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.


  1. Interesting post...

    I am a big fan of the Polemos games and am eagerly anticipating the Roman ruleset you have produced (my main interest lies in the civil wars of the late Republic).

    I have found that almost all ancient rulesets give no incentive for keeping reserves and you never see Roman players using the triplex acies which means battles never really feel or look like you are leading a Roman army.

    Is this something that writing a specific ruleset for Imperial (and hopefully late Republican) Romans has allowed to to address?

  2. Hi,

    Unfortunately, I'm not sure that I have fully addressed the keeping of reserves. Part of the reason I've jumped from Imperial Rome to Greeks is that I can't see how to persuade wargamers to keep the manipular legion in lines. So I'm hiding from Hannibal at present.

    The only thing I have done is to make changing orders more expensive, so if you get it wrong and have no reserve, you might be a bit stuffed. But I'm not sure that this will be sufficient.

    On the other hand, in one of my play test games, the Romans came unstuck because they were outflanked by Mithradic cavalry and had insufficient reserves to hold out until the legions committed to the attack even made contact.

    I suspect that the idea of 'reserves' might be a little more complex than we might imagine. Units (cohorts) kept reserves, presumably legions did, and also at an army level. Which of these the general had control over (or in game terms, is not included on the base) is moot.

    I think the other answer to reserves is to ensure that the game is played on a sufficiently big table, so that the table edge never forms a flank. With this, players can never sit back with security and commit all forces forward, especially if maneuver is a little slow and difficult.

    So a difficult question. If I ever solve it, I'll be sure to let someone know!

  3. Hi thanks for the reply...

    To be specific....if I was recreating Pharsalus using your ruleset would I have any incentive within the mechanics of the game to place my cohortal stands in 3 lines like both generals did....or would I simply just max out the length of the line (terrain and room permitting) to look for the flanking chance?

    I hope you dont mind answering these questions here.


  4. Well, to be specific in reply:

    I can't think of any reasonable rule mechanism to enforce this. By 'reasonable' I mean one which is likely to be
    a: obeyed by the players
    b: isn't along the lines of '+2 if you've got a reserve'.

    All I can say is that while rules cannot, I think, enforce such things as keeping a reserve, they may be able to encourage it. In the PM:IR rules I've tried (and probably failed) to do this by allowing, for example, tribal foot to punch through lines of legionaries, where you'd need a second line to stop them. But I can't think of a way of forcing the Roman to have that second line.

    The problem is that in rule writing we can only try to create incentives, as you say. But the only incentive I can think of is an artificial one, and I've given up using artificial rule mechanisms.

    I suppose the ultimate answer is that we don't really know why reserves were kept, so struggle to create mechanisms to require reserves to be kept.

    Still, enough waffling in a comment. I might come back to this in a main post, as it is interesting, so keep the questions coming.

  5. If the "rules do not behave as the incidents did in reported history, then we modify them until they do." So we playtest until the player(s) are happy with the outcomes that the rules are producing. The approximation to 'historical accuracy' will never satisfy every gamer if the rules are released retail or as a download (there being probably almost as many opinions on this as there are gamers) unless the rules are destined only for club use or even solo. True for every period I would have thought.
    I know even less about Ancients than WW2, but regarding the question of reserves, if it had an effect (on morale, presumably) and an arbitrary +2 modifier replicated this to my satisfaction then I would include it in the rules. I suspect a more elegant calculation of some sort might be required!