Saturday, 31 March 2012

Who Knows?

It was noted after a post a few weeks ago about reserves that a major problem with wargames is that the wargamer knows more than the general on the ground would have done, and hence takes fewer unnecessary precautions, such as keeping a reserve to cover the unexpected.

I know that some wargame rules do allow for flank marches, to place that uncertainty in the player’s mind. DBM was one such rule set (I think DBA does it too), but the fact that part of the enemy army was on a flank march was fairly obvious (or blindingly obvious to an experienced player) and, given the interaction of the flank march rules with the terrain rules, most players could work out where the flank march was likely to arrive and take appropriate precautions.

One of the contributory factors to this problem is that we, as wargamers, have come to expect “balanced” games. Most wargames, so far as I can tell, are between equal points ‘matched’ army, which is supposed to give either side a fighting chance of winning. This is in keeping with good traditions of playing fairly and so on. I think I’ve banged on about that in a previous post, too.

The problem is, of course, that real war does not proceed on the basis of fairness, nor could most commanders look at the enemy’s deployment and say ‘one third of that army is on a flank march’. The brighter might suspect that something was afoot when the enemy accepted battle while being obviously weakened, but some might view it as a wonderful opportunity and get stuck in.

So the question arises: what can we do about this?

From a philosophical point of view, this is a problem of epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Somehow, in order to model the real decisions of the generals, we have to evolve a system to place real uncertainty in the wargamer’s mind. The wargamer must not be able to ‘know’, in the sense of working out from rules and army lists what is going on.

Of course, the standard way of handling this is to say ‘run a campaign’. There, wargamers can accept battle if weakened and hope that the reinforcements making forced marches can make it before the holding force is defeated. Additionally, it does encourage the keeping of reserves and discourage attempts to win at all costs or hold out beyond defeat. If there is another battle to fight another day, then keeping troops intact, even if you have been defeated, is a good idea in a way which is not necessarily the case in a one off battle.

Another effect of a well-run campaign is that the emphasis is placed much more heavily on scouting and reconnaissance. Light horse, dragoons, armoured cars or whatever become much more important. Without them the wargamer is blind. It is amazing to see how cautious movement becomes when you do not know where the enemy actually is.

As Don Featherstone remarks in Solo Wargaming, what you also get are battles between scouting parties. These can be resolved in an abstract manner (one proposal included 3 cavalry figures a side and a chess board) or a full wargame can be set up, switching figure scales and using every cavalry figure you can muster (purists may wince at this point).

I have tried this, and it really does work (and all cavalry battles have a flavour of their own), but it does slow down the progress of the campaign and, often there is no major objective to the action as it is very unlikely that one side will so totally defeat the other that no information is taken back to the army of the defeated side.

An alternative approach is to use a somewhat abstract method, and I’ve tried to do that in the Polemos rules that I’ve been involved with. I confess that this is not original, being based on a boardgame of the English Civil War that I had years ago. I’m not sure it was a very good simulation of the ECW; the winning general tended to build a huge stack of units that could simply pulverise anything in its path. As England was divided into areas, there was no stacking limit, but I suspect that armies of that size would simply have starved. But I digress.

When armies encountered each other in one of the zones, they could both accept battle, or one, or the other, or both could attempt to refuse it. If both refused then there was a one in six chance of them bumping into each other anyway. If one attempted to refuse battle, then the cavalry forces of each side were matched, with a random dice roll, and the winner could choose to fight or not.

Now, obviously, in a table top wargame situation, both sides are going to accept battle, or there would be no wargame, but if we can manage to move away from equal points armies with known components, then we can start creating uncertainty in the minds of the players by giving definite but incorrect information which is known to be incorrect. Of course, this might rely on the services of an umpire, but they would only be needed at the start of the game.

So instead of saying ‘this is a 350 point army’, we can say:

“Scouts report 5 or 6 regiments of foot, two of cavalry and three guns” and also “Spies report that 4 regiments of foot and one cavalry regiment were bivouacked in the town overnight”

Both of course could be right, but how many cavalry units are there. If only one appears on the other side, is there another one? What about the foot? If 4 appear, where are the other two, if they exist?

This is, perhaps, a modest attempt to sow some seeds of uncertainty, but it is surely better than thinking ‘there is one 150 point command missing from that army, and it must be flank marching to the left because the right is an impassable waterway.’

1 comment:

  1. As a solo gamer, by comparison, player-General knowledge is on another level. Not higher or better or worse but...different. It is quite easy to subconciously allow opposing forces to arrive at a certain scenario, as I often did before I began dicing for initial forces and started using a wildcard system.
    Nowadays I set up the board and terrain, dice for forces, roll for board entry points and slight headstarts and throughout the game with every dice roll there is a 1 or 2% chance of a wildcard event which can put a small 10mm spanner in the works.
    Points-based armies might ensure a fairly balanced game (if that is what is wanted) but more important, I think, is game enjoyment, personal tactics and gamesmanship, not simply winning battles which, given the starting forces, ought to be won.