Saturday, 27 August 2016

A Short Intermission

I have to say that I am suffering a bit with an eye problem, to the extent of spending an afternoon in our local ‘Eye Casualty’ department. It turned out to be quite big and busy. I was entirely unaware of its existence until earlier in the week.

Anyway, the upshot of this is that I have an eye problem, which is being treated with more drops than you can shake a stick up, which is making seeing out a bit of a problem at times. I am assured that this will pass quite quickly, but as this is being typed one-eyed, I’m not sure how easy it will be to turn out my usual article every week or two.

Thus: there will (probably) be a short intermission in broadcasts.

I’m told the maximum length of time this will last is seven weeks. At present I am in the glorious situation of being chauffeured by the estimable Mrs P and observing the world through a mist. I am still thinking about stuff, however and even, in my study, am half-way through a rules test / wargame. I have already discovered holes in the rules that you could drive a bus through.

Anyway, don’t go away, or at least check back sometime soon, but there will probably be a short intermission until I can see (and hence function) properly. There is nothing like an incident like this to remind one of how important sight is.

Meanwhile, the Estimable Mrs P. is attempting to establish who the patron saint of eyes is. Any ideas?


Saturday, 20 August 2016

Global Crisis

Yes, this is another boring book review that will have most red-blooded wargamers reaching for the soap opera button.  But of course, I read these books and tell you about them so that you do not have to. And so to Geoffrey Parker’s ‘Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century’ (2013: Yale University Press, New Haven).

Geoffrey Parker’s is a name that should be familiar to any serious historical wargamer with an interest in sixteenth and seventeenth century history. He has written extensively on such subjects as the Thirty years War, the Dutch revolt and the ‘Military Revolution’ which, according to some ideas around, gave Europe the military power to start to dominate the globe in the succeeding two centuries. As serious historians go, he certainly has the track record to produce a synthesis on the scale of the title of the book.

The book is long and complex, the the overall thesis is fairly simple. Parker  identifies the fact that the sixteenth century was fairly benign climatically, and that, overall, the world population expanded, with agriculture extended into more marginal areas. In the early Seventeenth Century, the global climate cooled. A 0.1 degree C cooling reduces that growth time of crops by one day. This may not sound serious, but it also increases the probability of crop failure and the probability of double crop failure substantially. If you are already farming on marginal land,  the combination of these factors is catastrophic: the population can no longer feed itself.

To famine is then added the problems of disease. There were few methods of disease control in the early seventeenth century, and smallpox and the plague were rife. For example the Manchu high command was decimated during the war with the Ming through exposure to smallpox, as were the Native American populations in North America. The Manchu eventually ordered that only smallpox survivors could assume high command positions.

This indicates that third issue associated with the century: war. Political leaders across most of the world showed an unerring instinct for increasing the miseries of their people by choosing to go to war just as the crops failed. At the least, this lead to an increase in tax demands on a people whose ability to pay was already compromised. At worst it entirely depopulated areas of their country. As statistical services were almost unknown, rulers largely decided that the population were simply being recalcitrant and started to increase demands and threaten. This led, almost inevitably, to revolts and in extreme cases (Portugal, Catalonia, Naples, Palermo, Ireland, Scotland, England, China, Muscovy, Ukraine…) to war, civil or not.

These causes are interlinked. Agricultural communities under stress have few options, assuming that quietly starving to death is rejected. There is an increase in banditry. People flee to the cities. Political chancers take advantage of the unrest to make a stab at glory. On the other side, governments struggle with commitments far larger than income, and attempts to maximise taxation also causes unrest.

The upshot of all this is a world of starvation, disease and war. The best estimate available is that around one third of the world population died between roughly 1618 and 1688. Some governments did better than others ar staving off the problems. For example, the Moghul Empire weathered the Little Ice age slightly better than others, because its hinterland was bigger and its wars were at the periphery. Thus the bulk of the population were spared some of the traumas of warfare, and fared a little better, at least until later in the century.

The top spot for surviving the crisis was Japan. On the other hand, this seems to be because the wars of the Sixteenth Century had so depopulated the country before the Little Ice Age hit that there was no food crisis. A strng central government also kept the lid on popular unrest, and built a string of granaries across the country to help in times of crisis. Strict control over foreign traders also helped reduce the issues of epidemics, although this was not quite as total as we are often led to believe. Nevertheless, if you wanted to survive in the mid-seventeenth century world, and did not mind too much about your freedoms, Japan was the place to be.

Other places fared much worse. Louis XIV probably rules over fewer people in 1700 than he did in 1661. Not only that, but his soldiers were shorter, averaging 5’ 3”, due to the famines in the later part of the Seventeenth Century. Constant war from the 1630’s through most of the rest of the century dislocated French society. The soldiers of the early eighteenth century were short (try representing that on the table).

Britain fared little better. Between 1638 and 1651 it is estimated that half a million people died. This is on a population of about 5 million, and represents a larger proportionate death toll than the First World War. In places, such as Ireland, things were worse. In Germany, as well, although the scene is patchy, some areas lost half or more of their population. Parker notes that the possibility of recovery in population is lost if women marry later, as they tend to in times of dearth and crisis. A woman marrying at 28 rather than 18 has ‘lost’ three children, more or less. It took a century or more for some areas to recover their population numbers to the 1600 level.

Parker’s book is designed as something of a warning. There may be arguments over the reason for climate change (most of them sponsored by the fossil fuel industry) and politicians are easily bought, especially those who have no knowledge, interest, or desire to learn anything about science. Sometimes it feels like what passes for acceptable in some areas would be termed corrupt in others.  However, even discounting these arguments, the climate is changing, and does change. It is a dynamic system, after all. We have, Parker notes, the technological and intellectual equipment to do rather better than our seventeenth century forebears in dealing with and anticipating the problems this will cause. However, there is little evidence of political will to do so.

Overall, Global Crisis is an excellent book, packed full with treats and delights for the wargamer from places across the globe. For me, the description of the Manchu versus Ming wars were very interesting, although, as with the rest of the book, the death, suffering and destruction created by the wars give the whole work a very downbeat flavour.


Buy it and read it. Read it and weep.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Long and Short Period Rules

One of the things I have often banged on about here is that rules which cover a long period of time cannot represent a given, much shorter period, very well. Thus, I would contend that DBM cannot really represent a Romans vs Gauls battle in anything but the most abstract, bland and sweeping manner. The fact that it can even try is a testament to the utility of the rules, that fact that it is a allowed to do si is a testament to wargamer’s ability to accept something that is not chocked out with period ‘flavour’.

I recently commented to someone that sweeping rule sets have a place in wargaming. Given the above, the response was ‘OK, well, what is it, exactly’, and I have been pondering my response ever since. Not that I think I have a particularly original or clever response, but I do think that it throws up something to be considered, even if I cannot manage much about it.

Anyway, for what it is worth: history has both continuity and discontinuity. For thousands of years, until roughly the widespread use of handguns, battles were decided by men with pointy sticks. I know that this can, of course, be highly nuanced, and that the type of pointy stick can also be relevant. Further, of course, the pointy stick brigade can and were more or less ably supported by assorted chariots, horsemen, skirmishers, archers, elephants and so on. Context is important, naturally, but the fact is that most men on a battlefield at a given time had some form of pointy stick with them.

The pointy stick bearer is, therefore, a sign of continuity across history. We could, in fact, argue that pointy stick holders are still with us, that they did not vanish after about 1700 in Western Europe, but were subsumed into the musketeer with a bayonet. The combination of ranged fire and the staying power of the pointy-stick (or assault value, if you like – it depends on how you view the pointy-stick) combined to make the infantryman more or less irresistible. If we accept this argument, we have to accept that the bearer of a pointy stick, in all its guises, signifies continuity across military history.

The corollary to this, in terms of wargame rules, is that if we can get our rules for the bearer of a pointy stick right, across all ages, then we can have a go at creating a truly universal set of rules, valid for all time from Ancient Sumerians to the Ardennes and beyond. Of course, we recognise some breaks in this continuity. Gunpowder made people change stuff, as did the advent of the machine gun and tank. However, we can just then divide history into broad sweeps, such as ‘Ancient’ (to 1500), ‘Horse and Musket’ (1500 – 1875) and ‘Modern’ (1875 – present). Instead of writing one universal set of rules, we need three sets.

Of course, the continuity implied in this view of history also suggests that we only, really, need one set of rules, with bolt on extras which add to the basic set, say, gunpowder weapons, and then another add on automatic weapons, and then some extra bits for air power.  The idea here Is still that continuity is stronger than change.

A set of rules that covers a broad period, as described, is focussing on the continuities of history. The fact that a man from 1500 BC and one from 1500 AD is armed in more or less the same way, or at least is deployed and used tactically in more or less the same way, allows us to sweep history up into a few abstract categories. The man is the universal solider – PS(O) – and everything can be derived from him.

This does, of course, miss an awful lot of nuance. A Roman legionary was not the same as a French Medieval Knight. The world views of the two were poles apart. The details of their training, deployment, expectations and so on were simply not the same. At one level we can subsume them both into a ‘swordsman’ class, but at another we cannot. A subsuming set of rules is missing an awful lot of change as it focusses closely on the continuity of warfare.

We could ask whether this matters at all. A wargame, at the end of the day, is just a game. Historical accuracy is less relevant than having fun. If I like to play Vikings against samurai then that is my decision. I might even accept that it is ahistorical, a match up has no bearing on reality, but if the game is the thing, and I have fun, no-one is seriously going to challenge me, are they?

Of course, no-one is going to challenge anything in particular. It is a game, we do not have to grant history that much respect if we do not wish to. But the wargame is only then a bit of fluff, a romantic comedy at Cannes. There is no particular meaning to a Viking against Samurai match; it simply lives in a world of its own, cut off from any meaning.

If we wish to take things only a little more seriously, we have to have some regard to the changes that are implied in the less sweeping views of history. These are the things that make history to be history, after all. Prince Rupert’s cavalry did not behave like the Chasseurs a Cheval of the Napoleonic era. They did not behave like the Gendarmes of the previous century. They were, in short, themselves. Attempting to fit Rupert’s cavalry into a different category will simply result in bits being chopped off the original’s behaviour.


So, yes, there is a place for sweeping rules which emphasise the continuities across history. A solider in 1501 did not behave differently, particularly, from one in 1499, even though we might sweep the two into different eras, different rule sets. In which case a set of rules covering 1499 – 1501 would be more accurate, at least in some uses of the term ‘accurate’. But what they are will have to wait for another post. 

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Counterfactuals


Historiography must be a really odd thing. Historians, it seems, can be more driven by ideology than by, well, given what I have said before, I hesitate to use to word ‘facts’, but if all the usual caveats applying, historical facts. Interpretation against a matrix of ideological concepts seems to be the way some history is done.

I, as no doubt many of you, will know the sort of thing. The most obvious example in my experience is the English Civil War, where you have Marxist concepts, such as the rise of the bourgeoisie, encountering revisionist concepts, such as that King Charles I was fairly useless as a monarch.

The thing that has always rather intrigued me is that few of these committed historians seem to allow that both sides could, in a sense, be correct. There is no particular reason, it seems to me as a naïve and un-ideologically committed non-historian, why the rise of the bourgeoisie could not run along in parallel with Charles I being a bit incompetent. Maybe that is why I stay a humble physicist. All this political commitments is a bit beyond me: your experiment works or it does not. An ideological commitment to it working cuts no ice in nature.

In the August 2016 edition of History Today, Professor Jeremy Black has a short piece about counterfactuals in history. Professor Black has a bit of a track record in advocating counterfactuals as part of the historical process. The idea, he suggests, is that the historian could be able to see the possible decisions that historical actors could have made, and, from the options available, obtain some idea as to what might have happened (or at least, what might have been perceived by the actor to be the likely outcome) and thus some idea of why the choice was made as it was.

My usual example of this is Prince Rupert at York. There he is, with a letter from his uncle which says, basically ‘save York, save my crown; lose York, lose my crown’. He has just out-maneuvered  the Parliamentary and Scottish armies that were besieging the place, and has to decide what to do next. He decided to fight, and lost Marston Moor. Rupert has often been condemned for this decision. But the question that a counterfactual analysis can ask is ‘what other options did he have?’

He could, of course, have stayed in York until his opponents marched away, but York had been besieged and there may not have been enough food and fodder for his men. The besiegers, after all, had eaten a fair bit during the siege, and the Royalist supply lines would have been rather tenuous with three enemy armies in the offing.

Rupert could have reinforced York with his foot and struck south with the cavalry. This would have almost certainly have led Manchester’s army to follow him to protect their bases in the Eastern Association. But that would still have left York besieged, by two armies. Rupert would almost certainly have had to return to relieve it again.

Another option was to do what he did, and fight. He could have delayed deploying and fought after the garrison had recovered a bit, but that ran the risk of his opponents recovering from their surprise at his being in York at all, and of Rupert’s army, which had been dashing around the country relieving places for a couple of months, getting stuck in York itself, which was not a great prospect, as already noted. Further to this, his army was largely borrowed, and the longer they were away from their bases, the more likely those bases would be captured by the enemy.

Even a quick look at his options (and Rupert at this stage does not seem to be someone who indulged in lengthy introspection and pondering of his options) seems to indicate that fighting, and fighting fast, was the most likely option to obtain his objectives, that of making York safe for the Royalists. Of course, it was a gamble, but the relief of York itself was a gamble, and it had, at least, paid off. A similar situation earlier in the year, at Newark, has similarly paid dividends. It is probably that Rupert knew, as well, that the King needed a quick victory before the resources of Parliament overwhelmed the Royalist cause.

A counterfactual analysis can therefore help in working out why an individual acted in the way they did. However, to return to ideology, there is in some ‘left’ history a view that history is deterministic. Rupert would lose anyway, because Cromwell’s army was made up of ideologically motivated proto-Marxists, and they were of the rising merchant class and would inevitably conquer the world. Something like that, I may be exaggerating a little. Counterfactuals turn that around and focus on the events and decisions which people made. History is contingent; it is not just the activity of forces over the ages which we are helpless to control.

In historiography, then, counterfactuals tend to be the weapon of the ‘right’ against the determinism of the ‘left’. Individuals can make a difference, they do have options. There is a constant input of decision made into historical process. And this is where wargaming might come in.

A historical wargame, of course, is a sort of a model of some sort of historical situation. The set up, and the existence of the battle at all, is not part of the decision matrix the gamers have control over, but the process of the battle is. We can and do play the ‘what-if’ game. What if Rupert had deployed a few hundred meters further back? What if the initial break in the Scot’s ranks had spread panic through the right wing? And so on. A wargame is an overall processor of these sorts of contingencies and decisions.

This is set against the ideas of Marxist determinists. The outcome of the battle, according to this view, is hardly relevant. What matters are the other factors, particularly the economic factors, affecting both sides. On that basis, with control of the navy and of London, Parliament wins. The rest is detail.


Without wishing to commit to the ideology of either side, it does seem to me that history is a lot more complex than the Marxists think.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Respectable Wargaming

You might wonder, amid all the pontificating here, when the author has time to actually commit wargaming. I mean, it must take up most of his limited mental capacity just writing this stuff, let alone the time it takes to read some of the obscure tomes he refers to, to make actual wargaming a practical impossibility.

You would, of course, be right.

Nevertheless, occasionally wargaming does happen. For the last few weeks (or possibly months) I have been working up towards having a battle, as the estimable Mrs P calls it. Why, you might ask, has it taken you so long?

As those of you with very long memories might recall, the current campaign of choice is one set in around 360 BC in Greece and the surrounding seas, islands and bits of the Persian Empire. The first, and so far only, battle we an episode in a Spartan Civil War where one king and his allies defeated the other, with a little help from his Theban friends.

For battlefields I usually use a random terrain generating system, and takes what it throws at me. For the Spartan battle I landed up with a ditch running across the battlefield, and so had to pause while I created some ditches. This was not too hard, but it did take some effort and a tiny bit of ingenuity, and the resulting battle, with the new terrain, was an interesting success.

This time, my random campaign system (OK, it is not quite that random, but it does throw up some interesting battles between groups that the Greeks would probably not have recorded) yielded an encounter between a Persian punitive expedition and some recalcitrant Thracians. Needless to say, my mind’s eye was filled with famous episodes from wargame history, such as Charles Grant’s Wagon Train Table Top Teaser, and Donald Featherstone’s punitive expedition to the North-West Frontier as described, if I recall correctly, in Wargame Campaigns.

I accordingly reverted to my random terrain system, and started to roll. And here everything unravelled, of course. I rolled a settlement (fair enough, we have to have a target for a punitive expedition, after all), a road, and a river. And that was it. Not much for the Thracians to hide behind and jump out at the Persians from.

A little thought and a few more dice rolls yielded the fact that at least the Persians would have to ford the river to attain their target. A few more dice rolls also established that both sides were, in total, employing more peltasts that are in my collection. However, a little sweep through my collection and pondering yielded the Persian peltasts being re-interpreted as earlier Persian infantry, possibly militia types left over from the invasion of Greece a century or so before.

This left me with only three further problems. Firstly, there was the fact that my terrain box had no rivers in it. Secondly that my road sections were both inadequate and, if looked at sideways, nearly as tall as the figures. Thirdly was the problem that my buildings did not, by any stretch of the imagination, cover a town and port on the north coast of Turkey.

The road problem was the simplest to solve. A number (about 5, I think) of new road sections were produced, consisting of ‘fun foam’ with glued and dusted banks. A lot lower than the originals, and something that the troops can see over. I also managed to make a junction piece, and some curved sections as well. A great deal of terrain for minimal cost and effort, I thought (rather smugly, as it turns out).

The rivers were a bit more problematic. I did the same again with the banks, but then thought that it would be nice if the water bit were, at least, slightly shiny. I painted the bed in a rather fetching cappuccino brown colour, and then applied a coat of gloss varnish. That should do it. After it dried, I showed it to the estimable Mrs P, who asked if I had varnished it yet. Another coat was applied, and then another. Finally, a surface which was a little shiny was obtained, and so I left it at that. A bit shiny is good enough for me.

This left me with the buildings. Some Middle Eastern flat roofed houses and some Middle Eastern shacks were painted. Fine, but not enough buildings were painted for the area to cover. I went through my buildings, but even I cannot quite justify Saxon longhouses as Greek or Thracian homes. A few Roman bits were added, but I really thought that I would have to make the various bits left over from my Irregular Mediterranean town. Fortunately, I found a half-painted Italian farmhouse, that was going to double as a mansion, and I am now in the process of finishing that.

And this ramble has, finally, led me to the point. All this is very fine (if very slow, I’ll grant) wargame fare. Perhaps I have given myself too long to think about it. But is a wargame where one side sets out to destroy the homes of the other really a respectable game?

I have even written rules for the length of time the Persians have to occupy the town to consider their mission accomplished. I cannot deny that such missions did take place, and probably did during the Persian Empire (certainly they did under Alexander, and the Romans did a lot of punitive expedition-ing). There is no doubt, really, that the game is historically justified. The war might even be legal – the Persians, to measure them by a later yard-stick, may well be entirely justified in their actions. So, too, might the Thracians. But as I, as a wargamer, justified in creating the battle, involving the (admittedly fictional) destruction of people’s homes and livelihoods?

I am almost certainly not going to let this qualm put me off, of course. It is, after all, fiction. I have no pretence that my town would look like a Greek town in Persia, not that my 360 BC campaign bears anything like resemblance to the ‘real’ thing. But just occasionally I do get a little bit wobbly about this. Someone tell me I don’t need to, please.


Saturday, 23 July 2016

Visualisations

One of the questions that comes up periodically is that of why we have toy soldiers at all. After all, the critics or commentators say, they act as tokens and therefore could simply be replaced by another token. So our beautifully painted First Foot Guards could (and, the implication perhaps is) should be replaced by a scruffy piece of cardboard with the name of the unit scrawled on it.

There do not seem to be too many answers to this suggestion. We tend to smile nicely, and move on, continuing to buy, paint and wargame with our beautiful creations. The critic too tends to continue wargaming with toy soldiers. The deduction has to be that there is more than simple cussedness (although that, presumably, plays a part) in this continuation of an expensive and time consuming aspect of our hobby.

I know that there are good aesthetic reasons for using figures in games, although I am not really the person to comment on aesthetics. There is, I know, pleasure in handling beautifully painted figures on nice terrain. It is a feeling, I think, of experiencing beauty, as in the experience of sitting at a table carefully laid for a meal. The aesthetics enhances the experience, the symmetry of the table makes eating more of a pleasure, the attractive figures and terrain makes wargaming similarly more pleasurable.

We can, of course, eat off a table upon which the cutlery has just been dumped. We can wargame using unpainted figures on a table where the terrain is marked out by chalk. In both cases, the primary aim can be achieved, that of eating or having a wargame. But the pleasure in each is below what it can be if the table is prepared more carefully.

There is, however, a second, perhaps more minor issue concerning wargame figures. A set of pieces of cardboard do not give us the instant recognition of troop type and status as wargame figures do. For example, I can tell at a glance if this base of soldiers is cavalry or infantry. If they were cardboard, I would need to read the card. Even if the pieces used those NATO standard symbols, I would still need to read and recognise them. The cognitive load is just a little higher when having to translate from symbol to troop type.

The toy soldiers, therefore, give us an instant visualisation of what the base consists of. It, can, of course, go a bit further, depending on our specific knowledge. We might recognise this base as being the Imperial Guard, and that base as being a levy infantry battalion. That too might cause us to alter our channels of attack of defence. This sort of information would (within limits, of course) have been available to battlefield commanders, and, we could argue, therefore should be available to the wargamer. While again, it is true, that the information could be available by scanning the information on a piece of cardboard, the cognitive load is less if we just can notice that ‘Cripes! That’s the Guard’ and react accordingly. The instantaneous visual quality of the figures makes a difference.

Now of course this situation has to be nuanced. There are some very nice printed pieces of cardboard out there which come fairly close to the recognition that can be accorded to wargame figures. I suppose too that there are wargame figures that are rather hard to recognise, either through poor casting or painting. There might also be rather fuzzier areas where the figure for the historical equivalent cannot be found, and a substitute is used instead. Nevertheless, we do make efforts to find a substitute that is close to the original. We do not substitute Panzer Grenadiers for Seventeenth Century Moroccan musketeers.

I think a third element might be to aid our imagination. While I can engage a part of my brain in cognitive examination of the table top to see what is to be done to the best advantage, I am not sure that that is the only reason for wargaming. I can, of course, shuffle pieces of cardboard around on a campaign map to create a battle, and that is one thing. But pieces of cardboard clashing on a table top does not fire my imagination as to what might be going on in the ‘model world’. For that to happen more easily, I think I need figures and terrain.

Thus, I think there is a big difference between looking at a map and saying ‘X Brigade is holding this BUA’ and ‘X Brigade is defending the village’. If we can see the troops on the table, perhaps it is easier to imagine them digging in, loop holing the walls and cooking the hens than if it is just a cardboard counter on a brown bit of map.

Of course, cardboard counters have their place in wargaming more broadly. They are, as I’ve mentioned, much more appropriate for campaign games and, of course, for more modern wargames where the fighting is on a front several hundred miles wide. The counters have some advantages over wargame figures as well, in ease of production, storage and, indeed, the quantity of information which they can contain. But I do not see them really replacing wargame figures, even if such a replacement were necessary or desirable.

I do not think that I am trying either to denigrate wargame figures or cardboard counters. Each has its place in wargaming. But I am trying to suggest that the wargame figure is a little more than just an interchangeable token. The figure itself, and its disposition on a base (are they in line, dispersed, and so on) also contains information about the type of soldier represented and the tactics they are employing. It does so in an easily cognized way, which takes little effort in reading and recognising by the player.

A base of wargame figures is not, therefore, just a token. They cannot, I think, be easily swapped for another token for aesthetic, cognitional and imaginative reasons, quite aside, of course, from the thought that there would be no reason for doing the swap in the first place, given that wargaming is a hobby.


Saturday, 16 July 2016

Varieties of Wargamer

As with so many things in human life, we, as the humans with those lives, are forced, somehow, to cope with it. Largely we do this by categorizing things and people that we encounter. Thus, we say of something with four wheels and an engine ‘it is a vehicle’. If we want to be more specific, we say ‘it is a car’ or ‘it is a truck’, or whatever. Once we have categorized the object in such a way, the details of it are of less interest to us. It is a such-and-such and thus will be have in this sort of expected way.

This way of thinking is as old as Aristotle, and quite probably a lot older. Aristotle divided the world by genus and species. We have a tree, it behaves like a tree. We have another tree. It is not the same as the first tree, but it looks similar, so it is the same species. We have a third tree, which is also a tree but it is different to the first two. It is a different species but the same genus. All of them, by whatever means, are recognised by us as trees.

This sort of thing can, of course, break down. We categorize things that orbit the sun as planets. But then we find asteroids, and have to work out if they fit into the genus planet or are something else. Similarly, we can classify Pluto as a planet, and then change our mind and call it a planetoid, and then, perhaps, change our minds back. Our neat categories do not fit nature quite as well as they seemed to before we encountered this sort of data.

We might wonder if this really matters. After all, so far as we know, Pluto is not sentient, and is unlikely to take economic sanctions against Earth as a result of us being able to decide if it is a planet or not. On the other hand, the arguments over the status of Pluto do make it sound that something is at stake in the classification, even if it is rather hard to make out what that something is, exactly.

Humans do this sort of classification all the time. We classify rocks, life, planets, stars, activities and food, to name but a few. And our classification systems tend to overlap: food can be nice or nasty, good for us or not, fattening and pleasurable, and healthy and dull. Out categories overlap and, if we stop to think about them for a few minutes, can be overwhelming. But mostly they work, even if it would be nice if ‘experts’ could work out whether eating, say, chocolate, is bad for us or not. I suspect the answer is ‘it depends’, because so many things are driven by context.

Which brings me, in a roundabout sort of way (mmm, chocolate) to wargaming. We do a lot of categorizing in wargaming. Our troops are heavily categorized, for one thing: infantry, cavalry, light or heavy, we categorize by weapon, tactics, training, morale, expectation of performance and so on. Of course, this is how we make wargame rules work. The rules, the models, have to accommodate everything into as few categories as possible.

We do the same for battles, of course. We have set piece battles, ambushes, encounters, skirmishes, sieges, escalades and so on. We also write rules for the specific sort of battle. We have ‘big battle’ rules, skirmish rules, role playing, and, I dare say somewhere, rules for medium sized wargames as well. We read history (itself a category, incidentally, wargamers, at least those who do read history, tend to read military history, a sub-genre of the species) and work out the sort of battles fought, according to our schemes of understanding.

In this way, of course, we can all stand accused of imposing our categories upon the world. Now, I am no Kantian, but I think there is a grain of truth in his claim that we impose our pre-conceived categories on our world. The best discussion of this is, in fact, I think, Douglas Adams’ concept of ‘someone else’s problem’ fields. The general idea is that we do not see some things because we think they are someone else’s’ problem, and thus we ignore them. We impose a pattern on the world and miss things out which we do not want to see.

I suppose the danger here is reading our histories of battles in this way, or reading the battle narrative with a certain point of view, set of rules, or array of models in mind. This scheme we already have can, and probably will, dispose us to read history in a certain way. Depending on what we think about say, imperialism, colonialism can be read as either bringing the benefits of civilization to the benighted heathen, or as the systematic destruction of a functioning society for the gain of metropolitan centres. Of course, there are also all points in between, and considerably more nuanced points of view, but the point is that what we already think, what we already conceive the world in categories as, will affect how we read and what we make of it.

So finally, to wargamers themselves. We assess other people in categories, of course. How else can we survive? My cat categorizes the world into unfriendly and friendly, and runs away from the former. I might categorize other wargamers into historical and fantasy, or role player and figure gamer. In fact, as I’m sure we all could agree, there is not a huge difference between these categories, and they are, anyway, flexible to an almost unbelievable degree. But we have to do it to make any sense of the world, and it does have unfortunate consequences.


One of the most powerful ways in human experience to gain fresh insights or new ideas is to find a synergy with something else. This is usually beyond the bounds of our categories, or at least, across the boundaries of them. Harry Potter, for example, crossed the categories of school story and fantasy novel (and made the author very rich into the bargain). As wargaming is a relatively small hobby, can we do the boundary crossing thing and gain from it?