Friday, April 30, 2010

Marathon unbiased by historical knowledge

Played a game of Commands & Colors: Ancients the other day at a local game shop. Naturally it was good game, as the game system is great fun and the young man who played against me, an experienced player of collectible and RPGs, played well despite no prior experience in the game system.

It ended up being a very long fight, as I made it a practice to pull back any of my Perisan units that got knocked down to 1 or 2 figures. By the end of the game I had quite a collection of them. I was rather surprised that it turned out that way, because usually in Marathon battles the Greeks will close for decisive action. Now my opponent was hardly passive -- The Persians lost four complete units and only five unit are undamaged at game end (which is how many Greek units were also unhurt). But the Greek army did not make the customary charge.

As it turns out, this was, due, in large part, to the fact that my opponent was completely unfamiliar with the Battle of Marathon.

I find it hard to fault him, as he's clearly an intelligent fellow, well-spoken, is taking college classes, has no trouble understanding complex game with little instruction and is an avid player of some pretty complicated nonwargames.

Yet he didn't have the first inkling about Marathon or what had happened there. I teased him a little, saying he must have forgotten about it, but in truth, upon reflection, I wonder about that.

While Marathon and the story behind it was a staple of Western education, I wonder these days how much classical history gets taught outside of AP classes. Thinking back on it, I remembered that even in my day back in the dark ages of the 1960s there wasn't an awful lot of World History taught. I suspect most of what I know about classical history I picked up on my own. What emphasis on history there is seems to be on U.S. History, like America popped up out of nowhere.
This one reason why I'm now a big fan of the Axis & Allies games, despite all the shortcoming any wargamer can see. Sure, they're simplistic. But they put the history OUT there. That's why I'm still thrilled about the A&A miniatures lines. It's very, very likely that for many people their very first exposure to World War II, to Sherman tanks, to the USS Enterprise is from an A&A branded game. And I'm even more thrilled at some of the more recent developments. In the new A&A Pacific 1940 version of the main Axis & Allies line players get to see that it was a lot more than just the US vs. Japan with the ANZACs, British and Chinese portrayed and French and Dutch territory depicted.

The land miniatures and naval miniatures games both seem to have gone out of there way to include a lot of obscure and unusual pieces of limited utility in game terms, but a real gold mine for sparking historical curiosity. I am thinking of unit such as Mongolian cavalry, Azad Hind infantry and D0-219 fighters. In the upcoming Condition Zebra set there is going to be a Greek armoured cruiser and a Finnish coast defense ship. Neither saw a lot of combat, but both seem likely to prompt "I didn't know that!" responses among purchasers.

While I've been bringing some of my fantasy and sci fi games to the store, I have to admit I've been pleasantly surprised by the interest shown in the history-themed games I've brought in such as A&A land and naval minis and now C&C ancients. I think I'll bring Memoir '44 next week.

While I still think people should learn about Marathon in school, I don't mind wargames being a back up plan.


  1. Mr. Owen, I'm curious... did you expect your opponent to play the same as the real greeks? Even if he knew about Marathon it does not follow he would play the same way Miltiades acted. That's what I like about these games, YOU are the commander; it's YOUR call

  2. Well, certainly knowing the actual course of a battle is no guarantee that a payer will do the same. One side did lose, after all, so there's a certain incentive for that side to try something different in any case.

    But it's one things if you try something different despite knowing what the historical decision was and quite another if you don't know it -- that's what I found interesting about this game. It's very hard to disentangle from the effects of 20/20 hindsight when you're playing wargames. Especially when you are dealing with such a famous battle as Marathon. That's why it was interesting to see what might happens when a player without the background knowledge assesses his choices. It seems that the historical Greek battle plan was not so self-evident as many of us might have assumed.