New Life for Ancient Artifacts?
Have you ever been forced to clean out your attic? Did you even know what was up there? Recently, installing a new roof did that to me. What I found was a treasure trove of vaguely remembered artifacts from my life, retained for posterity, or merely from indecisiveness. The decisions, or lack thereof, to box things up and lug them to the attic were mostly made jointly by my wife and me. If one of us had given the thumbs down initially, the artifacts would have been discarded, or given to Goodwill. There mostly never was a plan for when or how they would be used again.
Christmas lights and decorations do get retrieved once a year. But not the books, collected schoolwork of our two sons reaching back to their elementary school days nearly thirty years ago – and, most egregious, the boxes of my collected wargames, dozens of them, even designs for my own unpublished games. They were the truly bizarre finds in that attic.
The wargames were exiled to the attic some twenty years ago, not having been played for another 20-25 years before that. They were relics of my younger (bachelor) days with my multi-year subscription to Strategy & Tactics magazine, which contained a complete game in each bimonthly issue. In addition, its publisher, Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI), also branched out during the seventies and eighties into many separate game titles, even some attractively packaged games intended for retail hobby shop shelves. I purchased many. What to do with this mother lode now? Should I simply pulp them? Or perhaps there are young bachelors today who still enjoy these fanciful “alternate history” simulations, becoming arm-chair generals, admirals, and junior officers in a fictitious military enterprise.
After doing some preliminary research into that question, I determined that the “hobby,” such as it was, essentially disappeared with the advent of computers and video games. These tabletop map exercises, often on a vast scale with as many as a few thousand playing pieces — representing historical military formations, warships, armored vehicle types, grades of infantrymen, etc. — could be duplicated digitally via simple graphics programs, with some rudimentary data management app.
But wait! There apparently still exist some organized bands of followers, especially on college campuses. One such local group, Georgetown University Wargaming Society, claimed on its website to be interested in donations! They even had a faculty advisor who lived near me in Northern Virginia. I contacted him, and he was happy to drop by, pick up my whole collection (now sorted by subject) and load it into his car. He even said he’d let me know how the group fared with maintaining and preserving my old games – after students were finished with finals and returned for the new semester. Problem solved? We’ll see.
Sorting my collection, in preparation for the handoff, I was struck by some of its characteristics, however. I hadn’t thought about these things in many years. Indeed, I now conclude that the tabletop wargame represented a distinct art form, quite different from its digital successor. Those maps on a hexagonal grid, maps of every campaign from the entire Pacific Theater in World War II to idealized Middle Earth-like locations featuring a variety of topographic features — and everything in between. They were clearly art works. And they were art works you physically interacted with as you moved your many playing pieces over them. Engaging an enemy force of similar cardboard punch-out playing pieces on the geometric regularity of that hex-grid was an exercise in self-expression. Yes, it was social, too – especially with large multi-player formats like War in the Pacific or its companion War in the East, both from SPI. If you had enough people involved, you could simulate a complete general staff!
Zoom meetings during the pandemic illustrate the weakness of the virtual equivalent for group decision-making. No, face-to-face encounters around a common problem area, spread over a large conference (or dining room) table, with all the arrayed elements needed for action before you in meticulously sorted bins — by type, function, strength, mobility – and the final arbiter, a single six-sided die (or two), always the crux. This was the ultimate in strategic immersion! Nothing on a screen can hold a candle to the tabletop experience.
Sebastian Bae, the faculty advisor for GUWS, when he took possession of my collection, indicated that he had special interested in my penchant for naval wargames. My fascination went back to my childhood when I became obsessed with the design and development of steel warships, from their late 19th century beginnings through two world wars, and into the Cold War. (At one point, the Soviet Voennye Morskoy Flot of Sergey Gorshkov was especially engrossing). Included in my collection was a xerox copy of Fletcher Pratt’s “Naval Wargame” of 1940, considered to be the origin of a very specific kind of wargame, one intended for play with miniature models of real warships. I never built models (even those plastic Monogram kinds), but the idea of the hunt, then engagement at sea, always intrigued me. Perhaps it was that 1960 British film, “Sink the Bismarck,” that did it — I was very impressionable then. As it turns out, Professor Bae also teaches a course at the U.S. Naval Academy.
But my memories have grown faint from that period of my life. Eventually, I became embarrassed to admit to such a militaristic avocation. Certainly, it’s an artifact of a young man’s world – even a young man of a certain generation. It could be that finally shedding myself of that awful collection now frees me to embrace those values I truly believe. Old men like me should all be pacifists!
— William Sundwick