Saturday, 10 May 2014

Covering Laws

One of the things I have learnt from my perusal of some of the philosophy of history is the influence of social scientists over historians, at least, historians of a certain outlook.

Social scientists, of course, study societies, and these societies might be modern ones, or they might be what is described as ‘primitive’, which might mean that these poor societies have to proceed without the advantages of mobile phones, Internet pornography or, of course, wargaming.

Now, I am not a sociologist, but what seems to happen is that the social scientists potter off into the jungle and observe, say, a society that looks at lot like an Iron Age one. They then go back to their desks and describe how the society works, and, in one way or another, model it. So there might be a model of the hierarchical relationships in the society, or the inter-clan ones, or something of that nature.

Historians then come along and read these, and thing something along the lines of “Oh yes, this must be how the Ancient Greeks (or Ancient Israelites, or Assyrians, or whoever) acted and thought.’ They then potter off to their desks and write about the ancient society behaving more or less in this manner, having, consciously or unconsciously, selected and interpreted their data to fit and, often, ignoring the careful caveats that the sociologists have put on their models.

One of the interesting things about this process is the evolution of what are called covering laws. The idea is that if something can be explained, it can be predicted. Therefore, if you have a sociological model of a society, you can predict how that society is going to react to, say, a new invention.

Historians, therefore, face a temptation to deduce covering laws, laws for all time and every place and society in the world, from social models. They might argue, for example,  that a society which is stable and has a growing population is going to start fighting a war with someone, as the unlanded younger sons of the elite go in search of economic resources. The Macedonian expansion into Greece and Asia could be adduced as evidence, here, or the early Crusades, which, it can easily be argued, were nothing to do with religion, really, but more about an attempt to remove younger sons of the barony in Europe which were rapidly making some parts ungovernable.

Covering laws sometimes work. Somewhere in my library I have Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In it, he argues that in all the major warfare since the sixteenth century, victory has gone to the side (usually an alliance) which has had the greatest financial resources. The side with the last dollar wins. This is, in my view, anyway, a covering law. It explains who wins a war involving multinational alliances. However, Kennedy is careful to describe the circumstances under which it applies – wars of alliances, wars where the manufacturing base of some members of the alliance cannot be attacked by the other side, and so on. Also, the law only applies in the long run.

Covering laws, however, sometimes do not work. Again, on my shelf I have a book called ‘Gunpowder God’ by H Beam Piper (published in the US as Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen). The story is quite fun, and it is something a number of wargamers are aware of, especially if you want a sort of renaissance fantasy game. However, part of the plot is about whether a great man can change history, or whether history is in the grip of non-human forces such as economics. Covering laws or individuals rule?

Now, take wargame rules. In some sense, of course, wargamers subscribe to the covering law school of history. We take a particular period and assume that everything that happens within it are the results of overarching structures and society. We have an implicit model of how people behaved in battle situations, and write our rules to fit that.

Thus, we can, using a covering law, assume that everyone who fought in a battle between Sumer and Bosworth fought in pretty much the same, well defined, ways. At least, this is the assumption behind many mainstream rule sets. I am not wishing to criticise specific sets of wargame rules, but it strikes me as intrinsically unlikely that the assumption is valid. Romans had a different mind-set from Egyptians. They lived, worked, fought and died in different mental spaces.

Some rule sets, of course, attempt to overcome this problem by adding extra bits to model the specific attributes for a given historical people. Thus, you might find that Romans are better trained, or more steadfast, or whatever. The problem with covering laws is that these add-ons become complex and cumbersome. Often, it seems to me, the rule writer would be better off ditching the covering law and writing rules for a specific people and their enemies.

Of course, what applies over millennia also applies over centuries or decades. Societies change, as we know. The world of my youth no longer exists, except in my memory. Even that is a bit dubious, because I’m sure the sun shone all the time. But in order to wargame at all in a creative way, we have to have some sorts of covering laws, to allow, say, a barbarian army to face a Roman one. Different world views, yes, but they did meet in practice. Somehow we have to model this.

So we need a balance, a cut off, some caveats around our models and what we expect them to achieve. My Romans rule set is for the early Empire and late Republic. To be sure, it could be extended further, but I am not guaranteeing the results to be sensible if anyone does push the boundary. Similarly the Greek rules will be valid, hopefully, into the early Successor period. They might be able to go further, but do not expect Zama to work out as expected with them.


  1. This was a really interesting post and definitely one of your best. I am unashamedly attached to 19th century history of the Macaulay type and something that particularly strikes me when reading that sort of history compared to contemporary historians is how often their explanations for events differ wildly. There is almost never dispute over whether events actually occurred, but the explanations for why they occurred are where the diversity of opinion appears. Earlier historians tend to set far more store by character and personality, while contemporary historians are more invested in social science and economics. The laws change and people can view the same events through radically different lenses even if they share the same space and time. I dealt with an incident some years ago, where there was a particularly messy dispute between a couple on a street which escalated in the violence. A number of people intervened, but they ways they did so were radically different. One young man called 999, kept the couple in sight and relayed information to the emergency services. Another woman yelled at them both to stop and elderly gent accosted the man in the couple and hit him with his stick. Sadly, the elderly man ended up being injured because he was quite frail. We were talking to him afterwards and he said that he knew that was likely to happen, but that he simply wouldn't have been able to live with himself if he hadn't intervened. All three parties who involved themselves in this particular piece of street theatre responded, but in radically different ways. I'm not sure which was more effective, though I know which was more emotionally satisfying.

    In wargaming, I suppose there are often cultural mores that need to be built into the design. A Cold War era Royal Artillery officer presented with the sight of the enemy general, would call in every tube he had available in order to destroy this very high value target. A Napoleonic Royal Artillery officer would probably decline the opportunity as the Duke put it, "it is not the business of generals to point cannons at one another." I saw a game of Samurai Battles (a Command & Colours variant for the Sengoku period) recently where a friend of mine had gotten into a sticky situation and one of his units was weakened and about to be cut off. Samurai Battles shares a lot of mechanics with Command & Colours Napoleonics, Memoir '44 and the other games in the series, but it often plays completely differently because of small differences in the design. Players not only have to manage cards and troops, but they also have to manage a pool of Honour points which power variety special abilities of the troops on the table. Certain troops perform much better under high honour generals and may desert if their leader wastes his social capital (honour) for short term gain.

    My friend had the chance to either lose the unit, surrendering a victory point to the enemy, or pull them out of the line, losing Honour. In a normal game of the type, this would have not been a decision, one would withdraw the weakened unit. However, because of this small additional wrinkle (the honour system), the player choose to let the unit fight to the death, because withdrawing them would compromise him with the rest of his army.

    I think this was a clever use of a mechanic. Barring units in Samurai Battles from retreating would have been boring, it would also done a dis service to the source material as there are plenty of examples of instances where Samurai did run away. The value in the approach that I saw was that the commanding general could do things that would be considered shady (and Sengoku era leaders did plenty of that), but there was a limit to the transgression and the rules could be transgressed in extremis.

    Anyway, I've rambled on rather longer than I intended to and probably to little purpose. Thanks again for a very thought provoking post. Off to bed with me.

    1. You Whig historian, you...

      There is a great deal of difference between the historiography of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and, lets face it, modern history is, for a wargamer rather boring and often irrelevant. History, as a subject, has moved away from politics and battles, to economics and society. This is probably laudable, but, often, is as dull as ditchwater.

      So wargamers often rely on older historiography, like Oman, Dodge and Delbruck, simply because the academy has not done its job and provided up to date histories of relevant (to wargamers) subjects. I could go on, but I think I already have.

      I think that there are some nuances to general rule sets that can add to specifying it for a particular era or culture, but that this has to be done with great care (and it needs to be simple, like your Samurai example), or we simply land up with everyone in history behaving like the Imperial Guard, or a Macedonian phalanx, or whatever is the paradigm troop type in the rule set.

      I'm not wholly against covering laws, or wargame rules stretching over centuries, but I do think often the sets produced are incautious and apply definitions which are a little, um, dubious to an era specialist.

    2. As you know from my comments, I vastly prefer period-specific rules for games. I would suggest that these require knowledge of the society that fought the wars, because that society shapes the culture of warfare and the reasons for going to war. Thus the modern trend towards societal and cultural history is worthwhile from a wargamer's perspective, if the rules writer and wargamer are willing to engage with that side of history. I very much side with Halsall's view in this. It can lead to rules with greater 'flavour' and a move away from the WRG concept of a man with a spear fights the same and reacts the same in battle in any culture. If I recall correctly, Price covered this in his 'The Viking Way'. I'll check that after tomorrow if anyone is interested, as I am rather too busy today and should not even be on here.

      Olde Skoole political and military history may be out of favour but sterling work is still being done in various areas regarding military history. The problem is that it is not always readily accessible, being tucked away in academic journals or as PhD theses that have not been published, or that they are heavy going for the amateur historian ... and the academic too really. Let's face it that much that gets written is dense and turgid to the point of being almost unreadable! Two recent PhD theses show that the history of warfare is not totally dead. Wallace's 2011 PhD on 'Warriors and Warfare: Ideal and Reality in Early Insular Texts' would be worth reading for anyone studying Viking Age warfare. Similarly, Ystgaard's 2013 PhD 'Krigens praksis' is a worthwhile read, although it requires a reading knowledge of Norwegian. That highlights another problem. Much of what is being written is not in English and requires more effort to engage with than is desirable for a game.

      Despite, or because of, the difficulties of finding the good material and reading it, I do wonder if the fact that we are "just" playing games makes most people think it not worthwhile to engage with the periods that interest them in more than a superficial manner. I know some do engage in detail, but I also know many that get the rules and lists, find the uniform details and set to on that basis without much thought for deeper understanding of the period. Sometimes the latter leads to a greater desire to learn more about the army, but sometimes it is enough for a person to grab a translation of 'De bello gallico' and have that as their only reference. For "just a game", this works but the period-specific rules really need greater depth to give them their character.

    3. I pretty well agree with all of your comments (even down to the 'shouldn't be here really'). I do think that cultural history (and economic, but that seems to be struggling at the moment) is important for wargaming, but most wargamers, I suspect, fail to make the connection. Many I know would, for example, just read the battle bits of the sources and ignore the rest (I've done it myself).

      It is actually becoming slowly easier to find some stuff, with Open Access policies coming in and the web making location possible outside the academy. But a wargaming cultural change might be needed to shift people away from relying on populist (shall we say 'third hand') sources.

      The Viking Way sounds interesting if you can dig out the details.

      I fear that many wargamers, given the number of eras they dabble in, do their research in a relevant Osprey, then move on to the next period. The word 'flibbertigibbet' springs to mind for some reason...

    4. Price, Neil (2002). 'The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia'. Uppsala: Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University.

      They have been promising a second edition for ages but it has not appeared yet. To get a flavour of the book, there is a wikipedia entry for it:

      I've never read only the battle bits of a primary source but I have just relied on the Osprey books at times. Sometimes all you want is a quick intro to a period and the chance to play a particular style of game. I don't have the time to invest properly in all the periods that interest me, so I have to. I prefer to consider myself endlessly curious rather than a flibbertigibbet though! :)

    5. Than you for that; it will go on my endless 'books I should read' list.

      Ospreys, I find, are usually fairly reliable, but often go for one interpretation, rather than nuance. Mind you, there is only so much that can go into 48 pages, less the figures and illustrations.

      I suspect that flibbertigibbet is an irregular word: I am endlessly curious, you jump around a bit, he is a flibbertigibbet...

  2. Incidentally, there are some reflection on this post on the Happy Valley blog: