Saturday 24 September 2011

Wargame Levels

I’ve been reading an essay by Matthew Bennett, entitled ‘The Development of Battle Tactics’ in Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred years War, edited by Anne Curry and Michael Hughes. This is quite a good book to read if you are interested in the Hundred Years War, which I am.

Anyway, at the start of the essay, Bennett tried to define what battle tactics are. He suggests that often the actual tactics get lost in issues of strategy and organisation, particularly among historians.

In pursuit of his argument, he defines seven levels of military activity. These are:
1. The level of diplomacy, political manoeuvring
2. The organisation, raising and financing of forces
3. Logistics; the movement and supply of the forces
4. Strategy, both overall and theatre specific
5. Operational or campaign strategy, involving chevauchee, sieges and battle seeking or avoiding courses of action
6. Tactics, close range manoeuvring of troops and weapons
7. Individual acts of bravery (the chronicler’s favourite).

So, at what level do we want our wargames to be at? Most wargames, are, I suppose, at level 6, tactical, close range manoeuvring and use of weapons. This is where army level, or battalion level or whatever we like to define them as, rules are usually found. Polemos fits into this area, self-consciously defining itself as a ‘big battle’ rule set.

Not all rules are at this level, of course. Skirmish and role playing games cluster around level 7. In my role playing game days Most of the fights the player character party got into were, essentially, scrums. The player character charged in, relying on decent weapons, high level skills and the player advantage to win.

I recall two honourable exceptions to the above. The first was Call of Cthulhu, where any sort of fighting was usually bad news for the players. The second was a Paranoia scenario where, after being badly beaten by cleaning robots in a dark corridor, the party actually sorted out some cross fire and mutual support tactics to at least get us to the objective. This we did, and the tactics (I suppose you could call them small unit tactics) worked. Of course, this being Paranoia, we got wiped out anyway, and the Game Master told us afterwards we were not really supposed to get that far. But it does show that there are relations between the different levels of military activity described above.

Now, what level do we want our wargames to be at?

Most people seem to wish for wargaming to be at levels 6 and 7, tactics and individual acts. I suppose this is because this is where the stories lie; the story of a unit in action, the story of an individual succeeding against the odds, or at least being a heroic failure.

Some wargames do rise above these levels. Some campaign games, for example, do consider operational strategy, at least. Some wargames, such as those described in ‘Setting Up a Wargames Campaign’ by tony Bath go even higher, with considerations of income, recruitment, logistics, diplomacy and all manner of issues. It has to be said, however, that this comes at a cost of massively increased complexity and these systems do tend to collapse under their own weight.

We run into a second problem at this point. Historians are not interested, in particular, in battles and tactics. This is despite the fact that most people (even non-wargamers) are, and that books about battles sell well.

I recently undertook a course in undergraduate history, by distance learning. At the start of the module on the English Civil war, we were directed to read an article by Austin Woolrych, an eminent historian of the period. In it he bemoaned the fact that, as he put it (I paraphrase), wars were won by battles, but few historians were interested in battles. He considered that few undergraduates who took a course on the English Civil War would be able to name more than two battles of the war.

As the module unfolded, it became clear that this was going to be the case. The only battle mentioned by name was Naseby (which was itself in a quote from Woolrych’s book). There was no discussion or description of how the war was fought. All we got was a balance sheet from a garrison, which showed how much cheese they ate in a week.

I don’t mean to single that course out in particular; I suspect that most history courses are like that. Historian prefer to analyse administrative records and the passage of laws, or, if they want to look ‘from below’ they start trying to find out about the lives of women, children, homosexuals and criminals. There is very little about armies, soldiers and tactics., unless, as is the case with the Roman army, the army is the only organisation in a society about which significant records remain.

Bennett suggests that military history, in particular the history of tactics, is largely ignored because of the above and also because it was for a long time the preserve of former military men. In particular, he has in mind Sir Charles Oman and A. H. Burne, both of whom wrote a lot about the battles of the Hundred Years War.

Both Oman and Burne are getting a little dated, now, but historians are only just beginning to question their accounts of tactics. This seems to be because historiography, after the second world war at least, has decided that wars are not good subjects for history, probably because they are too violent.

Even modern military history suffers from this. Modern history of wars and armies tends to be more interested in financing and the effects of the wars on the state, specifically state formation. In Bennett’s terms, this is the second level of military activity, and is not much use to us as wargamers.

So this is what I mean when I say that the academy is of little use to us, and the trickle down of information from it to the public domain is usually not very helpful. There are a few glimpse of light, but they are sparse and far between.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Are We Supposed to Enjoy This?

On a shelf on my bookcase there is a book of Bloom County cartoons. Somewhere in this there is a cartoon where three characters are watching the television.

‘Is this a war movie?’ says one.

‘I think it is the news,’ says another. ‘Those guns look real’

‘I’m sure it’s a movie,’ the first responds, ‘Go on, Kerpow! Boom!’

The third character then speaks: ‘Could someone tell me if I’m supposed to be enjoying this?’

Here, I think, is, in some part, the dilemma posed by wargaming. If the programme the characters are watching is the news, then it cannot be termed ‘entertainment’ (even by some news channels, which do their best to show everything as entertainment). If, on the other hand it is a film, it is supposed to be entertainment, and the violence can be enjoyed.

Now, there is a very odd thing about enjoying violence. It is part of the human experience, and, I should think unusual among the animal kingdom. Most animals do not appear to enjoy violence. Even some of the more violent creatures, those who fight for domination such a lions or stags, do not go out of their way to watch it. But we do. And we enjoy it.

We also draw a distinction between real violence and representations of that violence. We can enjoy a war film, but not a report from some God-forsaken battlefront somewhere. We can read and enjoy military history, but might feel a little uncomfortable if it is too modern.

Similarly, we can enjoy a good wargame, but get uncomfortable if our brief is to kill civilians or engage in wanton destruction of agricultural products or urban environments. If these things happen as a part of the game, we can call that realism, but if that destruction is our aim we regard that with at least a little moral discomfort.

Strange, then, that many military expeditions set out with that idea of wanton destruction in mind. I’ve mentioned before the English raids across France during the Hundred Years wars. There are also the activities of the armies of both sides during the Peloponnesian wars, as chronicled by Thucydides. The examples multiply throughout history, I’m sure. But we do not game them, on the whole.

There are I imagine a variety of reasons for this. Firstly, burning stuff is a fairly boring activity, at least as a game or simulation. Battles are far more interesting and dramatic. The same argument applies, I think to sieges. While you do occasionally see siege wargames in progress at shows, and they can be spectacular, they also can make fairly boring wargames. Most sieges were determined, let us face it, by supplies and diseases, rather than decisive military action.

Secondly, we see on our TV screens too easily these days the effects of crop failures. It may well be that we shy away from reproducing that on the wargames table. We know that the consequences are dire for people, and we can see what that means on the screen with small children lying practically comatose in front of the camera. Wargaming by devastation links us, in some way, in our imagination to such scenes.

In history, this devastation tends to get tidied away. For example, the destruction of much of Germany during the Thirty years War gets limited to a few maps, and maybe a quotation or two from contemporary sources. The individual tragedy is hidden from us; we cannot imagine it. The brush with death of a child on TV news engages us with horror far more easily than the depopulation of Germany 350 years ago. Maybe we just cannot cope with the numbers.

Thirdly, I suspect that unless the scenario is specifically designed for it, resource destruction in a wargame is pointless. The only circumstances wereby it could be a useful use of the forces available is during a campaign game. In a normal, one off, wargame it is far better to concentrate those forces on the battle. Defeating the enemy is of far greater import than destroying their resources.

In real life, of course, this may not be quite the same. Battles were not as decisive as we may like to believe, although they were much more important than most historians seem to think. In the English Civil war, for example, there were lots of battles, but only (roughly speaking) three or four of them were truly decisive. The winners tended to dissipate their strength into new garrisons, while the losers recouped theirs from garrisons. The actual domination of the ground altered a bit, but the battle was certainly not a knock out blow.

Even some of the decisive battles were not that decisive. At Poitiers the English even managed to capture the French king, but endless wrangling ensued and the final outcome was not what someone regarding the political situation in 1357 would have expected. Similarly, after Agincourt, the English appeared to hold all the aces, but some aspects of French society simply refused to accept the results of battle and treaty and, eventually, won.

So where have we landed up. The relationship between table top battles and real life ones is, fortunately, rather tenuous. Thus we can regard wargames as entertainment, in much the same ways as war movies are. Perhaps the difficulties really occur during wargame campaigns where it is important to attack the enemy resources, not just their forces. But of course, we can abstract that away and supress the human suffering this would cause in real life because it is only a game.

Saturday 10 September 2011

Wargames and Symbolism

What are we doing when we wargame? There are, I suppose, as many answers to that question as there are wargamers. But we can surely try to abstract some of the common threads and see what they might be.

Of course, common threads are there, and are not that obscure. I cannot think of a wargame that does not have a representation of a fighting unit. What the representation represents varies widely. It could be a space ship, a naval vessel, an army unit or an individual. The form of representation varies as well. The representation could be an individual model, a set of models, a cardboard or wood counter, or a bunch of pixels on a screen. Whichever way is chosen, the wargame piece is a representation of a ‘real agent’ on the battlefield.

A second common thread is randomisation. This is normally generated by dice. There are two reasons for including a random factor in wargames. Firstly, some things are random, or nearly so. “Every bullet has its billet” as the First World War slogan had it. Really, we can trace a causal relationship. If I move my head there, then a bullet fired just then, at that angle and direction, will hit me. This is not random, but it is unpredictable. And of course, we cannot trace the causal relationships on all our wargame interactions, so a random factor for this will have to do.

Secondly, there is another layer of unpredictability. Fallible human beings, in situations of great stress, make mistakes or fail to perform as expected. This is not actually random either, although I doubt if the state of psychology at present would enable modelling of it. Add in the complexities of humans acting in a crowd, and the dimension of discipline and its breakdown and you have a very hard to understand situation.

So as common threads we have randomisation representing the unpredictability of the battlefield, and we have representations of battlefield agents, at some level (individual, subunit, unit, and so on). Thirdly, of course, we have a set of rules that the players have agreed to use.

As I’ve said before, the rules mediate between the table top ‘action’ and the world of the players. In the player’s world, no battle takes place, just a (hopefully) enjoyable game or social interaction. On the table top a representation of a battle is taking place. The representative agents are moved and removed in accordance with the players wishes (and the random factor) as mediated through the rules. The outcomes are similarly transmitted though the random factors, the rules and the player choices.

Now, I like to argue that our ‘agent representations’, the toy soldiers, are, in fact, symbols. I do not think that this is a particularly large leap in logic; we are used to reading battlefield maps, or counters in boardgames. These have symbolic meanings which vary according to use. So too do model soldiers; they symbolise an agent with certain capabilities.

The thing about symbols is that they need interpreting. If you do not believe me, try taking your favourite wargame unit and showing it to a non-wargaming friend or colleague. Ask ‘What is this?’

The chances are that you will get an answer along the lines of ‘little men’, or ‘toy soldiers’, rather than “B Platoon, 21st Lancers, Sudan, 1898”, which is what you might have been expecting. But why could you have been expecting that?

Your interlocutor is, in many respects, as correct as you are. In a sense, in fact, they are more correct, as what you have shown them is not a unit of lancers, but a representation or symbol of a unit of lancers, no matter how accurate. And that symbol, as just demonstrated, needs interpreting or its meaning is lost.

To see what I mean, consider an ancient monument such as Stonehenge. At midsummer the sun shines in a certain way on the stones. We sense that this event, is, in some way, deeply symbolic; but what is it symbolic of?

Actually, what it meant to the designers of Stonehenge is lost in the mists of prehistory. While some people do go to Stonehenge on midsummer morning to do assorted ritual stuff, at the very best they give a modern interpretation of the stones. The symbol, the sun on the stones at midsummer, has lost connection with its meaning

The upshot of this is that a base of lancers of the late British Empire is a symbol (a representation of the real thing), but that symbol must be interpreted in order to keep connection with that real thing. In fact, I think there may be two levels of interpretation.

Firstly, I can interpret the base historically. I can look at the figures, their arms, uniforms, disposition on the base and so on, and compare that with other representations I have seen. Hopefully I will come to the same conclusion that the owner of the base has, that indeed this is a symbol of a unit of lancers from a given time and place.

The second interpretation of the base comes via the set of wargame rules. This interprets the base as a symbol of an agent. The base is treated as an agent in the rules with certain capabilities to move (be moved) and to fight (be made active). The rules, then, do not just interpret the table top, they give the symbols we manipulate a sort of make believe agency to act on that table top.

These two strands of interpretation do not have to hold together. I’ve always been a wargamer, not a military modeller; that is, I’ve focussed on the second interpretation, not the first. I’ve never really understood why people engage in military modelling, nor why there is such a divide between them and wargamers.

Maybe, now, I’ve found something of an answer.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Wargame Categories

Man is a categorizing animal. It is what we do, how we understand and make sense of the world. This tabby creature before me is a cat. She will therefore respond in some ways to some stimuli, like a catnip toy mouse, and not to others, like a stick thrown in a game of fetch. My understanding of her behaviour is based on my understanding of the nature of the species ‘cat’. Of course, as this cat she may show some variation, but always within the broad parameters of the term cat.

Categorization is an ancient form of thinking. Aristotle, for example, categorized frantically in order to understand the world. He divided everything into a given genus and species. By everything, I mean everything; even emotions and thoughts were categorized. His legacy is with us still.

Now, clearly, as humanity is a very successful species, categorizing is a useful thing to do. I imagine that a hunter-gatherer finds it quite useful to decide if a new sort of animal falls into the ‘food’ or ‘flee from’ category, or this different sort of fruit is in the ‘poison’ or ‘eat’ category, and so on.

Categorisation has a close cousin called reductionism. Reductionism lies towards the heart of modern scientific method. If an aspect of the universe is too difficult and complex to understand as it is, we chop it up into smaller conceptual bits, until we are able to understand them. Then, we can try to put the bits back together and see how the whole thing works.

Quite a lot of technology works like this,. Computer software, for example, is (supposed to be) designed like this. Individual objects are created to do a given job, and then they are joined together with other bits to achieve an overall task, and so on up a hierarchy until you get, say, a word processor.

Similar things happen with hardware. Different boards in a personal computer do different things. If the PC fails, the board can be changed. Each does its thing, and they are not interchangeable, but one can be replaced by a board of the same type. The boundaries of the categories are not flexible in this case.

There are some things that are not reducible to individual components. Take a crowd, for example. Now, commentators may well say ‘the mood of the crowd is turning ugly’. What do they mean by this?

If you took each individual of that crowd, and asked them ‘are you angry?’ you would probably get a wide variety of answers. Some might say ‘yes’, some ‘maybe’, but many would probably say no. Yet the overall mood of the crowd was assessed as ‘ugly’ by the commentator. The individuals might not be angry per se, but the overall, collective effect is one of anger. The overall effect then is different from the sum of the parts. The total mood of the crowd is not the same as the sum of the mood of each individual in it.

So what has this got to do with wargaming?

I think there are two aspects of relevance to me in this. The first is to do with reductionism, and the second to do with irreducibility.

Firstly, then, reductionism. When we write wargame rules, we need to categorize things. We do this fairly naturally, at least initially, and describe things as ‘cavalry’, ‘foot’, artillery’ and so on. This is quite clear, straightforward, natural and uncontroversial. Then, within these categories, we subdivide. Foot becomes ‘archers’, ‘spearmen’ ‘dismounted knights’ ‘rabble’ and so forth. Again, this is fairly straightforward and uncontroversial.

At this point, though, we can hit a problem. We might have a species called, say, ‘spearmen’, but we find spearmen being used in different ways. Perhaps we find spearmen in Anglo-Saxon armies in defensive shield walls, while Swiss pike are attacking Burgundian knights.

Clearly, we can differentiate these folks, classing the Saxons as spearmen and the Swiss as pikemen and allowing the latter to attack, but they have no shields so cannot be spearmen. But what if we find Saxon spearmen charging, or Swiss pike with paviasses?

The danger is that we further sub-categorize and landing up with such wargame species as ‘light heavy medium spear’ facing ‘medium heavy light pike’. OK, I exaggerate, but only a bit.

The trick, therefore, as a rule writer, is to only go so far in reductionism, and there to stop. Or, as in my case, to reduce your historical focus to a point where you can stop worrying about comparisons across centuries and cultures, and call an Auxillia an Auxillia.

The second issue is the group dynamic one. Bodies of people behave differently than individuals. You cannot predicate group movement by seeing how far one person moves in a given length of time, and assuming that the other ninety-nine will do the same in a body. Life does not work like that.

I recall older sets of rules that based their movement on a given time period, and how far a person could walk or run in that time. This tends to be an awful lot further than the distances covered in battles, and this was usually glossed over by the rules. The better ones admitted the problem, but just changed the time scale to cope.

But what is happening here I think is an application of the irreducibility of crowd behaviour. I cannot move forward until the chap in front of me starts, and he can’t until the one in front of him does and so on. Getting a unit moving is harder than it looks. If you don’t believe me, next time you are in a traffic jam try moving forward before the vehicle in front does. I will not be responsible for any insurance claims arising from the experiment, though.

To summarise, categorisation is a good thing, but. And the buts are that too much reductionism lands up in an over complex (and possibly silly) place, and that some things simply cannot be broken down into component parts.