Saturday, 23 August 2014

Wargame Models

One of the things that has become clearer to me (I daresay it was already obvious to you) is that wargames contain a lot of models, and the important thing in whether a given game is enjoyable is how those models interact.

Obviously, we have the scale models of the toy soldiers, and the scaled units that they represent. Furthermore, we have the various models of the wargame rules we are using, and how well they model the activities of the units. Then there is the idea that the interaction of the units and the rules, at an army level, is also important. As I mentioned recently, you can represent an army in a plethora of different ways, and it is still the same army, it just varies in the number of toy soldiers and their ratios which we place upon the table.

This interaction of models is not, of course, unusual, particularly, in real life. For example, an architect might have a set of plans and a scale model of the outcome before setting the contractors on the site. The two had better be in agreement, or the outcome could be embarrassing or, worse, modern architecture at its worse.

As an aside, at work there is a futuristic modern block. It has a garden on a flat roof, with bushes, in pots, set into a gravel filled trench. Nice idea, so those benighted workers with no view can peer out on some greenery. Except that no-one seems to have considered what to do with excess rainwater, which, when the trench is full, flows down the inside of the windows. Yes, the inside.

I digress, of course, but confess that I stopped in blinking amazement when it was pointed out to me.

Anyway, as set of wargame rules, armies, scale models and so on is supposed to, in toto, bear some resemblance to a historical original. I think that the ruminations on army representations indicated that this can, in fact, be achieved in many different ways. Similarly, it will be no surprise to anyone reading this that wargame rules can emphasise different aspects of the experience of battle, and that these differing models of the various aspects can fit together in different ways.

For example, I have mentioned before the Tercio rules, which include fear factors for, more or less, anyone facing the Ottoman Turks, or, at least, the Janissaries. Now, clearly, this is an attempt to model some part of the observable reality that was the fear which many others felt when facing the Janissaries. This fear, of course, arose, from the fearsome reputation which the troops, at that time, had. Thus, in terms of modelling reality, the adjustment of a fear factor seems a reasonable thing to do. If Austrian levy infantry were facing other levies, then no fear factor      is necessary. If facing Janissaries, then a bit of extra concern is entirely reasonable. In fact, I suspect that part of the art of facing Ottoman Turks in the rule set became screening off the Janissary contingent, or facing it with your own, immune to fear, troops, such as Polish Lancers or Knights of St John (as I recall, anyway).

Now, fast forward twenty years or so of wargame rule development and we come to DBA and DBR, both of which include Ottoman Turk armies with Janissaries. However, there is not a fear or panic factor in sight. The claim is that the morale effect of the different troops in included in the combat factors. In the case above, Janissaries would be classed as something ‘superior’ and the Austrian levies would be something inferior (at least in DBR terms) and hence the fear of the latter for the former would be included in these factors.

The point is that here are two perfectly respectable models for the same thing. Both rule sets have been used by perfectly respectable wargamers, many of which probably have a far deeper understanding of the period, the armies, the social and cultural contexts of the era and so on than I do. And yet, somehow, the models are completely different, they work differently and start from different assumptions. Which is the best, where best means, say, the most historically accurate?

Now, looking at the assumptions the models are based on we see firstly that the Tercio rules are what we could call cumulative rules. They decide what the effect of one man firing a musket might be, and aggregate that to three hundred. Then, this is adjusted for assorted external factors, such as range and fear of the enemy. The fundamental unit of the model is thus the individual.

In DBR, the fundamental unit of the rules is the base, which (while DBR actually models this rather poorly) the base is, roughly speaking, a unit. DBR (and other more recent rule sets) is not really interested in the individuals involved, but in the outcomes of the combats. Somewhere in one of the introductions it mentions that the general cannot see the numbers of casualties of a given unit, only that it is standing, recoiling, surging forward victorious or whatever else.

Now, of course, how we assess the accuracy or otherwise of each set of rules is an individual’s choice. Some folk like the cumulative style, and some like the overall style. I am not, here advocating any one as better or worse than another, and I am sure that there is also a plethora of other models which could be used. However, it is clear to me (and I have played both, quite extensively) that the DBR style is easier, if only because it takes less looking up stuff and keeping rosters.

The other point to make, I suppose, is that the type of model used is constrained by the overall approach of the rule writer to the subject. Perhaps the wargame world of the 1970’s was particularly individualistic, while that of the 1990’s was corporate. I am not sure I believe that, but, perhaps, wargaming only came to understand the issue of emergent behaviour later.


  1. I think that the beginning of your final paragraph really sums things up. It's all down to the author's preferences and approach. I don't believe you can get a 'best'/'most historically accurate' rules set as such. Instead you will get a rules set that best models the author's take on that history which may well be filtered through various translators of primary sources and filtered through the authors of the secondary literature that the rules' author considers best. To ask which rules set is most historically accurate (assuming that a serious attempt at historical simulation was made by the author) is to adopt a Rankean approach to history and the ideal of recreating it 'wie es eigentlich gewesen'. It may be what wargamers want but it is not really a credible approach to history, because of the various filters that come between the author and the history, especially when you consider that history was experienced differently by those that lived it, and that we are looking at an incomplete data set from a fair distance and with a different mind-set. Thinking like this is probably why I have never managed to write a set of rules that I am happy with for my beloved Vikings!

    Regarding emergent behaviour, when was it first studied and when was it first discussed in the public domain as opposed to scholarly circles? That might have affected the adoption of such theories among rules writers.

    1. I think that you have hit the nail on the head. All we can do is read sources, translations, secondary sources and so on, and make the best judgements we can given the constraints (for example, a set of wargame rules). We cannot recreate a battle as it was, or even as it might have been; we can only create something that, in some aspects, might have some grasp on the historical event. How much of a grasp is, of course, more or less unquantifiable.

      I'm not sure about emergent behaviour - it was around in academic circles in the 1950's; maybe it became more widely known in the 1970's and 1980's as neo-darwinism gained purchase?