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.


  1. A better comment later hopefully, but your suggestion did immediatey remind me of an old Arthur Harman scenario in a wargaming magazine which moved the Monmouth Rebellion to C18 India...



  2. Hi. :)

    One thing that came to me was the idea of finding highly similar/parallel sorts of encounters on two different continents, in different periods, and have two mutually anachronistic groups face off against each other.

    --Example: Say there were a well known Scottish battle near a salmon run, a mere brook, where due to the topography, visibility is limited. Now, find an African continent conflict with similar traits (hills, and a watercourse will do), and have both sides receive their blind data and encounter each other. An example of this is a hybrid game of TRACTICS and D&D covered in early D&D mags.

    Taking it further, have the initial conflict interrupted by additional 'sides' from other periods and places that offer strange and unique possibilities for alliances and postponed conflict while a mutual threat is tackled together.

    --The Zulu and Scots have bloodied each other, but then the thunderous hooves of a large contingent of mounted archers descend with their ponies upon the two groups, showing neither side mercy.
    By the time Xerxes receives reports of the vanguard element simply disappearing out in the hills, a fourth Side has entered the conflict.


  3. That sounds like a good idea for an afternoon's team game - I'm sitting here thinking of the bargaining, treachery and double-dealing that such a situation could provoke...:

    'My archers won't shoot you if you lay off my spearmen!'

    Bringing a whole different dimension to an otherwise standard game.

  4. "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. "

    Surprises, both tactical and strategic, tend to figurely largely in histories of war because they are often so decisive but are one of the things it is unfortunately difficult to replicate in conventional wargames (it is no wonder Paddy Griffith started concentrating on multi-player multi-umpired games).


  5. Quite so, which is why dressing it up as something else, or adding complications such as commanders own personal goals, a bit of negotiation and diplomacy quite quickly shows how difficult the 'real thing' can get.

    Tony Bath reckoned that if he ever re-ran Hyboria, he'd ban armies and just let diplomacy, assassination and double dealing sort it all out.

  6. Perhaps 'Risk'-type 'Mission Cards' might be the way to go - so along with generating your army as per the Polemos stable of rulesets, selecting a hidden mission might help to generate the necessary uncertainty?


  7. Hidden missions and so on make for good role playing games, certainly (like Paranoia, for example). In a multiplayer game, like that suggested by Timeshares above, they can cause widespread confusion and loads for fun (particularly for an umpire, as it happens).

    Once you've done something like that, it is difficult to believe that anyone has actually won a battle, let alone a war...