Saturday, 12 January 2013

Towards a Postmodern Wargame

I banged on a bit ago about modernity and the influence it has, or had, over wargaming. So now I suppose it is as well to try to push on a bit, and see if there is anything in this thing called postmodernism which could have some sort of impact on wargaming.

Of course, the first problem is to describe what ‘postmodern’ is. However, there is little general agreement over that, even. Some would call postmodern late modern, seeing it as standing in continuity with modern thought, springing from the Enlightenment. Some emphasise the differences. In the final analysis, it seems to me, the question is about how we find truth and the sort of thing that truth is perceived to be.

Now, this is all linked into texts, and the way we read texts. The modern way of reading a text was to look for answers to specific questions and decide whether the answers found were true or false. This is particularly pertinent to interrogating ancient texts.

For example, people read the first chapter or so of an archetypal ancient text, the Book of Genesis and find that it describes the world being created in seven days. They consider this text in the light of modern scientific theories and evidence, and decide that the two are incompatible, because both cannot be true. Therefore they either reject creation or they reject scientific theories of origins. But this rejection is because of the modernist questions asked of the text.

Incidentally, one of the interesting things about this is that creationists, while claiming to be holding on to a traditional interpretation of the text, are, in fact, a product of modernism just as much as the scientific atheists are (and possibly more so, but I digress). I do not suppose that they would be particularly happy to learn that.

The wargamer, too, addresses the texts with modernist questions. We do not particularly want to learn about Thucydides’ moral view of warfare and the decline of the heroic ideal, or Herodotus’ account of the inversions and marvels he had found (or been told about) on his travels. We want to know about numbers of soldiers, equipment, tactics and ranges. We approach the texts with these questions in mind and, on the whole, do not find satisfactory answers to our modernist questions.

One response to this is the argue that just because the text does not satisfy modernist questions about being true or false, that the text is useless. For example, many argue that the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis was never designed to be read as a scientific text; it was never meant to answer the sorts of questions that modernists (even creationists) ask of it. This is not, by the way, a recent phenomenon. St Augustine, writing in the fourth century, had already realised that the chapters of Genesis could not be literal; but a lot of modernists have missed that.

This then relates quite closely to a problem I described a while ago, to be found at:
As I noted there, we have a tendency to pick on a given comment about the relative range of bows, in this case, and ignore the rest of the text. Unfortunately, the rest of the text is crucial for understanding the particular comment we are interested in. If we had not, in that case, read the rest of Tacitus and situated him in his context, that is, at least, in Rome about seventy five years after the events he described, we would never have become even slightly suspicious about the comments he made about the battle.

I suppose the ultimate in the modernist approach to ancient texts are those digests which simply snip out the bits from the classical texts about battles and warfare, and put those into a book and sell it to people, claiming that this is the ancient view of warfare. It cannot be, because the accounts of battles and so on are only a part of the authorial aim in the work, and cannot be properly understood without the rest of the text.

What, then can we do? Unless we exhibit a degree of care, we shall stump ourselves and be unable to interpret a single piece of evidence to write wargame rules with.

Firstly, I think that, as wargamers, we need to read the whole of our texts. Some of them may well be dreadfully boring, of course, but even the boring bits help to pad out our understanding of what the author was up to. Secondly, we can try to forget our modernist questions and to accept the author was trying to convey some truth, even if it is a truth that does not fit happily within our conception of truth, where, often truth is thought to be ‘scientific truth’ (whatever that might be) which is, therefore, open to the modernist question of truth or falsehood.

Thirdly, I think we do need to break away from the idea that ‘one size fits all’, or at least a large chunk of history can be represented by a single set of rules, perhaps with some extras bolted on.  If we are going to do anything like justice to the evidence we have gleaned from our authors, we need to tackle the texts as they are written, and hence create our rule sets to match. Hoplites are hoplites, not some sort of generic ‘spearmen’.  As citizens of Greek city states they had outlooks, values and beliefs that should be respected, which were different from, say, Saxon fryd or Italian city militia.

How should this respect for the worldview be undertaken? Well, I think that we have to conform our rules to what is there in the text, not the other way around. At the simplest level, let us call our hoplites ‘hoplites’, not pretend that they fit into some broader category of universal soldier.

Finally, perhaps, we should stop sending our hoplites against armies of Aztecs and pretending that the result has anything at all to do with history.


  1. Not sure I can fit all this into 1 comment but here goes.

    Firstly, absolutely, read all of a text, preferably in the original language, though alas I fall down on that part, and compare it to others as well as considering what has not been said and so on.

    However, it depends in part on what we are trying to reproduce, are we trying to ensure that troops behave as they did on a given occasion despite what the player wants? or are we trying to put the player in the mindset of a particular historical person? or just give them the right mindset. If the latter, we might need separate rules not just for each period or even for each battle but also for each side in the battle since how a Greek and a Persian perceive what is happening and why might be quite different.

    One of the main things that strikes me when reading translations of ancient texts, esp Xenephon but generally as well is that despite more than 2,000 years and varying cultures, men are men, they hunger they get tired, they have fear, they lust and have various motivations. In other words the really important things don't change. One consequence of this is that when you lift them from their normal setting, their stereotypical behaviour can change. Many rules designed to represent the major battles between Greeks and Persians are at a loss when the Greeks are lifted from that context as with the Anabasis but to the Greeks themselves it was just another challenge tomover come and their tactics shifted accordingly with the parameters of what was possible. They weren't ablo ransform themselves into a cavalry or archer army but they improvised enough cavalry and light troops to fill the need and developed more flexible tactics. Why shouldn't a wargame general do the same?

    Now the trick is that given a large number of men armed only with melee weapons and heavy defensive armour, not just any tactics were possible and indeed if you step back and look at the battles and the tactical considerations from a high level and then start comparing we soon find that whatever the cultural differences the tactical options available to a 4th century army of heavy infantry with a very basic organization and minimal drill with small numbers of supporting arms but weak in both long range missile and cavalry support facing an enemy with substantial if smaller numbers of inferior infantry well supported by cavalry and missile troops are really much the same in 14thC Scotland as they were in 4thC Greece. They look different, they have different cultural backgrounds and have arrived at that same tactical place for different reasons but once there, the options are much the same.

    I'm no big fan of hoplites in Mexico but I don't object either, especially since I haven't many players who consider this historical in any meaningful sense, its merely just as much fun as orcs, however to be fair I don't think a Roman expedition to Mexico any less plausible than the Spanish one and the cultural clash would have been nearly as great.

    The answer to my mind is not more rules, especially since to make them different one has to get increasing esoteric and contrived. Instead, fewer and more basic rules are actually better. I also don't believe that minor differences in weaponry etc are all that important compared to broad categories of tactics and organization.

    Write the rules that deal with the high level capabilities of troops including discipline, organization and fighting style and players will be pretty much forced to discover historical tactics for them selves or at least be encourage to read up if they actually want to represent it. Give some one a boxed game with a set which tells them exactly how to recreate Platea and they will walk away thinking they know all about it when all they have learned is another man's vision.

    (I'm decades past college days and have never been part of academia really but I suppose that's all very neither modern nor post modern.)

  2. Hi,

    Interesting comments, thank you; I can't answer everything here (that would be several posts worth), gbut just to pick up on one point.

    I'm not entirely convinced tat hoplite phlanxes and medieval Scottish spearmen did have the same sorts of options. At least, the citizens had poor training and were all, in theory, equal to their officers and so had little discipline except for the determination not to be outdone by their colleagues and competitors.

    The Scots, a levy raised on a feudal system, would have had only some of the same concepts, possibly not wishing to embarrass themselves by running away or leaving their families to the wrath of the laird, but not really having a commitment to whatever the cause was.

    While the strictly tactical options may be similar, the morale and behavior ones might be different, perhaps so different as to merit a different sort of rule.

  3. Struck me on reading this that the most quoted ancient source for the campaigns of Julius Caesar was written by a soldier - Julius Caesar. I don't suppose it could have been a biased account at all, could it?

    As an aside, am I the only one who gets irritated when the translator of an ancient text insists on trying to render the military terms into modern language too? I almost gave up on Arrian's Campaigns of Alexander because of the continual reference to 'divisions' and 'battalions'.

    1. Caesar? Biased? Say it ain't so!

      No you are not the only one who gets irritated, although the Landmark Arrian does not do this; it seems to be a hallmark of the Penguin Classics and is really, really annoying.

    2. Aye, you're right - it was the Penguin edition.