Saturday 25 December 2010

Christmas Presents...

Well, a merry Christmas to one and all, and may Santa fill your stockings with all you desire (ooh, er).

Now, for your Christmas gift from me, the ‘official’ first draft of Polemos: Polemous:

Polemos:Polemous: 490 – 330 BC

Hoplite 0444
Greek Cavalry
Light armed
Persian infantry 23 3 3
Persian cavalry
Light cavalry
Scythed cariots

Tactical factors:
-1 hoplites less than 8 ranks deep.
+1 hoplites more than 8 ranks deep (per 4 ranks)
+1 Persian infantry with shield wall in first round of combat.
+1 advancing into combat or following up.
+1 ‘the best’ (Immortals, Spartans)
-1 ‘the worst.

And finally, click here for something a bit uplifting:

Saturday 18 December 2010

Another Go At Rules

This week, a return to pondering rules. I’m going to try to fix the issue there was with ‘a second stab at rules’.

Let us again take as our paradigm soldier the Persian infantryman, and give him a 3 in our system.

The Greek hoplite up against him, when 8 ranks deep, should win, so lets give him a 4.

In the centre at Marathon, the Greeks were thin; say 4 ranks deep so pick up a –1.

The Persians get a +1 for being ‘the best’ and another +1 for their initial shield wall.

Thus, in the centre, the Greeks are at 4-1, the Persians at 3 +1 +1 making 3 vs 5. However, the Greeks did charge into contact, so should get at least +1 for doing so, making 4 vs. 5 and, all other things being equal, a slow loss for the Greek centre.

On the wings, the Greeks would be 4 +1 against 3, making 5 vs. 3 and a quicker win for the Greeks.

Two issues arise here. The first is why do the Greeks only get +1 for charging?

Well, the more I’ve read the more doubtful I’ve become that a full-blooded charge could be carried out by a phalanx. This starts to get complex. Some authors would argue that a phalanx was much looser in 490 BC than we assume, but I’m not going there as I don’t see how a bunch of shield and spear armed heavy infantry are going to make progress in a loose formation. The point of a phalanx was that it was rather coherent. This is why police lines tend to hold against demonstrators, after all. So phalanxes cannot just rush at the enemy willy-nilly.

On the other hand, there has to be some bonus for getting to grips. In the case of Marathon, the Greeks would eventually have got disrupted by the Persian archery, so it was worth their while, once in range, closing. So I’ve made a perhaps rash assumption that the +1 for the Persian shields cancels out the impetus from charging / advancing into contact.

Comparing with the first stab at rules, the centre in that came out as 4 vs 4 in the first round, followed by 2 vs 3 for a slow Persian win in the second and subsequent rounds.

This week, we have 4 vs 5 in the first round and 3 vs 4 in the second and subsequent, again making a slow Persian win.

In the wings it should be a slightly faster Greek win.

So does this make any difference?

Well, the Persians still come out a little ahead when they are counted as the paradigm, but not as much as I initially thought. They get a slight advantage on the first round of combat, getting a 5 rather than a 4. This would get cancelled out if I gave the Greeks a +2 for charging, of course, so the two systems would then be equal.

However, there is a ‘but’.

Here, I’ve assumed that the outcomes would be based on the difference of the factors, and that alone. This is the normal route with Polemos rules, at least the ones I’ve written.

If a DBA style combat outcome were used, then the outcomes could be significantly different. As I’m sure most of you know, the DBA style outcome is defined by the ratio of the scored – less than half and less but more than half.

The Polemos system uses a difference of scores – 0, 1, 2, and so on.

In the ratio (DBA style) system, the higher the initial factor, the less likely an opponent is going to double the score. If both sides have a +1, and one rolls a 1, then to double, the opponent only needs to roll 3 or more. If both sides have +4, and one rolls a 1, then the opponent has to roll a 6 to double the score. I’ve not done the numbers and statistics on this, but it appears to me to be slightly non-linear.

The difference (Polemos) system is linear. No matter what the factor, the difference is the same. So a Greek vs. Persian match up at 2 vs. 3 is the same as 3 vs. 4.

So perhaps, while there may be a little bias depending on the paradigm troop type, it is much more limited in the difference system than in the ratio system.

Or, maybe, I’ve got my numbers wrong (again).

Saturday 11 December 2010

Lost in Translation

Ruarigh raised an important point in a comment, and it deserves a longer consideration than it has had so far.

The issue is translation.

Now, decent translations of many ancient texts are available at reasonable prices in English, and these are what I’ve been using. So, Caesar, Tacitus, Seutonius and, more recently Herodotus grace my bookshelves.

However, there are problems in using them. The Penguin translations, for example, have an irritating habit of translating ‘cohort’ to ‘battalion’ and ‘legion’ to brigade, let alone ‘pilum’ to ‘spear’. Piecing this back to what is actually meant by the author is a frustrating business, but I don’t read Latin or Greek, or anything else except English (and some might argue I don’t do that very well!).

There is a problem here, outlined by the US philosopher Willard Quine.

Consider a sentence, S, in a language system, call it L. S only has meaning in L by virtue of other sentences also in L. Therefore, the meaning of S is not fixed by S, but by the whole language system L. The effect of this is to show that translation is always indeterminate. A translation from L into L’ is always underdetermined by the data and thus open to question.

For Quine, then, everything is up for grabs because everything is under-determined by the data and we can only choose, for example, which translation we prefer.

In my view, it gets slightly worse than this. Consider an ancient language system G. G exists, and thus gives its sentences S meaning in a specific culture, C. If C is not understood, then some aspects of G will remain unclear, as the translation is not just from one language to another, but from C to another culture.

Thus, for example, we see the Greeks rushing off to Delphi at the slightest opportunity, to consult the oracle. Why? The oracle was a powerful religious and cultural force in the culture, but unless we know this part of the culture (and we never can fully know what it meant for the Greeks), the full meaning of the language, will elude us.

Therefore, we seem to be facing a double whammy in terms of translation. There is Quine’s indeterminacy, but there is the further problem of translating from an ancient culture, and if C determines L and L determines the meaning of S, then C, to some extent, determines S.

To put this back into English, the culture of the time determines, to some extent, the meaning of the sentences we read, especially when translated. We can understand the words, and even the sentences, but the cultural block can remain.

The upshot of this for wargaming is tricky. According to our sources, I should be making sure that the players send off to Delphi before any major decision, sacrifice sheep before going into battle and undertaking all the cultural paraphernalia that can be derived from our sources that the Greeks did.

But there is a further problem.

Our sources can only give a partial account of what happened, even if those sources are concluded to be accurate. So even if we’ve got good sources (which is rare in the ancient world), we still only have a partial picture of what happened, and an even worse view of what might have happened.

Furthermore, in many cases we cannot check our sources. For early Greek history, there is only one source, Herodotus. We could dismiss Herodotus as being inaccurate. Certainly, he is not all that accurate in places where he can be checked. But if we do dismiss him, we cut off the branch upon which we are sitting. We can then say nothing else about the period except a few scraps of archaeology.

Given all this, it is a wonder that we can get anywhere at all. But we can, slowly and carefully, if we engage with our sources (albeit, in my case, in translation) and with secondary sources in books and journals which try to interpret those sources alongside others and with the archaeology of the period and places of interest.

As I’ve observed before, the danger is lifting a piece of our source material as good evidence for something, but then finding it is downgraded by different interpretations or translations of the same thing. The trick is to try to work holistically, trying to grasp the culture as well as the battles, but that is hard work, and very, very slow.

But it does explain, at least to my satisfaction, why I’m reading the whole of Herodotus, not just the paragraph or two about Marathon.

Saturday 4 December 2010

Nasty Dilemmas

I’d like to try to consider two slightly different but parallel issues in wargame rule writing this week.

The first is this: my reading so far suggests that the early Greeks were not terribly good generals. Greek generalship seems to have consisted of marching up to near where the enemy are and making camp. Having done that, at a suitable point, you march your soldiers out of camp, line them up, and make an inspiring speech. You then place yourself in the front rank, shout something like “That way lads, at them” and, hopefully, everyone charges off in the right direction, destroying the enemy and winning victory, fame, glory and so on.

So what is the problem with this?

Consider this: you arrive for your wargame, set up your phalanx, set them going according to the rules and then, apparently, you have absolutely nothing else to do for the rest of the evening while your little lead heroes battle it out.

Beautifully historically accurate, but it could be a bit dull for the player.

I remember reading a long time ago in, I think, Arquebusier, about a wargame where a French 16th century army had faced an imperial one, Lansknechts and all. Of course, the Landsknechts had a skirmisher unit out of those blokes in slashed sleeves with huge great swords. These clashed with the French crossbow / handgun skirmisher unit, and routed it.

So far, so good.

A bad dice roll then ensured that the French support unit routed too. Oops, chuckle. But then the rot set in and unit after unit of the French army joined the rout. Eventually, the French player, seeing a third of his army running away, conceded the game.

How accurate! How interesting! But what a dull wargame. A minor unit had succeeded in putting a whole army to flight. ‘What a waste of an evening’, is another way of putting it.

Historical accuracy does not necessarily a decent wargame make.

The second issue is with troop types. In Aristotle’s Politics, (Book VI, para 7 1321a5 – 1321a27 for those of you into these sorts of things) four troop types are identified: cavalry, heavy infantry, light armed troops and the navy.

Discounting the navy, we have three troop types, attested by Aristotle. Yet a quick check of some popular rule sets suggests that the Greeks had far more variety than this. Where are the light horse, the Thracian peltasts, the bowmen?

According to what I’ve read so far, an early Greek army in Polemos terms would be 20 bases of hoplites, and that is it. As noted above, the general would simply point them in the right direction and let them go.

So now we arrive in the realm of trade-off and compromise that bedevils wargame rule writing. How do we keep something reasonably historically accurate while keeping the game interesting?

In this instance, do I allow Greek generals to do something other than simply fight in the front rank? If I do, and they start redeploying the phalanx to flank, then it would seem that we’ve lost historical accuracy to playability. Where do we draw the line?

On the other hand, we could quite easily argue that although Greek generals did not engage in fancy manoeuvres, they might have been able to but just did not need to, so I’m justified in allowing them to do so. This is an argument from silence, of course, and these are always dangerous (just because there is no record of alien space bats intervening, there is no reason to suppose they didn’t).

Similarly, we have a problem with the mixture of troop types. 20 bases of hoplites are a bit dull, after all. We could just about add some skirmishers (light armed troops), although they are specifically excluded by Herodotus at Marathon – the Athenians were unsupported by either cavalry or archers. If we regard Marathon as a special case, then we are again arguing from silence and the alien space bats are lurking.

So is the choice really between dull but historically worthy games and inaccurate but fun ones? Sometimes, looking at the wargaming world, it does seem to be the case. On the one hand we have tournament and fantasy games where anyone fights anyone according to a rule set which has to be fairly arbitrary to cope, while on the other hand we have painstaking models and simulations which seem to drain all the fun away.

Is that it? Are we, as wargamers simply impaled on the horns of this nasty dilemma?