Saturday, 21 January 2012

Wargame Models

If we want to be a bit pretentious about our hobby, we can claim that wargaming models a real world battle. We can argue that through participation in a wargame, the player can learn something about the history of the time it is set in, the possibilities, the reasons why some things happened and some didn’t.

This is all well and good, and highly educational, and therefore, acceptable in polite society (if such a thing exists any more). Wargaming becomes a vital part of anyone’s life experience. Without a wargame, we are condemned to relive the more violent parts of history. Wargaming is thus part of the moral fabric of our society; to spread the word or the wargame is to engage in a moral crusade, a battle to inform our children of the evils of conflict before it is too late….

I’m sorry. I quite forgot myself.

The problem is, of course, that wargames which set out to educate often land up as rubbish games which no-one wants to play. It is a bit like modern children’s TV, or at least the bits that I see or hear about. Children’s TV used to be about telling stories and singing songs (think Bagpuss). There was no explicit educational agenda. These days, a lot of children’s TV seems to be pushing an agenda, for example telling the children to eat 5 a day fruit and vegetables. This makes for poor viewing (or maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon), aside from the fact that 5 a day has no basis in scientific fact…

But I digress.

The point I am working my way towards is that, yes, in a sense wargames do bear some reality to history, but we do have to recognise in what sense.

We can recognise two sorts of models: a scale model and a ‘disclosure’ model. A scale model is, simply, a reduced version of the original. A miniature car, or a working steam engine are scale models. Our toy soldiers are, as well. The thing about scale models is that you do not learn anything very much about the original by look at them; certainly nothing more than you would learn from looking at the original.

A disclosure model is, in a sense, a metaphor, or at least an extended one. We draw an analogy between the model and the real thing, recognising that the model is and is not the original. By this I mean that we keep in mind that the model is limited in some, fairly well defined ways.

Let’s try an example. Chess is often used as a metaphor or model for war. In chess we have various pieces with different capabilities, a battle field and a fair bit of skulduggery between the players. In this sense, then, chess is a model of a battle. We can talk about strategy and tactics, subterfuge and manoeuvre, and many of the things which war and battles involve.

Now, we also recognise that chess is not a battle. People in armies do not come in such a range of different sizes; conflict is not so simple as landing on another piece’s square and removing them from play. The aim is not always checkmate of the opposing king, even if that is possible on a battle field.

So, in these senses, chess is and is not like a battle. It is sufficiently close to allow us to use the analogy to obtain some understanding of an otherwise closed experience to us, but is also sufficiently different to persuade us to work at the model, to understand the differences that there are.

Now, wargames have occasionally been described as ‘chess with a thousand pieces’, but if I start talking about wargames as a model for chess I’ll get confused. Anyway, I do not think that wargames and chess are particularly analogous, but I do think that wargames and war should be, otherwise we shoud just pack up our toys and slink off into the distance.

The point is that wargmaes, if they are to model some reality, have to be a disclosure model. A scale model of a real battle is ultimately, boring. While are toys may be scale models of the real ones, our battlefields models of the real ones, our command structures the same and so on, a scale model of the battle itself would mean that everything would have to follow from the real one. And this means that no disclosure, no understanding, is possible.

This is where the skill, or craft, or art, or whatever, of writing rules comes in. The aim is provide a model, an extended metaphor, of what happens in a battle. We can only model some aspects of a battle, and so we have to choose them carefully. A rule set that exhaustively covered every aspect would be a scale model, not a disclosure one.

So the aim of, say, refighting the battle of Hastings, or Waterloo, is to provide a set of rules which can aid the understanding, and are also simple and fun to use. For example, a rule set for Hastings should, in some way, allow for the strength of the Saxon position and the attrition of their forces on the hill. That may then permit the Norman player to discover why the battle plan of William was what it was. Other, perhaps more scenario specific details, such as the approach of dusk, will focus the mind more on the problem the Normans actually faced on the day, in a way that a pure scale model of the battle would not manage.

So, maybe, the next time you are tempted to cry out ‘That wouldn’t happen’ when something unexpected on the table does occur, pause for a moment and consider: why not? The rules might be trying to tell you something.

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