Saturday, 3 September 2011

Wargame Categories

Man is a categorizing animal. It is what we do, how we understand and make sense of the world. This tabby creature before me is a cat. She will therefore respond in some ways to some stimuli, like a catnip toy mouse, and not to others, like a stick thrown in a game of fetch. My understanding of her behaviour is based on my understanding of the nature of the species ‘cat’. Of course, as this cat she may show some variation, but always within the broad parameters of the term cat.

Categorization is an ancient form of thinking. Aristotle, for example, categorized frantically in order to understand the world. He divided everything into a given genus and species. By everything, I mean everything; even emotions and thoughts were categorized. His legacy is with us still.

Now, clearly, as humanity is a very successful species, categorizing is a useful thing to do. I imagine that a hunter-gatherer finds it quite useful to decide if a new sort of animal falls into the ‘food’ or ‘flee from’ category, or this different sort of fruit is in the ‘poison’ or ‘eat’ category, and so on.

Categorisation has a close cousin called reductionism. Reductionism lies towards the heart of modern scientific method. If an aspect of the universe is too difficult and complex to understand as it is, we chop it up into smaller conceptual bits, until we are able to understand them. Then, we can try to put the bits back together and see how the whole thing works.

Quite a lot of technology works like this,. Computer software, for example, is (supposed to be) designed like this. Individual objects are created to do a given job, and then they are joined together with other bits to achieve an overall task, and so on up a hierarchy until you get, say, a word processor.

Similar things happen with hardware. Different boards in a personal computer do different things. If the PC fails, the board can be changed. Each does its thing, and they are not interchangeable, but one can be replaced by a board of the same type. The boundaries of the categories are not flexible in this case.

There are some things that are not reducible to individual components. Take a crowd, for example. Now, commentators may well say ‘the mood of the crowd is turning ugly’. What do they mean by this?

If you took each individual of that crowd, and asked them ‘are you angry?’ you would probably get a wide variety of answers. Some might say ‘yes’, some ‘maybe’, but many would probably say no. Yet the overall mood of the crowd was assessed as ‘ugly’ by the commentator. The individuals might not be angry per se, but the overall, collective effect is one of anger. The overall effect then is different from the sum of the parts. The total mood of the crowd is not the same as the sum of the mood of each individual in it.

So what has this got to do with wargaming?

I think there are two aspects of relevance to me in this. The first is to do with reductionism, and the second to do with irreducibility.

Firstly, then, reductionism. When we write wargame rules, we need to categorize things. We do this fairly naturally, at least initially, and describe things as ‘cavalry’, ‘foot’, artillery’ and so on. This is quite clear, straightforward, natural and uncontroversial. Then, within these categories, we subdivide. Foot becomes ‘archers’, ‘spearmen’ ‘dismounted knights’ ‘rabble’ and so forth. Again, this is fairly straightforward and uncontroversial.

At this point, though, we can hit a problem. We might have a species called, say, ‘spearmen’, but we find spearmen being used in different ways. Perhaps we find spearmen in Anglo-Saxon armies in defensive shield walls, while Swiss pike are attacking Burgundian knights.

Clearly, we can differentiate these folks, classing the Saxons as spearmen and the Swiss as pikemen and allowing the latter to attack, but they have no shields so cannot be spearmen. But what if we find Saxon spearmen charging, or Swiss pike with paviasses?

The danger is that we further sub-categorize and landing up with such wargame species as ‘light heavy medium spear’ facing ‘medium heavy light pike’. OK, I exaggerate, but only a bit.

The trick, therefore, as a rule writer, is to only go so far in reductionism, and there to stop. Or, as in my case, to reduce your historical focus to a point where you can stop worrying about comparisons across centuries and cultures, and call an Auxillia an Auxillia.

The second issue is the group dynamic one. Bodies of people behave differently than individuals. You cannot predicate group movement by seeing how far one person moves in a given length of time, and assuming that the other ninety-nine will do the same in a body. Life does not work like that.

I recall older sets of rules that based their movement on a given time period, and how far a person could walk or run in that time. This tends to be an awful lot further than the distances covered in battles, and this was usually glossed over by the rules. The better ones admitted the problem, but just changed the time scale to cope.

But what is happening here I think is an application of the irreducibility of crowd behaviour. I cannot move forward until the chap in front of me starts, and he can’t until the one in front of him does and so on. Getting a unit moving is harder than it looks. If you don’t believe me, next time you are in a traffic jam try moving forward before the vehicle in front does. I will not be responsible for any insurance claims arising from the experiment, though.

To summarise, categorisation is a good thing, but. And the buts are that too much reductionism lands up in an over complex (and possibly silly) place, and that some things simply cannot be broken down into component parts.


  1. Just as much as troop types, wargames often like to categorize morale/skill/quality and so on. As necessary but even harder to do well I suppose, as there aren't at least the guides given by the equipment but at have to be done entirely from reading the sources - as in your earlier 'were the Greeks better?' posts.


  2. I think that you are right, but then you land up with things like the old Tercio rules, where you had a T1 M2 unit of 2Pi, Sw Horse trying to work out whether it would charge a unit of T2 M1 horse with Sw, Ax.

    If I recall correctly, it took some working out.

    Over categorization is almost as bad as not categorizing at all, I suppose.

  3. I think there should be an amount of thought by the rules designer about how to calibrate the combat factors,the chance mechanism used and the classification of troops. One way to imagine this is to say that in some Polemos rules, where some of the combat mechanisms are based on opposed D6 roles, every factor that has less than a 10% effect should be ignored as, otherwise it will end up being too dominant.



  4. I agree, but the difficulty is is working out which factors are important and which are not.

    I'm increasingly of the opinion that morale and training the most important, followed by formation, and only then anything to do with weapons.

    Polemos started with opposed D10 rolls. we found the outcomes were totally unpredictable, so we cut back to D6.