Saturday 25 May 2013

Peeling Wargame Onions…

…there will be tears before bedtime.

A while ago I attempted to remove any ideas of Kant from wargaming. The problem with Mr Enlightenment Philosopher is, of course, that he keeps sneaking back into our thinking, however postmodern or post enlightenment we might like to think we are.

Some of you might remember the ‘wargame houses’ post, as well, in which I tried to show that no one can have an overall view of a house, let alone a battle. The example came from Bernard Lonergan, who, as I might have mentioned, is what is described as a ‘transcendental Thomist’. Without wishing to delve into what that actually is, suffice it to say that traditional Thomists view transcendental Thomists to have yielded too much ground to (you have probably guessed it already) Immanuel Kant.

I dare say that you can see the point. I suggested that we can have no knowledge of a house as a house from our senses. All we have are different impressions formed from our view of the house from different angles. We cannot know the inside of the house and its outside at the same time. All we can do is synthesise an overall house from our impressions. That is not the house in itself, which is, after all, closely parallel to Kant’s view that we cannot know the thing in itself.

As the house, I suggested, so the battle. No-one can know the battle as a battle, a thing in itself. We cannot know the historical event, the battle as it was. This is also inaccessible to anyone who was there. Let me call the battle in itself Battle 1. It is to Battle 1 that we have no access.

Now, obviously those present at a battle will have some experience of it, or at least, their part of it. They do have access to this layer, let me call it Battle 2. This is knowable by the participants, although they have no access to the overall battle, Battle 1.

Some of the participants, those with Battle 2 knowledge, may write down their impressions of the battle in diaries, letters, battle reports and so on. This I shall call Battle 3. Battle 2 is only accessible to those who were present, but Battle 3 is accessible to us, given that we can read their accounts of Battle 2. However, we are already two layers away from “the battle” Battle 1 level.

There are other things which can happen at this sort of level, of course. Archaeology can take a turn, as with Naseby and Bosworth, to name but two. This gives us further information which can be interpreted to provide an account of the battle, or parts of it. Similarly, historians can come along and create accounts of the battle from the sources. These secondary sources are also available to use. I could call these a different level of the battle, but for simplicity I shall lump this is with Battle 3. We have access to this level.

Now, consider the complex of a set of wargame rules, two armies and a wargame table set with terrain. This provides a further level in the battle, let me call it Battle 4. The wargame is a model of the battle, which we hope will provide a similar sort of outcome, within a reasonable margin of error from the original.

The point about the model (Battle 4) is that is self-consciously not the Battle 1 event itself. It cannot be. But the question then arises as to whether it has any relation with Battle 1 at all, and whether Battle 4 can show any insight into Battle 1 (or, for that matter, Battle 2).

One of the interesting things about models is that they can throw up all sorts of spurious intermediate results. For example, a model of an aeroplane flying has, in its simplest form, four forces acting on it: thrust, drag, lift and gravity. These balance out so the aircraft can continue to fly. However, it is not actually possible to isolate these forces. All we can measure is the outcome, the fact that the aircraft continues in the air going in a certain direction. The forces are, to a greater extent, fictitious; they help us to model the situation, but do not actually exist.

As with scientific models so, I suggest, with Battle 4 models. The point about the forces in the aircraft model is that they do not exist, on their own. They are not ontological forces. The outcome is ontological, it does exist; the others simply help us to reach that point.

In Battle 4 models, the Battle 1 level is unobtainable, and so is Battle 2. But, from Battle 3 we have a certain amount of outcome information. We know that this charge worked ad that one did not, that this unit stood firm while that one fled, and so on. The point is that the Battle 4 mechanics are expected to achieve this outcome, without knowing what the internal mechanics of the result are.

The upshot of this ramble is that most of the mechanics of our Battle 4 models are fictitious. I can, for example, include a reaction roll for a unit that is being charged. However, I can scan the Battle 3 accounts for a sentence that says ‘the unit reacted’ in vain. It is a fiction, a part of our model that has no counterpart in real life, in Battle 2 or even, presumably, in Battle 1.

Does this matter? I am really not sure it does, because all we can ever have access to are the outcomes anyway. In the aircraft model I do not really care if my forces exist or not, so long as the aeroplane remains airborne.  Similarly, all I can really say about Battle 4 is that the outcomes match those given in Battle 3 within some margin of error.

So, I contend from this analysis that the mechanics of wargame rules are fictitious, and there is nothing we can do about that. All we can hope to do is match outcomes.


  1. Good post. This is something that I have been struggling with for a while now, though in a less philosophical manner.

    I have played wargames for my whole life, starting with action men and airfix soldiers played with in the dirt, through competition games of DBM and am now searching for games that allow me to 'feel' a period.

    As you say, there can never be a truly realistic game, but we can strive to play games that give a feel of realism. The major problem with this seems to me to be that every single wargamer has a slightly different idea of what that reality should be.

    However well designed a set of rules might be for one player it may well provide a very different experience for his opponent. The biggest problem comes when one player 1 is looking to create a good story and player 2 is aiming to gain a major victory.

    1. I think that we have to admit that we can only work within the given model set of rules. If we want a different game, emphasising different aspects, we need to play a different game. Aside from the question of what exactly we mean by realistic, which may well vary from person to person, or (where we have multiple accounts) account to account. Not much we can do about that, though.

      I guess that you are right about the players and what they want, too. What we get out of a game is perhaps determined by what we put in. do I want a win, a good game, a good story, and so on. They may not be mutually exclusive, but it does get increasingly difficult to cover all bases.

  2. Another interesting, thought inducing post. I would counter that while the narrative (Battle 3) or our gamed interpretation of the battle (Battle 4) may be a fabrication or expedient to quantify the underlying event, the actual rules' mechanisms used to produce said outcome(s), though arbitrary, are not fictitious but quantifiable. Indeed, given the same chain of events on the game table, results (or outcomes) are reproducible.

    As for having a goal of matching outcomes, the historical outcome has a sample size of one. In repeated trials would the mean simulated result approach the historical outcome or was the historical outcome actually an anomaly?

    1. A tricky aspect of wargaming (and, I think, history in general) is that it is contingent. However, I think that we can understand a set of wargame rules giving a spread of results within an acceptable (reasonable? rational?) band. Matildas knocking out Panthers on a routine basis would see outside the band, but vice versa would not.

      I do suspect that our game mechanics are not necessarily the 'real' mechanics, although they do bear some relation to the outcomes, but it is surely the outcomes we can measure, not the processes (in general; they may be some specific accounts of processes too).

      I guess the issue is at what level of coarseness you want to couch your rules. More recently, rules have gone to a higher level of abstraction and coarseness, thus only trying to model outcomes, not process. Maybe we should analyse whether that is a good thing or not.

    2. I think the higher levels of abstraction are a good thing - trying to get too deep into the process always seems to obscure the actual outcomes, e.g. melee outcomes based on the number of casualties caused.

      We are generally trying to model Battle 3 in a wargame, as it is hopefully a distillation of many Battle 2s with some analysis of their content. Of course there might be errors or prejudice in the analysis, but equally diaries can be flawed. Shame we don't always have the luxury of lots of Battle 2s to go on - a concensus diary.
      I read recently that the journeys T E Lawrence says he undertook during the Arab Revolt in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom aren't physically possible in the time given. Perhaps we should add the rocket-assisted camel to WWI rules?

    3. Yes, but the higher the abstraction, the more fictitious the processes, so the less insight we have into the history?

      As with TE Lawrence, even in modern warfare accounts vary. And those who write a synthesis also have their axes to grind. And so on.

      perhaps it would be better if we gave up wargaming and started playing something closer to the real world; Monopoly, anyone?

    4. Hmm, not sure that's true. After all, even the eyewitness in Battles 1 and 2 didn't necessarily have to understand the processes at work - he just recorded the outcome.

      Just the point. All the more so when there may be only a very small number of diaries of a given period, or no contemporary ones. Then the axes really get ground.

      Nah, too abstract. Scrabble, perhaps?

    5. Well, the process could be 'Someone is shooting at me; I'm keeping my head down, same as everyone else', but that might not come across too well in a diary. After all, how many accounts along the lines of 'I ran away' do we actually have through history?

      Scrabble? Too difficult, probably. Hangman might be realistic, though.

  3. Thanks. That’s an interesting post, and some really well thought out reasoning. I don’t think anyone could possibly argue against what you’ve said! Wargames rules are a collection of mechanics – built around the idea or framework of what we want to attempt to replicate in the wargame. The game then models the outcomes of those mechanics.

    Yet I think there is also an additional dimension, which is that of trying to create a feeling or a sense of reality. Creating the versimillitude of a battle is what films, artists, writers may already have done themselves anyway, and it may be some of that is already in your Battle 3. What you end up with won’t be “reality”, and it may be less “real” than some purely mechanical attempts at recreation. But… just possibly …it might have a better chance of capturing some of the essence of the experience of battle, albeit through the imprecision of the filters you’ve described.

    1. I think that there is an extra dimension, as you suggest, but it is more poetic (transcendental, to keep with the Kant theme?) and is not easily definable in a wargame, or a set of rules. It is something which does give us an insight into why something happened which is not obvious before.

      The best example is a TV program I saw on Culloden, where they suggested that a ridge of ground funnelled the highland charge into the corner of the Hanoverian line where they were devastatingly flanked. Obvious when you find out, not so before (or it wouldn't have taken 250 years to work it out).

      That sort of insight only comes occasionally, but it is what we can try to aim for, I think.