Saturday, 28 January 2012

More on Models

Not being one to not beat a dead horse if at all possible, I’m going to talk a bit more about models this time.

Models, as I’ve said, are terribly useful sorts of things. In fact, they pervade much of our lives, even though we do not often notice them.

It is noted by some philosophers of language that, in fact, a lot of language is dead metaphor. The word ‘tradition’, for example, is a metaphor for ‘that which is handed down’, but we do not notice, or indeed know that about the word, while we do understand the meaning of tradition.

Models, in fact, capture the salient points of what we are trying to discuss across subjects. In science, social sciences and the arts, models, or their simpler cousins, metaphors, permeate our language and thinking. To learn something new we often (or, according to some, usually) use a model or metaphor to compare and contrast the new thing with something we do know and understand.

I’m sure you must realise by now that there is a ‘but’, here. In fact, more than one.

The first but is that, in most cases, a single model is inadequate. Models capture some aspects of the thing to be studied. A model cannot be the thing itself. This is for two reasons. Firstly, if the model were the thing itself it would not be a model, it would be a replica. Secondly, the whole aim of modelling is to simplify things sufficiently to understand them. A model which is a complex as the original would be of no use in that direction.

Therefore, multiple models are necessary to capture the different aspects of the reality we are interested in studying. In terms of a battle and a set of wargame rules for that period, the rules, probably, already contain different models: there are models for movement, command, combat and morale. But the single set of models (or, if you like, the single extended model covering all these things) is insufficient to represent the real event.

The upshot of this seems to be that we do need different sets of wargame rules to cover a single period, because the choices and models, or sets of models chosen by the authors will vary, and hence will capture different aspects of the original, assuming that the authors do their homework.

The result is that we should be very wary of any rule set that ‘rules the roost’ in terms of dominating the market. No single model is adequate to representing a battle in its entire nuance, even in the fairly limited set of things we wish to represent in a set of wargame rules. A single paradigm is insufficient to represent reality, and we should not expect it to do so.

The second issue there is with modelling is to look at the dark side of models. I noted above that much of our language is dead metaphor. But our models can die too, and not give us the insight that we should expect.

To an extent, this is related to the point made just above of dominant rule sets. If there is a dominant rule set, then we have a tendency to read back from that into history or reality. In effect, we make an ontological commitment to the model, and claim that the objects in the model are those in real life.

A non-wargaming example would be Maxwell’s equations for the wave motion of light. These worked really very nicely, and the model of light as waves accounted for an awful lot of observed phenomena. The catch was that waves need a medium to travel through, so the model contained this stuff called ‘ether’ for light to behave in.

As you might know, physicists at the end of the nineteenth century spent quite a long time looking for the ether, and failing to find it. Ultimately, Michelson and Morely conducted an experiment to show that it didn’t exist, and eventually, Einstein came along to explain how and why this could happen.

The model contained an ontological commitment: that ether existed. The model actually works without such a commitment, but it implies it strongly, and so ether was presumed to exist.

I think this sort of ontological commitment can also happen when we have dominant paradigm wargame rules. For example, in ancients wargaming, the DB* paradigm is still very much in people’s minds. Now, I’m not one to slate DB* (at least, not in its ancients forms) because it was a breakthrough in terms of wargaming, but that very success can lead to problems.

For example, I was somewhat nin-plussed when a review of Polemos: SPQR commented that ‘there are no warbands in the rules’. My first reaction was ‘why should there be?’ but I think what is going on is a hardening of the DB* model of ancient battles into an expectation. In short, there could be an ontological commitment to the existence of warbands, because the paradigm model is being read back into the history underlying it.

The problem here is that people might look at a new rule set and think ‘it doesn’t have warbands in it, but I know warbands existed, therefore it is a bad rule set’. The model has been substituted for the reality.

So far as I know, no ancient source referred to foot soldiers as ‘warbands’. Warbands are, simply, an element of one model of ancient warfare. Even the name is, I think, somewhat misleading. The foot of tribal armies were not all well trained and well-armed, or committed to the cause. Those who were, were the chiefs comitatus, and they were relatively few in number.

The main bulk of the foot of tribal armies are described in PM:SPQR as ‘tribal foot’, which is, in my view, a more defensible description of them.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that PM:SPQR is the correct paradigm for us to use for ancients wargaming; it is just another model. But perhaps this example does indicate the pitfalls of dominant models, all pervasive rule sets.

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.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Problems of Interpretation

I’ve mentioned, probably many times before, issues that there are with historical sources. The sources we have from the ancient period (and that is what I’m going to talk about, even though the comments apply more widely) are scarce and, almost certainly, biased.

They also use conventions that we may not understand, and certainly have a relationship with the ‘truth’ (to use a tendentious word) which is not the same as modern historiography would allow.

I’ve been reading the Landmark Arrian, which is a very nice book, well produced, with handy maps, notes and pictures. As you probably know, Arrian chronicled the campaigns of Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as ‘the Great’. So far I’ve just about got beyond the Battle of Issus, but even at this relatively early stage, problems are becoming clear.

What sort of problems am I talking about? Well, there are problems of interpretation, and these are multi-layered.

For example: Why did Alexander invade Asia?

Arrian’s answer to this question is that Alexander invaded Asia to punish the Persian Empire for invading Greece. Now, Alexander was, of course, a politician, and he knew that such an answer would play well in Greece and the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Indeed, as he captured the Greek cities he generally granted them their freedom, although exactly what that meant is not clear. Mostly, he seems to have restored the Greek version of democracy to them, and ensured that they allied with Macedonia.
Now, Arrian details Alexander’s march from Greece (he had to capture Thebes before invading Asia) to the Hellespont. His list of cities and rivers crossed is a perfectly reasonable one, so far as anyone can tell. However, it is also notable that his route is the exact opposite of that detailed by Herodotus in his Histories, when he is describing the invasion of Greece by Xerxes.

What are we to make of this?

Clearly, Arrian is trying to make a point here about the invasion. Alexander’s claim to be avenging the invasion of Greece is made later in the book than the actual invasion itself. The itinerary, then, is actually making the same point in advance; foreshadowing, if you like, Alexander’s explicit argument for invasion.

What, then does this do to our interpretation of Arrian’s account of events? Do we believe that Alexander did take this route, or is it a literary trope? If Alexander did not take this route, how did he get from Thebes to the Hellespont? If he did, then did he do it consciously to make a political and diplomatic point, or was it just the best route available?

Now, as wargamers, this may not be a major problem to us, but it does affect how we view the reliability of our author. We have to recall that Arrian, although reliant of now lost sources written nearer the time, wrote in the second century AD. His sources were also probably biased, in favour of the Macedonians. So we are only getting at Alexander as an interpretation (Arrian’s) of an interpretation (his sources) of the events; and that assumes that the sources had clear accounts themselves.

The problem is if, for example, we take seriously the parallelism between Alexander’s invasion of Asia Minor and Xerxes’ of Greece, we land up with a sceptical position about a fair amount of what we read.

For example, if the first encounter of the Persians and Greeks was at Thermopylae, then what does that make of Arrians account of the action on the River Granicus? After all, Granicus was, simply a victory over local Persian forces, defending a river line. But these same forces had been able to ward off the Greeks in Asia Minor for a century or so.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that Granicus did not take place, nor that either Arrian or his sources are making stuff up, but the parallelism seems to me to be a bit suggestive that, perhaps, other work aside from his sources, informed Arrian’s account.

It does get a bit worse, too. Arrian, by his own account, is out to lionise Alexander. He thus presents him in a certain way, describing his abilities in battle (he is always at the front, the vital point) as well as his gracious diplomacy.
But took at a map of the manoeuvers before the Battle of Issus. Who let whom get across their lines of communication? Darius was not cut off from his base, while Alexander seems to have managed that, and not to have command of the sea at the same time. Who now looks like the better general?

Now, as everyone knows, the Macedonian led army won at Issus. It wouldn’t be the first or the last battle when the army in the worst strategic position has fought itself out of it. But the general acclaim of Alexander’s generalship does look a little flaky about here. He may well have been confident of the fighting abilities of his troops, but he probably should not have left them in such a dubious strategic position.

Now, Arrian tries to defend his hero by claiming that Darius should have stayed where he was, on a plain at Sochoi where he could use his numbers. This idea is presented to Darius, on Arrian’s account, by a renegade Greek, who Darius ignores, going with advice from his Persian advisors who Arrian is quite rude about (2.6.3-7).

I think we can see what could be going on here. Darius did not make a mistake but the blame is placed on non-Greeks and Darius himself by Arrian (who also suggests a god had a hand in it), while what actually seems to be the case is that the Macedonian – Greek army simply had to fight its way back along its line of communications. Arrian’s account of the battle also suggests cowardice on Darius’ part, by the way, as he was the first to flee.

This, then, leaves us with an account of Issus which has a slightly dubious relationship with the battle itself. But it is the account which we have to work with. Bother.

Saturday, 7 January 2012


It is a known fact in warfare that units, slowly, lose capability. This might be through loss of cohesion, loss of command capability, dispersal across terrain or casualties. However it happens, we have to find some way of modelling it.

We immediately have a wargaming problem with cohesion. Our little men are stuck to bases, and it is hard to show that they are wavering, disrupted, reforming or whatever. Our symbols (for that is what our toy soldiers are) cannot take all the attitudes of the originals they represent.

In a sense, this is inevitable. Even if we consider that our miniature battles are, in some sense, a model or simulation of the real thing, a model is never exactly the real thing. If it were, then it would be a duplicate of the real battle, and I’m not sure, however much we may appreciate re-enactment that a re-run of say, the Battle of Kursk would go down too well.

This, then, is one of the choices we have to make when writing wargame rules or playing with toy soldiers. Presuming that attrition is sufficiently important for us to model, how, within the limitations of our simulation and our symbols, do we manage it?

Over the years, a number of methods have been tried. The “Old School” wargames, which are coming back into vogue a bit these days, worked by treating each model as an individual. These individuals were shot and removed, or not, on an individual basis. Thus, at a glance, the general could see the status of a unit and its casualty level. Also included were officers, who could also become casualties and, if I recall the Charles Grant rules correctly, this had an effect on the morale of the unit.

This sort of ‘bang, you’re dead’ model is still quite widespread, I think. For example, while I’m not a 20th century wargamer, the games I’ve seen, particularly relating to tank warfare, seem to fit fairly well into this category. Tanks, in effect, duel, and the loser gets a puff of cotton wool to show the fact.

A slightly more sophisticated method of modelling attrition started, I think, with some of the early WRG rules. Here, a toy soldier was 20 ‘real’ men, and the casualties were worked out in ‘real’ men. Thus, if I had five musketeer toy soldiers shooting at you I could inflict 19 real men casualties on your five. You still had five figures to shoot back, but one of them was actually only one real man.

The upshot of this, of course, was a lot of book-keeping and, as I suspect I’ve mentioned before, an unrealistically high casualty rate. While some of the casualties could be rationalised as wounded, cowards running away and so on, comparison with real world battles still suggested that the rate was far too high. In early modern battles, at least, the bulk of the casualties occurred when one side or the other fled and was chased.

More recently, the DB* series removed the basis of attrition from the model almost entirely. A unit was a single base of toy soldiers and it either fought or fled. The only compromise with attrition at all was that units could be pushed back in combat, and suffered a penalty in the next round if that were the case. Units could be rallied from the rout in some circumstances, and could return to the fray as before.

Now, writing wargame rules is hard work, and it is not my intention to criticise anyone who has undertaken so to do. What I’ve described is a variety of ways of modelling attrition, each valid in its own way, but none of which capture the full extent of the concept. Indeed, given the nature of models, it is probably impossible to do so.

This is not to say that models cannot be improved, or that innovation is impossible. We can, by developing better and different models, try to obtain a better grip on the underlying reality, in this case, of a body of trained men under extreme stress.

What, then, might be a way forward? We need, it seems to me, some sort of double model. Units get both worn down by combat, and, under some circumstances, suddenly collapse. In fact, a number of the methods of modelling attrition had both models. By removing figures we show the direct effect of attrition, while the impact that has on morale (if unit strength is counted in morale, and it usually is) as well as other factors like being unsupported and outflanked can cause the unit to rout.

We could argue that having both methods included in the behaviour of units is accurate, and the best we can do, but those of you who have used such rules will be aware that constant calculating and recalculating of morale tests slows the game considerably. A single system, like DB* but perhaps a little more sophisticated, would be useful.

As you probably know, board wargames can use a ‘stepped’ approach, so a unit counter is flipped to show a degraded performance once it has been attrited a little. It is this sort of approach which we have adopted in the Polemos rules I have had a hand in. The problem is that it can reintroduce book keeping into the rules, which is a nuisance and can detract from the visual impact of the game.

My own solution, which I am slowly and painfully introducing, is to have casualty markers. For each level of attrition, (called ‘shaken-ness’), a marker is placed behind the unit until it is either rallied away or flees in rout. It is neat, simple and visually acceptable, even though the level of casualties depicted is probably still too high. Nevertheless, it works and can be rationalised by claiming that it shows the confusion that the rear areas of a unit can become when it does take casualties.

As I said, no model is perfect, but that is one way of modelling attrition without excessive amounts of paperwork.