Saturday 11 February 2017

Reasonable Wargames

As I have noted before, it would be quite easy to lapse from being a wargamer interested in the history of the world’s conflicts, to being a cynic about politics and international diplomacy. Perhaps this is as a result of reading too much, or, indeed, of modern historiography (or at least, popular versions thereof) being too much of a surface reading. Often, it seems reasons for a ruler or country going to war seem too unimportant to justify the action.

As a slight aside, I recall doing, as many of us might have done, the Tony Bath thing and setting up a mythical continent in which to conduct our battles and campaigns. My continent was a small island, upon which ECW Royalists, Parliamentarians, Covenanters and Montrose Scots each had a country, with a capital, cities, towns and economies. There were, as I recall trade relations between them. After a lot of work, including drawing maps and creating characters for the leaders, I sat back and examined my creation. It seemed a happy little world. No country had a reason to make war upon another. The leaders all seemed like nice and reasonable people.

I rolled the map up and put it away. Clearly my imagination was too limited to start a war, there anyway.

Now, of course, I have learnt a bit of sense. My campaigns do not have such a level of detail. Indeed, they have more or less no detail at all. The maps are just blobs. There are no towns, no trade, and no economy. Rulers simply rule and direct their armies. International relations are determined by a chart with numbers from one to six indicating war to peace. Occasionally I might have a personality or two around the place, but mostly the people, from the poorest landless peasant to the Emperor are helpless pawns in the hands of an implacable fate, and a bunch of dice rolls.

It seems easier this way.

That does not mean, of course, that the destruction is any less. A unit that runs away in battle is likely to be lost totally. One of the notable things about ancient warfare, anyway, is that a campaign rarely lasted for more than a single battle. The losers lost, the winners won, and there was an end. Any further dispute usually was held over to the next campaigning season.

On this basis a lot of pfaff is saved in investing time and energy in maps and manoeuver. Ancient armies, particularly non-Roman forces, did not go in for grand tactical moves, feints and shimmies.  I dare say there were some, but mostly it was a case of getting forces to the battlefield (itself something of a major achievement), lining them up and charging the enemy. The outcome was in the lap of the gods, and depended on the bravery, or otherwise, of the warriors.

Thus, my ancient campaign system, such as it is, does not deal with the minutiae of scouting to find the enemy, logistics, flank marching and so on. It focusses on the day of battle, and what each side has in its forces. Recruitment, desertion and losses are abstracted but present. Thus, one of the Spartan King’s forces deserted in my 360 BC campaign when he joined forces with the Thebans against his co-ruler. No Spartan would countenance that.

As I noted recently, what is important in this is a sense of the logic of events, of the reasonableness, or at least explanatory intelligibility of them. Things do happen at random, granted. Auguries and events can change a general’s view of the world and how it will develop. But there is a reason for that, even if it a reason from a totally different world view from our own. A battle not happening on a give day because of a flight of birds is a reason, even if it is not one which yields to our present logic and understanding of the world.

Perhaps, then, to have a reasonably authentic feel to a wargame, the narrative intelligibility of the battle needs to remain largely intact. Generals may well have bad days at the office. Indeed, an innovative general, like Hannibal, Marlborough or Napoleon can become rather predicable and hence be out thought at the last by a rival who has studied their methods. Even so, this needs to be accounted for in the logic of the game.

The upshot seems to be something like this, a wargame, to ‘feel’ authentic, needs to be intelligible, in the sense that we, as the wargamers, can see what has happened and give an account of why it happened. This is a privilege which is probably not available to the participants in a battle. As wargamers we hold an overview of the battle which is not even available to the generals on the ground, no matter how good their communications, at least until post-WW2 battles (and even not then, mostly).

 A historian, too, wishes to give an account of a battle (at least, those who might be interested in battles do) but historians can simply claim lacunae in their sources and erect mystery barriers if they do not wish to advance reasons or guesses as to why the Tenth Foot ran away. Historiography tries to remain within the ambit of its sources. Wargames, of course, are expected to be completely explained within the game and the rules. Cause and effect here is necessary, within the limits set by dice rolls. History is rarely quite so cut and dried.

Thus for my island continent, the logic of the countries seemed to be against war. A rational mind could not find a reason for causing the chaos of conflict. I dare say that my fictitious politicians and generals felt very differently about it. As we found out again last year, politics and international relations are, in fact, rarely guided by logic and reason, or, at least, not by those human traits alone. Putting those into my campaign world proved rather more difficult than I expected. Fortunately these days I simply declare that a war is going on and have the battles (with full reasonableness, logic and intelligibility, of course) anyway.


  1. Having over the years worked at populating the bare bones of the old GDW Soldier King board game, with a view to using it as a basis for a sprawling Imagi-Nation campaign, I took some decisions early on.
    Economics would be abstracted; there to provide a limit on military recruitment. I had no desire to explore the wool industry of Hrvatska.
    If something didn't fit, it was ditched. This was MY campaign so I'll fudge it if necessary. I like fudge...
    Characters. I found this to be one of the things I most liked about Tony Bath's Hyboria reports. So using the mechanisms in "Setting up a war games campaign" as a start, I have drawn up family trees with notable members being given characteristics. I tweaked TB's ideas to account for C18th mores. Unlike your reasonable persons with no reason to go to war, I seem to have ended up with a most venal, honour obsessed set of drunks, martinets and otherwise flawed individuals!
    I also knocked up a matrix of current relationships between states, ranging from allied, through friendly to neutral, then hostile to enmity.
    Combining this with characters and marriage relationships, has produced enough flesh to enable the bones to be credible, rather than starting from the other way round.
    I can see there are likely to be at least two succession crisises from what has been generated.
    I suspect the key here is to focus on what the campaign is for, that is to produce battles for contextually satisfying war games.

    1. I think think that my characters were influenced by role playing games with their averaging method of characteristics, so the extremes were rather diminished Perhaps that was my mistake.

      Still, I can still smile about my island, thinking of its citizens in a safe, secure environment.

  2. The Romans did have a habit of changing the rules, multiple battle campaigns, days of skirmishing and stand offs before the actual battle, sieges, etc. I suppose standing armies make a difference. I'm not really up on Egyptian, Assyrian or Chinese warfare..

    As for wars, it is fairly unusual for them to start without a reason especially if countries are balanced in power. Now if there is a change, sudden discovery of new sources of wealth, new rligious fervour madness, or a chance of political advantage in one country if one leader can arrange provocation then win the following war, economic disaster in one country: bad harvest, floods etc requiring them to move, somewhere...

    1. Or, if you are Louis XIV, because you think your frontier should be on the Rhine...

      But I think that change is usually the trigger. Macmillan was once asked what the biggest problems were of being UK Prime Minister: 'Events, dear boy, events.'

  3. A few years back when the imaginations blog craze seemed at its peak, I always felt like many of the participants got bogged down by their creations at the expense of actually playing the occasional game of toy soldiers. . . ostensibly the whole reason or the blogging in the first place.

    Best Regards,


    1. I noticed much the same thing. It's just a different type of gaming, I think.

    2. I suppose it depends on what you want - some people like the detail of running imagi-nations and don't get round to the fight.

  4. Well, there's your problem 'nice, reasonable people' in charge of your countries. Now, you may call me cynical if you wish, but the sort of people that run countries are neither nice nor reasonable. Thus, wars happen. Perhaps a simple die roll to start the war instead? In my own Talomir Tales campaign, each nation has a national morale, and a leader with a war rating. The higher the combined score, the more hawkish the nation. Add the two together and roll less than the combined total for a war to start. Then decide on your enemy. It's a simple system but it guarantees wars and thus battles. After each battle you modify the total for winning/losing and roll again. If one of the nations rolls higher than its combined score, it sues for peace. Campaign over. Generally, I roll the dice and provide the narrative based on the die rolls. It's a simple system but it works rather well for generating games.

    I also have in mind a star-spanning science fiction campaign that I have been planning for years. I sometimes think that I enjoy planning the campaign more than getting round to playing it. I doubt it will ever see the light of day, because it is vast, sprawling and utterly unwieldy, but you never know.

    1. Ah, probably. It might be the Douglas Adams paradox: someone capable of making themselves leader should, under no circumstances, be permitted to lead.

      I think you've a nice, simple mechanism for starting and ending wars. The key is making up a narrative to fit, of course, but we all need stimuli to our imaginations. And, of course, world politics in the last 12 months or so makes almost anything believable...

  5. Unreasonableness, bloodthirstiness and irrationality? This sounds like a job for a d10!

    1. Border squabble escalates.
    2. Assassination of noted political figure.
    3. Disgraceful conduct towards an envoy, herald, diplomat, scion of the royal household, etc.
    4. Gross insult to the mother of the nation.
    5. Rival discovered to be in religious error.
    6. Succession issue.
    7. Historical land grievances come to a head.
    8. Increasingly wanton cross-border banditry.
    9. Rival reneges on a betrothal, treaty, trade agreement, etc.
    10. Everyone's just itching for a bit of war and plunder.

    1. Now that's a useful table. I'm nicking that. Can we add more to it? A couple more suggestions:
      11. Bad harvest leads to social unrest. Start war to regain popularity.
      12. Expanding population. Need more land to feed the people.
      13. King makes inept decision. Population unhappy. Start war to distract them.
      14. Aging monarch looks like ripe target for plucking.

      Can we get this to a d20 roll?

    2. I like this. How about:

      15. Revolution in neighbouring country requires nipping in the bud before it is exported.
      16. Revolution in this country needs exporting.
      17. Regime next door but one needs propping up.
      18. Neighbouring nation is arming / building fortresses.
      19. If we don't go to war we will look weak.
      20. What? Do we need an excuse? Really?