Saturday, 27 December 2014

Total Wargaming

I have been further pondering the reasons why I really do not like more modern wagaming. By this I mean that I have never, in fact, wargamed anything seriously (insofar as wargaming can be serious) later than the Napoleonic period, and that was only because I was a guest. All right, I have, somewhere, stashed away, some very old microtanks. I can only plead teenage ignorance for that.

Still, I do feel somewhat uncomfortable with games from, say, the start of trench warfare onwards. The reasons for this might be manifold, of course, and I can think of a few, but overall I suspect that there is one overriding reason.

Let me deal with the lesser reasons first. To start with, wargaming in World War One has often been thought to be boring and lacking in tactical interest and finesse. I do not think this is a particularly good argument, largely because it is not terribly true. Granted, there were only limited options for getting men from these trenches to those, but the war shows immense grappling with how to do it effectively. Innovations such as poison gas, tanks, hurricane bombardments and mining all showed efforts to solve the tactical problems of the mastery of defence.

A second objection to twentieth century and later wargaming is that it is not pretty. Armies had (mostly) gone to ground and were wearing field grey, khaki and similar uniforms. Even American Civil War armies had colour, it could be argued. A World War One game, on the table, simply looks a bit dull, because that was the effect the armies were looking for. As an objection to the period this is, I think valid. Compared to a full blown Napoleonic game, a First World War one is simply not going to have the same visual appeal, and visual appeal is part of the wargame. Of course, this is a matter of taste, and mine might not be yours. On the other hand, the aesthetic quality of a game is not the sole determinant of whether it is worth playing.

Of course, we could go on with these sorts of objections. I am sure there are many more which could be bought against any particular period. For example, Second World War wargaming tends to focus on the tank, with its problems and opportunities. Much of the fighting, however, was between troops where the tank was of less use or, in some cases, was simply a liability. Another problem, which I have mentioned before, is the simply range of the weapons. A tank gun is accurate up to (say) two thousand meters. That needs a big table at any scale. Artillery ranges, of course, are even longer. This can, of course, be handled by ‘off the table’ guns, but given the intrinsic appeal of models, where is the fun in that?

None of the above, however, are the reason why I recoil somewhat from these games. I suspect that the real reason is related to the issue of what is known as ‘total war’. This is a term which begins to be applied roughly from the American Civil War onwards. It describes a situation where the countries at war are regarded as fighting each other, not just the armies, rulers or governments. Total war requires the employment of all the resources of the state to defeat another state. Given that this is the case, the war is conducted against civilian populations as well as armed forces.

We can see this in a number of ways. For example, the British defeated the Boers by rounding up the civilian population, denying the enemy the protection and support they needed for a guerrilla campaign. Similarly, Germany declared an open submarine campaign to try to starve Britain into surrender. The target here were not combatants, nor, in fact, necessarily British merchantmen, but any ship sailing to Britain. The nascent bombing campaigns towards the end of the war were similar cases, and these things simply grew in the Second World War.

Total war, therefore, is a matching of state against state. Economies are placed on a war footing. Civilians are targeted deliberately, as the production facilities and government capabilities are attacked. Furthermore, the advent of truly industrialised killing, through high explosive artillery and machine guns made the casualty lists incredibly much longer. I seem to recall that the casualties at Waterloo on all sides were about 47,000. The British army lost 60,000 on the first day of the Somme. Total war pushes our ability to wargame, I suggest to its limits.

I am not saying that we cannot wargame such battles as the Somme. I know that there are many sets of innovative rules which permit such actions to be played at the tactical, grand tactical and strategic levels. It is not, I think, a matter of whether such games can be played, but what is represented when they are played. For example, the Somme was only possible due to a huge effort of production and stockpiling artillery shells before it. Without that, the battle could not have begun. Is this to be represented in our wargame?

The answer to that question is dependent on the level at which we are gaming. But the question pulls other questions in. Do we represent the air raids on defenceless civilian populations, which might reduce the rate of production? Do we simply ignore the supply problem, assume that our guns have infinite supply and distort the game another way?  These and many similar sorts of questions have to be either tackled 9in which case our rule book is going to be massive) or tacitly ignored. In short, total war is vastly complex as well as devastatingly bloody. How can a wargame represent, even in part, the problems of the real armies and nations?

Most sane people, of course, ignore these problems and simply play a wargame. But the underlying uneasiness seems to be still there. There is a slight defensiveness from, for example, players whose armies are the World War Two Germans. I suspect that this is because, whatever the claims to the contrary, the army was involved in some of the other acts of the German government, if only because it was defending the nation from some of those acts being stopped.

I am not sure I have advanced my thinking much, here, but I have tried a little. I do think that there is some mileage in the concept of total war, and that, probably, we try to wargame such conflicts too simply. But I’m still not sure.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Christmas Post

This is actually my second attempt at a festive post. The first was written when I was tired, cynical and had spent the week sitting in traffic jams, and turned out to sound very bitter. So hopefully, this is a bit lighter.

Actually, I want to challenge the readership. It isn’t a quiz, because I do not know the answer, but I would like some ideas.

My local garden centre has, this year, started stocking Airfix models and some figures (they have also started on Hornby train sets). Being a wargamer, of course, I keep an eye on what they have, but not being a WW1 or WW2 wargamer, I’ve never bought anything.

This week, however, I did notice that they have World War Two Italian infantry and World War Two Gurkhas on special offer, at a mere two pounds a box. They have a few other things as well, like a Churchill Crocodile tank for four pounds, but the infantry caught my eye.

The question I have for you is this: Which theatre could I use both for? Did Italians and Gurkhas ever meet?  If not, is the a reasonable and logical ‘what if…’ campaign in which they could, assuming that I can obtain enough figures to represent, say, a company of each?

I am not saying that I will dash out and buy the figures, but I was just wondering and, not be an expert of World War Two, I thought I’d challenge the assembled company. There is, of course, no prize, except the normal internet kudos, but I shall nominate the best comment, and also the funniest.

And in the meantime, a very happy Christmas to you all, and thank you for reading and commenting.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Neo-Colonial Wargaming

I have just finished reading ‘Empire’ by Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2003). This is, of course, slightly outside my comfort zone as I do not, generally, wargame or read history post 1800, or even post 1700, assorted rants about World Wars One and Two aside.

Anyway, ‘Empire’ is a good read, and even rather amusing in some places, but it does make a point which had not really considered before. That point being that Africa was largely colonised at the muzzle of the Maxim machine gun. A bunch of, say, Fuzzy-Wuzzies were not going to overcome the machine gun in any sort of fair fight. The Boers only did so relatively well because they had modern weapons (the Germans sent them to cause trouble, in which they succeeded).

This got me around to thinking about the colonial period of wargaming and problems associated with it. Firstly, of course, there are all the problems of asymmetric wargaming, which can be an inspiration but can also cause problems. By asymmetric here, I do not think I am meaning quite the same as modern asymmetric warfare, where one side is a bunch of insurgents and the other is a regular army with firepower but struggling to contain civilian deaths (something which does not bother the insurgents, as all such deaths can be blamed on the regular army).

By asymmetric, therefore, I mean one, small army with high firepower against one, probably much bigger army, largely without modern weapons. Of course, scenarios can be created of ambush, or small parties of well-armed regular against ever increasing numbers of native, and so on, which can make for a balanced wargame. Similarly, inventive supply rules can keep the modern army on tenterhooks as to whether they will survive or not. Somehow, there is always the possibility of balancing up the game.

On a larger scale, of course, as already hinted, the carve up of Africa was mainly an issue of European power politics. Outside bits of the British Empire, most colonies cost the coloniser money, as well as lives and resources, and did not really produce that much. But the point of, at least the scramble for Africa was prestige, of doing down your European rivals, blocking them strategically, and so on. After all, the British were heavily involved in Egypt because, strategically, it guarded the passage to India. German policy before and during the First World War was to create sympathetic Arabs who could cause the British problems here. It more or less did not work, but it was an issue for the British.

As Bismarck once remarked, his map of Africa ran through Europe. No African was present at the Berlin conference which carved up Africa into European zones of influence and basically meant that the Scramble for Africa was on. And so our colonial wargaming, in general, springs from this sort of viewpoint. Professional armies, with the latest weapons, can simply go into some native area and seize it, mowing down anyone who objects with a machine gun. Quite often, of course, this movement into native areas was provoked by the fear that another European power was about to do the same thing.

So, colonial wargaming is predicated on European power politics, and those power politics are, in fact, the same ones that led to the outbreak of the Great War. As most wargamers are probably aware, there were, in the twenty years or so preceding the Great War, a number of colonial incidents which could have led to the outbreak of war between the colonial powers. That they did not is probably simply a matter of luck.

The issue here, then, perhaps begins to press on our ethics of wargaming. Is a colonial wargame, of spears against Maxims, as fair fight? Is it really something that we wish to reproduce in loving detail on the wargame table? At Omdurman (1898), according to Ferguson, 52,000 Dervishes took on 20,000 British, Egyptian and Sudanese soldiers. In the following five hours, around 10,000 Dervishes died; possibly ninety five per cent of the Dervish army were casualties, while around four hundred on the Anglo-Egyptian side were killed or wounded. Fourth-eight British soldiers were killed. Can we ethically reproduce this carnage?

The problem here is, in part, the motivation of the original participants. The Dervishes were brought into action, and remained there, through religious devotion. The British were there for revenge, as the expedition was at least in part a response to the death of Gordon. I think it is rather hard for us, as wargamers, to reproduce such motives on the table. The result of this is that a wargame of Omdurman becomes a clinical exercise in mowing down natives with machine guns.

Of course, with clever scenarios and rules we can change this. We can, for example, make the Dervish objectives simply to do better than the originals. We could challenge them to kill more Europeans, or to reach the river, or whatever. By doing this, of course, we could argue that we are no longer recreating Omdurman. We could also argue that we are giving the Dervishes a chance. But is that chance not one imposed by the colonial power, inviting our noble but lesser opponent to try a bit harder, safe in the knowledge that the machine gun will always win?

I am not suggesting that all colonial wargaming should cease until these ethical problems are untangled, and nor am I claiming to have answers to these issues. But I do think it is worth acknowledging that such issues do exist, that wargaming does not exist in a ‘game bubble’ which bears no relation to the past or to its interpretation in the present. While wargaming is a leisure activity, it is not as such immune to such issues.

Those of us (and I may be alone, of course) who struggle to think that a wargame of the first day of the Somme could be in strict good taste should, perhaps, also reflect that Omdurman might also be tasteless. Just because the Victorians said they were savages does not mean that is how we should see the Dervishes. The casualty rate was appalling, just not in ‘our’ (western? colonial?) men.

And perhaps, finally, I can understand why none of my own armies are post-1713.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Why I Don’t Wargame World War One

Well, ‘tis the season of something or another. Actually, it is Advent, or near enough, which does raise the question of why the world, in its commercial aspects at least, has been doing Christmas since early September. I did see some research which suggested that Christmas now started in mid-August, having moved back a month since 2007. Mind you, this did depend on, I think, twitter feeds and statistics. Which either means that the world has gone Christmas mad, or that Twitter is unreliable, or that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Or some combination of these, of course.

Anyway, I digress only to raise the question of when to break out my ‘Keep Calm, its Only Christmas’ mug. It would appear that I am some months too late. And I would also like to point out that Advent is actually a fast, like Lent, and is not supposed to be a months long knees up. Someone told me the other day that people she knew put their trees up so early they took them down before Christmas Day, because they were fed up with them. Sad, but let it be a warning to us all.

Anyway, the other season has been the season of Remembrance. I thought it was a day (or possibly two, since they moved it to the nearest Sunday and then moved it back), but apparently it is now officially a season. And, it being the centenary of the First World War breaking out, there has been a lot of First World War about. Indeed, one commentator I read (I forget whom) noted that all conflicts seemed to have been conflated into the First World War. Perhaps that is a uniquely British thing.

The centenary has also influenced the wargaming world. Around the shows, on blogs and manufacturers web sites, World War One has been popping up all over. Refights of the battles and new figure line are, so far as I can tell, all over the place. This strikes me as slightly odd, as for years, when I was a lad, World War One, at least on the Western Front, was deemed to be unplayable.

Now, of course, things have moved on. Rule sets have been written to enable the gamer to play out some of the big battles of the Western Front. Innovative techniques in rule creation, in assessing the effects of barrages and so on have been used. The scale of the figures has been shrunk, so that a base might represent a battalion. The level of abstraction has been increased beyond the imagination of a 1970’s gamer (at least, beyond my imagination; that may not be very hard). The games can be played. So why do I not like them?

I suspect that part (but only part) of my problem is the ‘Oh what a lovely war’ syndrome. By this I mean that the historiography of the Great War that I was bought up with was that it was a war fired by nationalism and jingoism (with a dash of social Darwinism thrown in), that the battles were pointless wastes of blood, and that the whole thing was a disaster fuelled by idiot politicians and incompetent diplomats, an international treaty system which ensured a Europe-wide conflagration, and an utter failure by the armed forces leadership to recognise the realities of warfare.

Even though this picture may well have been nuanced over the years, it is still clear that it does hold a lot of historical weight. There might be arguments over the ‘lions led by donkeys’ thesis, which argues that any officer over the rank of captain was incompetent, or whether the Allied armies were actually really good by the end of the war, and so on, but it is clear that as the first really modern war, the mass slaughter, howsoever it occurred, was exactly that.

And so, I return to the level of abstraction that World War One requires on the wargames table. As far as I can see, casualties are not inflicted. Units might be disrupted, supressed, or to have gone to ground. Artillery barrages might devalue the defence. Machine gun emplacements might degrade the opposition. But the men are not blown to bits; they do not have no known resting place because the ground upon which they fell has entirely removed any trace of them. The wargame table fields are not filled with stones engraved ‘A Soldier of the Great War Known Only to God’. In short, the necessary level of abstraction removes us, as wargamers, from the individual experience of the carnage of the First World War battles.

Now, of course, it can be argued that any wargame does exactly that. We rely, as I have probably repeatedly mentioned on this blog over the years, on a degree of abstraction, otherwise we could not wargame at all, either practically or emotionally. All wargames are, to some extent, sanitised, of course, and much of the violence is abstracted away. So what, for me, makes World War One an no-no?
I am not sure that there is a single answer, and nor am I sure that I have a consistent one. For me, the historiography of the war is about the horror and intensity of the fighting. Replacing that with nice markers for ’suppressed’  on a battalion caught by artillery in an open field is pushing the bounds a bit too far. I think also that the season of Remembrance also focusses on that carnage and, for me, makes it harder to play a game without imagining the effects of my barrage on the ground. Earlier wars may have had their share of horrors and outrages, but the battle lines did not spread over hundreds of miles.

Finally, perhaps I have been too influenced by the poetry and prose in response to the war. Siegfried Sassoon and, in particular, Wilfred Owen portrayed the war as a senseless slaughter of ordinary men. Even more so, Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That showed the perceived disaster of the war, and is engrained in my interpretation of it. Finally, and most devastating, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ simply makes the battles unplayable. When the book ends with the statement ‘He died on a day that the high command simply reported at it was all quiet on the western front’, what can a wargamer do? In my case, I simply don’t go there.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Top Down and Bottom Up

There has been some discussion recently about the top down and bottom up views of rule writing, and the implication of this for the design and functioning of the rules themselves. I suspect (and will attempt to show) that this is a cultural thing, or possibly just another case of the ‘scientific worldview’ invading other areas.

So far as I recall, the bottom up view of rules was the first out of the blocks. Certainly, I remember reading, I think in Charles Grant’s ‘The Wargame’ comments about speed of movement. These were along the lines of a normal person can walk at about four miles an hour on a flat, level, hard path. Thus a unit can move however many inches determined by the ground scale and time scale of the moves. This, again as I recall, is arbitrarily reduced to something reasonable, on the grounds of having to keep in line, the various bits of a unit having to march around blackberry bushes and so on.

So this is a bottom up design of movement rules. We take an individual and assess his capabilities. Then we work out what implications there might be of loading him up with eighty pounds or so of equipment and expecting him to keep in line with his fellows. Even then, we obtain a number which might be a long way from anything with is either reasonable in wargame table move distances, or historically verifiable. Units moved slowly, relative to an individual.

So, of course, Grant (and he was not alone; he is just the author I remember) was well aware of this and fudged the results. In the end, then, it could be argued that despite his explicit bottom up approach to rule writing, he resorted to a top down approach to get the ‘right’ answer.

Such trajectories could be multiplied. For example, there were results of tests around (from, I think ‘Firepower’) of shooting muskets at unit sized sheets, and working out the effectiveness. Despite the author’s charges to the effect that this was an absolute, theoretical maximum, I fear some wargame rules dived in with the idea that muskets were something like 60 – 80% effective, and the body count in wargames rose as a result. Even though the effect of being in battle, being under fire, accidentally shooting out your ramrod and so on were commented upon, rule writers took the headline figure and worked with it.

Now, the people who did these things were not stupid. The thing is that they look as if they are scientific. We all like numbers; they give such an air of authority. A recent incident at work indicated this rather well. A student had done a very nice project and got some clear qualitative data. This was insufficient for her supervisor (who really should have known better) and she was told to do statistical analysis to prove the point. The problem is that statistical analysis on qualitative data is, well, asking to have the numbers made up for you. But numbers have authority where words do not.

Part of the reason for this is, I think, the success of science. Science give numbers; when I was a student you would derive a formula and then ‘plug the numbers in’ to get the required answer. Of course, what everyone knew and tacitly ignored was that the numbers were made up to make the answer pretty. As with so much, even at an undergraduate level, the experiments and problems are fixed so that they ‘work’. That, after all, is how science is supposed to be.

Real life, however, is messy. As an experimental physics researcher, plugging the numbers in became a game a bit like accountancy. If you ask an accountant what the values of a fund is, one of a set of possible answers is ‘what would you like it to be?’ So it is with experimental physics. The question is not ‘what is the answer?’ but more along the lines of ‘how can we get an answer, and how reliable might it be when we have it?’ Numbers, even the outcomes of equations, give us spurious confidence. As someone told me once, ‘it isn’t the answer that is interesting, it is the error’.

So, in wargame terms, we are probably better in going top down, in looking for how a body of men actually performed under battle conditions, be that in movement, shooting or whatever else. This, too, has its dangers, of course. Firstly, the evidence is, to put it politely, patchy. Mostly it does not exist. Where it does exist, we are probably back to those parade ground performance figures which are a guide to a perplexed young officer, but not much use to the old hand sergeant. He knows from experience, and it is not written down in a book.

The problem is, then, that we can neither be purely top down nor purely bottom up. Our records of unit performance are based on individual observations, and may not be valid for all units, let alone all times and space. Top down views are therefore contaminated by, at least, particularity. This unit did this in this battle, so we universalise an individual performance. Of course, bottom up is no better. It takes no account (except through fudge factors, as already noted) of emergent behaviour and bears even less relationship to real life than a top down approach.

But perhaps the major difficulty with the top down approach is the fact that such views of the world are frowned upon, culturally. Science, or at least the perceived method of science, is king. And science is irrefutable (nearly) reductionist, and hence bottom up. The ‘Great Chain of Being’ with everything in its place from worms to slaves to women to men to angels and then God himself has irretrievably broken down (I’m not saying that this is a bad thing), and the legacy of that is that everything now has to be bottom up.

It is just that for writing wargame rules, it doesn’t work very well.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Essential Wargames

One of the dangers of western ways of thinking is that of essentialism. We start to think that there is some essential property of something that is shared by all the somethings to which we give the same name. Thus, we think that there is some underlying notion of, for example, a wargame, that is common to all wargames; there is some essence of this thing that is a wargame which is in common with that thing which is also a wargame.

The problem with this is, as I might have alluded to before, that it is very difficult to see what this thing in common is. For example, a historical wargame involves some sort of simulation of combat in a historical setting. Science fiction wargaming involves some sort of combat in a non-historical setting. Role-playing games can be regarded as a sort of wargame, but do not necessarily involve combat. Board games have a setting (usually historical, but not always) but the combat is usually abstracted to a table and a dice roll. Yet all these things are wargames of some sort. Do they really have anything in common?

Of course, the other way of looking at this is that the use of the word wargame defines it. Thus, there is no essence of a wargame at all. If the community determines that it is a wargame, then a wargame it is. Thus, all sorts of things can be ruled in or out by simply looking at the word in the context of how people use it.

This too is fine, and indeed a lot of the philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition has been based around this idea. It originates from Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations. His example there is of the word ‘game’, and he points out that there are loads of definitions of ‘game’ and it is hard to see what they have in common except being described as a game. For example, a soccer game and a game of solitaire with cards are both called games. It is hard to see what common ground these have; both could be called ‘pastimes’, but, of course, there are professional soccer players. One is competitive and one is not. And so on.

So, in the more narrow focus of a wargame, we can examine what we mean by that and attempt to decide, perhaps[s as a community, or at least by listening to the community, whether something is a wargame or it is not. Of course, there will be grey areas. Chess, for example, is often described as a wargame, or at least wargaming is described as chess with a thousand pieces. Often wargames have an element of chance build in, which chess does not have. So, is chess a wargame?

We can go further. Why do some businesses run ‘wargames’? Are they wargames which the wargaming community would recognise? Almost certainly not. The conflicts that business wargames are concerned with are not what most hobby wargamers would recognise. There may be some vague organisational similarity, in terms of having sides and umpire, goals and some sort of rules, but the goals and outcomes are different.

Of course, this can run to narrowness in a different sense. A wargame is what I determine a wargame to be, as I am the wargaming community. Thus what I do is a wargame, what you do might be a wargame and what they do is not. You can see this around the place. I wargame properly with my 25 mm Napoleonic armies and detailed rules and beautiful terrain. You might wargame, with your tiny 15 mm modern figures and some sort of rivet counting random rules. They cannot be wargaming with their role playing, no figures and scraps of paper to record stuff. Plus they seem to having way too much fun.

This relates back to what I was trying to say a week or two back about the discourses of wargaming. What a wargame is conceived to be is, of course, a part of the particular discourse a wargamer has. To have a discourse at all is, by the nature of discourse, to rule some things in and some things out. Once I start to say something I close off certain routes, certain things which I cannot now say without contradiction or inconsistency. So, for example, if I say ‘wargames use miniature figures’ I have already ruled out board and computer games as being what I mean by a wargame.

The situation is, of course, slightly worse than that. My Napoleonic wargamer, above, could stand accused of simply criticising the ‘Other’, the mass of people he does not understand. As he has ruled them out from his community, they are simply there as a potential object of ignorance or derision. By the nature of the discourse (and, quite likely the discourse of the role playing gamers, as well) there is an implied decision not to engage, not to see what it is about, to draw lines of demarcation as to what a proper wargamer might be about.

To some extent, by human nature and the nature of our language, this is inevitable. As I said, by saying something we rule some things out, and we have to say something or we cannot create a community at all. But language is often a lot more flexible than our categories of thinking allow. In fact, a bit like the universe, language is infinite but bounded. There are loads of things I can say, many of them intelligible which can break the categorization of which I, as a human, am so fond.

So I think it is beholden on all of us to examine our own discourses of wargaming (including, of course, this one). The powerful narratives of what we think a wargame is are such as to marginalise at best, other sorts of wargame which might prove to be enriching. It is to exclude, or worse, to try to silence other voices that might be worth hearing. And, possibly, to relate back to one of the more popular posts on the blog, it might be why I no longer buy wargame magazines.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Developing Wargames

I suspect that most of us, at some time or another, think that we could do better than some wargame that we have just seen. If only, we muse, I had a bit more time, I could paint those toy soldiers, create that terrain, write those rules better, more clearly, more authentically, and the whole thing would come together to provide an aesthetic and satisfying experience, which, perhaps, provides also some deep insight into a historical battle.

This aspiration, of course, remains simply that. Even if we did have more time, the perfect wargame would be out of reach. We have to settle, as finite beings, for the good enough, something that is sufficiently satisfying, aesthetic enough, and so on. We are both empowered and constrained by our language, for one thing. We can only think certain things, as those things we cannot think about we cannot articulate.

I am currently reading Rowan Williams’ ‘The Edge of Words’ (2014, Bloomsbury). This is not a project I have undertaken lightly, as the good former Archbishop of Canterbury has a certain reputation for impenetrability and, I have to confess, I have read occasional bits of his former works and emerged from as bemused as I went in. Anyway, thus far, The Edge of Words has proved to be a lot more readable than I was expecting.

The point here is that at one place (p. 57-8) Williams muses on our inarticulateness. A scientist moves the subject forward, he suggests, by puzzling over discrepancies. This is not a stimulus response mode of language, although the scientist is usually dealing with objects that do respond in that mode. What is meant here, I think, is that the scientist usually deals with such things as rocks, which when thrown behave in certain ways; these ways are independent of the scientist observer.

Within the stimulus response mode, then, there is no role for inarticulateness, but in the development of science, there is. Some scientific phenomena are not immediately intelligible. Indeed, one of the biggest tasks that science, as a whole, faces is making its deliverances intelligible, either within the scientific community or, what is even harder, in the wider community who, after all, foot the bill for most scientific research.

However, such bafflement with language is not limited to science. We have probably all found ourselves ‘lost for words’. Williams’ example is that of Cordelia at the beginning of King Lear, who cannot articulate her love for her father.  That love cannot be tied up in words to satisfy the King’s need for love. There are, at least, some things we struggle to say.

Moving on, we can note that, of course, King Lear is fiction. The point here is that in a play (or, I suspect a film or even a football match) we cannot intervene. For example, in Terry Pratchett’s Weird Sisters there is a highly amusing bit where one of the character does intervene in a play they are watching, indicating the guilty party in a murder mystery and shouting ‘He done it!’ (or words to that effect). The humour is in the fact that the corpse is not a dead body, the murderer didn’t hurt anyone and intervention is from outside the world of the fiction. In Williams’ words ‘And so I am brought face to face with what I do not want to grasp or apprehend – my own limits as they border on the limits of agents who are absolutely and inaccessibly other.’

And so to wargaming. In a wargame the figures, the scenario, the rules and so are, in fact, other. It was suggested recently that a good analogy for a wargame would be a football match, and I agree. In a football match, the players and referee are other. I, as a spectator, can do little to influence the match. I can cheer or boo, but that might make me feel that my views are, at least, heard (or that I articulate them) but that has little or no influence over the outcome. It is unlikely that the referee will reverse a decision over a penalty just because a section of the crowd is catcalling him.

However, I think that one of the engaging features of wargaming that makes the analogies of film, play or match strain is, in fact, that as wargamers we are involved. Our decisions influence the outcome of the game. If I decide not to move the Grenadier Guards into line and thus the attack stalls, that is my decision affecting the game. In this discourse, taking language in a wider sense than just words, my actions influence the outcomes on the table.

Thus, alongside the fact that I am cut off from the activities on the table by the intervening layers of rules and models, I am also involved at quite a deep level. The words I use about table-top activities also imply that. I do not refer to ‘The French Grand Battery’ but to ‘My guns’. The relationship is mediated, admittedly, through the interpretation given to my actions and activities through the rules. The situation I am responding to is modelled on the table top, and that feeds back to me as decision maker. But the bottom line is that as a wargamer, I am involved in the table-top activity. It may be other, but it is also influence by me.

Those of you with very long memories might recall that I proposed a three layer model of a wargame: the real world of the player, the mediating layer of the rules, and the wargame table layer of the game. Again, this seems to work in this sense, except that the model does not seem to reproduce this level of involvement. This personal involvement, incidentally, seems to be what worries those few who regard wargaming as glamorising war (or have similar viewpoints; I’ve written quite enough about that previously). But the involvement of the players is a vital part of making a wargame worthwhile.

So, perhaps, we could regard a wargame as analogous to a film or football match, but we would have to admit that, even in the latter case, our involvement in a wargame is more intense, has a bigger influence on the outcome and, (to purloin a footballing phrase) at the end of the day is more personal.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Powerful Discourses

I have been reading, for no wargame related reason, a book about the problem of housing in rural areas in the UK. The problem is, as you can probably guess, that the prettier rural areas suffer from wealthy people moving into them, buying up the housing stock and forcing the prices up. The poorer paid local people and their children thus cannot afford to live in their local area anymore and have to either move to urban areas and commute back to their poorly paid jobs on the land or hope for some low cost housing to be made available to them.

The essay on housing, however, makes some interesting comments about the power of discourses over our views of rural housing. The dominant discourse is that the countryside is to be protected, and this is agreed by everyone, indigenous rural population, incomers buying up farm houses, planners and politicians.

The policy of protecting the countryside benefits some of the people above. Thus, for those who can afford to move to pretty country villages, it ensures that property prices stay high and their investment remains valid. They can claim that the communities they move into do not suffer from urbanisation because their pressure keeps development at bay. It also gives local planning officers, local politicians and national figures something to do, in that they seem to spend a fair bit of time considering planning applications for huge sprawling edge of village or town  estates that no-one in their right mind is going to accept.

The interesting thing about this discourse of protecting the rural landscape, communities and way of life is that everyone, whether in one of the benefitted groups or not, accepts it. The rural poor, who would in fact benefit from more housing (thus being cheaper) and bigger local towns (bringing more jobs and amenities to a nearby location) are just as clear about not wanting development as the richer, more powerful voices. In short, the discourse of protection has been swallowed, hook, line, and sinker.

Now, while this might be an interesting debate over the rural landscape, I think it does pertain to wargaming. Not, I hasten to add because there is any sort of politicking going on in wargaming; I think it is too disparate for that, but because I do think there are some dominant discourses within wargaming which the hobby might benefit from examining.

I dare say that I have banged on about a few of these discourses over time, but it might do no harm to have another bash. Writing the blog, in fact, trying to describe my own ideas and thoughts on the subject and also to see what others think.

I think my biggest beef with most wargaming, at least of a historical nature, is how out of date much of the history is. Wargaming generally seems to be stuck with its sources in the A. H. Burne and Sir Charles Oman. Now, don’t get me wrong, both did sterling work in their time to write history, and specifically, history of conflicts, in an appropriate manner for their time. But historiography does move on, and I cannot really believe that I am the only wargamer who gets frustrated (and possibly slightly depressed) when I see another article or demonstration game which is based on their interpretation of the sources.

For example, the battle of Neville’s Cross is, for a medieval action, quite well documented. But the most recent wargame interpretation of it was exactly that from Burne. Burne seems to have been unaware of some of the sources (not necessarily his fault). The upshot is, of course, that we present to ourselves, and to the public who might have a look, a wargame which has little relevance to the actual original conflict (insofar as we can know it) and also little relevance to modern research and consideration of more recent concerns. In short, our discourse of wargaming here is woefully out of date.

Now, we might argue that this does not matter, because the game is the thing. However, the devil is, I think, in the detail. If we claim that the wargame is historical, should it not be so to the best of our ability? We can comment on the niceness of the figures, the accuracy of the heraldry and so on, but when the action on the table is based on an account of the battle written nearly a century ago, some question over its actual historical accuracy might need to be raised.

Often, I think, well-meaning wargamers fall for these powerful discourses. We want our battles to be full of colour and activity. The line of least resistance is to take down Oman from the shelf, leaf through to the relevant chapter, and start recreating the battle. But we recreate Oman’s view of the battle, which is likely to have been superseded.  Oman, fine writer as he was, is not the last word on the subject; it is not that hard to find more modern accounts of battles and the circumstances leading up to them. In the case of Neville’s Cross, the differences can be significant.

So I think that one of the discourses which silences some wargamers, in the same way that powerful interest groups silence the rural poor and actually make them agree to things which are not to their benefit, is that the game is the thing and that historiography does not change that much. This argument implies that the interpretation of the sources can only be the same today as it was nearly a century ago. Thus, all we need to do is to make a table that looks like the present state of the battlefield, bang out a few nicely painted figures and, bingo! we have a historical recreation.

Present company excepted, I am sure, this does seem to be the dominant view among a significant set of wargamers. It might not even matter that it is historiographically impaired. But as a discourse that potentially silences other voices, other ways of wargaming and more recent historical research, I think recognising that it does happen might be a helpful thing.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Reality and Multiple Models

I may well be repeating myself here, but I would like to ponder something that has come up again in recent discussions here. The thing is, in a wargame, we are taking multiple complex reactions to a human (and very stressful) situation, breaking them into models, and then reassembling them into some sort of intelligible, usable whole to play a game.

I think I would like to leave aside, at least here, the ethics of doing this. I have considered them elsewhere, but I do confess that the above description of what we do in a wargame makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. However, I shall simply ignore that for the moment and consider the actual problems of the reductionism that we employ and the possibilities of reconstruction that we hope for.

So, firstly, reductionism. We have a set of accounts of battles for a particular period, say, plus our imaginations and a framework for what we can produce as a workable model and what we cannot. So, for example, I know that my model, in order to be intelligible and tractable, is going to have to result in some sort of arithmetical operation, a dice roll for a bit of chance and some sort of outcome based on the numerical result. This may not be the only way of resolving wargame events, but it is the most usual one. We could call it a paradigm model of event resolution.

Now, in our accounts, in our imagination, various factors come into play. The men, for example, might be confident or treacherous (think about Bosworth, for example). The leaders might be, or might be considered to be, competent or not, careful with the lives of the men or not, and so on. The weaponry the armies are issued with might be effective or not; the tactics employed could be such as to amplify or supress the usefulness of the weapons or not, and so on.

I think the issue here is that, in real life, these things are all presented as a mass. Generals, I guess, do not go around thinking that if only they deployed their archers in hollow triangles they might be more effective. These things are largely dependent on tradition, training and other things that happen off the battlefield. Generals, deploying their armies, have to use what they are given. The men are armed in a certain way, trained in a certain way, have a set of conceptions and expectations about themselves, their comrades and leaders, and, probably, the enemy as well. But these are all of a mass; the men, their officers and generals do not necessarily split them into different categories.

Furthermore, of course, all these ideas and conceptions interact. I might be confident in the performance of my long bow, but nervous about the fact that my sergeant is incapable of hitting a barn with his bow, or that there seem to be an awful lot of Frenchmen about wearing heavy duty armour. Thus, my confidence, which might be high in one sense, could be low in another, and dependent on my own mental outlook and physical wellbeing (the fact that I have dysentery might add or subtract from my confidence). In short, there are all sorts of factors making up the outlook of one individual and, of course, many individuals whose outlook is a factor both in my individual outlook and in some emergent outlook of the unit, or the army, as a whole.

There is no way in which this can be handled as a whole, I think. In order to make a set of wargame rules work, we have to reduce this mix of personal outlooks, physical capabilities and so on to a set of models which reproduce certain aspects of the whole. Thus, I have a given model for the effectiveness of the bow. I have another model for the impetuousness for the French knights. I have yet another model for the use of crossbows in a skirmishing role, and probably another for the effectiveness of crossbowmen ridden down by those impetuous knights, and so on.

In short, what I have done is taken all the formally distinct bits of the world of the archer before Agincourt, and turned them into separate models. The thing is, though, that those models are only formally distinct. How well the ‘real’ archer shoots might well be a function of whether he thinks his weapon is effective at a given range against a given target, as well as his state of health, how confident (or scared of) his leaders he is, and so on. The different models in fact represent different bits of reality that we can think about separately. Reality itself is unitary.

The next step is to model these things as arithmetic calculations. This introduces another level of abstraction. The simulation is now grainy. Reality tends to be more gradual, more graded than simply reaching, or not, a numerical threshold. As wargamers we have to accept this as a consequence of attempting to wargame at all. Although there are sudden collapses of units, usually this is the cumulation of a set of circumstances and events in the recent past. While a sudden bad dice roll might reflect this, it also washes out that slow disintegration of the individual and communal morale.

Now, we attempt to put these models together in some sort of order, to reflect the reality which they are trying to simulate. But note that we have, in fact, changed things considerably. The continuous and fairly smooth behaviour we witness in real life has been replaced by a step-wise and clunky function depending on dice rolls, among other things. The integration of a person, their environment and world view has been replaced but a set of models for each of them, hopefully statistically derived for a mass of people. And so on. The models we use only reflect some formally distinct aspects of the reality we try to model.

We do, of course, gain some advantages. The models we use are tractable and intelligible. If a unit runs away we can give reasons, which the real life equivalent might struggle to do. But we do need to be aware of the things we have to sacrifice to obtain that intelligibility and tractability. 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

What is in a Name?

As regular readers might be aware, I have had a couple of wargames recently, trying to test out the rules I am supposed to be writing (more like mouldering in a computer file, in so far as computer files can moulder). I was not terribly impressed after the first one; Alexander seemed to win really easily and the rules simply ‘felt’ wrong.

Upon reflection, I decided that there were some issues. Firstly, in the first battle, I had simply whacked onto the table every Macedonian and Persian base that was painted with little regard for historical accuracy and balance. As a consequence, I hypothesised; Alexander had far more Companion style cavalry than he should have had and had thus won far too easily.

Secondly, there were command problems. Neither side had enough tempo points (roughly translated for you non-Polemos players out there as ‘command points’) to get most of their troops into action, or even to get them moving. Now, while the accounts of the battles of Alexander may well be biased, they do not claim, in general, that only the forces under Alexander’s direct command were in action at all. So, something was not working quite right.

Finally, at least as far as my ponderings went, the rules just did not behave as I wanted them to. Now, those of you who have read Poiemos: SPQR (don’t worry, this is not a commercial break) will know that I classified troops there as ‘formed’ and ‘unformed’. This was an attempt to capture and model the fact that the ‘barbarian’ tribes, the enemies of Rome, did not line up in neat ranks and march in step. The Romans and some of the other Eastern Mediterranean cultures did that, granted, but the Celtic and German tribes did not (mostly; there are some hints in Tactius that the Germans might have started to do so).

Applying that directly to Alexander’s battles, however, just did not seem to work. Unformed troops are harder to get moving in SPQR than formed ones, but are more devastating on first impact than the latter. This, so far as I am any judge, seemed to work for modelling tribal foot against legions, but simply seemed to fail with phalanxes and Persian foot and hoplites; Alexander’s early battles could be described as “hoplites on both sides”).

I did, so far as I am able, sit and consider this problem for some time between the first and second battle, and eventually I came to the conclusion that, at least, the name was wrong. There was much less distinction between the formations in Alexander’s day than there was (even with wargame rules and their pardonable exaggeration) between the legions, auxilia and tribes a couple of centuries later or so.

I also considered that what seems to have been important at the time was not the actual deliverable fighting prowess of the troops, but their reputation. Somewhere in, I think, Thucydides, a bunch of hoplites pick up some Spartan shields and march on. No-body bothers to stop and fight them, assuming that they will lose anyway. Similarly, I think there is a story of Spartans using non-Spartan shields and their opponents running away when the truth was revealed. If anyone can quote me chapter and verse on these I would be grateful, but I think I remember correctly.

Anyway, the idea of training also seems to have been something of an anathema to the Greeks. While individuals did train a fair bit as individuals and individuals weapon skills, there does not seem to have been much in terms of unit training. Thus, I hypothesise, these units might be competent in action, but slow to respond to unit orders, simply because it might take longer for commands to filter down and be acted upon.

So, whereas Polemos: SPQR has morale and formation as its unit specifiers, at present Polemos: Polemos has reputation and training. The second wargame proved to be a more comfortable affair for me as the wargamer. Most of the troops got into action; defined mainly as of average reputation and as trained, the command points cost of even moving the phalanx was not excessive, and it rolled nicely over the Persian foot while Alexander’s cavalry was crushed by the opposition. However, Alexander himself, unscathed, managed to form a flank guard to check the triumphant Persian cavalry with a bunch of hoplite mercenaries while the phalanx finished off the Persian centre. At the point I ran out of time the action, while not finished, was going the Macedonian way.

So, was this a simple name change of a particular facet of the game which made it feel better, or more comfortable? Was it a deep change in the structure of the rules which improved the outcome? Indeed, was the outcome improved when Alexander’s Companions went down under the weight of Persian horse?

I am not sure I can answer any of those questions, of course. It was a simple name change, but that name change actually changed the behaviour of a lot of the troops on the table. However, referring to the troops as of average reputation and so-so training meant that the rationale for getting them moving in the first place sounded better. It also meant that the peltasts, unformed but trained mercenary, could behave like peltasts and not like some really hard to get going untrained peasantry.

Finally, of course, there is the question of luck. In the first game Alexander was lucky, in the second his luck only came to the fore when the Companions went down with him attached and he managed to ride away unscathed. Perhaps, on that basis, there is not much more to be said. After all, Napoleon is reputed to have asked of his opponents ‘are they lucky?’. Furthermore, I suppose that my tactics as Alexander were fairly well ‘hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle’ for the cavalry. While that might work for the phalanx, it does not seem to be how the man handled his heavy cavalry.

Nevertheless, the wargame felt better, whatever that means. The language was more appropriate, the command rules meant that the generals could do stuff, albeit within limits. So somehow an improvement was achieved.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Thoughts Upon A Wargame

In an unusual move for me, I have actually just ‘had a battle’ (to use Mrs Polemos’ expression), or, to put it another way, I have just wargamed. Specifically, the battle was between my new and shiny later Persians, and my slightly less new (but still quite shiny) Macedonians.

The terrain was entirely flat, and the troops were entirely average, as I wanted to test my putative Polemos: Polemos rules, which are, as you probably already know, aimed at warfare in the Classical Greek and Age of alexander era, whatever we might decide to call it.

I meant to get pictures, but never the wargame and a charge camera battery shall meet in my case. I thought the armies looked rather splendid, however, and their deployment was reasonably conventions. Thus, on the Macedonian right, there were some light horse, then the Man himself with six bases of Companions (in two lines), followed by two of peltasts, six bases of pike in a line one deep in the centre, two more bases of peltasts, three bases of Thessalonian horse and then four bases of light horse. Six bases of skirmish infantry covered the front of the phalanx. Fairly conventional, as far as Alexander goes, anyway.

The Persians started on their left with two bases of light horse, then six cavalry, four up front and two in reserve, the Great King (just the one) followed by a front infantry line of eight bases of Persian infantry, with four of hoplites behind. The right was five bases of cavalry, three up front and two behind, then two bases of light horse on the extreme right. In front there were six bases of skirmish foot and two scythed chariots. Again, fairly normal, I suspect, for the Persians.

Now, what happened was that alexander won the tempo, advanced his skirmishers and cavalry. As the lights got to grips, the Companions got into Persian charge range. The Persian horse, sensibly (possibly) refused to charge, whereupon Alexander did so.  On the other flank the Persians charged the Thessalonians, routing two of the bases. The Companions smashed up the Persian horse and then disposed of the reserve, which the Great king had just joined. In my mind I had decided that if the Great King was killed or routed, the Persians automatically lose. So they did.

I sat for a while pondering this outcome. In a way, the result of the battle was entirely historical, at least in vague outline. The armies line up. Alexander charges a perceived weak point. The Great King flees and the Persians collapse. If you wanted a summary of the great Macedonian – Persian battles, that would, pretty well, be it.

The reason I sat and pondered, however, was the thought that although the outcome had been historical, I was not sure if it was a good wargame or not. The whole battle lasted four turns, or about forty minutes. Arguably, as I have said, it had a historic outcome. But the infantry on either side had not moved an inch (or base width, in this case).

However, I did feel that a bit more action, a bit more drama, even some ‘clashes along the hole line’ were called for before one side or the other streamed away in disorder. Now, of course, I could, as the Persian, have fought on but, to be honest, there did not seem to be much point. With six bases of heavy cavalry sitting on their flank, the Persian foot and hoplites were not going to put up a major fight, particularly if Alexander had got the phalanx moving forward. In fact, the Macedonian lights were slowing gaining an advantage over their enemies anyway, and the Persian morale, having taken losses and lost the general, was going to get flakier. So it was a correct call, in my view, to concede.

But I think the wargame does raise a question. Is a good wargame the same as a historical one? As I say, the outcome was arguably historical (even down to the Thessalonians having a hard time on the other flank to Alexander). But I am still not sure if it was as enjoyable as I would have liked it to be.

Pondering further, I could see the crucial point of the battle was at the point where the Persian horse refused to charge the Companions, while the Companions did charge the Persians in the next bound. On the other flank, the Persians got the drop on the Thessalonians and were winning. This of course raises further issues for the wargame rules: is it all a matter of luck on a few crucial dice throws?

Another consideration is that of bias. I do not think my rules are biased towards the Macedonians, nor do I think my set-up or orders favoured them. But as a solo gamer, am I biased either for one side or against the other? I tried hard, in fact, to be biased against the Macedonians. Being lazy I tend to stand on one side of my table or the other, and the near side tends to win. So I stood behind the Persians all game, and they lost.

Now, there are a number of possibilities left. Firstly, the Macedonians do (at least in what I have painted) have a lot of heavy cavalry, but under the rules as they stand at present they are no different from Persian cavalry. So it was not that. Secondly, as the Macedonian, I had a plan, which was pretty well Alexander’s plan, while as the Persian I am not sure I did, at least, not a specific or quick one. The Persians wanted to clear the way for their scythed chariots to hit the phalanx while delaying on the flanks. Like a football team playing for a draw, this was a dismal failure.

So, did warfare of the time favour the attacker? Do my rules? Does fortune simply favour the brave? Is any quick plan better than no plan? Have I painted all those Macedonian and Persian foot in vain?

I suppose that I shall have to have another go to find out.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

A Metaphysics of Wargaming

Yes, I know, a title that takes pretentiousness to new levels of ultra-bizarreness. But bear with me, there might be something interesting below.

By some measures, metaphysics is not a popular subject in modern western philosophy. This might be something to do with the influence of Heidegger (or, as the Epictetus blog described him recently, “the tainted Heidegger”. Well, OK, he was, at least, a Nazi sympathiser. But then, so were a lot of other people). Heidegger, of course, was not a fan of metaphysics, to the extent that he spoke and wrote an awful lot about it. I think this might be an older manifestation of the Streisand effect, whereby attempting to ban something simply draws attention to it.

Anyway, metaphysics is rather sniffed at these days, which is a bit of a shame because eventually most things can be tracked down to metaphysical presuppositions. Science, for example, does not do metaphysics. If you run into an atheist scientist (and they do exist) then, if you track back far enough, they will often simply claim that the laws of nature are a brute fact, a given, arbitrary, about which we can say no more. Now, obviously, this is to an extent attempting to admit either ignorance about the origins of the laws of nature, or an inability to define said laws (which is not as easy as we might assume) or a last ditch attempt to avoid metaphysics and the ‘G’ word. But the conclusion that the laws of nature are simply brute facts is a metaphysical one. There is no evidence to suppose that it is the case, it comes from a presupposition.

Similarly, in fact, science uses metaphysical assumptions in carrying out its day to day activity. The assumption is that the physical world is regular, intelligible and predictable. These things may have been shown inductively to be true, but as Hume pointed out centuries ago, there is no justification for induction, and any attempts to do so have failed. Of course, most science is massively indifferent to this; most scientist are just trying to get their experiments to work, write the next paper and grant application and not worry about ultimate justifications.

In the determination not to worry about ultimate justifications and the presuppositions which they might rest upon, scientists have much in common with wargamers. After all, the presupposition of a wargame of any description is that the universe is, in some senses, explicable. If someone is shot at with a musket, a ball will likely fly in their general direction and there is a chance that it will hit them and disable them. We assume that this is the case, without a huge quantity of justification except that we know, somehow, that it is the case. The presumption of regularity in the universe is metaphysical.

In fact, recent historical research suggests that modern science would not have come into existence without Christianity. The presumptions of Christianity are that the universe is intelligible, regular (because guaranteed by a good God) and that part of our activity as humans created in God’s image (whatever that might actually mean; don’t get me started) is to try and understand it. Many early scientists were people of faith, such as Roger Bacon and Robert Grossteste. Without Christianity, modern science might not have got going.

But I digress. I am trying to examine here what I might have referred to before as the framework assumptions or the conceptual archetypes of wargaming. I think that we can probably assume that wargaming, in common with more or less every other human activity, takes some metaphysical items pretty well for granted, such as the regularity of the physical world and the validity of induction. Without that, wargaming, let alone anything else, would not have got going.

So what other assumptions are made in order to have a wargame at all? I think that possibly the main one is that there is an interplay of chance and necessity. As I said above, if you pull a musket trigger, you have a reasonable expectation that a bullet will come out of the other end of the gun, that it will fly in the general direction in which you pointed it, and that it will do some damage if it happens to hit something or someone. But note that the sentences are hedged with conditionals – it might do some damage if it happens to hit something.

Thus the elements of chance are introduced into the game. Few wargames operate entirely without chance elements. Most use dice, but it is not obligatory. I seem to recall that HG Wells used matchstick firing cannon, and I’m fairly sure I read somewhere about entirely card driven games. Whatever the mechanism, we recognise that despite the necessity of some effects occurring given certain causes, chance is also a factor in war and, even more so (because we cannot model every level of human decision) in wargames.

At the risk of reinforcing my pretention credentials, I think I would want to classify such presuppositions in wargaming as metaphysical. I think that such assumptions are made, tacitly, in most, if not all wargames. Stuff happens. There are causes and effects, and sometimes things go a bit awry, but not so much that the awryness cannot be accounted for by chance or awkward human decisions. Hume, after all, argued that we only link cause and effect because that is how we link them together. His claim is that cause and effect are only due to our habits of associating the events. Of course, this is another metaphysical claim, and this from a man who argued that all books of metaphysics should be burnt.

In sum, I think that we should, as wargamers, try to be aware of some of our basic assumptions in holding a wargame at all. I am not really arguing that we should hold the laws of cause and effect, or the laws of nature in mind when wargaming (that way, I suspect, madness probably lies, and I do not wish to be held responsible for a decline in the mental health of the wargame community), but I do think that, from time to time, an investigation of what those assumptions are, and their validity, might be a good idea.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Concrete Wargames

I have, perhaps, hinted before that wargames, wargame rules and wargamers do not really tolerate uncertainty. This is one of the issues there is with respect to wargaming which is one of the most difficult to tackle, both in general and in particular. So I thought I would give it a go, not really expecting to make much headway.

It seems to me that there are at least two issues at stake here. Firstly, there is the creation of fictitious forces in our wargame armies. What I am thinking of here is, for example, “morale”. Morale is often a critical element in our rules and plays a key role in the outcome of battles. But it is one of those things that does not exist, at least to a reliably measurable extent.

In a set of wargame rules morale is generated as a mathematical model, but it does not behave like that in real life. A person with a clipboard does not pop across to the 25th line battalion and have a survey of how the lads are feeling.  Morale is a construct of those who report of warfare, perhaps, but it is perhaps more eminently a construct of wargaming. In perhaps over-technical language, we can stand accused of reifying morale, taking a concept which is useful to our games and making it concrete to suit ourselves. It could be argued that morale, at least as it occurs in most wargames, simply does not exist.

Another issue which occurs, which needs a concrete answer which cannot be given, is that of armies and order of battle. I have (remarkably) finished (insofar as any wargame army is finished) my late Persians, all 34 bases of a 20 base army, including two Great Kings in their chariots. Why, you might ask, two Great Kings? Well, firstly, of course, I had the figures. You might object that there was only one Great King at a time, and I would be forced to agree with you. But which Great King is the real Great King? Obviously, the one who wins the next battle…. The reason I had two Great King chariots was because one came with the early Persians and one with the late Persians, and I had never bothered to paint up the one for the earlies because the Great King was not present at Marathon.

Anyway, having now finished the Late Persians, I am now considering moving on to the Classical Indians, the ones who fought Alexander. Here, of course, information runs very thin. Our sources do not say a lot about the Indians, because they were exotic, far away and, by the time anyone got around to writing about them, they had reconquered themselves (as it were) and no-one was really interested in people who were on the far side of a hostile empire (with respect to looking from Rome, anyway).

So, much of what we do know about the Indians is conjectural, inferential and, if you do not mind a bit of sarcasm or rudeness, frankly invented, or at least it has alarmingly little evidence to back it up. Clearly, there is some evidence, contradictory as it is. The Indians had archers, a few swordsmen types, javelinmen, cavalry, chariots and elephants.  They had what usually passes in ancient sources as ‘lots’ of these. At Hydaspes they had somewhere between 200 and 50 elephants, according to Sabin’s reporting of various modern reconstructions.

Here, again, the wargamer has to do some reification (have you ever wished you had not used a word like that?). We cannot do, as historians can, with a hand wavy ‘we don’t really know, does it matter?’ sort of response; nor do we particularly wish to move on to more interesting subjects such as Alexander’s sexuality (at least, I do not; classical scholars might demur). We need some sort of concrete number. Sabin makes a middle of the road estimate of 85 elephants in Porus’ army. He might be right. How do we know?

Now, you might argue, if you had read this far, that my claim of reifying morale in rules and my claim about doing the same for troop numbers in armies are two different things. To some extent I would agree with you, but in fact what we are doing in both cases is making something up to cover over something we cannot measure.

We cannot measure morale, so we make some sort of model up to cover the fact, and use that as the morale of the army, unit or whatever, even though it has no measurable equivalent in real life.

We cannot measure the number of elephants at Hydaspes, because time machines have not been invented so we cannot go and count them, the reports we have (at second or third hand) from people who could have counted them are contradictory. So, essentially, we have to make a reasonable guess.

The problem is, in both cases, unless we make these guesses – a guessed model for morale; a guess at the number of elephants present – we cannot really have a wargame on a historical basis. It simply cannot be done unless we invent these things.

Thus, we have to make concrete these things in a wargame in order to model them. We need a concrete model of morale in order to measure it. We need concrete (or is that lead?) models of elephants to show a given number of pachyderms in real life. These things have to be concretised in order to make the game work at all.

Of course, you could argue that it is only a game anyway and so it does not really matter, and, as a game, of course that is correct. As an imaginary encounter, we can deploy however many elephants we like, and we could, if we so wished, dispense with morale rules entirely, or simply make something outlandish up.

But then I suppose the worry would be that we have cut the final links between reality and human reason and the activities modelled on the wargame table. Even imaginations have some real world logic involved. 

Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Problem of Genius

“In a very different subject-matter, Napoleon supplies us with an instance of a parallel genius in reasoning, by which he was enabled to look at things in his own province, and to interpret them truly, apparently without any ratiocinative media. ‘By long experience’, says Alison, ‘joined to great natural quickness and precision of eye, he had acquired the power of judging, with extraordinary accuracy, both of the amount of the enemiy’s force opposed to him in the field, and of the probable result of the movements, even the most complicated, going forward in the opposite armies… He looked around him for a little while with his telescope, and immediately formed a clear conception of the position, forces and intention of the whole hostile array. In this way he could, with surprising accuracy, calculate in a few minutes, according to what he could see of their formation and the extent of the ground which they occupied, the numerical force of armies of 60,000 to 80,000 men; and if their troops were at all scattered, he knew at once how long it would require for them to concentrate, and how many hours must elapse before they could make their attack.’” (Newman, J.H., An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, (2013 [1870]) Assumption Press, p 219).

I have to confess, that that was a somewhat unexpected paragraph in Newman’s book for me, at least. In the passage in question and its surroundings, Newman is pondering the nature of genius. He observes before it that, for example, Newton had a tendency to simply write down answers to mathematical physical problems without working them out or proving them. It then took several generations for the rest of the academic community to catch up and prove that he was, in fact, right. I believe that someone once claimed (with what accuracy I am unsure) that for every time that the mathematician Carl Freidrich Gauss wrote ‘it is obvious that’ or ‘clearly it follows that’ or similar phrases, someone has obtained a PhD for showing it to be so.

Newman continues after the passage just quoted: “It is difficult to avoid calling such clear presentiments by the name of instinct; and I think they may so be called, if by instinct be understood, not a natural sense, one and the same in all, and incapable of cultivation, but a perception of facts without assignable media of perceiving.”

The problem is this: as ordinary human beings, we have little idea of how geniuses proceed, and, in general, cannot cope when they do. If Napoleon was a genius at warfare, it is little surprise that his opponents, no matter how competent, struggled to cope with his manoeuvers. Even Wellington was humbugged by the Corsican, even though the latter was not at his best during the Hundred Days. The fact that the Allies won and Napoleon lost was due more, perhaps, to Wellington’s planning and positioning of his forces during Waterloo, and the Prussian ability to support him than any military genius on their side.

All through history we can see military geniuses, alongside those in other fields, turning received wisdom upside down and winning battles, or solving problems, in ways that were thought impossible. On the military side was can name, for example, Marlbrough, Alexander, perhaps Caesar, Hannibal, Scipio and so on. Some others might be in the running as well, such as Gustavus Adolphus or Maurice of Nassau, but in general I am sure you can see my point. The geniuses were not coped with by the normal military institutions of the day. Until those institutions adapted to cope, victory went to the genius.

This then is a problem for wargaming. Unfortunately, few of us are geniuses; perhaps fortunately, most of us will never need to get involved in major warfare for real. But the problem is how we, as wargamers and wargame rule writers, can cope with these geniuses who upturn the conventional wisdom of warfare. For a set of wargame rules, almost by definition, must represent the normal, conventional warfare of the time.

There is an additional problem, of course, in that we have a splendid dose of hindsight to add to the mix. When Napoleon is facing the Allied army at Waterloo, we might want to explain to him the fact that most of the enemy army is over the ridge and a grand battery, no matter how grand, just is not going to cut the mustard. We also might like to point out that the army closing in on his right is not reinforcements but an army he thought were thoroughly beaten. Thus there is here a question of epistemology (to give it an overpoweringly posh name). Napoleon may not have known these things; somehow he had lost control of the campaign.

The issue is, in terms of wargame rules, firstly, that of course Napoleon, if he had been aware of these facts, might have taken different action, although the politics might have made this difficult. These are issues beyond a simple set of rules to deal with. But the real problem is, if I may call it such, the ontological one of genius. The being of a military genius on the battlefield cannot, I think, be handled as it is mostly by a ‘+2’ on the command rolls, or some other sort of fudge factor to enable the wargame to come out in a vaguely historical manner. The genius who can just ‘see’ the solution, the Marlbrough who marches half an army across the battlefield to obtain tactical surprise, cannot be subsumed within a simple addition to a command rule or radius. These rules and their fudging simply do not reflect the process of the genius winning the battle.

I do not think that there is in fact, any legislating for such genius. Firstly, even Napoleon had feet of clay, or at least had to odd off day on the battlefield. If we construct rules for military genius, then we would also have to construct rules for the genius not having had his morning coffee. And that way, I think, wargame rule writer’s madness lies. Secondly, genius is, well, genius. It tends to operate outside the box, which would mean, more or less, it might well operate outside the framework of the rules. And I cannot think of a rule set that can allow that.