Monday 27 September 2010

Historical Accuracy

What do we mean, as wargamers, by the term ‘historical accuracy’? It is an expression that you hear bandied about quite frequently, so there must be some common understanding of it, but I’ve never been quite sure what it signifies.

Perhaps it is just me, and the rest of the wargaming world will laugh at me because I don’t know. But maybe it is simply because we don’t examine the basis of what we talk about in much detail. Or, possibly, I’ve been infected by the ‘turn to language’ in modern and postmodern philosophy and I’m now so sceptical of language use that I can hardly speak.

Wittgenstein taught that meaning is given by use. So how do we use ‘historical accuracy’? Generally, I suppose the usage is: ‘This is historically accurate’, or ‘That is not historically accurate’, where this or that may be rule sets, miniature figures or whatever. The hidden parts of these sentences (I hope) contain qualifiers, such as ‘in my opinion’. It is here that I think we start to have a few problems.

History, as is well known, is a matter of interpretation. We only need to look at the wrangles going on between holocaust deniers and everyone else to see that people can interpret history in very different ways, even in defiance of the evidence. Is military history, and specifically the history of individual battles open to the same interpretation? I would say that probably it is.

Take, for example, the Spanish Armada. We all know the history there, the invincible armada sails up the Channel, is beaten by the plucky Royal Navy and blown away by a storm. Is this correct? Is this a matter of interpretation? In order to ensure that Drake et al win, do we have to incorporate ‘+2 if English’ into our rules? Don’t laugh; I’ve seen it in an Armada related rule set.

Another possibility is that the Armada brushed past the RN and moored as planned, waiting for Parma’s army to embark. The fact that it couldn’t showed a flaw in Spanish planning and communication, rather than anything else. Even after the fireship attack at Gravelines, the English managed to do only a fairly small amount of damage, and were forced to shadow the reforming armada into the North Sea with little chance of stopping them, until the wind blew and they were scattered.

Which account is right? A lot of your reaction to that question might depend on your education, knowledge of the period, nationality and so on. When I was a lad, the first interpretation was widespread. The second is more recent, deriving from archaeological work on Spanish wrecks and research work in Spanish archives. The question ‘which is right?’ degenerates into ‘which do I prefer?’ In terms of historical accuracy there is no absolute answer as to which is right, at least for the individual. The facts are a matter of public knowledge. What they mean is a different thing.

So then, historical accuracy is a function of our interpretation of battle accounts, which is in turn moderated by academic history. Unfortunately, academic history ignores battles, on the whole, and so battle history is left to enthusiastic amateurs and some professional historians with an eye to the main chance (of selling books, mainly). That isn’t to say that some of this stuff is not very good and useful, but wargamers delve into areas which historians don’t, and want answers that history cannot give.

The upshot of this is that wargamers rely on some venerable accounts of battles, by such luminaries as Sir Charles Oman, A. H. Burne and Peter Young. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. All of these authors were careful, read the evidence and so on. But they supply interpretations based on their time, knowledge, outlook and culture, which may have moved on.

So what do I mean by historical accuracy? When I started ECW wargaming, I meant that the miniatures laid out on the table looked like those contemporary prints, such as the one of Naseby, or it looked like the Sealed Knot re-enactments that I saw, or Brig. Young’s diagrams of Edgehill. Was this ‘accurate’? Almost certainly not: the prints were highly stylised and probably showed far too many pikes in the infantry, for example; the Sealed Knot were not trying to kill each other; and it is unlikely that our neat diagrams of battles with arrows and phases were ever realised in reality. My historical accuracy of the ECW was not much like the reality, and was, for me, based on George Gush’s Airfix guide to the ECW.

So the next time you think ‘Gosh, that isn’t accurate’ pause again and ponder “What exactly do I mean by that?” You might find, like me, that upon analysis, you don’t mean very much except your own assumptions.

Monday 20 September 2010

Wargames Rules and Philosophy

I have long considered that there must be some philosophical or ethical problems associated with wargaming, ever since I had the misfortune to do some philosophy courses a few years ago. I have not, however, allotted a great deal of brainpower to working out what these issues may be. After all, wargaming is a hobby, a leisure activity, not something which is supposed to give you serious brain strain, of the sort normally associated with philosophising about anything.

Recently, however, I’ve revisited these thoughts. Ethical considerations I might come back to later, but my wargaming philosophy, or at least thinking about how I’ve been writing wargame rules, has moved on a bit.

I think the catalyst for this was a talk I went to by a philosopher of science called Nancy Cartwright. This was actually at a conference about physics, but her ideas are more widely applicable. As she now a professor at the London School of Economics, this is probably just as well. Anyway, her two books of interest are “How the Laws of Physics Lie” and “The Dappled World”.

The key idea Cartwright has is that, in physics, we only get answers to questions, and hence general laws of physics, when we set things up in a certain way, called an ‘experiment’. The law we derive from this tells us only about the conditions within the experiment, not in the general, wider, world. In this way, Cartwright claims, the laws of physics lie, because they make (or are used to claim) universality, for which we have not a shred of evidence.

Whether we agree with Cartwright or not, I think the concept has applicability to writing wargame rules, as we are doing exactly the same as she argues scientists do. We have a small number of battles and incidents. We extrapolate them to be general rules for all of warfare of a period, and if those rules do not behave as the incidents did in reported history, then we modify them until they do.

We could also admit that we do rather worse then science, as at least scientific experiments are supposed to be repeatable, in the way that battles are not.

So we land up with a set of generalised laws, derived from historical accounts of dubious value, in some cases, and then apply them to all warfare in a broad sweep of history. Ancient’s rules, for example, get applied to everything from chariots to Wars of the Roses dismounted knights. And they then get praised or castigated for something called historical accuracy. Even though more recent periods of history are covered by rules of more focus, they still tend to cover much change under the banner of “Horse and Musket” or “Modern”.

Nearly as bad, in fact, possibly in some cases worse, are those rules that have a core set of laws, and then add supplements to cover each sub-period. Somehow, this seems to me to be the worst of both worlds, in that the assumption is that there is a base set of laws of wars for a period, and that differences between periods and armies are simply bolt on chrome. No so, I’d argue, for the contexts which create an army are as important as the weapons they carry. You cannot, I think, reproduce an English army of 1415 simply by making the longbow something akin to a machine gun in a general rule system. The reasons the English won in 1415 are complex (and more to do with French politics than machine gunning bowmen).

Let me hasten to add that I’ve not bought, read, or used many of these systems. Most of them are too darn expensive, for one thing, and I’ve only got so much time. So I'm not criticizing those who write or use them, but questioning the underlying concepts of stretching the same rules over many cultures are time periods. The point is that, going back to Cartwright, you cannot build a general system on a few well known but arguable facts.

Do I have an answer to this? I’m not sure. My answer is, obviously enough, a system like Polemos, where come core concepts (but not rules) like tempo points and bidding, are carried over from one set to another, but the whole rule set is rethought for each period and sub-period. Which is why, by a roundabout route, I find myself trying to write rules for Ancient Greeks when some people would have simply adapted a system already written for Imperial Rome. A degree of generalisation is, I suppose, vital, otherwise we’d be writing rule sets for individual battles (they exist, and are called board wargames, aren’t they?), but too much generalisation leads to strange results, in my view.

Thursday 16 September 2010

A Bit of Culture

Well, your super-soaraway bonus post for this week....

Consider this: southern Greece is hilly and lumpy.

It is not ideal for phalanx warfare.

So why did it happen like that?

As ever, a combination of factors - the Greek farming year, the formation of the polis, the natural boundaries of the city states and so on.

The boundaries of the states usually tended to be on mountain ranges. But the Greeks never blocked the passes against other Greek states. The attitude seems to have been 'OK, let them come and then we'll sort it out like gentlemen.' Military roads across the borders were built by the advancing army, and they were permitted to do this unhindered.

Until the 430's, there seems to have been this attitude. Similarly, sieges were not a factor in Greek warfare. Hoplites were not, strictly speaking, designed for assaults, nor were the armies large enough to blockade. So unless there was a handy traitor around (not unlikely) cities couldn't be taken.

So early Greek warfare seems to have been a fairly straightforward affair, but why did it happen like this? The answer seems to be cultural. There were the ideals presented by Homer, religion, with sacrifices due to various gods on making and moving camp, setting out from the city on campaign, and before the battle itself. Bad omens prevented battles or movement. This must have made greek campaigns a somewhat frustrating affair, but we do know, for example, that the Spartans were late for Marathon on this basis.

The point I'm trying to make is that even though our culture is heavily influenced by Greek culture, it dosn't mean that we actually understand the mind set. Western philosophy may be 'footnotes to Plato' (Alfred North Whitehead), but that doesn't mean that Plato would understand us.

Spartan armies (and presumably other Greek armies) set off for battle with large flocks of sheep, to provide the sacrifices. How many baggage elements for Greek armies have you seen of sheep? Ritual, sacrifice and the gods were important to the Greek soldier. The rituals would have to be completed correctly and the omens good, or the soldier killed in battle may not have recieved the honour due to a hero.

Funnily enough, the omens immediately before a battle were always good. I suppose that is why professional seers also accompanied the army. Sticking a knife into a sheeps throat and observing the direction of the blood (presumably towards the enemy was good) is an advanced skill, or at least, getting it 'right' would be a real seer ability.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Generals in General

So, no post last week, huh?

What is my excuse this time?

Well, I had a bad dose of Real Life(TM). I believe Mr Berry sells it in handy 3 oz cans. Actually, I was at a conference in Manchester, trying to stay awake in the plenary sessions and go to sleep in my hotel room. I don't think I acheived either.

Anyway, consider Greek generals.

Here we find that the behaviour of generals is, to some extent at least, moderated by culture. In this case, the culture is reasonably clear: Homer. One of the over-riding facts of what we know about classical Greek culture comes down to Homer - the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Now, I've not read them (there are only so many hours in the day, after all), but the Homeric general is depicted as a hero. And this is the mileau that Greek generals moved in. So, for you average Greek general, the aim was to be a hero. This means fighting in the front rank of the phalanx, of course. You can't be a hero in the rear, after all.

In terms of command and control, this is not a good thing. Most rules permit the general to find it more difficult to command if they are in close combat. But for Greek generals in the phalanx, even before contact it must have been virtually impossible to command, in the front rank, with a bunch of other nervous men around you, wielding a spear and shield with a vision and hearing limiting helmet on.

Changes of plan are not going to happen.

Now, of course, to some extent, the general of a phalanx army did not need to command much after saying 'That way!'. As Greek armies developed with light troops and cavalry taking a greater part, they did start to hang back to direct stuff. Quite a few were in fact killed in the second phase of the battle, while attempting to shore up a crumbling position, or exploiting success.

Persian generals were already more sophisticated and usually were to be found in the centre, surrounded by the best troops, commanding a reserve. This was exploited, of course, by Alexander who usually aimed at the general. Once the general was dead, in this case, the army tended to collapse.

So, early classical Greek armies of, say, Marathon, need to loose most command and control facilities once the advance has begun. Other armies could be different, but it did take a while for the Hellenistic 'battle manager' to develop. Early Greek armies seem, then, to have been 'one shot' operations. There were no reserves, so no need to manage them.

How do we translate this into wargame terms? It could be a bit tricky, but classical Greek armies, until say 450 BC, should only be able to set up and start under a general's control. Thereafter, it is pretty well up to the phalanx officers to deal with events.

At this point, it is worth noting that the Spartan phalanx is reported to have had a front rank consisting of officers. This is worth pondering, if only a bit, as it may account for the general scary effectivness of the Spartans. If all the file leaders were officers, they may well be better trained and able to reorganise and fight on a bit better than the rest. If the 'democratic' phalanx hoplites took the idea of Homeric behaviour seriously, then the officer class would probably do so in spades. A Spartan phalanx, with a front rank of blokes all trying to be Achilles, would be, in my view, a very scary prospect.

As armies start to consist of more than just hoplites, the command function becomes more complex and generals need to stand back and start co-ordinating stuff. Mind you, they often did this on foot, as Xenophon was told off by his men for leading them from horseback. The qualities of Homeric heroes were still expected.

Furthermore, quite a few Greek generals who lost battles preferred to die fighting than run away. The ideal of the hero was still there, and they did plunge into battle, seeking an honourable death "doing their best" than the humiliation of returning home defeated.

Homer, it seems, had a lot to answer for.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

A Bit of Depth

So, after the high falutin' abstractness of last week, something a bit more wargamer-ly this.

How deep was a Greek phalanx?

Normally, the answer is fairly simple: 8 ranks. But not always.

At Marathon the Athenians went for 4 in the centre. And numbers have been reported from that up 50.

This leaves us with three questions:
Why did phalanxes vary in depth?
How did this affect how they fought?
How are we going to represent this on the wargames table?

The answer to the first question is, of course "it depends". At Marathon it was to stretch the Athenian line to cover the width of the Persians. At other times, extra depth was used at the point of assault.

The answer to the second question is more difficult. The depth of a phalanx did make a difference, that much is clear. How, or why, is less clear. It can't have affrected the way the front ranks fought, directly at least. There are only so many things that a man can do with a spear and shield, however many there are standing behind him. I guess the only thing which is more difficult is running away, and that may be the key psycological effect. Of course, there is also the effect of all those people on the other side, which may well be the other effect. Even the Spartans might be forgivcen for saying "how many more do we have to kill!?"

As you would expect, the wargaming bit is trickey. Phalanxes were long and thin, no matter how many files deep they were. They were also not notoriously flexible, and don't seem to have varied in depth during a battle. So we can't say something simple like 1 base is 4 ranks and double up the bases for 8. That would give the general too much flexibility, and make the formations too deep.

So I think I'll have to go for a trading system, with bases defined by their number of ranks. The base is 4, and they get a certain fighting value, say, 3. The next up is 8, and they get plus 1, then 12, 16 and so on. You get so many 4 deep hoplite bases, and half the number if you go for 8 deep, and so on. Of course, some means of showing the depth will have to be evolved, but I think it might work, particularly as it must be defined before the game and won't vary during it.

Any comments, thoughts, evidence and brickbats are, of couse, welcome.