Saturday, 17 May 2014

Re-De-Kanting Wargaming

I have written before about Kant, and his effects on wargaming. However, having now read a bit more, on re-reading that post I feel that it was, probably, a bit too Kantian, in that I broadly accepted that we cannot know what is going on in a battle, we can only see what outcomes there may be, and attempt to save these phenomena in our rule sets.

It might come as a surprise to many to find out exactly how influenced by Kant modern thought is. He kind of weaves his way through a lot of recent thinking and, sadly, can even be used in a dogmatic sense. For example, I once read an article that argued that the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe was too theistic (what started off the Big Bang opens the door to the reply ‘God’), and that science, in order to exclude this back door to theism, should return to the ideas of Kant and the infinite duration of the universe.

This is rather interesting, as it shows that atheists can be a blindly ignorant of the empirical facts as they often claim that theists are, and also that philosophers can be as silly as the rest of world when they really try. The article did not offend me as a theist, but it certainly did as a physicist. The ignoring of a huge amount of evidence and theory (you cannot really separate the two) in trying to return to a way of thought that firstly, in my view, does not rule out theism anyway (Kant was bought up in pietism, after all) and secondly does not have much in the way of evidence going for it is, well, ignorant and daft. To get it published in an academic journal is a bit worrying too.

But I digress somewhat. Kant, as I am sure you recall, argued that we can only deal with things as they are presented to our senses, the phenomena. Things as they are in themselves are not available to us. We cannot get outside our senses to observes the thing in itself. Thus, for a battle, we can only observe outcomes, as reported to use by the evidence of history. We have no access to what was ‘really’ going on in a battle.

Fortunately for the sanity of most of us, Kant is, most likely, wrong. He was attempting, as so many philosophers do, to assimilate the science of the day to the thinking of the day, and he landed up tying himself (and most people who attempt to read him) up in knots. The results of twentieth century science imply very strongly that Kant’s views are incorrect. For example, he argued that space and time are constructs of the human mind. Relativity theories, both special and general, indicate that this is not the case. Space and time exist quite happily without an observer and, in fact, interact with each other in mind bending but understandable ways.

Of course, this is not necessarily Kant’s fault, given that he died at the start of the nineteenth century, and based his thought on science as it was then, which was essentially Newtonian. However, other developments in science indicate that his distinction between the phenomena and the things in themselves is probably incorrect as well. For example, modern quantum mechanics allows us quite happily to make statements about the internal structure of atoms and, indeed, how atoms interact with other atoms. We can predict, more or less accurately, how one atom can interact with a surface, a beam of light, or what you will. That is, we can deduce from the phenomena we observe things about the thing in itself and how it works in itself.

Now, let us apply that thought to a battle. Obviously, a battle, as a historical and social event, is a lot more complex than a couple of atoms bouncing off each other. But we can and do try to abstract rules from the reports that we have. Now, this is more or less difficult depending on the reports that we have obtained. But we can make some generalizable statements about them.

For example, I have been reading a bit about the battles of Alexander III of Macedon (sometimes called “the Great”). It seems to me, on that reading, that the key point of the battles came when the Companions charged. This timing was under Alexander’s direct control, and usually involved the Companions in a change in formation (from, say, column to line) and a change in direction.

Thus, if I were working on a rule set for the period (and I am), I would be thinking very carefully about how to write rules for the Companions. How can this difference between Alexander’s men and those of other units be incorporated in the rules?

If I were a Kantian, I would probably just try to save the phenomenon of the Companions being crucial by, say, giving them a hefty advantage in tactical factors. But I can start to deduce other things from the phenomena as we have them. The Companions, we can say, were highly trained, and so could switch formation rapidly. As Macedonian nobles fighting for and with the king, they were probably highly motivated, in a way which most other troops which were fairly reluctant levies, were not. And, of course, they were under the direct command of that king, who had a fairly short way with people who did not do exactly what he wanted.

So, as a rule writer, I can penetrate, at least some way, into the things, in this case the mind-set of a unit, as they are (or were). For the rules to yield the historical results, I need to take into account the fairly unique (can something be fairly unique?) status of the Companions in order to be able to reproduce their battle winning charges. Saving the phenomena by simply giving them +4 for being Companions is overly simplistic.

This might even point to an answer to the question of why ‘national characteristics’ tend to be a bad idea. We save the phenomena (like the Royal Navy tends to win) but at the cost of zero insight into what that might be the case.


  1. I have occasionally dabbled with philosophical ideas, though the puny depth of my study is largely defined by (for example) Melvin Bragg's occasional radio podcasts, and a number of partly-read paper books which eventually made my head hurt and/or put me to sleep.

    I find that the debates can be interesting and thought-provoking, but any real confrontation between schools of reasoning gets bogged down in very subjective discussion of the exact meaning of the words used - some, of course, might argue that the true art of the philosopher lies in an ability to justify the unlikely or the tedious in a way which, itself, demonstrates intimidating brown power. This is not limited to philosophy, of course - I recently heard a serious (living) composer deliver a 20 minute explanatory talk on BBC Radio 3 about an angular piece of discordant nonsense which lasts about 4 minutes when performed. The man earns his Arts Sponsorship money in the justification rather than the composition, methinks. I digress.

    Some uneducated and probably worthless thoughts:

    (1) There is an element of wheels within wheels - it is hard to put our collective finger on just which aspects of the Companions' performance (or mindset) gave rise to the observable success, but - similarly - it might be that the individual things they did - which could be observed - depended on smaller, less discernible elements. Yes, I realise this is not a big help.

    (2) This may be another digression - it doesn't quite feel like one. We might observe individual instants and actions in a battle, which may well contribute to the final outcome - but which of them are significant is not obvious at the moment they occur. With hindsight, the historian or the chief of staff may record that such-and-such an event had an effect on the result, but he will miss some and his view might be partial. Which leads me to a further thought - there are a great many instances (especially in ancient and mythological warfare) where a battle is regarded as having hinged on some very small, very unlikely event, decision or tactical move (I can't think of one offhand, of course - perhaps one side suddenly removed their clothing and shouted very loud - that would be silly enough) which is then upheld by subsequent tradition as the decisive moment. When I read of such things, I am often struck by the fact that I know of no war-games rules which would cover such an event - the rules stick more closely to mainstream tactical activity, outcomes within a narrow(ish) funnel of probability. The unpopular "showstopper" dice-roll or Chance Card - which is felt to penalise correct and systematic generalship - may be closer to the spirit of these tide-turning moments of historical tradition. [I thought of an example - the Royalists at the Battle of Montgomery advance in fine style, driving the enemy back into the river, and suddenly - inexplicably - fall apart and lose most of the army. Most rulesets would handle the individual melees and the build-up of momentum, but might not cover the sudden collapse of morale.]

    If we can agree observed historical outcomes, measurable numbers, we might still never get a real idea of why they came about. A big +1 factor might push the game results in the observed historical direction, but it does feel a bit crude.

    1. I think you are right - I suspect that on some level Kant, or at least our epistemological deficiencies bite us. The Companions are a bit of a case in point. Aside from being the Companions, not a huge amount is known about them. To some ignorance is bliss. To wargamers, there are always more questions to be asked.

      I think any report of a battle has to be selective (Wellington said some such much more poetically) and so some observers would say this move was the winning one, while others would say that one. We usually do not have the luxury of multiple observers (and when we do they contradict each other), nor can we do a scientific re-run of the battle (in real life) to check the importance of a given event.

      I suppose that is partly why show stoppers are relatively unpopular. While perceived to be the key to the battle, they seem so unimportant (much of the time) that it is hard to build a plan upon them. Or perhaps the underlying scientific outlook of our culture discounts such events.

      I do think the +1 because they won is crude, but sometimes there is no alternative. On the other hand, perhaps we need to try to conjure up a historical image in our minds and hope for a burst of insight.

    2. Perhaps, like the composer, we need to work on the justificatory text. A +1 factor with a 20 minute talk explaining it seems more scientific and perceptive than a +1 factor without. As you say, it might be that +1 is the only way to handle it in a game - I have a pleasing mental image of the publication of a revised edition of a set of rules, in which the rules themselves are identical, but the justification has been expanded.

      I believe I may own some rules that are very like this, come to think of it.

    3. I've always found the 'designer's notes' bits of rules the most interesting. Perhaps, though, a thesis on each modifier could improve the tone considerably. Someone complained that there were 22 modifiers in SPQR. I wonder if a 30 page justification for each, with references, would cheer them up?

    4. I'm loving the idea of chance cards which reflect the reasons that were given to explain victory or defeat in ages past.
      "Emperor sees comet, converts entire army to Christianity. +2 to all morale rolls"
      It would liven competition games up no end.
      Mind you, there might be something in it. You can imagine what would happen to army morale if word got round that the general had his fortune told and the auguries were bad. We're all doomed, etc - condemned by self-fulfilling prophecy.

    5. I think it was often the case; Roman commanders did the auguries in secret and announced the result to the expectant army. Fortunately, they always seemed to be good, even though sometimes the armies lost horribly...

    6. Perhaps that's what we're missing as wargamers?
      We'll phase out chance cards in favour of the sacrificial chicken offering.

    7. Who would we get to do the entrails reading though? Is augury a dying craft? Can we get a grant to keep it going?

    8. Surely the Warhammer people do a booklet on that?

  2. "on that reading, that the key point of the battles came when the Companions charged. This timing was under Alexander’s direct control"

    And might that last bit be the point? The historians who wrote these accounts were writing the story of Alexander, rather than his army. What went on on the rest of the field was at least incidental to the point of the history and at worst might have been played down as detracting from the legend of Our Hero.
    (So the line in the rules is "Historian present with unit +4")

    1. I think that is a fair point, but it does seem that the Companions were the key shock troops. Of course, Alexander probably did it to keep the spotlight focussed on him and him alone. As megalomaniacs go, all he was missing was coverage on TV, really.

      I'm actually finding Alex really hard to cope with in rule writing. All the authors I've found so far think he was a genius; only a few admit that he was perhaps a little bonkers, maybe just at the end. No-one seems to account for the fact that he devastated large tracts of countries that had never upset him, or left an conquered area that was plunged into warfare by his officers. It is all just the Alexander myth - the great man can do no wrong.

      On the other hand, it seems hard to give the Macedonians a chance without some sort of genius in command.

    2. Sorry - I'm over here as well - it's just enthusiasm.

      Two further thoughts, which I shall keep brief:

      (1) There are groups of war gamers who view a simple game system with great suspicion - gridded games, boardgames of any type, reduction of unit effectiveness to a single number which rolls up morale, training, strength and va-va-voom into one attribute are examples. The shorter the rule book, the longer you have to spend making excuses.

      (2) Some of the legends become self-sustaining. Napoleon's Guard, for example, are regarded as unstoppable (mostly), but in reality were seldom called into action until the action was just about won - Montmirail and Waterloo are obvious exceptions. I mean those plumes and stuff were really expensive. Did the Companions turn around actions which were previously going badly? Did they just deliver the coup de grace and get too much of the publicity? Discuss.

    3. You are welcome wherever...

      I do think there is a lot of 'if its simple it must be wrong'. But simple accurate rules are a lot harder to write than complex ones. As a rule writer, 'I suffer so you don't have to' is my motto...

      And yes, self-sustaining legends are the order of the day. After all, most people didn't hang around to fight the Spartans, because they were known to be good. So eventually someone twigged and got their men to adopt shields with the Spartan lambda on them, and everyone ran away...

      As to the Companions, I suspect that there might be a case for them not being the spectaculars they claim, but as Chris notes, we can't tell.

  3. Long time lurker: have a Liebster, I know it's your thing!