Sunday 24 October 2010

Sulla He Isn’t

Just to prove that I do occasionally play wargames, not just pontificate about them, I present for your delectation a battle report; in fact, a playtest of the soon to be forthcoming Polemos: Imperial Rome set, Pontic vs. Republican Rome. I've even got some pictures, of dubious quality, but hopefully they will show the flow of the battle, even though they are hardly eye candy.

One afternoon some time in late summer in the 1st century BC, a Republican Roman army drew up in battle formation. To the extreme left were Moorish light cavalry, with cavalry to their right. Elements of an under strength legion formed the front rank of the centre, supported by their colleagues from the other legion behind. To the right came the main strength of the cavalry, Gaul’s finest.

Figure 1: The Roman Army from its right wing

The Pontic army, having arrived slightly later, formed up with light cavalry on its extreme right, followed by a mixed formation of stratiotas and bowmen. The pikes came next in a single line, supported on their left by skirmishers. Further left was the main force of Pontic cavalry, equal numbers of Greek horse and cataphracts. On the extreme left was more light horse.

Figure 2: Pontic Army from its left wing

The opening moves confirmed the two side’s battle plans. The Pontic aim was to strike with the left and then encircle the Roman foot while keeping the pike and soldateri out of trouble. The Roman aim was to hit the centre of the Pontic army with the legionaries while keeping the Pontic cavalry occupied.

The critical clash occurred on the Roman right, predictably, while the legions were still some way off contacting the Pontic foot. The cavalry action went totally the Pontic way; all the Gallic cavalry could do was flee.

Figure 3: The Clash on the Roman Right

Figure 3 shows the aftermath of the initial cavalry clash. Only one base of Gallic horse is still in action, while the Greeks and the cataphracts pursue the rest. In the foreground the Pontic light horse lurks. In the next bound it charged across the field and hit the surviving Roman cavalry in the flank, causing it too to disperse.

In the background, the legions are advancing and, further behind, the Roman left is moving forward to prevent the stratiotas from threatening the legion’s flank. The collapse of the Roman right meant, however, that the Roman left wing cavalry had to be transferred to prop up the right.

A slight lull in proceedings occurred as both sides reorganised. The Pontics rallied their victorious cavalry, while the rear line of legions about faced to counter the threat and the Roman left wing cavalry redeployed. The fatal clash occurred behind the Roman centre, as the rallied Pontic horse clashed with the Roman left wing cavalry.

Figure 4: The Clash Behind the Roman Centre

In this, too, the Pontic cavalry was successful, leading to the dispersal of the remaining Roman horse and, crucially, the incapacitation of the Roman general. The lack of command and control structure severely hampered the remaining Roman efforts, in spite of the fact that, remarkably, their morale held firm.

Figure 4 shows the cavalry clash in the foreground while, in the background, the Roman legion has nearly made contact with the phalanx. To the top left of the picture the stratiotas and bowmen can just be seen moving forward to threaten the legions, although their advance was slowed by the Moors.

The battle finished with the legion's attack on the phalanx which was uncoordinated and unsuccessful, a couple of legionary bases being lost and even the skirmishers holding against Rome’s finest. It had, the Roman commander considered, been that sort of a day.

Monday 18 October 2010

Ancient Wargaming and Sacred Cows

I shall now attempt to extricate myself from the messy pits of ethical quagmire, and turn to things a bit more wargamer-ly, at least. Be warned, however, I may not be done with ethics yet.

To disappoint those of you who are expecting to know all that is in the new, soon to be much vaunted, Polemos: Imperial Rome rule set, I’m going to tackle a different meta-issue, raised by one of the loyal readers:

What is this thing called ancient wargaming?

As noted elsewhere, ancient wargaming runs from 3000 BC or so to 1500 AD, covers all parts of the world and usually comes in a handy bound book of a hundred pages or so, with add on supplements (often called ‘army lists’) for the avid collector of such things to buy. Each supplement will contain lists of possible armies a wargamer can lavish money, paint and time on, often in arcane language and making assertions about particular troops that the soldiers own dear mothers would hardly recognise.

The problem is that these then become key to the wargamer’s understanding of history.

Let us consider a case study. In Tacitus’ annals, 6:34-5, a battle between Parthians, Sarmatians, Iberians and Albanians is described:

Both sides having been drawn up in battle array, the Parthian leader expatiated on the empire of the East, and the renown of the Arsacids, in contrast to the despicable Iberian chief with his hireling soldiery. Pharasmanes reminded his people that they had been free from Parthian domination, and that the grander their aims, the more glory they would win if victorious, the more disgrace and peril they would incur if they turned their backs. He pointed, as he spoke, to his own menacing array, and to the Median bands with their golden embroidery; warriors, as he said, on one side, spoil on the other.

Among the Sarmatae the general's voice was not alone to be heard. They encouraged one another not to begin the battle with volleys of arrows; they must, they said, anticipate attack by a hand to hand charge. Then followed every variety of conflict. The Parthians, accustomed to pursue or fly with equal science, deployed their squadrons, and sought scope for their missiles. The Sarmatae, throwing aside their bows, which at a shorter range are effective, rushed on with pikes and swords. Sometimes, as in a cavalry-action, there would be alternate advances and retreats, then, again, close fighting, in which, breast to breast, with the clash of arms, they repulsed the foe or were themselves repulsed. And now the Albanians and Iberians seized, and hurled the Parthians from their steeds, and embarrassed their enemy with a double attack, pressed as they were by the cavalry on the heights and by the nearer blows of the infantry. Meanwhile Pharasmanes and Orodes, who, as they cheered on the brave and supported the wavering, were conspicuous to all, and so recognised each other, rushed to the combat with a shout, with javelins, and galloping chargers, Pharasmanes with the greater impetuosity, for he pierced his enemy's helmet at a stroke. But he could not repeat the blow, as he was hurried onwards by his horse, and the wounded man was protected by the bravest of his guards. A rumour that he was slain, which was believed by mistake, struck panic into the Parthians, and they yielded the victory.

As wargame rule writers, of course, this is valuable information. The most valuable bit of data is that Sarmatian bows were of shorter range than Parthian bows, and that, of course, can go straight into a set of wargame rules, with impeccable documentary evidence.

But hang on a moment. We need to recall a few things about this text. Firstly, that it was written, by Tacitus, in Rome, about 117 AD. This should raise a few alarm bells: Rome is a long way from Armenia; the events take place in 35 or 36 AD and Tacitus was not a particularly military man, still less well versed in the ways of Parthian and Sarmatian warmaking.

According to Rhiannon Ash (Phoenix, 1999, 55, 1-2, p114-135), Tacitus spends his time in this passage making the ethnotypes of the Parthians and Sarmatians extreme. He is hyping up the differences, in other words, to make the battle more dramatic. The Parthians are decadent easterners, a cavalry army that cannot deal with hand to hand fighting, while the Sarmatians, or more specifically their allies, the Armenians and Iberians, are described along the same lines as northern barbarians, tough and hairy, up for a scrap.

The comment about the bows, therefore, has more to do with justifying the ethnotype than describing the relative ranges of Parthian and Sarmatian weaponry. In fact the whole passage, Annales 31 – 37, appears to be more about justifying Tiberius’ foreign policy than about the battle. It seems unlikely that Tacitus either knew or cared about foreign bowmen and their abilities.

At this point, unfortunately, the aspiring wargame rule writer collapses into a foaming heap on his, or her, keyboard. They have just successfully argued away a piece of evidence that looked like it might provide a bit of interest. A way of distinguishing contemporary armies has vanished like the morning mist.

The real problem is, of course, that a lot of what we know about ancient history is like this. The more we analyse a text, the more it vanishes from around us. Contextualising, as above, removes the empirical evidence that we may crave and replaces it with a pile of ‘maybes’. This is not good for a wargames rule writer, nor a wargamer.

So what do we do? Over the last 40 years or so, a mystique has grown up around certain interpretations of ancient texts relating to war, and these interpretations have become normalised. This is not, in itself, a bad thing, but it does mean that some things are now encoded in wargamer’s DNA, as it were. New approaches, new ideas need a lot of unlearning, particularly when it is not clear where the original interpretations have been grounded in evidence.

Part of what I’ve attempted to do in Polemos: Imperial Rome, and what I shall hope to do in Polemos: Polemous (if it ever goes anywhere at all) is to link my interpretations to the literature that we have, both classical texts and modern scholarship. This may be laborious and irritating to the person who emphasises ‘game’ in ‘wargame’, but at least it might allow some to refer back to the originals, rather than just relying on my interpretation of what, as we’ve seen, can be texts of highly dubious utility.

Monday 11 October 2010

More Ethical Wargaming

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I thought I'd do a bit more on ethics, partly in response to the comments made on last week’s post.

My examples were, quite rightly, described as ‘tasteless’ and it was pointed out that there is no single boundary, it turns out be a personal decision. Our tasteless wargames may offend some people, but how much should that determine what we play?

There seem to be two extreme reactions to wargaming. The first is ‘it is only a game so it doesn’t matter’, and the second is ‘how can you turn violence and suffering into a game?’ The former is often the response of wargamers, and the latter of non-wargamers. People can be offended, in principle at least, by our games, but is that a problem for us as wargamers?

John Stuart Mill’s harm principle states:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

In other words, my right to swing my fist stops at the end of your nose.

Harm in Mill’s view, does not include offense. My views or actions may offend you, but they do not cause you harm so you cannot prevent me from doing so. There is a thought experiment to show how this works. Suppose you are on a bus. You do not need to be on the bus, but getting off it would cause you some inconvenience.

Various people get onto the bus as it proceeds on its journey; people with clashing clothes colours, unpleasant odours, and similar things. As the bus proceeds, the activities of the people get more offensive: eating their own vomit, defecating, indulging in heterosexual and homosexual activity and so on. The thought experiment (the author of which I cannot recall, sorry) has about 40 examples. The question is at what point do you get off the bus?

This is the utilitarian approach to harm and offence. So long as I don’t harm anyone, except perhaps myself, you cannot do anything about my activities. Offence is insufficient to take action. However, the bus thought experiment indicates that there is some point (for most of us, anyway) at which we become so offended that we withdraw; at some point offence shades into perceptions of harm. This I think is the boundary and why it moves for us. The points at which we perceive harm to be starting is that point at which we object, and that is different for each of us.

There is another approach to public ethics, which dates back to Aristotle and has been revived in recent decades, called virtue ethics. This argues that what we do does make a difference to ourselves, to our character and hence has an effect in the world. We build our characters by what we do in the world; habit becomes ourselves.

Thus, I think the objector to wargames would argue that the representation of violent acts, even in the imagination, makes those violent acts more acceptable and thus lowers the threshold for actual acts of violence. It is the sort of argument that people make about pornography, for example, and has certainly been used to bash role-playing games when people who commit violent crimes have been found to play RPGs or, more recently, video games.

On Mill’s harm principle, we cannot but agree with those wargames who play tasteless games but claim ‘it is just a game’. They do no harm to anyone, and even if they did, it would only be to themselves. No one else can intervene; the toys go back in their box at the end and are not hurt.

On the other hand, I cannot help but feel that the virtue ethicist has a point, but a difficult one to defend as a wargamer. Various defences for a wargaming virtue ethicist can be advanced, such as that the game is complex chess, or it encourages the study of history, or it is social and the violence is abstract and not represented (which is probably why people may be more uneasy with RPG and first person shooter video games), but these don’t seem terribly strong to me.

Perhaps the best virtue ethics defence of wargaming is that of George Santayana:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

As a species, we have a predilection for violence, as is clear from any study of the past. Wargaming, at least, brings that to the forefront, instead of hiding it behind the respectable veneer of civilisation.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Wargames and Ethics

A slightly shorter blog this week, due to work suddenly rearing its ugly head. On the other hand, it means you only have to read a shorter quantity of my deathless prose. But I do want to pose a question which only gets occasionally asked.

Is there a need for an ethic of wargaming?

Put like that, the answer is probably ‘no’.

But asking “are there some wargames you wouldn’t play?” is perhaps a different question, and may well get a different answer.

So, are there? At this point, of course, by giving examples, I could run the risk of being accused of bad taste, or giving people ideas. So be it.

Would you play the ‘Princess Diana Demolition Derby’? The players, as paparazzi, pursue a car through the deserted streets of Paris trying to get a picture. Dice rolls are included for the drunkenness of the driver, oncoming traffic and the degree of injury of the occupants upon crashing.

Game or no game?

How about then a game of the terror bombing of Amsterdam, the aim being to encourage citizens to flee, clogging up the road system and ensuring that your armies have more freedom of movement as the defenders cannot move?

Game, or no game?

What about a game set in the Thirty years War, where you are an army commander trying to obtain food for your army from the local peasantry by whatever methods seem appropriate. Or a game based on the Assyrians removing the population of Samaria to exile beyond the Euphrates?

Which of these would you be willing to play? Where do you, or I, draw the line, and why?

It is fairly clear that there is some moral boundary to wargaming and similar activities. There was a furore at one of the shows a year or two ago when some SS-re-enactors turned up, and another kerfuffle when a vendor started selling pornographic (I beg your pardon, I think I mean gentleman’s) models. There was also a bit of a hiatus in Miniature Wargames a year or four ago when an article about the British SS Freicorps was published, in the basis that it was a neo-Nazi whitewash (which it probably was).

In the 1970’s, Paddy Griffith wrote an article in Lone Warrior called Uncomfortable Wargames. He argued that we simply don’t play some sorts of game. As examples, he cited World War 1 trench warfare, Elizabeth’s wars in Ireland in the 16th Century, and, if I recall correctly, English chevauchee raids in France. Why not, he asked.

Griffith put forward a few reasons. Firstly, some situations are simply boring games, such as WW1 trenches (although there have been some valiant efforts recently). Secondly, some games can provoke unexpected reactions of a political sort. Elizabeth’s Irish wars might fall into this category (although, again, more games along these lines are now played). Finally, there are some wargames which simply make us uncomfortable. Raiding defenceless villages in 15th century France might fall into that category.

There are various responses to the question of ethics and wargames. Mostly, however, the issue is simply ignored, and we play the games we like to play. That is fair enough, for most games and most people. But every once in a while some limit is breached, but we never seem to actually define that boundary. Perhaps someone should start thinking about it.