EXAMPLE OF ILLUSTRATION Have you ever run across something you were not quite sure if it was for real or an eloborate joke? To me, Class Wargames was such a thing.
For the remainder of this article I am going to assume the book is for real, if only for the reason that should it be a joke it should be a lot more funny.
Class Wargames is a book written by Richard Barbrook. I happened upon it completely by accident, browsing for interesting books related to wargaming. The book seemed weird, unlike anything I had previously seen. From the back cover:
"Class Wargames provides a strategic and tactical manual for overthrowing the economic, political and ideological hierarchies of early-21st century neoliberal capitalism."
A manual for revolution using wargames as teaching tool? The very concept seemed so odd to me I just had to get the book.
I will try to refrain from commenting on the political ideology presented in the book and instead concentrate on what wargamers such as myself might get out of it.
I could characterize Class Wargames as an art/political project, which held multiple events, produced a short movie and a number of publications the main one obviously being this book.
It refers a lot to the Situationist International and one of its founders Guy Debord and I would say derives its whole raison d'etre from Debord's wargame called simply A Game of War.
The first part of the book is something of short history of the Situationist movement. After the May 1968 events in Paris what remained of the International more or less disintegrated in internal squabbles until Debord and the other remaining member finally dissolved it in 1972.
After this, Debord retreated to a cabin in the french countryside with his wife where he self-admittedly proceeded to "drink too much and write too little" until his suicide in 1994 (something Class Wargames neglects to mention).
During this time Debord finalized the development of his game, called A Game of War and wrote a book on it also called A Game of War. Apparently he had some plans to publish a mass market version of the game but that never came to fruition.
And this is the thing that I think gave birth to the Class Wargames project much later.
Debord's seminal work The Society Of The Spectacle is still widely available for those so inclined. Unfortunately I was unable to find copies of the book A Game Of War for any reasonable price, even the relatively recent 2007 edition seems to be out of print.
If you are only interested in the wargaming aspect, you can safely ignore the first part of the book.
The next part of the book concentrates on the events the Class Wargames group held. Essentially they managed to pose a wargame as an art project, secured grant money, built a mega-sized copy of Debord's game and travelled the world displaying it and a few others. Not bad if I may say so.
They even managed to hold an event in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg with Debord's game and a game called Reds vs. Reds which was an actual miniature wargame with simplified Contemptible Little Armies rules and Copplestone Casting's Back of Beyond figures. The presented scenario features Bolsheviks vs. Social Democrats in the battle for Kazan.
Interestingly for wargamers, the book mentions Mark Copplestone and Chris Peers as members of their organization but never goes into much detail of the extent of their involvement. Did they just produce rules and figures suitable for the project? I know I'd be tempted by the prospect of presenting a game at the Winter Palace...
This section of the book is perhaps most interesting for wargamers, even though it lacks detail. Maps are presented and an overview of the game scenarios and forces, but they're not detailed enough to play. There are also a few errors. Some of the full gaming material is available on the project website though (see below).
The final third of the book concentrates on the utility of playing wargames in the context of a revolutionary political movement. This section is an odd mix of military history anecdotes (some from very one-sided viewpoint) and their supposed application to modern political struggle.
The approach is oddly split. On one hand following H.G. Wells the playing of wargames is supposed to show the futility of war and give people the chance to play Trotsky or Che on a game board so they don't have to do it in real life. On the other, the wargame is also supposed to teach crucial skills for the class struggle.
The book is well researched with ample citations on nearly every page. Some of them are even related to wargaming, citing works by Peter Perla and John Curry. Tough I have to say citing Harry Pearson's Achtung Schweinehund! reminded me of the time I put GURPS Psionics as a citation in my high school paper on parapsychology.
The maps presented are of good quality and have some color, but there are no other illustrations bar some artistic photographs of people playing the games.
The project has a web site at https://www.classwargames.net/ though updates have dwindled since 2016 with nothing new since 2019. Apparently Mr. Barbrook has turned his attention from gaming to cybernetic communism judging by his latest publications.
You can find the Class Wargames movie on the web site as well as full rules for both A Game Of War and Reds vs. Reds and the 1802 Battle of Fort Bedourete scenario for Commands & Colors Napoleonic.
Buried in the news section is material for a mass participatory role-playing excercise called Taste of Power, where stunning and brave corbynites must fight against vile blairites in the local council.
There is also link to a game called Imperialism In Space (briefly mentioned in the book), but unfortunately the link is dead.
The book details several games played.
The most important game in the book and also probably the one least familiar to wargamers.
Debord's game is a board wargame not quite as abstract as chess yet not a detailed simulation either. Full rules are available on the website.
The game is strategic in nature, emphasizing maneuver and supply lines (called lines of communication in the game). I don't know how familiar Debord was with modern board wargames, but his creation has such a unique vibe that I suspect not very. This is not a bad thing, if this was just a simple rehashing of some simple hex and CRT wargame, it would have little value. Debord does bring a unique approach to the game.
The game is played on a 25 by 20 grid, which contains set asymmetrical terrain (two mountain ranges each with a pass). The armies are identical and always the same, consisting of infantry, cavalry and artillery plus two generals. In addition there are forts and two arsenals per player. Capturing the enemy arsenals wins the game and there is a heavy emphasis on maintaining a supply line to them, units out of supply will be unable to move or fight.
Each turn both players move up to five pieces (roughly one third of the initial army size) and may conduct one attack.
There is no random element in the game. All information is on the board and combat is a simple arithmetics excercise of comparing total attack and defense values of the units involved.
In the original rules players are free to choose their deployment, but in playtesting Class Wargames quickly found this lead to boring stalemate games. To break the deadlock they devised a number scenarios which simply dictate the initial deployment of troops, forts and arsenals. These scenarios were named after famous historical battles like Marengo.
I'm actually tempted to try the rules out. Just need to get the gridded board somehow.
Reds vs. Reds is a simplified version of Contemptible Little Armies, apparently specifically written for the Winter Palace exhibition and only a single scenario is ever played.
If you are interested in Contemptible Little Armies, you can use this free version to get a taste of the rules.
Class Wargames devised a new scenario for Commands & Colors depicting the 1802 Battle of Fort Bedourete during the Haitian rebellion. No other scenarios are played.
There is a map provided for a specific non-historical scenario played, but otherwise Little Wars was played as is. They even got Britain's toy soldiers and spring-loaded cannons for the game.
Class Wargames is an odd book. From wargaming point of view its main attraction is shedding light on Debord's game. From the political viewpoint I'm not convinced this would really win anyone over to the cause.
It seems mostly to be a sort of journal for the Class Wargames project. Swindling grant money for an art project and then travelling across the world playing wargames -- in places wargames would possibly otherwise never be allowed. Not bad. Maybe they even managed to win over some new players. Nothing wrong with that...
...except for one thing. The self-proclaimed goal of the Class Wargames project is to politicize an apolitical hobby.
That is something I simply can not stand behind. The hobby should be open to everyone. We should be able to play wargames without looking for a revolutionary justification for scenarios played. And we should be able to put aside our differences and meet at the gaming table as equal participants, shake hands and congratulate each other for a good game.
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Copyright 2003-2021 Mikko Kurki-Suonio