Saturday, 29 December 2012

Narrative Ethics

I have a feeling that I might have mentioned narrative ethics before, but in the light of a recent post on conflicting narratives in wargaming, I thought it would be worthwhile revisiting.

As you probably recall, I suggested that a wargame, in terms of what the participants are doing, was a trial of conflicting narrative with mutually exclusive goals. That is, if I am playing a wargame against you, my goal is that I win the game, and your goal is that you win it. It is very hard to find situations where both of these outcomes obtain. Some scenario games may approach it, as may some campaign games, but in most wargames there are winners and losers, or, alternatively, a draw where neither outcomes have been delivered.

It occurred to me that this might give another angle on the issue of wargame ethics, or why we play some things and not others. The evidence so far that I have found, or people have commented about, or I have seen as games suggest that there are few wargame eras, even up to the fracas in Afghanistan, which you will not find someone, somewhere, playing and producing figures and rules for.

Similarly (or perhaps, oppositely), there are a good number of people who will not play certain games, or eras or particular sides – the Germans in World War Two is one such example. The have an ethical theory which will cover both of these camps has turned out to be a bit tricky, to say the least. None of the three main meta-ethical theories, virtue ethics, utilitarianism and deontological, have proved to give us a particularly good handle on the ethics of given historical wargames. As meta-ethical theories they cannot, in a general sense, take account of individual tastes and viewpoint anyway.

The idea of a wargame being formed of conflicting narratives does, however, give us a potential way in. As human beings we form ourselves, at least to a large extent, by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and those which we tell others. This is obviously trivial to some people, while others need some convincing. However, we do like to tell stories, and many of the stories are about ourselves, our values, our activities. As a minor example, ‘how was your day’ requires some sort of story in reply, if the question is not just to be dismissed as phatic speech.

The stories we tell ourselves, and tell of ourselves, arise from the sets of values and processes which are imposed upon us by our culture, society, education and personal life history. Again, this is reasonably obvious in some senses. If I have lost a leg in an industrial accident, that is going to inform my life story. If, like Roosevelt, I am disabled by childhood polio, that too will inform my life story, even if I spend a lot of my time hiding the fact of my disability from the general population.

Similarly, our society and culture can impact significantly on our stories. For example, the question ‘did you vote?’ is a fairly neutral one in most western liberal democracies, where voting is a right but not a requirement.  In an oppressive one party state where a 100% turn out and vote for the party is expected, however, the question takes on much nastier overtones, and our own personal responses to it have a much greater impact, potentially, on our life stories.

How then do our own narratives of our lives in general impact upon our wargaming choices and hence, on our wargaming ethics?

Wargaming (believe it or not) is not the whole of life, and nor is it separated from the rest of our lives. Therefore, the wargaming narratives that we tell can impact on the stories we tell more generally. If, as I have suggested, our narratives of our lives represent to ourselves and to the world ourselves, our virtues and vices, our outlooks and choices, then our wargaming stories are going to represent something of those factors. Our wargaming stories will impact on the rest of our lives, and we have to justify them, at least to ourselves, somehow.

The give an example, suppose you have just been having a wargame where the two sides are Russian partisans in World War Two and one of those nasty SS rear area units whose job was to keep the partisans down. You return home having won the game. ‘How did it go?’ asks your nearest and dearest. ‘I won,’ you reply, ‘I shot thirty unarmed and surrendered partisans, plundered and burnt the village and raped and murdered the women after killing their children in front of them. Great game.’

You nearest and dearest may well, at this point, be reaching for the phone to call an ambulance to take you to a psychiatric hospital. The above scenario is not one that most of us want within our narratives. It is at odds with most right thinking people’s views and, as such, we do not even wish it to be included in a fictional part of our lives. It has no place in the narratives of decent western liberal people.

The reasons why this sort of (even fictional) behaviour is excluded from our narratives is an interesting and rather complex one. Clearly, given that the sorts of events outlines above did happen and are a matter of historical record means that that sort of behaviour is not outside the limits of the possible. But we temper the possible by the sorts of things we wish to represent to ourselves in our narratives, of which our wargaming activities are a part.

This sort of approach dates back to Aristotle, of course. He argued that the sorts of things that we do become habitual, and they can be habitually virtuous or habitually vicious. If, then, we habitually cultivate vicious behaviour, even at the level of the (imaginary) game described above, Aristotle argues that we will, ourselves, become more vicious, and if we act more virtuously, we will become more virtuous.

Therefore, I suggest that the wagames we feel uncomfortable with are those where we undertake behaviour that we would not feel comfortable with in the narratives of our whole lives. And that, it seems to me, is an issue which is, in the final analysis, a personal one.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Terrain Troubles – The Solution

It is traditional on this blog (where tradition means I have done this twice) to have a shorter and lighter post the week before Christmas. That being this week, I have decided to put everyone who has been reading my terrain troubles posts out of their misery, or, at least, prove that I have tried to tackle the problem.

For those who have missed it, the trouble with wargame terrain is that it needs to be functional, aesthetically pleasing, match the scales of both the figures and the rules, and be, at least for those of us who do not have a permanent set up, easy to put together and to take apart.

That is quite a tall order.

Over the last few months I have been working to update and upgrade my scenery  and the results are in two crummy pictures below.  The first is the first Fuzigore battlefield from the south.

The second is the same from the north.

The trees are by Irregular (I have had them for years, just not based them until now), the hovel building is from Baccus (who no longer makes them), the roundhouses by Timecast. The wood, settlement and road bases are by me, from bits of thin craft foam, which has worked surprisingly well. Of course, the road is Roman, and so straight, which helped…

All in all, I think that this is an honourable conclusion to the terrain thing. The battlefield took less than ten minutes to set up and less than five to put away, it looks reasonable and to scale with the figures and ground scale of the rules, the edges of the features are well defined by the foam and it looks the part, to me anyway (you will have to believe me; photography is not my thing either).

Now, posts to this blog are usually about 1000 words long. A picture, they say, is worth 1000 words. I have two pictures here, so this post is way over length already, plus the fact that I have 30 casualty bases to finish, another 15 to paint, plus 10 bases of civilians, four ox carts and a pile of pack mules of unknown height before I can actually wargame this battle.

So I shall just wish you all a happy Christmas, and get my brushes out again.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Terrain and Rules

I have written a fair bit about terrain, and how I can try to make the terrain items on my table match both the figure scale and the ground scale of the rules. Sitting making and painting the said terrain items has given me a bit of time to ponder the importance of the terrain for the wargame. In short, the question is ‘what is the impact on the game of the terrain?’

Now, as I noted before, terrain items work at various different levels within a wargame. In a historical setting (or, I suppose, a pseudo-historical setting, like Fuzigore) the items are added to lend some verisimilitude to the wargame. The buildings are expected to look like the ‘real thing’, and so I have been painting roundhouses and granaries rather than getting on with figure painting. Of course, the problem of the scale and size of the buildings rears its head here, but there are work around to it.

In a purely historical battle, of course, the terrain needs to match, as closely as possible, the original battle terrain. At a show a few years ago there was a demonstration game of the battle of Lutzen. The features of the battlefield of Lutzen included the town and castle of Lutzen itself, on the Swedish left, and a hill crowned by windmills, facing the Swedish left.  The demonstration had a good number of nicely painted 25 mm (or so) figures, but of towns and windmills I could see no sign.

To what extent, then, was this demonstration game a depiction of the battle of Lutzen? I do not want to pick on it specifically, but the terrain did not, in my view, reflect the original battlefield. I suppose that seven windmills in 25 mm might well have over-dominated the landscape, but one or two, even scaled down mills would have made it more like Lutzen than not. I confess that, without the display panels giving the history of the battle, I would have assumed that it was just some English Civil War skirmish.

The next thing the terrain is supposed to do is, of course, add some aesthetic value to the battlefield. This is actually rather hard to achieve within the limits of what we use wargame terrain for, because, with the exception of demonstration game terrain, we want our terrain items to be flexible.

One of the hallmarks of most wargaming, I think, is that it does not consist purely of model railway type terrain, beautifully done and hand crafted for individual battles. In Fuzigore, for example, I hope that there will be many wargames, and those terrain objects I am slaving over at the moment will be reused many times. Therefore, they have to have an inherent flexibility to allow for that reuse.  

To give an example, I could create (at least in theory, my artistic abilities are sadly limited) for the next battle, two carefully crafted Celtic settlements with additional trees, fields and whatnot. This would be fine for this particular battlefield, which is set in rolling agricultural countryside. But what about the next battle, which could be in hill country where the fields may not exist because the agriculture is pastoral?

In short, most items of wargame terrain need to have a trade-off between specificity, by which I mean that I want roundhouses for my Celts, and generalizability, by which I mean I do not want to have to buy and paint more roundhouses every time the battle is in a slightly different terrain.

Aside from all that, the terrain also has to be governed by the rule set. By this I mean that the items of terrain used on the table have to conform, in some way, to the way the rules say they need to. For example, in at least some of the Polemos rule sets, the size of terrain items is (in principle) governed by the base size adopted for the troops. A village has to be 30 mm by 60 mm if the basing of the units is so. This, of course, makes thing easy in judging whether a unit can hide in the village, but actually imposes a set of limitations on the terrain item itself.

Of course, the usual route to overcome this is to have the terrain mounted on a base and the base placed within a holder, so the whole thing can be modelled without irritating straight edges. In this way the visual aspect of the terrain item and the instrumental use of it within the rules are, in some way, both met.

However, the rules are imposing the constraints on the modelling. In many cases, this is not a problem. After all, in Fuzigore I can simply decree that all villages, fields, woods and so on are a certain size, due to, say, ritual requirements.  In modelling real life battlefields this may not be so easy. To return to my Lutzen example, how many troops, in terms of bases, could hide in 300 houses and a castle? The answer, I guess, is a fair number, although in the battle itself they did not do so.

The upshot of this, I think, is that our wargame terrain has to cover two bases. The first is the aesthetic. It has to look right, in other words. The second is the functional. For example, to make line of sight rules work, we need woods with a sharp cut off. Real woods do not necessarily come to a stop at a defined edge, but our wargame ones must.

Finally, we need to pick out those aspects of terrain which make a historical battle “this” battle. Can a reconstruction as a game of Lutzen be Lutzen without the town and the windmills? These items did not have any particular impact on the battle, although I think the windmills were set on fire, as was the town, which did cause the Swedes some difficulty. But if these items were not represented (we could, after all, just make Bernard’s command job more difficult) are we still refighting Lutzen?

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Conflicting Narratives

One of the things I try to do from time to time here is to attempt to answer the question ‘what is it that we are doing when we are wargaming?’ Of course, there are many answers to that question which cover things as diverse as ethics, statistics, historiography and speech-acts, and some of these have been discussed.

This time, however, I would like to take a slightly broader idea: what exactly is a war game? How does it function?

The idea I have is that a game, in general, is a conflict of two narrative, one from each player. Now, I know that there are games which have a single player (I am, after all, mainly a solo wargamer), but even so I think there are two conflicting narratives at the heart of the process. Of course, there could be more than two, with multi-player games where the players have varying objectives, but I will leave that complication aside for the moment.

Consider a different game, say tennis. Now, the objectives in tennis are quite clear. Both players want to win the game. If one of them, does not, it is not, strictly, a game of tennis; it is a knock about, or practice, or training, but not a competitive game. In the case that both players do want to win, each player has a narrative end in mind: me as the winner. Both make such moves as they are capable of in such a way as to achieve the objective of their narrative. So the game proceeds via serves and return, volleys and so on, with each player attempting to obtain an advantage for their own particular narrative. Eventually, one player, and one narrative will be victorious.

He other issue within such a game is, of course, the constraints imposed on the players, and their narratives, by the rules. The rules ensure some degree of ‘fairness’. Now, we have to be a bit careful here. Rules do not ensure absolute fairness: some people are better at tennis than others. That, after all, is something of the point of the game. The rules do, however, constrain the moves the players can make, so they are equivalent. Both players, for example make serves, and, roughly speaking, make equal numbers of serves with equal chances, given the individual’s ability, to score points.

The rules, then, constrain the possibilities of the game. For example, I read somewhere recently that even an omnipotent, omniscient God cannot win a game of chess against Gary Kasparov if all God has is the king and a pawn. This is not any failure of omnipotence or omniscience, but simply that, within the constraints of the rules of the game, no winning strategy exists for God. Of course, God could cause Gary to become confused, make foolish moves and so on, but that is outwith the game rules (and even so may not enable God to win, as it happens).

With respect to wargaming, therefore, the idea is something like this. The two players have conflicting narrative aims, that is, both side wish to win. The process of them winning is decided by the players, how they deploy their toy soldiers, the terrain of the wargame table and the moves they make. These factors are the ones which, broadly speaking, are up to the wargamers themselves. These are the items which the wargamers manipulate to achieve the victory of their own narrative.

There are other factors. We have already noted the effect of rules in constraining the moves that the players can make. It may be, for example, that one player lands up in a similar position to that of God in my chess example. There is no good winning strategy for him, and so his narrative goal has to change from winning, to minimising the damage, or inflicting disproportionate damage on the enemy, or delaying him, or whatever. The scenario possibilities are, of course, endless.

Additional to all these fairly predictable issues there is also a degree of randomness involved in the game, arbitrating, at least in part, between the different narratives. The randomness is not, of course, absolute, it occurs within the game. In most wargames, anyway, troops do not appear suddenly in the middle of the battlefield as a result of a random throw of the dice. Their combat may be more or less effective, but the impact of the randomness is constrained by the rules themselves.

Sitting behind all this is, of course, the expectation that the events on a wargame table will be reasonable and, at least in part, rationally understandable. To link back to the idea of conflicting narratives, we do expect a narrative to unfold in a reasonably linear fashion. This may not, of course, happen in real modern novels, for example, where authors like to try to mess with time and space to show how clever they are, but most popular stories are reasonably linear in time (think Harry Potter, for example).

Not only do we expect linear time, of at least clear cause and effect, we expect that our blocks of toy soldiers will behave, in some fashion at least, like blocks of real soldiers, and if, as seems likely, we are not sure how a block of real soldiers might have behaved, we expect a degree of intelligibility in the behaviour that they do display. Thus our rules have to allow for reasonable behaviour,  albeit moderated by a constrained degree of randomness.

Of course, the ultimate aim of any wargame, indeed, most games, is to ‘win’, whatever that might mean within the context. Winning, in a campaign game will likely be very different from winning a tournament game. In the former there may (and probably will) be a requirement to keep a force in being, leading to less in the way of gambits and more in the way of conservative and solid tactics. In the latter, the aim is to win, pure and simple, with little regard for an overall situation, because there isn’t one.

Overall,, however, the aim of each player is, given the constraints, to obtain the possession of the dominant narrative and win. If nothing else, this is an unusual way of looking at wargaming.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Project Status

It is a truism, but a correct one, that all projects are eighty per cent finished, eighty per cent of the time. Of those that are not, some have just started, while the rest are ninety per cent complete, ninety per cent of the time.

And so it is with wargame projects. There are possibly some of you out there who are waiting with bated breath for the next update of the Fuzigore saga. There may even be some who are waiting for the news of the ‘doubling project’, my scheme to provide two Polemos sized armies for each force in the rule book.

It is also possible that some of you might be waiting to see what terrain I have conjured up in response to the ‘Terrain Troubles’ posts, or (and I know that this is an extreme possibility) some who want to know when Polemos: Polemos, the Greek, Persian and Macedonian wars rule set will be published.

I concede that the last group will be minuscule.

I am pleased to say, however, that all of the above are, in fact, about eighty per cent finished. Well, except the doubling project, of course. And the rules.

The Fuzigore project has, however, proved to be much larger than I expected. The reason for this is slightly interesting (to me, anyway, and I'm the one that writes this stuff). In CS Grants book ‘Wargame Campaigns’ (1995, CSG Publications: Pewsey) he has a bit on the forces which are needed for campaign games. Now, obviously, this includes the normal army forces of infantry, cavalry, artillery and so on. But then he lists the “less exciting but equally essential” (p 24) extras that are needed to make an army function on campaign.

These extras include such items as generals and couriers, pioneers, supply convoys, artillery train, medical support units, river transport, local defence forces and so on. These are the things that we can safely ignore on the single battlefield, but are necessary to enable an army to take to the field at all.

So, I have now completed another 20 base Gallic army, for use in the Fuzigore battle that has been sitting on my shelf for the last several weeks or, possibly months. I have also completed the terrain items that go with the battle: some road sections, some woods, a couple of small settlements. I would be posting a picture, but I thought I had charged the battery on my digital camera, but the battery and the camera both disagreed. Some other time, perhaps.

But now, here comes the rub: if you read the accounts of battles during the periods with ‘barbarians’, you will notice that they had a tendency to take their whole families along. Indeed, these families were those support units which I have just outlined above – the medical support, the supply convoys, and the resources for cooking and so on. They had a tendency to come out of their camps to watch the battle as well, and, for example at the defeat of Boudicca’s tribes, formed a distinct barrier to anyone trying to escape the carnage, as well as being involved in it themselves.

This is not purely an ancient thing, either. We read of Irish (or, more likely, Welsh speaking) women being massacred in the Royalist camp after the battle of Naseby. Spike Milligan refers to Goums bringing their wives along in ‘Rommel? Gunner who?’. Milligan is surprised, but it is an ancient and well known practice. I suppose it is only with the professionalization of armies that this practice stopped.

Baggage, in its widest form, is not well served by wargames. Occasionally you might get a scenario which involves the convoying in of relief supplies to an isolated fort, but other than that the train gets rather short shrift. You do get odd bits and pieces about how many carts and pack animals an army of a certain size might need, but that is usually as far as it goes. The DB* rules, as I recall, do have provision for having camps or baggage, but they do seem, to me at least, a bit small.

So this is where the Fuzigore, and indeed, the doubling project is stalled at the moment. I have all the wargame figures, in terms of units and bases that I need. But I do not have the ox carts, civilians, pack mules and assorted detritus goes along with the army.

Now, you might say that I am overly picky, and you may well be right, but I am trying to do this battle in a way that is satisfying to me. The armies, on the grand tactical map, have baggage units, and so some of them at least should be deployed on the table.  The point is that if an army is separated from its baggage, that army is going to struggle to function. While this has not happened during the map moves, it is a distinct possibility that it will occur during a battle.

Losing the baggage train is a more serious occurrence for a campaign game, I think, than for a one off battle. In a one off battle rules have to be invented as to why the baggage should not be used as a lure, abandoned, allowed to be over run and so on. In a campaign, when you think of all the goods and services the train supplies, the protection of it should be an obvious necessity of the army commanders, and the loss of it a near total disaster.

So here I am again, banging the drum for campaign games and, having done so, stalled my own wargaming until the point that I have appropriate baggage elements for both sides. In mitigation I can only say that the baggage will, at least, be transferable between different armies; a Roman pack mule is similar enough to a German or Gallic one not to be a problem.

So, there you are, my Fuzigore battle project is, erm, about 80% complete….