Why Wargamers And Outlaw Bikers Are Similar

Or: Why do we play wargames – because we’re mad?

My evil twin Pijlie (he’s a lawyer like me, he’s 52 like me, and a wargamer, like me, but he’s pure evil, if not chaotic evil 🙂 wrote this small pearl about why we play:

“Playing teaches us that failure, learning from failure and improving oneself is an essential and unavoidable part of life and actually conditional for achieving anything at all.”

I think I will engrave that on his gravestone but I fear that he will outlive me – evil always conquers good.

I’m not so thoughtful. 

 I knock you down
step on your face
slander your name all over the place
I’ll do anything that I want to do
AND I step on your blue suede shoes.

Now and then wargamers hate me because I step on their shoes and then they ban me.

But Pijlie brought me in a thoughtful mood and made me ask myself: why do I play tabletop wargames? Or as a more general question, why do we play wargames? Those violent, childish, much too complex, everlasting games with the too expensive- never-to-be-finished miniature armies?


First, it’s the zen of painting. Battletech painter Paintitpink wrote, almost poetically

I enjoy making up my models and customising them too, but alternate between making and painting, which I also enjoy as I like making up futurist SF camo schemes. I put the oscillation between the two states as being a bit like the description of a photon acting like a particle and wave depending on how it is measured. It strikes me that motivation to do different aspects of the hobby are very much down perspective, which IMO is driven by mood.
When things go wrong I see this as an opportunity to excel; adapt, improvise and overcome. ::)
As to my collection I find that I have more than I ever had, but play less games than I ever did. The former is correlated to the latter, but not causing the latter. Playing games requires getting a group together who want to play at the same time. This also strikes me as a process that is subject to Quantum interference (especially as one gets older, as the confounding variables add friction to the process leading to frustration, which is when being mindful really helps).


Second, it’s heroic male fantasy. Being Conan. Some regard tabletop wargaming as violent but in fact it’s less violent than ANY first person shooter and more fictitious. I often tell non-players that we don’t recreate war, we recreate war movies. And war fiction, and legends. One of my favorite stories about Napoleon is how he returned from Elba in 1814 and met the troops who were sent by Louis XVIII. Government troops aimed their muskets at the great man.

The government troops took nervous aim as Napoleon’s few Polish lancers rode towards the pass and then wheeled aside to reveal the veteran soldiers of the Old Guard. These had been the shock troops of the imperial Grande Armée, thrown into battle at a decisive stage to break the enemy line. Utterly fearless and fanatically devoted to the Emperor, they had accompanied Napoleon into exile and had returned to bring him back to power. On Napoleon’s orders, the Guard advanced with their muskets reversed, with Napoleon himself at their front. The commanding officer of the government troops gave the order to fire. The soldiers disobeyed and refused.
“If there is one of you who would kill his Emperor, here I am.” Napoleon continued to walk on, to within easy range of the guns. “Soldiers, I am your emperor. Know me! If there is one of you who would kill his Emperor, here I am’”. He threw open his famous grey greatcoat, inviting a shot.
It was more than the government soldiers could bear; they abandoned their weapons and ran towards the invaders, shouting ‘Vive l’Empereur!’
They tore the white royalist cockades off their shakos and threw them to the ground. They clamoured around Napoleon, reaching out to touch him, weeping. Their great leader was back amongst them. The hapless officer offered his sword to Napoleon and may well have feared the worst. Instead he was swept into a forgiving embrace.

The courage! The greatness! The drama! The legend! I don’t disregard that thousands died at Waterloo, but my tin soldiers don’t bleed. My tabletop battles are a bloodless honour to the makers of Saving Private Ryan, the legendary greatness of Napoleon and the equally legendary adventures of Alexander the Great who singlehandedly conquered the world after having cut the Gordian knot with his sword (another great story).

It’s a thin line. Tolkien was fantastic but fantasy battles are too legendary for me. I feel ambivalent about WW2 sometimes (Waffen-SS etc) and dislike all post 1945-wargames as too realistic, although a Vietnam-tin or plastic soldier doesn’t bleed more than a Napoleonic-tin or plastic Polish lancer. But that’s a matter of taste. Napoleon is my heroic champion just like (for others) Conan the Barbarian or Luke Skywalker.

Being human

Third, the social aspect. Never underestimate the social aspect. I think it’s even the main aspect for many of us.

I play wargames and I’m member of a wargames club because I like the social interaction. Before I played roleplaying games and I was member of an improv club. I like to have fun with likeminded people. Middle-aged intellectuals interested in history are clearly my peer group. They share other traits with me: enough money (this hobby is expensive), an analytic mind, education (no illiterate will study a complex rulebook) and they are competitious (headstrong, try to outsmart you, rule discussions, they want to win – almost court). We congregate for the same reasons as members of motor gangs. A former gang member explained:

“You’ve gotta understand, we were all Army guys, a lot of us came home from Vietnam, and we got into motorcycles because we were looking for the same camaraderie and brotherhood we had in the Army (…) 
you could probably say 60 to 70 percent of outlaw motorcycle clubs are regular working guys. They have jobs. They have families. They have kids. The only thing they’re guilty of is having too much fun on the weekends.”

I never served in the army and the friend I played my first wargames against – he’s still a friend and a wargamer – is a life long self-proclaimed pacifist and conscientious objector. But amongst my peers I feel camaraderie and certain brotherhood and we have too much fun on the weekends. What do we really do? We drink beer. We roll dice. We talk about battles just like West Ham fans discuss the last match against Manchester United, and chat about the latest rulesets just like outlaw gang members chat about the newest Harley Davidson. It’s the fun of being together.

And that, my friend, keeps the dice rolling. Not the obvious reasons like military history thing, logical reasoning, the quality of certain miniatures or the art of painting alone. It’s comradeship.

I almost feel sorry that I never bought a motorbike.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s