Saturday 29 October 2011

Why do we wargame that which we do wargame?

Now, there is a clumsy title, but what I want to explore is why we chose to wargame the periods we wargame. This sort of follows on from last time’s comments on why we wargame at all, so in a sense I’m trying to drill down to the bedrock of an individual’s hobby (in this case mine; I can’t speak for any other individual).

In another sense I am also trying to explore the culture of wargaming, and whether what we choose to wargame is, in any sense, culturally conditions. Put another way, we can ask if wargaming is totally an escapist fantasy which only bears a passing resemblance to real life, or if what we choose to game has anything to do with what is going on in our world.

I used films of Shakespeare’s Henry V last time to try to illustrate what I mean. Another possible cultural icon is, as I’ve mentioned before, the Battle of Marathon. Moving on a few years chronologically we have, of course, the film 300. Now, I’ve not seen the film, but I do wonder if the choice of Thermopylae was, at least in part, culturally conditioned. I’m thinking along the lines of a few brave men (western, of course) against a horde, betrayed but fighting to the last, and so on. This is orientalism, as I’ve mentioned before, and it goes back to the Greek historians, but I cannot help but wonder if, somewhere in the background are recent events in Iraq and similar places. Perhaps, however, I’m being too cynical.

Anyway, the question of interest is whether those sorts of cultural and socio-political events influence our choices of wargaming topic. In the 1970’s, Paddy Griffiths caused a ripple in some wargaming circles by suggesting that there were ‘gray’ wargames, or what we might term forbidden subjects. Among his candidates were the 16th and 17th century struggles in Ireland and the 1939-40 campaigns in Poland and France.

In the first place, he suggested that the Irish campaigns were unpopular because they still had relevance to modern politics. A wargame which showed the Irish and English in mortal combat would, he suggested, make us feel uncomfortable, and so we wouldn’t wargame it. The 1939-40 campaigns show, of course, the “bad guys” winning, and that too makes us dubious of playing the wargames.

I could not honestly say the Griffiths raised a storm with his comments, but he did provoke a bit of debate. Some argued that his list of grey wargame periods was not grey at all, but simply too boring or one sided to make a good game. The Irish campaigns of the sixteenth century were classified in this camp. It was also argued that there was too little information around about some campaigns to actually be able to set up a wargame based on it. The Polish campaign of 1939 was placed in this category; there was also the problem of the lack of figures and models for the battles.

Now I’ve noted before that wargaming is an individualistic thing, and the choices we make are, broadly speaking, unconditioned by anything outside our own moral world (for want of a better expression). While there may be some who would be happy playing, say, a game set in the ‘Wild West’ which included killing American Indian women and children, many of us might get uncomfortable with that.

The point I’m drifting towards here is to wonder how we choose which periods we wargame. Now, of course, you might argue that ‘I wargame Napoleonic British because Fred collects Napoleonic French’, and Fred is your normal wargame opponent. But even if that is the case, Napoleon had more opponents than just the British, so why choose them?

There are, I think some constraints on our choices. Firstly, there is the availability of information and models for our games. Lots of people are interested in Napoleonics and World War Two (not just wargamers) and so there are vast quantities of books, DVDs, model soldiers and so on about these topics. I would suggest that this interest, at least in Britain, is because these were ‘heroic’ times for our country, where “Britain stood alone against the tyrant” and so on. Even if, as our reading of history and understanding of the period nuances these claims, we are still, somehow, joining in this narrative.

We also have the counter-cultural, as well. I recall someone telling me that he played Napoleonic Turkish because they were rubbish and everyone knew they were rubbish, so it did not matter if he won or not. In fact, if he did win, he could make bigger claims about the fact. But, perhaps, that is a little unusual.

Another response I’ve seen, I think on the old DBM-list run out of Stanford, was to advise the choice of an army you could love, even when it had lost. This was quite widespread advice when someone came asking for a suggestion for an army, and all the odder because of the way it was phrased. Perhaps it is just me, or that I’m particularly sensitive to language use, but to suggest that an army of model soldiers can be lovable seems to me to be a little strange.

Nevertheless, it is clear that people do make choices of armies, campaigns, periods or whatever that they can ‘love’, whatever than term might mean. For myself, I rarely wargame anything post-1700, as those of you who have read these witterings for a while might have deduced. Why that should be the case I am not sure, but it is probably due to starting out with the English Civil War and being able to visit some of the battlefields and other associated places, plus the fact that the source material is mainly in English and widely available.

But what about you? Why did you choose the periods in which you wargame? Answers on the comments button, please!

Saturday 22 October 2011

Wide Boys and Heroes

Why do we wargame?

As I’ve probably written far too often on this blog, wargaming can have a wide variety of responses, ranging from mild interest to derision to implications that it supports violent activities. But that does not actually answer the question of why we, as normal (so far as anyone is normal) healthy adults spend a lot of time wargaming.

Firstly, I suppose the answer is ‘because we can’. Some people hang glide, some play golf, and some wargame. Our society is such that we do not have to struggle to survive; every waking minute does not have to be spent in backbreaking agricultural work which was the lot of most of our ancestors. If, as Josef Pieper argues, Leisure is the basis for Culture, then all of these things contribute to a diverse and vibrant culture in which ordinary people can do things that their great-grandparents could only have dreamt about.

Secondly, as has been mentioned a few times before, there is a basic interest in battles. This shows itself in a variety of manifestations in society, from war films to wargames to video games, books, DVDs and so on. Indeed, to look at the bookshelves of many libraries or bookshops one would start believing that military history started with World War 1, peaked in World War 2 and has continued at a lower level ever since. It is also true that publishing books about World War 2 is about as lucrative as book publishing gets these days.

Now, battles are intensely dramatic and emotional events. I’ve just read Juliet Baker’s excellent book on Agincourt. Discussing the killing of the French prisoners towards the end of the battle, she remarks that probably Henry V, who gave the order, had little choice because his men were emotionally and physically exhausted by what had gone before. He had to protect his army from the possibility of being attacked by both fresh enemy forces and escaped prisoners, rearmed by weapons picked up on the field.

Films, too, tend to have a climax with a battle, unless they are about the battle as a whole (think ‘The Longest Day’). Books too, if set against a background of war, tend to have battles as dramatic plot forcers. If the film or book is a decent one it does not tend to get accused of encouraging war. I suppose the question here is ‘why not?’

Often, films present war in considerable nastiness, although they do have to stay within some limits. On the other hand, they also present war as an opportunity for ordinary people to do extraordinary things. The representation of on screen of courage, self-sacrifice, team spirit and so on more than makes up for the inevitable depiction, if only in long shot, of the carnage that is battle.

So where does this leave wargaming? To some extent, as has been mentioned in the comments recently, wargaming represents the heroic ideal of battle. We abstract away most of the gory, nasty bits, and focus on the courage, the strategy and tactics, and the pageantry in a convivial social atmosphere with like-minded people. The games are mildly competitive but not particularly addictive, and are normally played for bragging rights, as opposed to the perfectly socially acceptable occupation of, say, poker playing.

We can also say that wargamers know, perhaps, more history than many in general society, and also probably know more about the consequences of war than many. One of the slightly depressing things to do as a wargamer is to go through the magazine articles and note how frequently certain parts of the world have been the arena for battles. At Agincourt, again, the route of the English army takes the traveller across the front line trenches of World War I near Amiens; indeed, there was a story of Agincourt archers, in ghostly form, joining in the battle of Mons. But then we can start to reflect that none of these battles actually seem to have solved anything in particular.

We wargame, perhaps, to give us some connection with the past, however tenuous and remote it may seem to be. This is not so obvious as it is in more popular culture, however. The films of Shakespeare’s Henry V are an interesting case in point. Olivier’s Henry V, of World War II vintage, was aimed at a world about to invade France in the cause of liberty. Interestingly, Churchill asked that the Southampton plot was removed; the country needed to appear to be united. Kenneth Branagh’s version was anti-war and produced after the Falkland’s War, while a stage version with a black actor in the title role came after the invasion of Iraq. I’m not sure we can detect such political views in our wargames.

So wargames seem to link us to the glory and pageantry of battles, but do not, on the whole, make any particular political point. Is wargaming then, simply a pastime, of value only to its participants? Is it undertaken so unthinkingly as to be amoral and apolitical? It is rather hard to suppose that it is, being, as I said above, part of a wide band of social and cultural activities. There must be some link with modern politics or wargaming becomes mere fantasy and escapism.

Now, there is nothing wrong with fantasy and escapism per se, but to ignore the other currents that might be swirling around our hobby might be foolish. At least, we probably have to accept that most of our wargaming is based on the easy availability of decent texts on the campaigns and battles that we play. Thus, through that link if no other, wargaming represents some aspect of the society in which it is embedded. Perhaps this does explain why increasingly exotic (from our point of view) wargames are promoted such as the Chinese Civil war of the 1920’s. From our western point of view it is (to misquote Neville Chamberlain) a war among people of whom we know nothing, and thus is ‘safe’ compared to say the Black and Tans campaigns of the same sort of era.

Anyway, why do you wargame?

Saturday 15 October 2011

Polemos: SPQR Questions and Answers

Some of you may be aware that the Polemos: SPQR rules were published recently. As they were written by my own fair hand (or rather, typed by my own fair fingers, but that doesn’t sound quite so poetic), I thought that, for the benefit of the world and my own sanity, I would occasionally post the answers to questions that people have asked me about them here. The first few are below, but don’t worry, the usual outpourings will be back next week.

Q1. Charging. Under Unit Orders on p17 a charge is one of the orders that does not require TPs to be allocated. On p 21, however, it states at the 2nd bullet point "The Active player announces all charges, expends TPs for charges and marks but does not move the charging bases". Does this mean that TPs are required for charges contrary to p17?

A1. Charging is a move, so unless the bases are already advancing, the TPs have to be paid. If the bases are advancing (which, in play testing, was the normal situation), then the charge does not cost TPs, as charging to contact is contained within the Advance order..

Q2. Changing formation. Does it cost TP to change formation? p21 simply states that a move may involve the base(s) moving forward or changing facing within a group.

A2. Yes, it does cost TPs, I think, because it is a change of order, not a continuation of the order. I'm open to argument on this one, though...

Q3. Flank or Rear attacks. How does a base or group qualify for these? Other Polemos rule sets have the attacking base with the greater part behind the target's front line.

A3. There is always something that gets through, isn't there?

Yes, extend the lines of the base edges in the BD direction. If the greater part of the attacking base is outside these, count as flank attack.

Q4. Routing. Is it OK to simply remove the routing base(s) once the initial rout move is done?

A4. Mostly it is, yes, unless the army is really deployed in depth.
I, however, prefer the morale effect of looking at all the fleeing bases, then into my opponents eyes, and smiling, gently and slightly sadly at him, so I leave them on until they get to the table edge.

Q5. Is the "Composition Table" designed to give a sample/stereotyped 20-base army for each of the forces covered as an alternative to rolling for each separately?

A5. The tables give a standard 20 base army (in fact the play testing was based on these) although the bases are without a training value.

Q6. Are the rules suitable for solo play? If so, how?

A6. Yes, they work quite well solo, I think (but then I would, being mainly a solo player AND the author). The way I’ve played solo is to choose one side and run that for the tempo bidding. You must roll for tempo points first and decide your bid. Then choose an appropriately sized dice and roll for your enemy’s tempo bid. The winner is the tempo player, and everything else flows from that in a fairly straightforward way.

Alternatively, you can roll randomly for the TP bid for both sides, and see what happens. This can land up with some peculiar results, though, but then, ancient battles tended to be a bit odd, anyway.

I’ve found it a slightly strange experience, having these rules published. This may well be because production was dogged by assorted problems. When Mr Berry refers to freezes and flood delaying things, he really is not exaggerating. Although I’ve had rule sets published before, they have been collaborative efforts, while this one was written by myself, alone. Perhaps that is it.

On the other hand, I’ve always disliked reading what I’ve written and got published, be it professionally, articles in magazines or, I suppose, rule sets. So maybe it is simply normal rejection anxiety. I do wonder, however, if this is quite common and stops a lot of good ideas that must be out there reaching the public domain. The nagging doubt ‘what if people don’t like it’ is a real fear and does stop some from setting finger to keyboard.

Still, having got Polemos: SPQR out into the public domain, what you, the public, make of it is really not my problem. I’ll try to answer questions and listen to comments and advice about how it should have been, and, if there is ever a second edition, take those things into account.

In the meantime, I’ll try to concentrate on writing rules for classical Greeks (reading about Agincourt, Naseby and the Thirty Years War notwithstanding, of course). The biggest difficulty I’ve encountered so far is trying not to simply copy large chunks of the Romans rules over and say ‘that’ll do’. Quite aside from the fact that I’ve criticised such behaviour here before, I am trying to keep in mind the fact that warfare was different between these two ages, even if we bung them all into the same ‘ancient wargames’ category, of refer to the whole period as ‘classics’ in terms of the academy.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Keeping it all Together

In an attempt to explore some of the implications of Bennett’s taxonomy of levels of the organisation of conflict, referred to a few weeks ago, I thought I’d have a go at outlining what the implications of some of them might be for us, as wargamers.

This also relates somewhat to the discussion of a bit ago about whether the Academy and the work it produces was of any use to us as wargamers; indeed, whether the outcomes of academic studies ever reach beyond the ivory towers of universities.

I still think that answer to that question is, largely, no, or at least that academic studies often are not useful to wargamers and are frequently kept within academe anyway. However, I have referred here to a few academic works over the last year, so I thought I’d bring another one to your attention this time, while also trying to discuss the top level of Bennett’s analysis, that of the diplomatic and political organisation of war.

The paper in question is a fairly recent on: William Bulman, The Practice Of Politics: The English Civil War And The ‘Resolution’ Of Henrietta Maria And Charles I, Past & Present, 206, 43-79.

This immediately shows up a few problems with academic works. Firstly, they have boring titles, secondly, that they tend to the lengthy side and thirdly, you really need to be in a university to have ready access to the work. Be that as it may, I’ll now try to extract something interesting from the above for us as wargamers.

Anyone who knows anything about the English Civil War knows that on 14th June 1645 the royalist cause committed both military and political suicide at Naseby. Military suicide because the King’s Oxford army way defeated and the experienced infantry backbone scattered, killed or captured. Political suicide was caused by the capture of the royalist baggage, including a whole load of letters from the Queen, Henrietta Maria of France, to Charles I, and from him to her.

These letters were political dynamite, showing Charles to have been in negotiation with the Irish, French, Catholic and other dubious powers. They were rapidly published and, for many people, destroyed the idea that Charles could negotiate honestly. The rapid disintegration of the royal cause followed, at least in part, from this publication.

Now, obviously these letters are a source of information at a political and diplomatic level. Before the war broke out in 1642 Henrietta Maria had gone abroad to raise cash and buy arms for the royal cause. Before she left, the King and her decided on their policy for the war. Charles was to go to York, seize the munitions dump at Hull and raise an army, while the Queen was in the Netherlands pawning the crown jewels and buying arms.

This process, Bulman argues, was what the Queen meant when she referred to the ‘resolutions’ that the King had. This, he argues, was the manner of making political decisions when communications were poor. The overall policy was decided, at least in terms of its outcomes and immediate processes.

The actors on the ground then had to frame their activity in accordance with these resolutions, or they would firstly cause confusion, as other, remote, actors would not know of the change of plans and would act in accordance with the original resolutions in mind.

Secondly, and from the Queens perspective more importantly, the actor changing their minds would appear, and be represented in diplomatic correspondence and in the newsbooks as being unreliable and vacillating. From her perspective, trying to raise money, she needed the news from England to be consistent with the policy she was putting forward in trying to obtain loans. If it looked like the King was about to settle, or change his mind over some bit of policy, that action or perception of the action would make her job much more difficult.

Now, the King and Queen were in a bit of a difficult and unusual position in their correspondence. As the navy supported Parliament, they could not be sure that their letters would reach their destination, nor that they would not be deciphered when they were. Therefore, they could not change policy on the fly, as it were.

Thus, we see the importance of these resolutions. Policy was set, pretty well, until the parties could meet in council, face to face, and change them. Communications were too unreliable and vulnerable to interception to discuss policy and possible changes to it. Thus, royal policy was set, more or less, from the point at which Henrietta Maria left England in February 1642 until she met him again in July 1643, and again from 1644 onwards.

While Charles and Henrietta Maria were in perhaps a more awkward position than many, the outline above does point, I think, to something that we, in our communication rich world perhaps fail to take into account. It was very difficult to change policy when it had been set in motion. This is true, I think of all ages, but particularly before the advent of the turnpike roads in the eighteenth century.

Communications were slow and unreliable even over relatively limited areas of Europe. While newsbooks could be in Amsterdam in a week or so, private communications were more subject to loss or severe delay than a package of newsprint. The idea of resolution makes sense against that background.

As wargamers this means that we do need to be a bit careful. If a single mind is controlling everything, then adjustments to this force can immediately be taken into account by that one, even though no message could possibly have passed between them in that time. Our armies, and our campaigns and diplomacy, can become ahistorically well informed, with swift and uninterruptable communications.

I suppose, too, that this is what marks out an excellent general from the good ones. The excellent generals could read the land and the enemy and strike, while the good or average generals were still figuring out how to react to this even or that.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Chains of Command

It is often said (so it must be true) that the task of a command system in a wargame is the opposite of that in real armies.

In real armies, the chain of command, command, control and communications (C3) or whatever you want to call it is aimed at ensuring the ability of a general to get the units to do what he wants. A unit commander has enough problems engaging the enemy without worrying about the bigger picture. He needs direction from above if his unit is to take the enemy in flank, or exploit that gap, of whatever.

In modern armies, with modern communication systems, it is quite possible for a general to give orders directly to a single vehicle or a company commander (or even, potentially, a platoon or section). However, they do not, for the very good reason that the unit commanders would go ballistic if that happened, or at least wonder what their subunits were up to. The potential for confusion, disruption and chaos is simply too great.

In a wargame, of course, there is just one individual to act as both general and unit (and, possibly, subunit) commanders. What I mean is that the player has to act as the overall commander, but also move the subunits in accordance with the ‘orders’ given by the general, that is, himself acting with another hat on.

Put like this it is fairly clear how accusations of gamesmanship or over-elastic interpretation of those orders can occur. Looking at the situation as a unit commander, the player can quickly re-assess the situation and mentally adjust the orders the general has given; in extreme cases he might simply do something else.

So the problem the wargame rules writer is faced with is different from those which a real life general has to deal with. The general can issue his orders, and expect someone else to carry them out. The wargamer issues orders (how this happens differs in different rules) but then has to execute them. The real life sub commander might misunderstand the orders, ignore them, do something else either disastrous or brilliant, or he might carry his orders out. In a wargame, the sub unit will do what the ‘general’ wants, because the general is also the unit commander.

There are a number of responses to this sort of problem. Firstly, there are the options of multi-player and committee games. Here, the commander is isolated from the action in some way, and can only issue orders to the next level of the chain of command, which can do likewise to their next level and so on. This is fine, but in my view often lands up verifying the old adage that war is 90% boredom. One of the lessons of committee games is that doing something as an army takes time.

Another response to this problem, and the most usual among wargamers, I suspect, is to ignore the problem. Most reasonably modern rule sets have some way of limiting the moves a general can make. DBA PiPs or Polemos Tempo Points put a calliper on the number of bases that can be moved at any one time. This is a bit unpredictable, and the number of moves is moderated by a random dice roll, but actually allows for a fair amount of planning in advance. Most wargamers will happily accept this as ‘realistic’, and enjoy the challenge of adjusting their plans to account for the odd bad dice roll, either in command points or in combat.

I’ve sort of mentioned this problem before, when I suggested that the wargamer should, in fact, only issue orders to the top level of his command. In terms of the English Civil War, these would be the commanders of the wings and the centre. For example, at Naseby, Fairfax would issue commands to Ireton, left wing cavalry commander, Skippon, infantry commander in the centre, and Cromwell, right wing commander of cavalry.

The issuing of commands would, in fact, be done at the senior commander’s conference before the battle. Naseby is interesting in this respect because the Parliamentary army moved backwards after its initial deployment because Cromwell judged that the ground was too wet in the initial position. This problem went back to Fairfax who decided to change the location of the army, and the army was redeployed.

Once the battle started, the key commanders lost a fair bit of their ability to control events. Ireton was wounded and his wing was beaten. The Parliamentary foot was soon under pressure from the more experienced Royalists. Cromwell’s horse was victorious, but this took some time, partly due to poor going for cavalry.

So far, the second level commanders had done comparatively little except lead their men into combat, or at least watch them while they won or lost. Now, Cromwell took the initiative, and led part of his wing onto the flank of the Royalist foot. Fairfax, who as army commander had pretty well finished his job, called up the unengaged so far forces (his own foot, horse and lifeguard) and led the assault on the now beleaguered Royalist foot. And that, more or less, was that.

Now here is the problem for wargaming. If a set of rules only allowed that level of decision making, it might get lauded as being nicely historically accurate, but it would probably be described as being dead boring. After the initial deployment, Ireton’s only decision was to support some foot, for which he got wounded and captured. Cromwell’s only decision was to turn in on the foot, which was hardly a taxing one in the circumstances, while Fairfax’s decision was made at a point where the battle was more or less won.

So I suppose the point here is that, in order to be interesting, the wargame and the wargamer have to operate at these different levels. We need to stories of the first line Parliamentary foot units being beaten back, to engage us in the overall narrative of the battle.

So maybe I am wrong. Having a wargame where the player is the overall general only is not such a good idea.