Saturday, 28 June 2014

When is a Unit a Unit?

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.

13 comments:

  1. When do a group of musicians become an orchestra?

    Herbert Read, the anarchist poet and art critic, differentiated in his writings between bodies that acted as one and groups of men with a common purpose but acting as individuals.

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    1. I have no answer to that, except, perhaps, that everyone is out of step except me....

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  2. I have to admit that despite several attempts, I don't "get" what wargamers call skirmish games, especially the slow motion ones where players get minutes to ponder their next 30 second action. I also don't see much evidence of these bloody clashes between tiny groups though that may just reflect on my research skills. What one tends to find is that encounters between small groups of enemies tend to be fairly bloodless with most soldiers being discouraged by both authority and nature not to risk their lives for no purpose and bearing little ill will towards the enemy on a personal level. Most official missions beyond vedettes (whose mission is to watch and inform NOT to fight) are given to larger groups which are controlled by their officers and act as units.

    This is not to deny that men acting as part of a unit still have feelings and thought but the whole point of the hours of training is to subvert those feelings to orders, routine and team/unit spirit so that these things become instinct.

    However armies are almost never a single unit. They are instead groups of units. In the modern age (say from the mid 17thC on) and some earlier ones, (Roman Legions etc) these are relatively stable/persistent organizations at the lower level levels with a hierachy so that when the man at the top says "go" there is a practiced routine by which the message gets passed to the appropriate group which then obeys and goes. As opposed to a mob where an orator jumps up on a soap box and says "go" and those who can here him decide each for himself or maybe in small groups where one personality dominates, whether or not they will go and by what route.

    What puzzles me is how armies without a fixed structure and SOP's operated. There are no radios, the ability of runners to find a particular small group must have been limited and so we see even in armies of rebel civilians and part time soldiers some form of hierarchy so that the General sends an order to the chief of this tribe who then sends a message to one of his subordinate leaders who then has to somehow communicate with his 500 or 1,000 men or maybe calls a junior noble and tells him to get some men and go over there.

    Our wargames tend to have very rudimentary structures, units and generals, or sometimes groups of units and if playing a large battle that is understandable, There are physical limits esp if one has not recruited a team of 10 players aside. But in a smaller game, not a man to man brawl but an expedition with 2 cohorts of infantry and an ala of cavalry and perhaps some auxilliaries, how many people know or care how the maniples operate as part of their cohort? or how the cohorts are controlled and co operate under the orders of their leader? What trumpet calls and standard signals are there to choose from in order to control the movement and actions of the troops?

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    1. I think that there might be a few scenarios wherein a skirmish type game could be appropriate, such as an 18th C smuggling game or my own Fuzigore ambush game, but that did shade into role playing as well. however, I agree on the minutes to think of what to do in the next few seconds issue - the games should move along quite quickly.

      i also agree that we do not do command and control (and communications) very well on the table. I think Phil Barker observed that a wargame C&C structure was the opposite of that in real life - it acted to prevent wargamers from doing whatever they wanted, while in real life it acted to enable commanders to do what they wished (within limits).

      I also agree that small unit actions are usually interesting and under-represented in wargames. But perhaps some of the complexities are the reason that they are not much played. In Polemos, we simply assume a lot of the unit command functions happen by magic; I think that is quite a widespread view.

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  3. I would suggest that a "unit" is any group that has sufficient training, cohesion, and group identity to be able to withstand the shock of battle for ny stretch of time. So, the Roman legionaries who throw their javelins and then get stuck in with swords may each be fighting an individual battle, but they have some sense of their group identity and are responsive to certain prearranged signals (horns, whistles, commands) because of their training. I suspect much of the same was true of a Germanic warband fighting a legion. The Iraqi army units which tore off their uniforms and abandoned millions of dollars of US supplied weaponry in the last month were not units by any military sense of the term. The young ISIL jihadists in pickups and SUVs clearly were.

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    1. Not sure I'd agree with that Michael. Some units can be better than others. For as much as I know ISIS could be a rag tag bunch of fanatics who haven't come up against much serious opposition so their ability to respond to orders in a challenging situation my not have been tested.

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    2. So are we suggesting (taking Ross' comments as well) that a unit is something with a control structure, while a rabble isn't? How would we consider say, an eight man modern army squad - individuals or a unit?

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    3. I'd go with the Read quote from Epictetus.

      With respect to a modern army squad I'd tend to go with "unit". The expected behaviour would be that the group act under orders or, where members use their initiative, it would be under some form of standing orders and geared towards some overarching goal. Obviously individuals may fall short of that ideal but their behaviour would be judged against that standard. To the extent that the behaviour of the majority fails against those standards one could say that the "unit" was poor (whether through lack of training, lack of esprit de corps or whatever).

      In wargames terms I think we use the term "unit" also for irregular groups ("rabble" seems too pejorative). I suspect we do this is (a) for convenience; (b) because we have the mindset of denizens of ordered societies with traditions of regulated military structures. Which in turn poses the question how would a barbarian warrior model group behaviour in a wargame (always assuming he would have his very own lead mountain) or would he only think about modelling individual behaviour?

      With irregulars, whilst the ostensible aim for all members might be the same, the expectation of acting in unison would be lower. What was culturally acceptable to them may fall short of the "military ideal".

      I can't help but think of what happened to irregular forces once regular Europe armies began to develop light troops who could skirmish and fight in close/loose order. I'm not sure what the point is but I suspect it is important in some way to the definition of "unit".

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    4. Interesting. i suppose rabbles have a tendency to stick together for mutual protection (something that fails in modern warfare, of course), so if someone can get them moving in the same direction, I guess they would stay going that way.

      The mindset of a barbarian office would, presumably, be thinking of chopping off bits of his men which didn't go in the right direction; much unit activity is probably predicated on not wanting to be the odd one out, I suspect.

      I guess the issue turns on discipline and training, and acting in a predictable way as ordered, and that is why light infantry swept away irregulars, although irregulars can still give regular units a hard time.

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  4. "how (do) small units, which we might find in a skirmish wargame, became bigger units which we might use in a battle wargame. When does one become the other?"
    *Surely there is a continuum? But perhaps we can say that a true 'one-unit' skirmish is one in which there are no strong subordinate structures within a force. A modern skirmish would therefore be limited to one section or multiple (8-14 men); or even the fire-team/gun group of 3 or 4, although going down that far might perhaps be pedantic. In earlier times, we could increase the numbers to a platoon, or retinue or whatever, where any division of the force would be ad hoc rather than formal.
    "When does an individual become part of a unit, and when does a unit become part of an army?"
    *Identity perhaps gives a clue here? What would be the lowest level where a soldier/warrior self-identifies as part of the structure? Section is probably the place for a modern army.
    "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?"
    *This is probably located at the platoon level, hence the 'leader/big man' mechanic of TooFatLardies games set at that level. The level probably increases as we go back in history.
    "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."
    *But this resembles the modern experience of combat. Real-life leaders cannot deal with their own men as individuals under the pressure of combat, hence the fairly vertical military heirarchy - certainly not past Platoon level, and not often then (i.e. a mixture of teams and individuals, where the individual is noticeably different) probably works okay.
    "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."
    *But if their actions are relatively predictable, then this probably isn't too much of a problem. There are constant factors of consistent importance. But crucially combat isn’t fractal – sections and platoons do not fight the same way as divisions or corps. This was a key weakness in ‘Old School Rules’, although low figure:man ratios helped obviate that.

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    1. A continuum between unit of different sizes? Yes, I think I'd agree with that, but being human I like to categorize - this is a squad, this a platoon and so on.

      I do recall a WW1 story (see, we can do topical on the blog!) where a junior officer is leading his men out of the line and they pass the troops relieving them. Their CO steps forward 'Your company has had a bad time!'
      'This isn't my company, sir, this is the battalion'

      The question there is did the unit function as a battalion or as a company as its number reduced and, of course, did high command expect it function as one or the other.

      I guess the final point is germane as well. What higher command wants is units that act predictably. I know I often really annoy my 'managers' by failing to be predictable....

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  5. " I also don't see much evidence of these bloody clashes between tiny groups though that may just reflect on my research skills. What one tends to find is that encounters between small groups of enemies tend to be fairly bloodless with most soldiers being discouraged by both authority and nature not to risk their lives for no purpose and bearing little ill will towards the enemy on a personal level."
    *I think this is true enough - most very small groups will not be motivated enough to get stuck in, particularly in the firearms age. Either our skirmishes will be normally bloodless, or they will be a small slice of a bigger conflict (say 20-men a side fighting in a wood in the ACW or something, part of a much larger clash but briefly ignorant of what else is going on), or they will be set where the protagonists have an unusually high motivation to get involved.

    "What puzzles me is how armies without a fixed structure and SOP's operated."
    *I suppose this is why plans were kept simple and that armies tended to collapse very quickly when defeated - there were few 'independent' sub-units that could be pitched in as separate entities - and the cohesion that got them into battle will carry them away just as quickly if the situation goes wrong.
    "But in a smaller game, not a man to man brawl but an expedition with 2 cohorts of infantry and an ala of cavalry and perhaps some auxilliaries, how many people know or care how the maniples operate as part of their cohort? or how the cohorts are controlled and co operate under the orders of their leader? What trumpet calls and standard signals are there to choose from in order to control the movement and actions of the troops? "
    *The late Paddy Griffith proposed playing lots of different games, to concentrate on the different challenges of commanding at each level, with the appropriate command and control mechanisms being inserted into each of these games.
    "Which in turn poses the question how would a barbarian warrior model group behaviour in a wargame (always assuming he would have his very own lead mountain) or would he only think about modelling individual behaviour?"
    *I'd suggest focussing on the leader - the mechanisms which the leader had at his disposal to keep his own troops fighting and stop his enemies' doign the same. Although that is pretty much true for all warfare! However, his manoeuvre options are much reduced.

    Anyway, another thought-provoking post (and thought-provoking comments), thank you!

    Regards

    John

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    1. I think that my main criticism of older rules is that they do seem to have (for pre-modern warfare, anyway) far too high a casualty rate, and I guess that this applies to 'skirmish' games as well. Recent research on the ECW suggests that rates were very low until one side ran away - most casualties were in the pursuit. I saw some similar work on hoplite battles as well.

      I suspect in skirmish games we go for wounds and casualties for the drama and excitement. A real skirmish game with troops shooting at extreme range at anything that moved without really knowing what was going on would be a bit boring.

      I think I agree with Griffiths, as well - play lots of games at different levels, and with different rule sets, and see if they fit together. I suspect that it will amount to reading history through fly-type lenses: lots of separate images, not necessarily making coherent sense....

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