Saturday, 26 March 2016

How Wargame Projects Go Wrong

Somewhere, on a shelf, I have a really interesting book that is not about wargaming, but in fact, about some aspect of my professional work. The book is ‘The Mythical Man Month’ by Fred Brooks. Brooks was the project manager for the development of the IBM 360 operating system in the 1960’s, and the book is the fruit of reflection on that experience.

There are a number of things that I could say about the tome. While we might expect it to be horrendously out of date, it is not. The problems remain, even if the technology has moved on. One point that Brooks makes is that adding extra people to a project that is already behind schedule does not speed it up, no matter what managers might expect. The time taken out of the existing worker’s effort to train and bring up to speed the new personnel means that, counter-intuitively, adding people to a running, if late, project, slows it down further. From my observation at work, this is still true today.

Another point Brooks makes is that there is no silver bullet. Here he is referring to the slaying of monsters in myth and fairy story. A monster has, to fair things up, a weakness. In the case of werewolves and the like, they could be slain by a bullet made of silver. A lot of time, both in research and development, is spent looking for the silver bullet that will solve the problems. Brooks’ argument is that there is no such thing, no big idea or techniques that will slay the monster in one go. Again, as I watch some senior managers jump onto the latest bandwagon that will sort out the problem in the organisation, I realise that Brooks knew what he was talking about.

So, in all this, where is the wargaming content?

We all have them, those good ideas that are now stowed away at the back of the cupboard, or hidden in the wargame cave. Those projects we were all excited about, that filled our dreams and imaginations with expectation, and caused us to switch every effort across to that project rather than the one which was ongoing. And, eventually, sooner or later, it just becomes too much, we get too frustrated, the new becomes old and we go chasing after the next bright shiny thing.

How do projects get delayed? This is another of the questions that Brooks asks and tries to answer. The expectation is that some spectacular event destroys the whole thing. The engines of our innovative spaceship will not provide enough power for lift-off. War breaks out so we cannot finish our nifty design for a transporter machine. Or something like that. Some spectacular event or failure means the project collapses.  

Brooks argues that this view is incorrect. Projects, in fact, get delayed one day at a time. There usually is no spectacular event, no awful oversight that means that a project collapses suddenly and definitively. There is a gradual chipping away at the project trajectory and its achievements until it is so late that it gets abandoned. So, for example, a key milestone gets delayed because the person delivering the final part is off sick. No problem, everyone things, it is nearly there and it will only be a day or two. The project schedule slips a bit, but it can be caught up easily when Bill is back.

Then, of course, it happens again. Perhaps Wilma is off on a course for a week, and so another bit gets delayed. Again, no problem, Wilma will be back and will sort it out, probably more quickly because she’s just learnt all this stuff to do things faster. But still, the project is delayed by a week and somehow the time never quite gets caught up.

As I have been painting my way through these tiny ships, I have noted, in microcosm, these problems. One weekend I had a cold, and did not feel up to painting. No problem, it is only a week. My schedule (a pretty feeble one, I admit) was to paint ten ships a week for fifteen weeks and then I would be finished. A week does not matter in the scheme of things. It is, after all, only finishing at the end of April rather than the middle.

But then as a result of the cold I had some breathing difficulties, being an asthmatic. Now I can paint in these circumstances, but the medicines make me a bit shaky, and so painting, especially small things, is a bit harder and so for another week I did not do any. And so it goes. The project was delayed, not spectacularly, not because I no longer want huge fleets of tiny boats, but one week at a time.

The problem then is that if we do not see some progress, we (or at least I) tend to give up. I decide that the project will never be finished, and raising a paintbrush will not achieve anything. So I stop. The toys are consigned to the back of the cupboard, and my executors will find a whole bunch of shiny toys that only express discouragement and frustration.

I wish I had a pearl or two of wisdom as to how to get out of this, but I do not. I can only recommend reading Brooks’ book and, if possible, leaving it around so that any passing manager can steal it. As far as wargaming projects go, I can only suggest setting small, achievable milestones, like painting ten small boats a week.

Tiny ship account: Finished & based 96; finished & not based 10; untouched by paint: 45.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Song of Wrath

I have been reading (in truth, I have just started) ‘Song of Wrath’ by J. E. Lendon (2010: basic Books, NY). It is subtitled ‘The Peloponnesian Wars Begin’ so you have a fair warning of the content. As you would except, there is a fair bit about Thucydides, what he wrote and how he wrote it. Lendon is also somewhat sceptical about the reason that Thucydides put forwards about why the wars began.

Thucydides’ argument is that Sparta and Athens went to war because the Spartans feared the increasing power of Athens. Athens accepted war because she wanted to become the hegemon of Greece, as Sparta was accepted to be. Lendon, however, wants to, at least, nuance this, and examine the reasons why Greek states went to war.

Lest this be considered uninteresting, particularly to wargames, let me make a few further points. Firstly, Lendon observes that the idea of hegemon also applied to personal relationships, at least among the aristocracy, in Greece. You knew your place in a hierarchy. Thus, Lendon quotes an amusing story about Pericles going about his daily business, being constant abused by a poor man. As the poor man was so much lower in the social order than Pericles, the abuse had no impact and, at the end of the day, Pericles directed one of his servants to escort the poor man to his home. If the poor man had been nearer Pericles in status, then war, or at least court cases, would have ensued.

The idea of status in personal relations, then, is an important one in motivating the Greeks for fight. You fought, you fought with courage, and you fought to do, hopefully, just a bit better than your slightly higher status neighbours, to inch your way up the social status just a little. Of course, desperate acts of daring could achieve the same effect, only more so, but they were rare (and tended to be a bit fragile in their effects). Your true motivation was to do a bit of social climbing.

As with individuals, so with states. A state far below you in status was ignorable, no matter what it tried to do. Thus, for many years, Sparta ignored the provocations of Athens because Sparta was the hegemon and Athens should pick on some other state of similar size and weight. It was only as Athens organised the Delian league 9and creamed off the profits) that the Spartans started to take notice.

What happened next is a matter of historical record. After much warfare with occasional peace, the Athenians were defeated and the Spartans confirmed in their role as arbiter of the Greeks. However, the constant warfare, among other factors, had weakened the Spartans and they fell to the Thebans, and so on, along the line of whoever was receiving Persian money. There is a good argument for suggesting that the Persians were the winners of the Peloponnesian wars.

An interesting aspect of this account is how Thucydides is read. Lendon notes in his introduction that US strategists, in the Cold War, read Thucydides as an account of a maritime democracy in conflict with a continental tyranny. There are no prizes for guessing which side in the Cold War was identified with which. The mistake that the Cold War scholars identified in Athenian policy was that, while the city itself might have been a democracy, its allies were, in fact, more or less subjects. The Delian league, under the leadership of Athens, moved from being an alliance against the Persians to being a prop to Athenian pretensions to hegemony.  Athens was a democratic tyrant.

As a consequence of this, the members of the Delian league were, under some circumstances, happy to change sides. One by one they were detached from the league, or defeated in detail while the Athenians were otherwise occupied. This is an example, I think, of Paul Kennedy’s idea of ‘imperial overstretch’ (in his ‘Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’, a book well worth reading if you have not already). If Thucydides bothered US Cold War strategists – the continental tyranny in fact won the Peloponnesian war – the Kennedy’s book really upset them, for it proposes that no empire can, seriously, maintain and advance its interests indefinitely, and that in a major war of alliances, the side with the last dollar wins.

The most important thing that Lendon proposes is that in the status of states, some battles did not need fighting. The Spartans, as at Megara in 424 BC, could simply turn up and offer battle. The Athenians, who were never as comfortable on land as the Spartans, could accept or refuse. If they accepted, and, quite likely lost, their status would not rise. If they refused, then their status would drop, or at least the Spartans would be confirmed as hegemon. As the Athenians were rather sensitive about losing men in battle, often the battle was refused. For the Athenians, naval power was the source of their strength, and losing men in land combat only weakened the fleet.

Throughout history there are examples of battles that did not happen. At the start of the Hundred Years War, for example, Edward III tried quite hard to get the French to fight a battle, and they refused. In a similar way to the Greeks, I think, the French idea was simply to get Edward off their territory. There was no need to assert their superiority by fighting, they could just sit there until the English went away. I dare say that similar sorts of episodes litter the pages of our history textbooks.

As Lendon notes, the idea of honour tied up with this one of hegemon is possibly more pertinent to current events than we like to think, and the emotion which is also present is a bigger factor in international affairs than is usually credited. And, of course, the problem for western powers is how to exercise their hegemony when challenged by much smaller, ideologically driven rivals. But now I am digressing from wargaming, so I shall stop.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Knowledge

As I am sure I have often, possibly too often, mentioned, there is a tranche of wargamers whose approach to the game is simply to play waqrgames. I do not have a particular problem with that; wargaming is, after all, a hobby, a leisure activity from which we can detach the mundane, day to day existence which we all, in the West, at least, have to put up with.

I only have a problem with this ‘just play’ approach when it seems to hit some ethical and / or authentic problem. By this I mean the historical wargamer whose French Napoleonic is entirely made up of Imperial Guard units, or the World War Two wargamer whose German army consists of SS units and more Panther tanks than were ever produced. At some level, really, I do not have a problem with even this. After all, so long as it is not illegal, immoral or fattening, whatever people choose to do in the privacy of their own homes is up to them.

However, I do start to doubt whether such armies, and the wargamers who produce them, can still claim to be ‘historical’ wargames. Armies of the constitution I have just mentioned might be based on some sort of historical precedence, but they did not exist in history. I start to suspect that we have, in these sorts of wargame armies, an example of what is called in roleplaying games ‘munchkins’. By this I mean those rather immature role playing gamers who try to maximise the effectiveness of their character by buying every super weapon, gory torturing machines or whatever simply to win, rather than to play a game. We could possibly add to this to occasional wargamer with Emperor-Hero worship traits as well.

I am sure we have all done this. Army lists, after all, are largely produced firstly to permit this sort of munchkin-ness and secondly to prevent a medieval French army from consisting entirely of (for example) Regular Kn(S). For the sake of balance, it does have to be said that under most rules such an army is unlikely to win much, but many, many people do go out to try to maximise the fighting power of their forces.

I dare say that there are two responses to this. The first is ‘I don’t do that’, which is highly laudable. I know that some readers prefer to play armies that are usually rated as poor performers, like Napoleonic Turks. I think this is a fine example of some wargamers, at least, treating the hobby as an opportunity for having some fun using history, rather than as an opportunity to win at all costs. More power to your paintbrushes.

The second response is to say ‘so?’ For example, competition gamers of a serious nature (and they do exist) can argue that all they are trying to do is to maximise their opportunity to win given a set of constraints imposed by the rules and army lists. This is fair enough. Wargaming often comes down to a game of resource management, and the soldiers on the table are one of the prime resources. This is not to say that we could not accuse such players of munchkin-ness, of course, but it is a relevant response given the nature of wargame competitions.

The thing that does vaguely concern me about all of this is something which, for want of a better word, could be referred to as ethics, as I did above. Fielding a WW2 German army that is all SS units and Panther tanks (I admit, I am exaggerating for effect) seems to be to be a bit of an insult to those people who had to face such forces in real life. I am not saying that such units should not be represented on the wargame table if the historically based games warrants them, but it does leave me feeling a little uneasy.

Again, I am probably showing my ignorance of World War Two history and wargaming. I am sure that there are good wargames to be had from the period, and also that the armies involved are as far away from munchkin armies as can be. Nevertheless, it is a spot within wargaming which I do pick away at, as regular readers (if there are any) are probably painfully aware.

I do not think that this unease should go away with other periods. After all, we could say that medieval wargamers who favour the HYW English army are only reproducing a force which was a political instrument (are all armies not so?) and which engaged in a fair amount of looting and so on along the way. That is true; does it mean then that we cannot reproduce any army that fought anything other than a defensive war?

It is certainly true that WW2 has a particular hold on the popular imagination. When I was a child there were many war comics; we even had them at school (wouldn’t be allowed now, I dare say). The only role of the German soldiers in most of them was to should ‘Himmel!’ from time to time and ‘Aieee’ when the heroic defenders of freedom shot them. There was no moral ambiguity; the idea of a ‘Good German’ did not, so far as I recall, form part of the narrative. That said, would not a similar consideration apply to all other wars? Was there ever such a person as a ‘Good Assyrian?’

It seems to me, then, that wargaming is trapped in an odd sort of moral ambiguity. We want to represent forces as accurately as possible (and reduce the munchkin effect along the way), and yet we have to admit that all sides in a conflict may be morally unacceptable (this does not apply to WW2, I think, as the atrocities carried out by the German and Japanese forces were in a moral class of their own, far removed from those of the Western allies). War can be a highly moral act, at least within some parameters, but only for one side.

Can a wargame, therefore, be a similar sort of moral act? As World War Two slips from the memory of all but the oldest of the population, is a WW2 wargame, say of the storming of Berlin, moral or not? If it isn’t, is a wargame based, say, on the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD a moral act? If there is a difference, why is there a difference? Is it just the passage of time?

Maybe I should take a leaf from David Hume’s book and, when he had more or less proved to himself that he didn’t exist, went for a game of backgammon to remind himself that he did. Maybe I should go an play a wargame to remind myself that it is fun.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Language of Wargaming

I mentioned last time how I find wargame shows slightly discouraging. Part of that, I think, is the rather similar language that I have heard at every show since I was, well, not quite a nipper, but since my parents could trust me not to get lost or kidnapped.

It is not a specific language that disheartens me, but a use of concepts and ideas which are very general. So, for example, I have heard one wargamer, enthused by some new models, say to another ‘Aren’t those Waffaduet infantry lovely?’ His colleague replies along the lines ‘Yes, but under army list N or rules M, they only count as irregular infantry, minor weapons, scarperers, so they are not worth anything.’ Or words to that effect.

I am not trying to change either the wargamer or his colleague. Each, after all, to their own. But the language of wargaming  is such that these sorts of generalisations are a problem. Under rules M, the Waffaduvet might be fairly useless, but there seems, to say the least, a bit of a lack of critical thinking going on here. What evidence, for example, is there that the author of rules M is correct in their assessment of the Waffaduvet infantry? To simply accept the author’s assessment is, of course, the line of least resistance, but does not say a lot for the wargamer’s independent thinking.

I have noted before that very general sets of rules have their place, but should not be mistaken for sets of rules that actually aim to reproduce warfare from a certain time and place. History has not confined all troops to fit into certain categories for the convenience of wargamers. Nor, incidentally, has history created a nice points system to add up the relative strengths of the troops on each side to create a nice, balanced game. History in general and generals in particular, are not searching for nice balanced battles where either side can win.

But to listen to some of the language that wargamers use, you might be forgiven supposing that all troops armed with a pointy stick could be classified as ‘spearmen’, or that Napoleon and Wellington disposed of 400 army points worth of troops at Waterloo, only to have their nice even match disturbed by those pesky Prussians. It is also possible that wargamers might believe (or at least argue) that Napoleon or Hitler could have conquered Russia, if only the winter had held off a bit longer.

This latter point has two responses, of course. The first is that it is possible that either could have conquered Russia, but the nature of that probability has to be understood. Like winning a national lottery, the chances are remote, but non-zero. Of course, being human and therefore irrepressibly optimistic, a non-zero chance is still a chance, isn’t it? Taking a leaf from my thermodynamics days, there is a chance that all the molecules in the room you are sitting in will be gathered into the corner furthest from you. Fortunately for your ability to breathe air, that chance is tiny, albeit non-zero. Napoleon conquering Russia is, possibly, slightly higher than that, but is still, in absolute terms, pretty near ‘not going to happen’.

The other comment of course is Monty’s ‘Third Law of Warfare’: don’t start a land war in Asia.

Of course, we can argue quite successfully, that as wargamers were are not interested in this grand scale of things. We can focus on (as Ruraigh suggested) much smaller level encounters and still enjoy wargames. And that is, of course, right. Most companies of infantry in Russia were not really interested in the grand play of strategy, but just wanted to survive this battle, find some food, not get shot for desertion, look after their buddies and get home safely. This is, perhaps, the human focus that as humans ourselves, we can understand. After all, the great epics of literature develop their themes by placing individuals in the sweep of history. This is the case in, for example ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as well as, I believe ‘War and Peace’. The prevalence of human interest stories in the news could be produced as further evidence.

So, we come back to language, or at least, that part of language which holds the tension between the human and the big picture. Do we speak of the decisions of generals in throwing that brigade against that fortification? Do we speak of the struggles and sufferings of the men of that platoon as they struggle towards the target which has been assigned to them by a remote authority? It would seem that we cannot do both.

We can, of course, drill down through the layers. We can start with the big picture, the strategy, move from there through the grand tactical, the tactical, the unit, the sub unit and their activities and so on down to the individual and the hedge he is hiding behind. But we do not seem to be able to, either logically or linguistically, inhabit all these worlds at once. I can draw on the individual’s diary for building a picture of the overall battle, but that individual has a limited viewpoint and involvement with the bigger picture.

I suppose, then, that the language of wargaming is stratified, and this perhaps explains why I have a bit of difficulty with wargaming World War Two. In my stratification, a tank is a major asset and should be represented as such on the table. This is a view from the bottom. For a section of infantry under fire, a tank would be a major asset. From above, the general’s view, a tank brigade is a major asset. The individual vehicles are less so. From somewhere in the middle, of course, a squadron of tanks might be the right level, or a tank of two could be detached to support infantry under pressure.

And so I seem to have rambled my way around to suggesting that what is, perhaps, most important is the language we use to speak about wargaming. For ancient battles, I like to speak about armies. For more recent conflicts I seem to like to talk about individuals. I dare say that if I had the slightest idea way, I would have a far better understanding of myself than I do.