Does historical wargaming trivialise or teach?

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Wargaming as a way of learning? Especially for a series of wars that continue to have repercussions in my country to this very day? Doesn’t playing the New Zealand Wars as a game trivialise the on-going impact of colonialism on generations of descendants?

My own story says otherwise.

But firstly, why am I even mentioning this? Well, there’s increasing pressure on the New Zealand government to make the study of our colonial wars compulsory in the national education curriculum. I totally support this idea. Just like a person, a country should know its own history, especially where parts of that story still adversely affect the lives of many of its citizens.

So how does wargaming fit into all this?

As a youngster, for me ‘real’ history didn’t take place in New Zealand. Rather, it was the stirring battles and sieges that took place hundreds of years ago and far, far away in the fields, towns and castles of Europe, or in the forests and grasslands of America.

For many years my hobby was built around the history of other countries’ wars – the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War. I read a lot of history of these conflicts, what caused them, what impact they had.  But I totally ignored the wars much closer to home. 

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But I wasn’t entirely ignorant of my country’s history.  I vaguely remember doing a project in primary school about the early 19th century whalers and sealers. Then in secondary school I learned all about our political figures of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. And of course every New Zealand kid learns about the ANZACs at Gallipoli.

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I  think I mainly learned about our founding document, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, from a set of cereal packet cards when I was a child! Decades later I was lucky enough to take part in a reenactment of the signing of the treaty to celebrate its sesquicentennial, but even then I still didn’t know much about the wars that followed.

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During the 1980s I co-authored a couple of local police history books. However, even though there was an obvious linkage with the New Zealand Wars (after all, today’s New Zealand Police descend from the Armed Constabulary), I still didn’t really connect with how those wars were affecting many people in the Māori community today.

The idea of playing a wargame based on New Zealand history never even occurred to me.

But then in 2011 along came a  British company with the ironic name (considering colonialism) of Empress Miniatures, who announced a new range of 28mm metal figures portraying the 1840s campaigns of the New Zealand Wars. There was Hone Heke, exactly as I recalled him from my childhood Weetbix card, along with his fellow chief Kawiti and their warriors, the men of the British Regiments of Foot, the colonial militia and even the Royal Navy.

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I was immediately hooked by what looked to be a lovely set of figures, that for once depicted a struggle closer to home. Off went my order to England. And, as does any wargamer who takes up a new period, I started by reading up a few histories.

Initially I was just searching for superficial information, such as what the soldiers and warriors looked like, the weapons and tactics they used, and the type of terrain they fought over. This was the sort of stuff I needed to know to be able to paint the figures accurately and to create suitable tabletop scenery.

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However, as time went on I began reading more and more deeply, and started learning about the background of the wars, what drove the participants on both sides (willingly or unwillingly), and the legacy they left, particularly through the confiscation of Māori land.

This burgeoning interest gradually infiltrated into my work-life, where I became more aware of the role of the impact of colonialism on my job, and increasingly interested in te reo Māori (the Māori language) and tikanga Māori (Māori custom) generally.

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We’ve probably all heard of people maligning the hobby of wargaming by saying that it’s a war-mongering entertainment that trivialises the history and heartbreak of war. But it was this hobby that initially attracted and then inspired me to dig deeper and gain an understanding of not only the New Zealand Wars, but of their legacy to this very day.

I bet many wargamers from all over the world could say the same about whatever periods they recreate. Wargaming, through its unique visual and hands-on experience, is an amazing way of piquing interest in history. It then goes on to foster deeper learning by the very fact that to be a good wargamer, you need to research your chosen period.

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I believe that wargaming can result in much deeper historical engagement than you’ll ever get from more common (but less often maligned) conflict-based entertainments, such as watching war movies or reading war novels.  

I hope that if the New Zealand Wars do become part of our national curriculum, teachers won’t overlook the potential of a fascinating miniature wargame to spark their pupils’ first interest in our country’s history.

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At last – a wargames table of my own!

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Ever since I started in this hobby, I’ve been hindered by having to rely on moving my troops to someone else’s place if I wanted to play a game.

But today I came up with an idea, after I realised I hadn’t used the desk in my small study for a desktop computer ever since we got a laptop. So I pushed our filing cabinet into the leg space, and pulled the whole desk out from the wall by about a metre.

This allowed me to lay a 4′ x 4′ table on top. Small – but it should enable skirmish games. It even gives me some hidden storage space in the gap behind the pulled-out desk.

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And I’m going to figure out a way that a 6′ x 4′ could be laid on top temporarily for slightly larger games – perhaps with some sort of trestle legs to support the 2′ overhang.

Now I can host (skirmish) games at my place, or even play solo games over several days without having to pack up. Why I never though of doing this before, I don’t know!

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Deceptively clever simplicity of New Zealand’s latest flag proposal

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How often do you see a clever idea that is so simple that you think, ‘I could’ve done that!’? Yet, the point is that you didn’t do that, and nor did anyone else, until the person who finally did come up with that deceptively simple idea.

And so it is with the latest contender to become New Zealand’s new national flag.

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In my last blog post, I reported about First to the Light, or Red Peak as it has become commonly known. Since my post, Red Peak has followed the example of the new Canadian and South African flags in becoming a last-minute contender. It has now  been included as a fifth addition to the contenders in the forthcoming national referendum to pick the alternative flag to go up against the current ensign in a second referendum next year.

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The original process began with an invitation to the public to submit designs for a new flag. Over 10,000 submissions were made – including half a dozen from me. Which leads me to the point about ideas so simple that you think “I could’ve done that!”.

So let’s start with what I actually did do.

New Zealand actually has two official flags. There is of course the current New Zealand ensign that is our national flag.  But there is also an official Māori flag, called the Tino Rangatiratanga flag. One of my ideas was to merge these two flags.

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So I came up with the design below, which at the time I was quite proud of. Looking back, however, whilst my idea certainly combined elements of the two flags, it was a rather cluttered design. This was not helped because at this time I was also wedded to the idea that the flag had to carry a symbol of some sort.

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I also submitted another design that picked up the colours of the two flags, though as you can see, I was still attached to including a symbol!

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My design reinterpreted the red/white/blue of the current ensign, and the red/white/black of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag into a traditional Māori tāniko weaving pattern, as seen on the headbands in the picture below.

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The funny thing is, with my second design I was nearly onto something, if only I had realised it at the time! Turn my flag on its side, and look at just one end – a truly simple idea begins to emerge. Whilst it is only red/white/blue at this stage, the next step in the the thought process could’ve been to turn one of the corners black to complete the Maori colours.

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But, of course, I didn’t do that.  However, designer Aaron Dustin did. Though his flag was not based on my original design of course – he came to First to the Light / Red Peak via another route, which you can see evolving in the 18 flag designs he submitted.

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Aaron’s design is really simple. ‘Just a bunch of triangles,’ say some critics. ‘Anyone could have done this,’ they say, ‘even a five-year old.’ But the simplicity is deceptive, and disguises a very clever juxtaposition of the two flags.

If any of us were going to try to combine the current flag with the traditional Māori colours, we would’ve probably come up with a complex and cluttered design like I did.

Even had I come up with the idea of simplifying it down to the two different colour palettes lying alongside each other, I probably would’ve come up with something bland like this.

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The touch of genius on Aaron’s part was to turn the middle stripe into a chevron. The result is still just the two palettes sitting alongside each other, but at an angle instead of straight.

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So, yes, this is fantastically simple. Anyone could have thought of this idea … but we didn’t!

It took Aaron to come up with the idea, but such a simple idea can come up in other ways too. For example, a somewhat similar flag entitled Wa Kainga/Home was also submitted totally independently of Aaron. But in Wa Kainga/Home, although it includes all the colours, they don’t line up as the two flags.

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Even a logo from a small business in the USA came up with a somewhat similar design. Though of course this would have derived from an entirely different process.

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But such similarities don’t matter, even if they had been exactly the same, rather than just similar. Simple designs are just that – simple. Therefore it is quite likely they’ll reappear amongst the billions of pieces of design around the world. Therefore it is the context behind them that is important.

Of course, saying that Red Peak is simple feeds straight into another common criticism of Red Peak. ‘We don’t want a flag that you have to constantly explain to people,’ they say.

The world is filled with simple flags. But when do you ever hear complaints from the Danish people, for example, that they’re constantly being asked, ‘I don’t understand your flag, what does it mean?’

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A flag becomes a symbol in itself, and doesn’t need to be explained (unless you’re merely curious about its meaning or history behind it – and the Dannebrog certainly does have history behind it!). Locals learn the meaning of their own flags at school or through their families. But most of us would have no idea of the meaning behind other countries’ flags, and it makes no difference.

‘But our flag has got to scream New Zealand!’ say the critics. Whilst some flags do indeed use pictorial  symbols, you first have to actually recognise that symbol. You have to know what Angkor Wat looks like, to recognise that this is what is portrayed on the Cambodian flag.

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Many of the most well-known flags have nothing about them that ‘screams’ where they come from, even though those countries often have well-known symbols too. Their flags speak for themselves. And it doesn’t take long, either – the South African flag is quite new, but it already ‘screams’ South Africa much more than its symbol ever did.

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 Image by Rachael Macklin

Maybe Red Peak could’ve been designed by a five-year old. But they wouldn’t have known they were designing a flag that does what flags are supposed to do. It stands out, but by being simple and bold, not by being cluttered or artsy.

Red Peak represents our history, not just from colonial times, but from way back in medieval times when the country was first settled. It will become a great symbol in itself, and will fly well with our existing symbols.

I already fly First to the Light / Red Peak with pride at my place.

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Is the historian’s craft to pursue the truth?

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On one of the interminable (but surprisingly addictive) Napoleonic history arguments on the The Miniatures Page, one poster stated:   “The historian’s craft is using the materials to create a story, a view of the person or event.”  To which another poster replied:  “Funny, I thought historians pursued truth. Stories are the pursuit of fiction writers. And most American journalists…”

I personally agree with the first poster.  Truth is an elusive quality because it so hard to define.  For example, one would think pursuing the truth of whether Kevin went to the shops at 6.00pm on 6 May 2007 would be simple. Surely all you need to do is find some evidence that either he did, or he didn’t?  But:

  • what do we define as ‘the shops’- a particular shop, a number of shops?
  • does ‘went’ mean he actually got to the shops, or just left to go to the shops, or started for the shops but ended up somewhere else?
  • is 6.00 the time he left or arrived?
  • do we accept him going at 6.10pm as still being truthful?
  • was the date based on Kevin’s timezone, or the original writer’s (unlikely, I guess … but you never know)?
  • does online shopping count?!?!

Even if one could define this particular truth, does the fact of Kevin going to the shops have a relationship with any other ‘truths’ being pursued? And tied together with those other ‘truths’, do they have a bearing on some larger question?  Or is this particular truth being pursued in isolation, and so it is just a red herring from the main issue?  Come to think of it, what is the ‘main issue’ – have we identified the correct main issue to pursue the truths about?

I actually think focussing on telling of the story is as important, if not more so, as focussing on pursuing some elusive truth. Good historical story writers (whether historians who are skilled at telling a good story, historical novelists or even American journalists!) can fire the imagination. Whether absolutely truthful or not, they can have a great effect on people’s views of what happened in the past, and what their future actions might be as a result of those views (whether minor or major, good or bad).

I don’t think precise but fusty academic historians can lay claim to such influence.  After all, how many ordinary people’s view of Napoleon is based on the work of academic  historians, compared to being based on Bernard Cornwell or CS Forester?

A tour of my study

You can tell a lot about a wargamer from his/her study. Whether the ‘study’ is just a painting table in a living room, or a dedicated room (as I’m lucky enough to have), the books, clutter and decor all build a picture of that particular wargamer’s personality.

So, join me on a tour of my study and find out a bit more about me … (oh, and by the way, if you want a closer look at anything, all the photos can be enlarged by clicking on them)

Just past the painting of a pukeko bird, a discreet door behind the stairs leads into my haven of relaxation (or sometimes my room of labour, as I do have to do business-related work in here on occasions too).  Welcome, come on in …

The first thing you see as you enter is my desk. Of course, like most wargamers these days, a computer takes centre stage, with a bookcase filled with military tomes close to hand.

Sorry the floor isn’t vacuumed – but, hey, this is a male enclave …

That big office swivel chair is nice and comfy, which is important as I spend a lot of time in it! There’s also an old red leather chair, which is where my wife sits with a cup of tea when she’s chatting with me, or I sometimes nestle with a good book.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s in the bookshelf. Well, a load of assorted military books, including the obligatory Ospreys, Funckens and Blandfords, of course. But there are also lots of bits and pieces, including:

  • headgear (British police helmets, a Napoleonic French pokalem that I wore at the Waterloo reenactment in 2005, and a Confederate kepi from the Gettysburg reenactment in 1998)
  • a few diecast cars (mainly police cars – so already you may be able to guess what most of my career has been!)
  • a black-and-white photo of my wife when she was in her teens
  • some pirate ship models I converted out of plastic toys
  • various pieces of wargames terrain.

Hmm, my desk is a bit untidy at the moment.  But amongst the detritus you can see:

  • my lovely Tiffany-style lamp (a gift from my family, which gives the room a nice cosy feel at night – see photo at the bottom of this article)
  • some plastic Papo toys of Napoleonic subjects, including the Emperor himself
  • my desktop wallpaper made from a painting by my favourite maritime artist , Geoff Hunt – I think this particular picture really portrays the imposing bulk of a ship-of-the-line
  • a fake bookshelf of antique volumes, that is really just a poster (a gift from my teenage daughter) – I like it because it adds some extra character to the room and makes me look more erudite than I really am!

If I get tired of staring at the computer screen, my study is fortunate enough to have a wonderful outlook over our pony paddock.  In fact, you can just spot Sammy, our pony, as you look out (excellent reference for when I’m painting horses!).

OK, casting our eyes to the left (we’ll go around my study in an anti-clockwise direction), we see my painting station and the first of my display cases.

The pictures on the walls are worth a quick look as well.  They include paintings and drawings done by my father as a young man in the 1930s, some old New Zealand prints given to me by my sister-in-law, and a lovely old lithograph of police uniforms in the late 1900s.

And, yep, that is a French policeman’s kepi sitting there on top of the books.

A closer look at my display case reveals a hodge-podge of mainly horse-and-musket figures:  18th century Minden figures, Napoleonics,  colonial New Zealand Wars etc.  Some of them are in open-top boxes, as I get lazy taking out and putting back figures when I game with them.

The top of the display case carries my ever-increasing overflow of books, mainly military, but also some other titles, including a history of Antarctica given to me last Father’s Day as a memento of when I worked ‘on the ice’ at McMurdo Station as a young man.

You want me to open up my painting desk?  Well, only for a moment, as it really is a mess.  Thank goodness I can shut the desk each time I finish!  But, yes, this crammed desk is where I do all of my painting.

Oh, you’ve spotted my latest project sitting on top of my desk.  Yes, I just finished these ‘Foundry’ French Foreign Legion last night.  They’re for a Victorian Science Fiction project, which explains all the odd steam-powered machinery sitting behind them … though the Maori pa fencing in the background  is coincidental and has nothing to do with that project.

Right, time to move on.  Let’s swing our gaze past the door we entered by, and look at the back wall, where you see my second display case.

The three framed prints on the wall are of Lufthansa aircraft – not sure why I’ve got them, but I do like them!  One of the pics is of a Lufthansa Constellation – my father-in-law flew these beautiful three-tailed airliners when he was a pilot for a British airline in his younger days – Skyways, I think the airline was called.

The other two prints by the door are old maps of the English counties of Kent and Sussex – my wife was born in Kent, and she spent several years in Sussex when she flew out of Gatwick (like her father, she was also  – and still is – in the airline industry, though as a flight attendant rather than pilot) .

Sorry about the messy pile of papers on the floor at the left – they are household bills and statements, piling up until I get round to filing them (one of my most hated and therefore continually procrastinated jobs).

This display case also includes quite a few Napoleonic troops, but on the top shelf you can see the armies I first painted when I returned to the hobby of wargaming in my 40s – a ‘Games Workshop’ Empire army.  My son also painted an orc army at the same time, which is also on display here, despite him having long since lost interest in the hobby.

And here again are some toy police cars (Russian and Dutch in this case).  I used to collect these as a hobby, and had hundreds of miniature police vehicles from all over the world – only my favourites are now still on display, the rest packed away in their boxes as my interest has waned somewhat.

Ah, your eye is caught by the little handmade balsa ironclad ships on top of the display case.  I made these during my 20s, and have brought them out of their box as I think they’re actually quite attractive, even after all these years.

But I must admit, despite their age, these ships (lijke many of my figures) have never seen a shot fired in anger over the wargames table.  Even back then I had the same problem I have now – I’m more a modeller and painter than an actual gamer.  Yes, I do play occasionally, and enjoy it when I do.  But time and commitments mean that this doesn’t happen as much as it probably should.  I keep saying, “One day, when I have a wargames room with an actual gaming table …”

And, yes, the baby in the multi-pose photo on the easel is me, some … um … 50+ years ago.  Cute little character, aye?

Right, moving on … let’s look at the south wall, our last stop before we come to my desk again.  Another display case, and also a large wardrobe (which I won’t open in case everything bursts out!).

I like flags, as you can see – I have a New Zealand ensign, of course, but also a large American flag and my latest treasure, a replica French standard from the Napoleonic wars.

On the printer you can see my old New Zealand Police helmet that I used to wear when I was a young constable.  Above it you can see some more of my taonga (treasures):

  • another painting by my Dad that he did as a kid in the 1930s
  • a really heavy brass picture that was a gift from the people of his village in the Netherlands for fighting in Indonesia in the 1940s
  • a lovely heart made by my wife out of broken china.

You’ll see that the display case on this wall contains a bit of a mish-mash, including:

  • loads of  single Napoleonic figures based for Sharp Practice
  • my small collection of 40mm Napoleonic figures
  • various scenics and vignettes
  • some of my homemade Spanish terrain piled on top of the display case
  • some commercial buildings and more of my books on the shelf below the display.

There’s some artificial poppies there too (I don’t know why?) and even an old tin toy robot, an antique police torch and who knows what else.

Well, that’s my study folks!  I hope you enjoyed the tour, and have learned a bit more about me as a result.   If you’re ever in the vicinity, feel free to pop in one evening and take a proper browse through my books or examine my miniatures in real-life in their display cases.

Is history important?

No matter how entertaining I find history, I wrestle with the idea that I should find history important.

I enjoy history as a pursuit, as an entertainment. I love reading historical books, researching my armies, watching historical movies etc etc. I love revelling in former times, which always feel much more exciting times to live (though much more uncomfortable too!).

But do I find history important?  No.  Knowing the exact truth of minor details of history won’t have any effect on today’s lives, unlike  other subjects such as medicine and science, where the difference between getting it exactly right and wrong can have huge impacts.

Some might say that the knowledge of history is important to shape and engage people of today.  I think that is true in a sense.  But it isn’t the knowledge of the exact details of history that shape and engage people – it is the myths passed down mouth-to-mouth and though TV, movies, novels, popular books and so on.

I contend that people’s views on, say, the Napoleonic Wars, are shaped by the myths passed down, and any effect that knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars has on modern life is based on those myths, not on the exact truth of details.  In other words, ‘Story’ has much more effect than ‘Hi-Story’.

So knowing exactly when Prussian General Zeiten sent a message to the Duke of Wellington  before the Battle of Waterloo, or who invented the artillery bricole  (both subjects of ongoing acrimonious debates between some military historians) are not important.  Knowing one way or the other won’t change the lives of me or anyone else on this planet. All they are is … interesting.

Yes, the historian’s job might be to find the truth (if they can!).  But I think that is no more important to humanity than a novelist writing a fiction book.  It is still fun, colourful, adds dimension to our lives etc – but it is not important.

This ethos of mine to the importance of history  transfers into my ethos to historical wargaming:  fun, period flavour, storyline, romance, colour, atmosphere, happily based on myth – but let’s not get too hooked on detail!

Kapa O Pango, aue hi! All Blacks – Rugby World Cup!

The words of the All Blacks’ haka:
Kapa O Pango kia whakawhenua au i ahau! All Blacks, let me become one with the land!
Hi aue ii!  
Ko Aotearoa e ngunguru nei! This is our land that rumbles!
Au, au, aue ha! It’s my time! It’s my moment!
Ko Kapa O Pango e ngunguru nei! This defines us as the All Blacks!
Au, au, aue ha! It’s my time! It’s my moment!
I ahaha!  
Ka tu te ihiihi Our dominance
Ka tu te wanawana Our supremacy will triumph
Ki runga ki te rangi e tu iho nei, tu iho nei ihi! And will be properly revered, placed on high!
Ponga ra! Silver fern!
Kapa O Pango, aue hi! All Blacks!
Ponga ra! Silver fern!
Kapa O Pango, aue hi! All Blacks!

 

Thought of the day

My wargames battalions only have a few dozen figures in them instead of around 600.

And so often our battalions usually have only one drummer instead of several, one sergeant instead of lots, and one officer instead of many.

Which leads me to think that if instead of wargaming, my hobby was making model cars, would I be satisfied with modelling a Chevy with one wheel instead of four?

Or for model ships, making the Titanic with one funnel instead of four?

'Titanic' model, wargames-style