Saturday, 6 October 2018

World Wargaming

Now, do not panic. I have not suddenly taken a dive into World War Two, World War One, or even the Seven Years War. The latter is often touted as the ‘first world war’, even though historians of the seventeenth century (if not the sixteenth) would claim that the Hispano-Dutch War was a world war, especially after the Portuguese possessions became Spanish after 1580. The Dutch, after all, launched attacks in South America and the Far East. Phillip II sort of by accident, landed up with an empire upon which the sun did not set, hundreds of years before the British thought of it. And the Dutch were a maritime nation at war with it.

Anyway, before I digress too much further, I am not thinking about world wars in the conventional sense, but about the rise of what is called ‘world history’. This is mentioned in Morillo’s book which I reviewed here a bit ago. On closer examination, I noticed that a few of the works on my shelf corresponded with the idea (most notably Geoffrey Parker’s tome  Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale: Yale University Press, 2013), which I reviewed here a bit ago. The basic synopsis is ‘brilliant but depressing.’).

The point is that, as those of you who have been paying attention to my meanderings here might have noticed, I have returned to my old soldiers, and hence to wargaming on a world stage. I have no intention of trying a re-run of my Internet-based campaign game of global scope, 1618-Something, but nevertheless, there are interesting possibilities. But one thing that has occurred to me is the possible relationships between world history and wargaming.

One of the key aspects of world history, so far as I can judge, is the possibility of comparisons between two different areas of the world. There are, of course, inevitable differences between assorted bits of the world, but there are also a sufficient number of parallels to make comparison possibly instructive. A case in point (with due apologies to those without access to an academic library) is this:

Morillo, S., 'Guns and Government: A Comparative Study of Europe and Japan', Journal of World History 6, no. 1 (1995), 75-106.

I will not, for the moment at least, go into the details of Morillo’s argument in the paper, but the point, so far as I am concerned, is that a comparison between Europe of the sixteenth century and Japan of roughly the same era is not only possible but instructive. The argument, in brief, is that the ‘military revolution’ (scare quotes seem to be appropriate) was not dependent on the introduction of gunpowder. That can be dated precisely to 1543 in Japan, and Morillo argues that (looked at in the right scale) Japan was already promoting stronger states (it was not a single state; like Europe rather than France) before gunpowder arrived, so the increase in state power, the size of armies and revenues are not dependent, as some forms of the military revolution argument go, on having weapons that go bang.

I am not a sufficient historian to be able to critique Morillo’s argument, although I dare say that it is not totally watertight. I could see, for example, that it could be argued that Japan at least had a history of being a state, while the different bits of Europe did not. This might have made state formation ideologically easier. On the other hand, the idea of ‘chivalry’ (to apply a western term to the Samurai code) had not died in either Europe or Japan, although warfare, pragmatically, ignored it.

The point here is that, possibly, wargaming has something to contribute here. Phil Sabin, as most wargamers probably know, has been tirelessly promoting the idea of a wargame as a set of models which can be tested against known outcomes. If you do not know about this, then try Sabin, P., Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), or Sabin, P., Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London: Continuum, 2012). I am pondering whether wargaming might be able to contribute to the sort of comparative study that Morillo presents.

Obviously, I am not daft enough to suggest that the comparison is easy or that a simple-minded ‘Samurai army against French Ordonnance’ matchup would shed any light at all on anything very much. But some of the detail might be interesting. Morillo suggests that, really, in battle, the difference between bows and muskets was not that great. I have seen this suggested elsewhere – for example in the endless debates in Elizabethan military literature about the merits of the longbow. If they were, in fact, interchangeable, then exchanging them (or going all one way or the other) should make little or no difference to the outcomes of battles.

If this is the case, then the reason for both Japanese and European armies adopting massed musketry must lie elsewhere. I do not think there is any proof, but the suspicion lies around the relative ease of training musketeers as opposed to archers. One relies on chemical energy, the other on muscle power, after all. Thus we could model a relationship between bow and musket along the lines of the fraction of available manpower which could be utilised for each weapon; not all available males of service age would be fit to draw a bow, while more could use a firearm.

Naturally, this would rely on a validated model for warfare in the countries, and periods, in question. I doubt if we have one of those and, to be brutally honest, my view of the hobby wargame world at the moment is that rules are moving further away from modelling real battles rather than nearer. This is not, before anyone starts jumping up and down, a particular criticism of any rules sets or styles thereof, just an observation that the fun element is getting more conspicuous than, perhaps, it has been in the past (not that the rules are in fact less ‘accurate’ than older sets, but that the models used are less explicit).

Still, it would be an interesting thought experiment. Would a Samurai army armed with bows be able to take on one armed with firearms? How many more troops would the latter have to deploy to obtain a victory? Simulations of this, in a validated ruleset (if such a one could be obtained), might (and only might; there is a lot of prejudice against doing this sort of thing), contribute something to our historiographical knowledge of the period.


  1. Excellent points. I do agree, that wargaming rules are starting to stress gaming over simulation, and perhaps shy away from overcomplication (as it is the kiss of death in some rulesets), and I think that's because 'old school' rules have perhaps stressed complex simulation bias, without actually simulating anything - so perhaps there is a middle ground somewhere.
    On the book side, I must have missed your recommendation for Parker, so need to look at that.

    There is a book called '1688, A Global History' by Wills, which takes a nice snapshot across world history in his chosen year (and of course, it's not chosen by accident) which certainly falls into the your analysis.

  2. I suppose the balance is between 'playability' and 'accuracy'. The first is relative and subjective, the second is subjective and relative. Of course, these days, all the complexity would be hidden in a computer program and the results praised for their reality.

    My bit on Parker's book is here:

    I have often thought that as wargamers we might need a bit of a wider view and books like Parker's or, I'm guessing, Wills might help us in that.

  3. This bit intrigued me: 'the increase in state power, the size of armies and revenues are not dependent, as some forms of the military revolution argument go, on having weapons that go bang'. I've not really read much around the 'Military Revolution' (vague memories of something in the Early Modern Europe course I did 30 odd years ago), but I assumed it was the other way round. The stronger (larger, generally) 'states'* could afford weapons that go bang - in particular big ones that represented a larger investment that could knock holes in city and castle walls. Probably some kind of virtuous circle (as seen from the point of view of the cannon owning prince) would kick in with said states acquiring more power and more bucks for their bang. Something about 'scale' and 'agglomeration' to put it into economic terms.

    Where there any conflicts around the fringes of Europe that threw up a match-up between forces with firearms and ones with bows? Elizabethan English in Ireland? Muskovites v Tartars? Or did these involve methods of warfare that were not symmetrical enough to offer valid comparisons of weapons effectiveness?