Saturday, 15 November 2014

Developing Wargames

I suspect that most of us, at some time or another, think that we could do better than some wargame that we have just seen. If only, we muse, I had a bit more time, I could paint those toy soldiers, create that terrain, write those rules better, more clearly, more authentically, and the whole thing would come together to provide an aesthetic and satisfying experience, which, perhaps, provides also some deep insight into a historical battle.

This aspiration, of course, remains simply that. Even if we did have more time, the perfect wargame would be out of reach. We have to settle, as finite beings, for the good enough, something that is sufficiently satisfying, aesthetic enough, and so on. We are both empowered and constrained by our language, for one thing. We can only think certain things, as those things we cannot think about we cannot articulate.

I am currently reading Rowan Williams’ ‘The Edge of Words’ (2014, Bloomsbury). This is not a project I have undertaken lightly, as the good former Archbishop of Canterbury has a certain reputation for impenetrability and, I have to confess, I have read occasional bits of his former works and emerged from as bemused as I went in. Anyway, thus far, The Edge of Words has proved to be a lot more readable than I was expecting.

The point here is that at one place (p. 57-8) Williams muses on our inarticulateness. A scientist moves the subject forward, he suggests, by puzzling over discrepancies. This is not a stimulus response mode of language, although the scientist is usually dealing with objects that do respond in that mode. What is meant here, I think, is that the scientist usually deals with such things as rocks, which when thrown behave in certain ways; these ways are independent of the scientist observer.

Within the stimulus response mode, then, there is no role for inarticulateness, but in the development of science, there is. Some scientific phenomena are not immediately intelligible. Indeed, one of the biggest tasks that science, as a whole, faces is making its deliverances intelligible, either within the scientific community or, what is even harder, in the wider community who, after all, foot the bill for most scientific research.

However, such bafflement with language is not limited to science. We have probably all found ourselves ‘lost for words’. Williams’ example is that of Cordelia at the beginning of King Lear, who cannot articulate her love for her father.  That love cannot be tied up in words to satisfy the King’s need for love. There are, at least, some things we struggle to say.

Moving on, we can note that, of course, King Lear is fiction. The point here is that in a play (or, I suspect a film or even a football match) we cannot intervene. For example, in Terry Pratchett’s Weird Sisters there is a highly amusing bit where one of the character does intervene in a play they are watching, indicating the guilty party in a murder mystery and shouting ‘He done it!’ (or words to that effect). The humour is in the fact that the corpse is not a dead body, the murderer didn’t hurt anyone and intervention is from outside the world of the fiction. In Williams’ words ‘And so I am brought face to face with what I do not want to grasp or apprehend – my own limits as they border on the limits of agents who are absolutely and inaccessibly other.’

And so to wargaming. In a wargame the figures, the scenario, the rules and so are, in fact, other. It was suggested recently that a good analogy for a wargame would be a football match, and I agree. In a football match, the players and referee are other. I, as a spectator, can do little to influence the match. I can cheer or boo, but that might make me feel that my views are, at least, heard (or that I articulate them) but that has little or no influence over the outcome. It is unlikely that the referee will reverse a decision over a penalty just because a section of the crowd is catcalling him.

However, I think that one of the engaging features of wargaming that makes the analogies of film, play or match strain is, in fact, that as wargamers we are involved. Our decisions influence the outcome of the game. If I decide not to move the Grenadier Guards into line and thus the attack stalls, that is my decision affecting the game. In this discourse, taking language in a wider sense than just words, my actions influence the outcomes on the table.

Thus, alongside the fact that I am cut off from the activities on the table by the intervening layers of rules and models, I am also involved at quite a deep level. The words I use about table-top activities also imply that. I do not refer to ‘The French Grand Battery’ but to ‘My guns’. The relationship is mediated, admittedly, through the interpretation given to my actions and activities through the rules. The situation I am responding to is modelled on the table top, and that feeds back to me as decision maker. But the bottom line is that as a wargamer, I am involved in the table-top activity. It may be other, but it is also influence by me.

Those of you with very long memories might recall that I proposed a three layer model of a wargame: the real world of the player, the mediating layer of the rules, and the wargame table layer of the game. Again, this seems to work in this sense, except that the model does not seem to reproduce this level of involvement. This personal involvement, incidentally, seems to be what worries those few who regard wargaming as glamorising war (or have similar viewpoints; I’ve written quite enough about that previously). But the involvement of the players is a vital part of making a wargame worthwhile.

So, perhaps, we could regard a wargame as analogous to a film or football match, but we would have to admit that, even in the latter case, our involvement in a wargame is more intense, has a bigger influence on the outcome and, (to purloin a footballing phrase) at the end of the day is more personal.


  1. Intriguing stuff. I confess I rather lost the thread somewhere between the concept of the adequacy of language and involvement/influence in/over a wargame, but the ideas are stimulating. I am not sure that 40,000 football supporters all watching a match from the "outside" cannot influence it, but no matter.

    The final idea about level of influence in a wargame provokes some thought. One of the reasons I might consider I could "improve" on someone else's wargame is that I might make it more similar to the kind of game I would like, and I've grown used to the idea that my own preferences are a bit outside the mainstream. Last night I watched a video about the Battle of Wavre - 19th June 1815, famous as one of the more pointless military exercises of history, and I was left thinking what Grouchy was thinking about on that day, and how, in later years, he must have felt about his decisions and his level of influence on history as a result. He probably felt that he had indeed been an influential player in the events, but that his direct responsibility for the end of the Napoleonic Age was rather watered down by ambiguous orders, a few bad breaks and the unpredictability of the actions of rather a lot of blokes from the other side, not to mention the performance of his own side. So he was a leading influence, but overall he was a participant in the Battle of Wavre rather than the director or sponsor(?) of the event. That is how I see my own role in wargames - I decide to set out the table, get the soldiers out, I make some key decisions and design choices - I even provide some sort of plan for the conduct of the battle, but the events thereafter are sufficiently out of my immediate control for me to feel that I am present at an event - like Grouchy, I am nominally in charge, but I am one of many - my little soldiers and I are, to some extent, a collective. It is the fake-history narrative aspect which holds the greatest fascination.

    This is exactly why I am very partial to solo campaigns, though the work involved is sometimes daunting.

    1. Well, i guess no analogy is perfect; my catcalling the referee would have no influence. 40.000 doing so might, but my own influence is very limited.

      Someone said of the John Major government that they were in office but not in power. It seems to me that Grouchy must have felt in the same place. He could issue orders and have them obeyed, but not influence the overall outcome.

      Solo campaigns? I agree, but take a minimalist approach. I write a narrative, with a few dice rolls along the way, until i get to a battle, then I wargame. It saves having to worry about logistics, economics and all the things that I should worry about for 'realism', but which tend to send most wargamers gibbering into the corner...

  2. It might be seen as a comment on our society that it is assumed automatically that in a football match one is an observer rather than player.
    (Not a watcher myself). The players of course influence the game in the same way a wargamer or team of wargamers influence theirs.

    From listening to interviews (there were not enough spectators at inter squadron matches at college to matter) I understand that the roar of crowds does has an impact but on the players not the ref and is what we would call a morale effect which can result in a team being encouraged and playing harder or the opposite. Makes one wonder if the clashing of shields and chanting of warcries etc and martial music by units not currently fighting might have had a similar morale effect. I've only seen it refered to tangentally
    in a few sets of rules.

    Oh, and yelling at the tv has, I am sure, no effect on a game.

    1. Of course, in original football in Merrie Englande there was no such things as a bystander....

      Often the atmosphere is referred to, either as hostile or supportive. it is a bit like wargame morale - impossible to quantify but a real effect. But my voice shouting 'shame, ref!' is unlikely to be heard. 40,000 might, granted, but how many usually spectate wargames?

      I do think that clashing shields, war crys and so on have more effect than we usually warrant, as does dressing up in your Sunday best (or whatever pagan equivalent might be). The show, at least, counts. Alexander issued armour to his to counter the gold of the Indians. there were rich people who counted, and who wanted to fight them?

    2. Talking of football in Merrie England I'd be interested to hear the views of any war gamers who'd participated in the Haxey Hood. Wonder if that experience would throw up any insights on morale and mob/phalanx actions.