Saturday 30 July 2011

World Views and Wargames

No-one who has read some of my output to this blog can have missed the idea that is running behind it. That is, in order to write decent wargame rules, you have to have some idea of the world views of the participants. I suppose I had better offer some defence of why I think that to be the case.

Consider the formation of the New Model Army in 1644, during the English Civil War. Now, as a rule writer, I could simply rush off and start assigning values to certain variables, such as training, weaponry, morale and so on. And then that would be the rules and army lists written. Simple and straightforward.

The problem I have with that is that the writer who does that has little idea how such an army would in fact fight. Now obviously, a bunch of men with pointy sticks and bang-tubes can only fight in a certain number of ways, but we need to look to the next levels up, the unit and army commanders, to see what is really going on.

This is, of course, where the New Model stands out from other ECW forces. The generals wanted to win, to force a decisive combat and to be victorious in it. This might sound ridiculous to us as wargamers, as clearly we want to win every battle we fight, but as is so often in this case things are not that simple.

The reason underlying the formation of the New Model Army was that the Parliamentarian and Scots forces had got themselves into a winning position after Marston Moor, but seemed incapable of finishing the King’s armies off. Now, politically there was a lot going within Parliamentary ranks, with arguments over religious organisation also playing a part. However, after Second Newbury, when the army under Manchester and Waller had failed to capitalise on a winning situation, things came to something of a head.

It turned out that there were two sorts of generals. Those who reckoned that only by decisively defeating all of the King’s forces could he be brought to negotiate, and those who feared that if they did that, or if they lost just one battle themselves, then when the King had negotiated back to power, he would destroy them. This led some generals to hold back a bit, so that it wouldn’t be them who utterly defeated the King and opened themselves to charges of treason in the future.

As it happened, the decisive war party won, and the less enthusiastic generals were dismissed. Fairfax, Cromwell, Ireton and Skippon were all committed to defeating the King first, and negotiating second. The action of the army in the 1645 campaign showed that the generals were, at least, trying to force a decisive battle, and eventually they got one at Naseby.

After Naseby, the generals showed a good deal of activity in defeating the last shreds of the Royalist cause in the West Country campaign, determined not to allow the King any space to rebuild. In battle, they proved themselves to be aggressive and fairly ruthless, and their troops proved to be capable and enthusiastic. The mind-set of the generals had proved to be the difference between some sort of slow, grinding war of attrition and a decisive and swift victory.

Now clearly, this attitude of the generals to get stuck in should be reflected in a set of wargame rules for the period. If we had not considered the world-view of the generals, we could have problems in determining why the New Model Army (an expression which only came later, incidentally) suddenly changed from being a war weary, semi-defeatist force not capable of decisive action to an army that practically won the war in a summer campaigning season. Without looking at the generals and their attitude, we would probably be left with the old solution: +1 if New Model Army.

What is becoming clear, I think, is that in order to understand what is going on, we have to consider the world view of the generals. This includes not just their ability as generals, but things like education and outlook.

To take another example, Roman generals were generally taught to respond to local incidents with whatever force was available. This could be embarrassing, as Gallus found when he responded to the Jewish revolt in 66 AD, and Legio IX during Boudicca’s revolt in Britannia. Nevertheless, it usually did succeed in putting down a rebellion with minimum inconvenience to everyone (except the rebels, of course). This was not a clearly held politico-military strategy, but a well-worn traditional response to defiance of the might of Rome. I suspect that Roman generals could not imagine not responding thus to a challenge.

Similarly, we encounter world-views with the Greeks. Several times we read something like ‘the omens were not good so the Spartan army did not cross the river’, or there was a delay until the omens were good. This is terribly difficult to reproduce in wargame rules. We want to get on with it, and the mind-set that produces such behaviour is entirely alien to us. Even to those who hold deep religious faith today, this is alien behaviour, and yet it happened.

The upshot of this is, I think, that we need to get an idea of what elite education and outlook was for the period we are trying to model, or we will never understand their decisions. And those decisions affect both strategy and tactics, and that is what we are, as wargamers, interested in, after all.


  1. How do you think you should respond to this as a game designer? Off-hand, three different approaches suggest themselves:

    1. 'The Stick' - Force players to play 'historically' by writing rules which only allow the player to fight in a certain way - i.e by limiting the options they have.

    2. 'The carrot' - encourage historical behaviour by judicious use of rules and modifiers.

    3. 'Method-acting' - encourage the players to act in an historical way by providing them with information, rather than directly manipulating the rules (i.e. describe how a battle should be fought and rely on the players not to look for ahistorical loopholes in the rules).

    Any thoughts?



  2. I think the usual approach is a combination of 1 and 2.

    I don't think 1 works on its own, but you do need to generate rules which, for example, make musketeers unsupported by pike vulnerable to cavalry. That merges into a carrot for the gamer to be able to use musketeers in the open at all.

    Option 3 would be nice, but I can't really see how we can rely on players not to look for loopholes!

    I guess it also depends on your view of what troops were able to achieve in the period. one of the most depressing thoughts to have during play-testing is 'that couldn't happen'.


  3. Option 1 is rarely seen in wargames rules, but I think it might make for some quite interesting and atmospheric games. For the Greeks and Persians for example, restricting the moves a commander can make might a la chess might be a way of simulating certain differences in the armies without using lists of modifiers to 'encourage' players to make the right moves.


  4. Well, if I could figure out a way to make players take oracles and omens seriously, we could have a stick.

    But I'm not sure I can, certainly without using modifiers such as -2 for ignoring the Delphic oracle...

    I suspect the way forward is to make unhistorical activity just too difficult for a player, rather than loading modifiers in. But that is for another post...

  5. Well I was really thinking of a restricted 'menu' of moves/actions. So the Greeks for example, might have better troops but fewer options. As you posted previously, a Greek general actually seemed to have quite limited options about what he could actually do in practice.


  6. Ah, I see what you mean.

    Thing is it is quite easy, I fear, to make a game incredibly dull with too much restriction, and utterly ahistorical with too little.

    I suppose balance is all.