Saturday 26 March 2011

Just Wargaming?

As I write, military powers around the world are considering intervening in yet another country. One of the things that is slowing this down is the need for the proper authorisation of a military intervention. That is: who has the power to legitimately authorise the use of military force? Further questions follow: is the war to be fought with good intentions? Is the cause just? The airwaves and internet are full of such questions.

These ideas, and similar, are the cause of much controversy. I note, in passing, the much of the controversy over the invasion of Iraq was caused by them. Did the invaders have a legitimate cause? Who has the power to authorise the use of force? Were all other paths to resolution blocked? What were the intentions of the invaders? The answers to these questions from different individuals cause all sorts of political problems and demonstrations across the western world, at least.

Now, I’m not in the business here of discussing the rights and wrongs of military intervention in the modern world. But these issues draw attention to a tradition of ethics relating to war, which is known as the just war theory. The questions about intent and legitimacy referred to above are part of the tradition, and it is heavily ingrained in our debates about the use of military force; so much so that the debate is often entered into without the participants realising that they are so doing.

The just war tradition has a venerable history. In part, it derives from Judaeo-Christian principles, such as the laws of war in the Old Testament and Jesus’ sayings about taking up the sword in the new. Entwined with these are ideas from the classical Graeco-Roman world of Seneca and other stoics. The first real statements of the just war tradition were made by St Augustine in the early 5th century. A more systematic working of them (although still brief) was developed by St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century (Summa Theological II-II Q40). This was further worked out in the 16th and 17th centuries by Grotius and Suarez, and became the basis of the system we now know as international law. Hence the debate and questions about modern conflicts and interventions is still framed within just war traditions.

Is the just war tradition of any use to me in my quest for an ethic of wargaming?
The tradition divides neatly into two: just cause and just execution of war. The requirements of a just war are, roughly speaking, those set out above. The snag is, from the traditions point of view, that if one side is clearly just, the other side clearly isn’t. Thus, in a wargame, one player would be representing the just, the other the unjust. Surely, then, the ethical thing to do would be for the player playing the unjust side to, to use a chess term, resign. As I’m sure you can see, this would not make a terribly interesting wargame.

I think, therefore, the justness of the cause which our little lead men represent is not a good basis for selecting our battles. In historical, or historically related wargaming, the causes of the fighting are matters of brute historical fact. We may not approve of the ethics of the SS or the Assyrians, and I hope we do not, but the historical fact is that they fought in such-and-such battles and thereby need representing, if we are going to make any claim to historicity.

In terms of just execution of the fighting we might be on firmer ground. The just laws of war forbid, for example, deliberate targeting of civilians, the causing of unnecessary suffering to combatants and the use of proportional force. It is rather hard to imagine that a satisfying wargame could be fought where any of these rules were deliberately broken.

We may know, for example, that part of the success of the German offensive of May 1940 was due to terror bombing flooding the roads with refugees and thus inhibiting military movement, but we are unlikely to wish to devote our energies to modelling and representing this fact. We may wish to include it in our scenarios, with some comment that allied troops will appear at random due to the problems of transport, but we are unlikely to represent it directly.

So what conclusion can I draw from this? Overall, I do not think that the just war tradition is particularly useful in the pursuit of wargame ethics. It might give us some outer limits about what we wish to represent on the wargame table, but it is such a significant part of our tradition anyway, as noted above, that we are fairly unlikely to wish to do so anyway. The nastiness of warfare is best abstracted away in our games.

Saturday 19 March 2011

Update on the Greeks

Well, a warm welcome to all our new readers!

Some of you might recall that this blog was originally about my attempts to write some wargame rules in the Polemos series covering classical Greece. It has been a while since I said anything at all about that, so perhaps I should give an update, rather than continuing to worry about what wargaming means.

So, here goes.

Firstly, the good news is that I finished Herodotus, who finishes up as quite a good read. Certainly his account of Plataea is a lot clearer and more detailed than that of Marathon. Perhaps this is why Marathon is so popular with classical historians now. You can speculate an awful lot more with much less information.

So what did I learn from Herodotus?

The overall impressions is that the troops were not, really, terribly good. The Greeks were badly co-ordinated, not terribly well lead and landed up in a difficult situation which they had to fight their way out of. The Persians were probably rather worse. We’ve already done the ‘fighting quality’ thing with respect to Marathon, and the foot combat seems to be similar at Plataea – a long slog but with the Greeks winning.

The Persian cavalry had a mixed performance in my view. They were very useful on the grand tactical or semi-strategic level, seizing springs and intercepting the Greek supplies which forced the Greeks to redeploy which brought on the battle. In the battle, however, they were less useful. Herodotus describes them galloping up by squadrons to the Greek lines, loosing off their missiles and then turning away. This is the sort of ‘heavy skirmish’ style of battle, where they will exploit any chinks in the infantry formation by charging, but otherwise turn away. As the Greeks stood firm, the cavalry turned out to be fairly useless.

How about leadership and generalship?

Well, the Greeks did all right, obviously, considering that they won. We could argue that they were a bit lucky. Trying to stage a withdrawal in the face of an enemy with cavalry superiority was always going to be risky. Insubordination certainly didn’t help, and the Greeks essentially fought two separate battles, fighting their way through to ultimately sack the Persian camp.

On the other side, the Persians started with the advantages and lost. All they had to do really was maintain a force in being and the Greek alliance would probably have collapsed anyway. It had nearly done so in the winter, and the longer the campaign went on, the more likely it was that the Greeks were going to fall out again. However, a fleeting opportunity to win decisively presented itself and finished in disaster. The Persians only collapsed when Mardonius was killed however; the battle was not just a Greek hot knife cutting through Persian butter.

So, how do we rate this lot? Firstly, I don’t really see any grounds for altering my assessment of the Greek and Persian foot. The Greeks did have a hard, but winning fight on their hands. Persian cavalry is weak in face to face combat, but useful for working flanks and being highly annoying on supply lines. So we can rate them as not able to take hoplites on by charging, unless the hoplites are shaken, and also indulging in skirmishing most of the time. The main usefulness of the Persian cavalry was, as I’ve mentioned, on a strategic or grand tactical scale. Well handled, the Persian cavalry could have forced the Greeks into strategic retreat, although the ability to handle them well enough, given the communication limitations in an ancient battle, was probably very limited indeed.

The next interesting thing to consider is why, given the superiority of the Greeks on home territory, did they fail so badly in the offensive part of the Persian wars?
I suspect that the answer to this is twofold. Firstly, we’ve already noted the problems of command in the Greeks. The Spartans thought they should be in charge, while the Athenian navy was the largest component. Eventually, the Athenians took over (and started to build an empire) while Sparta lost interest. Secondly, there is the logistical issue of transporting and supporting land troops in Asia Minor. The Athenian navy could transport, land and support a thousand or so hoplites, and these might get some assistance from allied Ionian cities. But the bottom line is that this size of force was insufficient to have an impact in the relatively large scale of Persia itself. The Persian empire lasted longer than Athens did as an independent state. Given the constraints of the time, the Athenians probably did a much as they could in picking up islands and cities.

This, of course, leads fairly simply on to the next bit of Greek wargaming history, when Sparta woke from her slumbers and war broke out. I’ve just started reading Thucydides, and so far it has been interesting, but got me wondering how it could work on the wargame battlefield. The fact is that the opening moves of the war were based around a land power fighting a naval power. The Athenians spent the first part of the war doing pretty well what the Royal Navy did in the 18th and 19th centuries – building up and defending strategically important bases. However, as the Royal Navy also found out, there is a limit to what you can do via raids and command of the sea. The ultimate power is a land army holding the ports that you need.

At the moment, instead of a conventional wargame, I’m feeling that some sort of campaign game might be better. But that would put me even further out into left field than I already am.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Historical Wargaming

One of the main discourses in historical wargaming is, of course, the idea that a wargame can have any relationship to history. If this claim bears no scrutiny, then we really are playing with toy soldiers in fantasy worlds.

I suppose that there are several ways in which historical wargaming does bear a relation to the real, historical world. Firstly, they model soldiers are historically accurate. By this I mean that the uniforms, weapons and other equipment are accurate representations of the soldiers of the time claimed to be represented. Thus, we would expect that if we travelled back in a time machine and waved a well painted figure of the Imperial Guard under Napoleon’s nose, he would recognise it as such.

Secondly, the terrains of our battles resemble those of the battles of the historical era. Obviously, I’m considering historical match ups here, not Zulu vs. Aztec ahistorical tournament games. Thus, to keep up the Napoleonic link, our battle of Waterloo would need representations of Hougomont, the ridge and so on. There has to be both a resemblance of the troops and the terrain to give a historical wargame.

I do not mean that we always have to slavishly follow only real battles, but that there must be some ill-defined “historical feel” to the game. For example, a fictional battle set in Normandy in 1944 between the British and Germans would ‘feel’ wrong if fought on wide open spaces with Chieftain tanks. Thick hedgerows and Churchills should be the order of the day.

The third element is related to this, and is about the units our model soldiers are grouped in. It would feel strange to find Macedonian pike deployed as skirmishers, as it would to encounter Tommies in Normandy lined up shoulder to shoulder. We expect our models to represent not only themselves – that is the real soldiers – but also the configurations they found themselves in, the squad, platoon, company, battalion, regiment and so on.

The next element concerns the rules. Again, there is an expectation that, for example, Napoleonic musketry is not like taking a machine gun to a football crowd. There is an assumption that the results, however obtained, will bear some resemblance to the fact that while a musket volley could be damaging, it was not usually decisive by itself. Similarly, we expect that infantry charge in flank by cavalry will generally come off second best, and so on. So the rules have to conform to some conception of the warfare of the period they are trying to represent.

This discourse of historical wargaming thus covers the models, terrain, units and rules.
The next question is along the lines of how much can we expect from each element in this set? Clearly, accuracy per se declines as the centuries roll back. Therefore, we have to ask how historical is historical?

This is where things get a little flaky. We can, of course, still argue that our models and terrain are as historically accurate as possible. There may be some discussion over what colour tunics Roman legionaries wore, or the designs on hoplite shields, but in general, as far as knowledge goes, we can be accurate. But the problem comes with the units and rules. What do we mean here by historical?

Now, we get into all sorts of problems. For example, DBR is rightly criticised for allowing or encouraging ahistorical deployment. But I can’t think of a rule mechanism which would force a wargamer into a historical deployment. Encouraging ahistorical deployment is clearly a bad thing and may indicate some missing element to the rules, but most wargames I’ve seen don’t do, for example, reserves. I suspect that from a professional soldier’s viewpoint, most wargames resemble 7 year old boys’ football games where all 22 players chase the ball. Without using some clunky mechanisms I think it would be hard to make players keep reserves. What we need is a more subtle mechanism to persuade players to keep reserves, but that is very hard to achieve, in my judgement.
So the rule element is probably the hardest to make historical. The combination of poor or non-existent knowledge, complex activities both in real life and around the wargames table and the necessary compromises of the tabletop activity make the whole activity of rule writing a precarious one.

I suppose that is why, as opposed to some recent rule sets, I’m trying to encourage people to discuss and experiment with Polemos: Imperial Rome, when it sees the light of day. I’m not claiming that my interpretation is right, or the best, or that the game is subtly balanced in ways the players wouldn’t understand. But it is the rules that seem to make the wargame (as opposed to the models) historical.

On the other hand, we do make claims about the historicity of our wargames. We expect a certain conformity to historical outcomes of battles, and a certain logicality in the process of achieving those outcomes. Going back to Lonergan’s Insight, it is these judgements of our common sense, in the situation of the wargame, which makes us agree or disagree that the wargame is historical or not. If the cry often goes up “that wouldn’t’ve happened”, then perhaps historicity is compromised.

Where does this leave us? We have to rely on our readings and interpretations of history, plus our judgement and logic in deciding how the discourse of historical wargaming is determined. In writing rules we need all of that, plus the ability to abstract the historical evidence into a set of mechanics that can apply to any possible situation. That, I submit, is difficult, and is why so many rule sets don’t seem to work that well for what they are designed to do.

Saturday 5 March 2011


My very minor claim to wargaming ‘fame’ if such fame there be, is to have started the Solowargames Yahoo! Group. It has been going a while now, and has a fair number of members, and even a few participants. It is a friendly place and new posters usually find a good welcome, advice and encouragement there.

Nevertheless, there is still a bit of a stigma hanging over the solo wargamer. I mean, wargamers as a whole are generally regarded as being a bit odd by society. A solo gamer doesn’t even have the excuse of social interaction at a club to hang his hobby on. Even other wargamers might view solo wargamers as being odd, or sad, or antisocial.

I’ve always been a solo wargamer, ever since I finished throwing marbles at Airfix figures. The number of competitive wargames I’ve had can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand, if you exclude role playing games. There too, somewhere in my cupboard I have a Musketeer who is busy escaping from a Spanish castle (which looks suspiciously like the Tower of London, but I digress). So even role playing games can and have been played solo.

So what is it about solo games as opposed to face to face wargames? That is, why bother as a solo gamer?

I suppose that most of the aspects of wargaming are still the same. You research the period, choose the figures, paint them, base them and then are ready to commence. Aside from the fact that you have to do this for both sides, this is all fairly similar to everyone else. You can even pontificate on your hobby in public, either through Lone Warrior, august journal of the Solo Wargamer’s Association, or on a blog such as this one. I’ve done both in my time.

The thing I suppose that solo wargaming lacks is the competition, the facing another across the table and beating them (or being beaten, but I’m still trying to be upbeat, here). At least as a solo gamer you both win and lose. I imagine that this turns on whether, as individuals we are either competitive, in which case taking on a live opponent is important, or gregarious, in which case meeting with others is important, or not. I guess I fail on both counts.

On the plus side, as a solo wargamer, you never have to have arguments over rule interpretations or how many gaiters the Imperial Guard were issued with in 1814. Solo gamers also seem to be more likely to run campaigns. This is possibly because there is not the same imperative to get the armies out and fight as when a live opponent appears, and also possibly because, as a solo gamer, unfair fights can be envisaged.

We’ve mentioned before that one of the discourses of wargaming is about fairness. I remember reading about one participation game where the participant was charged with scouting a farm in Normandy, 1944. They were given a small foot patrol. The German forces at the farm were generated randomly by the umpire, and could range from nothing to a Panzer division. Quite often, in the latter case, the participant would calmly start to dig in, assuming that the game in some way had to be fair, and they had to have a chance. Fairness, equality, a chance to win is somehow expected in our games.

As a solo gamer, I’ve found that often it is best to stack the odds against you. A few years ago I developed a system for fighting campaigns in preconquest Aztec Mexico. It was based on the DBA campaign system and I used DBA to resolve the battles. I think it used cards to determine my opponent’s strength, and any ambushes they had set. Events such as wandering tribes and revolts against my rule were determined randomly. This worked really well, until the system conspired against me and my 12 base DBA army, depleted by battle losses but strengthened by an ally went down to something like 28 bases of enemy. But it was fun, even though my last battle looked more like the Alamo than anything else. I was so impressed that I wrote it up for Miniature Wargames and they even published it.

It seems to me, then, that solo wargaming can work around the discourse of fairness that pervades our hobby. I’m not arguing that every game should have one side fighting against impossible odds, but that imbalance exists in our games, even in rule systems that claim to create fairness through a points system. In such systems players can spend long hours obtaining the best army under the rules for a fixed number of points. Real life generals, I suspect, have to go with what they get.

Is this discourse of fairness a bad thing in the hobby? Not necessarily, I think. But being aware of it is a good thing. Fairness is something we are brought up with, but it is not something that can be readily applied to the conduct of real wars. A general who waited until his enemy had received reinforcements before he attacked would, in real life, be rapidly sacked. In wargaming this might be acceptable, because it is fair.

The only circumstance when unfairness might be acceptable in a wargame is when the game is part of a campaign, or when there is a carefully designed scenario where the disparity in numbers is balanced by advantage in position. Even that is fair, to some degree, so really we need to run with campaign games. But even there, both sides have to have a chance, even if it is only overall and not in a particular encounter.

So this discourse of fairness seems to pervade our hobby. Fair, I might say, enough. I suppose it is something like that which determines whether the activity is a hobby. A game of chess, a round of golf or a rubber of bridge would not get played if there was no chance of one of the participants winning, even though in skill, practice or experience there may be big discrepancies. Perhaps then, the discourse of fairness in wargaming is something that makes it a hobby. Unfair wargames could be a bit too close to the real thing.