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.

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