirrored in the UK. People will be offended if I characterise a lot of UK wargaming as ‘amateurish’ but, like much of the British approach to waging war, that is how it looks from here. (I should also admit that I had a decently sized set of Napoleonic miniatures armies back in the day, and have shelf of partly painted Seleucids which will probably never be finished, so I do paint toy soldiers, and it is restful – I guess it is like fishing.)
Sprawling Wargames includes some priceless material. The bulk of the book is made up of the briefings for large games Griffith has run over the past 36 years. The star of the collection is the 60 pages of the briefing for the version of the Sealion Games run at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford – we are not told how closely it follows the briefings from the original 1974 Sealion game, but I think we can assume they are pretty close. The other big game briefing is from Operation Mercury, the airborne invasion of Crete in 1941, a game with Griffith has run over 20 times with different groups. Griffith calls these ’sprawling wargames’ but in this he is referring not to the number of players or the extent of the game but the lack of fixed rules – the classic free kreigspeil model. I don’t think the term ’sprawling’ is very good – free kreigspeil is a the common term. Alternatively conference wargames would do equally well – and both would make fine titles for the book.
Where I would have liked to see more in the in the reports on the outcomes of the games, especially the Sealion and Barabrossa games – the latter is one of a number of games in the book run by email, and I hope the emails were archived! I have run simulations which were part face-to-face and part email, and the email part has often been both extensive and more detailed and considered than the “F2F’” parts. The Barbarossa game was run as part of the research for Andrew Roberts’ history of WWII, Storm of War, to explore the possible range of outcomes of Operation Barbarossa.
One thread running through all the brief after action reports on these games is that the outcomes, while different to reality, generally fell close the the actual or likely historical outcome. Both the 1974 and the IWM runs of the Sealion game produced slightly different results, but both outcomes fell well within the range of what might be accepted as plausible by most historians. Now of course the cynics will note that the Germans lost in most of the games in the book and may ask if this wasn’t a case of the biased refereeing, but both these games involved knowledgeable players and umpires. Indeed, the 1974 Sealion game included former WWII leaders like Admiral Frederich Ruge and air ace Adolf Galland. Similarly, while I can’t answer for some of the naval games in the book, the Barbarossa, Crete and Suvarov in Alsace games all look ‘right’ the outcomes are plausible, and the games do show the range of likely alternatives in those real or hypothetical campaigns.
This is the difference between amateur and professional wargames – amateur games can, and often do, indulge wishful thinking with lax rules, whereas professional games – and professional analysis – based on knowledge of what actually happened and more importantly why it happened and explore the parameters of the possible more accurately. Sprawling Wargames provides a set of solid scenario briefings which, with a good umpire and knowledgeable players allows a sensible, evidence based exploration of the dynamics of a particular campaign.
There is more in the book – it includes some of Grifftih’s writing from minor journals and unpublished reflections which would not otherwise be available. Apart from the shortness of the ‘after action reports’ if it has a flaw, it is that running the games in the book requires umpireswho know enough real military history to run a ‘free kreigspeil’ . There are snippets scattered through the the text, but there isn’t a handy set of base rules for running a theatre level ‘free kreigspeil’ in the modern period. There are very useful references in the bibliography which will help people interested in running this sort of game, but they are mostly to UK literature, with no mention of important works from the US like Mark Hermon’s Wargaming for Leaders, the reports of US Navy War College Games published in the Newport Papers or Brock Tessmans book on simulations on International Relations teaching.
Sprawling Wargames is a Print on Demand title because while it is published by John Curry Events through Lulu.com, and listed as printed by amazon.co.uk. John Curry is republishing a number of out of print classics which, while some are no longer state of the art, represent important benchmarks in the development of wargames in the UK. POD is good – these titles will always be in print, and this volume is evidence of how the quality of POD titles has improved over the past few years – it looks well, has solid binding and comes at a reasonable cost.