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Subject: Educational value of dark ages & medieval wargames? rss

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Matt Thrower
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Here in the UK, the Battle of Hastings in 1066 is seen as a pivotal moment in our history and the background to it is taught to all schoolchildren.

My eldest - at 11 - is about to cover it in the curriculum and, being a gamer, I immediately started thinking about possible educational value of gaming it. Might be fun, might make a good school project, etc.

Looking online (because I'd prefer not to buy a game), all the resources are very poor in detail. So I had a look at physical games and there's a selection - Invasion 1066: The Battle of Hastings looks like a good bet, and cheap too.

However that covers only the battle itself and not the campaign. Which is important in this case, since Harold lost the battle in part because his army was exhausted after fighting a different battle at Stamford Bridge and a long force march to reach Hastings.

I'm now digressing from my main point, which is this: precise historical detail of the sort that makes a good wargame is largely absent from this period of history. Games are scarce and most run on piecemeal guesswork for fun rather than simulation.

There's nothing wrong with that in itself. But is there any educational value which helps us learn some history, in playing games put together by guesswork?

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Is there any educational value in history that is highly hypothetical and concocted from very sparse solid information?

History is often just a mirror of modern times.
As my middle ages course teachers pointed out, during socialism in my country Charlemagne was the great enslaver of the working peoples, during the beginning of croatia as an independent nation (1990s) he was someone that helped the slavs overthrow the avar kaganate, and now under the EU he is the first great uniter of Europe. None of these premises has anything to do with reality, what it does is that it echoes the contemporary values
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Eddy Sterckx
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MattDP wrote:
But is there any educational value which helps us learn some history, in playing games put together by guesswork?


There's guesswork and there's educated guesswork. A game which reflects our current understanding of the battle and tactics used in it is not flawed from an educational pov.
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While there's a lot of guesswork, it's in place for the history
of the era, as well. Stating that there's nothing to learn by
playing games of era shrouded in uncertainty is essentially the
same as saying there is no point to studying the military history
of that era at all.
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Ivor Bolakov
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There are games put together with the best historical knowledge available. And then there are others.
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    You need to consider it from the perspective of the intended audience. John Poniske, designer of more than a few wargames, is also an educator and at one point said that even placing a chit depicting a famous person into a student's hand gives that historical figure more relevance to the student. That small avatar of the historic figure provides an additional level of reality.

    As often as not wargames cover a particular battle and the prep lecture is the most valuable part of the learning experience. When the student becomes aware that they're going to be on the hook for something, that they're going to play the battle out in a competitive format, it gives them reason to turn their eyes and ears on and get prepared for what's ahead.

    The after-action conversation is often valuable as well, speaking to both the differences in outcome between the gameplay and history, and to the level of confidence in the history that we currently have. Hastings is mostly lost to time, that discussion alone is an educational experience for someone who has only been on this Earth for eleven years.

             S.

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Matt Thrower
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Sagrilarus wrote:
Hastings is mostly lost to time, that discussion alone is an educational experience for someone who has only been on this Earth for eleven years.


Tipped for that alone.
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calandale wrote:
While there's a lot of guesswork, it's in place for the history of the era, as well. Stating that there's nothing to learn by playing games of era shrouded in uncertainty is essentially the same as saying there is no point to studying the military history of that era at all.


An interesting point.

Think about the early years of the wargame hobby. Titles like The Battle of the Bulge (Avalon Hill) were based on inadequate research and were poor simulations. However, even a weak historical narrative like this can teach something about events in 1944. Perhaps a Dark Ages game based largely on educated speculation can perform a similar function.

I don't find these games compelling but that is (of course) entirely subjective.
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Because there is not much (detail) known about most medieval, dark age and ancient battles, the educational value of gaming them is very limited. Unless the educational goal is just to let someone know that the battle took place, who were the important leaders at the time and what kind of armies were involved (which in many cases is not known for sure). But you hardly would need a game to get that across. A one page article would tell you as much. What a game can do, is get the imagination going about what could have happened, how troops might have looked, etc. A bit like a good re-enactment does. Hastings is actually a battle of which we know more then most battles in this time period. So in this case gaming it might be more enlighting then in other cases.

I personally am not too optimistic about the educational value of gaming battles and wars. Even if we know quite a lot about them. For instance: as I understand it the German motorised and panzer divisions had lost about half of their strength one month after the start of Barbarossa. The main reason: the bad infrastructure of the Soviet Union and inadequate supply of spare parts, munition, oil etc. I never have seen a game model this...

Gaming it might inspire you to read more about a battle or a war or to discuss how well the game matches historical facts. Then there could be an indirect educational value.
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Abe Delnore
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MattDP wrote:
Here in the UK, the Battle of Hastings in 1066 is seen as a pivotal moment in our history and the background to it is taught to all schoolchildren.

My eldest - at 11 - is about to cover it in the curriculum and, being a gamer, I immediately started thinking about possible educational value of gaming it. Might be fun, might make a good school project, etc.

Looking online (because I'd prefer not to buy a game), all the resources are very poor in detail. So I had a look at physical games and there's a selection - Invasion 1066: The Battle of Hastings looks like a good bet, and cheap too.

However that covers only the battle itself and not the campaign. Which is important in this case, since Harold lost the battle in part because his army was exhausted after fighting a different battle at Stamford Bridge and a long force march to reach Hastings.

I'm now digressing from my main point, which is this: precise historical detail of the sort that makes a good wargame is largely absent from this period of history. Games are scarce and most run on piecemeal guesswork for fun rather than simulation.

There's nothing wrong with that in itself. But is there any educational value which helps us learn some history, in playing games put together by guesswork?



It is unlikely that you would learn more from a game than you would from reading the books that the game designer used, and I would caution against using wargames as a substitute for books.

The main issue in "ancients" battles, as many have pointed out, is that we don't really know very much about what happened. In the case of Hastings, we are quite certain the battle took place very close to the abbey and town called Battle on October 14, 1066 between Normans under William and English under Harold, and the fighting lasted all day and ended in English defeat. Probably Harold was killed in battle though perhaps not. We don't know the precise numbers, the composition of each force, the exact location, the strategems if any employed, etc. Virtually every detail that one account provides is contradicted by another account, or attracts arguments concerning plausibility, or is otherwise contested.

Any game purporting to simulate Hastings is thus advancing a contestable thesis. This is, or course, true of any wargame, but is especially true of well-known and widely-described "ancients" battles, which breed contradictory accounts. For example, whether Harold's troops were exhausted by their march is hotly contested. On the one hand, it does seem that Harold made a long and rapid movement, and they lost the battle after all, so the case for fatigue seems clear enough. On the other hand, it appears that most of Harold's army at Hastings consisted of freshly-raised local militia (fyrd) who had not made the long march. The English army is described as fighting all day and mounting several enthusiastic attacks so its men do not exactly seem to be falling asleep. One way to harmonize all the accounts is that perhaps it was Harold himself who was overtired and thus making bad decisions about how to expend his troops' abundant energy, rather like Lee at Gettysburg.

More generally, there is a surprising amount of disagreement about the tactical systems in use during the battle; e.g., the relative power of archery, "shield wall" infantry, and cavalry. This can lead to varying reconstructions of the battle. In one extreme view, Harold largely holes up on a hilltop and wears his men out responding to William's cavalry demonstrating in front of him while Norman archery takes a steady toll, eventually resulting in the collapse of English morale, already weakened by knowledge that the pope had endorsed William's claims. Perhaps Harold is struck in the eye by an arrow toward the end. At the other extreme, the Normans make a series of cavalry charges that eventually wear down the English, and Harold dies fighting among the last of his bodyguard. What the game designer believes happened, even on questions as basic as what the Norman cavalry did with their lances, will of course dictate the game's design in very basic ways; e.g., do cavalry get some kind of charge bonus, is archery effective against infantry with shields, etc.

You might consider using a wargame, or the idea of a wargame, as a toolkit for reconstructing the battle in different ways. A wargame could be a good way to consider the consequences of Harold's troops being more or less numerous, of the fight happening on this hill or that one, or of the Normans being able to feign retreats. Another path to consider is looking at the decisions or assumptions inherent in a particular wargame.

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Abe Delnore
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pete belli wrote:


Think about the early years of the wargame hobby. Titles like The Battle of the Bulge (Avalon Hill) were based on inadequate research and were poor simulations. However, even a weak historical narrative like this can teach something about events in 1944. Perhaps a Dark Ages game based largely on educated speculation can perform a similar function.

I don't find these games compelling but that is (of course) entirely subjective.


If the Battle of the Bulge were as poorly known as the Battle of Hastings, we would have all kinds of basic uncertainties. Come with me to a world where WWII is as uncertain in the same ways as the middle ages . . . .

For example, specialist historians wonder how did American paratroopers come to defend key points such as Bastogne and St. Vith? A very strong current in the American sources shows that the Screaming Eagles were present at Bastogne, and the entire tradition around this unit shows that it was composed of paratroopers. The popular view of the battle would be that the Americans reinforced vital points by dropping paratroopers, which also explains the few references to the All-Americans at a St. Vith or Elsenborn Ridge, or both.

The mainstream view is that the Screaming Eagles parachuted into Bastogne shortly before it was surrounded and formed the cornerstone of its defense. But this presents a timing problem. Other historians point out that many armies of the time used paratroopers as conventional infantry--indeed this is the conventional view of the German fallschirmjager during the same battle--so perhaps their arrival on the scene was less dramatic and involved trains and trucks. A compromise position holds that some paratroopers arrived by land and some by air, though there is debate over which came first. Common-sense understanding of mid-twentieth century military operations suggests that the paratroopers landed first as the much stronger documentation of the D-Day landings proves occurred there. But on the other hand records of air operations show many American transport aircraft flying missions over Bastogne during the encirclement, which suggests the reinforcements were parachuted in--something noted in the Polish sources on Arnhem, where thousands of paratroopers were diverted from Warsaw to support this minor attack.

What were American "tank destroyers"? Some sources suggest this was a class of tank and point to graphic depictions of turreted vehicles labeled "tank destroyer," perhaps in furtherance of the naval analogies resulting in "cruiser tank" and "land dreadnought." But some "tank destroyer"-related documents refer to non-self-powered weapons and a doctrinal source refers to "tank destroyers" as a sort of wall or bulwark against enemy armor. This suggests a static role. There is a general consensus that "tank destroyers" were not very effective since the term disappears from the sources shortly after the war, although an opposing school says that this proves their effectiveness as they must have rid the battlefield of enemy tanks, and indeed we see America's enemies using very few tanks in later wars.

Of course this does not get at all into questions about the relative morale, training, equipment, etc. of each side's infantry. Historians are perplexed by an insistence in many sources that the Germans were best at these despite the fact that they lost the war. This is an emerging field of inquiry.
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knoel wrote:

Gaming it might inspire you to read more about a battle or a war or to discuss how well the game matches historical facts. Then there could be an indirect educational value.


This. I started with Twilight Struggle. Then I was curious to know more about what these cards were about. So I read. And that lead to more games, which lead to more reading. Rinse, repeat.

As someone else mentioned, having even a tiny square of cardboard that represents a historical figure in physical form makes that person somehow more real. The next logical step is curiosity over why this person was important enough to warrant making little cardboard squares with his/her face and name on it 50, or 100, or 1000 years later.

Maybe it's different for 11-year-olds, but that line of thought has turned me from someone who couldn't name half our former presidents into someone who reads almost exclusively non-fiction history at age 30.
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I've always seen the argument "I play wargames to learn more about history" to be really a dubious one. Especially on subjects we know very little about - like Hastings. But also in a more general sense. The game will teach me about one thing : the premise. The very moment I'll start to play, I will throw away History. I might try to follow the events depictec in reality, if the game has but a tiny amount of randomness - and it will - then I won't follow History anymore.

Like someone else pointed out in the topic, reading about the game's design and read the books used to create it would certainly teach way more about the battle itself. Then, only after that research, could we really play the game and understand how History unfolded, opposed to what the players actually play out.

So... read books laugh
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1066: End of the Dark Ages might be of interest.

Quote:
Each of the 12 game turns represent a calendar month. Each fully iconic, large-size, unit represents roughly 1,000 to 5,000 fighting men or key individual leaders along with their elite 'household' troops. Each square on the 34x22" map represents 40 miles across, with all of England, Wales and southern Scotland, as well as the north coast of France, depicted on it.


Or, there's the print and play block game 1066: Year of the Comet. The BGG page lists it at 60 minutes, which seems like a good level of complexity for an 11 year old.
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Eawyne wrote:
So... read books.


Trouble is, when I read about a military campaign I usually want to play a game depicting those events.

Reading more about 1066 (for example) would just increase my desire for a wargame session.

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before he spontaneously appears to mention 1066, Tears To Many Mothers.
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Quote:
I'm now digressing from my main point, which is this: precise historical detail of the sort that makes a good wargame is largely absent from this period of history. Games are scarce and most run on piecemeal guesswork for fun rather than simulation.


Sure, but...
* Wargames can make history more interesting (and most people are more likely to retain information on a subject they care more about).
* Many wargames have very useful design notes and card notes and the like.
* Wargames may include lesser-known aspects of a battle or campaign that aren't mentioned in most history texts.

I learned almost as much about the Cold War, and more about the Reformation, from Twilight Struggle and Here I Stand than I did in history classes.

And sometimes it's not even the notes - just all the historical figures in Here I Stand made me realize something I never had before - that Luther, Loyola, Michaelangelo, Cortes, Magellan, Henry VIII, Calvin, Tyndale, Barbarossa, Mary, Elizabeth, and Copernicus were all contemporaries.
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Eawyne wrote:
I've always seen the argument "I play wargames to learn more about history" to be really a dubious one. Especially on subjects we know very little about - like Hastings. But also in a more general sense. The game will teach me about one thing : the premise. The very moment I'll start to play, I will throw away History. I might try to follow the events depictec in reality, if the game has but a tiny amount of randomness - and it will - then I won't follow History anymore.

Like someone else pointed out in the topic, reading about the game's design and read the books used to create it would certainly teach way more about the battle itself. Then, only after that research, could we really play the game and understand how History unfolded, opposed to what the players actually play out.

So... read books laugh


I play war games to learn more about the history of the events covered. I usually accompany that experience reading one, or more, books.

While the latter definitely informs the former, I’ve found understanding in playing the war game that I didn’t get from the accounts I’ve read.

YMMV, and that’s fine.

History is usually portrayed as the current prevailing view. Each individual viewpoint can contain information that was experienced, and “really happened”, but is discredited because other sources do not mention those events.

The randomness of a war game is acceptable, in my view, because of this.

To the OP, using the Hastings wargame WILL capture your sons imagination.
That is key.

If you wish, you could premis the experience with “this is one interpretation of events, but we don’t know for sure.” Then follow that up with “which side do you want to play and will you do things differently?”

Job done.



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Statalyzer wrote:


I learned almost as much about the Cold War, and more about the Reformation, from Twilight Struggle and Here I Stand than I did in history classes.


I find that games serve more as useful reminders of all the crap I've forgotten.

In the end, a game is an imperfect model of what the designer has gleaned
from historical analysis. It gives a mechanism by which you can query the
model - but where the decisions (or luck) differ, it is entering unknown
territory, and can only really tell you things about the model itself.
If you do trust a model well enough (from experience) it can serve as
a piece of evidence for certain 'what ifs' that you are already thinking about though.
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Participating in historical wargaming activities stands on it's own, with no need for supplementary justifications.

arrrh

The more comprehensive the research leading to the game, and shared with the players by the designer one way or another, implicitly or explicitly, the more bonus points you receive for partaking in this activity.

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I am a great believer of "being there", visiting Battle would allow you to take in the battle field and it is much easier to envisage what happened. You could point out where the strong defensive line that Harold held and why it all went so badly wrong for him.
The problem with a wargame is that the British player would never break ranks, knowing what happened when they did for real. A wargame may therefore be a what if scenario which is ok as a wargame but not as a history lesson.
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hastings

————————————

Most of the blame for the defeat probably lies in the events of the battle. William was the more experienced military leader, and in addition the lack of cavalry on the English side allowed Harold fewer tactical options. Some writers have criticised Harold for not exploiting the opportunity offered by the rumoured death of William early in the battle. The English appear to have erred in not staying strictly on the defensive, for when they pursued the retreating Normans they exposed their flanks to attack. Whether this was due to the inexperience of the English commanders or the indiscipline of the English soldiers is unclear. In the end, Harold's death appears to have been decisive, as it signalled the break-up of the English forces in disarray. The historian David Nicolle said of the battle that William's army "demonstrated – not without difficulty – the superiority of Norman-French mixed cavalry and infantry tactics over the Germanic-Scandinavian infantry traditions of the Anglo-Saxons."

————————————

If you’re looking for an educational tool, here's hoping you find one that highlights the three main points described above: lack of cavalry, staying on the defensive, death or rumored death of leaders. If it covers those, I expect you’ll have accomplished quite a bit.
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Abe Delnore wrote:
I would caution against using wargames as a substitute for books.

They are often a useful supplement to books, and they often lead the player to read books about the topic.

Reading a history book is for many of us a passive activity. You hear what happened, but not all the reasons. It's common that the author tells us why the historical people did what they did, but it's much less common for the author to tell us why they didn't do what they didn't do.

It's like me trying to learn Bridge. If I just read Bridge books, I will soon learn that every finesse is offside. But at the table, many of them are onside. I can learn what to do from reading a Bridge book, but my problem is typically learning what not to do, or which of the things that I can do I should do.
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Quote:
But also in a more general sense. The game will teach me about one thing : the premise. The very moment I'll start to play, I will throw away History. I might try to follow the events depictec in reality, if the game has but a tiny amount of randomness - and it will - then I won't follow History anymore.


History isn't just what happened, but what happened in the context what else might have happened but did not.
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Perhaps the most educational is not to play one game, but to play several Hastings games and compare them. This will give you the opportunity to have a discussion on (historical) sources and how to treat them.

If you want to go even further, you can make your own game, based on the sources available. That exercise will bring the above discussion to life, but also start a discussion on what you think are the most important factors in the battle and how to model them.

For example, the most important decision was perhaps not made during the battle but before: what were Harold's reasons to give battle then and there when he could have waited for his army to rest and reassemble?
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