Saturday, 15 January 2011

Some Discourses of Wargaming

Wargaming occurs in a cultural context. Certain conditions have to be met before people can wargame. For example, I do not have to grow my own food, and that gives me a certain amount of leisure time in which to pursue other activates, which might include the reading of history and, ultimately, wargaming.

This, however, has certain implications for how we wargame. For example, I have long suspected that the most important part of any real war is the capture and holding of territory. Think of the battles in history which came about as a result of sieges. The Persians besieged the Greek cities in Ionia. Those who had no walls either surrendered or came out to fight. In the English Civil war the Royalists besieged and captured Leicester to draw the Parliamentarians away from Chester. This ultimately led to Naseby and the demise of the main royal army. More recently, Tobruk was a lengthy siege that distracted the Afrika Korps from the main aim of capturing Egypt, while I suppose that we could view the whole of the western front in World War One as a lengthy and very bloody siege, even ignoring such episodes as Verdun.

Waterloo is perhaps the paradigm counter-example. On the other hand, you could argue that Waterloo stands out as a counter example precisely because it was unusual. In 100 days there wasn’t much time to man fortresses and bring up the heavy artillery. The whole point, from both sides, was to prevent that from happening by obtaining a quick victory.

So why do we focus on the battle in wargaming? Professional soldiers, I’m told, focus on logistics while amateurs look at tactics. I’m an amateur; fair enough, and logistics is boring. But battles tend to have all the ‘glamour’ items: heroism, pageant, colour, movement, action, adventure and so on. Sieges tend to be nearly as dull as logistics.
I remember mentioning my idea that battles were largely unimportant while sieges and capturing territory were vital on an email list (now defunct). I was shouted down (as far as one can be in cyberspace), although I did challenge the list to provide in period examples of battles that were not fought as a consequence of besieging or a desire to lay siege to somewhere. I don’t recall the details, but there were few in the period which could be put forward.

So we seem to have this discourse in wargaming, that battles are important. That is true enough, as in many cases they are. Furthermore, we believe in the decisive battle. But actually, this is hiding something. Within wargaming, battle is important because that is all we can reproduce, interestingly and frequently. So the hidden need to fight wargame battles may be part of the motivation for the wargamer-ly focus on battles in the first place.

Now, this has slightly interesting consequences, I think. The battles wargamers are interested in tend to be the ones that are regarded as being decisive in terms of western history, culture or understanding of war. But not everyone in the world has this idea of war, necessarily. The Mexica culture before the conquest had a highly developed concept of the “Flower War”. This was an agreed combat between warriors on each side, but not the whole armies. Its meaning and effects are not entirely clear (not to me, anyway, and it is a while since I read Hassig’s account of it), but it is an entirely different understanding of decisive combat. But I’ve never seen a wargame based around it.

There are other implications. I’ve mentioned before the issue of the Persians being seen through Greek eyes. I discovered the other day on Amazon a book called ‘Military Orientalism’. Orientalism, in case you didn’t know, is a concept originally developed by an Egyptian-American scholar called Edward Said, which basically argues that Occidental attitudes to the East (I think Said started with the Middle East but the concept has been broadened) is a mixture of fear and arrogance. According to what I’ve seen of the Military Orientalism book blurb, the argument is that ever since Herodotus, the occident has misunderstood and misinterpreted the ways of fighting of the orient. The point is that the strategy and tactics make sense to those using them, even if to western eyes (and often, the only accounts we have are from western accounts) they look odd, cowardly, counter-productive, ineffective, or whatever.

The classic case of this might well be Afghanistan, where, in all of western involvement there, the strategy of the Afghans has not been to fight pitched battles, but to sit in the hills and cause such casualties and difficulties for the invaders that they’ve simply got bored and gone home (I generalise, but only a bit). The politics of the forces being there may well vary, but the argument is that western politicians in their capitals misunderstand the situation on the ground, and the strategy of the enemy.

So, where I’m trying to get to here is a complex place where we, as wargamers, wargame the things that interest us, which are battles in the western tradition of war, and, then, in many cases, impose these ways of doing battle (on the wargame table, at least) on other cultures which do not (or would not have been able to) recognise warfare in these terms. ‘Wargame Orientalism’, anybody?


  1. Wow - there's a lot of stuff packed into that post!

    A few things pop out while I think about all of that more fully:

    1. I'm not sure that "the most important part of any real war is the capture and holding of territory" is always true - it rather depends on the period, specifically how easy it was in any given period for the besieger to take a fortified town. I take the point that a lot of wargaming does focus on the 'big battle' with a Napoleonic-type way, which might not be really appropriate.

    2. War isn't a cultural activity like most others - it is 'boxing not ballet dancing' - that is, there are relatively empirical, measurable ways to decide what 'works' and what is 'best'. Defeat in battle and war is relatively easy to see compared to the 'value' of other differing cultural activities. However, if your point is that it might be more interesting to make specific games about inter-Aztec or Warring State period Chinese than to basically 'measure them' against 4thC Visigoths and then play games with the same rules you really designed for Adrianopole, I hear you!

    3. I translate the 'Professionals study logistics' quotation into wargames terms by thinking that the point of most military activity is to set the conditions to fight a 'very unbalanced scenario' - which would not neccessarily make a good tactical wargame.

    4. I think that a lot of your piece is an extension of your doubts about 'Greek Generalship - the lack thereof' in one of your previous posts. The tactical and strategic problems facing Afghan fighters are very different from those facing CF troops and generals.

    A good example of this would be the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe struggle. AFAIK there was just no real equivalent to anything higher than a Platoon Commander on the ZANU/ZAPU etc. side in terms of tactical direction, and their performance in these tactical battles was often very poor. But that wasn't what the struggle was about. A good game of this should reflect what there tactical objectives were - staying alive, recruiting, causing damage, terrorizing and then escaping. Probably the only way to combine this with the roles played by Rhodesian military commanders is in an umpired 'kriegspiel'-type game.

    Just a few thoughts, I might post some more when I've finished really digesting your post!



  2. Hi,

    Yes, there did land up being quite a bit packed into that one. It didn't quite go where I expected, but I let it go...

    1. I think I agree with you about the taking and holding territory thing (I was trying to provoke a bit), but the problem is that I can't think of a good example of a war where that wasn't the objective. Maybe some of the colonial punitive expeditions?

    2. My point is certainly the latter, that we should model wars on their own terms, not by some arbitrary yardstick. I'm not so sure about your first point. To some extent war is a cultural activity, and it is possible to lose a war and win the peace (the Boers, for example). So here is a question I intend to explore here: which was the more important, Agincourt or the Treaty of Troyes?

    3.I think you are right that professionals don't want to fight on equal terms and wargamers do. Is that because of concepts of fairness in games?

    4. Yes, counter-insurgency is one of those ongoing problems across history. The Romans managed some quite good counterinsurgency warfare, even without air power. On the other hand, when it went wrong it went wrong very badly. I'm not sure how we can manage to wargame this sort of thing. the only alternative to your idea I can think of is role-playing with the players as the insurgents.

    Thanks for that. so many questions, so little time to think about them!


  3. 1. Yes, punitive expeditions and raiding. sometimes a person may be the objective - the monarch/pretender. More widely, it is arguable that from the Napoleonic period onwards, the field army has been the main objective because only its defeat can decisively end the conflict.

    2. Not arguing that war isn't a cultural activity, just unusual in the way it can be 'tested' against other cultures. The battlefield may give a measure of objectivity about the reltive strengths of different cultures of warfare.

    Your example of importance is a good one - and maybe 'we hobbyists' went down the wrong pathway of 'wargames' rather than 'battlegames'

    3. Yes. To refer to your more recent post, the discourses of wargaming seem to indicate that 'both sides should have a chance', whereas real warfare does not necessarily reflect that.

    4. For some periods and wars the design of H2H games - when the two adversaries are organized and fight entirely differently, where their cultures of warfare have no similarities - is a real difficulty. The temptation to make an 'ancients' army more 'Roman' must be ever-present for rules writers to enable it to be controlled in a more recognizably 'wargames' way.



  4. Well, each of these could be a post or several in itself. And probably will be!

    1. Often, of course, places were put to siege to tempt field armies out to fight. Nothing is ever simple.

    2. Hm. I suspect the French might argue that Hollywood films are a clash of relative strengths of cultures. Which is why the French intellegensia don't like them...

    3. Perhaps we need to separate the ideas of real war and wargames.

    4. It is certainly true that it is difficult to design rules where there is a huge disparity in the sides. I shudder to think how colonial rules writers manage.

  5. "Perhaps we need to separate the ideas of real war and wargames. "

    We need to do this for lots of good reasons-and yet we need to link the ideas as well (or the games become entirely abstract...)

    'Sometimes a bit unfair' might be a good place to start thinking about the compromise, maybe?


  6. Mmmm.

    I think this a nub of some of the problems. we don't do 'real war', but we can't completely make it up, or wargaming becomes meaningless.


  7. Just catching up with some recent blogs and saw the old conundrum of what to do in wargames about "asymetric" warfare. Quite simply as a horse and musket gamer this is one of the periods great attractions (at least European games) since the problem doesn't arise!

    However, having an interest in other periods it's something that's bothered me for a long time. The only way to make games with very different army cultures more "realistic" is to take a leaf out of the RPG fraternity's book and have victory conditions for each side which don't necessarily involve the annihilation of the opposing army. So you can win and lose at the same time!

  8. Ah yes, asymmetric warfare, that was a term I was grasping for.

    In the light of the considerations recently about fairness, it would seem that professionals make battles as asymmetric as possible, while wargamers make them symmetric.

    Any you are quite right. This can only be handeled by changing the victory conditions. In other words, changing the meaning of winning.