Saturday, 21 January 2017

Time Commanders, BBC Four - "It's Wargames Jim, but not as we know it!"

This week Tom and I had some "boy time" with the television as Carolyn was out late one evening and so we decided to watch the second episode, the Battle of Waterloo, of the three part series of last year's Time Commanders shown here in the UK on BBC 4 with the first episode aired on the 12th December.

We had already seen the first programme looking at the Battle of Zama as featured in the preview publicity shot in the header and the third episode is focused on the Battle of Chalons and the Hun invasion of the western Roman empire.

This series follows on from the two previous runs in 2003 and 2005 with obvious improvements in the game engine from a modified version of Total War which both Tom and Will are familiar with. For those unfamiliar with the series I have attached a link to give an overview of the programme.

This third series has prompted comment from not only my wargaming circle but also friends who know my interests but are not wargamers themselves, interested in the series and my thoughts about it.

It was these latter conversations that caused me to think about writing this post and trying to draw out some principles that come to mind when considering TV shows like this.

My first experience of TV attempting to bring wargaming to the wider public was "Battlegound" produced by Tyne Tees television in 1978 presented by dear old Edward Woodward and Peter Gilder, featuring Peter's terrain and 28mm figures.

I had the pleasure of watching this series at Peter's home in Pickering and playing on the same terrain and with those figures in the early days of his wargame holiday centre.

Edward Woodward sets the scene in "Battleground"
The series can still be viewed on YouTube and remains for me a favourite for many reasons including a huge dollop of nostalgia.

This programme really combined the best aspects of our hobby, namely its presentation of the games and the tactics of the given period with a look at the interplay between the different arms combined with the aesthetics of the figures and terrain designed to capture the look of the period under discussion.

The gamers took time to explain their planned moves as they made them with the thinking that underpinned what they were doing and what they hoped would happen, all designed to keep the observer informed about the key question - why did you do that?

Peter Gilder in action on "Battleground"
With Battleground the casual viewer would generally come away with an understanding of why the battle was fought and what the respective armies looked like and an idea of why it was fought in the manner it was.

Battleground clearly shows its age and vintage with little attention to the issues of command and control and the inclusion of dry ice and cigar smoke battle effects, but I love it still.

Then we had the attempt at bringing "Kriegspiel" to our televisions with the "Game of War" series hosted by Angela Rippon, accompanied by Iain Dickie, Artur Harman and Dr Paddy Griffith.

The interesting aspect about this show was that the guest commanders were serving or former British military commanders who would have certainly had and displayed an understanding of the military concepts of the period they were gaming. It was really revealing to see their natural instincts in attack and defence displayed during the command phases prior to the contacts being adjudicated on the table top by the "wargame experts".

Not only that, but they brought their awareness of the likely issues their subordinates would be facing in the close up and personal battle on the maps and revealed their ideas for coping with those factors, which gave great insight into the world of the senior military commander from what ever period.

Game of War on Channel 4
However television is an audio-visual medium and I felt the series fell down in the rather serious dry approach taken by the presenters and the total lack of aesthetics that Kriegspiel is with two dimensional maps and boring looking meeples and counters - blah! 

I found the show both disappointing and fascinating at the same time but it wasn't a success running just one series of three programmes in the 1990's. I have some old video copies of the show in my loft but am not keen on revisiting them.

Thus we find ourselves in the twenty-first century with all that modern technology can bring to our TV screens to show us war as a game which gives us "Time Commanders".

So where have we arrived at with this show? I am afraid on balance, not in a good place from my perspective.

The structure of the show is to bring opposing teams together to command the respective forces in a major battle from history. These teams of three people have one thing in common in that they share a hobby or interest and perversely have no interest or commitment to understanding military history. So for example the Waterloo programme featured a team of aquarium workers versus a team of competitive archers. This should tell you a lot about where this 'show' is coming from.

They then go through a crash-course in basic military tactics centred around the weaponry of the chosen period in some sort of attempt to give them an idea on how to use the various military formations within their command.

Whilst getting their heads around all this new information about a particular weapon and its use they then get to practice their team work and leadership skills by having one of their number oversee the commands issued by their two subordinates to the game controllers sat at their computer consoles busily controlling the computer graphics presented to 'Joe Public'.

During this process we are treated to a form of 'cod-history' from two historical experts who must be embarrassed at what they are doing but with fingers tightly crossed and understanding that this is show business. This historical commentary is accompanied by a more interesting display of examples of the recreated weaponry of the period and how it was used, together with its likely effects on the enemy - perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show.

Like some wargame rules in our hobby, I get what Time Commanders is and what it isn't. It is a game, it is a show. It is not a study of the battle it purports to portray and it tells the casual viewer nothing of substance about it, that they wouldn't get from a half descent book. What it is is a great example of moving pretty pictures of battle scenes interspersed with a game show where the contestants struggle to cooperate as a team playing the game under a modicum of guidance.

My frustration is that like some wargame rules, this show is masked with this veneer of historical reference so, it seems, to give it an unwarranted quasi-educational merit that it quite clearly doesn't have.

What do I mean? 
For example, the show takes time to pick a certain warrior type and the weapon they carried and demonstrate with the help of the re-enactors how it would have been used and its effects. This as I said is very interesting, and to my mind the best part of the show, but these warriors and their weapons did not operate in isolation and were required to cooperate with other arms to support their activities and were better used against certain enemy troop types than others or in more favourable terrain than others. Without a thorough examination of these aspects it is little wonder that our naive commanders have absolutely no clue as the best use of these troops, much to the glee of the experts who happily point out to the TV audience what they should have done.

The Napoleonic period and the troop types of cavalry, infantry and artillery are the classic rock, scissor and paper comparison between the different arms. The period is marked by the fact that the French under Napoleon's guidance really mastered this concept of all arms co-operation to multiply their effects on the battlefield. 

In the period of Zama through to Waterloo, army size multiplied beyond recognition from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands requiring a command structure to be able to cope with these massive armies lumbering onto the battlefield.

So did Time Commanders build any of these concepts into its recreation of Waterloo? Was there any guidance on all arms cooperation? Was there any discussion about how realistic it was for our game commanders to issue commands one to the other, as they watched their battle unfold on the screen, compared to how it was actually done by Wellington, Blucher and Napoleon. No of course not. Was there any consideration of command groupings, brigades, divisions, corps, reserves? No and again no. So the commanders can be forgiven for just throwing forward any formation they fancied without any consideration of how they were commanded and what formations would support another in any given attack or defence.

In summary the casual observer would have learnt nothing about Waterloo or the way the armies operated in that period from this display of computer gaming.

Like I say, I do get that this is entertainment, and not education, but I find myself objecting to the way it is wrapped up in this pseudo-educational history format.

The so called Waterloo game ended up with all three armies just massing in one final rugby scrum in a hollow somewhere on the allied left flank with the commanders throwing in their senior generals in some bizarre desperate bid to win. Close run it certainly was, any relation to the Battle of Waterloo it wasn't. 

Then to add final insult to injury the so called historical explanation of what actually happened included a description of "just like in our game, there was a desperate race to occupy the key farmhouses on the front of the allied line". Really! Really!! Colonel MacDonald, his brave Guardsmen and the men of the Kings German Legion who spent the night occupying both Hougomont and La Haye Sainte must have been heaving a huge heavenly sigh of despair and lamenting the lack of historical rigour displayed, not giving them of their commanders the credit for recognising the importance of the terrain features and their preparedness for their defence - even though the KGL burnt the barn doors for fire wood overnight and the Guards left their back gate open.

If you pick up a level of frustration in my comment it centres around the fact that a friend of mine who has a very good knowledge of military history and affairs being an ex Captain in the Royal Marines, but has difficulty understanding what I and others get out of historical wargaming asked me about this Waterloo programme.

Like me he spotted the historical inaccuracies and implausibilities and asked me if that was what historical wargaming was about. At the time I hadn't seen this episode and was only basing my comments on the Zama episode that had less glaring faults but many of them similar to the Waterloo show.

That's more like it - Waterloo as it should be
In my view historical wargaming, done well, really helps shed insight into warfare and the great battles of history that other media struggle to portray in quite the same way. The hobby has a great potential to help educate the casual and not so casual enquirer into military history as well as all the other aesthetics covered on this blog. The games I and many others play bear no relation to Time Commanders other than they are based on history.

Surely it is not beyond the whit of TV producers in this age of amazing technological advances that we can't do better than what has gone before and produce an exciting, informative and entertaining explanation and recreation of the great battles of history that gives insights as never before and would encourage future generations to get involved in this fantastic hobby.

Well, I am glad I have got that off my chest. It's been bubbling away in my mind since Wednesday night.

Your comments welcome. I can't be the only one who finds this stuff slightly aggravating, or perhaps you take another view and see the positives of more historical wargaming on mainstream TV attracting people into military history. You see even I can see that aspect, even though the one outlined above outweighs it for me.


  1. I've picked away at this scab a couple of times on my blog. It comes to something when the best thing about the 'show' was Greg Wallace! who attempted to inject some life into the event by his enthusiastic capering and shouting. One couldn't even call it fun, because frankly it was a complete wasted effort. Waterloo for me was the worst of the three programmes. Did the French team ever deploy their artillery during the battle by the way. If they did I must have missed that, but to be fair I was viewing it from behind a cushion, I was that embarrassed. It would maybe have made a better programme if they had actually explained in some detail how the commanders and their men actually fought, thereby allowing the teams to at least have some understanding, and maybe have imparted some knowledge on the viewing public at the same time. All ten of them by the end of the series I suspect.

  2. You rightly highlight the central issue - it's just a "show" rather than any genuine attempt at historical interpretation or education. That was apparent from the outset by the choice of presenters and "experts" - presumably the BBC's extensive stable of "real" historians either turned it down or weren't considered bizarre/extreme enough for the producers' "vision". I've no experience of computer-based wargaming so the graphics looked very artificial and didn't impress me in the slightest - given the BBC's budget limitations, well-painted figures and realistic terrain (as in Battleground) would have been a better option but that is too old-fashioned and simplistic to ever happen. I agree the weapons demonstrations were the most interesting bits (faint praise!) but they are commonplace in so many other programmes. Not sure what the point was - not much to do with history or gaming - although it might have sold a few more copies of Total War?

  3. I ended up just watching the programmes as entertainment and gave up on the third show. Unless we missed a lot of the per-programme briefing to the teams they were pathetically uninformed (probably deliberately) and the actual 'action shots' of the games were patchy and confusing. Not the best advert for the hobby.
    If I were the commissioning editor I'd go for teams that had a better idea of history (perhaps professionals against wargamers) and show the battle using actual figures and scenery with stop motion filming, explaining what the teams intentions were supposed to be. Probably more expensive, but would it work?

  4. Bugged me as well, especially the Waterloo episode, Michael Bentine's Potty Time version was much more educational in my opinion, well apart from Blucher arriving in tanks if I remember correctly.
    Annoyed me that they announced the French cuirassiers with a picture of a carabinier but hey ho.
    Thought the brit commander was doing ok at one stage using her cavalry to push the french cavalry onto her infantry squares but then as JJ says it just developed into a mass scrum with everybody lobbed in.
    All in all a bit of a mess of a series aimed at I'm not sure what audience.

  5. This show was not for me. In this age of advanced graphics, it was a poor offering and missed the opportunity to bring history to life.
    Forty year old Battleground (all on Youtube) would knock it into a cocked hat and it even made Game of War look good.
    I wonder how many people the show managed to put off looking at wargames again. Hopefully it will not make the cut for a second series.