The other day I was asked what an imagi-nation was. In defining what they were, I found myself considering the reasons why people do them. Of course, I could only answer based on my own reasons and a few reasons I had been given by other enthusiasts of the practice, but I thought it might be fun to visit some of those reasons and a bit of speculation in the context of a blog.
The way I define imagi-nations is thus - A nation that is partially or entirely fictional or fictitious that is set within the world as we know or have known it.
Based on my own definition, a fictional version of a historical nation such as my 19th century Kingdom of Hawaii or a fictional what-if nation like Chad's New Erin both count as an imagi-nation. They exist within the framework of history. However, one can go even further with imagi-nations and create them completely from scratch such as my eastern European nation of Alcovia which is not connected to any historical nation other than a thematic similarity to historical Slavic nations. Alcovia sits in a world full of the same nations we know of, so it is still an imagi-nation.
Though in a broad sense any nation that is imagined is technically an imagi-nation, I personally tend to draw the line at those that do not exist within our world in some way. Nations built on alien worlds or in fantastic realms are not imagi-nations but more a more common sort of fictional nation. It's a thin line, but I guess if the question is going to be asked, then it warrants some manner of distinction.
So, this is what imagi-nations are, but then there is the why of it. The simplest answer is simple because they are fun and provide an entertaining diversion to the regular tide of historical armies that come along. In this regard, imagi-nations become a sort of fantasy football for the historically-minded. An opportunity is provided here to try out weapons and tactics in combinations that history may not have provided. Uniforms of a favorite flavor can be tweaked and reworked into one's own vision while retaining the trappings and limitations, to some degree, of established history. There are, however, less frivolous reasons for venturing into imagi-nations.
The imagi-nation also provides a player with a chance to skirt the less appealing and sometimes more objectionable issues that can crop up with historical armies. Not all players have issues with these in the first place, but if a player should find himself in a moral quandary about playing a historical force, he can devise an imagi-nation that fits his gaming needs but that is freed from the acts of the historical nation he is wanting to portray. This is a bit of a cheat, as the imagi-nation may still engage in the same morally questionable or ethically challenging acts that the original one did, but at least not against a historical people or in the context of history as we know it. This is sort of like creating a purist fascist alien race as an analog of the Nazis but keeping them human. It's thinly veiled, but somehow seems to come in under most people's moral and ethical radar.
Then there are the purely academic reasons for doing so. These reasons are very similar to the reasons fro doing it just for fun in that they often spawn from a desire to see what a nation might do given combinations of abilities, tactics, equipment, situations, etc that a historical nation does not present. The main difference is the motivation. The player is not primarily motivated by fun, but rather an interest in examining the capabilities of the combination he has concocted.
So what makes for a good imagi-nation? Well it goes beyond a simple laundry list of this and that. Often what makes an imagi-nation good is the background and the artistic elements to it rather than the simple min/maxing of forces. Who are they? Why do they exist? What are their uniforms like? Details like motivations, political views, allies and the way they fit in with the real world into which they have been inserted will help to make an imagi-nation more than just a semi-statistical model. Often they are created with distinct personalities and a who's who of characters and figures through which the richness of the imagi-nation is illustrated. This might be a king, or a general, or a particular conflict even (if a conflict can be considered to be a character).
When it comes down to it, imagi-nations are an opportunity to play a country that never was. They are a chance to stretch our legs and still feel as though we are playing somewhere we might actually visit. Whether for fun or the interest of historical experimentation the imagi-nation is a great chance to paint uniforms the wrong color and fight in ways that one might not be allowed. Simply put, they allow us to play with history.