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?


  1. We may well be impaled on the horns of a dalai lama, but you need to decide where you wish to place your rules in the market. An example of a fun and 'authentic' rules set is Hoplomachia from the Perfect Captain. Those rules have bags of flavour and work well enough.

    Another thought occurs too, which you may well have addressed and I have not noticed. Are you reading the Greek, or are you working with translations? I don't know Ancient Greek, but I do read Old Norse and Old English, and I know how far from the original text a translation can diverge. This may be skewing your view of the battles. While I am on the subject of the literature, how accurate are the source texts in describing battles? The light troops may not be mentioned because they were not considered important enough by the author. A parallel might be drawn with some literature of the medieval period where armies are described in terms of the number of knights in them. The rest of the army is assumed to be present but is not mentioned, so we do not know how many of them were there or if they had a great effect on the battle.

  2. A very tricky one.

    Forgetting about writing rules for the Polemos system for a moment, it might be that the best Generalship Game for this period would be a solo or programmed game with the player(s) controlling the Persians against stereotyped Greeks - but with that reasonable melee advantage to the Greeks you described on previous threads?

    As a general idea, there are many periods and battles where the generalship issue has to be fudged - think of the periods where councils of war were very common before a battle. Giving a general the type of individual control really more usual in other periods is nearly as historical, but can still give a good game.

    For the instance you gave of the C16 game, I don't think that the way the game went is really the problem in itself - after all, chess is totally evenly matched and has no chance and a player can still be beaten in a few moves - or accidentally potting the black in pool from the break, say. I think the problem is more that the faff of setting up a traditional wargame is so much more that it isn't always feasible to set up and play again. I think the solution to this is to make the setting up of wargames more simple rather than deliberately making the rules unhistorical.

    Sorry for my rather rambling and unfocussed post and thank you for another very stimulating one!


  3. Well, thanks for the comments...

    I'm trying to grope my way towards an understanding of the period and how it can be wargamed, and I think the balance between fun and history is an important one for writing rules. I'm tending to ramble a bit about it here because it is useful to get it out there, as a bit of a sounding board with all your participation.

    Translations? Yes, all I can do is read translations. My Greek reader has so far refused to start translating Herodotus, which I think is mean of her. I can resort to her for a few words here and there, but not the whole text, plus she really reads Koine Greek, not classical.

    So I'm trying to match the translations I have and them secondary sources which discuss them. Unfortunately, many secondary sources arren' interested in the details of battles.

    I shall probably ramble on about translations in another post.



  4. Hello, I'm a newbie here. This is a fascinating blog. I'm mainly a horse and musket era gamer (so forgive my ignorance), but I have long been fascinated by ancients - especially the Greeks.

    I think Ruarigh is right to mention Hoplomachia - though it looks a complicated set. To my mind it attempts to tackle the essence of classical period generalship which I think we need to think of this as something altoghter different from generalship in the "rational" modern period. In my reading (in translation!)classical Greek war leaders are not that far removed from the priest-kings of earlier times. The skills seem to lie in preparing troops for battle and ensuring the right mindset is maintained for as long as possible to keep "unit cohesion". Full bellies, fighting spirit, a reason to risk your all, manipulation of omens, lining em up in the right place, timing and personal example. Filling your game with enough of these things might make it more interesting to game - even if it is a bit more "front loaded" than traditional tabletop games.

    The Polemos Tempo Point mechanism to ration the gamer's ability to influence events once the "action" starts could really be pushed to the limit to mimic the judgement a leader needed - picking the right option when he's in the thick of a phalanx to turn the tide. Going in to action helmet up (to aid hearing/seeing - and earn additional TP but at a greater personal risk. I would suggest that the options for "generalship" once the phalanx rolls,could include "spending" TPs to: signal for reserve force to move/engage; give morale-boosting Laconic bon mots; use wit to interpret an "omen" in your favour; call for one last extra push; boost fear factor of your phalanx's battle cry to inflict "Shock Points" on enemy unit.

    Anyway, would be interested to learn how you resolve the dilemma.

  5. Greetings1 And welcome to the readership...

    I've downloaded Hoplomacia but have yet to have a good look at it. I think the problem is going to be getting the right combination of period flavour and playable rules without getting to cutesy, or just landing up with endless tables of what a general can do to influence stuff. Possibly giving TP modifiers to good speeches or favourable omens would work, but it may just load the game down with additional additions and subtractions.

    I'm not sure. Part of the purpose of this blog to to try to explore some of these issues and gauge how people might react. Hoplomacia has a lot of period flavour, but at first glance it does look very complex, and I doubt if i can persuade Mr Berry to produce a priest sacrificing a sheep model, no matter how long I ask for...