Saturday, 19 July 2014

Army Representations

The original idea behind this post was that it would be illustrated by beautiful pictures of well painted miniatures to show what I mean.

A number of factors have conspired to prevent this. Firstly, while I have finished painting and based the army in question, I doubt if the figures would pass muster as well painted. In fact, I believe that, even as I type, they are considering a class action against me for cruel and unusual punishment. Negotiations with wargame lawyers are ongoing.

Secondly, I have failed to charge the battery on my camera. On the other hand the pictures would have been fairly rubbish anyway, as taken by yours truly, so you will have to use your imagination. As with reading books or listening to the radio, however, you imagination will provide better pictures, I am sure, than anything I could snap.

Enough of the digressions and excuses, anyway, and on to the question. What is this?

1x3Kn, 1x3Cv, 1x2LH, 1x4Ax, 6x4Pk, 1x4Sp or 4Ax or 2Ps or art.

There are, naturally, no prizes for guessing the right answer: the Alexandrian Macedonian army from DBA (version 2.0, if you are interested).

The point is that, whether in metal, plastic or simply in type and imagination, as here, this is a representation of an army, with, at least, a historical basis of some form.

How does this work, then? According to what I have seen, Alexander at Granicus had 32000 foot and 5100 cavalry, of which 12000 of the foot were pikemen. Of the above, in fact, pike seem to be over-represented, which is interesting. On the other hand, I do not think that DBA has a bases to original men formula.

Another representation of the same army, which I have been working on for the much vaunted Polemos: Polemos rules, is

6 pike, 4 Thracians, 4 allied Greek, 3 mercenary infantry, 1 archers, 1 Companions, 1 Thessalonians and 1 Paeonians.

I know that this makes 21 bases, and Polemos armies are supposed to be 20 bases, but this is a work in progress. The numbers were worked out on a direct ratio, so 12000 pike in the original work out to be 6 bases in the representation (6.4 if you work it out properly – divide the number of a specific troop type by the total number and multiply by 20 for a 20 base army ).  Thus the ratio of pike to the rest of the army is a bit more accurate (in the sense of being less than half) than DBA. I cannot, of course, vouch for the overall accuracy of the rules.

So here we have two different representations of the same army in wargame bases. Which is the best? Can we even put forward criteria for deciding which the best is, especially if we also allow for local conditions, availability of toy soldiers and so on. Or even what we mean by ‘best’ at all. After all, how much we enjoy the game is a function of the rules, not just the army lists.

Another view (used, among other, in PM: SPQR) is to vary the number of troops according to the type. So, in SPQR, I think (without looking it up) that infantry were 500 men to a base and cavalry 250, while skirmishers were 75. As I have written elsewhere, this doesn’t really work for the numbers of skirmishers reported in the sources, so is best rationalised in some other way, either as non-combatant looters who happened to be nearby, or as much larger numbers of skirmisher units spending most of their time hanging about looking threatening but not really doing much.

In this case, if I had say, a pike block representing 1000 men, a normal infantry base representing 500 and cavalry at 250, I would obtain 12 pike bases, 14 Thracians, 14 allied and 10 mercenary hoplites,6 Companions, 6 Thessalonians, 2 Greek cavalry and 4 Thracian and Paeonian light horse. A total, I think, of 62 bases, which I, at least, am not going to start and paint.

Of course, there are other ways of representing armies. Charles Grant, I recall, used to measure the frontages in a given battle he was recreating, and fill them with his units. So the overall frontages and ratios were correct, but the number of units was nowhere near. This was probably just as well for sanity and getting the battle finished in a reasonable time, but it does add another way of representing armies to the pile.

I am sure that there are many other ways we can think about representing the original historical army on the wargame table; it is just that in my slightly addled state, I cannot think of any at the moment. But the point, I hope, is fairly clear, and may even be germane. There are many ways of representing an army (let alone a unit) on the wargame table, and, at least at first glance, they do not all look the same, nor, given different sets of rules, do they act in the same way.

In short, even something which might be expected to be fairly uncontroversial, the plonking down on the table of representations of armies, turns out to be rather more complex than might be expected. Rules have different representations, by ratio, by number, by fighting power,  or even (as I suspect DBA does it) by a sort of trial and error to get the right (whatever that means, let us assume ‘historical’) results.

So, the question lies before us: is there a right way of doing this? We spend a lot of effort in compiling orders of battle, but then there are various ways of translating this onto the table. Which is the best way of doing this? Is there a good way, or is it just that we do what ‘feels right’? And if the latter, what does it? Simply that it is historical, or that it agrees with my prejudices, or that it gives a good game?


  1. Hopefully it wad inevitable that someone would pop up and say "oh but DBA does have a scale". The default, which basically does not apply to the basic 12 stand armies used to represent historical armies, is around 1,000 for heavy infantry, 750 for cavalry, barbarians and auxilliary types, and 500 for skirmishers. But since the regulation 12 stand army can be used to represent an army of any size and choice of troops is, I suspect, based at least partly on their role in battle.

    Any set of rules with a fixed number of units is going to run into scale representation since opposing armies with unequal numbers will end up being at different scales.

    The smaller the wargame army the more difficult direct representation becomed as well. There are a number of greek on greek encounters that featured cavalry and light troops on both flanks, small parties compared to the phalanx but still in various rules there are hoplite lists that only allow one unit of cavalry and sometimes only 1 light unit. Splitting them with both arms on both flanks becomes problematic but increasing the proportion is also problematic.

    There is a lot to be said for Old School methods such as Grant's, what I consider and "artistic interpretation" of the historical narrative rather than a purely statistical one.

    1. I meant to add that my answer to your final question is ideally yes, yes and yes.

    2. I think, on further reflection, that the match up between rules and representations matter as well. So the issue with the Greek cavalry & lights could be to do with the rules and the representations.

      I suspect the answer is 'if it feels right do it...', but then we have to use our artistic licence, as Grant, and abandon claims to historical accuracy (whatever that might be).

  2. I have no idea is there is one right way to do the translation. I do as Ross Mac states in his answers - it feels right to my view of history and give a good game.

    The right way likely varies with rulesets due to the way the way they represent units, for instance my own rules phalanx units are normally double the men of other heavy infantry units and so when translating that needs to be taken into account.

    1. I think the problem for me is that I tend only to look at one way of translating from history to tabletop armies, and miss out on other ways of representing a battle.

      So I look at an order of battle and think 20 bases of infantry rather than 2/3 of the battle line. The latter might, in some senses, be more accurate.

    2. I tend to think of the latter first and then work backwards to see if it still makes sense when using actual numbers per unit.

    3. I'd have to measure the width of my units first, of course. But I don't think Grant ever landed up with huge numbers of either units or figures, so there must have been some chopping and changing somewhere.

      Mind you, I recall from his refight of Marathon that the totals were based on the number of hoplite figures available; I guess that is the final determinant of numbers of toy soldiers...

  3. Because I do a lot of solo gaming, my views on this are non-standard, I think. If there is a "right" way of doing it, then it is "right" in the context of the type of game - the social and competitive requirements of wargaming are inescapable, but they distort things a bit. If I fight a solo campaign, then the armies that turn up on the battlefield will be the armies that my records show me are on the map at that moment. If I do a walk-through of a real historical event (and I don't think I have the attention span to do such a thing now) then it makes sense to have everything as factual, by numbers and types of units, as we can make it, but any other kind of replay of history, involving dice, with players free to make their own decisions, is different - after 3 moves you are so far from actual history that an inaccuracy in the OOB is the least of your worries.

    Years ago, before email, I umpired/organised/bullied a number of campaigns with other players as the generals - on one occasion, the 4 players turned up at my house for a fight triggered by a map contact. One of the commanders looked at the situation, and announce that he was retreating into his winter quarters. No battle. No-one knew what to do - we had beer and supper and everything, but his (perfectly valid) military decision was a real embarrassment. He stuck to his guns - it would have been dreadful if the social situation had forced him to fight - and I'm sure we managed to scoff the supper anyway.

    Competitive games. I have never in my life taken part in a game in which the armies had a points value - this is very unfamiliar. Similarly, I have very rarely looked for (or found) a scenario in someone else's book to use for a game. Either the game situation has been handed to me by a developing campaign or else I've improvised something - it has never really been a problem. Yesterday, unusually, I hosted a war-game with a visiting general who has no experience of the rules we were using but has been around the block enough to be looking for a decent game. It would bad for a number of reasons to set up an action which did not give a worthwhile game or which (e.g.) gave him no chance of winning - he had, after all, driven a long way. Thus i had my head in the published scenarios, looking for something suitable.

    Did I have a point here…? Only, I think, that the game is "right" if it suits the occasion, in the senses I have referred to. If the balance of the game is appropriate, my inclination would be to make the armies about the right size, and structure them so that they fitted a "standard" mix, given the available miniatures etc - unless, that is, there was some known historical reason for doing something else.

    1. I have fought with equal points armies, and odd fish they are too for battles, given that both sides have tried to maximise the good and minimise the bad (according to the rules, I doubt the generals were so explicit) in the army (perhaps I was in contact with too many DBM tournament players...).

      I can't see a problem with turning up for a wargame and forgetting to have the battle in favour of beer and supper, myself.

      I do think that this concept of 'rightness' of a wargame would bear some further investigation, but I suppose that each wargamer would have their own idea, and imposing mine would mean that I was exercising my power of oppression over others (not that they would allow me to do that, of course).

      My own contention is that a wargame that 'feels right' is one which as near as possible to the first serious wargame I played, which in my case is George Gush's renaissance rules....