Saturday, 25 December 2010

Christmas Presents...

Well, a merry Christmas to one and all, and may Santa fill your stockings with all you desire (ooh, er).

Now, for your Christmas gift from me, the ‘official’ first draft of Polemos: Polemous:

Polemos:Polemous: 490 – 330 BC

Hoplite 0444
Greek Cavalry
Light armed
Persian infantry 23 3 3
Persian cavalry
Light cavalry
Scythed cariots

Tactical factors:
-1 hoplites less than 8 ranks deep.
+1 hoplites more than 8 ranks deep (per 4 ranks)
+1 Persian infantry with shield wall in first round of combat.
+1 advancing into combat or following up.
+1 ‘the best’ (Immortals, Spartans)
-1 ‘the worst.

And finally, click here for something a bit uplifting:

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Another Go At Rules

This week, a return to pondering rules. I’m going to try to fix the issue there was with ‘a second stab at rules’.

Let us again take as our paradigm soldier the Persian infantryman, and give him a 3 in our system.

The Greek hoplite up against him, when 8 ranks deep, should win, so lets give him a 4.

In the centre at Marathon, the Greeks were thin; say 4 ranks deep so pick up a –1.

The Persians get a +1 for being ‘the best’ and another +1 for their initial shield wall.

Thus, in the centre, the Greeks are at 4-1, the Persians at 3 +1 +1 making 3 vs 5. However, the Greeks did charge into contact, so should get at least +1 for doing so, making 4 vs. 5 and, all other things being equal, a slow loss for the Greek centre.

On the wings, the Greeks would be 4 +1 against 3, making 5 vs. 3 and a quicker win for the Greeks.

Two issues arise here. The first is why do the Greeks only get +1 for charging?

Well, the more I’ve read the more doubtful I’ve become that a full-blooded charge could be carried out by a phalanx. This starts to get complex. Some authors would argue that a phalanx was much looser in 490 BC than we assume, but I’m not going there as I don’t see how a bunch of shield and spear armed heavy infantry are going to make progress in a loose formation. The point of a phalanx was that it was rather coherent. This is why police lines tend to hold against demonstrators, after all. So phalanxes cannot just rush at the enemy willy-nilly.

On the other hand, there has to be some bonus for getting to grips. In the case of Marathon, the Greeks would eventually have got disrupted by the Persian archery, so it was worth their while, once in range, closing. So I’ve made a perhaps rash assumption that the +1 for the Persian shields cancels out the impetus from charging / advancing into contact.

Comparing with the first stab at rules, the centre in that came out as 4 vs 4 in the first round, followed by 2 vs 3 for a slow Persian win in the second and subsequent rounds.

This week, we have 4 vs 5 in the first round and 3 vs 4 in the second and subsequent, again making a slow Persian win.

In the wings it should be a slightly faster Greek win.

So does this make any difference?

Well, the Persians still come out a little ahead when they are counted as the paradigm, but not as much as I initially thought. They get a slight advantage on the first round of combat, getting a 5 rather than a 4. This would get cancelled out if I gave the Greeks a +2 for charging, of course, so the two systems would then be equal.

However, there is a ‘but’.

Here, I’ve assumed that the outcomes would be based on the difference of the factors, and that alone. This is the normal route with Polemos rules, at least the ones I’ve written.

If a DBA style combat outcome were used, then the outcomes could be significantly different. As I’m sure most of you know, the DBA style outcome is defined by the ratio of the scored – less than half and less but more than half.

The Polemos system uses a difference of scores – 0, 1, 2, and so on.

In the ratio (DBA style) system, the higher the initial factor, the less likely an opponent is going to double the score. If both sides have a +1, and one rolls a 1, then to double, the opponent only needs to roll 3 or more. If both sides have +4, and one rolls a 1, then the opponent has to roll a 6 to double the score. I’ve not done the numbers and statistics on this, but it appears to me to be slightly non-linear.

The difference (Polemos) system is linear. No matter what the factor, the difference is the same. So a Greek vs. Persian match up at 2 vs. 3 is the same as 3 vs. 4.

So perhaps, while there may be a little bias depending on the paradigm troop type, it is much more limited in the difference system than in the ratio system.

Or, maybe, I’ve got my numbers wrong (again).

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Lost in Translation

Ruarigh raised an important point in a comment, and it deserves a longer consideration than it has had so far.

The issue is translation.

Now, decent translations of many ancient texts are available at reasonable prices in English, and these are what I’ve been using. So, Caesar, Tacitus, Seutonius and, more recently Herodotus grace my bookshelves.

However, there are problems in using them. The Penguin translations, for example, have an irritating habit of translating ‘cohort’ to ‘battalion’ and ‘legion’ to brigade, let alone ‘pilum’ to ‘spear’. Piecing this back to what is actually meant by the author is a frustrating business, but I don’t read Latin or Greek, or anything else except English (and some might argue I don’t do that very well!).

There is a problem here, outlined by the US philosopher Willard Quine.

Consider a sentence, S, in a language system, call it L. S only has meaning in L by virtue of other sentences also in L. Therefore, the meaning of S is not fixed by S, but by the whole language system L. The effect of this is to show that translation is always indeterminate. A translation from L into L’ is always underdetermined by the data and thus open to question.

For Quine, then, everything is up for grabs because everything is under-determined by the data and we can only choose, for example, which translation we prefer.

In my view, it gets slightly worse than this. Consider an ancient language system G. G exists, and thus gives its sentences S meaning in a specific culture, C. If C is not understood, then some aspects of G will remain unclear, as the translation is not just from one language to another, but from C to another culture.

Thus, for example, we see the Greeks rushing off to Delphi at the slightest opportunity, to consult the oracle. Why? The oracle was a powerful religious and cultural force in the culture, but unless we know this part of the culture (and we never can fully know what it meant for the Greeks), the full meaning of the language, will elude us.

Therefore, we seem to be facing a double whammy in terms of translation. There is Quine’s indeterminacy, but there is the further problem of translating from an ancient culture, and if C determines L and L determines the meaning of S, then C, to some extent, determines S.

To put this back into English, the culture of the time determines, to some extent, the meaning of the sentences we read, especially when translated. We can understand the words, and even the sentences, but the cultural block can remain.

The upshot of this for wargaming is tricky. According to our sources, I should be making sure that the players send off to Delphi before any major decision, sacrifice sheep before going into battle and undertaking all the cultural paraphernalia that can be derived from our sources that the Greeks did.

But there is a further problem.

Our sources can only give a partial account of what happened, even if those sources are concluded to be accurate. So even if we’ve got good sources (which is rare in the ancient world), we still only have a partial picture of what happened, and an even worse view of what might have happened.

Furthermore, in many cases we cannot check our sources. For early Greek history, there is only one source, Herodotus. We could dismiss Herodotus as being inaccurate. Certainly, he is not all that accurate in places where he can be checked. But if we do dismiss him, we cut off the branch upon which we are sitting. We can then say nothing else about the period except a few scraps of archaeology.

Given all this, it is a wonder that we can get anywhere at all. But we can, slowly and carefully, if we engage with our sources (albeit, in my case, in translation) and with secondary sources in books and journals which try to interpret those sources alongside others and with the archaeology of the period and places of interest.

As I’ve observed before, the danger is lifting a piece of our source material as good evidence for something, but then finding it is downgraded by different interpretations or translations of the same thing. The trick is to try to work holistically, trying to grasp the culture as well as the battles, but that is hard work, and very, very slow.

But it does explain, at least to my satisfaction, why I’m reading the whole of Herodotus, not just the paragraph or two about Marathon.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Nasty Dilemmas

I’d like to try to consider two slightly different but parallel issues in wargame rule writing this week.

The first is this: my reading so far suggests that the early Greeks were not terribly good generals. Greek generalship seems to have consisted of marching up to near where the enemy are and making camp. Having done that, at a suitable point, you march your soldiers out of camp, line them up, and make an inspiring speech. You then place yourself in the front rank, shout something like “That way lads, at them” and, hopefully, everyone charges off in the right direction, destroying the enemy and winning victory, fame, glory and so on.

So what is the problem with this?

Consider this: you arrive for your wargame, set up your phalanx, set them going according to the rules and then, apparently, you have absolutely nothing else to do for the rest of the evening while your little lead heroes battle it out.

Beautifully historically accurate, but it could be a bit dull for the player.

I remember reading a long time ago in, I think, Arquebusier, about a wargame where a French 16th century army had faced an imperial one, Lansknechts and all. Of course, the Landsknechts had a skirmisher unit out of those blokes in slashed sleeves with huge great swords. These clashed with the French crossbow / handgun skirmisher unit, and routed it.

So far, so good.

A bad dice roll then ensured that the French support unit routed too. Oops, chuckle. But then the rot set in and unit after unit of the French army joined the rout. Eventually, the French player, seeing a third of his army running away, conceded the game.

How accurate! How interesting! But what a dull wargame. A minor unit had succeeded in putting a whole army to flight. ‘What a waste of an evening’, is another way of putting it.

Historical accuracy does not necessarily a decent wargame make.

The second issue is with troop types. In Aristotle’s Politics, (Book VI, para 7 1321a5 – 1321a27 for those of you into these sorts of things) four troop types are identified: cavalry, heavy infantry, light armed troops and the navy.

Discounting the navy, we have three troop types, attested by Aristotle. Yet a quick check of some popular rule sets suggests that the Greeks had far more variety than this. Where are the light horse, the Thracian peltasts, the bowmen?

According to what I’ve read so far, an early Greek army in Polemos terms would be 20 bases of hoplites, and that is it. As noted above, the general would simply point them in the right direction and let them go.

So now we arrive in the realm of trade-off and compromise that bedevils wargame rule writing. How do we keep something reasonably historically accurate while keeping the game interesting?

In this instance, do I allow Greek generals to do something other than simply fight in the front rank? If I do, and they start redeploying the phalanx to flank, then it would seem that we’ve lost historical accuracy to playability. Where do we draw the line?

On the other hand, we could quite easily argue that although Greek generals did not engage in fancy manoeuvres, they might have been able to but just did not need to, so I’m justified in allowing them to do so. This is an argument from silence, of course, and these are always dangerous (just because there is no record of alien space bats intervening, there is no reason to suppose they didn’t).

Similarly, we have a problem with the mixture of troop types. 20 bases of hoplites are a bit dull, after all. We could just about add some skirmishers (light armed troops), although they are specifically excluded by Herodotus at Marathon – the Athenians were unsupported by either cavalry or archers. If we regard Marathon as a special case, then we are again arguing from silence and the alien space bats are lurking.

So is the choice really between dull but historically worthy games and inaccurate but fun ones? Sometimes, looking at the wargaming world, it does seem to be the case. On the one hand we have tournament and fantasy games where anyone fights anyone according to a rule set which has to be fairly arbitrary to cope, while on the other hand we have painstaking models and simulations which seem to drain all the fun away.

Is that it? Are we, as wargamers simply impaled on the horns of this nasty dilemma?

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Marathon in History

Well, after the deafening silence engendered by the last two weeks worth of blogging (is there anyone out there?) I’ll resort to something a bit more abstract this week.

I’ve now read Peter Krentz’ new book on Marathon, which is pretty good. There are no startlingly new insights; after all, pretty well everything that can be said about Marathon has been said, but it does make an interesting read.

Perhaps the most interesting bit of the book is the first chapter, where Krentz discusses how the battle has been viewed over the centuries. People, from the Athenians, who viewed the battle as a miraculous gift of the gods (especially Pan) to the Persians, for whom it was just a minor set-back in a distant province, have always constructed or reconstructed the meaning of the battle.

Among the most determined and resolute reconstructors were the Victorians, in this, as in so many other things. From Byron to Browning, Marathon was the victory for democracy and freedom. The newly liberated Athenians defeated the invader and the prospective tyrant of Athens.

Freedom and slavery, democracy and tyranny, liberty and civilisation are all still potent political slogans of our age. Yet no-one invokes Marathon today as a symbol of freedom. Why not?

Krentz suggests that the backlash against such ideas started after the Great War. The civilization that started with Athens showed it destructive power, its capacity to commit collective suicide. The courage and virtue that won at Marathon was no match for the technological slaughter which the civilisation that Athens engendered had created.

A few other items assisted in this re-visioning of Marathon. Firstly, Marathon changed nothing. It was a sideshow for the Persians, a punitive expedition that achieved most of its goals. Ten years later, the serious invasion got going and was defeated by both land and sea. Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea sealed the fate of the Greek world, not Marathon.

Even so, the output of writing about Marathon goes on. Aside from Krentz’ book, I know of at least one more published this year on the battle. The output seems unstoppable, the speculation endless. Amazon lists at least 4 recent books on the subject. Our fascination with this battle, the earliest that we are able to even try to reconstruct, seems endless. Marathon studies are alive and well, in military history if not anywhere else.

Plataea gets a worse press, for some reason, even though it was the decisive battle. Marathon gets strap lines such as ‘civilisations in conflict’, while Plataea gets a few books published a hundred years ago and still in print (or brought back into print). How odd.

Perhaps part of the answer to our interest in Marathon lies in modern geopolitics. As I’ve mentioned before, western civilisations have an uneasy relationship with ‘the east’ and I don’t suppose that the events of the last decade have made that any better. At least at Marathon the “good guys” won, the battle was decisive and everyone neatly went home. Even Datis, the Persian commander, seems to have returned safely to Asia and not been punished. Apart from those unfortunate enough to have been killed in the battle, everyone else got away without damage. Is Marathon then the perfect ‘civilised’ battle?

I suppose the other aspect of Marathon is that it gave the Greeks, Athenians and the late arriving Spartans, confidence that the superpower could be defeated. Perhaps without Marathon Plataea and Salamis couldn’t have happened. Marathon would then be a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the Greeks winning the Persian wars.

If the Athenians had lost Marathon, what would have happened? Krentz devotes part of his conclusions to such an outcome. If the Athenians had not resisted, history, he claims, would not be too different. The chances are that Athens would simply have continued to develop as it did, with a tyrant imposed by Persia to start with, then as Persian rule lightened, its own mix of tyranny and democracy. Perhaps then, the only real outcome of Marathon was to prolong the Persian wars, and to ensure the destruction of more lives.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

A Second Stab at Rules

What happens if we change the basis on which we generate the rules? Following on from last week, where we took the hoplite to be the typical soldier against whom all others are measured, what happens if we change that?

Suppose we take the really typical soldier of the era, the Persian infantryman. A bloke with a bow, spear, maybe a wicker shield, and some sort of sword or long dagger. Again, we shall use Marathon as our yardstick.

Now, in our D6 based rule set, this chap would rate a 3. Opposing him, in the centre at Marathon, are 4 deep hoplites. Our Persian is elite, so gets a +1, and has an initial shield from the front rank, so gets another +1 on the first round of combat (assuming he doesn’t move into contact). So the Persian gets 3 + 1 + 1 = 5 on the first round.

The Greeks lost, so we’ll give them a 2, and then +2 for charging onto contact, giving them a 4 on the first round, and 2 on the second while the Persians get 4. The Greek centre should, on average, lose.

On the wings, the Persians rate 3, while the Greeks are 8 ranks deep, and so get a (say) +1 for that, and +2 for charging into contact. So in total they get 2+1+2 = 5. The Greeks should win on the flanks.

So, comparing this with last week’s numbers, in the centre we get from last week:

Greeks 3 –1 (for being thin) + 2 (for charging) = 4
Persians 2 + 1 (for being the best) + 1 for shields = 4

in the first round, and then

Greeks 3-1 = 2
Persians 2+1 = 3

in the second.

This week, we have

Greeks 2 +2 = 4
Persians 3 + 1 + 1 = 5

in the first round, and

Greeks 2
Persians 3 + 1 = 4

on the second.

What difference does this make?

Well, on the face of it, not much, but I’d be willing to lay a little money (if I were a betting person) that a statistical analysis of these numbers would suggest that the Persians have a bit of an easier time of it if they are the ‘average’ infantryman. That is, if the Persians are normative, they have a slight advantage, while if the Greeks are, they do.

On the wings the story is similar: The Greeks are 3 + 2 = 5 from last week, while the Persians are at 2. This week the Greeks are at 2 + 1 + 2 = 5, while the Persians are at 3. In other words, again, the Persians do slightly better (on average) if we take them to be normative.

In both schemes, the battle should be reproduced, more or less, on average. But the ease of victory, all other things being equal, the side which has been taken to be the norm does slightly better.

There doesn’t seem much to be done about this. As far as I can see, this is an inherent bias in the way the rules are set up. And I suspect that it isn’t just these rules, but pretty well any rule set. The designer, it seems to me, has to take some troop type as the basis type – English billman, Saxon huscarl, Union rifleman, whatever. But doing that, by matching others against this type seems to generate an implicit bias.

It is entirely possible that I’m wrong, here. Please do point it out to me if I am, but at the moment I can’t see it. Of course, there are many other factors apart from the raw numbers which come into play – the tactical situation, numbers of bases in contact, supports and so on, but it does seem to me that if the basis in inherently biased, the overall rules are going to be, however slightly and however much other factors might cover it up.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

A First Stab at Some Rules

Lets try to do some serious thinking about rules and mechanics for the Greeks and Persians.

We’ve not got much to go on, but lets try with Marathon. I’ve just got Peter Krentz’ new book on the battle; I’ve not read it, but having it is nearly as good, isn’t it?

We know a few things about the action.

Firstly, the Athenians and Plateans were hoplites – spear, shield, body armour and greaves. Secondly, the Persians were infantry – bow, short spear, sword, quilted armour. We’ll leave aside the mystery of the Persian horse for the moment (at least until I’ve read the book).

We also know that the Greeks had a thin centre and normal depth wings (Herodotus Histories 6:111). The best Persian troops were in the centre. The Greeks broke the Persian wings and the Persians the Greek centre. The Greek wings then turned in and broke the Persian centre. The fighting was lengthy – this was no walk over.

So, how do we develop some rule mechanics for this?

Let’s start with the Greeks. Let a normal (8 rank) hoplite base have a baseline fighting value of 3, assuming we are using a D6 based rule set. This is actually quite an important decision, because it means that everything else is going to be based on the perceived fighting value of hoplites.

Now, it is clear that, in hand-to-hand combat, the hoplites had the upper hand against the Persian infantry (bow, spear, kitchen sink etc – what Phil Sabin calls in Lost Battles “the elusive heavy infantry archer”). So let us give the Persian infantry a basic 2. After all, Marathon is said to be lengthy.

Now what?

Well, the Greeks in the centre were thin, so lets give that a –1, and the Persians in the centre were said to be the best, so lets give the best a +1. So that makes the centre clash a 2 (Greeks) against a 3 (Persians). The wings will be 3 (Greeks) against 2 (Persians). It is also possible that the wing Persians were worse than average, so they could be an additional –1. But this sort of balance looks about right. On average, the Greeks should win on the wings and lose in the centre.

There is also the issue of the Persian shields. Now, the rumour has it that the Persians fought in depth with arrows, with the front bloke with spear and big shield thing, possibly stuck in the ground in front of him. What do we do about this option?

Rather than invent a new troop type, I think a +1 to the Persians with this, in the first round of close combat only, would cover it. Again, I’d guess that the best Persians would have this, so the centre battle becomes 2 against 3 + 1 on the first round.

Now, the other thing is about the shooting. The Persians were archers, and we know that the Greeks advanced rapidly to cross the ‘beaten zone’. There are significant arguments in the literature as to whether this was possible or not. Additionally, I presume that this means that the hoplites hit the Persian lines at a run, as the result of a ‘charge’ in all but name. Persian archery seems, in this instance, to have been fairly ineffective, possibly because the Greeks were armoured with metal.

So, the archery should have maybe a baseline 1. I suspect that as an English person, I have in mind the Hundred Year War archer with his machine gun. Persian bows were a long way from that (unless anyone has any evidence to the contrary?), so lets make them fairly feeble. The Greeks defensive armour would give them say a 3 or 4 against archery, and we can fix the combat results table so that they do not get ‘halt’ outcomes unless it gets really bad. Furthermore, the defensive factor against shooting would not depend significantly on the depth of the formation.

Hitting the Persians at a run should give a positive factor; say +2 in the first round of combat. So now, in the centre, we have the Greeks at 2 + 2, possibly –1 for being shaken, giving 3, while the Persians are at 2 +1 for being ‘the best’ + 1 for the initial shield wall, giving 4. In the second round, the Greeks will be at 2 while the Persians are 2+1. The Persian centre should be able to stand against the Greeks and ultimately, beat them.

On the wings, the Greeks are 3 + 2 for charging, maybe –1 for being shaken, while the Persians are at 2, assuming they have no front shields and are ‘average’ as opposed to ‘poor’. At 2 vs 4 or 5, the Persian wings should crumble quite nicely to the Greeks.

The only other questions are about command and control. The Greek wings were controlled and turned in by their commanders. I wonder how they managed that, and how we are going to make a stab at reproducing it. But that is, I think, for another week.

Monday, 8 November 2010

When is a state not a state?

I suspect that we all have some idea of what we mean by a state. In these days, post-1918 anyway, a state is usually a 'nation state', by which we mean a state is something of one nationality with a recognised central government and a well defined boundary.

Simple really.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. Take the term ‘Greek’, for example. Well, today, the term 'Greek’ is well understood as someone who comes from Greece, or an artefact that is from there, or food, or similar sorts of things.

Wind the clock back 200 years. What is ‘Greek’ now? A geographical area under the nominal domination of the Ottoman Empire? Somewhere to borrow marbles from, Lord Elgin?

I’m sure I don’t need to labour the point any more. Notions of statehood, too, are elastic. To the classical Greeks, the city was the state – a polis.

Now, I’ve been reading Herodotus, and one of the intriguing things about this work is the practically everywhere in his world, there are Greeks. When he talks about the north coast of the Black Sea, there are Greeks to consult. In Libya, there he finds Greeks. In the south of Egypt, we find, wait for it, Greeks. All along the coast of Ionia, and far inland too, we find the Greeks.

Now, either the Greeks got around a bit, which is quite possible as Herodotus himself seems to have done, or we have a slightly different meaning to the word ‘Greek’ to the great man himself.

To Herodotus, it would seem, the term ‘Greek’ is a cultural one, not a strictly political, national or even racial one. This would seem to be why he can say, with a straight face, that Greeks were in the Persian army when, so far as we know, there were no significant troops from what we know as Greece today there. Greek to Herodotus means a certain cultural, linguistic group of peoples who regarded themselves as Greek.

It goes a lot further than that, of course. We speak of a Persian army. What do we mean? Contingents of soldiers were there from all over the place – Egypt, Persia, Asia Minor, Babylon, and who knows where else. But Persia was a lot closer to our modern idea of a state than Greece was. It had a centralised administration and taxation, and was, in ancient terms a powerful, united state with a single head. Yes, there were rebellions, but that was true of practically every state in the ancient world, and rebellions were not unknown even in early modern states.

I think, though, that we tend to read back our concepts of ‘state’ onto the ancient world. The Romans would not really recognise the term. They ruled various places, one way or another. If the natives didn’t like it, they could submit or be invaded. Our experience of say, the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the former Soviet Union, or Yugoslavia suggests strongly that a modern composite state, one of various nations, doesn't work. And yet there is no a priori reason why not. On a certain view, all pre-modern states were composite, because the smack of firm central government was not readily present. Only when nationalism gets going, more or less in the nineteenth century, does the composite state start to fracture and collapse. Before that, most peoples were fairly happy to be ruled by a foreigner.

No ancient state could actually run its affairs across the whole breadth of its territory. Various empires found various sorts of solutions. The Romans ruled by province, with officials sent out from Rome. The Persians ruled by satrap, which seems suspiciously similar to me. Yet the Persians are deemed ‘alien’ and the Romans are ‘us’, even though they were not.

The exception to this seems to be the Greeks. The Greek cities (in Greece, at least) were independent. This particular culture has handed down to us a lot of our political language, and that has made the way other politics work alien to us. Greek culture has conquered us more thoroughly than Alexander ever managed to conquer the world.

At the risk of slightly repeating myself from a previous post, we thus tend to project onto the Persians some prejudice. For example, we view the Persian army as a heterogeneous mass of unwilling conscripts, scarcely better than slaves, and are hardly surprised when they get thrashed by the freedom loving Greeks.

On the other hand, the Persians managed to project force very successfully over a wide area of the ancient world. They did get beaten by the Greeks, yes, but they ran a large a successful empire with a powerful army, and Greece was a bit of a sideshow most of the time. Concepts of state and nationality are different now than they were then. The troops may have been levies, but that does not necessarily mean that they were ipso facto of low morale or poor training. They would have been supplied by treaty or agreement with the rulers of the towns and provinces, probably equipped by them, and sent off to the great king’s army. Along the way they may well have got the hang of marching together, a bit of weapons training and, most importantly, generated some esprit de corps.

Just because the troops were not fighting for their king and country (at least directly) in our terms, that does not mean that they would automatically be of poor quality. After all, modern studies of fighting men suggest quite strongly that the principal cause they fight for is their mates in the squad. Modern armies spend quite a lot of time engendering loyalty to country and regiment. It is hard to imagine that a contingent from Sardis would not be out to prove themselves better men than those wets from Ephesus, or wherever.

So again, we need to be very careful when grading troops. ‘Levy’ does not mean ‘poor’ necessarily. Nor does ‘not Persian’ mean ‘not enthusiastic’. It might, if the territory from which the unit hailed had been recently captured, or had rebelled and been re-subjugated, but it is not necessarily the case.

Oh dear. This is getting rather complicated. Now, I seem to have argued myself into the position that, to rate troops, we need to know the history of the area they come from. And, of course, we probably won’t.

Monday, 1 November 2010

What do we Want from Rules?

What do we want from a set of wargame rules?

This is a slightly more complicated question than appears at first sight. Initially, it is obvious that we require rules that enable us to push toy soldiers around a table and obtain certain outcomes which are satisfying in a variety of ways. These ways could be intellectually, narratively or historically predicated.

By this I mean that the outcome of a wargame has to be intellectually coherent, that is, victory does not arrive via illogical outcomes or Alien Space Bats intervening. The game has to be coherent as a ‘story’ (I use the term loosely); there has to be some thread connecting the events. And the outcome has to be believable historically; if the French routinely stomp the English at Agincourt then most of us would probably conclude that there was something wrong with the rules.

Wargame rules can be regarded as the interface between a fictive world – that of the game – and the real world, that in which the players move, roll dice and eat crisps. A player states that he will make a move in the real world – ‘I will move the Imperial Guard to Hougoumont’. This speech-act triggers activity in the rules layer – how are orders transmitted, how far can the Guard move in a turn, and so on. Then, in the fictive game world, the Imperial Guard moves forward. The rules turn real world speech-acts into fictive world activity.

In this model, the rules are the transparent interface between the players and the game ‘world’. They provide the means by which the real world decisions of the players are interpreted in the game world. Of course, the interface acts the other way, as well, in that the rules transmit the outcomes of interactions in the game world to the players. If two bases collide in the game world, then the activity of the players is moderated by the situation on the table. The game proceeds by a complex of real world speech-acts, rules level interpretation and game world ‘activity’.

So, on this view, we want rules to provide the real – game world interface as simply and cleanly as possible.

Unfortunately, this desire for simplicity contradicts the desire for historical accuracy. Somebody once said that command and control structures in real life armies were to enable commanders to do things, while in wargame rules they were to prevent players from doing too much. There is a degree of truth in this as the rules strive to force or persuade the players to act (in the fictive world, of course) in a manner that can reasonably be interpreted as ‘historical’.

This of course, is where complexity kicks in. If I’ve learnt nothing else from re-enactors, I’ve learnt that controlling large bodies of men on battlefields is not a simple thing. A few people can interact and copy each other fairly straightforwardly. Even a corps de ballet can by lots of training and a bit of practice, do things in unison. But 500 men on a noisy, frightening, dangerous battlefield is a different thing. The problem then is, of course, that our intuition says one thing about the actions and reactions of the unit, while the reality of a large body of men is different. And then, if you put that into a wargame rule set, it is easy to get accused of historical inaccuracy.

So, I submit that writing wargame rules is not a simple or obvious activity, but one which attempts to convert one set of complex human experience – a battle – into another – a wargame. Having tried to write a few sets myself, I think that we can be forgiven for getting it wrong more often than we get it right.

And then, of course, there is that fact that a few hundred or so equally intelligent and well read individuals around the world will go through the rules with a fine tooth comb and either complain about inaccuracy or find a way of weighting armies to squeeze maximum advantage out of the rules, in ways not envisaged by the writers.

This is, I think, what ultimately kills normal ancients rule sets. Someone finds that Inca, or Vietnamese or something similar, exploit the rules sufficiently to be almost unbeatable on the wargmes table. I seem to recall that Inca in one of the DBM incarnations was unbeatable simply because no one could kill the bases quickly enough to win, while their own side was worn down by sheer numbers and the odd lucky dice roll.

That is not, I think, wargaming, but rules exploitation, and it cannot be laid at the feet of the rule writer. But, usually, the writer does get the blame.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Sulla He Isn’t

Just to prove that I do occasionally play wargames, not just pontificate about them, I present for your delectation a battle report; in fact, a playtest of the soon to be forthcoming Polemos: Imperial Rome set, Pontic vs. Republican Rome. I've even got some pictures, of dubious quality, but hopefully they will show the flow of the battle, even though they are hardly eye candy.

One afternoon some time in late summer in the 1st century BC, a Republican Roman army drew up in battle formation. To the extreme left were Moorish light cavalry, with cavalry to their right. Elements of an under strength legion formed the front rank of the centre, supported by their colleagues from the other legion behind. To the right came the main strength of the cavalry, Gaul’s finest.

Figure 1: The Roman Army from its right wing

The Pontic army, having arrived slightly later, formed up with light cavalry on its extreme right, followed by a mixed formation of stratiotas and bowmen. The pikes came next in a single line, supported on their left by skirmishers. Further left was the main force of Pontic cavalry, equal numbers of Greek horse and cataphracts. On the extreme left was more light horse.

Figure 2: Pontic Army from its left wing

The opening moves confirmed the two side’s battle plans. The Pontic aim was to strike with the left and then encircle the Roman foot while keeping the pike and soldateri out of trouble. The Roman aim was to hit the centre of the Pontic army with the legionaries while keeping the Pontic cavalry occupied.

The critical clash occurred on the Roman right, predictably, while the legions were still some way off contacting the Pontic foot. The cavalry action went totally the Pontic way; all the Gallic cavalry could do was flee.

Figure 3: The Clash on the Roman Right

Figure 3 shows the aftermath of the initial cavalry clash. Only one base of Gallic horse is still in action, while the Greeks and the cataphracts pursue the rest. In the foreground the Pontic light horse lurks. In the next bound it charged across the field and hit the surviving Roman cavalry in the flank, causing it too to disperse.

In the background, the legions are advancing and, further behind, the Roman left is moving forward to prevent the stratiotas from threatening the legion’s flank. The collapse of the Roman right meant, however, that the Roman left wing cavalry had to be transferred to prop up the right.

A slight lull in proceedings occurred as both sides reorganised. The Pontics rallied their victorious cavalry, while the rear line of legions about faced to counter the threat and the Roman left wing cavalry redeployed. The fatal clash occurred behind the Roman centre, as the rallied Pontic horse clashed with the Roman left wing cavalry.

Figure 4: The Clash Behind the Roman Centre

In this, too, the Pontic cavalry was successful, leading to the dispersal of the remaining Roman horse and, crucially, the incapacitation of the Roman general. The lack of command and control structure severely hampered the remaining Roman efforts, in spite of the fact that, remarkably, their morale held firm.

Figure 4 shows the cavalry clash in the foreground while, in the background, the Roman legion has nearly made contact with the phalanx. To the top left of the picture the stratiotas and bowmen can just be seen moving forward to threaten the legions, although their advance was slowed by the Moors.

The battle finished with the legion's attack on the phalanx which was uncoordinated and unsuccessful, a couple of legionary bases being lost and even the skirmishers holding against Rome’s finest. It had, the Roman commander considered, been that sort of a day.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Ancient Wargaming and Sacred Cows

I shall now attempt to extricate myself from the messy pits of ethical quagmire, and turn to things a bit more wargamer-ly, at least. Be warned, however, I may not be done with ethics yet.

To disappoint those of you who are expecting to know all that is in the new, soon to be much vaunted, Polemos: Imperial Rome rule set, I’m going to tackle a different meta-issue, raised by one of the loyal readers:

What is this thing called ancient wargaming?

As noted elsewhere, ancient wargaming runs from 3000 BC or so to 1500 AD, covers all parts of the world and usually comes in a handy bound book of a hundred pages or so, with add on supplements (often called ‘army lists’) for the avid collector of such things to buy. Each supplement will contain lists of possible armies a wargamer can lavish money, paint and time on, often in arcane language and making assertions about particular troops that the soldiers own dear mothers would hardly recognise.

The problem is that these then become key to the wargamer’s understanding of history.

Let us consider a case study. In Tacitus’ annals, 6:34-5, a battle between Parthians, Sarmatians, Iberians and Albanians is described:

Both sides having been drawn up in battle array, the Parthian leader expatiated on the empire of the East, and the renown of the Arsacids, in contrast to the despicable Iberian chief with his hireling soldiery. Pharasmanes reminded his people that they had been free from Parthian domination, and that the grander their aims, the more glory they would win if victorious, the more disgrace and peril they would incur if they turned their backs. He pointed, as he spoke, to his own menacing array, and to the Median bands with their golden embroidery; warriors, as he said, on one side, spoil on the other.

Among the Sarmatae the general's voice was not alone to be heard. They encouraged one another not to begin the battle with volleys of arrows; they must, they said, anticipate attack by a hand to hand charge. Then followed every variety of conflict. The Parthians, accustomed to pursue or fly with equal science, deployed their squadrons, and sought scope for their missiles. The Sarmatae, throwing aside their bows, which at a shorter range are effective, rushed on with pikes and swords. Sometimes, as in a cavalry-action, there would be alternate advances and retreats, then, again, close fighting, in which, breast to breast, with the clash of arms, they repulsed the foe or were themselves repulsed. And now the Albanians and Iberians seized, and hurled the Parthians from their steeds, and embarrassed their enemy with a double attack, pressed as they were by the cavalry on the heights and by the nearer blows of the infantry. Meanwhile Pharasmanes and Orodes, who, as they cheered on the brave and supported the wavering, were conspicuous to all, and so recognised each other, rushed to the combat with a shout, with javelins, and galloping chargers, Pharasmanes with the greater impetuosity, for he pierced his enemy's helmet at a stroke. But he could not repeat the blow, as he was hurried onwards by his horse, and the wounded man was protected by the bravest of his guards. A rumour that he was slain, which was believed by mistake, struck panic into the Parthians, and they yielded the victory.

As wargame rule writers, of course, this is valuable information. The most valuable bit of data is that Sarmatian bows were of shorter range than Parthian bows, and that, of course, can go straight into a set of wargame rules, with impeccable documentary evidence.

But hang on a moment. We need to recall a few things about this text. Firstly, that it was written, by Tacitus, in Rome, about 117 AD. This should raise a few alarm bells: Rome is a long way from Armenia; the events take place in 35 or 36 AD and Tacitus was not a particularly military man, still less well versed in the ways of Parthian and Sarmatian warmaking.

According to Rhiannon Ash (Phoenix, 1999, 55, 1-2, p114-135), Tacitus spends his time in this passage making the ethnotypes of the Parthians and Sarmatians extreme. He is hyping up the differences, in other words, to make the battle more dramatic. The Parthians are decadent easterners, a cavalry army that cannot deal with hand to hand fighting, while the Sarmatians, or more specifically their allies, the Armenians and Iberians, are described along the same lines as northern barbarians, tough and hairy, up for a scrap.

The comment about the bows, therefore, has more to do with justifying the ethnotype than describing the relative ranges of Parthian and Sarmatian weaponry. In fact the whole passage, Annales 31 – 37, appears to be more about justifying Tiberius’ foreign policy than about the battle. It seems unlikely that Tacitus either knew or cared about foreign bowmen and their abilities.

At this point, unfortunately, the aspiring wargame rule writer collapses into a foaming heap on his, or her, keyboard. They have just successfully argued away a piece of evidence that looked like it might provide a bit of interest. A way of distinguishing contemporary armies has vanished like the morning mist.

The real problem is, of course, that a lot of what we know about ancient history is like this. The more we analyse a text, the more it vanishes from around us. Contextualising, as above, removes the empirical evidence that we may crave and replaces it with a pile of ‘maybes’. This is not good for a wargames rule writer, nor a wargamer.

So what do we do? Over the last 40 years or so, a mystique has grown up around certain interpretations of ancient texts relating to war, and these interpretations have become normalised. This is not, in itself, a bad thing, but it does mean that some things are now encoded in wargamer’s DNA, as it were. New approaches, new ideas need a lot of unlearning, particularly when it is not clear where the original interpretations have been grounded in evidence.

Part of what I’ve attempted to do in Polemos: Imperial Rome, and what I shall hope to do in Polemos: Polemous (if it ever goes anywhere at all) is to link my interpretations to the literature that we have, both classical texts and modern scholarship. This may be laborious and irritating to the person who emphasises ‘game’ in ‘wargame’, but at least it might allow some to refer back to the originals, rather than just relying on my interpretation of what, as we’ve seen, can be texts of highly dubious utility.

Monday, 11 October 2010

More Ethical Wargaming

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I thought I'd do a bit more on ethics, partly in response to the comments made on last week’s post.

My examples were, quite rightly, described as ‘tasteless’ and it was pointed out that there is no single boundary, it turns out be a personal decision. Our tasteless wargames may offend some people, but how much should that determine what we play?

There seem to be two extreme reactions to wargaming. The first is ‘it is only a game so it doesn’t matter’, and the second is ‘how can you turn violence and suffering into a game?’ The former is often the response of wargamers, and the latter of non-wargamers. People can be offended, in principle at least, by our games, but is that a problem for us as wargamers?

John Stuart Mill’s harm principle states:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

In other words, my right to swing my fist stops at the end of your nose.

Harm in Mill’s view, does not include offense. My views or actions may offend you, but they do not cause you harm so you cannot prevent me from doing so. There is a thought experiment to show how this works. Suppose you are on a bus. You do not need to be on the bus, but getting off it would cause you some inconvenience.

Various people get onto the bus as it proceeds on its journey; people with clashing clothes colours, unpleasant odours, and similar things. As the bus proceeds, the activities of the people get more offensive: eating their own vomit, defecating, indulging in heterosexual and homosexual activity and so on. The thought experiment (the author of which I cannot recall, sorry) has about 40 examples. The question is at what point do you get off the bus?

This is the utilitarian approach to harm and offence. So long as I don’t harm anyone, except perhaps myself, you cannot do anything about my activities. Offence is insufficient to take action. However, the bus thought experiment indicates that there is some point (for most of us, anyway) at which we become so offended that we withdraw; at some point offence shades into perceptions of harm. This I think is the boundary and why it moves for us. The points at which we perceive harm to be starting is that point at which we object, and that is different for each of us.

There is another approach to public ethics, which dates back to Aristotle and has been revived in recent decades, called virtue ethics. This argues that what we do does make a difference to ourselves, to our character and hence has an effect in the world. We build our characters by what we do in the world; habit becomes ourselves.

Thus, I think the objector to wargames would argue that the representation of violent acts, even in the imagination, makes those violent acts more acceptable and thus lowers the threshold for actual acts of violence. It is the sort of argument that people make about pornography, for example, and has certainly been used to bash role-playing games when people who commit violent crimes have been found to play RPGs or, more recently, video games.

On Mill’s harm principle, we cannot but agree with those wargames who play tasteless games but claim ‘it is just a game’. They do no harm to anyone, and even if they did, it would only be to themselves. No one else can intervene; the toys go back in their box at the end and are not hurt.

On the other hand, I cannot help but feel that the virtue ethicist has a point, but a difficult one to defend as a wargamer. Various defences for a wargaming virtue ethicist can be advanced, such as that the game is complex chess, or it encourages the study of history, or it is social and the violence is abstract and not represented (which is probably why people may be more uneasy with RPG and first person shooter video games), but these don’t seem terribly strong to me.

Perhaps the best virtue ethics defence of wargaming is that of George Santayana:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

As a species, we have a predilection for violence, as is clear from any study of the past. Wargaming, at least, brings that to the forefront, instead of hiding it behind the respectable veneer of civilisation.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Wargames and Ethics

A slightly shorter blog this week, due to work suddenly rearing its ugly head. On the other hand, it means you only have to read a shorter quantity of my deathless prose. But I do want to pose a question which only gets occasionally asked.

Is there a need for an ethic of wargaming?

Put like that, the answer is probably ‘no’.

But asking “are there some wargames you wouldn’t play?” is perhaps a different question, and may well get a different answer.

So, are there? At this point, of course, by giving examples, I could run the risk of being accused of bad taste, or giving people ideas. So be it.

Would you play the ‘Princess Diana Demolition Derby’? The players, as paparazzi, pursue a car through the deserted streets of Paris trying to get a picture. Dice rolls are included for the drunkenness of the driver, oncoming traffic and the degree of injury of the occupants upon crashing.

Game or no game?

How about then a game of the terror bombing of Amsterdam, the aim being to encourage citizens to flee, clogging up the road system and ensuring that your armies have more freedom of movement as the defenders cannot move?

Game, or no game?

What about a game set in the Thirty years War, where you are an army commander trying to obtain food for your army from the local peasantry by whatever methods seem appropriate. Or a game based on the Assyrians removing the population of Samaria to exile beyond the Euphrates?

Which of these would you be willing to play? Where do you, or I, draw the line, and why?

It is fairly clear that there is some moral boundary to wargaming and similar activities. There was a furore at one of the shows a year or two ago when some SS-re-enactors turned up, and another kerfuffle when a vendor started selling pornographic (I beg your pardon, I think I mean gentleman’s) models. There was also a bit of a hiatus in Miniature Wargames a year or four ago when an article about the British SS Freicorps was published, in the basis that it was a neo-Nazi whitewash (which it probably was).

In the 1970’s, Paddy Griffith wrote an article in Lone Warrior called Uncomfortable Wargames. He argued that we simply don’t play some sorts of game. As examples, he cited World War 1 trench warfare, Elizabeth’s wars in Ireland in the 16th Century, and, if I recall correctly, English chevauchee raids in France. Why not, he asked.

Griffith put forward a few reasons. Firstly, some situations are simply boring games, such as WW1 trenches (although there have been some valiant efforts recently). Secondly, some games can provoke unexpected reactions of a political sort. Elizabeth’s Irish wars might fall into this category (although, again, more games along these lines are now played). Finally, there are some wargames which simply make us uncomfortable. Raiding defenceless villages in 15th century France might fall into that category.

There are various responses to the question of ethics and wargames. Mostly, however, the issue is simply ignored, and we play the games we like to play. That is fair enough, for most games and most people. But every once in a while some limit is breached, but we never seem to actually define that boundary. Perhaps someone should start thinking about it.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Historical Accuracy

What do we mean, as wargamers, by the term ‘historical accuracy’? It is an expression that you hear bandied about quite frequently, so there must be some common understanding of it, but I’ve never been quite sure what it signifies.

Perhaps it is just me, and the rest of the wargaming world will laugh at me because I don’t know. But maybe it is simply because we don’t examine the basis of what we talk about in much detail. Or, possibly, I’ve been infected by the ‘turn to language’ in modern and postmodern philosophy and I’m now so sceptical of language use that I can hardly speak.

Wittgenstein taught that meaning is given by use. So how do we use ‘historical accuracy’? Generally, I suppose the usage is: ‘This is historically accurate’, or ‘That is not historically accurate’, where this or that may be rule sets, miniature figures or whatever. The hidden parts of these sentences (I hope) contain qualifiers, such as ‘in my opinion’. It is here that I think we start to have a few problems.

History, as is well known, is a matter of interpretation. We only need to look at the wrangles going on between holocaust deniers and everyone else to see that people can interpret history in very different ways, even in defiance of the evidence. Is military history, and specifically the history of individual battles open to the same interpretation? I would say that probably it is.

Take, for example, the Spanish Armada. We all know the history there, the invincible armada sails up the Channel, is beaten by the plucky Royal Navy and blown away by a storm. Is this correct? Is this a matter of interpretation? In order to ensure that Drake et al win, do we have to incorporate ‘+2 if English’ into our rules? Don’t laugh; I’ve seen it in an Armada related rule set.

Another possibility is that the Armada brushed past the RN and moored as planned, waiting for Parma’s army to embark. The fact that it couldn’t showed a flaw in Spanish planning and communication, rather than anything else. Even after the fireship attack at Gravelines, the English managed to do only a fairly small amount of damage, and were forced to shadow the reforming armada into the North Sea with little chance of stopping them, until the wind blew and they were scattered.

Which account is right? A lot of your reaction to that question might depend on your education, knowledge of the period, nationality and so on. When I was a lad, the first interpretation was widespread. The second is more recent, deriving from archaeological work on Spanish wrecks and research work in Spanish archives. The question ‘which is right?’ degenerates into ‘which do I prefer?’ In terms of historical accuracy there is no absolute answer as to which is right, at least for the individual. The facts are a matter of public knowledge. What they mean is a different thing.

So then, historical accuracy is a function of our interpretation of battle accounts, which is in turn moderated by academic history. Unfortunately, academic history ignores battles, on the whole, and so battle history is left to enthusiastic amateurs and some professional historians with an eye to the main chance (of selling books, mainly). That isn’t to say that some of this stuff is not very good and useful, but wargamers delve into areas which historians don’t, and want answers that history cannot give.

The upshot of this is that wargamers rely on some venerable accounts of battles, by such luminaries as Sir Charles Oman, A. H. Burne and Peter Young. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. All of these authors were careful, read the evidence and so on. But they supply interpretations based on their time, knowledge, outlook and culture, which may have moved on.

So what do I mean by historical accuracy? When I started ECW wargaming, I meant that the miniatures laid out on the table looked like those contemporary prints, such as the one of Naseby, or it looked like the Sealed Knot re-enactments that I saw, or Brig. Young’s diagrams of Edgehill. Was this ‘accurate’? Almost certainly not: the prints were highly stylised and probably showed far too many pikes in the infantry, for example; the Sealed Knot were not trying to kill each other; and it is unlikely that our neat diagrams of battles with arrows and phases were ever realised in reality. My historical accuracy of the ECW was not much like the reality, and was, for me, based on George Gush’s Airfix guide to the ECW.

So the next time you think ‘Gosh, that isn’t accurate’ pause again and ponder “What exactly do I mean by that?” You might find, like me, that upon analysis, you don’t mean very much except your own assumptions.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Wargames Rules and Philosophy

I have long considered that there must be some philosophical or ethical problems associated with wargaming, ever since I had the misfortune to do some philosophy courses a few years ago. I have not, however, allotted a great deal of brainpower to working out what these issues may be. After all, wargaming is a hobby, a leisure activity, not something which is supposed to give you serious brain strain, of the sort normally associated with philosophising about anything.

Recently, however, I’ve revisited these thoughts. Ethical considerations I might come back to later, but my wargaming philosophy, or at least thinking about how I’ve been writing wargame rules, has moved on a bit.

I think the catalyst for this was a talk I went to by a philosopher of science called Nancy Cartwright. This was actually at a conference about physics, but her ideas are more widely applicable. As she now a professor at the London School of Economics, this is probably just as well. Anyway, her two books of interest are “How the Laws of Physics Lie” and “The Dappled World”.

The key idea Cartwright has is that, in physics, we only get answers to questions, and hence general laws of physics, when we set things up in a certain way, called an ‘experiment’. The law we derive from this tells us only about the conditions within the experiment, not in the general, wider, world. In this way, Cartwright claims, the laws of physics lie, because they make (or are used to claim) universality, for which we have not a shred of evidence.

Whether we agree with Cartwright or not, I think the concept has applicability to writing wargame rules, as we are doing exactly the same as she argues scientists do. We have a small number of battles and incidents. We extrapolate them to be general rules for all of warfare of a period, and if those rules do not behave as the incidents did in reported history, then we modify them until they do.

We could also admit that we do rather worse then science, as at least scientific experiments are supposed to be repeatable, in the way that battles are not.

So we land up with a set of generalised laws, derived from historical accounts of dubious value, in some cases, and then apply them to all warfare in a broad sweep of history. Ancient’s rules, for example, get applied to everything from chariots to Wars of the Roses dismounted knights. And they then get praised or castigated for something called historical accuracy. Even though more recent periods of history are covered by rules of more focus, they still tend to cover much change under the banner of “Horse and Musket” or “Modern”.

Nearly as bad, in fact, possibly in some cases worse, are those rules that have a core set of laws, and then add supplements to cover each sub-period. Somehow, this seems to me to be the worst of both worlds, in that the assumption is that there is a base set of laws of wars for a period, and that differences between periods and armies are simply bolt on chrome. No so, I’d argue, for the contexts which create an army are as important as the weapons they carry. You cannot, I think, reproduce an English army of 1415 simply by making the longbow something akin to a machine gun in a general rule system. The reasons the English won in 1415 are complex (and more to do with French politics than machine gunning bowmen).

Let me hasten to add that I’ve not bought, read, or used many of these systems. Most of them are too darn expensive, for one thing, and I’ve only got so much time. So I'm not criticizing those who write or use them, but questioning the underlying concepts of stretching the same rules over many cultures are time periods. The point is that, going back to Cartwright, you cannot build a general system on a few well known but arguable facts.

Do I have an answer to this? I’m not sure. My answer is, obviously enough, a system like Polemos, where come core concepts (but not rules) like tempo points and bidding, are carried over from one set to another, but the whole rule set is rethought for each period and sub-period. Which is why, by a roundabout route, I find myself trying to write rules for Ancient Greeks when some people would have simply adapted a system already written for Imperial Rome. A degree of generalisation is, I suppose, vital, otherwise we’d be writing rule sets for individual battles (they exist, and are called board wargames, aren’t they?), but too much generalisation leads to strange results, in my view.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

A Bit of Culture

Well, your super-soaraway bonus post for this week....

Consider this: southern Greece is hilly and lumpy.

It is not ideal for phalanx warfare.

So why did it happen like that?

As ever, a combination of factors - the Greek farming year, the formation of the polis, the natural boundaries of the city states and so on.

The boundaries of the states usually tended to be on mountain ranges. But the Greeks never blocked the passes against other Greek states. The attitude seems to have been 'OK, let them come and then we'll sort it out like gentlemen.' Military roads across the borders were built by the advancing army, and they were permitted to do this unhindered.

Until the 430's, there seems to have been this attitude. Similarly, sieges were not a factor in Greek warfare. Hoplites were not, strictly speaking, designed for assaults, nor were the armies large enough to blockade. So unless there was a handy traitor around (not unlikely) cities couldn't be taken.

So early Greek warfare seems to have been a fairly straightforward affair, but why did it happen like this? The answer seems to be cultural. There were the ideals presented by Homer, religion, with sacrifices due to various gods on making and moving camp, setting out from the city on campaign, and before the battle itself. Bad omens prevented battles or movement. This must have made greek campaigns a somewhat frustrating affair, but we do know, for example, that the Spartans were late for Marathon on this basis.

The point I'm trying to make is that even though our culture is heavily influenced by Greek culture, it dosn't mean that we actually understand the mind set. Western philosophy may be 'footnotes to Plato' (Alfred North Whitehead), but that doesn't mean that Plato would understand us.

Spartan armies (and presumably other Greek armies) set off for battle with large flocks of sheep, to provide the sacrifices. How many baggage elements for Greek armies have you seen of sheep? Ritual, sacrifice and the gods were important to the Greek soldier. The rituals would have to be completed correctly and the omens good, or the soldier killed in battle may not have recieved the honour due to a hero.

Funnily enough, the omens immediately before a battle were always good. I suppose that is why professional seers also accompanied the army. Sticking a knife into a sheeps throat and observing the direction of the blood (presumably towards the enemy was good) is an advanced skill, or at least, getting it 'right' would be a real seer ability.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Generals in General

So, no post last week, huh?

What is my excuse this time?

Well, I had a bad dose of Real Life(TM). I believe Mr Berry sells it in handy 3 oz cans. Actually, I was at a conference in Manchester, trying to stay awake in the plenary sessions and go to sleep in my hotel room. I don't think I acheived either.

Anyway, consider Greek generals.

Here we find that the behaviour of generals is, to some extent at least, moderated by culture. In this case, the culture is reasonably clear: Homer. One of the over-riding facts of what we know about classical Greek culture comes down to Homer - the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Now, I've not read them (there are only so many hours in the day, after all), but the Homeric general is depicted as a hero. And this is the mileau that Greek generals moved in. So, for you average Greek general, the aim was to be a hero. This means fighting in the front rank of the phalanx, of course. You can't be a hero in the rear, after all.

In terms of command and control, this is not a good thing. Most rules permit the general to find it more difficult to command if they are in close combat. But for Greek generals in the phalanx, even before contact it must have been virtually impossible to command, in the front rank, with a bunch of other nervous men around you, wielding a spear and shield with a vision and hearing limiting helmet on.

Changes of plan are not going to happen.

Now, of course, to some extent, the general of a phalanx army did not need to command much after saying 'That way!'. As Greek armies developed with light troops and cavalry taking a greater part, they did start to hang back to direct stuff. Quite a few were in fact killed in the second phase of the battle, while attempting to shore up a crumbling position, or exploiting success.

Persian generals were already more sophisticated and usually were to be found in the centre, surrounded by the best troops, commanding a reserve. This was exploited, of course, by Alexander who usually aimed at the general. Once the general was dead, in this case, the army tended to collapse.

So, early classical Greek armies of, say, Marathon, need to loose most command and control facilities once the advance has begun. Other armies could be different, but it did take a while for the Hellenistic 'battle manager' to develop. Early Greek armies seem, then, to have been 'one shot' operations. There were no reserves, so no need to manage them.

How do we translate this into wargame terms? It could be a bit tricky, but classical Greek armies, until say 450 BC, should only be able to set up and start under a general's control. Thereafter, it is pretty well up to the phalanx officers to deal with events.

At this point, it is worth noting that the Spartan phalanx is reported to have had a front rank consisting of officers. This is worth pondering, if only a bit, as it may account for the general scary effectivness of the Spartans. If all the file leaders were officers, they may well be better trained and able to reorganise and fight on a bit better than the rest. If the 'democratic' phalanx hoplites took the idea of Homeric behaviour seriously, then the officer class would probably do so in spades. A Spartan phalanx, with a front rank of blokes all trying to be Achilles, would be, in my view, a very scary prospect.

As armies start to consist of more than just hoplites, the command function becomes more complex and generals need to stand back and start co-ordinating stuff. Mind you, they often did this on foot, as Xenophon was told off by his men for leading them from horseback. The qualities of Homeric heroes were still expected.

Furthermore, quite a few Greek generals who lost battles preferred to die fighting than run away. The ideal of the hero was still there, and they did plunge into battle, seeking an honourable death "doing their best" than the humiliation of returning home defeated.

Homer, it seems, had a lot to answer for.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

A Bit of Depth

So, after the high falutin' abstractness of last week, something a bit more wargamer-ly this.

How deep was a Greek phalanx?

Normally, the answer is fairly simple: 8 ranks. But not always.

At Marathon the Athenians went for 4 in the centre. And numbers have been reported from that up 50.

This leaves us with three questions:
Why did phalanxes vary in depth?
How did this affect how they fought?
How are we going to represent this on the wargames table?

The answer to the first question is, of course "it depends". At Marathon it was to stretch the Athenian line to cover the width of the Persians. At other times, extra depth was used at the point of assault.

The answer to the second question is more difficult. The depth of a phalanx did make a difference, that much is clear. How, or why, is less clear. It can't have affrected the way the front ranks fought, directly at least. There are only so many things that a man can do with a spear and shield, however many there are standing behind him. I guess the only thing which is more difficult is running away, and that may be the key psycological effect. Of course, there is also the effect of all those people on the other side, which may well be the other effect. Even the Spartans might be forgivcen for saying "how many more do we have to kill!?"

As you would expect, the wargaming bit is trickey. Phalanxes were long and thin, no matter how many files deep they were. They were also not notoriously flexible, and don't seem to have varied in depth during a battle. So we can't say something simple like 1 base is 4 ranks and double up the bases for 8. That would give the general too much flexibility, and make the formations too deep.

So I think I'll have to go for a trading system, with bases defined by their number of ranks. The base is 4, and they get a certain fighting value, say, 3. The next up is 8, and they get plus 1, then 12, 16 and so on. You get so many 4 deep hoplite bases, and half the number if you go for 8 deep, and so on. Of course, some means of showing the depth will have to be evolved, but I think it might work, particularly as it must be defined before the game and won't vary during it.

Any comments, thoughts, evidence and brickbats are, of couse, welcome.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Pondering Persians

I've been considering the ultimate foes of the Greeks, the Persian Empire.

They get a pretty bad press. Eastern Asiatic hordes, armies of a despotic regime, coming to conquer the plucky, outnumbered, democratic, free-thinking Greeks.

It is theme that is repeated quite often in Western literature (and, for that matter, politics). Consider, for example, The Lord of the Rings. Now, trespassing on Tolkein's classic might be risking an outcry, but the nasties come from the East. Similarly, with David Edding's Belgariad. The endless wastes of the East, and concomitant evil nasties are pretty well a fixture. The west is safe, homely, civilised.

Politically, of course, the east has been the 'other'. Ponder the anxiety in the west over the 'yellow peril' in the early 20th century. The image to the left (nicked from Wikipaedia) is an example, sent by the Kaiser to the Tsar at the turn of the century. The Archangel Michael is rallying the nations of Europe against the consuming fire of the east, complete with figure of Bhudda.

The east, while posing a threat, also represents the mystical, the decadent, and the amazing riches of strange cultures and their empires. It is exciting, interesting, dangerous, different.

Not all of this, of course, is the fault of the Greek historians, but it could perhaps be argued that they started it. The Persians, after all, did not leave much in the way of books of history to defend their reputation against the barbarian slurs.

So what can we do?

Not all literature which has come down to us so negative. The Bible, for example, is suprisingly positive about these eastern despots:

Isaiah 44:28: [The LORD] says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, "Let it be rebuilt," and of the Temple "Let its foundations be laid".

Isaiah then goes on to describe Cyrus (who of course, started the whole Persian "thing") as his annointed, which is pretty powerful stuff when it comes to ethnicity in the ancient world. And this is not an isolated example. In 2 Chronicles 36, Cyrus again is presented positively, returning the Israelites to Judah from exile in Babylon. Ezra too refers positively to Cyrus, as does Nehemiah to Artaxerxes (although the whole Ezra - Nehemiah - Chronicles complex is interrelated). Esther is also positive about the Empire, and Daniel also joins the party.

Even if we discount these documents as historical (which we probably shouldn't, at least, not in every detail), and claim they were written much later under the Hasmonian kings, Persia is still presented positively, not negatively.

Similarly, the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers - Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes came from Miletus on the coast of Anatolia, and Heraclites from Ephesus. Technically, then, all of them were Persian subjects (Thales only just, because he died in 546 BC, admittedly). For that matter, the magi in the Gospels came from the east, and were probably Persian sages, astonomers and philosophers.

So, what is the point of this ramble?

I think that we need to try and see, in wargaming terms, the Persians not as hordes of faceless Asiatic Greek fodder, but as capable and dangerous foes. To some extent our culture, and the relative lack of alternative historical documentation to that of the Greeks, works against us here. But the Persians managed a large empire for around 200 years (about 550 - 330 BC), and only fell to that chancer, Alexander. In fact, it could be argued that Alexander bought into the Persian culture and methods of empire, and became a Persian emperor, as opposed to a Greek one, much to the horror of his Greek officers.

So the Persians, I think, deserve some respect, not to have their troops dismissed as 'hordes'.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Holiday Reading

So, why no post last week?

I was away from the keyboard.

'Why did you not stay away?' I hear you cry. Yes, well, good question, let's move on.

Last week was spent, partially at least, reading essays in 'Hoplites: classical Greek battle experience', edited by V.D. Hansen (Routledge 1993).

What did I learn?

Hoplites used big shields, sharp spears and wore armour. They also looked after their dead - hence the mounds at Marathon and the fairly certain number of 192 Athenian casualties at that battle. I also found out that the spears had a spike on the butt, probably for the friendly purpose of stabbing those unfortunate enough to fall over in the battle press.

Exactly how useful is this stuff for writing rules, though? Aside from the ongoing discussion as to whether the rear 4 (of 8) ranks of the phalanx did shoving after contact or stood there stabbing at targets of opportunity, the overall message is that hoplite clashes were decided by slight factors - morale, what passed for training, esprit de corps, that sort of thing. All other factors being equal, a hoplite clash will go on for some time.

This raises interesting questions. Modern assessments suggest that a few minutes in hoplite armour with a big shield is quite enough, even without people trying to stab you. There must thus have been a system of relieving the front fighters, therefore. Which implies a structure and leadership within the phalanx.

So, ruleswise, a hoplite base will contain within itself the capability to continuse a fight for some time, rotating its men. As long as it doesn't fall into confusion, in which case it is in trouble, but while fighting an equal enemy to the front, it seems a little unlikely that this would happen.

Hoplite vs hoplite contests, therefore, have to be fairly even, and with a smallish chance of either side losing quickly.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

"From Marathon to Waterloo, in Order Categorical..."

Good old Gilbert and Sullivan, eh?

So, what have I learnt so far, a week into the project.

Firstly, there is a heck of a lot of literature out there.

Secondly, there is very little agreement between scholars over, well, anything, really.

Take the battle of Marathon (490 BC). In spite of the battlefield being located, subject to archaeological investigation and there being an account of the battle in the classical sources, practically everything about it is disputed. Even the facing of the armies.

Why would a professional Persian army fight with their backs to the sea? Yet that is the main weight of scholarly opinion. OK, maybe they didn't expect to lose, but we should give the Persians a bit of credit for some common sense. It also doesn't explain that if the Persian centre was turned in upon by the victorious Greek wings, how the next bit of the fighting took place by the Persian fleet, which was beyond the Persian right. It seems to work better if the Persians arranged themselves between the sea and the foothills - as in Grant's article in Military Modelling. Then they can run away to the fleet, not have to fight their way past victorious Greeks in order to have another fight when boarding their ships.

So in spite of all the literature I've uncovered, there is no real agreement on exactly how Marathon was fought. What, for example, was the Persian cavalry doing? Was it not there? Had it already embarked for the descent on Athens? Had it taken the coast road to Athens to force the Greeks to fight? Was it there but just milled around uselessly while the infantry slugged it out? All of these seem to have been suggested. In wargame rule writer's terms, its is a mess.

And then there is archery. The Persian arrow storm and the Greeks doubling through the 'beaten zone'. All sorts of explanations abound - weak bows, good armour, heavily armed infantrymen who rely on their formation for effect (or at least, keeping safe from those elusive Persian cavalry) running 200 meters to minimise the number of arrows hitting, and so on. Oh dear. Too little evidence and too many overactive imaginations to really make a decision as to what happened.

And yet, as wargamers, we demand modelling of this. Is it any wonder that rules writing is a somewhat thankless task?

Mind you, all this is nothing compared to the controversy over exactly how hoplites fought, but that is for another post.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

A New Beginning

'People will ask you,' he said. 'I'm just getting in first.'

There they were, pristine on my PC, new rules for Roman Imperial battles, now sent off to Mr P. Berry, proprietor of Baccus 6mm
( Wonderful. I can relax.

Until the next email from the said Peter, asking which rules I'd like to write next.

'What?' Hence the comment which started this post.

The Romans set (shortly to be published (hah! - ed.)) took about 6 years, by my reckoning, to even start to see the light of day. OK, this included painting armies, starting the reading from scratch and long periods of not much else happening, but it is a heck of a long time. It also included time to write the second editon Polemos: ECW rules, which will be with us "shortly". Do I really want to plunge headlong into another set?

'Greeks or Punic wars, you choose,' added the ever generous Mr Berry.

What could I say? My first encounter with wargaming on anything more than a throwing stones at Airfix soldiers level was Charles Grant's two part series on the Battle of Marathon in Military Modelling in the 1970's, which I've still got somewhere.

Greeks it was. I'm now collecting material on hoplite warfare, Persians, Alexander the Great and all that sort of stuff. I'll try to keep the world posted on progress. But don't hold your breath. There is a lot to read, especially for someone whose last encounter with the period was, um, an article on the Battle of Marathon by Charles Grant, sometime in the 1970's.