Saturday 29 January 2011


D6 or D10, that is the question? Whether it is nobler of the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…

With due apologies to Mr Shakespeare, I would like to consider dice this time.
We use dice in wargaming because battles are unpredictable. Battles are complex affairs with plenty of contingent activity, and nothing can be predictable in such circumstances. So we use dice to model these contingencies, chances and probabilities.

Now, this gives rise to two effects. The first is a granularity in our wargames. Real life is a continuum. Groups of soldiers do not go from a ‘let’s get on with it’ to a ‘let’s run away’ frame of mind directly. There is a period of time, great or small, when they lose confidence, coherence and so on, and then the rout starts slowly, before the panic spreads. We cannot model this continuum, partly because it is so poorly understood, and secondly because qua wargame the troops need to be is a definite state, standing firm or running, not somewhere ill-defined in between.

So dice impose a degree of order on the wargame table, a controlling of the chances, but at the cost of losing the continuum of real life. Of course, the more dice you use, the less granular you can make the game. Role playing games, for example, often use D20 or D100. The effects of being able to roll from 01 – 99 are to wash out many of the effects of the granularity of the dice roll, although there is still a real distinction between a hit and a miss. For some, a near miss could be as demoralising as a light hit, but somewhere the complexity has to be cut off.

To spill the beans a little more on the early days of Polemous, the original was based on using a D10. We wanted a more finely grained set of results. However, the first battle with the rules showed us the error of our ways. The results were fairly wild. Using a difference system and a D10 a side gave a huge range of results, and as the body count mounted we decided that switching back to a D6 system made more sense. Variety is the spice of life, but too much just gets silly.

The choice of dice thus makes a significant contribution to the nature of the game. I’m sure we could have found some means of tackling the wildness of the D10 game. At least, by increasing the factors for the troops we could have reduced the effects of the difference between rolling a 0 and a 9, and by adjusting the tactical factors we could have made them balance the dice fluctuations. I think the reason we didn’t do this was that D6 systems are more familiar and thus intuitive, and we would have had to have worked much harder to balance the system with D10’s.

The second effect is a bit more subtle. Initially, I’d like to make a distinction between chance and probability. Chance is the randomising effect of unknown factors. For example, three arrows shot by the same person consecutively under the same conditions will land in slightly different places. This is due to factors like wind fluctuations, material differences and so on. Probability is the ability to predict the likelihood of some event happening. By this I mean that there is, say, a 10% chance of 15 hits from a volley of 100 muskets hitting a battalion sized target at 100 paces.

Now, the probability may be a cumulation of all the chances affecting each individual discharge of each musket, and the factors affecting each might be different, depending on the individual’s consumption of alcohol before the battle, whether they’ve just shot their ramrod at the enemy and that sort of thing. But the overall effect is one of probability.

How does this affect a wargame? I think the issue is the confluence of chance and probability. Suppose our volley at 100 paces is at the enemy general at the head of his guards battalion. We have a global probability of hits, but does the general get wounded, incapacitated or does he laugh in the face of danger as his invincible guards mow down the enemy? This is surely the province of chance.

But here is the rub: we use the same system to resolve both of these events. Roll globally to determine the overall number of hurts. Then roll again to determine the damage to the general.

Does this matter? Probably not much, but sometimes I do wonder. As a species we are not good at doing probability. The gambler’s fallacy is alive and well and living on a wargames table near you. Million to one chances do not come up fifty-fifty. As for wargaming, of course, probabilities do get complex, and a wargame is a diversion, a hobby, not an extension of applied mathematics. But there are issues.

How many squares were charged in the Napoleonic era? How many of those were broken? Now, suppose we could document all of them. So far as I know only a few squares were broken, and I’d imagine well over 2000 squares were charged. So, to make the numbers easy, let’s say 2 broken squares and 2000 charges, giving a 1:1000 chance of breaking a square. Now, 1/6 to the fourth power is 0.00077, which is just under 0.001. So on this basis the chances of breaking a square are the same as rolling a 6 four times.

Now here comes the problem: we charge squares in wargames many more times than was done in real life, so we see squares broken in wargames many more times than we do in real life. In fact, from real life, we have no idea how often squares were broken, so we land up with meaningless probabilities which we translate to the wargames table. The numbers above look reasonable but were in fact plucked from thin air.

How do we deal with this?

It seems to me that the only way forward is to ignore real life and make the best guesses we can. But if we do that, how can we stay in even slight contact with historical reality? Are we all just playing fantasy games, regardless of whether we have the right coloured piping on the Imperial Guard’s uniform or not?

Saturday 22 January 2011

Discoursing Again

I rather feel that last week’s effort didn’t quite go where I expected, so I’ll try again.

What are the discourses of wargaming?

By this I mean, roughly, how do we construct the social phenomenon that is wargaming today? Wargaming is decidedly a social construct, I think, but I want to try to consider how it is formed.

There are various structures that, I suppose, frame wargaming. Materially, these would include the figures themselves, books of rules, history books (or “source” books if we are talking fantasy or science fiction), terrain and so on.

Then there are the more social structures. Wargame clubs and shows, online email lists and fora, and even blogs such as this one. Spanning the material and the social are the associations of wargamers, such as the Society of Ancients and the Solo Wargamers Association, which produce their own material as well as form a social space for discussion. Similarly, I suppose, the glossy wargame magazines provide the same sort of space.

The thing about all of this stuff is that it constrains our means of creating wargames. We fight wargames in a way that is constrained by the physical space and objects, as well as the rules. Furthermore, the constraints on our time, by work, family commitments or the sheer activity of everyday life also limit what we can achieve.

Nevertheless, wargaming exists, and exists in a socio-cultural environment that permits it to exist. How then can it said to be constructed?

At a fairly low level, it could be observed that wargaming is a method of telling ourselves stories. A narrative of sorts unfolds as a wargame proceeds. The unpredictable nature of these stories, moderated by dice and decisions, makes them engaging. A wargame might be written up as such a story (I’ve posted one here myself, complete with pictures) but that is a post-wargame reflection on the event, or series of events, that made up the game. The game itself is more engaging than simple story-telling.

From another view point, the game is constrained by the rhetoric of the rules. Some rules are more guidelines to the players which outline the sorts of things that should happen. Some are more dogmatic, instructing the players in how to lay out the terrain, deploy the armies and in many cases, exactly which troops are allowed in which army. Indeed, I recall furious debates in some parts of the wargame community in the 1970’s about the use of army lists and how they were dumbing down the hobby, and writing your own rules was deemed to be the ‘best’ or ‘most accurate’, whatever that was held to mean.

Of course, the rules we play do make a difference, not least to the language me use in describing a wargame. In Polemos, the term ‘shaken’ has a specific meaning, and that enters then discourse of the players. Shaken in Polemos does not necessarily correlate to descriptions of battles which state ‘The 39th foot was shaken but unmoved’. It might, but not necessarily. It is probably worth recalling that in the earliest version of Polemos there ever was, shaken was described as ‘not ‘appy’, as in “This base is not ‘appy”. The discourse of Polemos could have been very different is we had retained this name for it.

So we layer various frames, constraints and discourses onto our wargames. Does any of it matter? Well, perhaps, because the constructs that we make inform the choices and directions we take. For example, 6 mm figures were long regarded as either being for WWII wargames, where they were respectable, or for the poor or cheapskates (like me). I well remember being told by someone that my 6 mm armies were ‘versatile’. As this was said with a slightly malicious grin, I presume that the implication was that they could be used for practically anything. The discourse here was to do down someone with a non-fashionable view or set of actions, in this case, in buying, painting and playing with 6 mm toys. Only with the hard work of Mr Berry and other 6 mm advocates has this bit of discourse started to change. Mind you, I do recall similar views being expressed about 15 mm toys in the 1970’s (and guess who was buying them then).

Similarly, I could argue that my favourite bugbear of recent times, the ancient rules covering everything from Sumeria to GarIgliano and all stations between around the world is a part of the wargaming discourse. It says that, for example, chariots are pretty well medieval knights, and Huns are more or less border horse. The claim lying behind here is that all ancients were pretty well the same, and can be treated the same. I would submit that this part of wargame discourse is as ill-founded as the argument that what really matters in WWII wargaming is the number of rivets on a Tiger tank’s turret.
It may be that I’m beating dead horses here, but I do think that, while talking, thinking and taking part in wargames, we probably do need to watch our language a bit. Not only do we run the risk of boxing ourselves in and cashing in our creativity for a few D6, but we also may well startle non-wargamers but exalting the virtues of, say, Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, which, at least, is not part of everyone’s everyday conversation.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Some Discourses of Wargaming

Wargaming occurs in a cultural context. Certain conditions have to be met before people can wargame. For example, I do not have to grow my own food, and that gives me a certain amount of leisure time in which to pursue other activates, which might include the reading of history and, ultimately, wargaming.

This, however, has certain implications for how we wargame. For example, I have long suspected that the most important part of any real war is the capture and holding of territory. Think of the battles in history which came about as a result of sieges. The Persians besieged the Greek cities in Ionia. Those who had no walls either surrendered or came out to fight. In the English Civil war the Royalists besieged and captured Leicester to draw the Parliamentarians away from Chester. This ultimately led to Naseby and the demise of the main royal army. More recently, Tobruk was a lengthy siege that distracted the Afrika Korps from the main aim of capturing Egypt, while I suppose that we could view the whole of the western front in World War One as a lengthy and very bloody siege, even ignoring such episodes as Verdun.

Waterloo is perhaps the paradigm counter-example. On the other hand, you could argue that Waterloo stands out as a counter example precisely because it was unusual. In 100 days there wasn’t much time to man fortresses and bring up the heavy artillery. The whole point, from both sides, was to prevent that from happening by obtaining a quick victory.

So why do we focus on the battle in wargaming? Professional soldiers, I’m told, focus on logistics while amateurs look at tactics. I’m an amateur; fair enough, and logistics is boring. But battles tend to have all the ‘glamour’ items: heroism, pageant, colour, movement, action, adventure and so on. Sieges tend to be nearly as dull as logistics.
I remember mentioning my idea that battles were largely unimportant while sieges and capturing territory were vital on an email list (now defunct). I was shouted down (as far as one can be in cyberspace), although I did challenge the list to provide in period examples of battles that were not fought as a consequence of besieging or a desire to lay siege to somewhere. I don’t recall the details, but there were few in the period which could be put forward.

So we seem to have this discourse in wargaming, that battles are important. That is true enough, as in many cases they are. Furthermore, we believe in the decisive battle. But actually, this is hiding something. Within wargaming, battle is important because that is all we can reproduce, interestingly and frequently. So the hidden need to fight wargame battles may be part of the motivation for the wargamer-ly focus on battles in the first place.

Now, this has slightly interesting consequences, I think. The battles wargamers are interested in tend to be the ones that are regarded as being decisive in terms of western history, culture or understanding of war. But not everyone in the world has this idea of war, necessarily. The Mexica culture before the conquest had a highly developed concept of the “Flower War”. This was an agreed combat between warriors on each side, but not the whole armies. Its meaning and effects are not entirely clear (not to me, anyway, and it is a while since I read Hassig’s account of it), but it is an entirely different understanding of decisive combat. But I’ve never seen a wargame based around it.

There are other implications. I’ve mentioned before the issue of the Persians being seen through Greek eyes. I discovered the other day on Amazon a book called ‘Military Orientalism’. Orientalism, in case you didn’t know, is a concept originally developed by an Egyptian-American scholar called Edward Said, which basically argues that Occidental attitudes to the East (I think Said started with the Middle East but the concept has been broadened) is a mixture of fear and arrogance. According to what I’ve seen of the Military Orientalism book blurb, the argument is that ever since Herodotus, the occident has misunderstood and misinterpreted the ways of fighting of the orient. The point is that the strategy and tactics make sense to those using them, even if to western eyes (and often, the only accounts we have are from western accounts) they look odd, cowardly, counter-productive, ineffective, or whatever.

The classic case of this might well be Afghanistan, where, in all of western involvement there, the strategy of the Afghans has not been to fight pitched battles, but to sit in the hills and cause such casualties and difficulties for the invaders that they’ve simply got bored and gone home (I generalise, but only a bit). The politics of the forces being there may well vary, but the argument is that western politicians in their capitals misunderstand the situation on the ground, and the strategy of the enemy.

So, where I’m trying to get to here is a complex place where we, as wargamers, wargame the things that interest us, which are battles in the western tradition of war, and, then, in many cases, impose these ways of doing battle (on the wargame table, at least) on other cultures which do not (or would not have been able to) recognise warfare in these terms. ‘Wargame Orientalism’, anybody?

Saturday 8 January 2011


What makes a wargame period?

Conventionally, we see a certain set of wargame periods:
Ancient and medieval: 3000 BC – 1500 AD
Renaissance: 1500 – 1700 AD
Horse and Musket: 1700 – 1900 AD
Modern: 1900-2000 AD

As a broad sweep of history, I suppose that this is all right, but it is painting in broad brush strokes and on closer investigation starts to look a bit dubious.

Take, for example, the end of the medieval period. This is set as 1500 AD. Why? Did things change suddenly at the end of 1499? I think not. I suspect that the real reason is that original wargame rules went to 1485, which was regarded as the ‘end of the medieval era’, closing the War of the Roses with the Battle of Bosworth and ushering in the ‘modern’ Tudors.

Now, of course, we know so much better, and are no longer so hidebound by arbitrary western historiography. So the date has shifted from 1485 to 1500, which is, after all, a nice, round, number. Political correctness is satisfied because we have removed ourselves from a specifically Anglophone viewpoint, and everything is spiffy again.

Well, not quite. Those poor Italian War wargamers are going to be a bit confused, what with their actions falling on both sides of the boundary, but you can’t please everyone. The fact that muskets become alarmingly more effective in most rules after 1500 is just an artefact of perceptions and the unfortunate consequence of writing rule sets. We all know that there is continuity across the boundary, but we busily ignore it because, well, there isn’t much else we can do.

The eagle eyed among you will have noticed (should you have read it) that the Christmas day post put the Polemos: Polemous date range as 490 BC – 330 BC. Why, you might have asked, is this? Similarly, when (or if) the Imperial Rome rules see the light of day, it will be noticed that they cover first century BC to second century AD. In the light of what I’ve just said about the boundaries being arbitrary, hadn’t I better start justifying myself, and quickly?

To some extent, of course, I cannot do any justification. Any boundary in dates is going to have a degree of arbitrariness to it. Take 330 BC. Why choose this date? More or less, it is the end of the Persian Empire, and the triumph of Alexander the Chancer (I beg your pardon, I mean ‘great’). With that, perhaps the world did change, if only a little, and so it seemed a reasonable, if entirely arbitrary date. It might be argued that it is better than, say, 323 BC, which only marks the death of Alexander himself. While on the ‘great man’ theory of history this is the terminal date for the period, the collapse of Persia could be regarded as being a little more important.

The beginning off this time span is marked, of course, by Marathon. While, it is true, Herodotus does describe a few battles earlier than this, they are not presented in enough detail for even the most imaginative wargamer to be able to reproduce the action. Marathon is about as early as we can go with a decent description. You could argue that we can’t really reproduce Marathon, but we can at least have a go.

The upshot of this is, of course, to merely redefine the arbitrary boundaries to dates other than those of conventional wargames usage. While covering a much narrower time range, the terminal dates are no less sudden. You could argue, quite correctly, that Chaeronea in 338 BC marks a reasonable turning point when the Macedonians defeated the Greeks. The pike, it could be claimed, thenceforth dominated over the spear armed hoplite.

Alternatively, you could argue that the period should be extended to the end of the second century BC or 168 BC when the battle of Pynda marked the end of anything approximating to the Alexandrian Macedonian Empire. But even that is dubious, because the Ptolemys ruled in Egypt until Cleopatra. History is made of continuities, not of disjunctions.

Perhaps it is best to define rules actually as having a core period and a peripheral one. For example, many of the rules describing themselves as ‘renaissance’ in fact have quite well developed English Civil War rules, and maybe one other period, depending on what the author has been reading. For example, some rules do quite good French Wars of Religion, or Italian Wars, or even Williamite rules, without quite getting, say, Poles against Muscovites or Ottomans right. In this case, ECW or FWoR are ‘core’ periods to the rule set, while the Turkish Wars or Time of Troubles are peripheral. The rules might work OK, but they might not. Caveat imperator, eh?

So for the Polemos: Imperial Rome rules we can say that they should work OK for what most people think of as the wars of the Roman legions, while those who try to push them back to Pynda or forward to the Sassanid Empire do so at their own peril. And I suppose that the Polemos: Polemous rules will work the same way, with the core being the Greek – Persian rules and the Greek – Greek ones, with everyone else having to take pot luck.

So perhaps, instead of a paradigm troop type for a rule set, we should have a paradigm set of interactions, or possibly just a single interaction. For example, hoplite vs. Persian infantryman would be the paradigm. Everything else is assessed relative to this interaction. So, was a lightly armed man better or worse than a Persian infantryman? How did Persian cavalry rate against hoplites? And so on. As the net spreads wider, so the accuracy of our comparisons get poorer. Eventually, they must land up distorted, or we would be answering the question of how a Hittite spearman rates against an SA80 wielding SAS man, or at least a Roman legionary against a dismounted French knight from the Agincourt era. And we wouldn’t want to do that, now, would we?

Saturday 1 January 2011

Considering Cavalry

I’ve always thought that Persian cavalry were the elite of the Persian forces. Thus the puzzle of why they seemed to do little at Marathon, and various attempts over the years to explain this fact away. For example, some have argued that that had already re-embarked for the descent on Athens; others have suggested that maybe Herodotus was wrong and there were no cavalry with the Persian force, or only a token number for scouting. Again, Krentz has argued that they were still deploying when the Greeks hit the Persian infantry, so they played no part in the battle.

I’ve not finished reading Herodotus’ account of Plataea, but there the Persian cavalry don’t seem to have played a major role in the battle itself. In the build up to the action they were significant – disrupting the Greek supplies and seizing the well that lead to the Greek withdrawal, which then bought on the battle. But when the battle is described, the Persian cavalry are mostly absent.

This passage in an earlier bit of Herodotus is interesting in this respect:
So they [the Scythians] used to watch for whenever they [the Persians] were gathering supplies of food and carry out their scheme. The Scythian horsemen would always rout the enemy cavalry and the Persian horsemen would retreat until they met up with their infantry, who would come to their assistance. At this point the Scythians used to turn back, because they were afraid of the Persian infantry, despite the fact that they had hurled themselves at the Persian cavalry. (Herodotus 4.128, tr. Waterfield, Oxford World Classics).

Now, given the warnings I’ve already made about the dangers of the lone passage out of context, what can we learn from this paragraph?

Darius’ Scythian campaign was in around 515 BC, and proceeded as most armchair strategists would expect, with the nomads refusing to engage in battle and the conventional forces wandering around achieving little. In this context, Herodotus’ passage makes a lot of sense: it describes classic hit and run tactics. The Scythians hit a foraging party which is forced to retreat until it finds some supports.
So far, so good, but the next part of the paragraph is that the Scythians always routed the Persian cavalry. But the Persian cavalry were armed with bow, spear, shield, nice curvy sword so beloved of ‘The Arabian Knights’ and so on. In short, they seem to have been regular cavalry of the ancient period. So why could they not withstand the Scythians?

There are two alternatives that I can see. Firstly, the Herodotus is wrong here, and they could. The second is that the Persian cavalry was fairly useless tactically.
The Persian infantry was armed with bows, and we know that, in general, foot archery was better than horse archery. So it makes a good deal of sense for the Scythian horse archers to avoid the Persian foot. So Herodotus does not seem to be wrong here, in this aspect at least.

So, the evidence from this passage is that the Persian cavalry could not stand against Scythian light horse. Now I’ll grant that Darius is unlikely to have sent out his elite cavalry to gather food, and that the Scythians were probably the best light cavalry around at the time. But this passage does seem to suggest that the Persian cavalry was below average.

If this is the case, then the absence of Persian cavalry in the accounts of Marathon is fairly easily explained. They may well have been there, but had not noticeable effect on the outcome. Similarly, at Plataea, their mobility in a grand tactical sense caused the Greeks problems, but not in the toe-to-toe stick poking that decided the outcome.
I’ve noticed this before in the ancient world. The much vaunted Sarmatians were defeated by a legion in the first century, for example. It is somewhere in Tacitus, but I forget where, although he does claim that they were weighed down with loot and fighting dismounted on a frozen lake at the time. Nevertheless, for much of the ancient period, cavalry was not up to much. There may well be exceptions, like Alexander’s companions, but mostly, before, say, 300 AD, cavalry wasn’t that much use.

Cavalry, then, seems to have been to the ancient world what artillery was in the seventeenth century. Useful to have around, but you could get by without it. The Greeks certainly managed to do as at Marathon, after all.

So where does this leave us, rules wise? Well, Mr Berry has already noted that the Imperial Rome rules are not going to please cavalry addicts. So be it. Ancient cavalry were not in the business of charging steady infantry from the front. Then again, I’m not sure cavalry of any age were quite that suicidally stupid. Cavalry have their uses, but mainly this is to protect the flanks of their own infantry and threaten those of the enemy. Strategically and grand tactically their increased mobility has significant advantages, but in battle, the Persian and most other ancient cavalry seems to have been fairly weak.