Saturday, 31 December 2011

Morale in Wargames

What, if anything, do we make of the concept of morale in a wargame? Morale is a slightly odd concept, when you come to think of it. The morale of a unit is determined by the mindset and current worldview of the members of that unit and, in wargame terms, can cause the unit to fight on, recoil, run away or whatever.

Even odder, perhaps, are morale rules in skirmish games. I’ve seen some where the attitude of a single figure is determined by a set of complex rules with modifiers, die rolls and all, just to determine whether the individual charges suicidally or sensibly stays put.

When you come to the level of role playing games, of course, the concept of morale is largely abandoned. In most role playing games, the player characters are the heroes, and do not run away at the drop of a hat or cower in cover.

Mind you, I have seen some games where the player party has done precisely that because the ‘morale’ of the actual players has sunk, or they think they’ve made a mistake and taken the wrong turning. As an umpire there is always a sense of amusement when a simple trick makes the players scarper. In one Call of Cthulhu game, a NPC brandishing a machete was enough to get the PCs to leg it quick time, even though the NPC was not actually going to hit them, just scare them (he succeeded).

In older rules, the concept of morale, in its effects, at least, were clear enough. A unit took casualties, it made a morale check. A unit was ordered to charge, it took a morale check, and so on. Now, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad idea, but it did rather slow the flow of the game down and also led to some odd situations. I think I’ve mentioned before the uncontrolled charge of a skirmish unit leading to the routing of a third of the opposing army. OK, bad rules, you can argue, but it is how it happened.

In DB* based rules, morale sort of disappears. There are army or ‘command’ break points, so that is a third (or whatever it is) of the army or command is routed then the whole performs less well. This is a hard cut off, though, and makes no account of those times when units or wings fought on effectively.

For example, I suspect under DBR Edgehill would be impossible. The Parliamentary army lost both wings of cavalry, but the infantry fought on and obtained at least a draw, if not a winning one. I’ve not done the numbers, but I think that the battle would be declared lost under DBR when they lost the second wing of cavalry: two out of three commands broken and a significant chunk of bases routed would, I think, spell defeat.

Another feature of the DB* system is that unit morale has vanished. This, I think, is a good thing (© Sellars & Yeateman). Checking a unit’s morale every time it is shot at or tries to move is a pain, and, in some senses, irrelevant. If we assume that a unit will follow orders, and that the base area of the unit covers more than the footprint of the soldiers themselves, then our combat rolls become, in part at least, morale rolls.

Now, combining the combat rolls and unit morale rolls is a good idea, and certainly speeds up the game. What it does not cover, however, is the sense of panic which can suddenly infect large bodies of people when something seems to go wrong. We see in the news that stampedes and such like are all to frequent in the world, often fatally, when crowds become stressed, often with fatal results to some people.

The Polemos rules I’ve been involved in try to model this using an ‘army morale’ method. What this is trying to get at is the overall ‘feeling’ of the army. Are things going well, OK, or badly? Is it time to run away yet, or will just one more push see us looting the enemy camp?

It is often said, (I think Napoleon said it, so it must be true) that morale to the physical is three to one. What is true, or seems to be, is that the number of casualties actually in combat was relatively low.

It used to be quite fashionable to ignore reports that, say, Montrose’s men had suffered only a single fatality while the enemy had suffered hundreds. More recent historical work, started by Charles Coulson in ‘Going to the Wars’, suggests that the reports are quite accurate. The majority of casualties were caused during the rout of the enemy forces; actual, face to face combat, caused comparatively few.

Of course, applying this idea to ancient (or any other period) rules is generalising wildly, but it would seem that the threat of injury or death is more potent in persuading a soldier to run away or fight on is more potent than the reality of people dying around them. This may not be true in modern warfare with its much longer ranges, of course, but I suspect that it might be so up to, say, the nineteenth century.

So, morale would seem to be one of those primadonna concepts in wargaming, that we do need to try to model in rules, but struggle to find an articulation of in them. It would probably stand further analysis than I’ve managed here, so it might get returned to sometime in the future.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Can You Wargame Anything?

While attempting to honour the upcoming festivities (and a happy Christmas to all our readers!) I’d like to ponder something a little more off the wall this time.

Can you wargame anything?

This though arises because companies, for example, run business wargames where the participants are placed in a crisis situation and have to get out of it. In many ways it is very like a conventional wargame, at least at a strategic level. There are players, umpires, rules, imagination, creativity, stories and so on all involved.

But could anything be wargamed. In honour of those involved in retail, perhaps we should consider the retail wars, attempting to part hard pressed consumers from their cash. The players, or perhaps each player, would be the owners of shops, and would have to design windows, decide on stock, run the supply chain and hope to make enough money by the evening of Christmas Eve to be able to re-open in the New Year.

Is that wargamable? I guess it is, as a sort of role playing game. Random factors, such as consumer confidence could be included, although as umpire I might draw the line at trashing each other’s shops.

I also recall, incidentally, a game in, I think, an early White Dwarf, of a Christmas present delivery. Fortunately, I cannot remember the details, but the conclusion of the article was along the lines of ‘No responsibility for any loss of sanity attained by playing this game will be accepted. We all know there ain’t no sanity clause.’

Of course, that was back in the days when White dwarf published articles on other games than just Games Workshop’; the implicit reference is to Call of Cthulhu.

By the looks of things, more or less any conflict situation could be turned into a wargame, with suitable rules, scenarios and umpires. At this time of year, perhaps we should ponder the game of the ‘family Christmas’. Players could take on different characters: the harassed mother trying to cook dinner; the obscure aunt whom no-one likes; the small children trying to get a sneak look at their presents, and so on.

Each would have different victory conditions which would conflict, and, I suppose, a CoC like SAN level which gets reduced as things unfold. Instead of going mad, though, those who get to zero SAN simply start shouting at the other players. The game ends when everyone is doing this, sometime around 4 PM on the 25th December.

And with that, I’ll wish you all a very Happy Christmas, and promise something a bit more conventionally wargame-like next time.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

History and Coherence

It is an interesting fact that battles are one off events, contingent and unrepeatable. Unlike wargamers, generals were forced to give battle with what they have at the time, not some perfect balanced force. They have to put up with uncooperative allies, insubordinate subordinates, enemies who are trying very hard to kill them and their troops, and a probably lack of support from their governments who, in most ages, worry about the cost of the whole thing and cannot see why the war is not won already.

Even at a campaign level, generals tend to spend more time worrying about food and fodder than about strategy and tactics. A starving army is one which is already beaten before battle is joined. In some ages, and places in the world the most successful generals are those who win without joining battle. Indeed, it can be argued that the quest for the decisive military encounter is one of the oddities of western culture.

It can also be argued that decisive battles are not that decisive. Professional historians, even today, rather ignore the battle. They prefer, in many ages, at least, to ferret about in archives looking at pay documents and muster lists, without ever really considering what the point of all this bureaucracy is. That is not to say archival work is unimportant, far from it. We do know a great deal more than we did about the armies of the past from this work. But the work has generally been presented as giving insight into the society of the time, rather than the men who actually fought the battles.

We could, then, argue, that modern military history (with a few exceptions) is rather lopsided, and has a single angle view of warfare, mostly relating to the raising and financing of the armies, and their impacts on society and the state.

As Austin Woolrych wrote a few years ago, he thought that the important thing about wars was who won and how. In his view, explaining the English Civil war in terms of the rise of the gentry, or the fall of the gentry, or the rise of the merchant class, or the fall of the noble class, or whatever the current popular theory of the day was, it was actually more important, and more interesting, to examine the reasons why the New Model Army won.

Unfortunately, professional historians do not seem to have heeded that comment.

On the other hand, wargamers are, if anything worse. They peruse texts, usually in translated form – guilty!) , picking out occasional bits and pieces of comments about military hardware or tactics, and present them as ‘the truth’ of ‘how it happened’. I’ve mentioned before the problems over bow range which Tacitus refers to, and it is not the only such comment which has dominated our wargame rules.

The interminable threads which crop up occasionally on email fora such as Ancmed, about (to quote a recent example) whether Caesar’s legionaries used their swords or not, is a case in point. I confess, after the first dozen or so posts on the topic I rather lost the will to live, but essentially quote is being traded against quote, Livy against Caesar and so on, in an essentially unsolvable argument about whether pila or swords were decisive in battle.

The problem is that the evidence is simply insufficient to answer the question. We do not know, we cannot know in the absence of significant archaeological evidence from battle site how those participants who died met their ends. If someone were to dig up the site of Boudicca’s last battle, and most of the British bodies found had pilum wounds, then we might be able to say something a bit more useful than quoting chunks of Latin at each other.

But even if this were to happen, it would only show one thing, and that is that at that particular battle, the pilum was decisive, probably. It is not, in fact, a generalizable truth that, therefore, in all battles the pilum was king.

In this circumstance, we have to say the Hume’s inductive scepticism is correct. The observed case does not give the answer to all cases. Even if we had the evidence for Boudicca’s last stand, we would not have evidence for anything except that battle. Without finding and digging up the evidence for every chronicled battle and analysing it in such a way, we cannot say anything in general about the interaction between legionary and Celtic warrior.

The problem is, of course, as a wargame writer, we do have to say something coherent and complete. It is not enough to say ‘sorry, don’t know, so no legion vs. Briton bashes, please because we don’t have the evidence’. A rule set like that would sell even worse than the ones I write.

The problem is thus that we are stuck, and have to synthesise some model for battle without sufficient evidence. In computational language, the problem is under constrained, underspecified and thus, unsolvable. So we have to guess.

The issue with such guesswork is that it can quickly fail under any sort of scrutiny. A different interpretation of a literary source, or even just a different translation, can mean that an otherwise solid appearing rule set is regarded as a failure.

The only way to tackle this, so far as I can see, is by an internal coherence to the rules. This is what I’ve tried to do with PM: SPQR. It is not for me to say if I was successful or not, but the idea is to present something where the interpretation is clear and the assumptions made are exposed. Then, if someone disagrees with my interpretation, they can at least find the source of it and see for themselves.

On the other hand, it does seem to make the writing of rule sets rewarding, in that people can use what you think and even, if they wish, modify it to conform to their view of history. And I suppose that is why I’m starting writing the Greeks set.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Morality, Models and Rules

My two lines of thought, about ethics in wargaming and how wargames actually work, are starting to come dangerously close together.

The last ethics articles, on virtue and contractual ethics, seem to indicate, to me at any rate, that the morality or otherwise of a wargame comes down, more or less, to what is modelled in the wargame rules. If you want to have rules for atrocities, you can (but don’t expect me to agree that they are an ethical rule set). So the question which arises is that of ‘what do we model in a rule set?’

The other line of enquiry has become a bit more pointed recently, given that I’ve actually made some progress on writing rules for classical Greek warfare. The bones of the rules are laid out, but the question arises now is 'what does this set of rules need to add the colour and spice of the original period?’

Now, in my mind, these two questions tend to collapse into each other. The overall question is what do we model in wargames rules and how do we choose?

To start from the question of the Greeks, the first job is to read the literary sources and note the general impressions of how the battles were conducted. This gives you the basic troop types and some answers to outcome questions.

It is not too difficult to take these basic empirical data and create a combat table, and from there to get some basic rules for a wargame. The question which arises is to wonder how close this is to what really happened. It is here that a degree of skill, or art, or something like that (ingenuity, perhaps) needs to come into play.

Now, looked at from the moral angle, all we want to do is model the combat and its outcomes. For example, in Xenophon’s Anabasis, the Ten Thousand spend quite a lot of their time moving into untouched areas, killing or driving off the inhabitants and looting the food and other items, including, on some occasions, selling women and children into slavery, or keeping them as slaves, concubines or servants themselves.

According to our lights this is immoral behaviour. But the Ten Thousand were not alone in doing this. Even the much vaunted Alexander III of Macedon, (sometimes called ‘the Great’), in the opening few pages of Arrian’s Alexandrus Anabasis is reported, in his campaign against the Thracians:

“Nearly fifteen hundred of them [Thracians} perished. Few of those who fled were taken alive, on account of their speed and knowledge of the country, though all the women who had accompanied them were captured with their young children and all the property they were carrying.

Alexander sent the plunder back to the cities at the coast, appointing Lysanias and Philotas to dispose of i.t’ (Arrian, 1.1.13 – 1.2.1, Landmark Arrian).

The word plunder in this passage presumably means the women and children too. Hardly the sort of behaviour we expect of a demi-God, perhaps, but it was a part of warfare of the time, and a neat way of making sure your troops had money.

The point is that we, as rule writers and users, have to choose what to model. Do we want to model the selling of women and children into slavery? Probably not, so we exclude that from our rule considerations, although it is probably harder to do this in the context of a campaign game than a free standing wargame.

On the other hand, the interaction between hoplites and peltasts in combat is a significant factor in warfare of the period. The Ten Thousand seem to have formed the hoplites into various bands of different age groups, and it is sometimes reported that for example, all the hoplites under thirty were sent to chase off the peltasts.

We probably do want to model the latter example, while ignoring the first, but why? On what basis do we make that choice?

I think this comes back to what I’ve said before about our western traditions of warfare. Like it or not, we do have a ‘just war’ tradition, and that tradition determines that, for example, non-combatants are not to be harmed. Thus, on the basis of keeping our wargames within the culturally acceptable terms of our times, we have to exclude selling women and children into slavery and similar things which we would define today as war crimes.

On the other hand, the interaction of hoplites and peltasts is a legitimate point to model in a wargame rule set. The two elements in the conflict are there (more or less) by their own choice and thus this bit of the warfare can be legitimately modelled.

I think the point I’m trying to make here is that, in general, we do not consciously make these decisions, they just happen. We have a pool of general assumptions about warfare, wargames and rules which we do not, actually, question, or even think about in any detail.

It may well be that you are thinking that we obviously do not play wargames centred about atrocities, while obviously modelling the interaction of hoplite and peltast on a battlefield is an entirely acceptable focus for a rule writer.

I’d agree, but what I would like to add is that these ‘obvious’ choices are not quite as obvious as we might like to think. Supposing a different culture had come up with wargaming at a different time, we would probably have a very different sort of hobby. What is ruled in and ruled out is a matter of choice, albeit choice heavily influenced by our culture.

In the end, we have a hobby which is part of our culture and is heavily influenced by it. Wargames focus on specific bits of warfare in whatever age. Principally, we focus on the actual battle, which if Victor Davis Hansen is to be believed, is simply how western culture views warfare.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Greek Report

The world, at least at the time of writing, seems to be fascinated as never before by what is going on in Greece. I doubt if there have been so many foreign correspondents in Athens since St. Paul spoke in the Aeropagia. It is quite possible, I suppose, that this post will attract huge numbers of hits, simply because Greece is mentioned in the title.

Then again, perhaps not.

This blog, for those of you who remember so far back, is supposed to be about me writing some rules in the Polemos range in the period which can generally be classified as ‘Classical Greece’ and ‘The age of Alexander’.

Up until a couple of months ago, all I was really doing was reading. I’ve got through Herodotus, Thucydides, and, more recently, two volumes of Xenophon. So far as I’m aware, these are the major literary sources for Greek warfare before Alexander; if you know different please do let me know.

After all that reading, it was time for some writing. I intend that these rules will cover from Marathon to the era of the early successors, but the wars of classical Greece clearly have a flavour of their own, and I think it is best to try to capture that without distorting it by input from later times.

The definition of troop types is fairly simply. Most wargamers know, for example, what a hoplite is, and what peltasts do. It is important, however, in my view that we do try to define the troops and capabilities carefully.

Again, in terms of formation, we need to decide exactly what we mean by the terms used. In my case, at the moment, I’ve gone with the Polemos: SPQR definition of troops are ‘formed’ (lined up in ranks) and unformed. So far as I can tell, no other option was available to ancient commanders.

Having defined the main troop types, at least (I keep having to add another one to cover types met in the narratives) we can start to think about command. I’ve mentioned before my relatively low opinion of the early Greek commanders, and the Persians do not seem to be a huge amount better. However, commanders the armies did have, and so they must have some influence on the game.

It does seem to me that the main role of army commanders was to get the troops to the battlefield, preferably fed and in some sort of order, and then deploy them in a reasonable manner. Once that is done, and the ‘attack’ is declared, early commanders seem to have had fairly little influence. Note that here I’m talking about larger battles. Xenophon’s narrative of the 10,000 suggests that commanders were more important in running skirmishes than in big confrontations.

The key to winning a wargame, therefore, should be in the commander’s deployment of his resources. Actual ability to influence things after starting the battle should be reasonably limited. Occasionally, Greek commanders did change things during the battle, such as at Plataea, but there were comparatively rare events.

Even commanders of the imputed brilliance of Alexander III of Macedon had to set up a good deployment of his troops before getting on with the battle. This, I suspect, is really what marks out the good commanders from the ones who could get their troops to the battlefield. The eye for the ground and the idea of how the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides can be used is key to victory in most battles.

Early Greek battles were fairly straightforward, line them up and charge type engagements, for example at Marathon the commanders had little to do once the initial charge was made. We could argue that the wings turning in and attacking the hitherto successful Persian centre was a command decision, but we do not actually know. An equally convincing explanation could be that the Greeks on the wings were pleased to see their own opponents flee, and turned spontaneously to help their colleagues and fellow citizens in the centre. While we may hope or suspect that there were command decisions about, we cannot show it to be the case; we do not have the evidence to tell.

The problem now is, as I’ve mentioned before, the players need something to do as commanders after deployment. I suppose if I was writing an umpire led game, I could separate the generals off and let them fight their own battles with whichever forces they had placed themselves with, and then inform them of the overall result. That would be a lot of work for the umpire, however, although it may well be realistic.

The flip side of this is that the rules have to keep the wargamers as commanders from changing their plans too easily. All armies, I suspect, take a little time to react to things going on in the battle. Most rules do not address this very easily. For example, DMR allows units to react instantly, if the wargamer has the PiPs to allow it. Whatever the unit was doing before do not affect their ability to turn and face, say, a flank march.

In Polemos: SPQR the idea was to make things a bit slower to react to untoward events, and I think the same is necessary (perhaps even more so) with the Greeks. Whether I’ve succeeded in this with SPQR I’m not sure, and it may not be for me to say, but there have been one or two comments that the system of orders adopted may even persuade wargamers to keep a reserve under the general’s immediate and direct command. If that is so, I claim a result!

Be that as it may, the Greeks were not as good as commanders as the Romans may have been, so I do think that the command and order systems will have to be different. The problem is how to make it hard to command armies without boring the players during the game.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Orders and Actions

There has been a little discussion over my ‘Chains of Command’ post from a few weeks ago, and also a question about orders in the Polemos: SPQR system, so I thought I’d try to expand on these points.

Essentially, the question boils down to the effect of generals on battles. I argued in the original post that the New Model Army generals at the battle of Naseby took, between them, less than half a dozen decisions during the whole action.

For those of you not familiar with Polemos: SPQR, the command system distinguishes between general orders, such as ‘advance’ and unit orders such as ‘open fire because the enemy are in range’. The general orders require resources from the commander of the army to start, while the unit orders are ‘free’, in the sense that the unit commander issues them.

Someone raised the question of how much a unit with ‘advance’ orders has to advance. There is no minimum in the rules, and I did not expect there to have to be one. But, my correspondent pointed out, there is nothing to exclude ‘cheesy’ moves such as advancing by one millimetre. Presumably this sort of thing is used so the unit can ‘wait’ for a suitable opportunity and then pounce of a convenient enemy flank or something of the case.

Now, I proposed previously that it was just as well that rules give wargamers command at various levels, as general and also as assorted unit commanders. The command and control system within a wargame is thus to prevent wargamers as generals having too much power and influence directly over their units, while at the same time permitting wargamers as unit commanders some flexibility and input, if only to keep interest in the game between the big decisions.

The upshot of this, however, is that the determination of an individual unit’s moves is still undertaken by the army commander, as these people are the same wargamer.

My initial reaction when this issue was pointed out was along the lines of ‘well, if people insist on playing like that, don’t play with them’. Perhaps that is a bit harsh, however.

The historical issue is a live one, though. Units did lag; commanders did drag their feet. This was not usually to gain some tactical advantage (although it did happen; think of Nelson) but through cowardice, political intrigue, incompetence and so on.

In a historical scenario, the offending commander would probably be relieved of his command on the spot and, in some cases, executed either on the field or shortly afterwards. Some, of course, may well commit suicide first; this was the honourable way out for Roman commanders accused of cowardice, such as the commander of the Second legion in Britain in the aftermath of Boudicca’s revolt, Poenius Posthumus. This, the honour school of warfare, is not covered by the normal run of wargame rules.

There is another issue here, as indicated in a comment by Timeshadows. There is a reception period for the orders from high command, before the unit commander can react, and then, indeed another one before the unit acts. It was suggested that there should be a dice for reception, interpretation and implementation of the orders. Our wargame units react almost immediately to the reception of new orders; it was not so historically.

So, how on earth can we try to get out of this maze? We need to allow some unit commander flexibility without permitting the misuse of this for cheesy gamesmanship. Furthermore, we need to build in some delay due to the reception and interpretation of orders, and also some mechanism to account for the fact that orders could be lost, or misinterpreted. And, on top of that, the system we adopt needs to be fool proof, simple and transparent.

Various systems have been adopted that I have seen. One is Piquet, where the movement of units and resolution of combats is determined by the use of a card deck. This seems to work OK, but the construction of the card deck simply shifts the problem elsewhere, if you ask me, aside from the fact that all this special production of components pushes the price of the rules up to that of a decent meal out for two.

Another system is the use of courier cards, which is suggested at least in Featherstone’s ‘Solo Wargames’. This does allow for the orders to be delayed or go missing, but as Don himself admits, it seems a little unlikely that the courier will be waylaid by bandits in the rear areas of a major army. The system also does not allow for misinterpretations, although something could be done, I’m sure, with the option of the courier arriving early and the unit moving too soon, but the wargamer would probably prevent that from happening.

The only realistic and feasible system I can think of is a combination of a mild set of courier cards with some sort of unit commander personalisation, which yields a probability of him understanding the orders and carrying them out. This requires a degree of pre-game preparation, in deciding on the characterisation of each of the commanders and recording them all, and then making the rolls during the game. This is probably too much effort for a straightforward “pick up” game, but may well be worthwhile for a campaign or series of connected wargames.

So, what do you do if you play against someone who issues ‘advance’ orders but hardly advances at all? Firstly, as I said, you can threaten not to play against them again. Secondly, you can remove his officer figures for disobeying orders. Thirdly, people who engage in this level of detail often get engrossed in one small part of the overall picture and lose anyway, so perhaps it simply isn’t worth worrying about.

Finally, you could incorporate a personalisation system into your officer characteristics and roll for reception of orders and implementation. That would require us, as wargamers, to have a more hands off approach to our units, and I’m not sure how happy most of us would be with that.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Wargaming as Boxing

In boxing, two adult humans enter a ring where they know that someone will be waiting who will attempt to do them harm. While there are some rules, even a referee, to ensure that the harm attempted to be delivered is limited, nevertheless the boxers, by climbing into the ring, have given their informed consent to the possibility of physical harm, even brain damage or death.

Boxing is an occasionally fairly controversial subject, both in terms of the spectacle, the violence and the possibility of physical harm. However, the usual defence of boxing is that the participants have consented to the rules and to the possibility of harm befalling them. In a sense, then, there is a mutual, implied agreement or contract between the boxers to engage in the activity, accepting the possibility of harm.

It is this aspect which makes boxing a possibly useful analogy for wargaming, rather than strict parallels between the spectacle and the violence. In wargaming, the violence is abstracted away and implied (this might be an issue for wargaming, but that is not the focus here), and the spectacle may or may not be an issue, but the contractual aspect could be a useful one.

In a wargame, two players agree on a set of rules, models, and so on, that they will use. As in boxing, there are two defined areas. One is the ring, or table top, the other is the rest of the world. The rules are different in each of them. In a sense, then, wargamers in agreeing to the parameters of a game, agree to the suspension of real world rules on the table, for one in which violence, even abstracted, is determinant of outcomes.

This can be used for a contractarian defence of wargaming. As an ethical theory, contractarianism has a venerable history, starting with Rousseau and Hume and continuing today is modern theories of justice such as those of John Rawls. However, contractarianism is not straightforward.

The idea that the boxers, or wargamers, enter into a contract is, mostly, an implied one. When this is used at a social or political level, as in a ‘social contract’, of course, a counterargument can be made that no-one has any choice about signing up to it or not. You are party to the social contract whether you like it or not. In the case of a boxing match or wargame this is not the case, clearly. You can choose whether to fight or play, or not.

This is not enough, however. A boxer may feel, against his free choice, that he has to fight. Perhaps he feels he needs to fight for his honour, or for the money, or because of obligations to his trainers or agents or other actors. Thus, it could be argued that the boxer has less of a free choice than the implied contract suggests.

This could also apply to wargaming. Suppose you arrive at your game with your Hittite army and meet your opponent. He is dressed as an Assyrian king and, as the armies are unpacked he shows you that he has many bases depicting Hittites being tortured, executing and lying on the ground, dismembered. “Casualty bases for you”, he says.

Now, clearly, your opponent has gone to a lot of effort for the game, but do you still wish to play it? Indeed, are you under a contractual obligation to play it? You might feel offended by your opponent’s attitude, uneasy at their approach, but is that sufficient to breach the implied contract to play a wargame? If you do feel that it is, of course, there is no wargame to play.

Now, suppose the scenario were replaced by one where your opponent was the US Cavalry, and you were an AmerIndian tribe. The casualty bases are now depicting women and children, as well as warriors. How would you fell then? Has the implied contract been broken? If so, why?

The important point is, I think, that while normal rules are suspended in the boxing ring, not all the rules are, and some are replaced by other, similar, rules relating to boxing specifically. Outside the ring, gouging people’s eyes and biting them is against the rules of society; in the ring, there are specific rules against this behaviour, while punching is forbidden outside, but positively encouraged inside the ring.

Thus, while you might have entered into a specific, implied contract with your opponent, not all the rules of the outside (off table) world are suspended. There is some sort of rule of acceptable behaviour. The depiction of prisoners being tortured, non-combatants being murdered, and so on, makes us uneasy, no matter how accurate the historical representation might be. Somehow, we do not want to know that the US Cavalry killed civilians, or the Assyrians tortured, enslaved and executed prisoners.

The problem, it seems to me, revolves around the non-explicit nature of the contract. The rules of boxing are fairly clear and penalties are imposed for breaking them. In wargaming, the rules for conducting the game are clear, what can be fuzzy is the overlap between these rules and those of normal ‘polite society’, that is the rest of the world and the combat being depicted.

We could argue, again with boxing, that ‘what happens on the table stays on the table’. Thus we still get our battle with the Assyrians, accepting the casualty bases as weird, but arguing that the game itself is more important.

But then what if your opponent, instead of giving you a casualty base each time you lose one, removes the base and smashes it with a hammer, while replacing it with one of his casualty bases. To be fair, let him to the same with his bases.

Somewhere between the unpleasant casualty bases and the smashing of losing bases a line has, I think, been crossed. Unfortunately, due to the implied contract to play a game, it is a bit difficult to say exactly where that line is. Maybe it simply depends on the participants.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Polemos: SPQR Q & A Part II

Some more Polemos: SPQR questions and answers this time. Normal service will be resumed next week, but I’m trying to keep all the Polemos stuff together. Hopefully, the rest of the rules are so well written that there won’t be any more questions!

Q1 I'm having difficulty finding the suggested small/medium/large sizes for each army. The closest I've found is for the two scenarios. Can someone please point me to where these are?

A1 I'm not sure they are there; they do refer to the scenarios. The original had a lot more very short scenarios with S/M/L armies, but they didn't make it to the final edition.

Q2 Just got my copy of SPQR, and am also just getting into 6mm historicals. I would like to use my 6mm figs for 25mm based DBA as well, but am curious how the variant base depth would impact the game.

A2 So long as the bases are all similar and you work on a 2:1 aspect ratio, there should not be a problem, I think. Sabot bases or a measuring stick should sort out any problems.

Q3 I had two forces facing off against each other, each of three bases of cavalry. There was an overlap on each sides right flank. The Gauls had the tempo and were in charge range of the Roman allied cav. Both Gallic cavalry bases got a 'charge home result', but what does the 'overlap cavalry base do? Does it do its own RC charge die roll even though it will only contact the corner of the Roman cavalry?

A3 It may not be terribly clear in the rules (it was supposed to be) but charges are resolved per group if the bases are in a group. So all would move into contact, but only on the result of one of your dice rolls.

Q3.1 So if the group charging gets a 3+ result all of the target bases get the same result? Eg 4 frontage base group of tribal infantry charge a 6 frontage base group of legionaries. Dice are rolled with a 4 result in favour of the tribal infantry charging, does that mean that all 6 bases of legionaries get a Target shaken result?

A3.1 Yes.

Q4 The Move Sequence shows 8. Make compulsory moves (both players). What does this mean? It states later in the rules that routers move in their next movement turn?

A4 It is a sweep up to make sure that everything has been done at the end of the turn - the recoil before a rout, recoils, halts and so on.

Q5 Infantry that fight 2 or more bases deep get a +1 support bonus (up to+3) for each base behind the front base, Can't see the same for cavalry is this an omission, is there a reason behind this or has this been factored in to the charge?

A5 So far as I know, cavalry didn't fight in depth, so they wouldn't get a bonus from doing so. I imagine that cavalry in depth could quite easily get disordered. If anyone has any evidence that I'm wrong, do let me know.

Q6 Why -1 to the firing side per additional unit firing and not to the target (page 27 Ranged attack table '-1 "Each extra base shooting at same target" ')?

A6 This is a bit ambiguous, but the intention is that -1 is applied to the target for each base over the first shooting at it.

Q7 In the example on page 36 (Brigantians v Romans) I notice that there is a -1 modifier for unformed in the first round of combat. This is at odds with the modifier list on p 31 and the reference sheet at the back of the book where Unshaken unformed in first round of combat get +1. In each of the combats on p 36 the -1 modifier is applied.

A7 The rules are right; B1 should get a score of 10, making the difference 4 and thus the recoil shaken result.

Q 7.1 Also the second combat on p 36 (B2 v R2) has a final result being a difference of 1. The outcome in the example is that "Neither side has gained an advantage and both bases must continue in combat fir the next phase", while the table on p32 shows that a difference of 1-2 would be a recoil.

A7.1 Actually, B2 should be on 10 again, so R2 recoils.

Q8 On p32 (risk to Generals and Officers) it states that "...close combat produces a 0-1 result (a draw)..." yet in the results table you have 0 = no effect (a draw?) with 1-2 a recoil

A8 The idea is that generals are at most risk when close combat bogs down – they are quick enough to get away if things go pear shaped and bright enough not to go charging off in pursuit and get isolated (not strictly true, of course, but near enough).

So I'd leave that as a 0-1 result and delete the bracketed phrase.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Virtue Wargaming

Some of you are probably aware by now that I do some worrying about the ethics of wargaming. I’ve written a bit about utilitarianism and wargames, and somewhere in the system I’ve got a somewhat incoherent discussion about contractarian considerations.

In this piece, however, I’m going to consider an aspect of virtue ethics. This came about in a serendipitous way, while reading a book called ‘Working Virtue’ edited by P. L. Walker and P.J. Ivanhoe, which I got cheap a while ago. Anyway, within that is an essay by Nancy Sherman called ‘Virtue and a warrior’s anger’, which got me thinking a bit.

Now, Sherman argues that, often, soldiers in battle are, or get, angry. They are angry at seeing their comrades killed; angry at the political machinations which have meant that they have had to leave their homes and families to go into battle and, in some cases (e.g. peacekeeping) angry that they cannot intervene at some events. So there is a fair bit of anger flying around on the battlefield.

The Stoics argued that it was virtuous to abstain from anger. Their ideal sage was not angry; nothing should be able to anger him (they didn’t, I think, do ‘hers’). Anger inhibits reason, and the stoics prized reason above everything else. They also argued that if only external things anger us, and external things are only passing phenomena which will fade away, we shouldn’t let them upset us. There is quite a lot about that in Marcus Aurelius, by the way.

So, anger gets a thumbs down from the stoics. Indeed, Seneca argues that the horrors of war, both just and unjust conflict, are the work of unconstrained anger. Anger makes us irrational, and, while in an irrational state we can do things which, when returned to rationality, we regret or cannot believe we have done. These, then, are the states where real life atrocities occur.

Now, our toy soldiers are the perfect stoic warriors. They never get angry or carry out atrocities. They cannot behave in an irrational or dangerous manner. Thus, according to the stoics, they are, in some sense, the sages of the warrior world.

Further than this, our rules, in general, do not allow for our models to carry out atrocities. Most atrocities, after all, occur after the battle or off the battlefield. Many of the horrific things which have occurred in our world, such as the massacres on the Eastern Front in World War II, or those in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars have been carried out by rear echelon troops. That is not to say that front line troops have not carried out atrocities, but usually, in battle at least, they have other things to worry about.

Moving on a little further, then, atrocities and the situations which give rise to them are not modelled by our wargame rules. It is true that occasionally you might get rule sets with ‘unconditional advance’, but in general they are towards enemy troops or baggage trains which are deemed to be legitimate targets. Civilians are not involved unless in scenario specific terms.

Another factor to be considered is that our model soldiers are the perfect, chivalric, knights. They do not, as I’ve said, get angry, nor do they go looting or any other of the awful things that can happen in warfare. There are no violations of the codes of chivalry in our games; we do not wish to model them, and so they are put to one side.

Furthermore, there are no violations of the Western just war tradition in wargames. If we lay aside the Ius ad bellum criteria (requiring a just cause; it is a bit late for that when the armies are on the table), we can see that the Ius in bello (just means) criteria are adhered to. Our wargames have no hatred, greed or brutality in them. The games and actions in them are proportional to winning and avoid unnecessary suffering. The rules and conventions of war are followed and, as just discussed, violence to non-combatants is avoided.

So our wargames follow both the stoic ideal of non-anger and the Ius in bello criteria of the Western just war tradition. This is what we choose to model in our games. It does not have to be like that, of course. We could choose to model other aspects of conflict, such as the looting of the Royal baggage train after Naseby, including the murder of a load of ‘Irish’ (more probably Welsh speaking) women. But we choose not to.

Now, why do we choose to model only some aspects of warfare and not others? We could argue that what we do model are the important aspects of warfare: the battles themselves. It is here that the decisions are made and wars are won and lost. We could even suggest that, in history, most casualties from battles themselves have been during the pursuit, when one side has lost. Some rules (perhaps most, I’m not sure) stop at the point when the battle has clearly been lost and do not model the subsequent slaughter. I suppose that campaign games go down this route, and so a claim could be made that they are more realistic but less moral than standalone games.

However, the point is that from this stoic-virtue ethic point of view, what we model is perfectly moral and acceptable. The only slight problem remaining is the question of how we choose what we do model. That, perhaps, is where the true moral choices of wargaming are made, but that will have to wait for another time.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Why do we wargame that which we do wargame?

Now, there is a clumsy title, but what I want to explore is why we chose to wargame the periods we wargame. This sort of follows on from last time’s comments on why we wargame at all, so in a sense I’m trying to drill down to the bedrock of an individual’s hobby (in this case mine; I can’t speak for any other individual).

In another sense I am also trying to explore the culture of wargaming, and whether what we choose to wargame is, in any sense, culturally conditions. Put another way, we can ask if wargaming is totally an escapist fantasy which only bears a passing resemblance to real life, or if what we choose to game has anything to do with what is going on in our world.

I used films of Shakespeare’s Henry V last time to try to illustrate what I mean. Another possible cultural icon is, as I’ve mentioned before, the Battle of Marathon. Moving on a few years chronologically we have, of course, the film 300. Now, I’ve not seen the film, but I do wonder if the choice of Thermopylae was, at least in part, culturally conditioned. I’m thinking along the lines of a few brave men (western, of course) against a horde, betrayed but fighting to the last, and so on. This is orientalism, as I’ve mentioned before, and it goes back to the Greek historians, but I cannot help but wonder if, somewhere in the background are recent events in Iraq and similar places. Perhaps, however, I’m being too cynical.

Anyway, the question of interest is whether those sorts of cultural and socio-political events influence our choices of wargaming topic. In the 1970’s, Paddy Griffiths caused a ripple in some wargaming circles by suggesting that there were ‘gray’ wargames, or what we might term forbidden subjects. Among his candidates were the 16th and 17th century struggles in Ireland and the 1939-40 campaigns in Poland and France.

In the first place, he suggested that the Irish campaigns were unpopular because they still had relevance to modern politics. A wargame which showed the Irish and English in mortal combat would, he suggested, make us feel uncomfortable, and so we wouldn’t wargame it. The 1939-40 campaigns show, of course, the “bad guys” winning, and that too makes us dubious of playing the wargames.

I could not honestly say the Griffiths raised a storm with his comments, but he did provoke a bit of debate. Some argued that his list of grey wargame periods was not grey at all, but simply too boring or one sided to make a good game. The Irish campaigns of the sixteenth century were classified in this camp. It was also argued that there was too little information around about some campaigns to actually be able to set up a wargame based on it. The Polish campaign of 1939 was placed in this category; there was also the problem of the lack of figures and models for the battles.

Now I’ve noted before that wargaming is an individualistic thing, and the choices we make are, broadly speaking, unconditioned by anything outside our own moral world (for want of a better expression). While there may be some who would be happy playing, say, a game set in the ‘Wild West’ which included killing American Indian women and children, many of us might get uncomfortable with that.

The point I’m drifting towards here is to wonder how we choose which periods we wargame. Now, of course, you might argue that ‘I wargame Napoleonic British because Fred collects Napoleonic French’, and Fred is your normal wargame opponent. But even if that is the case, Napoleon had more opponents than just the British, so why choose them?

There are, I think some constraints on our choices. Firstly, there is the availability of information and models for our games. Lots of people are interested in Napoleonics and World War Two (not just wargamers) and so there are vast quantities of books, DVDs, model soldiers and so on about these topics. I would suggest that this interest, at least in Britain, is because these were ‘heroic’ times for our country, where “Britain stood alone against the tyrant” and so on. Even if, as our reading of history and understanding of the period nuances these claims, we are still, somehow, joining in this narrative.

We also have the counter-cultural, as well. I recall someone telling me that he played Napoleonic Turkish because they were rubbish and everyone knew they were rubbish, so it did not matter if he won or not. In fact, if he did win, he could make bigger claims about the fact. But, perhaps, that is a little unusual.

Another response I’ve seen, I think on the old DBM-list run out of Stanford, was to advise the choice of an army you could love, even when it had lost. This was quite widespread advice when someone came asking for a suggestion for an army, and all the odder because of the way it was phrased. Perhaps it is just me, or that I’m particularly sensitive to language use, but to suggest that an army of model soldiers can be lovable seems to me to be a little strange.

Nevertheless, it is clear that people do make choices of armies, campaigns, periods or whatever that they can ‘love’, whatever than term might mean. For myself, I rarely wargame anything post-1700, as those of you who have read these witterings for a while might have deduced. Why that should be the case I am not sure, but it is probably due to starting out with the English Civil War and being able to visit some of the battlefields and other associated places, plus the fact that the source material is mainly in English and widely available.

But what about you? Why did you choose the periods in which you wargame? Answers on the comments button, please!

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Wide Boys and Heroes

Why do we wargame?

As I’ve probably written far too often on this blog, wargaming can have a wide variety of responses, ranging from mild interest to derision to implications that it supports violent activities. But that does not actually answer the question of why we, as normal (so far as anyone is normal) healthy adults spend a lot of time wargaming.

Firstly, I suppose the answer is ‘because we can’. Some people hang glide, some play golf, and some wargame. Our society is such that we do not have to struggle to survive; every waking minute does not have to be spent in backbreaking agricultural work which was the lot of most of our ancestors. If, as Josef Pieper argues, Leisure is the basis for Culture, then all of these things contribute to a diverse and vibrant culture in which ordinary people can do things that their great-grandparents could only have dreamt about.

Secondly, as has been mentioned a few times before, there is a basic interest in battles. This shows itself in a variety of manifestations in society, from war films to wargames to video games, books, DVDs and so on. Indeed, to look at the bookshelves of many libraries or bookshops one would start believing that military history started with World War 1, peaked in World War 2 and has continued at a lower level ever since. It is also true that publishing books about World War 2 is about as lucrative as book publishing gets these days.

Now, battles are intensely dramatic and emotional events. I’ve just read Juliet Baker’s excellent book on Agincourt. Discussing the killing of the French prisoners towards the end of the battle, she remarks that probably Henry V, who gave the order, had little choice because his men were emotionally and physically exhausted by what had gone before. He had to protect his army from the possibility of being attacked by both fresh enemy forces and escaped prisoners, rearmed by weapons picked up on the field.

Films, too, tend to have a climax with a battle, unless they are about the battle as a whole (think ‘The Longest Day’). Books too, if set against a background of war, tend to have battles as dramatic plot forcers. If the film or book is a decent one it does not tend to get accused of encouraging war. I suppose the question here is ‘why not?’

Often, films present war in considerable nastiness, although they do have to stay within some limits. On the other hand, they also present war as an opportunity for ordinary people to do extraordinary things. The representation of on screen of courage, self-sacrifice, team spirit and so on more than makes up for the inevitable depiction, if only in long shot, of the carnage that is battle.

So where does this leave wargaming? To some extent, as has been mentioned in the comments recently, wargaming represents the heroic ideal of battle. We abstract away most of the gory, nasty bits, and focus on the courage, the strategy and tactics, and the pageantry in a convivial social atmosphere with like-minded people. The games are mildly competitive but not particularly addictive, and are normally played for bragging rights, as opposed to the perfectly socially acceptable occupation of, say, poker playing.

We can also say that wargamers know, perhaps, more history than many in general society, and also probably know more about the consequences of war than many. One of the slightly depressing things to do as a wargamer is to go through the magazine articles and note how frequently certain parts of the world have been the arena for battles. At Agincourt, again, the route of the English army takes the traveller across the front line trenches of World War I near Amiens; indeed, there was a story of Agincourt archers, in ghostly form, joining in the battle of Mons. But then we can start to reflect that none of these battles actually seem to have solved anything in particular.

We wargame, perhaps, to give us some connection with the past, however tenuous and remote it may seem to be. This is not so obvious as it is in more popular culture, however. The films of Shakespeare’s Henry V are an interesting case in point. Olivier’s Henry V, of World War II vintage, was aimed at a world about to invade France in the cause of liberty. Interestingly, Churchill asked that the Southampton plot was removed; the country needed to appear to be united. Kenneth Branagh’s version was anti-war and produced after the Falkland’s War, while a stage version with a black actor in the title role came after the invasion of Iraq. I’m not sure we can detect such political views in our wargames.

So wargames seem to link us to the glory and pageantry of battles, but do not, on the whole, make any particular political point. Is wargaming then, simply a pastime, of value only to its participants? Is it undertaken so unthinkingly as to be amoral and apolitical? It is rather hard to suppose that it is, being, as I said above, part of a wide band of social and cultural activities. There must be some link with modern politics or wargaming becomes mere fantasy and escapism.

Now, there is nothing wrong with fantasy and escapism per se, but to ignore the other currents that might be swirling around our hobby might be foolish. At least, we probably have to accept that most of our wargaming is based on the easy availability of decent texts on the campaigns and battles that we play. Thus, through that link if no other, wargaming represents some aspect of the society in which it is embedded. Perhaps this does explain why increasingly exotic (from our point of view) wargames are promoted such as the Chinese Civil war of the 1920’s. From our western point of view it is (to misquote Neville Chamberlain) a war among people of whom we know nothing, and thus is ‘safe’ compared to say the Black and Tans campaigns of the same sort of era.

Anyway, why do you wargame?

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Polemos: SPQR Questions and Answers

Some of you may be aware that the Polemos: SPQR rules were published recently. As they were written by my own fair hand (or rather, typed by my own fair fingers, but that doesn’t sound quite so poetic), I thought that, for the benefit of the world and my own sanity, I would occasionally post the answers to questions that people have asked me about them here. The first few are below, but don’t worry, the usual outpourings will be back next week.

Q1. Charging. Under Unit Orders on p17 a charge is one of the orders that does not require TPs to be allocated. On p 21, however, it states at the 2nd bullet point "The Active player announces all charges, expends TPs for charges and marks but does not move the charging bases". Does this mean that TPs are required for charges contrary to p17?

A1. Charging is a move, so unless the bases are already advancing, the TPs have to be paid. If the bases are advancing (which, in play testing, was the normal situation), then the charge does not cost TPs, as charging to contact is contained within the Advance order..

Q2. Changing formation. Does it cost TP to change formation? p21 simply states that a move may involve the base(s) moving forward or changing facing within a group.

A2. Yes, it does cost TPs, I think, because it is a change of order, not a continuation of the order. I'm open to argument on this one, though...

Q3. Flank or Rear attacks. How does a base or group qualify for these? Other Polemos rule sets have the attacking base with the greater part behind the target's front line.

A3. There is always something that gets through, isn't there?

Yes, extend the lines of the base edges in the BD direction. If the greater part of the attacking base is outside these, count as flank attack.

Q4. Routing. Is it OK to simply remove the routing base(s) once the initial rout move is done?

A4. Mostly it is, yes, unless the army is really deployed in depth.
I, however, prefer the morale effect of looking at all the fleeing bases, then into my opponents eyes, and smiling, gently and slightly sadly at him, so I leave them on until they get to the table edge.

Q5. Is the "Composition Table" designed to give a sample/stereotyped 20-base army for each of the forces covered as an alternative to rolling for each separately?

A5. The tables give a standard 20 base army (in fact the play testing was based on these) although the bases are without a training value.

Q6. Are the rules suitable for solo play? If so, how?

A6. Yes, they work quite well solo, I think (but then I would, being mainly a solo player AND the author). The way I’ve played solo is to choose one side and run that for the tempo bidding. You must roll for tempo points first and decide your bid. Then choose an appropriately sized dice and roll for your enemy’s tempo bid. The winner is the tempo player, and everything else flows from that in a fairly straightforward way.

Alternatively, you can roll randomly for the TP bid for both sides, and see what happens. This can land up with some peculiar results, though, but then, ancient battles tended to be a bit odd, anyway.

I’ve found it a slightly strange experience, having these rules published. This may well be because production was dogged by assorted problems. When Mr Berry refers to freezes and flood delaying things, he really is not exaggerating. Although I’ve had rule sets published before, they have been collaborative efforts, while this one was written by myself, alone. Perhaps that is it.

On the other hand, I’ve always disliked reading what I’ve written and got published, be it professionally, articles in magazines or, I suppose, rule sets. So maybe it is simply normal rejection anxiety. I do wonder, however, if this is quite common and stops a lot of good ideas that must be out there reaching the public domain. The nagging doubt ‘what if people don’t like it’ is a real fear and does stop some from setting finger to keyboard.

Still, having got Polemos: SPQR out into the public domain, what you, the public, make of it is really not my problem. I’ll try to answer questions and listen to comments and advice about how it should have been, and, if there is ever a second edition, take those things into account.

In the meantime, I’ll try to concentrate on writing rules for classical Greeks (reading about Agincourt, Naseby and the Thirty Years War notwithstanding, of course). The biggest difficulty I’ve encountered so far is trying not to simply copy large chunks of the Romans rules over and say ‘that’ll do’. Quite aside from the fact that I’ve criticised such behaviour here before, I am trying to keep in mind the fact that warfare was different between these two ages, even if we bung them all into the same ‘ancient wargames’ category, of refer to the whole period as ‘classics’ in terms of the academy.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Keeping it all Together

In an attempt to explore some of the implications of Bennett’s taxonomy of levels of the organisation of conflict, referred to a few weeks ago, I thought I’d have a go at outlining what the implications of some of them might be for us, as wargamers.

This also relates somewhat to the discussion of a bit ago about whether the Academy and the work it produces was of any use to us as wargamers; indeed, whether the outcomes of academic studies ever reach beyond the ivory towers of universities.

I still think that answer to that question is, largely, no, or at least that academic studies often are not useful to wargamers and are frequently kept within academe anyway. However, I have referred here to a few academic works over the last year, so I thought I’d bring another one to your attention this time, while also trying to discuss the top level of Bennett’s analysis, that of the diplomatic and political organisation of war.

The paper in question is a fairly recent on: William Bulman, The Practice Of Politics: The English Civil War And The ‘Resolution’ Of Henrietta Maria And Charles I, Past & Present, 206, 43-79.

This immediately shows up a few problems with academic works. Firstly, they have boring titles, secondly, that they tend to the lengthy side and thirdly, you really need to be in a university to have ready access to the work. Be that as it may, I’ll now try to extract something interesting from the above for us as wargamers.

Anyone who knows anything about the English Civil War knows that on 14th June 1645 the royalist cause committed both military and political suicide at Naseby. Military suicide because the King’s Oxford army way defeated and the experienced infantry backbone scattered, killed or captured. Political suicide was caused by the capture of the royalist baggage, including a whole load of letters from the Queen, Henrietta Maria of France, to Charles I, and from him to her.

These letters were political dynamite, showing Charles to have been in negotiation with the Irish, French, Catholic and other dubious powers. They were rapidly published and, for many people, destroyed the idea that Charles could negotiate honestly. The rapid disintegration of the royal cause followed, at least in part, from this publication.

Now, obviously these letters are a source of information at a political and diplomatic level. Before the war broke out in 1642 Henrietta Maria had gone abroad to raise cash and buy arms for the royal cause. Before she left, the King and her decided on their policy for the war. Charles was to go to York, seize the munitions dump at Hull and raise an army, while the Queen was in the Netherlands pawning the crown jewels and buying arms.

This process, Bulman argues, was what the Queen meant when she referred to the ‘resolutions’ that the King had. This, he argues, was the manner of making political decisions when communications were poor. The overall policy was decided, at least in terms of its outcomes and immediate processes.

The actors on the ground then had to frame their activity in accordance with these resolutions, or they would firstly cause confusion, as other, remote, actors would not know of the change of plans and would act in accordance with the original resolutions in mind.

Secondly, and from the Queens perspective more importantly, the actor changing their minds would appear, and be represented in diplomatic correspondence and in the newsbooks as being unreliable and vacillating. From her perspective, trying to raise money, she needed the news from England to be consistent with the policy she was putting forward in trying to obtain loans. If it looked like the King was about to settle, or change his mind over some bit of policy, that action or perception of the action would make her job much more difficult.

Now, the King and Queen were in a bit of a difficult and unusual position in their correspondence. As the navy supported Parliament, they could not be sure that their letters would reach their destination, nor that they would not be deciphered when they were. Therefore, they could not change policy on the fly, as it were.

Thus, we see the importance of these resolutions. Policy was set, pretty well, until the parties could meet in council, face to face, and change them. Communications were too unreliable and vulnerable to interception to discuss policy and possible changes to it. Thus, royal policy was set, more or less, from the point at which Henrietta Maria left England in February 1642 until she met him again in July 1643, and again from 1644 onwards.

While Charles and Henrietta Maria were in perhaps a more awkward position than many, the outline above does point, I think, to something that we, in our communication rich world perhaps fail to take into account. It was very difficult to change policy when it had been set in motion. This is true, I think of all ages, but particularly before the advent of the turnpike roads in the eighteenth century.

Communications were slow and unreliable even over relatively limited areas of Europe. While newsbooks could be in Amsterdam in a week or so, private communications were more subject to loss or severe delay than a package of newsprint. The idea of resolution makes sense against that background.

As wargamers this means that we do need to be a bit careful. If a single mind is controlling everything, then adjustments to this force can immediately be taken into account by that one, even though no message could possibly have passed between them in that time. Our armies, and our campaigns and diplomacy, can become ahistorically well informed, with swift and uninterruptable communications.

I suppose, too, that this is what marks out an excellent general from the good ones. The excellent generals could read the land and the enemy and strike, while the good or average generals were still figuring out how to react to this even or that.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Chains of Command

It is often said (so it must be true) that the task of a command system in a wargame is the opposite of that in real armies.

In real armies, the chain of command, command, control and communications (C3) or whatever you want to call it is aimed at ensuring the ability of a general to get the units to do what he wants. A unit commander has enough problems engaging the enemy without worrying about the bigger picture. He needs direction from above if his unit is to take the enemy in flank, or exploit that gap, of whatever.

In modern armies, with modern communication systems, it is quite possible for a general to give orders directly to a single vehicle or a company commander (or even, potentially, a platoon or section). However, they do not, for the very good reason that the unit commanders would go ballistic if that happened, or at least wonder what their subunits were up to. The potential for confusion, disruption and chaos is simply too great.

In a wargame, of course, there is just one individual to act as both general and unit (and, possibly, subunit) commanders. What I mean is that the player has to act as the overall commander, but also move the subunits in accordance with the ‘orders’ given by the general, that is, himself acting with another hat on.

Put like this it is fairly clear how accusations of gamesmanship or over-elastic interpretation of those orders can occur. Looking at the situation as a unit commander, the player can quickly re-assess the situation and mentally adjust the orders the general has given; in extreme cases he might simply do something else.

So the problem the wargame rules writer is faced with is different from those which a real life general has to deal with. The general can issue his orders, and expect someone else to carry them out. The wargamer issues orders (how this happens differs in different rules) but then has to execute them. The real life sub commander might misunderstand the orders, ignore them, do something else either disastrous or brilliant, or he might carry his orders out. In a wargame, the sub unit will do what the ‘general’ wants, because the general is also the unit commander.

There are a number of responses to this sort of problem. Firstly, there are the options of multi-player and committee games. Here, the commander is isolated from the action in some way, and can only issue orders to the next level of the chain of command, which can do likewise to their next level and so on. This is fine, but in my view often lands up verifying the old adage that war is 90% boredom. One of the lessons of committee games is that doing something as an army takes time.

Another response to this problem, and the most usual among wargamers, I suspect, is to ignore the problem. Most reasonably modern rule sets have some way of limiting the moves a general can make. DBA PiPs or Polemos Tempo Points put a calliper on the number of bases that can be moved at any one time. This is a bit unpredictable, and the number of moves is moderated by a random dice roll, but actually allows for a fair amount of planning in advance. Most wargamers will happily accept this as ‘realistic’, and enjoy the challenge of adjusting their plans to account for the odd bad dice roll, either in command points or in combat.

I’ve sort of mentioned this problem before, when I suggested that the wargamer should, in fact, only issue orders to the top level of his command. In terms of the English Civil War, these would be the commanders of the wings and the centre. For example, at Naseby, Fairfax would issue commands to Ireton, left wing cavalry commander, Skippon, infantry commander in the centre, and Cromwell, right wing commander of cavalry.

The issuing of commands would, in fact, be done at the senior commander’s conference before the battle. Naseby is interesting in this respect because the Parliamentary army moved backwards after its initial deployment because Cromwell judged that the ground was too wet in the initial position. This problem went back to Fairfax who decided to change the location of the army, and the army was redeployed.

Once the battle started, the key commanders lost a fair bit of their ability to control events. Ireton was wounded and his wing was beaten. The Parliamentary foot was soon under pressure from the more experienced Royalists. Cromwell’s horse was victorious, but this took some time, partly due to poor going for cavalry.

So far, the second level commanders had done comparatively little except lead their men into combat, or at least watch them while they won or lost. Now, Cromwell took the initiative, and led part of his wing onto the flank of the Royalist foot. Fairfax, who as army commander had pretty well finished his job, called up the unengaged so far forces (his own foot, horse and lifeguard) and led the assault on the now beleaguered Royalist foot. And that, more or less, was that.

Now here is the problem for wargaming. If a set of rules only allowed that level of decision making, it might get lauded as being nicely historically accurate, but it would probably be described as being dead boring. After the initial deployment, Ireton’s only decision was to support some foot, for which he got wounded and captured. Cromwell’s only decision was to turn in on the foot, which was hardly a taxing one in the circumstances, while Fairfax’s decision was made at a point where the battle was more or less won.

So I suppose the point here is that, in order to be interesting, the wargame and the wargamer have to operate at these different levels. We need to stories of the first line Parliamentary foot units being beaten back, to engage us in the overall narrative of the battle.

So maybe I am wrong. Having a wargame where the player is the overall general only is not such a good idea.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Wargame Levels

I’ve been reading an essay by Matthew Bennett, entitled ‘The Development of Battle Tactics’ in Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred years War, edited by Anne Curry and Michael Hughes. This is quite a good book to read if you are interested in the Hundred Years War, which I am.

Anyway, at the start of the essay, Bennett tried to define what battle tactics are. He suggests that often the actual tactics get lost in issues of strategy and organisation, particularly among historians.

In pursuit of his argument, he defines seven levels of military activity. These are:
1. The level of diplomacy, political manoeuvring
2. The organisation, raising and financing of forces
3. Logistics; the movement and supply of the forces
4. Strategy, both overall and theatre specific
5. Operational or campaign strategy, involving chevauchee, sieges and battle seeking or avoiding courses of action
6. Tactics, close range manoeuvring of troops and weapons
7. Individual acts of bravery (the chronicler’s favourite).

So, at what level do we want our wargames to be at? Most wargames, are, I suppose, at level 6, tactical, close range manoeuvring and use of weapons. This is where army level, or battalion level or whatever we like to define them as, rules are usually found. Polemos fits into this area, self-consciously defining itself as a ‘big battle’ rule set.

Not all rules are at this level, of course. Skirmish and role playing games cluster around level 7. In my role playing game days Most of the fights the player character party got into were, essentially, scrums. The player character charged in, relying on decent weapons, high level skills and the player advantage to win.

I recall two honourable exceptions to the above. The first was Call of Cthulhu, where any sort of fighting was usually bad news for the players. The second was a Paranoia scenario where, after being badly beaten by cleaning robots in a dark corridor, the party actually sorted out some cross fire and mutual support tactics to at least get us to the objective. This we did, and the tactics (I suppose you could call them small unit tactics) worked. Of course, this being Paranoia, we got wiped out anyway, and the Game Master told us afterwards we were not really supposed to get that far. But it does show that there are relations between the different levels of military activity described above.

Now, what level do we want our wargames to be at?

Most people seem to wish for wargaming to be at levels 6 and 7, tactics and individual acts. I suppose this is because this is where the stories lie; the story of a unit in action, the story of an individual succeeding against the odds, or at least being a heroic failure.

Some wargames do rise above these levels. Some campaign games, for example, do consider operational strategy, at least. Some wargames, such as those described in ‘Setting Up a Wargames Campaign’ by tony Bath go even higher, with considerations of income, recruitment, logistics, diplomacy and all manner of issues. It has to be said, however, that this comes at a cost of massively increased complexity and these systems do tend to collapse under their own weight.

We run into a second problem at this point. Historians are not interested, in particular, in battles and tactics. This is despite the fact that most people (even non-wargamers) are, and that books about battles sell well.

I recently undertook a course in undergraduate history, by distance learning. At the start of the module on the English Civil war, we were directed to read an article by Austin Woolrych, an eminent historian of the period. In it he bemoaned the fact that, as he put it (I paraphrase), wars were won by battles, but few historians were interested in battles. He considered that few undergraduates who took a course on the English Civil War would be able to name more than two battles of the war.

As the module unfolded, it became clear that this was going to be the case. The only battle mentioned by name was Naseby (which was itself in a quote from Woolrych’s book). There was no discussion or description of how the war was fought. All we got was a balance sheet from a garrison, which showed how much cheese they ate in a week.

I don’t mean to single that course out in particular; I suspect that most history courses are like that. Historian prefer to analyse administrative records and the passage of laws, or, if they want to look ‘from below’ they start trying to find out about the lives of women, children, homosexuals and criminals. There is very little about armies, soldiers and tactics., unless, as is the case with the Roman army, the army is the only organisation in a society about which significant records remain.

Bennett suggests that military history, in particular the history of tactics, is largely ignored because of the above and also because it was for a long time the preserve of former military men. In particular, he has in mind Sir Charles Oman and A. H. Burne, both of whom wrote a lot about the battles of the Hundred Years War.

Both Oman and Burne are getting a little dated, now, but historians are only just beginning to question their accounts of tactics. This seems to be because historiography, after the second world war at least, has decided that wars are not good subjects for history, probably because they are too violent.

Even modern military history suffers from this. Modern history of wars and armies tends to be more interested in financing and the effects of the wars on the state, specifically state formation. In Bennett’s terms, this is the second level of military activity, and is not much use to us as wargamers.

So this is what I mean when I say that the academy is of little use to us, and the trickle down of information from it to the public domain is usually not very helpful. There are a few glimpse of light, but they are sparse and far between.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Are We Supposed to Enjoy This?

On a shelf on my bookcase there is a book of Bloom County cartoons. Somewhere in this there is a cartoon where three characters are watching the television.

‘Is this a war movie?’ says one.

‘I think it is the news,’ says another. ‘Those guns look real’

‘I’m sure it’s a movie,’ the first responds, ‘Go on, Kerpow! Boom!’

The third character then speaks: ‘Could someone tell me if I’m supposed to be enjoying this?’

Here, I think, is, in some part, the dilemma posed by wargaming. If the programme the characters are watching is the news, then it cannot be termed ‘entertainment’ (even by some news channels, which do their best to show everything as entertainment). If, on the other hand it is a film, it is supposed to be entertainment, and the violence can be enjoyed.

Now, there is a very odd thing about enjoying violence. It is part of the human experience, and, I should think unusual among the animal kingdom. Most animals do not appear to enjoy violence. Even some of the more violent creatures, those who fight for domination such a lions or stags, do not go out of their way to watch it. But we do. And we enjoy it.

We also draw a distinction between real violence and representations of that violence. We can enjoy a war film, but not a report from some God-forsaken battlefront somewhere. We can read and enjoy military history, but might feel a little uncomfortable if it is too modern.

Similarly, we can enjoy a good wargame, but get uncomfortable if our brief is to kill civilians or engage in wanton destruction of agricultural products or urban environments. If these things happen as a part of the game, we can call that realism, but if that destruction is our aim we regard that with at least a little moral discomfort.

Strange, then, that many military expeditions set out with that idea of wanton destruction in mind. I’ve mentioned before the English raids across France during the Hundred Years wars. There are also the activities of the armies of both sides during the Peloponnesian wars, as chronicled by Thucydides. The examples multiply throughout history, I’m sure. But we do not game them, on the whole.

There are I imagine a variety of reasons for this. Firstly, burning stuff is a fairly boring activity, at least as a game or simulation. Battles are far more interesting and dramatic. The same argument applies, I think to sieges. While you do occasionally see siege wargames in progress at shows, and they can be spectacular, they also can make fairly boring wargames. Most sieges were determined, let us face it, by supplies and diseases, rather than decisive military action.

Secondly, we see on our TV screens too easily these days the effects of crop failures. It may well be that we shy away from reproducing that on the wargames table. We know that the consequences are dire for people, and we can see what that means on the screen with small children lying practically comatose in front of the camera. Wargaming by devastation links us, in some way, in our imagination to such scenes.

In history, this devastation tends to get tidied away. For example, the destruction of much of Germany during the Thirty years War gets limited to a few maps, and maybe a quotation or two from contemporary sources. The individual tragedy is hidden from us; we cannot imagine it. The brush with death of a child on TV news engages us with horror far more easily than the depopulation of Germany 350 years ago. Maybe we just cannot cope with the numbers.

Thirdly, I suspect that unless the scenario is specifically designed for it, resource destruction in a wargame is pointless. The only circumstances wereby it could be a useful use of the forces available is during a campaign game. In a normal, one off, wargame it is far better to concentrate those forces on the battle. Defeating the enemy is of far greater import than destroying their resources.

In real life, of course, this may not be quite the same. Battles were not as decisive as we may like to believe, although they were much more important than most historians seem to think. In the English Civil war, for example, there were lots of battles, but only (roughly speaking) three or four of them were truly decisive. The winners tended to dissipate their strength into new garrisons, while the losers recouped theirs from garrisons. The actual domination of the ground altered a bit, but the battle was certainly not a knock out blow.

Even some of the decisive battles were not that decisive. At Poitiers the English even managed to capture the French king, but endless wrangling ensued and the final outcome was not what someone regarding the political situation in 1357 would have expected. Similarly, after Agincourt, the English appeared to hold all the aces, but some aspects of French society simply refused to accept the results of battle and treaty and, eventually, won.

So where have we landed up. The relationship between table top battles and real life ones is, fortunately, rather tenuous. Thus we can regard wargames as entertainment, in much the same ways as war movies are. Perhaps the difficulties really occur during wargame campaigns where it is important to attack the enemy resources, not just their forces. But of course, we can abstract that away and supress the human suffering this would cause in real life because it is only a game.