They call me a grognard
I’m just a gamer
We each have our own unique style
I like the old games
You like the new games
When you’re my age your new games’ll be old
What will happen if you call a gamer a grognard?
He might be flattered that you are saluting his expertise in all things military, his fondness for thick rulebooks and detail realism, or his critical thinking. Or he might resent that you are seeing him as a die-hard retro-gamer who indulges in outdated games and artwork and despises anything new and trendy. Or as some kind of nostalgic misfit longing for the long-gone wargaming Golden Age that were the 70s.
The thing is, we can’t even decide as to whether grognard is a compliment, an insult or simple banter.
And most glossaries out there aren’t any help either: they define grognard as a synonym of wargamer.
But not all wargamers are grognards, are they?
It seems clear that a grognard is a special flavor of wargamer. The grognard is a seasoned, hardened, exclusive… and disgruntled wargamer. Something annoys him, something he has to complain, grumble about. Thus his predisposition to recrimination and sarcasm.
The pig grunts. Grunt, growl, grumble, groan, … all related verbs, sharing the same origin: the sound of a pig. The word sounds just like what it means. And not only in English, but in latin (grunnire) and most European languages (French: grogner, Catalan: grunyir, Spanish: gruñir, Portuguese: grunhir, Italian: grugnare).
No, It Is Not Pronounced grog-nar-d
Though it seems to be the accepted pronunciation in English, it saddens French ears (try groan-yar, no final d) perhaps because of the loss of a connection to the verb grogner (groan-yay) as well as to the original sound (even worse when grognard is abbreviated grog.)
That French word designating a pig’s grunt (as well as its growl, there is no distinction in French) is found in several French 12th-century manuscripts. The same word is later used to designate that low, hostile sound made by other animals: the dog, wild boar, bear or the wolf.
Four hundred years later, grogner is widely used in French literature in the figurative sense: humans grumbling under their breath. Grognons are people who are in a bad mood, or who have a bad temper. And grognards are people who are in the habit of complaining.
1807 – They Grumbled But They Always Followed Him
It is Napoleon who first linked grognard to the military. His Grande Armée was renown for its discipline and its loyalty to the Emperor. But it possessed an even more notorious elite corps, made up of soldiers cumulating qualities that were not so common at the time:
- To be at least 6-feet tall
- To know how to read and write
- To be at least a 10-year veteran
- To have always had an exemplary behavior
- To have been cited for bravery
That special status of the Old Guard came with a few privileges, namely to be allowed to walk just behind the Emperor, and to advise him. Napoleon had such respect for his Old Guard that he even allowed them to complain to him directly.
And so they did.
Because there was cause for complaint in the Napoleonic army. Most soldiers were poorly clothed, shod, fed, attended to, and paid after long delays, or not at all.
They must have complained quite a bit, since Napoleon started calling them affectionately his Grognards during the Polish campaign of 1807. Coming from the top, the nickname stuck, and spread. Their prowess — as well as their never-ending complaining — became legendary, as attested by several stories, poems and songs written about the Grognards.
1913 – Little Wars
Grognard seems to have stayed away from the gaming world during the 19th century. The word is simply absent from the first “true” period of development of the wargame with the popularity of miniature gaming in Europe. Not even under the pen of celebrated writers like H.G. Wells and R.L. Stevenson, who were among its most avid enthusiasts.
For instance, there is not a single occurrence of grognard in Little Wars, the book by H.G. Wells, published in 1913, that might very well be the first rule set ever written for a miniature game.
1961 – Avalon Hill
It will take over 50 more years for grognard to make his appearance in the gaming world.
The sixties saw the rise of wargame publisher Avalon Hill, which not only published many classic wargames (Afrika Korps, Tactics II, Blitzkrieg), but largely contributed to what is now regarded as the Golden Age of wargaming.
Compared to miniature games, that were played on large and detailed replicas of terrain, waterways and buildings, Avalon Hill wargames were more abstract, used maps and counters, and could be played on any table. That was kind of revolutionary.
And this new trend did not make everybody happy.
There was a class of gamers who were not satisfied with just replaying specific battles. They had studied their every aspects. They knew their topography, their weather and their minute-by-minute unfolding. Above all, they had spent months replicating all these elements in detailed hand made models, that they would painstakingly put together and on which they would then spend days, if not weeks, playing.
In comparison, the more compact experience offered by Avalon Hill games, held in a thin box, that could be setup in minutes, on any table, and be played in a few hours, was seen with a bit of contempt by the most devoted miniature gamers. The gaming grognard was born.
1974 – SPI
But then this is precisely the type of game that became, ten years later, the new fiefdom of the grognards.
James Dunnigan, luminary in historical gaming and founder of Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI), remembers that grognard was heard frequently in the company’s offices around 1974. Star designer John Young, Napoleonic period specialist, started calling grognards the expert players who were playtesting his prototypes and reporting on every defect they could find. The nickname most probably came quite naturally.
1975 – TSR
Before entering gaming history as the creators of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were miniature wargaming fans. And before Tactical Studies Rules (TSR), co-founded by Gygax in 1973, was to publish the rules for Dungeons & Dragons, it first published a miniature wargame. And the friendly get-together of 1968, held in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, was first a wargaming convention.
From 1968 to 1975, GenCon was largely a wargaming event. Of course wargames were played there after 1975; but then exploded the craze for Dungeons & Dragons. And GenCon became the high mass of role playing. The hardcore historical gamers found themselves more and more in a minority among the thousands of gamers attending the first few GenCon editions. This “Old Guard” resisted. Those grognards grumbled against the noisy, ever-larger crowd of young geeks who were there for the fantasy, adventure, cosplay.
Well, until a few years ago, what a grognard was was clear, because what a wargame was was clear.
Things are not that simple anymore.
Better available information, a broader pool of designers, a broader audience, and better means of development and production are among factors that have recently given rise to an unprecedented proliferation of all kinds of historical simulation designs. And most of these designs tend to be less and less exclusively military in nature. Military conflicts are more and more approached and explored from scientific, technical, social or political perspectives, rather than strictly as series of strategic or tactical manoeuvres.
As a result, historical simulations have never covered so many different subjects, approached them from vastly different angles, scopes and abstraction levels, nor used so many new and different mechanics and systems. Various declinations of card-driven games, block games, chit pulling and card drafting mechanics intertwine and come in all kinds of asymmetric, multi-player or solo systems, that may or may not interbreed with American-style games (alternate history), or Euro-style games (weuros). Moreover, many successful, quality wargames are shorter, simpler, and can even be played with children.
It has therefore become quite difficult to locate the grognard in the current landscape. One thing is certain though: defining grognard simply as somebody who plays wargames has never been so inadequate and unhelpful.
As for what exactly is a wargame, that will be for another time.
References and Further Browsing
- Grognard on Wikipedia
- Grognard on Wiktionary
- Grognard by Alan Emrich
- Grognard on Urban Dictionary
- Grognards on The Escapist
- Grognard: Attempt at a definition on BoardGameGeek (1)
- Grognard: Attempt at a definition on BoardGameGeek (2)
- Grognard: Attempt at a definition on Reddit
- Grognard: Attempt at a definition on Dragonsfoot
- Discussion on Pronunciation on BoardGameGeek
- French Pronunciation
- Les Grognards (Édith Piaf)
- Les Grognards (Annie Cordy)
- GenCon Attendance
- Auguste Raffet
- Napoleonic Army Glossary
- Grognard Humor