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.