Reasons NOT to refight historical battles

Started by Chris Pringle, 12 October 2021, 08:41:40 AM

Previous topic - Next topic

Chris Pringle

I love gaming historical battle scenarios, for various reasons. This is my preferred game format.

However, most of my fellow wargamers seem happy to fight non-historical match-ups or generic or invented situations with their historical armies, or to go entirely non-historical and play fantasy, science fiction, alternate history etc. I can enjoy these games too.

I've penned some musings on the good reasons for preferring NON-historical games here:
If such games are your preference, I'd be interested to know your reasons for this as well.


An excellent summary of arguments for the classic "Club night" battle Chris.

I'll throw in another:
Fighting smaller actions that never reached the history books.

Part of this is the trend toward skirmish style fantasy games feeding back into historicals.
Games that pay quick, engage the players with decisions each turn, and finish within the available time.

I'm using "Skirmish style" in the loosest possible sense here.
Not the old "1 figure represents 1 man and each operates independently".
More the sort of "Small war" of a platoon, company or scouting detachment fighting an enemy as part of a larger operation.

By the time you reach the World Wars of the 20th century it is nigh on impossible to represent whole battles without sacrificing what most gamers love about he period.
Take D-Day, doing the whole thing would be a massive stretch, you might play out one beach.
But it's far more likely that you'll play a sector of one beach, a raid on an artillery battery, or a coup de main against a strategic canal bridge.


You've missed out my main reason. We Know What Happened!

The moment Jerome takes Hougoumont at the first attempt or the first wave at Sword Beach are wiped out in their landing craft by accurate German artillery fire or the Nervii kill Caesar and his bodyguard and his blood flows into the river Selle or whatever we are into fantasy territory as firmly as any game with dragons, unicorns and elves.

If you refight a battle and it doesn't follow the historical path you, or your rules, have missed something.

If it does, why bother?

So, fictional battles, with plausible fictional forces are my usual fare. No batteries of Karl Morsers in action, though I have used one as an objective once and as off table artillery a couple of times (you get one shot per game, make it count!). My two Maus models have seen action in my "Last Stand At Kummersdorf" scenario a few times. They are usually bogged down, broken down or knocked out by turn three!

That said, I've had plenty of fun with New Kingdom Egyptians taking on Samurai and the like in my time :)
There are 100 types of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who can work from incomplete data


A lot of those apply to my group Chris!

It is certainly a lot of effort to relight a historical battle - in research of terrain and forces. Then trying to translate this into something on the table top - and hoping that it gives a good game.

We tried a Normandy based game with Rommel rules - which was set just to the West of Caen with the British attacking. I'd left Caen off table, but this meant that one flank was very open, and the British used the strategic move options to rush some tanks forward. Nearly made a mockery of the whole scenario, but they ended up rather isolated in the end. The rest of the scenario played out pretty well.

What I do find with my gaming group and historical scenarios, and particularly WWII ones, is that everyone (including me!) has a different view of how hte battle should play out, and what different units / vehicles should or shouldn't be able to do. Then you get even more conflict between the historical purists and the pure gamers - with the latter's view being if its in the rules I'm doing it, and the historical group going well that shouldn't happen, no one would ever do that. Which does rather drain the fun out of the game.

Ultimately I think we all love a good scenario - but have probably suffered too many half baked ones that don't quite work - which is why hte basic two sides line up and charge format is so often favoured
2011 Painting Competition - Winner!
2012 Painting Competition - 2 x Runner-Up
2016 Painting Competition - Runner-Up!
2017 Paint-Off - 3 x Winner!

My wife's creations: Jewellery and decorations with sparkle and shine at

John Cook

All my projects from Hastings to Crete 1941 are based on historical orders of battle but I'm not entirely sure what constitutes a non-historical scenario. 

My first game for a new project is usually a refight of the historical battle in which precedent is adhered to.  If the rules don't conform fairly well to the original outcome, taking into account the occasional aberration thrown up by 'luck' which skews results and, most importantly, my preconceived notions of what the 'flavour' of warfare was like at the time, there is something wrong with them and they need ditching or modifying until they do. 

There is little point re-fighting a particular battle precisely as it was done historically time and time again but it is interesting to try and 're-write' history, where a free hand is allowed, rather than following precise historical precedent.

I do care about historical context, very much.  Most of my games are set in the context of a historical campaign.  Campaigns generate their own battle scenarios, which are dependent on what the players do.  I don't consider this to be non-historical, on the contrary.

Mixing periods is though.  It is entering the realm of fantasy, and I don't do fantasy, or science fiction, indeed, the popularity of these genres, often played by teenagers with personal hygiene issues, is one reason why I haven't belonged to a club for decades.  The others are the need to set up the table, complete the game and take it down in an evening, and arguments over the interpretation of rules.  I really can't be bothered.
I loathe points based rules, which I view as constraining and entirely unnecessary.  So I don't do them either.  I also dislike them because they seem to encourage people to build armies that bear little or no relation to anything that ever existed.  These kinds of anomalies, such as you describe, are a prime example of this lunacy.

Wargaming for me has always been more than just the game.  Historical context is fundamental.  The research, painting the models and making the terrain are parts of the menu of activities that go to make the whole.  They are the indispensable means to an end.


Excellent thread with some really thought provoking contributions.

I can certainly get behind the "We know what happened" problem.
In an early Little Wars TV interview Greg (of the Little Wars) and LLoyd (Lindybeige) discuss the "Zama test" for ancients rules.

Can you set the armies up as deployed and get something like the historic result.
They conclude that it is extremely rare.
I can see why; double envelopment with a 1000 fot general playing defence is going to be extremely challenging.

How many other big battles, can degenerate into an unsightly scrum with General Hindsight at the helm.
* Brandywine? Defend ALL the fords.
* Austerlitz? Ignore the Czar and hold your defence lines while Napoleon blunders uphill through fog.
* Waterloo?  Occupy Placenoit in force, and don't get dragged into a skirmish of the Chateaux.
* Gettysburg? Either full on at the beginning, or marshal your cavalry and come round the back (Don't go running up that hill).
* D-day? Deploy the armoured reserve as early as possible (stick a couple of extra battalions on the Pegasus Bridge, and shoot Tom Hanks)
* Arnhem? Maybe find a different bridge that isn't crawling with Panzers.

This, of course, raises the question of players diverging from history.
Do you force them to start with historic deployment, or allow them to reorganise the lines?
Do you force marching forces to follow historic route and order of march - even when this takes them into an ambush like Lake Trasimene?

I do like the idea of taking historic orders of battle (or detachments from orders of battle), and having them fight on a different field.



Very interesting blog article and thread.

Personally I'm fairly ambivalent about refighting historical battles where players are forced to deploy as the armies did in real life and where quite often special rules are inserted to more or less force players to make the same choices and moves as their historical counterparts; in those cases I have never quite seen the point. That said who doesn't want to refight Waterloo, Gettysburg or Arnhem (insert your favourite battles here)? If I was planning to refight Waterloo for instance I would prefer to do some kind of pre battle movement with the forces starting off where they were at dawn on 18 June (rather than at 11.30) and let the players make their own choices from there, taking into account the mud and the difficulties of moving artillery. How you get around the fact that the French will know that Prussians will at some point be appearing on their right flank I'm not so sure about. Gettysburg, as an 'encounter' engagement is a battle that I think you can recreate, with the forces entering on the roads they entered in real life and at the real time (perhaps with a certain amount of variation) but then again allowing the respective commanders to make their own choices. And in my book just because things do not follow exactly as they did in the real battle does not take it into the realms of dragons, unicorns and elves!

Cheers Paul
T13A Out!


I agree largely with Chris' comments. I rarely game historical battles unless I have sufficient information on a particular battle, the space and figures to recreate it and a suitable set of game rules. There is also the problem of whether or not players actually follow the orders given and executed in actuality or do you give them the freedom to do what they think should have been done. Arguably in the latter event does this not then become non-historical?

Neither do I want to spend a game night discussing the merits or otherwise of the progress of the re-creation of a particular battle on a table. I
simply want to enjoy a wargame, win or lose, with friends. Is that not what it is about?


reading this tread brought back a lot of memorys of games over the last 25 years.
I've payed alot of both competition and historical games, and I do enjoy both.
I do enjoy the research behind a large historical game. When our group refought the NZ division on Crete in May 1941 I spent about 3 months doing the background for it. Sorting the OOB's, reading everything I could find (including German sources which were not easy to find in 2003. Fortunately I was working at a University at the tiem and there were some very interesting tomes in the basement). I used the large corridors at work in the evenings and weekends to sort out the terrain (16' by 6'). To cap it off the owner of the local fish and chip shop couldn't work out why his customers were talking about the towns around where he grew up while waiting for their orders.
I think that for the most part players pre-knowledge of history can be beaten by the victory conditions for the game. forinstanec waterloo, the french have to beat the british before the Prussians turn up. The French don't win by organising defending against the Prussians.
Our group over the years rewrote a fair bit of history:
-The Yalu sea in 1894 where the ram and heavy armour defeated the quick firing gun, thus setting back naval progress 10-15 years. Our group playing the Chinese against the naval experts who played the Japanese. Not having much of a clue we got stuck in at close quarters which confused our opponents who had deployed historically but with the 2 squadrons a surprisingy long way apart.
-Crete 1941 where as the sun rose on the 21st of May German paratroops were being chased across Maleme airfield by 20 battalion with a couple of Mk VIb light tanks in support while German mountain troops watched on from hill 107. You can always tell a succesful game if at some point all the players hate the umpire (in this case, me).
-We did replay Market Garden, but I'm still not sure what happened or who won. The only things that stick in my mind are Pierre the shy fighting WW2 Spearhead sector combats in Arnhem for 2 days and Keith muttering "I don't know whats happening" repeatedly. Perhaps if the boards had been linear instead or cramed in next to each other....
-The refight of Asterlitz in 6mm where the Russians achieved their victory conditions and then discovered that the unit that achieved the win had broken the previous turn and no-one had noticed.
Having said this I'm now finding that the time take for the research for historical battles is a bit much. I'm happy with scenario generators to organise afternoon games.
Attack Attack Attack until;
A: They're all dead.
B: We're all dead
Delete where applicable.


I play historical scenarios for periods outside of WW2.

The reason being that you have a benchmark to compare the players performance too plus as organiser i find it interesting to observe the players decision making processes, Perhaps wrongly, i think it gives you some insight into the thought pattern of the commanders at the time.  To mitigate hindsight, scenarios and players are match based on the players knowledge of the period. players are also allocated a side/command based on there command style and knowledge.

We have fought Isandhlwana, Poltava, D'Erlons attach at Waterloo, Oudenarde, Guildford Courthouse, Fredricksberg and Long Tan getting historical results.  Though generally I take a section of a battle to create a scenario. it always surprises me how many games can be made out of a limited number of battles e.g. 8 from Blenhiem and Ramilies.

One frustration i have is that if you look at periods from a historical bias there arn't really that many periods that are truely gameable which narrows down what 'toy's one can buy.

John Cook

I'm not entirely sure that 'historical scenarios' mean the same thing to everybody.  To me, a 'historical scenario' can be any one of the following:

1.  A wargame re-enactment of a historical battle, or part of one, where deviation from the original is not permitted.  This, in my experience, always has a specific motivation, typically, for example, to test rules.

2.  A wargame re-fight of a historical battle, or part of one, where players are allowed complete freedom and are not constrained by historical precedent.  This is fairly common in my experience.

3.  A wargame of an imaginary battle, that may be a stand alone game or part of a campaign, using wargame armies that reflect historical ones, set in a particular historical period.  This, in my experience, is by far and away the most common.

These are, in my view, all 'historical scenarios' because they all include historical context to one degree or another.

Science Fiction, dystopian and fantasy wargames are all ahistorical in nature.


For me, historical applies to history, to things that actually happened.

The games I play with my WW2 Germans may be based around historical TO&Es but the formations are fictional and the scenarios are fictional, so in my book they are no more historical than my 5 Parsecs campaign or my Warmaster games.

I still maintain that if you "replay" Blenheim and Marlborough loses that's not a historical game any more than the Siege of Helms Deep is.

As I've said elsewhere, I can imagine having had a fling with a 30 year old Claudia Schiffer. I'm real and she's real. That doesn't make my purported fling with her real .... more's the pity :D

"The names  are the same but the facts have been changed to protect the innocent" doesn't make it real.
There are 100 types of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who can work from incomplete data

Ben Waterhouse

Arma Pacis Fulcra


John Cook

Quote from: Ithoriel on 16 October 2021, 03:08:50 AM
For me, historical applies to history, to things that actually happened.

The games I play with my WW2 Germans may be based around historical TO&Es but the formations are fictional and the scenarios are fictional, so in my book they are no more historical than my 5 Parsecs campaign or my Warmaster games.

I would say that war games played with your WW2 Germans based on historical TO&Es are definitely historical, because they have historical context even if it is just the TO&E.  There is, in other words, an element of historical simulation involved.  On the other hand, even though they simulate warfare, Warmaster and Lord of the Rings games, have no historical basis.  They are not historical simulations of anything that has ever existed, as far as I know.  So, they are not historical in nature and fall into, in my view, one of the ahistorical categories.  

Now, I do not subscribe to the BS argument that goes something like "historical wargames are the only 'proper' wargames" and, if you accept the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as the single authority on the English language, as I do, then a game is, inter alia, "an activity engaged in for amusement" and a war game is "a simulated military conflict carried out as a game or exercise" then, it would seem, therefore, that all are wargames.

But, we can't call them all 'Fantasy' otherwise how do we know what we are talking about.  So, historical, fantasy, science fiction et al are what they are, until better descriptions are found for them.  They are all a product of our imagination, to one degree or another, and the word which keeps cropping up is 'simulation', which the OED defines this as "to imitate or reproduce the appearance, character or conditions of someone or something".

This brings me on to your Claudia Schiffer analogy.  I do concede that it is certainly fantasy but there needs to be a degree of simulation in order for it to work at all.  I'm sure you know where I'm going with this but, honestly, I think you've imparted enough information already.

At least I can agree that neither war games nor your Claudia Schiffer fantasy are 'real', or anything like it, but the questions I have are these.  Why Claudia Schiffer and why limit yourself?  As with wargaming infinite variety is the key, is it not?    

I have to stop now as I seem to have something stuck in my cheek.  ;)