Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Lewin, War Games and their History

Book review: Christopher George Lewin, War Games and their History (Stroud: Fonthill Media, 2012). 288pp. Cover price £25.00 (but available for less).

This book is, in a word, a delight. In it, Christopher Lewin reviews the development of wargaming as an activity of both soldiers preparing for battle and civilians playing at war. Lavishly illustrated, its 318 colour photographs depict military training games and public boardgames from ancient and medieval times up until the present (well sort of, as discussed below). The author’s style is highly readable in a sometimes quirky, but always engaging, manner.

The book is not, it should be emphasized, an academic treatise on the topic. It has footnotes for some sources, but not others. The author does not present a social history of military-themed gaming, nor does he much comment on the many ways in which games have reflected changing technology, economic modes of production, or the nature of warfare itself. It is not an encyclopedia of wargaming either. Grognards will be quick to note that the last four decades of boardgaming are given very sparse coverage, while miniature gaming is scarcely addressed at all. The last two decades of computer wargames also get little attention, with the few examples given, one suspects, drawn from a few titles that the author himself likes to play. Examples of modern professional wargaming are cited, but here the treatment reads as if it were put together from a few accounts found online rather than serious research. Readers wanting a more detailed and structured discussion of these areas are well advised to read Thomas Allen’s Wargames (1987), Peter Perla’s The Art of Wargaming (1990), James Dunnigan’s The Wargames Handbook (2000), Philip Sabin’s Simulating War (2012), or the many works preserved by John Curry’s impressive History of Wargaming project.

However, these shortcomings are rather beside the point if this volume is recognized for what it does offer.  War Games and their History shines is in its rich and loving description of scores of now-forgotten games played in the period from the mid-19th to mid-20th century. In most cases, photographs of the game in question are coupled with enough descriptive detail to get a solid sense of how, and by whom, it was played. There are the games glorifying the era of colonial expansion, whether it be Uncle Sam at War with Spain (1898), Siege of Havana (1898), or The Conquest of Sudan (1899). Invasion (1889) explored the threat to England by European armies via a Channel Tunnel a century before the first Eurostar pulled into St. Pancras station. Der U-Bootkrieg (1914) gave young players an early image of unrestricted submarine warfare, while the Royal Aerial War Game (1914) could be purchased at the local Boots the Chemist, and presciently envisaged aircraft and airships as strategic bombers capable of striking enemy cities. Readers of PAXsims—where we tend to focus on conflict gaming in the broadest sense—may also be interested in such gems as a World War I-era boardgame devoted to battlefield medical care (Unterm Roten Kreuz), a light-hearted 1939 card game about internally displaced persons (Vacuation, about British wartime child evacuees), or the incorporation of political-military dimensions and asymmetrical victory conditions into a 1940 naval commerce raiding game (Tactics). As these few examples suggest, even if Lewin doesn’t offer much broader or contextual analysis himself, the book certainly would serve as a very useful resource for those interested in the depiction of war in popular culture, the evolution of game mechanics, or the evolution of the boardgame industry during this period.

Amazon currently has the volume for sale for only $29, considerably less than its cover price. Given the book’s many colour illustrations (and hard covers), this seems a pretty good deal for a very enjoyable read.

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