Saturday, 30 May 2015

Deconstructing Wargaming

In even asking some of the questions I pose here, I run the risk of being classified as a postmodernist wargamer, even though I have no idea what one might look like. Even if we reject postmodernism in many of its forms (mostly because such pronouncements as ‘it is all relative’ are self-stultifying) , we have to acknowledge that there is something in some of the questions which are asked by it. For example, the hermeneutic of suspicion encourages us to question the texts which we read and, in a sense, turn them against themselves. This has, of course, significantly been done against religious texts, but most texts are open to this form of deconstruction. Of course, what the users of these techniques often have failed to recognise is that the same technique can be applied to their own texts. Again, we run into the issue of self-stultification. If the author vanishes, then that means that the author of any text, including deconstructionist text vanishes as well.

Nevertheless, it is useful to make some use of these ideas. The questions that are asked, about the limits and meanings of text, are important ones, even if we do not necessarily agree with the answers given (or, in some cases, even understand them). Some typical deconstructionist questions would be ‘where did these ideas come from?’, ‘whose interests do they serve?’, ‘what voices are silenced here?’ A text, as I have recently noted with respect to history, is selective and selected. We cannot know the full meaning, the intention of the author. We can only work out some of what they might have meant, some of what they left out and some ideas of why that might have been so.

As an example I will take a set of wargame rules and ask these sorts of questions. To be specific, I will use De Bellis Renationis, by Phil Barker and Richard Bodley Scott. This is not particularly because I have anything against (or, indeed, in favour of) these rules or the authors. I just want to ask the questions of the text as I bought it.

First, then, ‘where did these ideas come from?’ Well, clearly, DBR is a cousin, at least, of the DBM and DBA nexus. The authors are the same and many of the mechanics carry over. The authors also claim in the introduction (it is always worth reading the preface and/or introduction or author’s notes; we so often let slip what we are really doing in them) that they will bring to player’s attention the largely unknown campaigns of the later seventeenth century in Europe (Turenne, Montecuculi and so on). So there is a claim here also of input from history.

This is, of course, not beyond criticism. The rules, as presented, are, perhaps, more conventional, or at least more stereotypical of a certain view of the ‘Renaissance’ wargaming period that might at first appear. Recent research, so far as I know, does not support the claim that command systems were inadequate (or at least, more inadequate than earlier systems) nor that clumsy deep formations were the norm, or had slowed the style of warfare down. In short, the ideas seem to have come from an earlier period of the historiography of warfare.

Secondly, we can ask ‘whose interests do these ideas serve?’ here, I think there are multiple answers. Firstly, of course, the ideas might serve the author’s interests. Authors are usually interested in people reading what they have produced. I guess it is true to say that most wargame rules are written for love and not money (except GW products), and so the interest of the author is in having their ideas out there. Of course, the danger for the author is that they then get roundly criticised, but in part that is the idea. The ideas are also, almost certainly aimed at serving the interest of the wargaming hobby as community. They do enable us to play games, after all, and hopefully enjoy them. They give us a common language and experience to discuss and critique. We might also note that the rules might serve the interests of the publishers of older historiography, such as Oman.

The third question was , ‘what voices are silenced here?’ this is possibly a bit more interesting and less obvious, and also slightly contradictory to the answers to the second question. Explicitly in the Introduction it says ‘The simple mechanisms produce effects much more subtle than may be apparent at first reading and should not be tampered with.’ With this simple rhetorical device the voices of any other wargamer apart from the authors is effectively silenced, at least with respect to this precise rule set. Potentially, the answer to any question about why the rules are doing this and not doing that are ruled out by the simply expedient of claiming that the rules are too subtle for the questioner to comprehend. This is a pre-emptive strike against any critic of the rules.

This might be construed as working against the implied claim of the rules (and every rule set) that they are serving the wargaming community. Indeed, one of the criticisms of rule sets commercially produced is that they stile the individual wargamer’s ideas and creativity. Perhaps this is so, but of course many wargamers have neither the time or space to undertake the scholarship required to write rules, and simply want to enjoy a quick battle with low set up costs.

Nevertheless, there is a tension emerging between the statement silencing wargamers and the rule set in the communitarian context. We can, of course, ignore the authors, particularly as the next sentence, claiming that scouting, forced marches and so on will arise naturally in the game seems to me to be entirely wrong. But in doing so, are we not simply being postmodern enough to remove the authorial voice?

I suppose that the final point is that to most wargamers, the ‘do not tamper’ declaration would be a red rag to a bull. Most of us, I suspect are inveterate tinkerers; we would not be wargamers, to some extent, if we were not. Most of us like to push the boundaries set by the rules. Someone remarked once that you could play a perfectly good hoplite battle with Polemos: SPQR. I have never tried it, but I suspect it is correct, even though the rules do not cover the period.

So, DBR now lies before us, dismembered. Does it matter? Probably not that much, but it is interesting to consider what the authors are up to.


  1. An interesting meditation. When I was an undergraduate in literary studies, it was still (early 1980s) close enough to the age of the great canon that one could talk about authorial intention, though some of my professors gently hinted that there might be more interesting questions to ask of a text than what did the author want us to think about it? Then I went to graduate school and read Foucault's "What is an Author" and the whole question of authorial intention became quaint.
    I think you are right that rules writers have an intention. In some ways they are not different from the authors of, say, manuals for power tools, in that they want us to do certain things to achieve certain results. However, a game based on history is considerably more complex than a power tool. As you say, rules authors that they want us to follow in interpreting their text, which is, as you say, rules authors build their texts on their own assumptions, silences, and, to use another of Foucault's terms, genealogy. The reader/user of a rules text may or may not have access to all of this genealogy, depending on how astute, critically mind and suspicious he or she may be.
    Today, with the advent of Discussion Forums and online communities that have congregated around some rules publishers (Richard Clarke's Too Fat Lardies and Sam Mustafa's Honour to name two examples), authors can be more explicit in communicating intent to their readers than in the WRG days of the Stamped Self Addressed Envelope. However, there is a recent piece by Sam in one of the hobby mags where he laments that however explicitly he tries to write a rule, there are always readers who don't understand the desired effect of the rules, which says something about the limits of authorial intention, I suppose.
    I'm always curious about war gamers who want to write their own rules. Is that because they don't want to subject themselves to the author's intentions, and wish to be the author? Is about a different (and perhaps better) vision of history, or is it about autonomy?

    1. From my own point of view as a rule writer, I do have an intention. In the case of SPQR it was to make the player do general type things and not unit commander type things. From some of the complaints made about the rules i think I succeeded.

      Of course, there is always the reader who doesn't read the stuff properly. as an author I can rant about reading skills or wonder if I wrote something clearly enough, and hopefully try to answer the question. Some readers never get it. I'm not sure what, say, Foucault would make of that.

      As to why write at all, I'm not sure. In part, it was because someone asked me to. Secondly, it was to play a wargame I wanted to play. And maybe there was a wish to write DBM as it should have been written - the result turned out somewhat different!

    2. I have a friend who prefers to write his own rules and rarely leaves any rules untinkered. I get frustrated with him occasionally because he often reads the rules and assumes that he understands sufficiently well how all parts will work together without ever playing the game, and he tinkers on this basis. He is convinced that he knows most periods better than anyone else. I suspect such know-it-all-ness is present in a percentage of those that write their own rules. Others must surely write because they cannot find rules that scratch a particular itch, or because the rules do not exist for the game they want to play. When I have tinkered, it is because I wanted a particular type of game. I do not tinker on historical grounds, only on game play grounds.

    3. I think that tinkering on historical grounds is OK as long as it is accepted that that is what is being done. I often ponder 'if the rules did that, would that cover this situation'. Often they do, but at some cost elsewhere. The models in a rule set are interlinked and change somewhere can unbalance somewhere else. of course, one can then tinker again, until you land up with an uplayable mess...

    4. Tinkering is generally dangerous. It leads to rules sets that bloat and cars that break down or never run, which is why governments should not be allowed to tinker with anything! ;)

  2. Phil Barker has written a defence of this before:

    The most relevant bit is:

    " The relationship between rule writers and players should be symbolic. A rule writer who deprives himself of player feedback by not providing a query answering service, or a player that prefers writing diatribes to magazines to asking the rule writer for reasons is missing out. Player attitudes to the rule writer can vary remarkably. Some see him as God, to be importuned with sometimes silly questions and relieve them of all necessity of thinking or, as a last resort, actually reading the rules, others as a villain, maliciously depriving their army of its historical right to a certain win without display of talent. Neither extreme is popular with the recipient!

    An even less popular practise is taking my rules, and 'after a little research' improving on them, as was suggested recently in MW. It is my aim to produce the most accurate and playable rules I possibly can. I work very hard at it, with the aid of a research library of pushing 800 books, plus the resources of a university library and a first-rate city reference library. I now have about 20 years' experience as a rule writer and researcher. If someone thinks that after a 'little research' he is going to improve my rules, he is either a lot cleverer than I, or a lot more optimistic."

    1. Blimey, that's a bit of a frightening quote, isn't it? If only because, no matter how deep the rules writer's research and how extensive the library at his disposal, especially if you are writing rules to cover a wide period, there will always be someone who knows more about each particular aspect of it than you do. And even if there isn't, you can be sure that there will be someone who disagrees with your interpretation of it or will awkwardly discover a new piece of historical evidence to disprove your long-held opinions. To say that these are just wrong seems high-handed in the extreme.
      I would ask the question 'Is a set of wargames rules ever actually finished?' If you don't continue to tinker with them yourself, and listen to the feedback of other people who have tinkered, why do we have 2nd and 3rd editions of rulesets? Surely they are the result of successful tinkering.

    2. Indeed. Even if the writer is THE undisputed expert in every aspect of a period of military history covered by the rules, he might not necessarily also be good at designing games that (a) reflect the most advanced understanding of history, and (b) make a tolerably playable game.
      So there's always got to be scope for tinkering.

    3. I think there are a number of things going on. Firstly, of course, 800 books spread over 3500 years is not that many per year. Secondly, of course, as I've banged on about here, a generic set of rules is incapable of reproducing the nuances of a specific period, and so doing some research and tinkering might be a perfectly valid approach. Thirdly, learning how to write rules for yourself is mainly a process of tinkering with models, ideas and outcomes.

      You cannot have the perfect set of rules for all people. To claim that you can, or even that you have created rules which cannot / should not be changed is not a great way of developing the hobby or encouraging innovation.

    4. To be fair to Phil Barker, he wasn't decrying modification of his rules in all circumstances: he was specifically saying that he had a problem with gamers doing it after "a little research". Obviously he isn't in a position to effectively "silence" gamers who choose to ignore this, unless a gamer simultaneously wants to respect his authorial intention and muck about with it.

    5. Fair enough; of course, in any sort of democracy it isn't possible to either fully silence people or stop them doing things. I suppose the issue is that is not exactly what PB says in the introduction to DBR; the implication there is that the wargamer is not to fiddle with stuff (even after a lot of research). it does come across as a bit, to say the least, paternalistic.

    6. I agree totally, it is very paternalistic, very different from the avuncular tone adopted by the fathers of modern recreational wargaming (Featherstone, Grant, Young et al) who consistently encourage their readers to tinker to their hearts' content.

  3. Yay for Derrida and deconstruction. A really interesting post and some interesting comments too. There is so much that I could write in response too if only I could get my head together today.

    Barker's comments about not tinkering with the rules remind me of something that Gygax wrote about D&D which ran to the effect that if you do not play D&D the way he says you should, then you are not playing D&D at all. To some extent, I think that the author genuinely does have a voice in the rules and must be present, although that voice is, from the perspective of the reader, a perceived rather than an actual one. As has been noted in the comments, it is very difficult to write something that cannot be interpreted in more than one way. Thus the reader brings their own experience to the reading and takes away from it something coloured by that experience. However, I do also think that it is extremely arrogant to suggest that the rules are sacrosanct and should not be tinkered with. As has been noted, it is simply not possible to be an expert in the whole Ancients period. Barker's claims to expert knowledge also lead me to ask how critical he is about his reading. Does he have the knowledge and ability to critically assess the worth of each book that he reads on all those different periods? I suggest not.

    1. Of course, if we do not play the rules as written we are not playing the rules. But how much, I wonder, does that matter?

      Reading any text includes the reader - when the rule sets are using unfamiliar concepts, reader tend to get a bit edgy, in my limited experience. So, for example, routers in SPQR cannot be rallied, but some reader, expecting to be able to, search for rallying rules and if they don't find them, interpret some other rule about rallying as for rallying routers. The concept is unexpected.

      That said, often written rules are unclear.

      Of course, PB might be the ultimate in critical readers, but given some of the army lists he comes up with I doubt if that is applied too hard. After all, some army lists in literature are next door to fiction; they may be all we have to go on. I prefer not to write army lists for armies we know nothing about, but it does limit the options (and often these near fictitious armies turn out to be super-armies under the rules). But if near fiction is your only option, you cannot be that critical of your sources.

    2. Do we need to play the rules exactly as written to play them or do we need to play in the spirit of the rules? Gygax's comment was more about how you play the game, presumably with the implicit assumption that you would follow the rules exactly. Interestingly, his idea of how D&D should be played was more skirmish wargame than what most understand by an RPG now.

      I have seen others looking for rules that are not there, and have had the experience myself when mechanisms are unfamiliar. This is where the designer's notes come in handy for explaining why things are they way they are. I love rules with a good set of designer's notes attached. It makes it much easier to play within the spirit of the rules when encountering grey areas.

      I'm not going to bash PB any more than I already have. I recognise his contribution to wargaming and loved DBA when it first came out. That said, he does seem to have an infuriating need to tinker with the rules, usually egged on by the tournament players who have a vested interest in making particular armies work better. I lost interest in DBA after a couple of iterations of the rules.

      I'm currently involved in a debate on the Impetus forum about Viking cavalry. I should probably drop the subject because I am wittering on too much, but it is fascinating for me to hear the arguments: they test my own knowledge and force me to check sources, but they also highlight how little real information exists for or against the use of cavalry by Vikings away from their homelands. Certainly for Dark Age armies the sources are nowhere near as clear-cut as some wargamers make them out to be.

    3. I guess that all illustrates very nicely the point that the reader in involved in the text, even though we like to ignore the fact.

      I always smile when the someone starts 'But the text clearly states...' If it did, you wouldn't need to claim that it did, after all.

      Fundamentally, I think there is an issue here in that a wargame needs specific answers to specific questions which, in general, the sources cannot supply, no matter how many books one might have in one's library (and how many of them you might have read). Thus most wargame rules are going to be open to argument, interpretation and different viewpoints on the history represented.

      Tinkering does tend to lead to bloat - look at DBA and DBM. Bloated rules are not necessarily more 'accurate' (scare quote obligatory here), just tinkered with. I prefer a simple core detailing the interactions of the troop types, surrounded by some period details, such as using original names for the troop type: I doubt if anyone ever referred to themselves as Irr Kn(X) (and I don't know what it means, anyway). Cataphract seems sufficient to me.

      Anyway, agreed that PB has made a massive contribution. Most rule sets of the last 20 years have built in some way on DBA (and probably not just ancient rules). But that does not necessarily mean that he should have the last word on his rules.