I have, I think, written before about emergence as a concept in wargaming, but I suspect that there is a bit more to say, more specifically. This pondering was triggered by a piece on Ross’ blog about sixteenth century wargaming, and the cross over between skirmish type games and big battle ones.
Specifically, I think Ross was considering how small units, which we might find in a skirmish wargame, became bigger units which we might use in a battle wargmae. When does one become the other? When does an individual become part of a unit, and when does a unit become part of an army?
Of course, this is a complex question which I can only pretend to have a stab at answering. Intuitively we sort of know the answers, at least at the extremes. A skirmish game is one with a handful or so of figures in which they move and act individually and who are identified as individuals, perhaps with some characteristics, personal goals, individual injuries and so on.
A battle level game is one where, on the whole, personalities are ignored. A unit acts as a unit, and the only individuals who may be taken account of are at the general level, or at most the individual unit commanders.
The question to ask here, however, is how does one merge into another? Is there such a thing as a ‘small’ battle scale, one in which units and individuals matter? If so, how on earth could we wargame that?
Now, obviously, at the smallest scale, the individual comes to the fore. The choices the individual makes, for example whether to keep his head down or to charge forward, are specific to that individual and the context in which he (or she) finds himself. Thus, at a role playing game level, individuals, controlled by a single player, can make these decisions. The decisions made are moderated by the player, the other players (“You’ve not done anything brave all game”), the skills and abilities of the characters and so on. But the individual reaction is based around some sort of risk analysis by the individual concerned, and whether the potential benefits will outweigh them.
A group of role players is probably not a terribly good place to start an analysis of the next level up, however. Player characters are supposed to be the hero level in their world, and thus to be a cut above the usual soldier in a skirmish. You could add to that role playing is, perhaps the ultimate in the assertion of modernist individuality. In some games, after all, a single player character can take on an entire army with a reasonable expectation of winning.
The shift up from a small bunch of individuals to a small unit means that, in order for the game to be playable, we need to defocus from the individual to some extent. We might not have the same level of detail of skills and outlooks. We may retain that for, say, the officers involved, but the men start to look more like cannon fodder than anything else. We can also start to consider the impact of orders and reactions to them. In role playing, there are few orders per se; mostly actions are from peer pressure or simply ‘doing the job’. In a unit based skirmish game, individuals can be given specific orders, such as ‘provide covering fire’. Whether they are carried out efficiently or effectively is, of course, a matter for the players and the rules, but the principle is there.
At this level and the ones above it there is not much room for the individual as individual. Our toy soldiers have become less individuals on the battlefield, and more tokens of the troops and their types. This increases, of course, as the scale of the battle increases. Once a toy solider is representing more than one individual, the effect of those individuals qua individuals is washed out in any rule set. The mass starts to rule.
Of course, this impacts on our rules. The effect of 100 men firing is not the same as the effect of one man firing. The former has some sort of averaged effect depending on range, average training and so on. The latter is a matter of skill, plus a bit of luck. The effect of 100 men firing is not the same as the effect of one man firing 100 times. At least, the moral effect of being on the receiving end of a volley of 100 shots delivered at the same time is going to be different from 100 single shots, even if they all miss in both cases.
Moving up the scale, we have to leave behind individual morale and decision making, and start to consider command, control and unit morale. And of course, the word ‘unit’ can mean varying things. Is it this platoon, this company, this battalion, this brigade, this division, wing or even the overall army? The emergence of these higher levels tends to wash out the impacts of the lower ones, and yet somehow those lower levels impact on the upper ones. A unit is still composed of individuals deciding to keep their heads down or not.
So when we come to a wargame I think we do have to consider what level we are playing at, and what sort of effects we are aiming for. The older sorts of rules still regarded the toy solider as an individual. Once that legionary has thrown his pilum, he had to get stuck in with his sword. There was not that much consideration of the unit as a whole. If half the unit had thrown their javelins, there were still a fair number of javelins left to go around.
More recent rules do account for the unit, but perhaps in more abstract terms. The most widely known abstraction of unit morale I know of is in the DBA family of games, where it is implied that unit morale is included in the combat factors and die rolls. This might be acceptable, but it does seem to have abstracted the whole question of collective behaviour away, and, in fact, parked morale squarely on the army as a whole, and, in part, on the player.
So there is no real answer to the question of when a skirmish game is a skirmish game. But I guess we know one when we see it.