Saturday 14 May 2011

Non-Ethical Questions

You might object that last time’s questions about the conceptual pongs which might emanate from the conceptual plumbing of wargaming were all ethical, or at least about taste and offence. You would, of course, be correct in that assessment. So the question for now is ‘are there any other conceptual problems with wargaming?’

I suppose that most people would answer ‘no’. Wargaming is wargaming, and we just do it without worrying about the abstract concepts and issues that may, or may not, be predicated upon it. Mostly, I agree with that standpoint, but occasionally I do get a bit worried that we are a little complacent.

My first official set of rules were, I think, Tony Bath’s ancient rules – ‘Peltast and Pilum’, I think they were called. From memory (and the rules themselves are long gone), the result was an almost skirmish like game, where the pila used by the Roman legionary had an effect similar to a machine gun, if it hit. Was it fun? I suppose it was, yes, certainly as I recall it was. Did it bear any relationship to real life? I’m not sure it did, to be honest.

I had a bit of a break from wargaming, and when I returned, DBM ruled the roost. An interesting set of rules, I always felt, but one which didn’t quite fulfil the criteria for a big battle set for DBA. I’ve moaned before about trying to cover too large a range of history in a single rule set, so I won’t inflict that on you again, but there is, for me, too much detail, and the rules are too dependent on the army lists for my taste.
However, the most important shift that had taken place between the two rule sets was a shift away from the individual solider and his javelin towards the tactical unit and its effects. It seems to me that this shift does reflect something of an underlying conceptual change in wargaming.

The problem is something like this: in early wargaming two sorts of things were known, more or less. One was the equipment of the troops, in terms of spears or swords, javelins or shields, that kind of thing. The other was some knowledge that these troops operated in some sort of formation. The early rules seem to have taken the possible effects of the weaponry and then imposed some sort of rules to attempt to persuade wargamers to keep their troops in formation.

Of course, this worked to some extent, and, when added to the fact that wargamers knew that troops fought in formation, it did lead to some interesting, fun and even reasonably historical wargames. But the paperwork of keeping track of individual casualties when the troop to figure ratio was 1:20 was a bit of a drag.

Furthermore, as I recall, the casualty rate were not historical. For example, in some English Civil War battles the casualty list for the victors could be really low, in the single figures. This never happened in all the ECW wargames I fought. I suspect that it couldn’t happen.

So, in the brave new world of bases that I returned to, this issue was largely overcome. Individual casualties were no longer kept track of, and it was the unit that advanced or retreated, charged or fled. And that, I think, is an improvement.

But what now? What are the next paradigms to fall in wargaming?

It seems to me that there are at least two diverse trends. One is the ‘Old School’ wargaming, which takes as its paradigm, perhaps, Charles Grant’s ‘The War Game’ and uses large figures on big boards with single figure casualties. We might argue that this is a retrogressive step, a shift back to the ‘good old days’ that most of us never encountered. To some extent, that might be true; we could consider carefully what we did before we had nostalgia, and decide that harking back to the 1970’s is no bad thing (except for the flares, of course). On the other hand, we could see this move as seeking some sort of simplification of the way many wargames are these days. In the era of charts and endless factors, a ‘roll a six to hit’ game has attractive features.

The other trend is in almost the opposite direction. While rules in the 1970’s went for massive tables of factors and inherent complexity, which were then simplified to the DBA style games of the 1990’s, now we seem to in some cases heading back to good old complexity. I look at the new rule sets and they seem massive. OK, the production values are high and the pictures pretty and in colour, but the quantity of rules seem excessive, the complexity high and the number of extra bits you have to buy in order to play seems to me both expensive and, to be honest, a bit of a con job.

So, to answer my question ‘what next’? It seems to me that, with increasing busyness in life and pressures on timetables, that complexity of our rules is either going to have to be removed, so we all hard back to the good old days, or hidden as the individuals are in the base based rules. Tackling the complexity of even an ancient battlefield is no joke, but somehow I think we need to rise above even the tactical base as an army unit, and look at the larger scale structures on the battlefield. Currently we let the individuals alone and worry about the tactical units. Can we let them look after themselves and worry about the legions, brigades and division?


  1. I think we can move from the tactical units to the formations and it will probably produce better games. I think that the majority of tactical games up to DBA (although with some notable exceptions) were more concerned with the historians' point of view than the generals'. Not that such games were more 'historically accurate' of course, but that they were concerned with both formation tactics and unit tactics at the same time, rather than just concentrating on the formation tactics. By enforcing 'split-personality' players and lots of game administration then they in some ways positively don't replicate the experience of battle of a Ceasar, Fairfax or Wellington (there was a really good article about this in WI1 IIRC so the problem has been recognized for a very long time). I think the 'Old School Wargaming' just tries to keep the administration time 'low', but doesn't seek to change the point of view. But as you pointed out yourself previously, I'm not sure that any game designer has yet come up with an interesting game based on the actual choices and decisions a C5 BC Greek general actually had.

    But I'm sure some of us punters will have a go when someone tries it.

  2. And I'd really like you to expand on your last thought. What rough 'shape' do you think such games should have in different periods? What should a wargaming general at 'Marathon' or 'Marston Moor' actually be doing? It would be very interesting to get your thoughts on how any decisions a single general actually made during any battle.

  3. What I had in mind were the sort of WWII games I've heard of, where not only the fighting divisions are represented, but they need rear echeleon support, logistics and so on. Headquarters units are on the table too, and so the whole lot is a target. I forget the name of the rule set - I don't think it is commercially available. Was it 'Panzerblitz'?

    Anyway, the idea was that the rear echelon was as important as the front units, and without them the front line ground to a halt. Plus it gave an opportunity for those of us who like their waggons and camp sites to be on the table. I suspect it also gave a lot more food for thought for the players. Suddenly those wide outflanking movements become more problematic when you actually have to make sure the supplies still get through.

    Clearly, that is something for the more modern wargame, but I would like to see something like Marston Moor refought with just a few, very large, bases a side. Maybe a base for each line of cavalry and infantry. Then the general's decisions are going to be when to commit each line, rather than moving up individual regiments.

    At Marathon, I'm not even sure that the commanders did much after shouting 'charge'. But that would be kind of a boring wargame....

  4. Ah 'Megablitz'. These rules were commercially available (I've got a copy) I imagine there are still copies for sale floating around.

    Interesting idea for Marstoon Moor, I guess much more reflective of what actually went on. Do you feel inclined to have a go at designing such a game?

  5. That'd be the ones. There is actually a web site, now I've got the name.

    As for Marston Moor...well, I might. I might be more likely to consider it for Marathon, from the point of view of Datis....