Saturday, 7 November 2015

Critical Points

I wrote last time about perturbation theory. This sort of things occasionally gets one smirked at, as being a pretentious wargaming geek with no friends and no life at all. Well, possibly. But that is not going to stop me.

Anyway, perturbation theory, as applied to wargame rules, has an assumption underlying it. This assumption is that things deteriorate slowly for a unit in a battle. It arrives at the battle all smart and shiny. Stuff happens to it. The unit takes casualties, comes under sustained fire, has a few frights and gets into combat and so on. The idea of perturbation theory is that these are relatively minor items, any one of which the unit will survive as a fighting force. The combination, or accumulation, of negatives, however, slowly undermines the unit and its ability to fight coherently.

This sort of model underlies, I think, many wargame rules. When I started, it was all the rage to have a defined man to figure ratio, usually of 20:1, and to calculate casualties in “real”, so for each twenty casualties a figure was removed. I always found this a bit fiddly, and also a little illogical, as a unit with nineteen casualties would fight as effectively as one with none.  I also came to a bit of a halt when some rules required that you calculated the number of casualties per figure to see if some extra factors were required to be included. Surely, I though (and still think, if I ever do think about it) that we can either have a figure removal, or calculate the number of casualties per figure. Doing both seems a bit incoherent.

Further reading around military history has led me to think that the model adopted, of casualties calculated, is, in fact, wildly incorrect. Early rules had a tendency to permit units to fight on until they are reduced by fifty per cent (or so) in strength. History shows that units became ineffective at levels much below that.

For example, Charles Cartlon, in ‘Going to the Wars’ (I think, it is not on my shelf) argues that casualties in English Civil War battles were low. The scepticism often shown towards the casualty counts from ECW battles is incorrect. Montrose really could win a battle with the loss of only a handful of men, while his opponents could lose hundreds. This is because most of the casualties were inflicted during the pursuit phase.

Similarly, in Greek hoplite battles, the winning side had a casualty rate of around five per cent, while the losers clocked up about fifteen per cent. Again, the difference would seem to be that the losers ran away, which was a fairly dangerous thing to do. Actually, it would seem to be fairly dangerous in all circumstances, most particularly if you are an infantryman and the opposition has cavalry who can pursue. Even so, the psychological trauma of battle, plus the exhaustion of having fought and then run away makes anyone on the losing side leaving a battle vulnerable even to unarmed non-combatants. Carlton relates a story of a router killed by a milkmaid with her bucket as he fled.

So, the original ‘casualty count’ model seems to be incorrect, historically. We can argue, of course, that counting casualties is simply doing accountancy for loss of cohesion, and to an extent we would be entirely justified and correct in that. On the other hand, however, we could also argue that if we are using ‘men’ simply as an accountancy term, we should use some other word that does not make us think of people being blown apart, maimed or otherwise traumatized. And even then, we should stop removing figures.

The other point is that this model, based on a perturbation approach, does not really account for the sudden crisis that causes units to really run away, or at least, render them ineffective, either permanently or temporarily. To some extent the clue is in the rule I have just criticised. The number of casualties per figure in the unit is a way of assessing the impact of a sudden trauma.

More modern rules do not make use of counting casualties, on the whole. The argument is that the counting method gave wargame commanders far too much information about the state of their units. This, coupled I suspect with the idea that not that many casualties are, in fact, inflicted during the battle part of the battle, has led to a move away from such systems and into looking at the unit as a whole. It might be advancing, halted without orders, falling back or running away. The unit is viewed in terms of its current activity, rather than the precise status of its internal functioning.

What, then, changes the status of the unit if it is not some sort of wearing down pattern based on perturbation theory? I think the answer is in the ‘crisis’ model. The key here is that a wargame unit only does something when provoked by a crisis. For different units, of course, different things cause a crisis. An elite guards unit is unlikely to be particularly perturbed by an inaccurate long range bombardment, while a levy unit might just take the opportunity to ‘go as see their friends’, as the Earl of Essex so delicately put it.  But now, in such rule sets as the De Bellis… series and even, I suspect, Piquet, the underlying model is of a sudden crisis which causes the unit to respond, sometimes positively (by winning a combat, for example), sometimes negatively, by running away.

The fact is, I suppose, that both models are required by a wargame. Certainly, some units get worn down by ongoing minor combat. Some units, say, get hit in the flank and disintegrate. Perhaps, in some of the rules, the focus is too much on one sort of underlying model. There is, for example, no unit attrition in the DB* series of rules. A unit can fight, flee and return to combat in the same condition. On the other hand, the perturbation model can make us accountants, not wargamers.