Saturday 27 August 2011

Sticks, Carrots, Method Acting and Wargames

Some recent comments about how wargame rules should be written has sparked the rather unusual title, anyway. But the question lying behind it is germane: how do you write wargame rules which are, in some way, historical? What rules can force the players to use the forces at their disposal in a more or less historical way?

This is actually a difficult thing to achieve. To take the final method first, the idea behind ‘method acting’ is that the players have a deep understanding of the period and therefore act in character for a general of the time anyway. This is a very attractive idea, but it is rather difficult to see how it can be achieved in practice.

Firstly, most wargamers I know do not focus on one period. One week they could be a Roman general against the Germans, the next they could be commanding the Napoleonic British against the French. Furthermore, historical match ups are not necessarily the norm. How would an Aztec general have reacted if faced with a Thirty Years War Swedish army? I’ve no idea, and I’m fairly sure that no-one else will have either. So we cannot assume deep knowledge of the period for these reasons.

Secondly, as mentioned before, even if we do have a deep understanding of a historic period, we still bring our own eyes to bear on it. I’ve mentioned before the idea that we appropriate history to form our own narratives, and that is as true of a wargamer (or rule writer) that focuses on a narrow period of time as it is of anyone else.

So we cannot assume that a wargamer is going to arrive at the table ready to act in period.

The second method to consider is the ‘carrot’ method. This writes rules to make the player act in period. An example would be to make, in English Civil War rules, musketeers unsupported by pike vulnerable to being ridden down by cavalry. This can be done by, for example, giving musketeers fighting cavalry a bonus if they have a pike base on their flank.

The example just given was used in DBR, and, for such a simple rule, had a surprisingly nasty effect. Instead of forming units of [musket][pike][musket], players did odder things, such as units of [musket][pike] only, or alternating musket and pike bases down the line. Players did not method act as the rules were better for them if they didn’t. It may well be, of course, that the play testers did method act and so the weaknesses were not detected until release. But as a carrot, and given that musketeer bases are quite powerful in DBR, it was a bit of a failure. The carrot led to some odd results.

Another writer’s tactic is to simply abstract away this sort of difficulty. This is what we did in Polemos: ECW. Muskets and pikes are on the same base, just in different rations. This is more ‘stick’ like; it forces the players to conform to historical tactics by not giving any alternative. In my view this does work better, but complaints could be made that it is too constricting, and that it is not possible to split and merge pike and shot during the game.

How, then, can rules be constructed, rewarding historical tactics but without constricting the players too much? This is the most difficult balance to achieve, and I think no given set of rules will actually achieve it perfectly; the best that can be hoped for is a balance between stick and carrot, constraint and reward.

As an example, consider Romans and tribal forces facing each other. When I did this for the Polemos Romans rules I had to consider the fact that Romans fought in lines (OK, with reserves behind, but basically a series of lines) while tribal forces tended to fight in blocks. Evidence from other games suggests quite strongly that most wargamers like to fight in lines, and I’ve seen a number of ancients wargames where the tribal force looks more like Wellington’s army at Waterloo than an ancient force.

What then can be done? What I have done is to fix the movement rules to make it more expensive to move wider tribal forces than narrower, while the Romans can move any width of force at more or less the same cost. So far as I can see, this has worked in play testing. It does not force the tribal player to fight in deep formations; it just makes it much easier so to do.

So is this historical? The sources are not that good for this sort of fighting, but it does seem to be the case that tribal forces aimed to punch a hole in the Roman line, and that this was what the Roman commanders were concerned about. A massed charge across the entire field was doomed to failure (see Boudicca’s last battle for evidence), while a picked spot for assault (e.g. the Germans at Teutourg Wald) might succeed. In order to survive, the Romans have to have a second line to cover the break through spots. Nobody is forced into this, but the rules imply that this might work best and most cheaply.

So, do we go for carrot or stick? A combination seems to be best. If we can manage it, a mix of incentive and dis-incentive can work to balance the wargamer’s natural desire to play the game like the maps in history text books, with nice clean blocks of troops, and to use a-historical tactics to gain an advantage. The problem is, of course, that a-historical tactics, in history, sometimes worked, and were then termed a surprise. So that has to be covered too, because they are not a surprise for us who have all read the same history books.

Method acting would be the best, of course, but that really leads to role playing and re-enacting, both of which are different ball games, really.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Wargaming Beyond Morality

Supposing that we came up with a theory that wargaming in particular, and leisure activities in general were in some sense beyond moral decisions. How would you feel about that?

Now, first of all, let me give a brief outline of the sort of argument which might lead to leisure activities being beyond morality. It goes something like this:

Moral judgements are made about the outcomes of activities.

Leisure activities have no outcome. This is because the point of a leisure activity is the process of the leisure activity, not the result of that activity. Thus, the point of wargaming is to have a wargame, not to have had one.

Therefore, as leisure activities have no outcome, there can be no moral judgement passed upon them.

Therefore, wargaming is an activity which is beyond, or at least outside the normal range of our moral activities.

Thus, wargaming is beyond morality.

Now, your response to this might vary. Some might say “wonderful! He can stop wittering and worrying about it now on his blog.” Fair comment, perhaps. Another response would be ‘of course it is, because it is something that I do with myself and a group of consenting adults. How can morality possibly come into play?’ Again, that is, as the argument above suggests, a defensible one.

However, I suspect that a number of us might not be too comfortable with the idea that wargaming, or any other activity for that matter is entirely beyond our moral range, so perhaps we need to look a little more closely at the above argument.

Firstly, it is interesting to note that some of the activities that we have worried about here, such as promoting neo-Nazi agendas, are ruled out. To promote a political agenda thought the leisure activity is to slip an outcome into it. The argument then is invalidated, and the outcome ruled out by normal morality being applied. Further than this, it might be that the argument also rules out bragging rights and being able to recall the game. This might be a little harsh, but I suppose it depends on what you regard as being within or outwith the leisure activity.

The second thing to note is that the argument is based on utilitarianism. There is an assumption in the initial statement that the thing of interest is the outcome. Now, utilitarianism argues that the morally correct decision is the one that brings the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It is consequential; the consequences are important. However, the argument above explicitly states that the activity has no consequences. It is the engagement in the activity which matters.

Now, utilitarianism is widespread in our public discourse. Most political decisions which are made are informed, or at least argued over, from utilitarian perspectives. I suppose that in a liberal democracy, this is fairly inevitable.

Utilitarianism does have its problems, however. The most obvious is the impossibility of calculating the ‘goods’ which a particular course of action might entail. For example, I might think it good that the country remains with a high debt to maintain a good public health service. You might well agree that a good public health service is important, but you might argue that if we maintain a huge debt to fund it, our children will not be able to have such a service for themselves. The argument then revolves around who the greatest good applies to: us or future generations?

I don’t want to get into the details of the arguments for and against utilitarianism. In our context, it rules out any application of morality to the game itself. I think the problem with this approach has already been indicated. No activity is actually an activity entirely without outcomes.

Some outcomes are good. For example, figure manufacturers, rule writers and terrain makers will all benefit from your activities, as may metal manufacturers, paint mixers, paintbrush makers and so on. These are all beneficiaries of your wargame, albeit indirectly, but they do make the point that no wargame can be isolated from the rest of the world. As hinted above, even the winning of bragging rights suggests an outcome beyond the activity, and then the argument does not apply.

Therefore, it would seem that while a utilitarian argument that wargaming is beyond morality can be constructed, when the details are examined, it might be that the circumstances under which it would apply are so restrictive that the argument cannot apply to a real world scenario. After all, it rather defeats the object of having a wargame if we cannot recall it pleasure, talk about it to our friends and so on.

The other thing which the utilitarian argument does not deal with is morality within the game. While the above argues that wargaming is not a moral argument per se, it does not tackle the issue of dealing morally within the game. I don’t mean, here, the morality of the game level, of what our symbols of real actors are doing, but at the player level. By this, morality means not cheating, not trying to obtain more than is your due under the rules and so on. Utilitarianism may have some bearing on this behaviour (in fact, I think it does) but it is not included in the above argument.

So where does this leave us?

I think that the utilitarian argument described is quite a useful one for thinking about the morality of wargaming as a leisure exercise. However, I think I have demonstrated that it does not actually get us very far. Perhaps the most useful thing it does is rule out definitively some of the more extreme behaviours which a minority might engage in, to make some sort of political point. But, as we have discussed before, that is a tiny minority of people associated with wargaming. The argument has helped a bit, but still leaves a wide open field for further pondering.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Revolutions in Military Affairs

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but modern military theorists, occasional generals and historians are currently debating the revolution in military affairs which is supposed to be happening at the moment. Quite what this is, I’m not sure. I suppose that it is related to the demise of the Cold War, the reduction in the perceived threat of mutual nuclear annihilation and the emergence of the United States as the military superpower, at least in so far a global projection of force is concerned. A few other factors, such as the emergence of global terrorism, the deployment of pilotless aircraft and the huge asymmetry in firepower deployed probably also make an impact.

So why are historians interested and involved? I think it is because they have a role in identifying previous revolutions in military affairs and, thus, are firstly sensitized to them and, secondly, hope to find something useful that may illuminate our current tactical and strategic situation.

When you start to look at the historiography, though, military revolutions proliferate. Leaving aside (probably foolishly) the twentieth century, there are still a fair number. Napoleon, it is said sparked one. So did Frederick the Great, although that is arguable. Gustavus Adolfus of Sweden was the original military revolutionary, with Maurice of Nassau coming up hard behind. Edward III of England is described as another, and, much further in the past, Iphicrates is another.

With so many military revolutions, it is perhaps hardly suprising that some sceptics have emerged, as well. The first issue is to as ‘what makes a military revolution?’ A number of suggestions have been made, such as advances in technology, for example the use of muskets or longbows over what came before, and of tactics, such as charging cavalry rather than caracoling cuirassiers. I’ve tackled the caracole issue before, I think, so I won’t rehash it here.

The problem is that what looks like a revolution from one perspective doesn’t from another. Muskets, for example, had been of increasing use over a century before Gustav Adolf appeared on the scene. I’d guess the Swiss pikemen at Biocca (1522) and Pavia (1525) would probably have conceded that firearms were quite useful. The sudden appearance of successful Swedish armies in the 1630’s seems to be less due to a military revolution and more to do with a funded, disciplined force under a commander of talent appearing in something of a power vacuum.

Another claimant for the title of military revolutionary is Iphicrates. It is claimed that he invented a whole new style of warfare when his peltasts mauled a Spartan more near Corinth in 390 BC. Now, granted, Iphicrates won great fame for this exploit, and based a career as a major military and political figure on it, but it was hardly unprecedented. Peltasts had been around since at least Pylos, according to Thucydides, in 425 BC, where they had proved their worth against Spartan hoplites. Indeed, assorted lighter troops, some of which may well have been peltasts, are often hanging around of the edge of Thucydides’ forces, but he only names peltasts specifically at this point. Did Iphicrates cause a military revolution? It would seem not, on balance.

So, was there ever a military revolution?

I can’t really think of one, and the problem, of course, lies in the definition of the word ‘revolution’. From some perspectives, a decade or so can be revolutionary. But actually, as lived reality, a decade is quite a long time. Things seen from the perspective of a century can make a decade seem rapid, but not to those involved.

I suppose the most obvious candidates for military revolutions are the coming of gunpowder, and the tank. However, the first cannon were around from about the 14th century, but did not really become effective enough, in England at least, to displace the bow until the mid-sixteenth century. 250 years of evolution does not make a revolution.

The tank is perhaps more interesting. There is little doubt that the blitzkrieg tactics of 1939-40 caught everyone by surprise, including the Germans. As you probably know, however, they had been anticipated in military theory of the 1920s, and also tested in battle at Cambari (1917) and in the allied advance in late 1918. While the evolution of tank tactics was more rapid than that of gunpowder, 20 years or so is a fair time, so from the perspective of a single life, it was hardly a revolution.

In fact, the most likely cause of anyone crying ‘military revolution’ is ignorance of what passed before. Histoprians of the 17th century come over all vague when it comes to sixteenth century armies, while those of the sixteenth century are equally bemused by that fifteenth and so on. Therefore, the cry of revolution goes up whenever something that looks new appears on the battlefield. I have little doubt that the users of said technology or tactics would be bemused by the label.

So, as wargamers, where does this leave us? I’ve already grumbled extensively about excessive periodization and trying to pitch thousands of years into one rule set. The above may well sound like an argument to the contrary. I’m not sure it does, but we need not to look for revolutions, but to see how far evolution has gone. The British army in 1914, for example, was very different from that in 1916, and that was different from 1918. The royal army in 1642 was different from that in 1645. So we need to keep an eye on this, and not try to stretch our rule sets too far, while accepting that they can, and must be able to stretch a little as the armies of our period evolve.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Wargame Epistemology

A few comments by Timeshares (for which thanks – if you don’t make comments I’ll run out of things to say) have reminded me of something I’ve thought about on and off over the years, and that is what is rather grandly called wargame epistemology here. What I mean by this is that a lot of things that happened in history do so because the decision makers have less than full understanding of their own position, or respond in unexpected ways to assorted stimuli.

Let’s take a case in point. In 1644 Prince Rupert brilliantly relieved the besieged Royalist city of York, and then horribly lost the battle of Marston Moor. How did this come about? Rupert, and others, have often been roundly criticised for the decision to fight the combined Parliamentary and Scottish armies at once, or even at all. But what did he know, and how did he decide?

The first piece of evidence we need to call is that of a letter from the King, Charles I to Rupert on June 14th 1644. The key passage reads:

“If York be lost I shall esteem my crown little less…But if York be relieved and you beat the rebels’ army of both Kingdoms which are before it then (but otherwise not) I may possibly make a shift (upon the defensive) to spin out time until you come to assist me.”

So, what is going on here and, more importantly, what did Rupert know? The Royal Oxford army was being harassed by Waller’s and Essex’s Parliamentary ones in the Midlands. The strategy was for the King to keep them occupied while Rupert dashed north, collected an army, restored the Royal cause in Lancashire and relieved York. The demoralised tone of the King’s letter would have indicated to Rupert that this was not working out well and he needed to hurry.

In actual fact, the King’s forces were not in that much trouble. Essex had, in fact, marched away to the West Country, while Waller’s forces were demoralised by the desertion of their comrades and the lengthy marching they had already done. The King got back to Oxford, reunited his cavalry with the foot and subsequently had the better of Waller at Cropredy Bridge on June 29th (one of the more confusing actions of the war). Waller’s army subsequently disintegrated while the King pursued Essex to the latter’s defeat at Lostwithiel in August.

Rupert, however, was not to know all that. So far as he knew he had to act, and act quickly. It seems to me that he had decided that he needed to beat the Parliamentary armies, at least, outside York, as that would presumably cause one of the Midland armies to move north to defend the Eastern Association counties and maintain communication with the Scots. Thus he arrived in York ready for battle (which the York garrison was not terribly happy about, but that is another story).

The Parliamentary generals, on the other hand, also decided to fight. They already knew what was going on further south and were concerned that Rupert was going to strike south while their forces in the Midlands were discomforted.

So, for different reasons, and lacking in the full knowledge of the facts, both sides decided to fight. Neither really knew what the concerns on the other side were, or what was going on a hundred miles or so further south, but, based on what they did know, they determined for battle. As we know, Rupert lost, the north was lost to the Royalist cause and the King’s letter to Rupert quoted above started to look prophetic, not panic stricken.

Now, how do we refight this as a wargame?

The classic way, of course, is to set up Marston Moor and let the rules and the two sides have at it. But everyone knows what the outcome should be. This is the other side of wargame epistemology, of course. We, the players, know far too much compared to those on the ground. Even if we wound the clock back a bit and had a campaign based on Rupert’s approach to York, the canny Parliamentarians, knowing in advance what happened historically, would almost certainly defend the crossing at Boroughbridge much more heavily that was the case.

How can we handle this? I’d wager a small amount of money that most historical wargamers, given a map of a historical campaign and a battlefield would know pretty well what happened. Even limiting the information available to that historically known would not be enough, I suspect.

The only way to go, really, is to heavily disguise the whole campaign. Suppose we start with something like this:

You are one of Alexander’s generals. The King is away east, fighting against the odds (as usual). However, his base at Sardis is under siege. The King commands that you march to the relief of Sardis, collecting forces as you go. Having relieved the city, you are to make all speed to reinforce him in the east.

Hopefully, while it should look familiar to readers of this post, it should be sufficiently different from Marston Moor not to raise any suspicions. The King’s letter can be re-written as from a nervous Alexander who needs reinforcements, and the map of the area around York doctored to make it look Persian.

Then, hopefully, the players will not be able to use their prior knowledge of real events to affect the outcome, and their knowledge of what is really going on should be limited, and they will be making decisions based on partial knowledge.

It is a wonderful thing to see how cautious many people become when they don’t really know what is going on. In fact, it makes Rupert’s march to York look much more remarkable, and his decision to fight much more inevitable than the bare campaign history might suggest.