Saturday 28 May 2011

Wargame Mythology

One of the things that I’ve learnt over the last few years of attempting to write rules is how hard it is to shift some wargamer’s myths. Some ideas and concepts are so deeply ingrained in wargamers’ minds and hearts that they appear almost impossible to shift.

For example, I was looking at some pictures of 30 Years War and ECW figures. I don’t recall which manufacturer they were from, except they were recent releases and they were 15mm and pleasant enough figures, so far as I could tell. The problem with them that I have is that the musketeers had rests. By the time that the bulk of the conflicts in question were fought, rests had gone. Indeed, there is an open question as to whether rests were ever used, at least outside the minds of drill authors and in sieges. I suppose that at least I should be grateful that the musketeers were not wearing helmets.

This sort of thing is pernicious and very difficult to shift. Of course, if you have a lovingly constructed and painted ECW army, you don’t really want to hear that it is wrong. The problem is that the myths persist in this way. Many ECW gamers will have been bought up on George Gush’s Renaissance Rules, where firelocks are downgraded at long range because they don’t have rests. Maybe I’m a simpleton, but if a firearm is light enough to hold without needing a rest, its performance at range is not going to downgrade as a result of that fact. I’m not trying to rubbish the rules – I used them for many years – but this sort of thing does perpetuate the myth.

Another source of irritation in “Renaissance” gaming (aside from the name) is the caracole. This is one of those vanishing past type myths. Rupert’s cavalry in the ECW charged with the sword, as opposed to the earlier caracole. Pappenheim’s cuirassiers in the TYW look like earlier caracolers, but actually charged with sword and pistol. They learnt it from Gustavus’ troopers, who charged with the sword. This was a change from the Dutch cavalry, who charged with the sword, having learnt to from the Huguenot Millers, who wore corselets but had learnt to charge and not use firepower. They learnt to do this from their Catholic league opponents, who were the remnants of the French ordonnance lancers, who therefore charged. Given that the ordonnance lancers were constituted before the widespread use of the pistol, at least they cannot have changed tactics from firepower to shock. But the question arises: who actually did ever use caracole tactics? The answer seems to be ‘no-one, in open battle’.

The history of the grenade is another such item. Eighteenth century grenadiers are said not to use the device because its field use had died out and it was only occasionally useful in sieges. Late seventeenth century rules say basically the same thing. So do ECW rules. These highly dangerous looking cartoon bombs are only for sieges, but they used to be used in the field. When? I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that they were ever used in the field. I have a distinct impression that they never were. The myth of the field use of grenades vanishes into history, never to find any evidence.

‘Are you not supposed to be talking about Greeks?’ I hear you cry.

Well, yes. In the past I’ve noted that some things in ancient rules are distinctly dubious – the issue about Sarmatian and Parthian bows being a case in point. The further back in time you go, the more potent and dangerous the myths become to any attempt at ‘reality’ in rules.

Take an example that I’ve mentioned before. The Persians, according to the Greek historians, were vast hordes of reluctant levies, driven to attack the freedom loving Greeks and reduce them to subjugation. Herodotus records 1.7 million fighting men crossing the Bosporus under the eye of King Xerxes, while the Greek forces at Plataea are more modestly and carefully counted. Many people have accepted this number, despite the fact that such a vast horde would have simply starved to death on the road, let alone found sufficient water to drink. But the myth of Persian subject levies and their huge numbers lives on, perpetrated by popular histories, wargame rules and our own prejudices.

More realistically, it is unlikely that the Greeks were heavily outnumbered. If you look at the numbers in armies all the way to the end of the seventeenth century, it is highly unusual to find more than say, 70,000. The logistical difficulties in any more were simply too great. Most armies were much smaller, 20,000 or less. These sorts of sizes solved many of the logistical and command difficulties, and so make perfect sense. Our ancestors may not have had our technology, but they were not stupid. More than one general discovered that large armies starved.

The Greeks, therefore, won the battles of the Persian wars because the hoplite was better at the sort of battle that happened than the Persian foot. Indeed, after 450 BC or so, the Persians recruited numbers of Greek mercenaries and also tried to develop their own heavy foot. But there is a limit to the Greek dominance. If they were so much better, we would expect Greek armies to dominate in Asia Minor, and they didn’t. While Athens ‘freed’ the Ionian cities after Plataea, the Greeks did not penetrate inland.

Why not? Well, given the dominance on the battlefield, you might expect that they did. But in reality, logistics and the fact that the real Greek dominance was on sea after Salamis means that only the coastal cities of Ionia could be ‘freed’. The Persian Empire still had control of its heartlands, at least until Alexander came along. But that was an entirely different style of warfare.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Simple Campaign Games

One of the pleasures of being a solo wargamer, aside from the lack of arguments, is the ability to fight out campaign games. Campaigns vary is scale and ambition, as do ordinary tabletop battles, but there is a degree of satisfaction in having a series of linked battles coming to some overall conclusion.

Over the years I’ve had a number of good campaign games which I can now look back on with a nostalgic glow, and I’ll comment on a few here.

First, and most ambitiously, I ran an internet based campaign called 1618-Something. I don’t think the site exists any more (I can’t find it anyway) but it was based on the board game Machiavelli. If you’ve not played Machiavelli you have missed out, but I translated the basic idea to a map of Europe at the beginning of the 30 Years War and recruited players from across the world to run the countries. The battles were fought out by the players themselves, or by me as umpire.

The results were wildly unpredictable and occasionally hilarious. Sweden got knocked out by Russia. A French fleet landed up in the Baltic. An alliance of Steppe Peoples lost to the advancing Russians. In India (yes, my megalomania ran that far) various invasions and battles took place. My favourite one was one I fought where the highly unpredictable rockets took out one general. Just before his army collapsed, rocket fire was returned at the opposing general, who was also removed. The result was the collapse of both armies, and me spending the rest of the weekend chuckling over the player’s reactions.
Another aspect of the game was the newspaper, the ‘Ankara Advertiser’ which existed to provide a platform for me to provoke and make fun of the players. A suprising number of submissions and battle reports were sent in, showing that a lot of the players wanted to get their stories out there too.

After about 2 years of game play, however, I became both overworked and over ambitious, and the project collapsed, largely under its own weight. As this was run through the old DBM-list from Stanford, I guess that more modern communications technology would make running the thing easier. But I’m not going to be the one who finds out; it was a lot of work.

Having accumulated all sorts of odd DBR armies (100 points – the only way to play DBR sensibly, I found) I looked around for something else to do. Having just got Stephen Turnbull’s Samurai Sourcebook, and having the Manchu, Chinese and Koreans to match them, I set up a very simple invasion campaign game. Two Samurai armies invaded a river valley from the sea, opposed at first by a Korean army, which was later reinforced by the Chinese and Manchu. This worked, as I recall, rather well, with the Samurai forcing the Koreans back in a series of battles, but then being heavily outnumbered and unable to recover their losses quickly enough, the combined Samurai remnants were unable to hold their positions and were forced to retreat.

Again, this campaign seems to reflect the importance of including, even vaguely, some sort of logistical consideration in a game. It doesn’t have to be a major one, but if the Samurai had remained at full strength I don’t think the combined might of the others would have overcome them.

Another effort I made was with the Italian Wars, based vaguely on Machiavelli again. In this, however, I realised that I had to slow the sides down. After all, the French invaded in 1494 and the Spanish did not really arrive until 1500 or so. So for this I had a method of activation. Each month, each side (there were several – French, Milanese, Papal states, Spain etc) drew a card, and they needed a heart to do something. The something could be anything – sending ambassadors, raising an army, dispatching the army, and so on. This slowed the game considerably, which would have been frustrating face to face but was fascinating (and a lot more realistic) solo.

By the end of 1496, the French were in Milan and besieging Genoa, while the Spanish were just starting to arrive at the southern tip of Italy. One of the interesting aspects of this campaign is that there were no battles at all. I think I gave up because it was by no means clear that there ever would be. I’d set the game up sufficiently to make the Italian states swap sides to avoid such an outcome. A good solo campaign then, but a bit of a disaster if it had been face to face.

So, where does this ramble lead to?

Firstly, as you may have guessed, I’m as fan of campaign games. They do lead to an extra dimension, some ‘depth’ to the on table battles. I suppose that, in fact, they add to the back story of the tabletop activity, and even, in some cases, seem to take over and develop a life of their own.

Secondly, campaign games seem to work better solo. Maybe this is because I prefer solo, or, more likely, I suspect that if you have a live player, the temptation is always to get the models out and play. Sitting around with maps and diaries does not count at terribly exciting.

Thirdly, there needs to be a brief word of warning. Once upon a time, I drew a beautiful map of an island, with four countries, an interesting back story for each, some leaders with carefully drawn out characters, trade and agriculture rules and economic activity and so on. When all this was done I thought ‘wonderful! Let the battles commence!’ Unfortunately, they didn’t; all the countries were too peaceable for that. All that work never generated a single battle. I believe those four nations are now a federal state with the GNP of Switzerland….

Saturday 14 May 2011

Non-Ethical Questions

You might object that last time’s questions about the conceptual pongs which might emanate from the conceptual plumbing of wargaming were all ethical, or at least about taste and offence. You would, of course, be correct in that assessment. So the question for now is ‘are there any other conceptual problems with wargaming?’

I suppose that most people would answer ‘no’. Wargaming is wargaming, and we just do it without worrying about the abstract concepts and issues that may, or may not, be predicated upon it. Mostly, I agree with that standpoint, but occasionally I do get a bit worried that we are a little complacent.

My first official set of rules were, I think, Tony Bath’s ancient rules – ‘Peltast and Pilum’, I think they were called. From memory (and the rules themselves are long gone), the result was an almost skirmish like game, where the pila used by the Roman legionary had an effect similar to a machine gun, if it hit. Was it fun? I suppose it was, yes, certainly as I recall it was. Did it bear any relationship to real life? I’m not sure it did, to be honest.

I had a bit of a break from wargaming, and when I returned, DBM ruled the roost. An interesting set of rules, I always felt, but one which didn’t quite fulfil the criteria for a big battle set for DBA. I’ve moaned before about trying to cover too large a range of history in a single rule set, so I won’t inflict that on you again, but there is, for me, too much detail, and the rules are too dependent on the army lists for my taste.
However, the most important shift that had taken place between the two rule sets was a shift away from the individual solider and his javelin towards the tactical unit and its effects. It seems to me that this shift does reflect something of an underlying conceptual change in wargaming.

The problem is something like this: in early wargaming two sorts of things were known, more or less. One was the equipment of the troops, in terms of spears or swords, javelins or shields, that kind of thing. The other was some knowledge that these troops operated in some sort of formation. The early rules seem to have taken the possible effects of the weaponry and then imposed some sort of rules to attempt to persuade wargamers to keep their troops in formation.

Of course, this worked to some extent, and, when added to the fact that wargamers knew that troops fought in formation, it did lead to some interesting, fun and even reasonably historical wargames. But the paperwork of keeping track of individual casualties when the troop to figure ratio was 1:20 was a bit of a drag.

Furthermore, as I recall, the casualty rate were not historical. For example, in some English Civil War battles the casualty list for the victors could be really low, in the single figures. This never happened in all the ECW wargames I fought. I suspect that it couldn’t happen.

So, in the brave new world of bases that I returned to, this issue was largely overcome. Individual casualties were no longer kept track of, and it was the unit that advanced or retreated, charged or fled. And that, I think, is an improvement.

But what now? What are the next paradigms to fall in wargaming?

It seems to me that there are at least two diverse trends. One is the ‘Old School’ wargaming, which takes as its paradigm, perhaps, Charles Grant’s ‘The War Game’ and uses large figures on big boards with single figure casualties. We might argue that this is a retrogressive step, a shift back to the ‘good old days’ that most of us never encountered. To some extent, that might be true; we could consider carefully what we did before we had nostalgia, and decide that harking back to the 1970’s is no bad thing (except for the flares, of course). On the other hand, we could see this move as seeking some sort of simplification of the way many wargames are these days. In the era of charts and endless factors, a ‘roll a six to hit’ game has attractive features.

The other trend is in almost the opposite direction. While rules in the 1970’s went for massive tables of factors and inherent complexity, which were then simplified to the DBA style games of the 1990’s, now we seem to in some cases heading back to good old complexity. I look at the new rule sets and they seem massive. OK, the production values are high and the pictures pretty and in colour, but the quantity of rules seem excessive, the complexity high and the number of extra bits you have to buy in order to play seems to me both expensive and, to be honest, a bit of a con job.

So, to answer my question ‘what next’? It seems to me that, with increasing busyness in life and pressures on timetables, that complexity of our rules is either going to have to be removed, so we all hard back to the good old days, or hidden as the individuals are in the base based rules. Tackling the complexity of even an ancient battlefield is no joke, but somehow I think we need to rise above even the tactical base as an army unit, and look at the larger scale structures on the battlefield. Currently we let the individuals alone and worry about the tactical units. Can we let them look after themselves and worry about the legions, brigades and division?

Saturday 7 May 2011

What Am I Doing Here?

I often wonder, when I’m writing these pieces, why I’m doing it. It may be a familiar feeling to you too, but on the other hand, you don’t have to read them. But it is an interesting question: why try to understand wargaming or worry about its ethics, rather than just paint soldiers and play games?

I suppose that, for someone attempting to engage with classical Greek warfare and culture, a bit of philosophy can be excused. After all, Socrates was a soldier too, and he came to think about things rather hard. So perhaps a bit of philosophising, without the excuse of so much as a pint of beer to do it over, can be excused.

However, that does not answer the question of what I/we are trying to do here. I’m not sure that there is a particularly good answer, or that it is a particularly well formed question. After all, I’ve written about rules, dice, ethics, logistics and wargame periods so far, to name but a few and there need not be a common theme running through them all.

There are, I think, two broad views of philosophy and its relation to life. The first, which we might term the ‘engineering’ point of view, arises when we have a rather high flautin’ view of our thinking. This view emanates, for me, from Simon Blackburn, who argues (in Think: A compelling introduction to philosophy) that philosophy is conceptual engineering, that is, constructing edifices of thought for the good of our fellow man. Well, maybe, but it certainly is not what I’m doing here.

The other view comes from, for example, Mary Midgley. Her concept of philosophy is the plumbing one. That is, it is largely unseen and not worried about until something starts to smell, and then we have to get under the floorboards and see what has gone wrong. Philosophically, this means that we run on understood concepts until something goes wrong, and then we have to pull the concepts out and see what smells.

As you may have gathered, I’m more in favour of the latter, rather than the former model of doing philosophy. But, at this point you may object that, in fact, in wargaming nothing smells. There do not seem to be too many philosophical, ethical or conceptual issues around wargaming. Everything in the battle-game garden is smelling of roses.
So, are there any issues that might have us wrinkling our noses, just a little?

Consider this:
In 2007, the clergy of Manchester Cathedral protested that a computer generated visualisation of the inside of the cathedral was being used as the backdrop to a violent computer game released by Sony Corporation, entitled ‘Resistance: Fall of Man’. Aside from issues over copyright and defamation, the Dean also objected to the ‘virtual desecration’ of the sacred space of the cathedral’s nave. The game is set in an alternate time line in the 1950’s, and part of it depicts a gory gun battle in the cathedral, particularly ironic in the light of the cathedral’s outreach to victims of gun crime.

Does this make our noses wrinkle at the smell? Is there, indeed a smell here to be discerned? When I’ve written about speech acts and performative utterances, offence and the harm principle, do those considerations apply? Is this something, as hobbyists, we should be concerned about?

Consider this:
In 2003, a miniature war game journal published a short article relating to British SS ‘Freikorps’ troops in action against Soviet forces during World War Two. This provoked a significant reaction from the readership, including a detailed refutation of the premises of the original article. The original was, in its historical interpretations, alarmingly close to neo-Nazi views.

Again, is this something we should worry about? Why was there such a reaction? On a similar notethere was a distinct problem at a UK show a few years ago when a group of World war II re-enactors turned out to be re-enacting the SS. There were protests, the group were removed and the show organisers issued a highly apologetic statement. Why? I’d be willing to lay a small amount of money that somewhere in the show you could have seen SS soldiers in a demonstration game, or bought some, or bought a book about them at least.

So, there are some smelly corners of wargaming, ethically at least. If you can think of any more, please do let me know, because this is the way that the thinking about the hobby can be developed.

Are there similar things in the concepts of the game. Quite possibly, but I think I need a bit of a lie down now.