Warmachine: The joy of playing with noobs

I’ve been playing Warmachine for about three and a half years now, and I think it is fair to say that during that time, I reached a point where my love for the game started to wane. I’m not sure it was one specific thing, but rather an accumulation of a bunch of small issues, negative experiences, and constant exposure to the internet that caused my relationship with the game to sour.

This manifested itself as burnout. At some point, I stopped going to tournaments. I started finding them to be too stressful. Having to lug army boxes across town on the bus and spend an entire day at a game store just became too much. A one-day tournament is half your weekend. There could be long breaks between rounds where you have nothing to do but look at the wall of products in the store for the 34th time and struggle to manage your anxiety level. You eventually tire of the same basic scenario, only with six variations that have different geometry. You end up stressing out over your next matchup – am I going to end up having to play my next round against “that guy,” or the guy who brought the really scary list that absolutely dunks on my army and makes the game almost pointless? What if I lose list chicken and am trapped for the next two hours in a hellishly bad matchup?

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For the last time, Harkevich is not OP!

On top of all that, there is the pressure to perform. In competitive pursuits, all too often, how much you are valued in your community and your own self-worth gets tied to your win/loss record. So, you end up pushing too hard, stressing out over every little mistake, trying to git gud and not fall off the competitive play treadmill. And do it all on clock. And when you finally win… well, a not insignificant amount of the time, you are quickly reminded that it is no great accomplishment because this model in your army is OP, that model is OP, and your entire faction is the easy mode newbie faction that any moron can win with.

Between that and consistent exposure to negativity on the internet on top of some baseline social anxiety, I was starting to get burned out on the game.

It was against this backdrop that a coworker expressed some interest in wargaming. He was a Lego collector so we started by doing a demo of Mobile Frame Zero, after which I offered him a demo of Warmachine. Of course, the first step was that I would have to paint up a second army, but I figured it was worth it.

So, I got together some Cygnar models and met him in the dingy basement of my FLGS for a battlebox game. I compressed all the important rules down to one sheet of paper and gave it to him, explained a few things, and ran him through the activation of a warjack, letting his Juggernaut spend some focus beating on my Ironclad. Then, we lined up against each other with a simple scenario consisting of a single circle in the middle of the table, and bashed each other’s faces in.

He enjoyed it and came back for more. But, as we gradually worked up from battlebox games to 35 points with themes and more complex scenarios, a funny thing started happening.

I started having fun playing Warmachine again.

Fun? That’s heresy!

In the Warmachine community it can sometimes be easy to lose track of the idea that the game is supposed to be fun. If you’re on the internet, most of the media you consume is focused on competitive play. Just about all of the micro-celebrities who are worshipped in this community are people who have won major tournaments. When you get caught up in this scene, you often end up grinding out practice games, paying the same few scenarios over and over and it can start to get boring. Then you have to keep it up because there is always a new boogeyman list in CID that you need to either figure out how to play or figure out how to beat to stay on top. “This is Warmachine; it’s not supposed to be fun!” or something to that effect is a common joke, but there can be a grain of truth to it.

At some point, it can just become mentally and emotionally draining. Your hobby starts to feel like work, and you start thinking you would rather stay home and paint than go to a tournament.

But, playing smaller games in a more casual setting with a friend was completely different. There wasn’t the stress of trying to perform at a tournament, because it was just a fun casual game and my objective was to help him learn and show him the possibilities of the game. We weren’t playing Steamroller, so we could set up whatever fancy terrain we wanted (including hills!) and create a little spectacle that looked fairly cool. Once he got the jist of it, we could finish a game in a reasonable amount of time, and if there was an early assassination, we had time to re-rack and try again. In short, we were playing for fun.

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Pictured: fun

The other thing is that at lower points levels, the information overload is lessened. One of the most challenging experiences in Warmachine is looking at your opponent’s list and realizing that you are up against an entire table of “what does this model do again?” At 35 points, there is still a lot of depth due to the caster and her interactions with the army, but the complexity is a lot less overwhelming when you aren’t up against the likes of multiple units and six different beasts, all with different stat profiles, roles and animi. Since you are less overwhelmed, you tend to have more complete of a tactical picture and can really play a good game with that engaging back and forth as the battle ebbs and flows rather than a “what just happened?” game where one feels “gotcha’d” into submission.

Fun is infectious

The other interesting thing about new players is that they often bring a sense of wonder into the game that has long since vanished from the heart of the veteran player. Everything is cool and new to them, and that excitement is contagious. Getting new players to try a power attack for the first time is just such an awesome cinematic experience that you can’t help but smile as his big ugly beast throws your giant robit at a swarm of infantry. Seeing the guy I’m getting into the game start talking about lists, lore and painting and getting excited about it gets me excited and has rekindled my passion for the game.

It also reminded me of why I, and likely why a lot of other players, got into the game. I didn’t start playing because someone told me that there was this intense tournament grind and maybe someday I could become the next Iron Gauntlet winner or go to the WTC. I started playing because me and the guy who got me a battlebox for Christmas one year went out one night had fun pushing our little painted dudes around. And also because I got the starter box and read about how Sorscha was this badass warrior wizard who commanded this awesome giant coal-powered robit to deliver a giant axe to the faces of all foes of the motherland.

The bottom line

New players are the lifeblood of a community, but judging by some of the internet chatter that I’ve seen, some players consider it a chore to onboard them into the game. Playing below 75 points in a non-tournament standard format and using lists that are a little watered down to provide an enjoyable experience rather than the optimum way to stomp someone into the ground is anathema to a certain section of the player base. If you are stuck on that competitive treadmill, taking a night away from practice games for tournaments to help someone who can barely allocate focus is a costly proposition.

However, new players are the lifeblood of a game like Warmachine. But don’t play a battlebox game with a new player for the game or for the “meta”; do it for yourself. Rather than being a chore, if you go into it with the right attitude, you may find bringing new players into the game to be more enjoyable than doing yet another 75 point steamroller game. And, if your enthusiasm for the game is flagging, seeing it through the eyes of a new player can help remind you what got you into the game to begin with.

Bonus: Hot take!

After a few 35 point games, I asked my coworker if he would like to move on up to 50 and then the tournament standard of 75. He told me that he was comfortable at this level and didn’t want to add to it for the time being. Which, it turned out I was completely fine with, as by this time, I had learned that Warmachine is much more fun at 35 points than at the tournament standard of 75.

Thoughts on judging

Whenever we go to a modelling competition, one aspect that always gets a lot of attention is the judging. It seems as though everyone has an opinion on the judging, and rarely is it the case that those with the most vocal opinions think that the judging was fine.

Now, I’m not going to get into the controversy over whether Jimbo’s P-69 Thundercat should have beaten Cletus’ Blackburn Bastard for best in show at the East Westington IPMS show three years ago, but I do think it is worthwhile to explain the difference between different judging systems and the pros and cons of each, if only to help out new people. IPMS USA is currently discussing switching from 1-2-3 to open system at their nationals, and the style of judging (if you even plan to make it a competitive thing) is one important decision for anyone looking at starting up a local show.

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This guy gets it

There are a couple important caveats to this article that I would like to address up front. This article should not be taken as me being salty over any decision at a recent show, or upset that any show doesn’t use my favourite judging system. That is not the case, and I’ve intentionally saved this for publication at an appropriate time in between shows so it doesn’t read like sour grapes or criticizing any particular show organizers.

Second, I think at the end of the day, it is important to keep things in perspective. Everyone who is proud enough of their work to show it off is a winner, and the true prizes are the friends you make along the way. While competitions can be fun, getting too competitive about your hobby is a surefire road to misery and frustration (see: why I don’t do competitive Warmachine anymore).

Judging systems

The first, and probably the most established, judging system is IPMS style 1-2-3 judging. Here, there are multiple categories and a team of judges simply chooses the best, 2nd best, and 3rd best model on the table. While this may sound subjective, judges are trained to judge models according to standards laid out in the judging document. In these standards, craftsmanship is king. They have wisely chosen to avoid judging historical accuracy to prevent fistfights over the proper shade of RLM 69 or the number of rivets on the glacis plate on the real thing. And since they’re focused mainly on craftsmanship, they tend to be fairly objective – a missed seam line is a missed seam line, regardless of a judge’s level of affinity for the subject.

We also have the open system which is common in figure shows. Instead of competing against each other, modellers are competing against a set of objective criteria. There are generally Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals, and each entrant simply gets what the judges think their work deserves. This means that there can be any number of people winning any colour of medal – and zero is still a valid number.

Next, we have systems that are based on rubrics. This is common for Gunpla builders, and I believe it is often used for AMPS shows and paint scores in 40K tournaments, but I’ve never been to either of those. Here, there are a number of categories representing various aspects of a build – construction, painting, modifications, etc. Points are deducted for mistakes and added for things that are particularly well done, and at the end of the day, points are added up across all the categories and all the judges, generating a total score. This score can be then used either to rank the models most points to least, or give out awards to anyone who scores a certain number of point.

Finally, we have a simple people’s choice award, where attendees vote on their favourites and he who gets the most votes wins. The voter base can either be fellow entrants or the general public.

Of course, the differences between these systems aren’t always set in stone. Figure contests regularly feature best in show awards in addition to the gold-silver-bronze system. IPMS shows may use the open system for junior categories, so as not to crush the dreams of any young modeller. An open system can judge every model individually, or a modeller’s work as a whole, only giving out one award per category for his best work. And any show may incorporate a “people’s choice” award in addition to the judged criteria. Further, there are variations in these – IPMS contests can have “no sweeps” rules to prevent one person from taking home all the prizes in the categories, GSB style contests can judge and award every single model or an artist’s work as a whole, and rubrics can be either extremely detailed or very basic and can weigh different aspects of a build.

My thoughts

All of these systems have their pros and cons, and they are all heavily ingrained in the culture of the communities that have adopted them.

The IPMS style is nice and simple, and you can get a lot of judging done quickly. A simple glance over the table can greatly narrow down the number of models that are in contention and that a judge really needs to examine closely. However as anyone who has tried to organize a model show can attest, when you have very diverse builds, the sheer number of categories required to ensure that you have like competing against like, that there are not too many or too few entries per category, and that every possible thing that can show up has a category, ends up becoming a bit of a nightmare. Not to mention when the number of entries in each category is invariably much different than what you planned, judges often have to split or merge categories for there to be any semblance of fair competition. And then how the judges tweaked the categories on the day of the contest can be a bone of contention for those who didn’t win.

Further, there will always be some categories that end up being more hotly contested than others, so in some ways it is less of an objective measure. You can win first place in your category either by doing an amazing model and beating the other couple dozen amazing 1:48 aircraft, or you could be the only entrant in an obscure category and take home first place with a mediocre entry. I know that personally, the amount of hardware that I bring home at an IPMS show within driving distance depends about as much on who else shows up as it does on my quality of work.

There is also a risk of disappointment for those who don’t place. Anyone from 4th to last has no idea how well they did. As one example, I judged a competition a few months ago where we narrowed it down to the final four, figured out the winner and runner-up fairly easily, and then spend a lot of time deliberating over who gets the bronze and who goes home with nothing. If I hadn’t talked to the guy who was in 4th place afterwards, he may have been discouraged simply because he would have no way of knowing how close he was to placing.

Finally, because the IPMS style is comparing the models to each other, there are some logistical challenges. You need to have all the models on the table before you start judging, whereas with points systems and open systems, if the judges know they are going to have their work cut out of them, they can simply judge models as they arrive or get a head start before the entry deadline.

Open System

The open system has a lot of advantages. The main one is that you aren’t competing against each other, you are competing against yourself. How you do on the day doesn’t depend on who else shows up. This gives you a more accurate representation of where your skills are at, and it can help you set realistic goals, such as if you won Bronze one year, to go for Silver the next.

The open system also doesn’t require as many categories as the 1-2-3 system, which makes things a lot simpler. However, the judges tend to have a bit more work cut out for them as under a 1-2-3 system, a quick glance can often knock out a majority of the entrants who are uncompetitive and cut down on the number of models that need a serious look. The open system requires the judges to look at every model on the table (or, at least, everyone’s best work in a category) and give it its appropriate award.

I also think the prevalence of the open system contributes to the friendliness and mostly drama-free nature of the miniature painting community. When you are very rarely directly competing against each other, you are more invested in helping each other build their skills. When your friend wins a gold medal, it’s not bittersweet because he beat you to get it.

Rubrics and points

As for rubrics, to be honest, I’m not a big fan for a few reasons. First, I feel like they are popular because they have the appearance of objectivity, however I’m not sure they are actually that much more objective than something like the IPMS style, where there are no rubrics and the judges just confer and make a call. The theory is that simply choosing the best is open to favouritism, and points systems make things more objective. However, there is nothing preventing a biased judge from simply giving their favourites more points than the rest, either consciously or unconsciously.

Second, rubrics encourage people to build to the rubric if they want to be successful in the competition. Instead of simply approaching the build how they want, people end up having to tick off a number of boxes to get the maximum score or at least a competitive score in the category. For example, competitions that award points for conversions and customization may encourage people to do unnecessary modifications just so they can say that they did a conversion and get the points for that category. If the rubric isn’t well-designed, then you could have situations where it discourages creativity by rewarding certain specific style choices – for example, punishing an automotive modeller who enters a showroom clean car by giving him a big fat zero in the weathering category.

Can the people be trusted?

People’s choice is an interesting one and it makes judging a lot easier by simply removing the need for judges altogether. That said, in model shows as in democracy, the people can’t always be trusted. People tend to be attracted to the biggest, shiniest model with the most blinking lights. However, said model may, on closer inspection, have a ton of seam lines, alignment issues, and problems with the finish which are not apparent to the layman at a quick glance. Good models can get passed over simply because they aren’t the biggest, most eye-catching thing on the table. However, just having a show with a ballot can make for a much more chilled out atmosphere than a judged contest.

Feedback?

While feedback is good, not everyone wants feedback and not all feedback is useful. If you missed a mold line, being told to clean up your mold lines doesn’t really help you as a modeller. You already know you’re supposed to deal with that; that’s not new information for you. However, feedback such as new weathering techniques, suggestions on diorama composition, colour theory and lighting, etc., can actually help bring you to the next level.

I also feel that when it comes to feedback, some people are genuinely interested in improving their skills and progressing as a modeller, and some people just want to be salty that they didn’t win. They don’t want honest critique, they want to know why they lost and use it as ammo to grumble.

Again, I feel like the GSB system lends itself more to honest feedback because judges can tell you what you can do to bring yourself to the next level, rather than comparing your entry to other models and saying “well, Jim over there made something nicer.” Knowing what you can do to go from Bronze to Silver is much more valuable information than knowing which mold line you missed or what tiny flaw in your model caused the other guy to beat you.

If you really want feedback, track down a judge and ask him or her for it. Or, just talk to your friends and fellow competitors and get their feedback. Detailed feedback on a score sheet sounds nice, but it is onerous for the judges and it may not be as useful as simply having a conversation about your work with friends, regardless of whether they have a fancy judge title or not.

Prize Support

This is a tricky subject. I mean, upon initial glance, prize support is good, right? Everyone loves free stuff, and the more expensive free stuff, the better. If we can get hundreds of dollars of stuff and give it to the winner, then that’s great and it will encourage more people to join in, right?

However, there are some issues with large prize pools that may outweigh the draw of free stuff. When you have prizes like free trips to Japan to compete in the GBWC world cup or the $10,000 Crystal Brush, the stakes get higher and competition starts to get more intense. You can see this in things like Magic and Warhammer tournaments with large prize pools; by raising the stakes, you encourage people to be more cutthroat about things and increase the risk of salt and unsportsmanlike behaviour. IPMS deals with this by insisting that the prizes don’t have much if any intrinsic value – instead of wads of cash or expensive uber-kits, you are rewarded with a small medal or trophy, bragging rights, and the warm fuzzy feelings you get from recognition by your peers.

Further, in a smaller community, if you have a small number of people who are winning all the time, it can start to feel a little discouraging for the rest of the modellers. If you have entry fees and the same people winning all the prizes all the time, it can start to feel like same guy is taking your lunch money every day and this can encourage people who don’t have a chance to not show up, not participate, and not learn and grow by competing.

I’m not saying that prize support isn’t appreciated or that free kits isn’t a nice thing to have, but if people want the prizes badly enough that it starts to negatively affect their sportsmanship and attitude towards the competition, it can be a double-edged sword. How much is too much, and if you do have a generous sponsor, what portion of the prize pool should go to reward performance in the competition versus participation prizes like raffles, silent auctions, and door prizes, is worth some careful consideration.

Conclusion

Unsurprisingly, given my background, I like the open system. However, I feel like at the end of the day, too much competition can be unhealthy and perhaps there is something to be said for doing exhibitions and pageants instead of competitions. Aside from the occasional outburst of drama due to disagreements with a judge’s decision, it is all too easy to fall into a trap of comparing oneself to others in a hobby that should be about relaxation and, if you want to push it, self-improvement. Regardless of the format of the competition, one would be well served to go into it caring more for the friends you make and the inspiration on the tables than the awards you win.

Painting is Good: A Response

So, a thing happened on the Warmachine internet today

While I am loath to start an internet fight, especially with someone who has way more pull in the Warmachine community, it seems as though I have been called out a little with a couple comments in the article that seem to be referring to my articles suggesting the use of painting as a tiebreaker or to grant small in-game bonuses for painted armies is a toxic attitude that has no place in the game.

So, I’m going to lay out my thoughts on the subject and provide, if not a counterpoint, at least a basis for some discussion that is hopefully a little more positive than the last time I talked about this.

Emotions

I will acknowledge here that this is a subject where emotions are running high. People who are trying to get painted but aren’t there yet can feel bad when others talk about how awesome it is to play it painted. Those who try to push for fully painted events or encouraging painting in organized play are occasionally branded “paint-shamers” (protip: don’t google “paint shaming”) and told they don’t belong. Even saying something as innocuous as “fighting the war on the grey hordes” can be cause offense. Some competitive players feel strongly that painting interferes with the purity of the competitive game and that models are and should be nothing more than stats on bases. And those of us who started with Warhammer may have had some traumatic experience arguing with a judge over the three colour rule or chafing at biased paint judging. In this sort of environment, I don’t have particularly high hopes for a non-heated discussion and am pretty sure that this question isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon but… I don’t know, I guess I’m enough of a masochist that I’m ready to wade into this pool once again.

Everyone CAN paint

First, I would argue that the occasional painting requirement isn’t as exclusionary as people say it is, for the simple fact that (just about) everyone can paint.

We live in a golden age of miniature painting. There are tons of products out there, from Army Painter colour matching spray primers to GW Contrast Paints designed to get your army painted up quickly. On top of that, the internet has made a ton of content available for free on how to get your army painted up quickly. Duncan can show you how to paint a space marine in 10 minutes, and if you don’t like the basecoat-wash-drybrush method, you can check out sketch style or just slather the thing in contrast paints.

Incidentally, I would guess that a not-insignificant portion of those who don’t like painting are victims of a bad experience when they were just starting out. Something like trying to paint Army Painter yellow straight over black primer because they don’t know any better, and then having a bad time, getting frustrated, and quitting. These are people who can be shown the light.

Perhaps there are a small number of people out there who have very specific disabilities that mean they legitimately can’t paint but which doesn’t affect their ability to play the game, however the intersection on that Venn diagram is so small that this argument isn’t particularly meaningful, and communities can band together to help those people. If someone I know wants to go to a fully painted tournament but has an issue like severe carpal tunnel, I’ll bust out the airbrush help him at least get to a three colour minimum quickly.

Now, “I can’t paint,” “I don’t want to paint,” “I don’t have time to paint because I have seven kids and work 12 hours a day,” and “I don’t have time to paint because I play six hours of Overwatch a night” are all fundamentally very different arguments, and this is where discussions often go south. However, before we dismiss the very concept of rewarding painting or having a fully painted event out of hand as “not inclusive,” we should recognize that “not having access to a painted army” isn’t some sort of immutable characteristic like the colour of one’s skin.

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Born this way!

Painting makes the game better

This one shouldn’t be controversial, but it probably is. I feel like there is something about seeing two fully painted armies go at it that makes for more of an enjoyable experience for everyone. Privateer Press recognizes this; it is why they strongly encourage people to play it painted in the steamroller packet and put a lot of effort into promoting the hobby aspect of the game.

Further, I would argue that given the importance of target selection in Warmachine, painted armies improve competitive play. It’s a lot easier to pick out which dude is a solo or unit attachment at a distance when the armies are painted. Even if they aren’t well-painted or painted in the studio colours, just blocking in some colour or doing some dry brushing allows your opponent to pick out distinct shapes like the tiny emblem on the shoulder pads that the unit attachment has from across the table much easier than if they are looking at a sea of unpainted plastic or black primer.

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See how much easier it is to distinguish the UA and Leader of the Shocktroopers on the right for both players. Now imagine they were unpainted…

Painting attracts new players

I do think playing it painted does help bring new players into the game. I’ve been spending the past couple months getting a coworker into the game, and one of the first things I did when I embarked on that journey was painting up some Cygnar so I could play the bad guys fully painted against him. My feeling is that this, along with taking some care to make the tables look good, helped get him hooked much more efficiently than if I were to roll up with the blue plastic battlebox and duking it out on a table that looks like the battle of the Wal-Mart parking lot. Now, he’s making his first big purchases and watching both battle reports and painting videos.

Further, if we are playing in a highly public space, such as a large, multi-game convention, then we are competing for people’s eyeballs with games like 40K, Age of Sigmar, Star Wars Legion, and X-Wing. By putting in an effort to make the game look good, we can attract more attention than if we were rocking grey plastic.

What would I like to see?

I’m not saying that you should have your army fed into a wood chipper if you dare show up with unpainted models, or that game stores should scold people who dare show bare plastic in public. However, all too often, it feels as though the hobby aspect is an afterthought in Warmachine, and as someone who appreciates the aesthetic aspect of the game, that’s something that is occasionally frustrating.

I think it would be nice to have something baked into the game or into organized play to encourage painting. The catch is, I’m not sure what that would be. I’ve thrown out a couple suggestions in the past like a small in-game bonus for painted armies or using proportion of models painted as a tiebreaker, but the negative reception that these ideas received in the WMH community (apparently suggesting an alternative method of doing tiebreakers is a “toxic attitude” now?) pretty much renders them a non-starter.

I do think having painting awards at the local level is a good idea. Unlike Jaden, I don’t think they need to necessarily always be raffles. The beauty of a painting award is that, unlike a tournament prize where there aren’t really any alternatives to just giving it to the person who won all her games, there are lots of ways to do a painting award and you can mix it up so everyone has a chance and you keep the competition fresh. Best army, best unit, or best single model. For unit or single model, you could require them to have been painted within a certain period of time so the guy whose Sorscha won Crystal Brush in 2005 doesn’t keep bringing the same model. You could decide by popular vote or, if you have one shark who is winning the painting competition all the time, you could enlist her as a judge and have her choose the winners and offer any desired feedback. Or, yes, you could have a raffle for everyone who has accomplished something like field a fully painted army or finish painting a unit in the last couple months.

I would also point out as an aside that, right now, the problem of having one or two people from the meta winning every time and being a discouragement to other players is a reality for tournament prizes, though it is rarely talked about. One of the guys in my meta won the big tournament at Lock and Load a couple weeks ago, so I have zero chance of winning any tournament that he shows up to (not that I hold it against him or anything). It seems a little unusual that the best player winning the tournament all the time isn’t seen as an issue, while the best painter winning best painted all the time is a reason why we can’t have painting awards. If, at a tournament, the only prizes are given for competitive performance, then you risk harbouring resentment when the newer or less-skilled players just have their lunch money in the form of entry fees taken month-in and month-out.

As for painting requirements at tournaments, I don’t think they should be necessary all the time. However, I would like to see a fully painted, premier-level tournament format officially supported by Privateer Press. Since they not only got rid of all painting requirements in their Masters and Champions format, but worded their packet in such a way that you aren’t allowed to run an officially sanctioned Masters or Champions event with a painting requirement, I haven’t heard of any fully painted event within 1000 km. In effect, the number of fully painted tournaments that I can go to has dropped to essentially zero, and that is kind of a disappointment for me.

I feel like the sort of big conventions that you plan your attendance at six months out are a great venue for a fully painted event. Since the people who want to travel great distances to go to these events are making travel plans months in advance, they have a lot of time to get a couple lists painted. With space and time for multiple tournaments, Iron Arena, and other programming, people who don’t have a fully painted army don’t have to twiddle their thumbs. For people like me, we are more likely to make the trek because a fully painted event is a special experience, and it’s not like we are ever going to qualify for the super top level invitational tournaments that do have painting requirements like WTC or the Iron Gauntlet finals.

Trash Talk: Not just for painting!

The impetus for Jaden to write this article was a meme of someone making a disappointed face that his opponent was unpainted. First, I’m as guilty as anyone of using sarcasm in my writing and having it not be conveyed properly in text, or having a dry sense of humour that doesn’t always come across as intended. I’m sure the offending meme was meant as a humourous, tongue in cheek joke, however it was evidently taken serious enough to spawn now multiple articles in the Warmachine blogosphere.

However, if we are to talk about “paint-shaming,” I feel like that is only one small part of how we treat each other in the Warmachine community. Even if you consider the occasional tongue in cheek reference that I’ve made in the worst possible way, I’ve still taken a lot more crap for playing “easy mode” Khador (while Cryx, not Khador, was dominating the tournament scene, but I digress) or not being good enough at the game than I’ve ever dished out over painting.

There is a line between gentle ribbing, friendly trash talk, and stuff that comes across as disrespectful or bullying. That line can be in different places for everyone; I know for me, there was a time when I was doing more tournament play and I would get very sensitive to comments about how I only won because models like Harkevich or Torch in my army were OP because it was taken as an attack on my abilities at a point in my life when I still cared about being good at the game.

Further, internet meme culture is notoriously harsh, particularly in nerdy, niche communities like Warmachine. There are some forums and facebook groups that I personally try to avoid because they are a cesspool of negativity and they make me not want to play the game, so I can see why there would be a negative reaction to something like this.

So, are memes making fun of unpainted armies wrong? Maybe – after all, a little trash talk between close friends who know where each other’s line is is a lot different than going up to a random new player and bullying him – but is it any more wrong than memes portraying Khador players as unskilled mouth-breathers who just derp derp charge and win despite their lack of intelligence, or Cygnar players as whiny losers who don’t know what to do if they can’t crutch on Haley2, or Legion players as whiners who complain whenever they are told that there is a rule in the game that applies to them?

Conclusions

No, no one has to paint. However, Warmachine kind of has a reputation as the worst looking miniature game on the market and that’s not because the model sculpts are bad. I think finding ways to encourage painting that, while they are not judgemental, reinforce the idea that painting is a part of this hobby and is not a distant second fiddle to competitive play, is important. I’d like to see everyone encouraged to at the very least set having a fully painted army as an aspirational goal, because even in this golden age it does take time and sometimes you can’t get all your dudes painted before the big game. The more painted armies out there, the better it is for everyone.

Oh, and also don’t tell people who like painting or don’t absolutely hate painting requirements to go play 40K instead. That’s not helping grow the Warmachine community either.

Warhammer School Clubs, Part 4: Talkin’ ‘bout Warhammer with Kids

The following article was written by a friend who works as an Early Child Educator in a before and after school program. It is about his participation in the Warhammer School Clubs program, a program by Games Workshop intended to promote the hobby within schools. This article is part four, see part one, part two, and part three.

With 15 children participating, we had a pretty large group to contend with. During this past summer, the local Games Workshop came and did a presentation to the small summer group that we had. That was about 8 kids. He told me that was about the ideal number for a painting workshop, so having 15 is going to be something of a new challenge.

We did have some parents come and chat about the Club after receiving the sign-up letter. There was no concerns about the contents of the program, rather the biggest issues had to do with scheduling – trying to figure out how to work around hockey and dance practices, and all the other extracurriculars children do nowadays. The parents were really open to wargaming in the classroom, and I am grateful for their openness and the trust they’ve put in our program.

Session One: Vows of the Knights of Warhammer

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January 23rd was our first session. Our after school program is a “roll-away” program, meaning that we share the gym with the school, and have to roll all our cabinets and material out each day and put it away each night. This is obviously a lot of work, however the upside to this is that our classroom is really adaptable when it comes to set up. So I put out one of our carpets and set up a whiteboard to make a “quiet” area in which the group could meet and not have the conversations interrupted.

And there was a lot of conversation.  These two first sessions in the curriculum book are very “talk” heavy. I tried real hard to keep the time to 20 mins, since some of the children where having a very hard time sitting still and talking about “codes of conduct” and “Leadership Roles” in the abstract. This is especially true since the kids didn’t really know what they were getting themselves involved with — they were under the impression that it was mostly “painting tiny figures” and not working out rules and such.

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Being more student focused is an important aspect of the club. While they are in school, students don’t get much of a say on the rules or how their classrooms are run. They are told the school matrix without having any real say or buy-in. Most teachers are used to that kind of teaching within the classroom. I am lucky enough to be a part of a more open ended before-and-after program, where the curriculum is more malleable and I am allowed to craft my own classroom style.

I took this as an opportunity to experiment with greater democratic organizing within the classroom. The children developed their own “Code of Conduct” that made sense to them democratically. This allows for greater ownership over the program, a greater buy-in from the children to follow the boundaries set by them. At the age that we’re operating at (middle/late school age) the majority of them know how to behave in this kind of situation, and those outliers that have difficulty are more likely to be focused when the proper behavior is reinforced by a group mentality.

The group determined what our club would be called. Some suggestions where “Warhammer Wednesday club”, “Warhammer Club”, etc.  One that stood out was “World War One Warhammer Edition Club”. The children went with “Warhammer Alliance”, which is ironic, because the school club is called Warhammer Alliance in the UK (although they choose this because the acronym, WHA, is shares with the World Hockey Association, which is the league our local professional hockey team started in).  

There were plenty of children excited to volunteer for student led positions, even if they didn’t quite understand how much work was going into those roles. The children picked between themselves and elected those positions. I tried my hardest to encourage each position to have two children, one boy and one girl, to take those positions. The hardest to fill was the “Librarian” or Loremaster position, since it involved a lot of reading, but afterwards I gave the girls who were elected I gave them the free previews of the Warhammer Adventure books I had.

At the end, I asked the children to take a knee and repeat the “Oath of the Valiant Warrior” which is in the curriculum book. At this point we’d been talking for about 20 mins, so some of the kids were getting pretty squirrely. Instead of repeating the Oath after me, they yelled incomprehensible screams. It took a moment to give a reminder, but when we were done, I told them to rise, “As Knights of Warhammer!”

After all the children had dispersed, two girls asked if they could get out the boxes we’re keeping the figures in. They set up a space in our reading area, where they used the models in their play. It was a family drama, with a fantasy twist, where magic cousins and families going to “fight” their enemies. It’s really special to see how they can use these fantasy figures and create their own narrative with them.

Session Two: The Ethics of War(hammer)

The Second of the “talking Sessions” was about the ethics and morality of warfare and a dive into the factions, their motivations and the ethics of each factions. I drew out these weird half circles to have three different points of reference when talking about the morality of war and the factions: “good”, “bad” and “maybe”.  I was thinking, moral compass, compasses are round, so how about make a round chart for them to plot their ideas on? Reflecting on it, this was totally over complicated and a simple line graph which they could show the spectrum between “good” and “bad” would have been far easier.  

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The discussion on war was probably one of the most interesting group discussions I’ve had with children. It brought out a lot of the children’s personal family history, how grandparents and parents were touched by warfare in the past. The hurt involved that still affect their families to this day even if direct family members have not been in combat situations, it’s was really a deep conversation we don’t usually have in the “play focused” environment.

After talking about the general morality of war, we moved into learning a little about the Age of Sigmar world and characters in it. This is where our Master Librarian really stepped up – she had taken the Warhammer Adventures preview all the way though and wanted to share what she had learned. She was most excited to share the different realms – fire, life, beasts, metal, etc – that the characters have moved though, and the battles between the barbarians and the Stormcast. She also shared that the first chapters of the “Lifestone” novel were sad since the main characters mother dies.

After this explanation from our young Librarian, we went though some of the different factions in the Age of Sigmar, and how the kids saw them on the moral compass. They had some interesting ideas – I’m not sure if you could say that Ironjaw Orks are a “good” faction, I would think that they’d be neutral (more of a “force of nature” then a “force of good”). But that’s how they saw them, and we’ll see how they continue to build their understanding of the narrative world of Sigmar coming.

Something I did for them is that I printed out copies of the free preview of the Warhammer Adventures.  The program has few “take homes” written into it, so I thought that this would be a simple way for them to have something to keep for themselves and be introduced to the whole lore of the game (I mean, it is why GW is making them, after all).

Conclusion

These first two sessions are very discussion heavy, and that can be difficult for some children who have difficulty in group sitting situations.  That being said, it’s a worthwhile exercise to create a sense of ownership within the Warhammer Club, and develop a conversation around the ethics of war, giving children a greater context to place the world of Warhammer in. How play-based programs give space for heavy philosophical discussions, and this is a great way to bring philosophy and critical thinking into a program.

Next time, we’re finally getting to the nitty gritty of painting. Expect a lot of pictures!

Warmachine: What’s really wrong with themes (and how to fix them)

If you spend as unhealthy an amount of time on the Warmachine internet as I do, you will be familiar with a common complaint – that “thememachine” or the prevalence of theme lists in Warmachine, is horrible and is killing the game and that things were better back in the good old days of Mk.II. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but it has got me thinking.

First off, I actually don’t think themes are that bad. There are a lot of advantages to splitting up these factions into groups and restricting model choices. First, it makes it a lot easier to balance, in that a model only has to be balanced in its relevant themes and we don’t need to worry about some combination of that model, a certain warcaster, and two or three mercenary options breaking the game. Second, restrictions can actually encourage list diversity. If anyone could take any in-faction model any time, we would risk ending up with lists all looking like the same sort of soup of the strongest models in the faction, or starting with the same few faction autoincludes.

I also don’t think spam is inherently bad. It actually looks pretty cool to see a well-painted army with some uniformity to it across the table. Phalanxes of well-painted Iron Fang Pikemen with a coherent colour scheme can look much more attractive on the tabletop than some mixture of Iron Fangs, Winter Guard, and Man-O-War all mashed together and clashing aesthetically. However, while the argument that themes discourage list diversity is way overblown, I think there may be a nugget of truth in there.

Two ways to build lists…

It feels like there are two ways to build lists in Warmachine. The first way is to pick a variety of models that mutually support each other, even if such support isn’t as direct and straightforward as “This dude gives these other dudes +1 to hit.”

I think one great example of this is Armored Corps. While there are some models that directly buff each other such as the Kovnik and the various unit attachments, and there are some builds that just take one model and go ham with it like Butcher1 and three units of bombardiers, there are actually a lot of ways that elements in an Armored Corps army can support each other. Suppression tankers can lay down covering fire and deal with light infantry that would otherwise bog down (or in the case of weapon master dudes, tear through) your relatively low model count, heavy infantry army. Shocktroopers can screen heavy hitting Demolition Corps, and Bombardiers can provide a long range element for either sniping out key support pieces. And that is to say nothing of the speed of the Drakhun or the Chariots. While you are restricted to Man-O-War models, you can take a lot of different variations that each bring something to the table and add up to more than the sum of their parts.

This is actually similar to how squads in real life combat operate. A squad of soldiers in WWII might have a combination of soldiers with different loadouts and different specializations – riflemen, a light machine gun crew, a couple guys with submachine guns, some grenadiers, etc. All these soldiers would support each other in ways that make the sum of the parts greater than the whole – the guys with the machine gun would provide suppressing fire, allowing the riflemen to get into a better position. A couple guys with submachine guns may help cover the grenadiers as they approach an enemy position to lob grenades into their foxholes. And all the while, the designated marksman would pick off any high value targets that expose themselves.

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Of course, the other way is to find one model that is perhaps a little bit too strong for its points, take a caster that synergizes with it, and just go ham with it. The quintessential list here is Cryx Slayer spam, though there are some other popular lists that come to mind as well. Once you figure out that Slayers in the Black Industries theme force are pretty good and pretty cheap, and Asphyxious3 makes Slayers better, the logical conclusion is to take Asphyxious3 and as many Slayers as you can cram into your list to really leverage that synergy. From there, you just hope that the combination of a good model with a caster who can serve as a force multiplier can just brute force anything in front of it, including your opponent’s nice combined arms list with plenty of mutually supportive elements.

The real life equivalent would be like if the British army decided that since Sten guns are cheap and effective, they’ll just produce and issue nothing but Sten submachine guns to their army. That’s one strategy I suppose, but in real life, it’s not a very good one and prone to have catastrophic results when these poor Tommies run up against a problem that spray and pray with a submachine gun can’t solve. While I’m not one to say that our game of magic robots punching dragons needs to be a realistic simulations of real-life combat, in the world of wargaming, “everyone gets a Sten” isn’t as tactically challenging and intellectually stimulating as spending your lunch break at work weighting the pros and cons of adding a designated marksman to pick off high value targets to your squad versus incorporating another light machine gun crew for more effective covering fire.

Back to themes

One catch here is theme forces. While some themes like Armored Corps have a nice diversity of units and can incorporate mutually supporting elements rather than just running as many Slayers as possible, some are a little more restricted in either the models you can take or the models that count towards free cards in the theme. Between this and our predilection to find a synergy and go ham on it (see: Asphyxious + Slayers = win), players are strongly encouraged to take as many points of models that count towards free cards as possible because free stuff is really good. For example, you could take a bunch of Kayazy Assassins in Jaws of the Wolf or Sword Knights in Heavy Metal, but in doing so, you are forgoing free cards, which makes it difficult to justify unless you have a really compelling reason to.

One way to deal with this is to lower the threshold for free cards to 15 points, and cap the number of free cards at three or so. That would allow people to take models that don’t count for free points – things like warjacks, journeyman warcasters, and mercenaries – and build a more combined arms list, while still maxing out on free points and not being punished by the free points economy when compared to straight spam lists. Of course, if we simply drop the points threshold for a free card without instituting a cap, then we end up in the same situation as before, except instead of maxing out on a certain model type to get three free cards, people will max out on the same model type to get five free cards.

We can already see this in at least one of the themes. I find Sons of the Tempest in Cygnar to be particularly interesting to build lists for, in part because you get the free card after every 15 points of Arcane Tempest models instead of 20 or 25. While there isn’t a hard cap, people generally don’t try to maximize free cards by taking 75 points of gunmages because all those POW 10s probably wouldn’t have the raw hitting power to take down a heavily armoured force. So, when building a list in that theme, people tend to limit themselves to about three free cards, using up 45 points and spending the other 30 points on things like warjacks, mercenaries, junior warcasters, etc., to bring some heavy hitting power to the list and make it a little more combined arms oriented than taking just the bare minimum number of warjacks and filling the rest with in-theme infantry.

Because of a combination of a lower points threshold not pressuring players to maximize free cards, as well as some of Cygnar’s great journeyman warcasters, you can actually make some interesting combined arms lists in Sons of the Tempest and still get a decent amount of free cards. Kraye, for example, could be played fairly jack-heavy in this theme, using the jacks for heavy hitting and the various gunmages to support, clear chaff, and push enemy models around as well as apply Kraye’s feat.

Further, in addition to encouraging more combined arms play, this could help bring models back to the table that don’t fit well into theme forces because they don’t count towards free cards. Assault Kommandos, I’m looking in your direction.

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Did somebody say my name?

Conclusion

Themes aren’t going anywhere, and longing for some good old days of Mk.II which may or may not have actually happened isn’t useful. While there are a lot of benefits to themes such as making armies look coherent, making the game easier to balance, reducing the instance of seeing the same overpowered model in every list in a faction, and basically being a shopping list for a new player, one weakness is that they don’t lend themselves to combined arms play – which is already discouraged by some of the powerful combos and synergies in the game.

By reducing the free card threshold and capping the number of free cards, Warmachine could take a small step away from trying to stack buffs onto a dozen of the most cost-effective model and towards combined arms lists with mutually supporting elements. That could increase the tactical depth of the game without greatly increasing complexity, and I, for one, would much rather have a game decided by who best brings his mutually supporting elements to bear on a battlefield given the challenges of terrain and the movements of the enemy than one of hard counters, gear checks, and putting all one’s eggs into one basket and then winning or losing at list selection.

Warhammer School Clubs, Part 2: War, what is it good for?

The following article was written by a friend who works as an Early Child Educator in a before and after school program. It is about his participation in the Warhammer School Clubs program, a program by Games Workshop intended to promote the hobby within schools. This article is part two; see part one here.

So you’re thinking about starting a Warhammer School Club in your school.  Maybe you’re an experienced gamer and educator wanting to bring your love for the hobby in, or maybe it’s your first time and some kid has brought this odd little game to your classroom and wants support from you to help start a club.  You go to your organization’s coordinator or the school administrator and share this idea. What happens when they aren’t really sold on it?

For a lot of administrators, this is new territory. People are afraid of what they don’t understand, and what it can bring to the educational experience.  We need to be able to make the case for the educational benefits of miniature wargaming in the classroom as well as address any misgivings administrators may have. And convincing administrators is the first step before needing to convince parents to allow their children to participate.

With that in mind, here are some objections that I’ve personally experienced as well as some that I’ve heard from others.

Settings

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The first thing I want to bring up is how the settings of the universes affect how they might be received by administrators. I fully admit that this maybe some of my personal bias, but I find the setting of Age of Sigmar to be less problematic than the world of 40K. Let me explain…

As previously discussed on this blog, there’s something a little too real about wargaming in conflicts that are more recent. I feel a similar (but different) unease about the nature of the 40K universe. Fantasy as a setting is backward looking – It takes a view that our past glories are behind us, and that the worlds of fantasy are one of mythic heroes of the gods that we will never live up too. They are worlds of mysticism where impossible magics and long antiqued weaponry rule.

Science Fiction on the other hand is forward looking – it starts out as an attempt to anticipate scientific and technological advances. So rather then taking a starting point of a long past historical period and adding the fantastical, science fiction takes our now, and extrapolates what may happen in the far off future.  And the far future of 40K is a grimdark reflection of our own.

While the over-the-top grimdark-ness was originally meant to satirize the tropes often seen in science fiction, the satire of it all is often missed with members of community, and will no doubt be missed by the children and school administrators in the school. That’s why a lot the problems that will be brought up are likely to exist solely with the 40K setting, and are maybe lessened from the world of AoS, which has a clearer morality.    because of this, I believe that starting with AoS will be easier to present to administrators and parents at the beginning then the world of 40K.

The starters that come in the box put this into contrast.  The AoS box (Storm Strike) comes with Stormcast Eternals and Nighthaunts.  The 40K box (First Strike) comes with UltraMarines and Death Guard Plague Marines and Poxwalkers.  When presenting these two boxes to administrators and parents, it would probably be an easier sell to present “Heroic Knights” vs “Ghosts” then “Storm Troopers” vs “puss covered, guts-falling-out Space Zombies”.  

That is not to say that 40K cannot be a part of the experience of the school club, rather it would be easier to slowly introduce and carefully curate what parts of 40K you’re using after introducing the administrators, parents and children into AoS.

Violence

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This chainsword is a purely non-lethal weapon…

No matter what the setting though, you’re going to get pushback on the “violence” of the subject matter. After all, the first things parents and administrators will be hearing is the WAR in Warhammer, whether it is the fantasy or sci-fi version of it. The biggest concern will always be about promoting the unending conflict, and whether or not that unending conflict will spill from the game world into the real world between the children.

It is important to recognize that Warhammer is probably not the only war game that the children are playing in school. When seen within a different context, most games with rules children play are simulations of battle. The classic dodgeball is a perfect example – two opposing sides volley projectiles at each other with the goal of removing the opposing team from the field of conflict, with some variations having different roles (like medics to bring into players back into the game) that reflect the roles one would have in a military.

We allow games like dodgeball and football to be played in schools because the “violence” and “war” of it all is abstracted and contextualized in a different way.  Warhammer and wargaming is no more violent than chess; it’s dice and game pieces on a table. Dodgeball is arguably a much more violent game, with the potential of real world injury.  The only way wargaming is more “violent” is that the game pieces are sculpted and presented with weapons or gore. The “violence” is all in narrative, and the School program curriculum does a good deal at contextualizing and discussing the ethics of warfare.

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If there is concern that the “play violence” will spill out from the game into actual violence, then we have to ask yourself the question: Why? Children who act out violently have not developed the self-control skills to communicate the feelings they are experiencing and they use violence as a nonverbal way to show how they are feeling, be it frustration, anger, sadness, etc. By the time the children are being introduced to WarHammer school club (around age 12 and above), most children should have the social and self-control skills to cope with and self-express feelings of frustration or anger verbally and not physicially.

But even as adults, in the heat of the moment have lapses, and for those few children that still have difficulty with self-control around those strong emotions and ‘lash out’, the game can be a way to teach and develop those self-control skills.  The game provides a framework and boundaries, and the curriculum provided by GW places a heavy focus of fair play and personal code of conduct, thus developing the self-control social skills same children may be still developing.

Guns

The biggest issue your probably going to run into is the inclusion of models that carry guns.

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‘Guns in school’, broadly speaking, is an extremely serious subject. The impact of actual firearms within schools should not be contested or belittled. Nor does suggesting that teachers who include ‘gun play’ in school diminish the strong work that students, parents and groups are doing to keep guns out of schools, or suggest that the problem to gun violence in schools is to have more guns in school. We should rightly reject actual firearms in our schools and, in the case of America, where there is a school shooting pandemic, actively resist the culture of gun violence in our schools.

With all that being said, it’s important to recognize the separation between actual ‘gun violence’ and the kind of ‘gun play’ that children are involved in. It goes to a fundamental question: Why do children play?

Children’s play is a process of developing an understanding of themselves and the world around them. As Melinda Walden, an Early Childhood Education teacher at Red River College in Winnipeg, Canada, who focus on risky and controversial play explains in an interview about her own experiences with developing a curriculum around gun play, “A child is just figuring out the world and the things in it through play because that is how they learn, and guns are a part of our world, so how else are they going to learn about it?”

As we continue see conflict unfortunately raging around the world, children need a device to understand why that conflict happens, and even if we think we are shield them from it, they still are passively absorbing everything around them. Some of the parents in our schools may be police officers or military who need to use a gun as a tool in their jobs. By playing with imaginary guns, they are engaging with “a form of socio-dramatic play“  where children can place themselves in the role of ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ to better understand those concepts.

Demons

Another controversy the could arise is the inclusion of demonic or ghoulish subject matter. GW’s hobby line mascot is a demon, it’s major award is the Golden Demon, and the yellow ‘painting daemon’ is all over the hobbyist packaging and promotional material. Depending on community standards, this can become an issue in needing of explaining to parents and administrators.

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The simplest solution to this is to reframe our look from the ‘Adult perspective’ to the ‘Child perspective’. While we as adults may put a lot of weight on the demonic, depending on our community, children are do not have the context that we have developed. They are approaching these monsters, and understand that due to parent reaction are ‘bad’ but have not developed the understanding of what bad is in context of demons. They with to understand what makes them bad, or scary, or demonic, and the way that children do that is through play.

Let us hypothesize that you are in a school in a community where religion is very important to the identities of the families of the children we interact with.  Our children are going to Church and hearing stories about good vs evil, are being told stories about the devil, hell, demons and sin. That creates an interest in the children about demons and evil, as they are told about how bad and to stay away from these the demonic. What child wouldn’t then have an interest in something forbidden and mysterious?  

Thus we are responding to the children’s fascination in the demonic, allowing them to engage in socio-dramatic play to help the children put themselves into the perspective both of good and evil (and, again, I think AoS is stronger in having more thoroughly “Good” characters compared to the main factions in 40K). They can experience ‘demons’ in the safe boundaries of a tabletop game, giving them a better understanding of the negatives of it.

At least that’s what my argument would be. The truth is, some parents and administrators won’t be sold on pedagogical arguments, especially when it comes to areas of faith. And that’s fine; whether it is on the violence, gunplay, or demonism, some of your co-workers, parents or administrators won’t be 100% on board. If you cannot get people on board 100%, then the best way forward is to organize the club around them.

For parents, the school club is voluntary, and thus need parents permission, so while we know that the child will suffer from not participating, a parent who wishes to not have their children in it just won’t have their child participate.  

For co-workers who are not on board, it simply means putting the work on yourself. Assure them that it is in their rights to disagree, but that it is important to you and that you will be the one organizing and ensuring that it runs well by yourself.  

For Administrators, while risky, there is truth in the adage ‘it’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask for permission.’ When I began to bring war gaming into the classroom, it was in the form of those cheap green army guys. We received two bins for two rooms. The younger room snipped off all the guns, while my room did not. There was discussion with the administrator about whether or not they all had to, but I didn’t feel that a decision was made. In that uncertainty, I started my curriculum with guns intact – and the curriculum manager saw and was upset. There was a testy discussion, but keeping them on had already moved the ‘realities on the ground’, and the genie couldn’t be put back in the bottle.

Why do we do it?

The reality is, we are doing this because we believe that it will be a educational and social benefit of the children (be it literacy, mathematics, artistic, technology, etc) in this hobby. There are no alternative motives, like to make children more violent, gun prone or devotees of Satan. We know that this community can make help improve the lives of the children; it is the reason we became educators in the first place. Against all objections, that should be our argument: we are here for the youth we care for

Reflections on 100 years of Remembrance

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the day the guns fell silent and the first world war finally came to an end. I’ve spent some time reflecting on this over the past week or so, and figured given the gravity and importance of this event, it would be appropriate to take a break from your regularly scheduled programming about painting tiny dollies and get serious for a moment, and share in some of those reflections.

What does it mean to remember?

There are, of course, plenty of officially sanctioned Remembrance Day ceremonies that Canadians attend or watch on television in great numbers. Poppies start appearing on jackets at the start of November, and a great number of us take part in rituals such as the moment of silence. But, how many of us go deeper and truly reflect on the horrors of war?

Now, this is something that I’m basing on little more than fuzzy childhood memories so I could be way off base, but I feel like remembrance has changed over the years. Growing up, I felt that Remembrance Day programming in the schools really emphasized the horrors of war, and why it should be avoided. I remember watching films and presentations on the horrors of World War I, on the after-effects of war, and on the campaign to ban land mines and cluster bombs which go on killing long after the war is over. The prevailing attitude was one of “never again” – that war was such a tragedy that it should never be entered into without much consideration.

Somewhere along the line, though, I feel like things changed. In the post-9/11 days, when Canadian troops were in Afghanistan and the US invaded Iraq, yellow ribbons and “Support the Troops” signs began appearing everywhere. This was tied to a culture of militarism; by loudly bleating clichés like “Support the Troops,” politicians could avoid hard questions about the war they had built on a foundation of lies. Those who opposed the war were told to shut up and be respectful of those fighting for our freedoms.

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Remember this?

Sadly, I think that between the passing of most of the veterans from the wars of the first half of the century and the uptick in militarism as a part of the “war on terror,” we may have lost focus on what it really means to remember.

What were we fighting for?

This is a difficult question to ask. When we are all honouring what is seen as a noble sacrifice, questioning why all those young men had to die can be difficult. We don’t want to ask these questions because we are afraid of what the answer may be.

Make no mistake, World War I was little more than a pointless slaughter, made possible by feckless politicians who would rather send millions of young men to their deaths in the hell of the trenches than do the honorable thing and sort out their differences themselves. This bloodbath dragged on for four long years, only finally being ended when the German people, with their army on the ropes and suffering from the effects of a four year long naval blockade, had enough. Sailors in the North Sea fleet chose to mutiny rather than be sacrificed to the pride of their Admirals, and the people of Germany rose up against war and against the monarchy, and within two weeks the war was ended. The Russian workers and peasants had, of course, taken matters into their own hands a year earlier, and the French military had their fair share of mutinies as well, not to mention the Christmas Truce of 1914 when soldiers on both sides took a day off from killing each other.

Of course, we don’t learn about those little details like how it was mass desertion among the soldiers and sailors and revolution among the working classes that finally ended the war. The true tragedy is that the entire war was avoidable in the first place. However, once it got going, politicians were able to whip up their populations into a nationalist frenzy, dooming them to four long years of bloodshed and hardship.

And, let us critically examine our national mythology surrounding Vimy Ridge. With the centenary of the battle last year, there was a lot of discussion about how that was the moment that Canada truly came of age. First, I’m not sure what exactly changed that made Canada a real country just because thousands of our boys died and thousands of their boys died fighting over a piece of land in France. Secondly, what does it say about us that we see our coming of age as a nation as not the passing a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or developing a compassionate welfare state, or acts of reconciliation with our long-suffering indigenous population, or a history of welcoming refugees – things that actually did have or would have a concrete and positive effect on our freedoms – but a bunch of Canadians and Germans killing each other?

Even World War II, which is about as clear-cut of a case of good guys versus bad guys as there is, has some complicated history around it. It was only a few months prior to the war that Canada turned away a boatload of Jewish refugees, with one high-level government official remarking that “none is too many” when asked how many Canada should take in. Most were sent back to continental Europe, where 254 of them would be killed in the Holocaust. Those who fought against fascism in Spain were considered “politically unreliable” and “premature anti-fascists” by the Canadian government, many of whom ended up harassed by the RCMP and prohibited from serving during WW2. To this day, they are conspicuously absent from any sanctioned remembrance ceremonies. Finally, the bad guys were given a lot of support by the business community and the media in the run-up to the second world war, as a certain section of the ruling class felt that fascism was a much preferred alternative to socialism which could threaten their profits.

And let us not forget how the veterans themselves were treated when they returned home. Many soldiers were left with physical and mental scars that left them unable to find work or carry on with a normal life. Others would return to poverty and unemployment, as we had an economic system that threw them to the curb as soon as they were no longer needed in the trenches.

All of this meant that, seemingly paradoxically, a lot of the anti-war sentiment of the 1920s and 1930s came from veterans who were scarred by their experiences in the trenches. They knew firsthand the horrors of war and were determined to make sure it didn’t happen again. People like the late Harry Patch, the last British survivor of WWI, and WW2 RAF airman Harry Leslie Smith have continued to speak out against war and militarism past the age of 90.

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What does it mean today?

As we move into 2018, I see the world creeping once more into fascism. I don’t use that word lightly, but we have an ascendant far right playing on people’s fears to stir up hatred and reshape politics in an ugly manner. We see politicians promoting racist, anti-immigrant agendas and winning elections. We see far right figures coming out into the open and building bases of support. And we see anti-semitism, previously confined to dark corners of the internet, coming back into the open. Just a couple weeks ago, a 97 year old Holocaust survivor, among 10 others, was gunned down at a synagogue just because they were Jewish and because their synagogue supported immigrants and refugees. Just think about that for a moment and how absolutely horrible and twisted that is.

We also have a political and business elite all too happy to acquiesce to far-right demagogues – witness the recent CBC piece on how the election of a more or less fascist government in Brazil will positively affect the business environment for Canadian mining companies, and compare that to the support for Hitler and Mussolini by the newspapers and the business class in the 1930s.

If we truly want to remember those who fell fighting the fascist powers in World War II, let us commit to quenching these movements based on fear and hatred before we end up face to face with the horrific brutality of fascism and war.

Final Thoughts

I’m not a pacifist, but history has shown us that the business and political elite of every country is all too willing to throw away the lives of the rest of us. As we reflect on war and sacrifice and honour our veterans, we also must reflect on and understand the historical context behind the wars that produce veterans and war dead in the first place. If we fail to do so, if we fail to understand the true history of these wars, if we fail to question cultures of militarism, and if we fail to stop a second coming of fascism, then we might as well forget.