Saturday, 28 December 2013

Community and Horizon

A few weeks ago there was a bit of discussion about wargame communities. In particular, it was suggested that, in fact, the wargame community is a set or family of communities, some of which struggle to interact with each other, sometimes.

Assorted examples of this are possible. We can start with the difference between science fiction and historical wargames. The latter, could, according to the former, be deemed as boring because history has already happened so the outcomes are already known.  This implies at least an entirely na├»ve determinist view of history, but it could, I suppose, be defensible. Nevertheless, it does rather undercut the ground for holding a dialogue.

Now, please note that I am not saying that all science fiction wargamers are like this, nor that historical wargamers are any paragons of virtue when it comes to communicating across boundaries. Just that these boundaries do exist, even within the overall hobby (whatever that might be).

Now, I have commented before on our wargaming horizons. There are three classes of object within our horizon. Firstly, those which we know, understand and are familiar with. We can think of them as known knowns. To some extent, they are over familiar, rather boring. To think of them is like being asked over and over again about who won the battle of Waterloo.

The second class of objects are, so to speak, known unknowns. They are objects which fall within our interests, but which are interesting to discuss, find out about, research and so on. To find out more about a subject we are interested in enriches our mental models of events and things, and enlarges our knowledge. Furthermore, we feel comfortable with these ideas and methods. We like to discover more in these areas which interest us.

The final class of objects are those which hold no interest for us. They are, so to speak, beyond our horizons. We simply know little about them, and care less. When the conversation starts about them, we switch off, of change channel, or daydream. If we do have to look at them, we struggle to see interest and relevance. We can characterize these as unknown unknowns, although uninteresting unknowns might be more accurate.

Now, these horizons are, of course, individual. I have my interests, you have yours and there is no reason why the two should overlap. We might be able to have an interesting discussion about painting techniques for toy soldiers, but your interest in the Third Gallician War may make my eyes glaze over, while my enthusiasm for developing a philosophy of wargaming cause you to offer to buy me a drink, just to interrupt the flow (I can hope, anyway).

If this is true of the individuals who make up the ‘wargaming community’, it is also true of those communities themselves. While I am not first in the queue to claim that a community is simply the sum of its members, the interests of the members of the community do direct the interest of the community as a whole. Thus, the interest of the Napoleonic wargamer community is directed to the period of 1792 – 1815, or thereabouts. There may be peripheral interests as well, such as the Indian sub-continent during the same period, but essentially, the interests of the community cohere around a fairly well specified core.

Of course, you do not need to be a member of just one community of interest. You can be a Napoleonic wargamer and an Ancients wargamer as well. You might also dabble in World War Two games, and so on. The point is that these are all communities which have a well-defined (more or less) core interest. As a member of all these communities, you do actually bring a different viewpoint to each.

Thus, your outlook is not defined by a single wargamer community. You can bring together the insights of two, three or more communities to a single wargaming issue. Drawing on the resources of all these communities, it is possible to have some sort of sensible conversation across them, such as ‘what does disorder mean, and what does it lead to?’ The answers from the different communities may well be different, but you might be in a position to find some underlying essence to the concept of disorder, or some overarching description of it.

The essential point here is, I suppose, about the context of the individual wargamer, embedded in as many communities of wargamers as they choose. We can be single community wargamers, fascinated by, say, Napoleon, and content to become a community expert on that single topic. (We have to bear in mind that these communities can be geographically and temporally diverse, as well as dynamic). Or we may dip into one and then the other community, never staying anywhere long enough to gain more than a taste of this or that issue, or even being turned off a particular topic and community by some particularly objectionable behaviour or  obscure argument which seems vital but is entirely opaque to a newcomer.

The human being tends to direct their interest to a given topic, within a given community. The history and interests of that community also direct the interest of the individual who is a member of it. Thus we get a (hopefully) virtuous cycle, of interest reinforcing interest, knowledge sparking learning, more research and more knowledge. The care which we need to take, however, is that our particular community does not start to see itself either as a gate-keeper to a given subject, nor at the authority which should be obeyed without question.

You might think that this does not happen in wargaming. We are all nice, easy going people with a relaxing hobby, after all.

However, my observations over a good number of decades suggest that wargamers are no different from other people, and can try to dominate, grab authority, exclude others and do all the things that cause, for example, board room politics (or for that matter, soap operas like Dallas) to grab the front pages.


But that is simply the penalty for being members of these communities. If we did not have them, our lives would be much poorer. But being part of a community with knowledge and, thus, a degree of authority is no excuse for us running amok with authoritarian views about that community and its activities.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Earliest Wargame

It is, rather surprisingly, that time of year again, the bit where I try to do something a bit lighter as a kind of early Christmas present to the assembled company.

This time, I would like to consider a very early wargame. Now, we know that wargaming has been around for a while. For example, Frederick the III of Prussia, I seem to recall, had toy soldiers. And of course, there is the terracotta army from China.

But were these for wargames?

The earliest literary evidence I have so far stumbled upon for a wargame is this:

And you, O mortal, take a brick and set it before you. On it portray a city, Jerusalem; and put siege works against it, and build a siege wall against it, and cast up a ramp against it; set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it all round. Then take an iron plate and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; set your face towards it, and let it be in a state of siege, and press the siege against it. This is a sign for the house of Israel.

I guess that the last line rather gives the source away. This comes from the book of Ezekiel, Chapter 4, verses 1 – 3 (NRSV in the version above). It is, clearly, an account of a siege wargame.

Commentators on Ezekiel have been rather dismissive of the passage, describing it as a child’s wargame, a sign that Jerusalem would be besieged. Nevertheless, it is a very early description of such a game.

Now the date is, of course, a bit tricky. According to the fairly little I can find out, Ezekiel was in the first tranche of exiles to Babylon from Jerusalem, which suggests that the date of the above passage is before 597 BC, when Jerusalem was captured by Nebuchadrezzar. On the other hand, the book of Ezekiel is generally very odd indeed, the texts we have are not very reliable, and the book is not in chronological order, so I would imagine that other options, and dates, abound.  

Nevertheless, this is certainly the earliest clear account of a wargame I am aware of, although I am willing to stand corrected.


And a very Happy Christmas to everyone who reads these warblings.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

On Ideas

Sometimes, ideas for wargaming come from rather unlikely sources. As some of you may have worked out by now, I read rather a lot and, often, read stuff which are not, in particular, wargame or history related. Nevertheless, you can still find interesting concepts, scenarios or ideas for rules, or wargames, or even writing slightly pretentious blog posts.

A case in point is my recent (and, as yet, unfinished) reading of the Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought c 350 – c 1450 (ed Burns, Cambridge University Press, 1991). Not, on the face of it, an obvious choice for a wargamer, nor as a source for wargame rules or writing. That is not to deny that it might be interesting, of course (it is, although a bit dry in places), but it just is not on the face of it likely material for a wargame.

I was, however, reading my way through the section which ran from c 750 to c 1150, and the text was commenting on the situation in France after the fall of the Carolingian ‘empire’. The kings of France had, obviously, lost control of most of France at that point, being confined to the Ile de France and not even all of that. The kingdom was very fragmented and unstable at this time, as you could imagine, with every lord with a half decent castle taking control of the few miles around his castle and entering into alliances and wars with their neighbours.

Of course, the king had a few advantages. A few more resources, naturally, and, of course, the huge ideological boost of being a king. Quite a lot of ink was spilt over what advantages this in fact gave him, but it did give some, certainly. So the king, as king, could do some things to his putative vassals, like demand that they stop fighting each other and live in peace. Not only that, but if they ignored him, he could legitimately go and lay siege to their castles until they became less recalcitrant.

The possibilities here for a wargame campaign are, surely, obvious, even to a bear of very little brain like me. All I need would be a few early medieval types, probably some sort of Normans and Saxons, and a map. I even have in my possession a nice castle. Sieges, of course, are a bit boring, but there are some nice dice based resolution systems out there, or even a bit of a skirmish game could be had. Additionally, the threatened lord could come out and fight like, well, a lord.

Part of the interest here, of course, is in the politics anyway, specifically in the making and breaking of alliances, changing sides at unexpected moments and so on. If one were feeling ambitious, the role of the church could be included. Does the king accept the overlordship of the Pope? If he does, then his enemies can be preached against, but, on the downside, if you start losing you might find yourself displaced by another, as losers, clearly, do not have God on their side.

Slightly anachronistically, of course, you could also be sent on a crusade or have to obey the Peace of Christ, even though your enemies do not. Given all this it is no wonder that medieval kings supported canon lawyers and theologians at their courts.

So, there you are, a simple paragraph in an obscure academic tome which opens the door to a whole wealth of wargaming possibilities. Taking this core of an idea, of course, together with borrowing from, for example, Tony Bath’s Setting Up a Wargame Campaign or C S Grant’s book Wargame Campaigns and you are off for many a long winter evenings interest in medieval high jinks and skulduggery.

Ideas, then, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, or, at least, from different places. I have mentioned before considering local history as a source for such, but there is no reason what someone else’s history could not suffice. The point is to find an angle which is fresh and reasonably new, rather than just hacking through the same old sources, putting the same old battles on.

Since I am banging on about ideas and sources, can I just put in one plea. Please do not get me wrong in this: I like and have many of the classic military history sources, such as A H Burne and Oman. They are very useful and, for people like Don Featherstone, just about the best there was to be had. They did, however, have a certain view point, a certain world view generated by their own location and context in history. Things have moved on, historiographically. I have to confess that my heart really does sink a bit when an article or rule set cites them as sources.

Military history is not, of course, popular in the academy, which is a bit of a problem in getting away from Burne and Oman and their ilk. But it is not impossible. In order to keep the hobby looking and feeling reasonably fresh and intelligent, not to mention interesting to potential new wargamers, I think we have a responsibility not only to present new wargames, but to present all wargames with the very best information and interpretations that we can find.

Now, it might be said that I have an unfair advantage, working as I do on the edge of the academy. That might be true, but the wonders of the Internet open all sorts of possibilities, such as finding the original sources, often for free, and also tracking down some recent interpretations, or even some old but obscure ones. It might take a little time to get into how to find stuff, but once you do there are some real gems out there, not necessarily from the academy or behind pay walls.

That said, of course, we still need imagination. Research of all kinds does, in fact. The popular conception of research proceeding logically and certainly towards a goal is nonsense. Serendipity and imagination are also required. So why not have a go?



Saturday, 7 December 2013

Particulars and Universals

Reflecting a bit on the conversation recently about probability, emergence and ‘black swan’ events. I encountered an idea put forward by Soren Kierkegaard (and, probably a few others) about history. Now, I’ve never really considered the philosophy of history, probably because I am, at heart, a physical scientist, but this seemed to hit a chord when it comes to wargaming.

Firstly, of course, Kierkegaard (translated, his surname means ‘churchyard’, which is interesting in a sort of random way), is one of those philosophers of the western canon who is very hard to categorize. There is even an argument as to whether or not he was a philosopher at all, rather than a theologian, or just a pain old writer of some interesting stuff. Actually, so far as I know, theologians treat him a bit like an unexploded bomb, as well. So he is rather a difficult bloke to get a grip of.

Fortunately, for the purposes of this post, I do not need to grapple with the complexities of the authorship, his view of Hegel’s thought and the Danish Golden Age. I do not even have to deal with Kierkegaard’s actual view of irony and its use in industrial Europe. But he does have a certain view of the history of irony which I would like to make use of here.

Effectively, Kierkegaard criticises Hegel for his view of the history of irony for being too conceptual. He also praises Hegel for not focussing too much on the particulars of the history of irony, as Hegel’s predecessors did, at least according to Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s view, thus, is that you need both the particulars, in this case an understanding of Socrates, Athens of the period when he was active, the thought of the ancient Greek world, the historical context against which Socrates spoke, came to trial and was executed, and so on. But you also need the conceptual, the universal, by which he means an understanding of the idea of irony which Socrates used.

 Kierkegaard’s point against Hegel was that he rushed too quickly from the particular circumstances of Socrates to the universal conception of irony, that Hegel did not spend enough effort actually grappling with ancient Greece and its world of thought before generalising.

Now, this is not the place to delve into the question of whether Kierkegaard was right or not. Whole tomes have been written on the subject, even though, as I hinted a little above, Kierkegaard is regarded as being a bit of an oddball in western philosophy. In my view (for what little it is worth), Kierkegaard has a lot going for him and is becoming one of my favourite really annoying philosophers of the moment. After all, you do not read philosophers with whom you agree, as that is intellectually flabby. Read the ones with whom you have a beef and explain why you disagree.

But I digress.

Anyway, these concepts of the particular and the universal seem to me to have a bearing on the discussion of probability, emergence and black swan events. All we have in history is a series of events, more or less well known, more or less well interpreted by our current historiographical tools. However, as humans and, perhaps, more specifically, as wargamers, we are conscious that a particular series of events is contingent, perhaps we might say radically contingent (the word ‘radical’ being very popular nowadays).

So, in Kierkegaard’s terms we have something that is particular, the stream of events of, say, a battle. We also know that this stream of events is contingent, in that it could have happened differently. For example, if Prince Rupert had not retired to his coach for supper immediately before Parliament attacked at Marston Moor, his right may not have caved in quite so quickly. We would then have a different battle, as indeed we would if the pistol ball which wounded Cromwell had been an inch or so further over.

As wargamers, however, we rely on abstractions from these contingent events. These are the concepts, the universals which we include in our rules, which we pepper our history and games with. Thus, as was pointed out in the discussion, we prefer rules which evolve modestly, which are not peppered with totally disruptive black swans. And it is here that the distinction between the universal and particular starts to bite.

We only have the one stream of history to deal with, the one set of particular events which make up a battle, a war, a series of wars for which we wish to write a single set of rules. We have to determine, within that set of particular events, which are the concepts we are going to use for our rules. Which of the events are reasonable, sensible, are not going to upset players of the game, and so on.

Some rule sets decide to incorporate as much of the particular as possible. A battle was lost because the troops ran out of water? Incorporate it in the rules: troops in hot weather in dry places suffer such and such a penalty if they are more than x moves from water. Is this, really, a sensible abstraction to a universal rule of war? I am unconvinced.

Such examples could be multiplied, but I will not bother here. You can, I am sure, supply copious examples of your own, or, perhaps, I have just had a tendency to buy that sort of rule set. Anyway, in my experience, such particular rules are usually wisely ignored by the players, and only go to thicken up the rule book, make the rules more complex (how often, after all, do you need to read ‘-1 if thirsty’?) and show off the writer’s historical erudition, if not their ability to decide what is important conceptually.


This is, then, I think the crux of the matter. Given a single set of events, how can we sensibly decide which of them are concepts, universals, for inclusion in the rule set, and which are the oddball, unusual, specific events which need not be covered? And, I suppose, how do we spot the real black swan ones? My hunch is that the two latter would be claimed as ‘scenario specific’ items. But how do we tell, really?

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Wargame Communities

At the risk of sounding far too postmodern for my comfort, there is an argument that knowledge is socially mediated. By this is meant that what we know is a product of the various communities of which we are a part. We are raised in such communities, obtain access to them at various times of our lives, lose contact with them, and so on. But, the argument goes, what we know is mediated by these communities.

So, for example, I am a member of the wargaming community. This community, as I have tried to suggest here, has some boundaries in both what is acceptable to the community and what counts as membership of that community. Putting a unit of World War Two SS on the table is acceptable, dressing up as and role playing SS is not.

By its very nature, by the fact that this community is one which has a defined interest, it must have boundaries. We can, of course, as a community of wargamers argue as to what is acceptable or not acceptable behaviour of our members. We can also discuss where the ethical edge of our chosen interest it, or whether something (say the ‘Princess Diana Demolition Car Chase’) counts as a wargame or not.

The point here is that the community actually, if we in any way associate with it, starts to determine the sorts of things we think and talk about. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. By defining what counts and does not count as an object of interest to us, we can build up our community into something which does have knowledge about the subject in question. To use MS Foy’s recent comment, a community of Napoleonic wargamers may well know, or at least have some idea, what time Wellington gave up on having lunch at Salamanca.

This idea, inevitably, can be taken to extremes. Some postmodernists argue that all knowledge is socially constructed. That is, the argument is something like all knowledge, everything we think we know, is in fact created by the communities we belong to. The knowledge of Wellington’s lunch, on this view, simply becomes a construct of the community of Napoleonic wargamers, part of the story they tell to validate their community and its knowledge.

Now, far be it from me to denigrate anyone’s hard fought for theory, but this, even though I have been accused of postmodernism myself, looks suspiciously like specious twaddle. I am, after all, at heart a physical scientist. I cannot see an electron, but I can point to a sizeable body of evidence that they exist, or, if they do not exist, that something very much like them must. After all, if electrons do not exist, the Internet and computers probably would not work. The existence of electrons is not wholly socially mediated knowledge. We do have reasonable grounds for the justified belief that they do actually exist.

This does not mean, of course, that such knowledge is not, in some part, socially mediated. I was, at some point in the past, a member of a community that thought long and hard about the phenomena that, today, we call electrons. I could access the evidence, and even (in theory, anyway, if not in practice that often) reproduce it myself. Despite the best efforts of philosophers like Paul Feyerabend to show otherwise, science is not wholly a social construct.

We could, I suppose, imagine a physics that is different from our own, which calls electrons something else, which has classified objects in the real world (oops, lots to argue about in those five words) in a different way. The bottom line here, however, is that the results of such a physics would be in agreement with those of our physics. Even though the social and philosophical milieu from which it had sprung would be different, the answers it gave would be similar, sufficiently so to be able to identify the objects within it.

When we move on to other areas of human intellectual endeavour, however, we can see how social constructed ideas become more important. Consider, for example, ideas we have of nationhood. We know what a nation is, with particular citizenship, borders, laws and so on. But unless we are extreme nationalists, we would mostly have to accept that our nation could be otherwise and, more to the point, that it is a human construct. Similarly we could argue that, for example, our governments are human constructs, or even such aspects of life as race are.

For the wargaming community this is something I think we should note. Our wargames and the community are human constructions. The question is, therefore, what are they founded upon. I suspect, when we look into the details, the foundations in reality are a bit slender.

I think, in the final analysis, the question of reality in wargames come down to the normal two aspects of any theory of truth. Firstly, the wargame has to be internally coherent. As I have tried to indicate before, the models of, say, a set of wargame rules have to work together. An incoherent set of rules, one where, for example, the outcomes of ranged combat do not affect the losers of that combat in any way, is likely to be, quite rightly, rejected.

The other aspect of truth bearing is the correspondence of the knowledge to the external reality. We know, for example, that dispersed infantry caught by a cavalry charge are likely to come off worst. How do we know that? We have examples from history. Our rules have, therefore to correspond to that knowledge from history.

Of course, this can involve us in yet more complexity, because our knowledge of historical events is itself mediated by both our circumstances, that is the historical communities of which we are members, and also those communities in the past by and for which the historical record has been made.

At some point, however, we have to stop this potentially infinite regression into communities, never touching bottom, never finding reality. Events in the past did happen, even if the record of those events is heavily mediated by social constructs.


Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Downside of Models

I have written quite a lot about how much we use models, and how useful they are. Models, I have claimed, are basic to how we wargame, and, indeed, how we can wargame. Without models there would be no rules, no process of playing the game and, if I stretch the use of the term model to the scale models of soldiers that we use, there would be no figures to wargame with.

Now, of course, in a true spirit of equitability, I am going to have a go at our use of models. I am going to contradict myself, even though I will claim, I imagine, before the end of the post that I am not really doing so. We shall see.

What possible problem could there be with using a model for a wargame?

Firstly, of course, I have already said that we actually have a large number of models interacting within our rules. We try to ignore the fact, and treat a set of rules as a single model, but the clue is in the name: a ‘set’ of rules. Each rule within a rule set constitutes a model, which is part of an overall process, a dynamic model, of a battle. Thus, the rule models which  we have have to be made to work together.

But that is not, in many cases, the issue. What is the real issue here is the fact that while models are useful, and perhaps inevitable, in life as in wargaming, they do have a tendency to limit as well as assist our thinking. A model is an intellectual construct for thinking, for making things intelligible, but it is always limited, in the sense that a model is not the complete thing modelled, but an abstraction. A model, we hope, picks out the important bits of the thing modelled and allows us to concentrate our intellect upon it.

Now, as I said, this is all well and good and inevitable. We cannot hope to understand real life in any depth as a whole. The complexity would simply overwhelm us. A quick look at the history of science and philosophy (the two were, after all, only separated in the 17th century, or so. Newton wrote far more theology than he did physics (plus the fact that he was fairly close to being a heretic)) shows that attempting to understand the world via its details is more or less impossible. The big breakthroughs have come about when abstractions have become available.

For example, and to stick with Sir Isaac, gravity was a puzzle. It was thought, for example, that there was a force pushing down on a rock in the air which made it fall to earth. Alternatively, a rock fell because its natural place was at the centre of the universe, which was the centre of the Earth. The only thing that stopped the rock achieving its final goal was other bits of rock attempting to do the same thing.

This sort of issue, and an apparently unrelated one due to the motion of the planets, was resolved by Newton with a new abstraction, that of gravity, as a universal force. The fact that the details could be worked out mathematically and checked against empirical measurements was a bonus, of course, and launched all sorts of research and some fairly wild speculation. But the fact is that newton had proposed a new model of gravitational attraction, and it worked. The older, more concrete models were swept away in a matter of a century or so.

The thing is, however, that Newton’s models for the universe became a constraint on how people could think about how the universe worked. While the evidence mounted up, for example, that atoms were not billiard balls, and that the perihelion of Mercury did advance, physics was a bit constrained by the very success of the Newtonian system. It took a lot of work, brilliant thinking outside the box and some careful experiments before modern physics, of relativity and quantum mechanics, was accepted. Even then (and even now) people find these parts of physics hard to grapple with; the Newtonian model, because it refers to the scale of people and our perception, dies hard.

So, how does this affect our wargaming. As I have said, wargaming is about models, and systems of interacting models creating the whole rule set and dynamics of a battle. But if you look at most rule sets, including the ones I have written, then fall into distinct bits.

These models are fairly consistent across rule sets. We have a section for movement, a section for fighting, a section for morale. These are the basic models, and they are, excluding details, fairly similar. These rules constrain how we think about wargaming and, in all probability, have a normalising effect on how we think about battles. We can, and probably do, back project our views of, say, morale, onto an account of a battle.

Thus, the models which we have evolved in wargaming, in modelling a real battle, then constrain out thinking about that real battle. We find it more difficult to think outside the constructs of our intellect to find a different view of what happened, of how the world in fact works. The anomalies of battles which are not described by our rules and models are shelved, much as the anomalies of Victorian physics were shelved, until someone came along and incorporated them into a new scheme of models.

Now, of course, history is not physics. Models in physics are everywhere, and new experiments can offer new perspectives, while we only have one set of fairly dodgy data for our battles. But I do not think that that excuses us from looking for new models, new ways of understanding battles and gaining insights into them.


However, I will have to confess that I am not really sure how to go about this. But I do think that one thing is clear. We have to try to avoid basing our models on secondary sources, and go back to original descriptions of battles in the hunt for new explanations, new models. Secondary sources are, often, I think, based around an understanding of the battle which is similar to those we already have, and so will only reinforce our prejudices.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Probably Probability

Oh dear. I’ve been reading about probability and emergence again, and, even worse, pondering the implications for wargaming. This is likely not to end well.

The issue is this. Consider a range of outcomes. A priori, we have no reason to choose one over another, and so the logical thing to do is to assign an equal probability to each of them. Given that probability is defined on a scale of 0 to 1, and that we have A possible outcomes, the probability for each specific outcome will be 1/A. Of course, we hit a slight issue if A becomes infinite, but let us ignore that in the interests of sanity and the fact that we, as human beings, do not really deal in the infinite.

Now, suppose that the system we are considering actually activates, and we get some state of affairs, call it Y. This has happened, of course, with probability 1/A, but is not the actual state of affairs. All the other states of affairs now vanish, as this is the one we have to deal with.

A number of things can now happen. It is possible that the state of affairs Y is not stable, and that it collapses back into the undetermined state we first had. Thus, while momentarily being different, Y has no long term effect on the reality we observe. In terms of, say, thermodynamic theory, this is the equivalent of all the molecules in a room being found in one corner, but then spreading out again before anyone attempts to breathe in. It was a possibly interesting event, but of no lasting consequence.

Another possibility is that the state of affairs Y is stable. This then means that another manifold of possibilities will present itself as outcomes from this state of affairs. These will, of course, be different, at least in principle, from the previous manifold of possibilities, and, potentially, have different weightings of probabilities. Thus, the selection of state of affairs Y has dictated that another set of possible outcomes is available, which is different from the first set.

Yet another possibility is that state of affairs Y is stable, but is then disrupted by event E. Event E might be more or less probably in Y, but is such that instead of a gently evolving system depending of even probability distributions, E resets the system in some way, meaning that the system we are looking at is now in a very different set of circumstances. Let us call this state of affairs X.

We therefore have a set of states of affairs, the original one (call it W), the newly selected one, Y, into which W evolves with probability 1/A, and the disrupted Y, which I have called X, which happens with probability P(E), where P(E) has to be measured on Y, of course.

What we have here, therefore, is a system that shows both stability and the possibility of sudden change. The paradigm example of this would be the solar system, in its current form. The state of affairs W would be the configuration of the planets as measured at some time. Y would be the expected configuration at some later time, given what we know about planetary motion, Kepler’s laws and so on.

In this scenario, event E would be some massive object passing by the solar system and disrupting the planetary system. This may well be a low probability event, but if it happened it would be very noticeable.

So, what has this to do with wargaming?

Well, consider your army as the system W. It will evolve in certain ways, to state of affairs Y, given tis orders, the terrain and so on. You expect it to behave itself, to evolve in a fairly predictable way, just like the planets. You tell a unit to go there, and it goes.

So, what are our events, E?

Probably, we do not actually have too many of them. Of course, a unit can be shot to bits by enemy fire, or fail a morale roll, but I suspect it is disputable as to whether these are not simply another state of affairs Y, just a less desirable one from the point of view of the player.

So what sort of thing could create a truly disruptive event E? How about, for example, the sudden emergence of an enemy force behind your left wing? That, I suspect, could be quite a disruptive thing. And yet, it seems to me that often our rules just allow our troops to raise their eyebrows a little, perhaps sigh theatrically, turn, and face the new foe.

Or how about the above scenario plus the misinterpretation of incoming banners, giving the opportunity to shout ‘Treason’ at least for one side? As happened at Barnet, this can be rather disruptive, too. But is it, can it be, accommodated within our rule sets.

The point is, I think, that our rule sets, and, probably, our views of wargaming are based within the paradigm of gently evolving, logically acceptable events. This phalanx advanced and, after some resistance, the enemy run away leaving it victorious. That tank shoots at this one, and it may or may not disable it, but in the overall flow of events it does not make a huge difference, only that in the next turn this tank is still available to shoot back. The new state of affairs, Y, is similar to the previous one.


It is, I think, more unusual to have an event like E in a wargame. Occasionally you could put something into a scenario, such as refighting Barnet; you would need a treachery rule for that, but on the whole we do not like such things. Our wargames are nicely logical, evolving systems with clear cut probabilities at each stage. We like to be able to give an account of them, even if that account blames the dice, because even those probabilities are accounted for in a slowly evolving system.

Of course, real life is not like that, there are events which have recently been characterised as ‘black swans’. But if we put those into a wargame, the gamer on the receiving end might feel very hard done by. It is not the way we expect the game to go. Wargames, it seems to me, rely on gently evolving probability manifolds, and we do not like the disruptive events.


Saturday, 9 November 2013

A Wargame Dialogue Part II

Socrates: So, then Bellus, are all these authentic historical wargames?
Bellus: Not really, Socrates. They are more like representations, flavours or similar.
S: Are they all good wargames?
B: I imagine that the players are enjoying themselves, Socrates.
S: So to be a good wargame it has to be enjoyable?
B: Well, Socrates, I suppose that as a hobby, if the activity was not enjoyable, we would not partake in it. Only fun runners and cyclists seem to enjoy the pain they inflict on themselves with their past-time.
S: So is a good and enjoyable wargame on in which you win?
B: Not necessarily, Socrates. It has to be a bit difficult, a bit of a knife edge cliff hanger to be a truly memorable wargame.
S: But, my dear chap, you’ve just changed the terms. Is a memorable wargame a good wargame, or an enjoyable one, or simply one that you have won?
B: A memorable wargame is one you remember, Socrates. I mean, it is usually enjoyable, or amusing, or unexpected, or all of these. But you do not really need to actually win the game for it to be that. I mean, some wargames you lose heroically, against the odds, but you do remember it as a good game.
S: So is the goodness of the game related to its game-ness. A good, even contest which could have gone either way, but some small misfortune or ill-advised move give rise to one side or the other winning.
B: Quite so, Socrates. A one sided wargame is no game at all, no fun.
S: But historical battles are often very one sided, are they not?
B: Well, sometimes, Socrates, but usually generals did not try to fight at huge disadvantages. And you do have to include troop quality, terrain and so on, so sometimes in real life what looks like a big disparity in sides can be reasonably equal.
S: So, then, why not do as your demo game coordinator and simply follow the timetable of the real battle?
B: Because it’s boring, Socrates!  History is contingent, battles are so in spades. If we follow the original battle, there would be no wargame as a game, anyway. But a wargame lets us explore that contingency; what could have happened.
S: How does that work, Bellus? A battle happened in the past. I’m not sure I know much about battles, but I do know that the past in unchangeable.
B: That is sort of it, I think, Socrates. We can make a model of a battle, or, more likely, a whole load of battles, and try to create some general rules as to how the battles might progress. We can test them against the original battles, by playing a game, and hope that the results are reasonably in line with the original. But it also gives us some latitude, within reason, to have a battle with a different outcome.
S: So the wargame can attempt to model contingent outcomes other than what actually happened in the real battle?
B: Quite so, Socrates. And then, you see, if we are reasonably happy with the model, we can go further and fight imaginary battles, battles which did not take place, just for fun, or for entertainment.
S: But these have nothing to do with real history.
B: No, Socrates, but it doesn’t really matter. It is, after all, a hobby.
S: Let us wander a little further around the club. Hm. What are these chaps doing, pray tell?
B: Oh, these are our tournament players, practising.
S: Practising a historical battle?
B: No, Socrates. You see the competition games can mean that they encounter any other allowed army in the rule set. So they could fight anyone. This one looks like, um, Medieval French against Inca.
S: So is this a historical wargame?
B: Well, the sides are historical. I mean, Medieval French are a historical army, and so are Incas.
S: But even our friends with the imaginary American Civil War battle at least had armies that did fight each other. Correct me if I’m wrong, Bellus, but the Medieval French never invaded South America, and nor, so far as I know, did the Inca assault the Isle de France.
B: No, Socrates, of course not. But you have to fight the opponent you get in a competition game. The problem here, as you see, is that the Inca army is huge and the French are small, but much higher quality. So the French player has to kill lots of Inca quickly to win the game, but the Inca has to swamp the French and make lots of reasonably lucky rolls to win.
S: So actually, this is more an exercise in problem solving within the model and rule set than anything to do with history?
B: Well, really, I suppose so, Socrates. But the model and rules are validated against historical match ups.
S: So the competition game is a sort of unvalidatable generalisation of the model contained within the rules?
B: Yes, I think that would be fair to say, Socrates. After all, Medieval French and Inca were on the same planet at the same time, so they could have met and fought.
S: So we are back to your historical contingency again, Bellus. It could have happened, and you happen to have a model which might tell you something about what would have happened has these two sides met, even though they didn’t meet.
B: There are a lot of ‘happens’ in the sentence, Socrates, but yes, I think that is the gist of it.
S: To, to go back to my original question, what is a good historical wargame? Does it really have that much to do with history?
B: Well, Socrates, it does and it doesn’t, I suppose. We can’t change history, but we can see what might have happened contingently otherwise. And, of course, however you look at it, we can still have an enjoyable game.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

A Wargame Dialogue

Socrates: Greetings, Bellus. What brings you to this part of the city on such a dark night?
Bellus: Oh! Socrates. How nice to see you.
S: What is in your box?
B: Oh, it is my wargame army.
S: You have an army in the box?
B: Only a model one, Socrates! I’m not planning an insurrection.
S: It is just as well, for if you could carry armed men in a box, the city would be in trouble. Anyway, my fine fellow, what is a wargame?
B: Oh, it is a game, of warfare.
S: I could tell that from the name ‘wargame’ Bellus. But what do you do?
B: Well, Socrates, we have armies of toy soldiers, all arranged like the units of real battles, and on tables made to look like battlefields, and we are the generals and order our troops about thus and so, with rules to tell us what we can do and what happens. Oh, and dice as well, because things always are a bit random.
S: Can you show me one of these fantastic battles?
B: Certainly, Socrates, step into here and there will be a feast of them for you.
S: This corridor is a bit shabby, do you not think?
B: Well, Socrates, we are wargamers, and the venue is cheap.
S: And yet you must spend a fortune on those toy soldiers; that box you are carrying seems very heavy.
B: Wargamers like to spend their money on the important things, Socrates, like soldiers and rules, not on ephemera like paint on the walls. Now, here we are, this is the club, and all these chaps are wargaming.
S: Let me look at one in more detail. What is this one?
B: This? This is an American Civil War battle, Socrates. See? That army over there, in blue, they are the Union, and these here are the Confederates.
S: I see. And what is the glass doing on that hill?
B: That is containing the Unionist general’s beverage, Socrates.
S: So this is a wargame on a historical battle?
B: Well, I’m not exactly sure about that, Socrates. It is a battle with armies from the American Civil War. It is a historical wargame.
S: But which battle?
B: I don’t think it is a particular battle, Socrates. It is a representational battle, something that could have happened.
S: And are the armies authentic, too?
B: Of course. All of the uniforms and flags and formations are entirely accurate, if scaled down.
S: But did they all fight together, at the same time, in an army?
B: Well, possibly not, Socrates, but I’m sure they were all in the American Civil War.
S: Then what does it mean when you say they are authentic, my fine upstanding historical general? While the sides are correct, the battle is imaginary and the armies constituting them are not from the orders of battle of a given action, because it didn’t happen. So how is it historical?
B: I suppose, Socrates, that it gives a flavour of the American Civil War, and that flavour is authentic.
S: A flavour, eh? How can a flavour be known to be authentic? But no matter, those chaps over there seem to be doing something else.
B: Ah, yes, Socrates, these chaps are playing a board wargame.
S: I thought you said that you needed toy soldiers to have a wargame.
B: Well, Socrates, I suppose that in some senses you don’t, because the figures on the table are tokens for units, and these counters are tokens for units in the same sort of way.
S: And the map is the substitute for the hills and green cloth and such like on the sort of American Civil War battle we have just seen?
B: Quite so, Socrates.
S: Then, although almost everything is different, you say this is still a wargame?
B: Well, it is still a game based on a battle which happened in real life.
S: Is that your new definition of a wargame, Bellus?
B: It will do for now, Socrates.
S: So what is happening over there?
B: Oh, that is our role-players.
S: You’re what? Explain, my fine fellow what those chaps are doing.
B: Well, they are all player characters in the game, and one of them is the game master, and they use magic, fight monsters, rescue damsels in distress and find buried treasure, Socrates.
S: All in one evening? That is impressive. But how is that a wargame?
B: Well, I suppose they do fighting. But I admit that not much else is the same. I don’t talk to them much.
S: But they could be playing a game set in your American Civil War?
B: Well, Socrates, I suppose they could. But it wouldn’t be realistic. We don’t know much about real small units rescuing damsels in distress in nineteenth century America.
S: Yet it might give you a flavour of the American Civil War?
B: I suppose so, Socrates.
S: What is that chap doing over there?
B: Oh, he is our demonstration game co-ordinator.
S: What is he doing?
B: Um… He is working out the order of battle for our next demo game at the show next month. And co-ordinating the making of the terrain; you see the map? And of course he has the timetable for the action, to see which activity needs to take place on which turn for it to be accurate.
S: Accurate according to what?
B: Accurate according to the historical accounts, Socrates. We want our demonstration of the battle to be as much like the original as possible.
S: So this is the true authentic wargame? Not just a flavour of a war, but as close to the real thing as you can get in a model?
B: Well, yes, I suppose so, Socrates. But it doesn’t get a huge amount of enthusiasm from the club members.
S: Why on earth not, my fine fellow? Surely, this is what you are all aspiring to, with counters, pencils or toy soliders!
B: Well, maybe, Socrates, but when it comes down to it, it’s OK for a demo game at a show, but it is a bit boring, really.


Saturday, 26 October 2013

Nasty, Brutish and Short

I have just been reading a book about the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (Martinich, A.P., Hobbes: A Biography, Cambridge: CUP 1999). This was for no good wargaming reason, of course, except that I have a passing interest in the seventeenth century, as some of you may have spotted by now, and that it was going cheap.

Hobbes, in his own lifetime as well as in ours is a controversial figure. Accused at various times of being an atheist, a Roman Catholic and a High Anglican, it is fairly clear that he managed to tweak the tails of much of the establishment at the time, just not quite enough to get seriously arrested and damaged.

Now, I imagine that most of you recognised the title as being from Hobbes’ masterpiece, Leviathan. In this work he develops his political theory, that if humanity existed in a state of nature, the individual’s life would be as quoted, viz Nasty, Brutish and Short.  Therefore, Hobbes argues, humans club together, give up their rights to everything and appoint a sovereign to rule them, proclaim and enforce laws and so on. Thus, no human except the monarch has any rights, and the monarch can do no wrong because, by definition, the monarch is the law.

Hobbes, of course, was also the first person to translate Thucydides into English, and I cannot but suspect that some of Thucydides’ cynicism and worldly-weariness rubbed off on him. According to Hobbes, after all, the only thing lying between a population and anarchy was the power of the sovereign.

Hobbes, for all his faults, we not daft, and knew that not every state had an actual, real, monarch. However, this disturbed his theory not at all, as all that really matters is that there is a sovereign authority, be that a King or a republic. This, after all, allowed Hobbes after a decade of exile in the Royalist cause, to make his peace with the Commonwealth and return to England in the 1650s. The purpose of the sovereign was to protect those who covenant with it so to do. A King who cannot do so, through being in exile or dead, is no longer the sovereign in Hobbes’ view.

The interesting thing about Hobbes, from my point of view, however, is how much the times he lived through affected his thinking.  He was born in 1588, prematurely, he claimed, because of his mother’s fears about the Spanish Armada, and he died in 1679, the year of the first exclusion crisis. Thus he lived through a century (nearly) of dramatic change in the politics of England.

Under Elizabeth, parliament, while a fairly fractious body, managed to get along with the monarch fairly well, as it did under James I, mostly. When we come to Charles I, however, things get rather flakier. And this is where Hobbes’ theory of the supremacy of the sovereign came in. He wrote that the King could do anything, and that Parliament could not disagree but was obliged to give the monarch what they needed to do the job of ruling.

A number of others said similar things, including writing and preaching on the divine right of kings, and were imprisoned by Parliament for their pains. Hobbes fled to France. Where he fell out with Descartes, but that is another story.

I think the point I am trying to make here is that the times affect the thinking of the person. While Hobbes, even before the Civil War, was in favour of the divine right of the king, and that the sovereign has absolute power, the Civil War made his thinking even more pointed. Without the sovereign, anarchy prevails; rightly or wrongly that is what he saw in England after he fled.

So, now, we come to a more wargaming sort of point. The times we live in affect how we think and see the world. In previous posts I have touched upon, for example, the effect of postmodernism on wargaming, and also, more recently, upon archaeology and the narratives of Roman Britain. Similarly, I think that our times, of relative stability, wealth and leisure permit wargaming to occur. Thirdly, of course, the internet facilitates communication, be that between customers and manufacturers or between wargamers themselves. Wargaming is a product of, and in its own small way affects those communities, simply by its being.

How, then, does our society affect thinking about wargaming?

Well, in the past here I have considered the ethics of wargaming and why some people, at  least, regard wargaming as being unpleasant, perhaps, or downright nasty. I will not repeat the arguments here, but the upshot is that the critics do not appear to know what they are talking about. At least, I have found no good ethical objection to wargaming except the ’Yuck!’ factor, which is rarely a good measure of the actual ethical issue.

Secondly, of course, there is an issue relating to the general philosophical viewpoints of our world today, one of which is postmodernism. This is generally seen in the fragmentation of our society norms and the struggle of our political leaders to create a vision which the population can accept. On the other hand, while Hobbes would probably be appalled by the fact, it is a lot more difficult for western leaders to simply declare war and get on with it. We might regard that as being a good thing.

However, I think there is a downside to this, not because it means we have fewer interesting wargame material for modern battles, but because, as with other things in society, wargamers have become more thrill seekers; I’ve mentioned before that some part of the hobby is always looking for the fringe, the weird, the obscure. This seems to me to be another manifestation of our society and its inability to have another look at itself and discover that it has its own exoticisms, weirdness and interest. This is, of course, the thought lying behind some of the recent posts on ‘local’ wargames and the interpretation of Roman activity in Britain.


Finally, of course, this blog is doing the Socratic thing of asking more questions than its author knows the answer to. But I do hope that someone out there can at least tell me that I’m wrong.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Wargamer’s Text II – The Art of War Part 2

Having spectacularly failed to say anything about Machiavelli’s text last time, I will try a bit harder to focus. Part of the problem is, as I think I mentioned, that actually Machiavelli has such an unusual reputation as a political theorist (to put it politely) that there is a fair bit of undergrowth to clear away before we can actually see the text as a text, not as something freighted with centuries of interpretation, both positive and negative.

Anyway, as mentioned, the Art of War is set in a dialogue form, with a number of humanist friends having invited the well-known mercenary commander, Fabrizio Colunna to a dinner, and then they sit and talk about military and political things, as one does under such circumstances.

The first point made is that political and military items are not independent. This is then followed up in the first book with a discussion of the difference between mercenary and citizen troops. Colunna is of the opinion (and we know that Machiavelli was also) that mercenary troops are dangerous to the state, whether the state is a republic or a monarchy. The example of Milan is cited, where the state was taken over by the Sforzas, who were in command of the mercenary forces.

The idea here seems to be that mercenary soldiers have a bad attitude to the state, as they are mercenaries and do not have a stake in it. The argument then is that citizen soldiers will behave much better and not try to take over the state because they are, in fact, citizen of it, and thus have a greater stake in it.

These citizen soldiers are to be raised by a levy, a yearly draft, and to practice every once in a while. It is also suggested that to ensure the safety of the state, the captains of these levies should be moved around frequently, so they do not build up a following in the militia and attempt to undermine the state or take it over. The level of paranoia here might seem to be excessive, but I suppose that, from the point of view of Florence in the beginning of the sixteenth century it could be accounted for.

As we might expect from Machiavelli and the humanist point of view, Rome is held up as being the shining exemplar of the republic with successful armies and a free citizenry. The Romans had a citizen army and used it to the full. Each year an army was raised and sent out, and the burden, it is claimed, was not too great as it was done by rotation. And anyway, to serve in the army was to seek glory.

A lot is made of this point, that army service was not to gain power, or to acquire loot or money, but to serve, to fight, was to obtain glory. Glory, in the Art of War, does not seem to be linked to power, although in fact I suspect that there was a much greater linkage than Machiavelli would like us to think. After all, craven cowards or unsuccessful generals seldom came to political power in Rome, or in Sparta, for that matter.

Machiavelli claims that this Roman system broke down in the Empire, where captains served long term with their troops and those troops, themselves, became identified with the state as mercenaries, rather than citizens 9altohugh, of course, they became citizens at the end of their service, if auxilia). However, even legionaries (who were supposed to be citizens, after all) came to believe in the power of the military to make emperors, and did so quite frequently.

I suspect Machiavelli, here, of protesting too loudly, at least from the humanist point of view. My understanding of Late Republican Rome was that the armies were dedicated to their leaders, and the leaders took at least some of their initiative because they needed to keep their troops happy. Thus Caesar and Pompey both carried out large scale campaigning and annexation in the Middle East and Gaul simply because they had the armies and needed to do something with them to obtain glory, money and power within the Roman elite.  From this point of view, then, the claims for the Middle Republic armies and leaders had already broken down before the Civil Wars of the mid-first century BC.

Be that as it may, Machiavelli then goes on to observe that the problem with mercenary troops is that the forces they supply are both too small and too big. They are too small in the sense that a standing army of, say, six thousand mercenaries is insufficient to fight a battle for real. If a war breaks out you still have to go out and hire lots more.

On the other hand, a mercenary band of six thousand is too big, because you cannot pay it; it is simply too expensive. Furthermore, the other problem, alluded to earlier, is that six thousand heavily armed men, with their captains, are going to start to produce a political problem, and threaten the state. The solution, Machiavelli claims, is to keep only few mercenaries in the strongpoints of the state, and make sure you have a trained citizen militia. The latter, at least, he argues, in a surprisingly modern move, will at least keep the youth occupied and out of trouble.


As a wargamer I think I can see that there is a great deal of potential here for some interesting campaign games. Despite Machiavelli’s claims, the militia will be ill-trained compared to mercenary troops, but, on the other hand, there will be a lot more of them and they might (but only might) be better motivated. A bunch of player characters representing the various states, mercenary bands factions within the states could create an interesting and complex situation to run as, say, a club campaign. With enough factions it could even be located within a single state.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Wargamer’s Texts II: The Art of War Part 1

Niccolo Machiavelli is, probably, one of the most divisive and derided political philosophers in the Western canon.  This is for assorted reasons, but mostly because his political philosophy is regarded as being without morality, to be a pure grab for power and, when power has been grabbed, advice as to how to hang on to it.

Machiavelli has also had the misfortune for his name to be applied to all sorts of abusive terms. For example, as you probably know, the term ‘Old Nick’, used of Satan, is supposed to derive from his forename. Similarly, the expression ‘Machiavellian’ is, of course, derived from him. Any political manoeuver which is perceived as devious and subtle is thus termed, and so Machiavelli is condemned by association with such activities.

All of which is really to say that Machiavelli has not been treated kindly by history or politics, even though some of his works are still widely read. How relevant they are is really a bit moot, in my view, but they are still trotted out as a defence of the purely pragmatic approach to politics. The basis here is that a politician can, in fact, do nothing unless they are in power. Therefore, the need to seize power and hang onto it is vital for someone who wants to do the right thing.

I am sure I do not need to remind you of the context in which Machiavelli wrote. He was born in 1469, and entered the chancery of Florence in the 1498. He thus had a grandstand view of the Savonarola regime of democracy (at least, for some meanings for the term) and its collapse.

Of course, the date of Machiavelli’s appointment into the Florentine government is important for his writings. What we now know, at least as wargamers, as the Italian Wars were in full swing by the time of his appointment and, for the Italian states, tightropes were being walked between independence, client ship and destruction.

Even discounting the external pressures of France, Spain and the Empire, the Italian states did not do much to help themselves. In fact, political disunity did as much to aid the (relative) destruction of Italy as, for example, Celtic disunity did in Gaul and Britain against the Romans of antiquity.

Which brings on on to another interesting aspect of Machiavelli’s views, that of the renaissance. Machiavelli was heavily influenced by the writings of ancient Rome, which were becoming available through the printing press and humanist work. For example, in around 1503 machiavell obtained a copy of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and, later in life, composed a tract on the writings of the Roman historian Livy. This work was published in 1531, four years after Machiavelli died.

Of course, Machiavelli’s reputation rests mainly on The Prince, a work which, for a wargamer, is somewhat peripheral and which has fascinated and horrified generations of people. As wargamers we are probably more interested in his Art of War. As it is, The Art of War is not widely discussed (or even printed in full) in modern times. In a sense, this is odd, as it is one of two works of Machiavelli that were printed in his lifetime, but, as the note to my abridgement indicates, many of the sections are technical and of interest only to military historians.

Actually, I cannot think of many military historians who are interested in Machiavelli, but I suppose that there may be some.

How useful could Machiavelli be to a wargamer anyway? He, as with so many writers, harks back to the concepts of the Roman legion, of Livy and Polybius, and as such his ideas tend to the theoretical.  He is also notorious for abuse of the system of mercenaries in his own time, and belief that a citizen militia would be much more useful. The bloodless battles of which he accuses the mercenary armies were not, in fact, as bloodless as he claimed, and the armies of Cesare Borgia which he admired were not citizen armies.

However, Machiavelli believed that war and politics were entwined, and the Art of War was much read in the seventeenth century as well as Frederick the Great, Napoleon and von Clausewitz, so it is probably worth us taking note of what he has to say. We must be aware in our reading, though, that Machiavelli was not a seriously military man, although he did see some action in the early 1500’s.

Finally, before diving into the text, it is well to remember the style of the writing, which is a bit annoying (at least, I find it so). The book is written as a dialogue, which was a form very much in vogue among humanists. Indeed, the use of the dialogue style is probably to be related to the rediscovery of classical texts, such as the (you’ve guessed it) dialogues of Plato.

The dialogue form can be quite frustrating, but was widely used into the eighteenth century. For example, David Hume wrote Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in the late 1700s. One consequence of this has been a lengthy scholarly wrangle about which, of the characters in the dialogue, represents Hume’s own view.  In terms of the Art of War I do not think we have a similar problem, at least most of the time, because we know from other things he wrote that Machiavelli favoured the militia system and the Roman legion. We may, however, have to be a little careful about any counter positions which are represented. Straw men, I think, possibly abound.

I feel like I have written much about Machiavelli, and a bit about the context of the Art of War, but nothing about the text itself. Next time I really will put some effort into saying something, at least, about that text, and what it might mean to use as wargamers.


In the meantime, the text I am going to use can be found in Kindle format on the ‘Library of Liberty’ website. Make of that what you will…

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Texts for Wargamers I: De Re Militari Part 3

I confess to trying to delay the day of writing this post. Mostly, it is because while I have read the third part of De Re Militari, I did not sit down and write about it immediately, and hence have forgotten the detail. However, in the third part, Vegetius starts writing about armies and battles.

Immediately, this is a bit interesting. So far, a lot has been said about recruits, soldiers and units and their organisation. Now an army is being discussed. It seems to me that many wargame rules do not manage this sort of distinction very often. I have written before about the idea of emergence, and it is what Vegetius seems to be writing about.

Consider some older wargame rules. I do not want to pick on any specific rules, but some of the older ones start off with the capability of the individual solider. They then work their way up to a unit, with various caveats about how units move more slowly than the individual. Very often, the rules stop there. An army is nothing but the accumulation of a number of units. It has no particular identity over and above that.

I think that this may lap over into our wargames as well. As I recall, many of my early wargames were, effectively, battles of units. This unit may perform heroically, that might run away. There was some sort of acknowledgement of the fact that, for example, seeing another unit scarper had a dampening effect on the units around it. But there was no real engagement with the army as a whole.

An yet, historically, armies do have individual characteristics. For example, after the battle of Cropredy Bridge, Waller’s army disintegrated. The battle, to quote, I think, Clarendon ‘brake the heart of his army’. How could that be, unless the army as a whole could be treated as a whole?

Anyway, Vegetius prefers smaller, disciplined armies to larger ones. This is partly because he believes that disciplined troops can overcome numbers, and partly because smaller forces are easier to keep in supply. The bitter comment of a Thirty Years war commander sums this up: “Small armies lose, large armies starve.”

Vegetius spends a fair number of paragraphs describing how to keep the army in supply and preventing discontent in the ranks. Keep them fed and occupied, seems to be the message.

The question of movement is then discussed. This raises interesting questions about mapping. I have read some rather contradictory things about Roman maps. To start with, I have seen it confidently asserted that the Romans did not do maps. The closest they had were the itineraries, which simply listed the distances between the towns, forts, mansios and other items on a given route.  Of course, an army could use these for some sort of planning of movement, but they naturally peter out in the frontier territory.

On the other hand I have recently read confident assertions that military surveyors existed and would have done useful work in mapping routes, topographical features likely to be useful or awkward to the armies, and so on. Vegetius  says that an army commander should have an exact description “of the country that is the seat of war.” Well, yes, of course. That does sound very much like a map.

Various things in the campaign and pre-battle are then discussed, such as making encampments, determining the ‘sentiment’ of the troops before an action, and dealing with raw and undisciplined troops. This latter sounds like something of an admission that, despite the claims made earlier in the pieces about discipline and smaller numbers of troops, very often the later Romans landed up with ill-disciplined troops.

Quite a bit follows about how to deploy, which is ‘obvious’, or at least would be regarded as pre-modern obvious deployment. For example, if you have more cavalry, deploy on open ground; if not, use rough ground, and so on.  Force to space rations are discussed, although not named as such; troops should be deployed in deeper units if the ground is narrow. Cavalry should flank the infantry, heaviest nearest the foot. There should be a reserve.

The general should be on the right, between the infantry and cavalry, and he should be able to manoeuver his troops as required. There is a bit about not letting your left to get surrounded, while the right is less frequently in danger. The right, of course, is the most honourable side (hence the presence of the general). How many wargame rules establish that the best troops should go on the right? I cannot think of any…

Anyway, Vegetius then discusses seven different formations for the army, including an oblong square, oblique (refusing the left flank), refusing the right, which is ‘not so good’. Others are advancing both wings, , advancing both wings with the gap covered by light foot and archers, advancing just the right wing (presumably the best troops) to outflank the enemy left, and securing one flank on terrain.

Vegetius also comments that facilitating flight of the enemy is a good idea, discusses how to retreat and how to deal with chariots and elephants. He then leaves us with some general maxims, which reiterate some of the previous points.

So, a quick canter through De Re Militari. What have I learnt?

Firstly, that a fair bit of Vegetius’ writing have passed, consciously or not, into current historiography and, either hence or directly, into wargame rules. On the whole I have no problem with this, except to observe that Vegetius was not a general, strictly speaking, and his observations on earlier armies may be a little suspect, or at least, from my reading of him, viewed through rose coloured spectacles.

Secondly, that the issues and problems he discuss are not specific to his times, they do apply more widely, as we see repeatedly in history. Armies need to be fed, trained and disciplined before they can achieve anything.


Finally, Vegetius influence may not be as wide as we might like to think. While he was the main military writer of the medieval period, that does not seem to mean that his maxims were followed. I have seen it suggested that his main legacy to medieval warfare was the idea that war could be conducted in a rational manner. After all, we do not see many legions in the thirteenth century…

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Under Another Sky

Now, I will get around to dealing with the third part of De Re Militari, but before I do, I really want to review this book. The book in question is ‘Under Another Sky’, by Charlotte Higgins (Jonathan Cape, 2013).

The book is subtitled Journeys in Roman Britain, and is a series of accounts of travels into various parts of Britain (including Scotland), looking at Roman remains (or at least, the remains of Roman Britain) and giving something of an account of the meaning of such items, how they were discovered and how interpreted.

The author of the book is a journalist at The Guardian newspaper and a classicist with a useful grasp of Latin and Greek and knowledge of Roman poetry and mythology which comes in handy in interpreting inscriptions from monuments and mosaics.

As a wargamer, of course, her book is somewhat peripheral to my main interests, but it does serve as a useful reminder that much of Roman Britain was peaceful under the Empire, and culture did exist, commerce even, perhaps, flourished, and, possibly, no one, in general, was unhappy enough to rebel or invade terribly often.

The most interesting aspect of the book is that it is about how Roman Britain came to be uncovered, interpreted and assumed into our picture of the way the world is. I’m sure I have mentioned before this aspect of history, in general. The popular view of history is that it relates to fact, to dates, and battles, and kings and so on. However, as Miles Russell points out in his book mentioned last week, even a skeleton of undisputable facts can have more than one interpretation attached to it.

Higgins is not, as mentioned, an archaeologist, but she has an eye for detail, even though it sometimes lapses into slightly purple prose. Even well known Roman sites are sometimes overgrown, she comments, and some, like Hadrian’s Wall are possibly overblown, although the local economy is coming to rely on the tourism it generates.

Mostly, Higgins tells us the stories of artefacts and how they are interpreted. In this, she largely, I think, would agree with Russell. The archaeology is fragmented, and does not tell us a single, or at least, straightforward, story. The interpretation of them is similarly fraught. For example, she discusses the pictures commissioned for the Palace of Westminster. A number of scenes from Roman Britain were proposed, but none included. British history starts, there at least, with the conversion of Saxon kings to Christianity. As Higgins remarks: ‘Perhaps the problem is, and has been since antiquity, that Roman Britain is too jagged and unsettling and ambiguous to be pulled into line. It will never settle into telling us one thing: it will just as soon tell us the opposite’ (p 228-9).

How, then, can Roman Britain be interpreted. Of course, the Victorians and those earlier had views. For example, Higgins describes how, for example, William Camden, writing in the 1580’s, saw savage Britain being civilised by the Romans. Such a view continued throughout the eras of the British Empires, and became, perhaps, a reflection of how the intellectuals of that Empire, educated, of course in the classics of Greece and Rome, saw their own mission.

Of course, it was possible to peer down the other end of the telescope. The existence of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall could be used for Scottish purposes: clearly, the ancestors of the current residents had never been conquered. Of course, the current state of Roman Britain led to warnings of the potential end of the British Empire.

The Victorians, or some of them, also used Roman Britain as a terrible warning for their own age. They could take, say, Tacitus’ warning about the growing decadence of Rome during the early second century and apply it to themselves. The Roman Empire fell because of this growing softness. This could be applied to Britain, the civilising world power of its time. Rome, in the end, failed, and failed after becoming a publicly Christian state. This is, of course, something that troubled St Augustine, as well.

As Higgins notes (p. 175) the pendulum has swung. Post-colonialism now means that the Romans (and, for that matter, the Victorians) are now viewed as the villains of the piece. This, of course, politicises Roman Britain for our present day. We tend to over-empathise with the conquerors, because they wrote the history. Roman-ness was only wafer thin, and so we return to Russell and Laycock’s ‘Un-Roman Britain’.

These views work themselves out into our culture. Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ is perhaps one of the most popular stories of Roman Britain. It has been filmed, recently, and as such has consciously, perhaps, been displayed as a modern problem. A tenuous military hold is maintained over a restive native population. The landscape is unknown, treacherous, dangerous. Disaster is just around the corner, or over the hill.

There is, thus, a conflict at the heart of our interpretations of Roman Britain, between the civilising Romans who bought all sorts of benefits to the place, and the savage Romans, who bought death, destruction and slavery to the freedom loving Britons.

Our own interpretation of Roman Britain is liable, I think, to be influenced by whichever of these views we happen to subscribe to. And so, the way we wargame is going to be influenced by it as well. How do we view the invasions of Britain? An invitation from a client king in trouble? A piece of theatre designed for the home audience? Are the Roman armies the cutting edge of a civilizing force or a crushing lapse into even greater barbarism?

You may well think that these issues are nothing to do with wargaming, but I think I would claim that they do have at least some contact. To start with, whether we like it or not, such resonances rebound through history. The classical world has been rediscovered several times during our history and used to redescribe the world in those terms. As noted, even the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been portrayed in terms of Roman Britain.


Secondly, of course, we have only the same sources as the Victorians to play with. Tacitus is Tacitus, the same as he was for them. We have other interpretations, but of course most of us do not read Latin so miss the nuances. Varying interpretations and applications of the lessons of history are, themselves, lessons from history. Wargaming itself is built on such shifting sands. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Celts and Romans Again

The mysteries of Roman Britain, or at least, Britain in the Roman Empire are manifold. Possibly the most mysterious of them are, roughly speaking, the beginning of Roman Britain, and its end. How did the Romans come to be in Britain in the first place, and how did they end up leaving.

To focus on the first of these areas, that is the beginning of Roman Britain, is to try to understand a one sided story, for the sources of Roman history are, of course Roman. While Caesar, Tacitus, Seutonius and Dio Cassius mention Britain, it is from the perspective of Rome. The Britons are mute.

We therefore do have an account of how Britain came to be part of the Roman Empire, but it is a Roman account. Roughly speaking, Caesar invaded twice in 55 and 54 BC to punish the Britons for aiding the Gauls against him. He gave them a reasonably good thrashing and ensured that they behaved themselves for the next hundred years or so.

In 43 AD, to secure himself on the throne and, possibly to outdo the deified Caesar, Claudius authorised an invasion, which defeated the assorted British tribes, crossed the Medway and Thames and then, the commander having summoned the Emperor for the coup de grace, took Colchester and received the submission of the Britons.

Thereafter, the Romans simply gradually pushed out across the country, albeit with a few hiccoughs such as Boudicca’s rebellion and a wobble wherein the whole of the country was taken by Agricola and then the legions were withdrawn to the line of Hadrian’s Wall.

This, then is the established narrative of the beginnings of Roman Britain. However, I have just finished a book, ‘Bloodline: The Celtic Kings of Roman Britain’, by Miles Russell (Amberley, 2010) which casts doubt on this, which Russell calls Established Fact.

There is, I think, little doubt that the Romans did in fact turn up in 43 AD, but practically nothing else, as Russell notes, is really known. The landing of the Romans at Richborough is assumed, not proven. The location of the battles at The Medway and Thames are inferred from dubious (much later) narratives, and so on. There is also substantial archaeological evidence that Roman forts were established in Britain before 43 AD.  None of these issues usually disturb the basis of the invasion narrative.

Those of you with decent memories will realise that Russell has a track record here. He was the co-author of ‘Un-Roman Britain’, which I mentioned here a while ago, which sought to overturn the applecart on the Romanisation of the country. In that work, a chapter or so was devoted to the establishment of Roman Britain. This is the book sized version of that.

As I understand it (and it is a complex story, with large gaps), Caesar invaded to aggrandise Caesar by taking his armies to the end of the world. He was beaten, more or less, by the guerrilla tactics of the Britons and managed to extricate himself because the Britons were politically disunited and did not want to have a successful war leader, who might then conquer the other tribes. Agreements were made, however with pro-Roman tribes, who then benefitted from this status to trade with the Continent and also from some sort of protection from Rome.

It is a matter of record that both Augustus and Caligula contemplated the invasion of Britain, but the questions arise as to why they did so and, finally, why they did not actually invade. Russell suggests that this was due to internal British dynastic policies; as the pro-Roman leaders die off, tensions arise between their heirs, and some may take an anti-Roman stance. As Briton (or at least, the south coast) is effectively the northern frontier of the Empire, Roman policy would be to ensure the client status of, at least, those states (to use an anachronous term) along the coast within reasonable pirate sailing of the southern shore.

This politicking and sabre-rattling thus accounts for both the movements of troops under Augustus and Caligula and the evidence of Roman forts in Britain. Rome was simply keeping an eye on its interests in the client kingdoms.

For the invasion, Russell suggests that possibly the initial force was much smaller than previously thought, about 5500 men, and that it landed at pro-Roman Chichester (or thereabouts), and that the battle of the Medway was fought on the Arun in Sussex. He also suggests that this was a Roman intervention in favour of the pro-Roman faction, and that the bulk of the fighting was done by British. For example, the river, which Dio Cassius reports being crossed by Keltoi was, in fact, crossed by British allies of the Romans and not, as is usually suggested, by Batavian auxiliaries.

I think the overall point Russell is trying to make is that the history and archaeology of Roman Britain is too splintered and biased to support the overall narrative that we usually follow. While he does not explicitly reject the established narrative, he shows, fairly convincingly, that it does rely on a given reading of the evidence. Other readings are equally viable, insofar as they accord with the evidence. Indeed, he argues that his version might accord better with the archaeological evidence and with the known attitude of the Empire to its clients beyond the border.

There are a few downsides to the book. Firstly, there is no proper bibliography, which makes finding the references difficult. Secondly, it is written in a consciously abrasive style. He describes Caesar’s legionaries as ‘heavily armed psychopaths’ (p. 33), and Caesar himself as ‘…nothing more than an opportunistic bully, a callous tyrant and one of the greatest mass murderers in history.’ (p. 35) While he is understandably trying to make a point about Caesar and his men, upturning the classical scholarship of centuries which has relied on Caesar’s description of himself as being accurate, it is hardly likely to endear his argument, whatever its merits, to his audience.

Finally, I think that what Russell has achieved is to question the basic narrative of Roman Britain’s origins. The anomalies he weaves into his narrative have been sitting on the shelf waiting for answers for a number of years, and he manages to include them. Whether or not his narrative is more nearly correct is not for me to say; I am not an archaeologist. But, as a wargamer, I have to say that he provides some intriguing alternatives to the normal Battle of the Medway which is about all you can say about the Roman invasion of Britain.