Saturday, 13 July 2013

Problems of Wargame Plumbing

I suspect that we can all agree that wargaming is based around modelling. We model all sorts of things in a wargame. For example, our troops are models of the real thing. So are our artillery, houses, and trees and so on. In fact, these objects are two sorts of models, I suspect.

Firstly, they are scale models. That is, they are scaled down versions of the real thing. As models, of course, they may not function as the real thing functions. Our model cannon do not fire, or at least, if they do they shoot matchsticks, not shells. Our toy soldiers do not march.

Secondly, our models are representational models. Consider a weather forecast on the television. Rain, for example, is shown as a black cloud with black dots coming out of it. This is not a scale model of a cloud, but it represents rainclouds in general. In a similar way, our models do not represent one particular person, but the soldiers in general.

Some rules, particularly older ones, have a representational scale. One model soldier, they declare, is twenty real ones. Even with based groups of soldiers we usually have a representational model, of, say, one base is five hundred men, or whatever.  

So even something as simple as a toy soldier works within two models: a scale model or the soldier in the real world, and a representation of many such.

As I have written fairly recently, there are other models at work here, as well. What I want to do is to try to draw attention to the plethora of models that we need to have running, at the same time, in order to have a satisfactory wargame.

The problem is, I think, that the models in wargames are largely unnoticed until they no longer work together. Then we have what Mary Midgley describes as a ‘problem of philosophical plumbing’. By this she means that plumbing works, most of the time, and we do not, usually notice it.

The only time we do start to be concerned about plumbing is when we start to notice a smell. Then, of course, it is a bit late to start working out how the plumbing has been functioning; we have a far more difficult problem, of working out why it is not functioning, without knowing exactly how it was supposed to work in the first place.

So, we have our wargaming scale models, and they also function as representational models. This applies also to our terrain, and I have observed before that this requires us to do some private mental gymnastics in order to match the scale of the terrain items to the ground scale of the rules. It is something that we often ignore or skate around, but it is the first joint in our plumbing that can start to leak.

I have also observed that rule sets themselves are compendia of models. We have models for movement, ranged fire, close combat, morale, orders and so on. These tend, in many cases, towards the abstract model. The specific aspects of the model may not, indeed, be realistic, and, given the constraints of other models, cannot be.

For example, a command system model cannot be a scale model of the real thing. This is because our scale models of the soldiers do not respond to being given orders, as their real life counterparts would. The models interact, and the model soldiers dictate to the rules the things they can and cannot do. Thus a wargame rule set command model cannot be a scaled down representation of the real thing. Attempts to make it so, by issuing written orders to each unit, for instance, are normally doomed to failure at least, if not real arguments between wargamers.

Of course, with a plethora of models, all interacting, we find that there are plenty of opportunities within a set of wargame rules for leaks in our plumbing. Often there is a failure to distinguish the command levels at which a wargame army has to function. One of the nicest things anyone said about Polemos: SPQR was that it forced the wargamer to micromanage the big stuff. By this, they meant that a wargame general had to act as a general, and not worry about unit facing or giving ‘shoot’ orders. That was the aim I had in mind while designing the rules, influenced by Adrian Goldsworthy and the ‘Face of Battle’ brigade.

There are other models lurking in the background, as well. Firstly, there is a computational model, related to the dice you use and the factors you add up. The choice of dice is quite influential. The first version of Polemos: ECW used matched D10 rolls for combat. We rapidly discovered that this give some really wild and wacky results, because the difference between 0 and 9 is quite a lot, especially when you factors are plus or minus one or two. So we reverted to more conventional D6.

Secondly, there are theoretical models of warfare skulking around. I have tried to point one or two of them out here, recently, such as the romantic theory of the decisive battle, or the enlightenment one of scientific warfare. We all have some sort of model floating around, usually, I suspect, of the romantic variety. So we expect our rules to give us this sort of warfare, one based around a decisive battle. But really this is nothing but another model, in this case perhaps imported from our culture rather than explicit in the rules.

All told, then, there are an enormous number of models floating around even a fairly simple sort of wargame. What makes a wargame work, as a hobby, or as an event in our lives, is the fact that these models can, and often do, work together. In fact, in a really good wargame, we hardly notice the joints at all. To return to the plumbing metaphor, there are no leaks and no nasty smells.


  1. Even when they don't leak, there are a lot of games where the plumbing takes long contorted paths to get where its going and is held together with patches and clamps.

    I suspect that gamers who are DIY plumbers are sometimes more aware of the plumbing and potential weak spots than those who just use it without a thought.

  2. I'd agree, on both counts.

    Part of what I think we need to do as wargamers is to apply some critical thinking, rather than just accept rules and accounts as handed down.

  3. Hi,
    I like your metaphor of plumbing and leaking in wargaming. It shows really good what I personally have done for last couple of years - even though I made parts of the plumbing system in the first place, I still have to make it stop leaking and sometimes cut out part of the plumbing and plumb in a new part.
    I did not know that reading, writing, calculating and talking made me a plumber. ;):)

    Concerning dices, in some systems in our club we use matched rolls with a result table in between. For example you roll d20, add, substract etc. and you get one result from 5 possibilites. Than players compare their respective results (and not the numbers rolled) and this comparison shows what happened. This way you can use any dice, allowing wide range of results and smoother modifications (+1 for d20 is much different than +1 for d6) while making the outcomes closer to each other.

  4. Glad you like the metaphor; I think it really does describe how I, at least, go about writing rules. It is also an ongoing project, my rules would be different now if I were writing them again.

    I like the idea of the matching of outcomes rather than numbers. It would have reduced our problems massively. a bit late to retrofit now, though.