Saturday 20 July 2013

Wargame Granules…

… just add water for an instant battle?

Well, perhaps not. What I do want to consider is the issue of the granularity of our wargames, but first I had better explain exactly what I mean by that.

Wargames, I have argued, are based on sets of models, which we then apply to a situation on the wargame table. The models are scale models, representative models, interaction models and computational models, covering aspects of our toy soldiers, terrain, rules, dice rolls and so on. These models interact (or perhaps conspire) to give us a wargame.

In science, models, usually mathematical ones, conceptual models or, possibly, computational models are used to give some insight into the ‘real’ world. Now models in the sciences are applied within a known set of errors. I can apply, for example, a magneto-hydrodynamic model of a tenuous plasma in a tokomak, but I would not expect it to give exactly the right answer. The reason for this is that, in order to make the model even slightly tractable and intelligible, I have had to make a number of approximations. My model calculation needs to be compared with real life and, if it does not fit, I need to adjust the approximations to make it so.

Normally, of course, reality is not adjusted to fit the model, although some attempts have been made.

In terms of wargaming, therefore, we need to consider the scale of battle to which our models, approximations as they are apply. Our battles, obviously, cover all levels of conflict from small skirmish games (or even role playing games) at a one to one figure representational scale, to major battle where a figure can represent perhaps scores, possibly hundreds of original soldier or pieces of equipment.

Within this, of course, lies one of the problems of wargame rules. I have mentioned before that certain behaviours emerge at different levels, and I do think this is true. Isaac Asimov wrote a number of short stories (the titles of which escape me) having fun with the idea that humans only panic in large groups, while the humanoid aliens stayed calm in large groups but panicked in isolation. Either way, the behaviour in larger groups was emergent; individuals did not behave in the same way.

Thus, I think that wargame rules can sometimes use models in inappropriate ways. For example, some skirmish rule sets I have seen suggest that we can simply apply larger group morale rules to individuals. Thus, if an individual figure in a skirmish game is, say, shot at, a morale check is made using the same sort of rules that would be used for a unit in a battle rule set. The question here is: is this appropriate?

It is an interesting fact that role playing games, which a close equivalent of skirmish wargames, so far as I know, do not have morale rules. The reliance is upon the player’s identification with their characters and hence, their desire to keep them from too much harm.

One of the most amusing things I ever saw as a role playing game umpire was a group of player characters running away, as fast as they could, from a machete armed non-player character, from whom, in fact, they needed to extract a vital piece of information. The game was Call of Cthulhu and, of course, in that game there were no healing spells. This meant that the players fled, rather than fought.

So, if role playing games need no morale rules, why do skirmish wargames? Why cannot a set of skirmish wargame rules rely upon the player’s instincts to look after their figures to reproduce small group dynamics?

I suspect that the answer to that question is that there is no particular reason. As wounds build up, both in skirmish and role playing games, the tension builds and players become more reluctant to take risks which might mean further problems for their characters. However, I do think that when the game is undertaken, a skirmish wargame has different connotations to a role playing game.

A set of wargame rules comes with an expectation of certain items in its model, one of which is a model of morale. Morale rules, are, of course, needed in most larger scale (by which I mean battle) wargames, and so a set of wargame rules is expected to have them.

But the point I am vaguely attempting to make here is that, at the individual level of granularity, morale rules may not be necessary. It is only at higher levels, bigger formations, that such behaviour as running away in a group emerges. At a skirmish level, such behaviour becomes ‘obvious’, in that a single figure is not (sensibly) going to stand its ground when all its friends are running away. We do not exactly need to roll dice to establish this, the player, as the figure’s character, is quite capable of making that decision for themselves, on the figure’s behalf. In some circumstances, running away is an entirely rational thing to do.

So the point is that not all items of a traditional set of models which make up a set of wargame rules are necessarily, applicable at all levels of granularity of the wargames which we might play. We need, perhaps, to be a bit more discerning, a little more analytic about which models apply at the level at which we are playing.

Which, I suppose brings me to a last point, which is that sometimes, it seems to me, wargame rules are not that good at deciding on a level and sticking to it. Some wargames are, in fact, skirmish games even though they claim to be big battle games. I dare say that the converse is true as well. This seems to me to indicate serious flaws in the design, even though the mix of models might result in an acceptable, in terms of fun, game.

But, perhaps, I am too much of a purist for my own good.


  1. There are two important differences between skirmish and role playing games: Investment and Continuity. When one creates a role playing character one usually invests a fair bit of time working out statistics, calls, backstory and a wealth of of other detail. In a skirmish game, one Big Man is not that much different from the next Warlord.

    Related to investment is continuity. When role playing one is usually involved in a series of scenarios rather than a one off game. A player expects the campaign to continue and manages the risk accordingly.

    Risking my halfling thief against a horde of orcs represents risking hours of previous and future play.

    Sending a lone scout down the road into a Normandy village to his doom only risks the time and play this particular game. One can just take him back out of the box for the next game.

  2. I think that you are correct in terms of investment in the player character, and also that role playing games are episodic in nature.

    But I'm still not sure that morale rules, for example, are entirely appropriate for skirmish games. How does the disappearance of the scout affect the rest of the figures? Well, the players would probably be more careful; do we really need to roll for 'caution' on a table in the rules?

    1. You probably 'shouldn't' need to use morale rules for skirmish games, but unfortunately we seem to be involved in a hobby full of players that would rather win than worry about what really would have happened.

      A little while ago I was involved in a WW2 skirmish game where myself and a teenage player were facing an ex military role player/wargamer. Our German scouts were to recce terrain that may contain russian defenders. When my young partner walked over a hill he received fire from a wood straight ahead. He immediately took cover and started to return fire. My own squad continued to advance in an attempt to flank the enemy position, but to my left was a farmhouse. When I detoured to check out the farm house, taking time to move quietly and stay in cover, I too received fire. However, I was pinned down by a hail of abuse rather than bullets as the lad explained that the enemy were in front of him and I was wasting time and not playing properly.
      I explained my thoughts,as did our opponent, and the lad decided that he was never going to play with us again.

      A game with no rules for morale is likely to lead to a game with absolutely no consideration of morale for many of the young (and often not so young) wargamers out there. Would it be better to encourage them to do the right thing or to impose morale rules to at least make them think about the consequences of any actions they might take in the game?
      Two people of like minds can play wargames happily together with very basic rules. Introduce a third party who is new to the hobby and suddenly the game is likely to break.

    2. Interesting...

      So we need rules to ensure that the players remain within an acceptable range of activities?

      Or to put it in posher language, we need rules to make explicit our assumptions (be they valid or not) about the real world, and to constrain players within those assumptions.

      Or do we need rules to maintain (to posh it up even more; I'm starting to sound like a sociologist, so help me!) the discourse of our wargaming community. That is, to help us to establish what a wargame is and what it isn't, and the boundaries of permitted activity, in relation to what we consider real life to have been like.

      I'll stop now, before I disappear up my own relativism....

    3. I think the 'acceptable range of activities' varies from person to person, and this is the problem for me personally.

      I am quite happy to play with certain friends that I have known for years as we adapt our use of the rules to suit our style of play and attitude to a period. We don't need written house rules, we just kind of understand each other and those acceptable activities can even vary from one opponent to another within reasonable parameters.

      Sometimes I am invited to play a game with someone I haven't played before and I begin to worry before I have even turned up at the wargames club. It seems that vast numbers of players that have their roots in games like Warhammer 40K play games to win at all costs, realism is totaly unimportant, it's just about the game. I find myself playing against people who do things that the rules allow, but that i believe to be gamesmanship/cheating when put into an historical context. Does this make the 'gamers' wrong? Not really. Can we cope without morale rules in such circumstances? Definitely not, however much it saddens me.

    4. I see what you mean...

      I have only once gone to a wargame club, and was rather put off by the attitude of some of the members to an outsider who didn't collect the 'right size' of miniatures. And those who sneered at my interests. and those who couldn't believe that I didn't think that Napoleonic wargames which lasted several weeks were the only real wargames in the world....

      Mind you, my attitude might not be squeaky clean much of the time. But then I mostly play solo, so it doesn't much matter...

      does anyone think there is a real divide between 'gamers' and 'historians' in the wargames world?

  3. There's a third set: gamers, historians and modellers.

    Morale rules are surely an attempt to model human behaviour and whilst "battle" level rules attempt to model group behaviour, surely good skirmish rules ought to model individual behaviour.

    I can understand a group of like-minded wargamers playing in the "Corinthian spirit" and acting honorably. But why bother with rules modelling behaviour at one level but not at another? In fact why bother with rules at all?

    1. Good heavens; antinomialism in wargaming! :)

      I suspect that the problem is that we can have some sort of model for emergent morale behavior at the unit level, but individual reactions are much more diverse and harder to predict.

      I suppose that at least, rules give us something to argue about.

      Do you think hat modellers are non-exclusive, so could also be gamers or historians, while gamers are unlikely to be historians and vice versa?

    2. Are individual reactions more diverse and harder to predict? Why would that be (or why would you think so)?

      Even in a RPG with a played character, there ought (in my opinion) to be both a rational response to a fight or flight situation (i.e. what the player thinks he should do) and an "irrational" response (i.e. what the character's emotions impel him to do). Just as an individual might either stand and risk death, or run away(or go berserk!) or retire warily keeping his head down, a unit might stand and take the punishment, rout/charge or beat a fighting withdrawal.

      Yes I do think there are some wargamers who tend more towards being gamers than historians, and vice versa. And also the third category of military modellers (I've played with a few who have brilliantly executed miniature dioramas who neither care about winning nor about the historicity of their rules). Of course the types are not mutually exclusive and I'm sure one could illustrate this with a Venn diagram!

    3. I don't have a really good answer to the question of individual reactions, but I do suspect that they are a bit broader and possibly more extreme than a unit. there must be some sort of 'herd' instinct; crowds behave in a different way to an individual in a given situation. Of course, training makes a difference too.

      I'm not saying we cannot model it, but that we might need a different method of modelling it than the normal unit morale rules; the point was that RPGs have no morale aside from the player. Handling it in a skirmish game would probably need different processes and outcomes (and be quite a bit more complex, too, I'd imagine).

      I think I agree over modellers / gamers / historians. All though all three might be a bit of a stretch for most of us. For the record, I'm probably more of a historian, although where you categorize philosophizing about wargaming I'm not sure.

  4. Just a couple of personal observations.

    1. My RPG experience is very limited and occurred too close to 40 years ago for comfort but I seem to recall the GM testing against "courage" or something on occasion to see if we panicked. To me a chosen retreat from a threat is a rational decision much the same as a general pulling back a unit which is flanked. I think a sudden panic is a different thing and not something one chooses. Like jumping when startled. One might or might not over come the urge.

    2. It also makes a difference as to whether one only controls one's own character or also controls npc henchmen (do they still call them henchmen?). I've known some players who treat such as callously as any movie villain.

    3. As for the single POV, my own opinion is that it probably makes for the most accurate simulation but that the best games (as in war-games) use a mix of POV to provide a Shakespearian experience where the player can imagine the clanging of swords and neighing of horses while still seeing and directing the whole as he stages Agincourt upon the cockpit of his wargames table.

    A question of intent as well as taste.

  5. 1. I agree; mostly individuals make rational choices, even if, en masse, they are not the most sensible: 'I'm running away if everyone else is' is rational, even if everyone standing firm would be better for all.

    2. I'm not sufficient a RPG-er these days to know about hence-folk, but most games I played in had player characters, even if we had three, and no henching.

    3. I think, from the writer's point of view, the difficulty is keeping the different levels apart. too many rule, in my view, mix the army and unit commander's points of view and activities. What happens in the player's imagination is another thing, of course, but i think the accumulation of multiple points of view could get a bit cumbersome.

    But then, perhaps I've been too affected by the 'Face of Battle' military historiography which is around at the moment.

    1. Face of Battle as in John Keegan's book? I remember it being an eye opener and when I read it in the 70's and having a strong impact on my views as did Ardent du Picq' Battle Studies which is now available as a free ebook from Gutenburg.

      However for the last decade or more, in addition to trying understanding what did happen, I've been as, if not more, interested in investigating and gaming the way people remembered and told what happened.

      Keeping the levels different is totally wrong there as people do not tend to separate such things so cleanly in their minds. The result is that some things get glossed over and forgotten wile others are exaggerated but the whole is coherent even if not exactly accurate in all detail.

      The trick is picking the level. A private or lieutenant's eye view tends to be too restricted even in a skirmish between a few companies and all one senses is confusion while the commander of an army of many thousands is usually too far removed to see anything but the largest picture. In between though there are often accounts by generals or staff officers etc from Xenephon to de Wett which mix a sense of the over all engagement with accounts of volleys, manoeuvres and charges seen or joined in which are eerily reminiscent of some early wargames which have been largely discredited and replaced by more sophisticated ones that rarely seem to relate to anything.

      The memoirs are of course usually informed by discussions with others and coloured by later information, faulty memory, gaps in knowledge and a desire to appear in a particular light or to defend someone's actions but they generally represent how something was remmbered if not how it really was.

      But again, its a matter of intent as much as any thing.

      If you want to capture the pattern or discernible fact of a pitched battle you need to stay at a high level and look at how groups of men behave not individuals.

      If you want to capture the emotions and actions of individuals then you really need to take control and awareness away from the player, except of what was actually under his control and/or within his vision.

      Trying to mix these two in a game would be as you write, cumbersome if not worse. The higher up the chain of command of course, the wider the awareness of the over all pattern but the farther from the emotions and motivations of the rank and file except as can be observed by their behaviour.

      So again, the approach really needs to be tied closely to the designer's intent (and the gamer's interest of course).

    2. Yes, Keegan's book. It had a big impact on academic military history, and can be viewed as part of the 'history from below' movement, trying to look at the lives of ordinary folk, not just the generals, nobles and royalty. it is starting to come through in some popular history these days, as well.

      I picked it up from Goldsworthy's work on the Roman army, where he discussed the different battles - the generals, the units and the individuals. As you say, you have to look at these differently - the knowledge and viewpoint of each is different. This is similar to what I've said before about wargame houses; there are lots of different viewpoints that get synthesised to give an overview by secondary / tertiary sources.

      I suspect that a problem with many sets of wargame rules is that they do not properly differentiate between the general and unit commander. I am not saying that my own rules are perfect in that respect (far from it) but there is an effort to give a consistent viewpoint.

      The other problem might be that, as wargamers, we want both - the excitement of a specific fight and also the overview of a general. But then, as wargamers, we tend to want the moon on a stick anyway...

  6. I highly recommend that you download and read du Picq's work (link in last comment) , It may be nearly 150 years old but while there has been much historical research and theory development since then, I've seen others build on it but I've never seen a serious rebuttal of his basic tenets.

    I think you would find it quite interesting.

  7. I have heard of him, as a sort of counter to Clauswitz, so i will have a look.

    Thanks for the tip.