Saturday, 30 June 2012

Phalanxes and Flexibility

I do not think I am making too extreme a statement when I suggest that phalanxes, as a general rule, get a fairly bad press in wargaming. While the Spartans and Alexander might get nods in the direction of ‘it worked all right, but only because they were odd or brilliant’, on the whole, phalanxes are regarded as being a rather dead end military formation, which only took the Roman legion to find out.

This does seem to disregard the fact that the phalanx, in its various forms, was the most successful military formation in the period from about 500 BC to about 200 BC, certainly in the eastern Mediterranean.

I suspect the main criticism of the phalanx comes from Polybius, who records the destruction of a phalanx by the Romans, partly by bad terrain, partly by the greater flexibility of Roman maniples (Cynoscephale 197 BC, Pynda 168 BC).

Now, firstly, I suppose that we need to distinguish two different sorts of phalanx, the Greek city citizen phalanx, of Thebes, Athens and Sparta, and the peasant phalanx of Philip II, Alexander III and the Successors. The former were eight rank deep (or more, or less) spear and shield wielding citizens (as opposed to slaves), while the latter were Macedonian rural peasants with a sixteen or so foot long pike.

We have regrettably little information about the internal formation of any of these phalanxes, however, so we cannot help but, to some extent at least, lump them together.

The Spartans were, at least initially, a well-trained and articulated phalanx, and they could carry out some manoeuvers. The lowest level unit seems to have been about 30 – 40 men, and they were also divided by years of service. Often, in for example Xenophon’s Hellenika, the ten year class is called out of the phalanx for some reason, often to chase off peltasts (e.g. Hellenika 4.4.16; 4.5.14-15). This does suggest some articulation, some lower level organisation, of the phalanx.

Xenophon also reports that the Spartans could also wheel inward if they overlapped the enemy flank (Hel 4.2.20) and also reverse wheel to get a flank out of trouble (Hel 6.2.21, although the manoeuvre was not that successful).  So the Spartan phalanx was, at least, somewhat less than the inflexible picture that we have of a mass of men with pointy stick always going forward but a disaster in any other direction.

Philip and Alexander’s phalanxes were also articulated and thus flexible and, as a result, had to be well trained. Whether the sarisa gave them a huge advantage over the hoplite spear is a bit of a moot question, however victorious the pike phalanx tended to be over the hoplite one. The fact is that they did not, so far as I am aware, meet that often on the battlefield and other factors could well be in play, such as alliance politics and, of course, poorly trained troops. Better trained men tend to win over less well trained, whatever the weapons.

As time went on, of course, things became more difficult. For example, the Spartan army became less and less Spartan as time went on. This was for a variety of reasons, but mainly economic problems meant that there were fewer products of the (somewhat bizarre) Spartan training system available; after Lecutra (371 BC) there were less than 1000 ‘pure’ Spartans available to the army. The centralisation of privately owned land into fewer hands seems to have meant that fewer Spartan males could afford their mess fees, and so could not join the army, and so, despite the inclusion of perioikoi divisions – Lacedaemonians from outside Sparta proper - the number of troops available to Sparta seems to have declined.

After Alexander, of course, the empire he had founded broke up, although the basic tactics of the Successors remained the same. Supported by the wealth of the conquered Persian Empire (there was quite a lot of early fighting over the treasuries where Alexander had put the loot), the phalanxes could continue in pretty much the same way. However, they started to be used as the main fighting force, to crush the enemy, whereas Alexander had used them to pin the foe while he executed the decisive manoeuver elsewhere, usually with the Companions.

As the quantity of pay decreased (that is, alexander’s loot was spent), so did the quality of the trained phalangites. I do not actually know, but I suspect that by the time of Pynda, the phalanx was rather low quality, and so it is hardly a surprise to find it being defeated by a semi-professional Roman army. The fact of the defeat may have nothing to do with the phalanx qua phalanx, but may have more to do with poor training, leadership and contingent events on the battlefield, such as bad terrain and elephants running amok.

So the point I am trying to make is that the phalanx was not as inflexible and vulnerable as we might think. Certainly, hoplites went down to some spectacular defeats to peltasts at for example, Corinth in 390 BC, when a Spartan mora (brigade or division) was heavily mauled by Iphikrates (Hel 4.5.11-8), although this possibly has more to do with Spartan overconfidence and bad terrain rather than any inherent superiority of peltast over hoplite.

The problem is, of course, that modelling the formation in a form which shows the flexibility of the phalanx is a bit difficult. DBA, for example, gives hoplites +4 and auxilia (peltasts) +3, but recoils both if they lose, which sort of gets the result desired by only by ignoring the dynamics of what actually happened. I suppose that the +1 for being uphill helps the peltasts cause, but it does not seem to reflect the fact that peltasts often moved parallel to the line of march, up a hill, throwing javelins and generally bogging the advance down.

Perhaps there is no good way of representing this in a  wargame (am I tilting at windmills again?), or, possibly, we could argue that the major battles were not encumbered by large quantities of peltasts doing their annoying skirmishing thing. But then we land up in a whole other load of historiographical problems to do with writing the events about important people, not non-citizens like those wretched lightly armed men.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Vindication of Epaminondas

As you probably already know, it is not the policy of this blog to present eye-candy. Mind wrenching applications of philosophy to wargaming, yes, but a feast for the eyes, no.

However, the fact is that this blog was originally intended to help me record ideas for writing a set of wargame rules for the Classical Greeks. Having just finished painting two 20 base armies of Greek hoplites and reading the Landmark edition of Xenophon’s Hellenika, I decided to have a wargame bash.

Now it has to be said that there was nothing complex about this. The two armies formed up, charged, fought, one side lost and the other won. Mind you, that sums up most hoplite battles, so far as I can see, particularly in the earlier period.

So, here are the initial dispositions:

A bit of a gloomy shot, but the Alphons are double ranked on the left, while the Omegons are 4 deep in the centre and single ranked on their flanks.

The Alphon plan was to do a Marathon, hold the centre while winning the flanks, while the Omegrons were hoping to crash through the centre and win big enough there.

This being a Polemos playtest, Tempo die were rolled and the Alphons won, and advanced along the line (I’ve not worked out any blocking rules yet to stop this, not do I particularly think this is needed).

The next turn the Omegrons won the tempo and closed in, and at the start of the third turn whoever won the tempo was going to get the initial advantage in contact. The die rolled, the head craned, the tempo bids were entered and Omega got the nod.

Starting with the leftmost (to him) hoplite block, the Omegron player proceeded to lose the first roll so spectacularly that the first four deep column was recoiled. Subsequent rolls went more to expectation, and the three other central Alphon blocks recoiled shaken. On the flanks, the two deep Alphons repelled the Omegron flank guards.

The small bases, incidentally, are shaken markers, indicating that the Alphron centre is in some disarray.

In the centre, the Omegrons followed up their successes. If the Alphrons could sieze the initiative now, then they may well defeat the flank guards and turn on in the enemy main phalanx. Alas, fortune was against them. The Omegrons kept the initiative and, this turn routed two of the shaken Alphron blocks. Alphron morale stayed good, however, as they expected fortune to change.

Tempo rolling the next turn was very close, but the Omegrons held on to it and the bidding meant that the Alphrons had no tempo points to do anything. Inevitably the Omegron phalanx exploited its success further, and another column of the hard pressed Alphron centre fled. 

Morale still just about held up, however, but the next turn the last of the Alphron centre joined their colleagues in heading for home, leaving Alphron morale at ‘hopeless’ and ending the game.

As a rule writer, what did I learn?

Firstly, there were no generals and so no extra general tempo points. The initial plans had to be stuck to, as there were never enough points to change anything. The result of this was that the Alphron flanks and the recoiled Omegron leftmost centre column did very little after the initial clash.

Secondly, the battle was fast and furious, and took just over 40 minutes to complete. Of course, it was a very simple and solo affair, but hoplite battles are supposed to be so.

Finally, according to this result, the Theban general Epaminodas was entirely right. Depth is important to these clashes. The 4 base deep Omegron phalanx cut through their two base deep opponents like the proverbial knife through butter.

On the other hand, perhaps I had better finish painting those peltasts.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Wargames and Imagination

Recently, I’ve joined the Simulating War Yahoo! Group. This is based around the book, Simulating War by Phil Sabin (he of Lost Battles), and takes a broader view of simulating conflict than Lost Battles. The book is based in part on courses that Prof Sabin runs at King’s College, London, in a BA or MA in War Studies.

I’m afraid that I’ve not finished the book yet, so I won’t comment on the content, but the Yahoo! Group is quite interesting. As opposed to Lost Battles, it does seem to have attracted the interest of what we might call ‘professional’ wargamers, or conflict simulation experts or something of that nature.

These are people who attempt to design, for government, armed forces and other interested agencies, conflict simulations. So far as I can tell, they do this for two reasons. Firstly, to give some idea of what might happen in certain situations. This is, perhaps, a lesser goal, as the world is fundamentally an uncertain place and no future projection will survive contact with the future.

The second reason seems to be some sort of education and training aim, particularly with armed forces personnel. Here, the aim is to understand why things happen, to provide some sort of deeper learning than just reading a book of, say, the Russia Campaign in 1943.

As an aside, one of the first things that struck me was, as with so many academic subjects, the deeply divided opinions as to what the subject was actually about. There are ‘pencil and paper’ simulation advocates, computer simulation advocates, storyboarders, tacticians, strategists and so on. It just goes to prove that where you have two wargamers together, you have three opinions.

One of the interesting things about the discussions I’ve seen so far is that they (almost) all use pencil and paper or cardboard cut outs for the simulations. Now, us amateurs, it seems, are the only folk who use figures. I inadvertently started a thread on Lost Battles about this when I drew attention to an earlier post on the different models which exist on a wargame table.  The bulk of the Lost Battlers, anyway, seemed to think that while figures were nice, they were irrelevant to wargaming, at least as simulation.

As I have, in the past here, at least hinted that our beautifully painted stands of historically and anatomically accurate toy soldiers are, at least to some degree, just tokens, the (relative) hostility to using figures in simulations was not a total surprise to me, but it did get me thinking a bit.

Do toy soldiers actually add anything to our wargames?

I rather hope the answer to this question is yes, otherwise I will have spent hours painting armies of Greek hoplites to no avail, but I’ll try to put my own personal views apart and answer the question.

I have, in fact, answered the question once already, where I mentioned, in the same ‘Mixed Models’ blog, that having historically correct figures aids the wargamer’s imagination. Somewhere, in our mind’s eye, we can take what we see on the table (horribly out of scale in both size and numerically) and translate that to some imagined ‘wargame world’ where the fighting is actually taking place. I suspect that this is much harder with cardboard counters, no matter how nicely printed.

This, of course, raises the question of why ‘professional’ simulation developers do not use toy soldiers, aside from any issues relating to getting procurement to obtain any.

I think there may be two answers to this question. The first relates to emotional detachment or objectivity, and the second to imaginability.

With objectivity, the thing is that the simulation is the key aim. One of the topics that come up quite frequently in simulation discussions is the Lanchester Equations. These are differential equations which claim to model the loss rate in combat, originally written down, I think, in World War I for aircraft combat. This is a nice, simple, straightforward, mathematical approach to combat which has strengths in calculability and specific outcomes.

The Lanchester Equations, therefore, are great for simulations. It is just a pity that they do not work. However, I do think that, given our culture’s view of science, they remain some sort of unconscious goal for self-conscious simulations. We should be able to input the strength, training, morale, officer class and so on for the forces and get some sort of answer out. Of course, everyone ‘knows’ that it isn’t that simple, but I suspect there is some sort of similar goal lying behind all this.

The second issue, which I have, I think, mentioned before, is imaginability. Now here we run into some other issue, namely, that of the difference between imaginability itself and intelligibility. Now, reverting to my physicist hat, I can argue that an electron, say, is intelligible, in that we can understand its behaviour and even write down equations predicting it, but it is not imaginable. A point mass of a tiny weight and miniscule charge is not, even with the best will in the world, imaginable, however intelligible it may be.

By the same token, I think that a wargame simulation is hoped to be intelligible, but the fact is that we might also expect it to be imaginable. The difference between using toy soldiers or cardboard as your counters may simply come down to that. A professional wants an intelligible simulation, a look at why things turned out the way they did, or what range of outcomes are within the bounds of possibilities.

An amateur wargamer is probably looking for a more engaging, imaginative (and fun) experience. While an amateur wargame should have an internal logic of its own, it is perhaps not quite as required to be intelligible as a professional simulation.

On the other hand, to deny imagination in the players of a simulation may well be to remove some of the usefulness of the game. Everyone involved in a battle is, after all, human, and with the human comes an imagination, along with emotions and all the whole gamut of personality and outlook. I suppose this is another way of say that a simulation can never cover everything.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Probability and Wargaming

A few posts ago, Adam was worrying about being able to compute probabilities for wargames, and then the discussion turned on whether this was a particularly useful thing to be able to do. I suspect that opinions may vary on this, so I would like to have an explore of the space which the question opens. Unfortunately, the question turns on probability, which is notoriously difficult to understand (humans are not very good at calculating probabilities) and mathematical, but I will try to talk in concepts rather than maths.

To start with, consider something which is called the grand canonical ensemble. This is a statistical physics term. To see what it means consider a room at normal atmospheric pressure and temperature.  Now this will have a fixed number of particles in it, and they will be arranged in a particular way. The grand canonical ensemble is a assembly of all the possible ways that the particles can be arranged in, from the one where they all clump in a corner, to the one where they are all exactly evenly spaced throughout the room.

Now, the grand canonical ensemble is a concept which we never find in real life, but mathematically it allows us to make links from the distributions of the particles to the normal situation we find in the room, that is the most likely distribution. All we need to do is to count the different ways that the particles can be distributed. Of course all the particles look the same, and so some different distributions will be effectively the same. If we count all the similar looking states as the same, we find that the normal, more or less even distribution is overwhelmingly the most probable one.

Which is just as well, as otherwise, every once in a while, we would walk into a room and suffocate.

Now, it has to be admitted that battles are not of this type, but it does, I think, give us a way in to considering the next thing, which is a philosophical item, arising from what is called modal logic.

Consider an action, and the whole range of possible outcomes, suppose the action is firing a shell from a tank gun. Now, there is a range of possible outcomes to that action – say we hit the target, or miss by 5 meters or the shell bounces off the target. For each outcome, there is a possible world. In one world, the target has a hole in it, in another the shell has left a crater 5 meters away and so on. Each of these is a possible outcome, and so, by analogy with the grand canonical ensemble, we have an ensemble of possible worlds.

Now, to some extent, we can calculate the probability of the outcomes, of each individual possible world, at least in principle. We might make our gunners fire 100 shells, and find that they hit the target with 25, miss by 5 m with 25, by 10 m with 25 and by 20 m with 25. Pretty poos shooting, you might think, but I said I would try to keep the maths simple.

So we can say that in a quarter of our possible worlds the target has been hit. Of course, the complications then start: how badly has it been hit? Do we have a mission kill or simply a glancing shot and so on. We can add probabilities, and hence possible worlds to this, but I’m sure you can spot the difficulty into which we are madly rushing.

The possible worlds which we are considering are not only multiplying at an alarming rate, but they are also becoming conditional on some previous possible world being the case. So if we have a 25 per cent chance of hitting the target, we then have a (say) 25 per cent chance of disabling it, we have a 12.5 per cent chance of landing up in a mission kill final possible world.

Now, while this is fairly all right to consider as a single event, even though for a single event the contingency is starting to get on top of us, as the number of possible worlds multiply, we do, inevitably, have another problem.

My manifold of possible worlds currently relate to a single instance of a shell being fired. I do not know that statistics, but my understanding of a tank battle is that several hundred, or thousand, or even more, tank shells would be fired. Clearly, the manifold of possible world outcomes becomes too difficult to handle in any realistic sense. The complexity and inter-relatedness of our possible worlds is going to cripple any attempt to treat in a sensible way.

For example, in one possible world tank A may fire at tank B and miss, and then tank B fires at tank C and hits. But if tank A had actually hit and disabled tank B, tank B would not be available to take its pot shot at C. Our possible worlds are not only running wild, but tripping over each other.

Clearly, while this sort of probabilistic approach is very tempting to the wargamer, the sheer complexity of the outcomes, in even a simple scenario, becomes overwhelming. Once we start to try to account for crew training, fatigue and so on it becomes impossibly complex, particularly as we can, in fact, only guess at the relevant probabilities.

So, aside from despairing and going fishing instead of wargaming, what can we do? I think this is where we deploy our secret weapon, abstraction. We cannot trace the probability of each shell in a battle, but we can look at the overall results and, as it were, work from the top (the outcome) down to some sort of probability of a given action.

But it is only ever an abstraction, I think.  I cannot see that it provides any particular insight into the detail of what has happened, only into the outcome as opposed to other outcomes. That is, our need to abstract means that any insight accrued is limited by the abstraction itself. A wargame is only ever going to give a highly granular insight into why stuff happened.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Greek RMA

I think I’ve remarked before on the modern prevalence of Revolutions in Military Activity (RMA), also known as military revolutions. The trend of spotting these in the historical record was started by Michael Roberts in the 1950’s, and has continued more or less ever since.

Roberts’ initial idea was that the army of Gustavus Adolphus constituted a military revolution, seeking decisive battles, increasing firepower, making artillery more mobile and so on. To be fair to Roberts, he also recognised that the Swedish army of the Thirty Years War was also part of a process that had started, he thought, more or less with the Dutch Revolt in the 1560’s, which had forced the States of the Low Countries into military ‘reforms’ (the scare quotes are there because the Dutch did not have much of a military initially to reform).

The argument then started to centre around the army of Prince Maurice of Orange, which defeated the Spanish Army of Flanders in the early 1600’s, when the Spanish were reckoned to be the paradigm military force of the age. Interestingly enough, it was reckoned that Maurice also made use of Classical military texts in reorganising the army – Frontinus, Vegetius and Aelian, which fits in quite nicely with the historical metanarrative of the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment.

Of course, it is not quite that simple; the Whig history proposal of constant progress  is always open to the undermining counterexample. In this case, of course, Nordlingen (1634) is an aberration; the modern Swedish – German army lost to the outdated Spanish one. 

Furthermore, the assumptions that were made about warfare pre (say) 1590 were dubious, to say the least. For example, there is the idea that Spanish Tercios fought with a central pike block and a thin outer coating of shot, with ‘castles’ of shot at each corner. This is also something that gets propagated through some sets of wargame rules. It is seen in the art of the times, and seems like something that is reasonable for an archaic, inefficient military system awaiting defeat by the forces of progress.

More recent work, however,, has pointed out that the Tercio system was only even an administrative convenience. Like everyone else, the Spanish split their troops up into various garrisons, and were not daft enough to leave half their firepower masked by the other half. The ‘castle’ formation for tercios on the battlefield would seem to be an artistic convention.  

Once the genie was out of the bottle, however, military revolutions started to pop up all over the place. The thirteenth century was recommended by medieval specialists. The period after 1680 was claimed for those who saw military expenditure as the key cause of state formation and control. The Napoleonic system was grabbed by those who took the French Revolution as a bridge to the ‘modern’ era. And so on.

As a paradigm, the RMA has become something which those of us viewing the historical scene from afar have simply responded ‘oh no, not another one!’ And, of course, modern commentators are not averse to claiming a RMA for every passing new weapons system which grabs the attention. At present, I think it is the pilotless drone, but in the not too distant past it was the Anti-missile missile, and before that anti-aircraft missile batteries, and so on.

It may seem that I have a read downer on the idea of a RMA, and to some extent that is true because the concept has been rather done to death. However, in the ancient world there is, possible a good candidate for a claim of some sort of RMA, even if only a modest one. That change came, roughly speaking, around the time of Phillip II of Macedonia.

What happened in the 360’s BC then? Well, before that period the Greek cities relied, mostly, on citizen soldiers, the hoplites, and maybe a few allies and mercenaries, particularly specialists such as Rhodian slingers and Cretan archers. It is true that there were mercenaries around – Xenophon’s Ten Thousand, for example, was a Greek mercenary force, but the thing was that they were employed by non-Greeks. For Alexander and his father, mercenaries became vital to their warfare.

I suppose I should note here that by mercenary I mean professional soldier. The citizen soldiers of the city states were not professionals, in the sense that they did other things as well, such as farm estates and engage in politics. The soldiers of the Alexandrian and Successors were paid to be full time soldiers.

Secondly, of course, the hoplite phalanx gave way, more or less, to the pike phalanx. The clash of phalanxes had always been the most decisive phase of a Greek battle, but the pike had an advantage, if only in length, over the hoplite spear. The most important change, however, was in the cavalry.

As we know, cavalry before Alexander was a bit wimpish. Even the Persians, with their acknowledged cavalry superiority did not have what we would now know as shock cavalry, cavalry that could and would charge home on unshaken foes. Mostly, the reports of cavalry contests before Alexander are of swirling, javelin throwing melees. The Companions charged home. Alexander made them the decisive arm in his battles, although, it has to be said that without Alexander’s tactical acumen, later shock cavalry was less decisive (although it could be that countermeasures were developed).

Finally, the main revolution in Greek military affairs came in siege warfare. Before Alexander, sieges were fairly desultory affairs of blockade, undermining, escalade and treachery.  With the major sieges of the Alexandrian and Successor ages, sieges started to look much more modern, or at least, medieval. Catapults, bolt shooters, siege engines and battering rams were all added to the besieger’s repertoire, and, more significantly perhaps, the military engineer became a major figure.

This, perhaps, then is a good candidate for the first western military revolution. Other cultures, in particular the Assyrians and Babylonians, carried out sieges long before Alexander got to Tyre but, in the 50 or so years around the latter end of the fourth century BC, something changed in the Greek (Hellenistic) military mind.  

And somehow, wargame rules have to accommodate that.