Saturday 31 December 2011

Morale in Wargames

What, if anything, do we make of the concept of morale in a wargame? Morale is a slightly odd concept, when you come to think of it. The morale of a unit is determined by the mindset and current worldview of the members of that unit and, in wargame terms, can cause the unit to fight on, recoil, run away or whatever.

Even odder, perhaps, are morale rules in skirmish games. I’ve seen some where the attitude of a single figure is determined by a set of complex rules with modifiers, die rolls and all, just to determine whether the individual charges suicidally or sensibly stays put.

When you come to the level of role playing games, of course, the concept of morale is largely abandoned. In most role playing games, the player characters are the heroes, and do not run away at the drop of a hat or cower in cover.

Mind you, I have seen some games where the player party has done precisely that because the ‘morale’ of the actual players has sunk, or they think they’ve made a mistake and taken the wrong turning. As an umpire there is always a sense of amusement when a simple trick makes the players scarper. In one Call of Cthulhu game, a NPC brandishing a machete was enough to get the PCs to leg it quick time, even though the NPC was not actually going to hit them, just scare them (he succeeded).

In older rules, the concept of morale, in its effects, at least, were clear enough. A unit took casualties, it made a morale check. A unit was ordered to charge, it took a morale check, and so on. Now, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad idea, but it did rather slow the flow of the game down and also led to some odd situations. I think I’ve mentioned before the uncontrolled charge of a skirmish unit leading to the routing of a third of the opposing army. OK, bad rules, you can argue, but it is how it happened.

In DB* based rules, morale sort of disappears. There are army or ‘command’ break points, so that is a third (or whatever it is) of the army or command is routed then the whole performs less well. This is a hard cut off, though, and makes no account of those times when units or wings fought on effectively.

For example, I suspect under DBR Edgehill would be impossible. The Parliamentary army lost both wings of cavalry, but the infantry fought on and obtained at least a draw, if not a winning one. I’ve not done the numbers, but I think that the battle would be declared lost under DBR when they lost the second wing of cavalry: two out of three commands broken and a significant chunk of bases routed would, I think, spell defeat.

Another feature of the DB* system is that unit morale has vanished. This, I think, is a good thing (© Sellars & Yeateman). Checking a unit’s morale every time it is shot at or tries to move is a pain, and, in some senses, irrelevant. If we assume that a unit will follow orders, and that the base area of the unit covers more than the footprint of the soldiers themselves, then our combat rolls become, in part at least, morale rolls.

Now, combining the combat rolls and unit morale rolls is a good idea, and certainly speeds up the game. What it does not cover, however, is the sense of panic which can suddenly infect large bodies of people when something seems to go wrong. We see in the news that stampedes and such like are all to frequent in the world, often fatally, when crowds become stressed, often with fatal results to some people.

The Polemos rules I’ve been involved in try to model this using an ‘army morale’ method. What this is trying to get at is the overall ‘feeling’ of the army. Are things going well, OK, or badly? Is it time to run away yet, or will just one more push see us looting the enemy camp?

It is often said, (I think Napoleon said it, so it must be true) that morale to the physical is three to one. What is true, or seems to be, is that the number of casualties actually in combat was relatively low.

It used to be quite fashionable to ignore reports that, say, Montrose’s men had suffered only a single fatality while the enemy had suffered hundreds. More recent historical work, started by Charles Coulson in ‘Going to the Wars’, suggests that the reports are quite accurate. The majority of casualties were caused during the rout of the enemy forces; actual, face to face combat, caused comparatively few.

Of course, applying this idea to ancient (or any other period) rules is generalising wildly, but it would seem that the threat of injury or death is more potent in persuading a soldier to run away or fight on is more potent than the reality of people dying around them. This may not be true in modern warfare with its much longer ranges, of course, but I suspect that it might be so up to, say, the nineteenth century.

So, morale would seem to be one of those primadonna concepts in wargaming, that we do need to try to model in rules, but struggle to find an articulation of in them. It would probably stand further analysis than I’ve managed here, so it might get returned to sometime in the future.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Can You Wargame Anything?

While attempting to honour the upcoming festivities (and a happy Christmas to all our readers!) I’d like to ponder something a little more off the wall this time.

Can you wargame anything?

This though arises because companies, for example, run business wargames where the participants are placed in a crisis situation and have to get out of it. In many ways it is very like a conventional wargame, at least at a strategic level. There are players, umpires, rules, imagination, creativity, stories and so on all involved.

But could anything be wargamed. In honour of those involved in retail, perhaps we should consider the retail wars, attempting to part hard pressed consumers from their cash. The players, or perhaps each player, would be the owners of shops, and would have to design windows, decide on stock, run the supply chain and hope to make enough money by the evening of Christmas Eve to be able to re-open in the New Year.

Is that wargamable? I guess it is, as a sort of role playing game. Random factors, such as consumer confidence could be included, although as umpire I might draw the line at trashing each other’s shops.

I also recall, incidentally, a game in, I think, an early White Dwarf, of a Christmas present delivery. Fortunately, I cannot remember the details, but the conclusion of the article was along the lines of ‘No responsibility for any loss of sanity attained by playing this game will be accepted. We all know there ain’t no sanity clause.’

Of course, that was back in the days when White dwarf published articles on other games than just Games Workshop’; the implicit reference is to Call of Cthulhu.

By the looks of things, more or less any conflict situation could be turned into a wargame, with suitable rules, scenarios and umpires. At this time of year, perhaps we should ponder the game of the ‘family Christmas’. Players could take on different characters: the harassed mother trying to cook dinner; the obscure aunt whom no-one likes; the small children trying to get a sneak look at their presents, and so on.

Each would have different victory conditions which would conflict, and, I suppose, a CoC like SAN level which gets reduced as things unfold. Instead of going mad, though, those who get to zero SAN simply start shouting at the other players. The game ends when everyone is doing this, sometime around 4 PM on the 25th December.

And with that, I’ll wish you all a very Happy Christmas, and promise something a bit more conventionally wargame-like next time.

Saturday 17 December 2011

History and Coherence

It is an interesting fact that battles are one off events, contingent and unrepeatable. Unlike wargamers, generals were forced to give battle with what they have at the time, not some perfect balanced force. They have to put up with uncooperative allies, insubordinate subordinates, enemies who are trying very hard to kill them and their troops, and a probably lack of support from their governments who, in most ages, worry about the cost of the whole thing and cannot see why the war is not won already.

Even at a campaign level, generals tend to spend more time worrying about food and fodder than about strategy and tactics. A starving army is one which is already beaten before battle is joined. In some ages, and places in the world the most successful generals are those who win without joining battle. Indeed, it can be argued that the quest for the decisive military encounter is one of the oddities of western culture.

It can also be argued that decisive battles are not that decisive. Professional historians, even today, rather ignore the battle. They prefer, in many ages, at least, to ferret about in archives looking at pay documents and muster lists, without ever really considering what the point of all this bureaucracy is. That is not to say archival work is unimportant, far from it. We do know a great deal more than we did about the armies of the past from this work. But the work has generally been presented as giving insight into the society of the time, rather than the men who actually fought the battles.

We could, then, argue, that modern military history (with a few exceptions) is rather lopsided, and has a single angle view of warfare, mostly relating to the raising and financing of the armies, and their impacts on society and the state.

As Austin Woolrych wrote a few years ago, he thought that the important thing about wars was who won and how. In his view, explaining the English Civil war in terms of the rise of the gentry, or the fall of the gentry, or the rise of the merchant class, or the fall of the noble class, or whatever the current popular theory of the day was, it was actually more important, and more interesting, to examine the reasons why the New Model Army won.

Unfortunately, professional historians do not seem to have heeded that comment.

On the other hand, wargamers are, if anything worse. They peruse texts, usually in translated form – guilty!) , picking out occasional bits and pieces of comments about military hardware or tactics, and present them as ‘the truth’ of ‘how it happened’. I’ve mentioned before the problems over bow range which Tacitus refers to, and it is not the only such comment which has dominated our wargame rules.

The interminable threads which crop up occasionally on email fora such as Ancmed, about (to quote a recent example) whether Caesar’s legionaries used their swords or not, is a case in point. I confess, after the first dozen or so posts on the topic I rather lost the will to live, but essentially quote is being traded against quote, Livy against Caesar and so on, in an essentially unsolvable argument about whether pila or swords were decisive in battle.

The problem is that the evidence is simply insufficient to answer the question. We do not know, we cannot know in the absence of significant archaeological evidence from battle site how those participants who died met their ends. If someone were to dig up the site of Boudicca’s last battle, and most of the British bodies found had pilum wounds, then we might be able to say something a bit more useful than quoting chunks of Latin at each other.

But even if this were to happen, it would only show one thing, and that is that at that particular battle, the pilum was decisive, probably. It is not, in fact, a generalizable truth that, therefore, in all battles the pilum was king.

In this circumstance, we have to say the Hume’s inductive scepticism is correct. The observed case does not give the answer to all cases. Even if we had the evidence for Boudicca’s last stand, we would not have evidence for anything except that battle. Without finding and digging up the evidence for every chronicled battle and analysing it in such a way, we cannot say anything in general about the interaction between legionary and Celtic warrior.

The problem is, of course, as a wargame writer, we do have to say something coherent and complete. It is not enough to say ‘sorry, don’t know, so no legion vs. Briton bashes, please because we don’t have the evidence’. A rule set like that would sell even worse than the ones I write.

The problem is thus that we are stuck, and have to synthesise some model for battle without sufficient evidence. In computational language, the problem is under constrained, underspecified and thus, unsolvable. So we have to guess.

The issue with such guesswork is that it can quickly fail under any sort of scrutiny. A different interpretation of a literary source, or even just a different translation, can mean that an otherwise solid appearing rule set is regarded as a failure.

The only way to tackle this, so far as I can see, is by an internal coherence to the rules. This is what I’ve tried to do with PM: SPQR. It is not for me to say if I was successful or not, but the idea is to present something where the interpretation is clear and the assumptions made are exposed. Then, if someone disagrees with my interpretation, they can at least find the source of it and see for themselves.

On the other hand, it does seem to make the writing of rule sets rewarding, in that people can use what you think and even, if they wish, modify it to conform to their view of history. And I suppose that is why I’m starting writing the Greeks set.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Morality, Models and Rules

My two lines of thought, about ethics in wargaming and how wargames actually work, are starting to come dangerously close together.

The last ethics articles, on virtue and contractual ethics, seem to indicate, to me at any rate, that the morality or otherwise of a wargame comes down, more or less, to what is modelled in the wargame rules. If you want to have rules for atrocities, you can (but don’t expect me to agree that they are an ethical rule set). So the question which arises is that of ‘what do we model in a rule set?’

The other line of enquiry has become a bit more pointed recently, given that I’ve actually made some progress on writing rules for classical Greek warfare. The bones of the rules are laid out, but the question arises now is 'what does this set of rules need to add the colour and spice of the original period?’

Now, in my mind, these two questions tend to collapse into each other. The overall question is what do we model in wargames rules and how do we choose?

To start from the question of the Greeks, the first job is to read the literary sources and note the general impressions of how the battles were conducted. This gives you the basic troop types and some answers to outcome questions.

It is not too difficult to take these basic empirical data and create a combat table, and from there to get some basic rules for a wargame. The question which arises is to wonder how close this is to what really happened. It is here that a degree of skill, or art, or something like that (ingenuity, perhaps) needs to come into play.

Now, looked at from the moral angle, all we want to do is model the combat and its outcomes. For example, in Xenophon’s Anabasis, the Ten Thousand spend quite a lot of their time moving into untouched areas, killing or driving off the inhabitants and looting the food and other items, including, on some occasions, selling women and children into slavery, or keeping them as slaves, concubines or servants themselves.

According to our lights this is immoral behaviour. But the Ten Thousand were not alone in doing this. Even the much vaunted Alexander III of Macedon, (sometimes called ‘the Great’), in the opening few pages of Arrian’s Alexandrus Anabasis is reported, in his campaign against the Thracians:

“Nearly fifteen hundred of them [Thracians} perished. Few of those who fled were taken alive, on account of their speed and knowledge of the country, though all the women who had accompanied them were captured with their young children and all the property they were carrying.

Alexander sent the plunder back to the cities at the coast, appointing Lysanias and Philotas to dispose of i.t’ (Arrian, 1.1.13 – 1.2.1, Landmark Arrian).

The word plunder in this passage presumably means the women and children too. Hardly the sort of behaviour we expect of a demi-God, perhaps, but it was a part of warfare of the time, and a neat way of making sure your troops had money.

The point is that we, as rule writers and users, have to choose what to model. Do we want to model the selling of women and children into slavery? Probably not, so we exclude that from our rule considerations, although it is probably harder to do this in the context of a campaign game than a free standing wargame.

On the other hand, the interaction between hoplites and peltasts in combat is a significant factor in warfare of the period. The Ten Thousand seem to have formed the hoplites into various bands of different age groups, and it is sometimes reported that for example, all the hoplites under thirty were sent to chase off the peltasts.

We probably do want to model the latter example, while ignoring the first, but why? On what basis do we make that choice?

I think this comes back to what I’ve said before about our western traditions of warfare. Like it or not, we do have a ‘just war’ tradition, and that tradition determines that, for example, non-combatants are not to be harmed. Thus, on the basis of keeping our wargames within the culturally acceptable terms of our times, we have to exclude selling women and children into slavery and similar things which we would define today as war crimes.

On the other hand, the interaction of hoplites and peltasts is a legitimate point to model in a wargame rule set. The two elements in the conflict are there (more or less) by their own choice and thus this bit of the warfare can be legitimately modelled.

I think the point I’m trying to make here is that, in general, we do not consciously make these decisions, they just happen. We have a pool of general assumptions about warfare, wargames and rules which we do not, actually, question, or even think about in any detail.

It may well be that you are thinking that we obviously do not play wargames centred about atrocities, while obviously modelling the interaction of hoplite and peltast on a battlefield is an entirely acceptable focus for a rule writer.

I’d agree, but what I would like to add is that these ‘obvious’ choices are not quite as obvious as we might like to think. Supposing a different culture had come up with wargaming at a different time, we would probably have a very different sort of hobby. What is ruled in and ruled out is a matter of choice, albeit choice heavily influenced by our culture.

In the end, we have a hobby which is part of our culture and is heavily influenced by it. Wargames focus on specific bits of warfare in whatever age. Principally, we focus on the actual battle, which if Victor Davis Hansen is to be believed, is simply how western culture views warfare.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Greek Report

The world, at least at the time of writing, seems to be fascinated as never before by what is going on in Greece. I doubt if there have been so many foreign correspondents in Athens since St. Paul spoke in the Aeropagia. It is quite possible, I suppose, that this post will attract huge numbers of hits, simply because Greece is mentioned in the title.

Then again, perhaps not.

This blog, for those of you who remember so far back, is supposed to be about me writing some rules in the Polemos range in the period which can generally be classified as ‘Classical Greece’ and ‘The age of Alexander’.

Up until a couple of months ago, all I was really doing was reading. I’ve got through Herodotus, Thucydides, and, more recently, two volumes of Xenophon. So far as I’m aware, these are the major literary sources for Greek warfare before Alexander; if you know different please do let me know.

After all that reading, it was time for some writing. I intend that these rules will cover from Marathon to the era of the early successors, but the wars of classical Greece clearly have a flavour of their own, and I think it is best to try to capture that without distorting it by input from later times.

The definition of troop types is fairly simply. Most wargamers know, for example, what a hoplite is, and what peltasts do. It is important, however, in my view that we do try to define the troops and capabilities carefully.

Again, in terms of formation, we need to decide exactly what we mean by the terms used. In my case, at the moment, I’ve gone with the Polemos: SPQR definition of troops are ‘formed’ (lined up in ranks) and unformed. So far as I can tell, no other option was available to ancient commanders.

Having defined the main troop types, at least (I keep having to add another one to cover types met in the narratives) we can start to think about command. I’ve mentioned before my relatively low opinion of the early Greek commanders, and the Persians do not seem to be a huge amount better. However, commanders the armies did have, and so they must have some influence on the game.

It does seem to me that the main role of army commanders was to get the troops to the battlefield, preferably fed and in some sort of order, and then deploy them in a reasonable manner. Once that is done, and the ‘attack’ is declared, early commanders seem to have had fairly little influence. Note that here I’m talking about larger battles. Xenophon’s narrative of the 10,000 suggests that commanders were more important in running skirmishes than in big confrontations.

The key to winning a wargame, therefore, should be in the commander’s deployment of his resources. Actual ability to influence things after starting the battle should be reasonably limited. Occasionally, Greek commanders did change things during the battle, such as at Plataea, but there were comparatively rare events.

Even commanders of the imputed brilliance of Alexander III of Macedon had to set up a good deployment of his troops before getting on with the battle. This, I suspect, is really what marks out the good commanders from the ones who could get their troops to the battlefield. The eye for the ground and the idea of how the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides can be used is key to victory in most battles.

Early Greek battles were fairly straightforward, line them up and charge type engagements, for example at Marathon the commanders had little to do once the initial charge was made. We could argue that the wings turning in and attacking the hitherto successful Persian centre was a command decision, but we do not actually know. An equally convincing explanation could be that the Greeks on the wings were pleased to see their own opponents flee, and turned spontaneously to help their colleagues and fellow citizens in the centre. While we may hope or suspect that there were command decisions about, we cannot show it to be the case; we do not have the evidence to tell.

The problem now is, as I’ve mentioned before, the players need something to do as commanders after deployment. I suppose if I was writing an umpire led game, I could separate the generals off and let them fight their own battles with whichever forces they had placed themselves with, and then inform them of the overall result. That would be a lot of work for the umpire, however, although it may well be realistic.

The flip side of this is that the rules have to keep the wargamers as commanders from changing their plans too easily. All armies, I suspect, take a little time to react to things going on in the battle. Most rules do not address this very easily. For example, DMR allows units to react instantly, if the wargamer has the PiPs to allow it. Whatever the unit was doing before do not affect their ability to turn and face, say, a flank march.

In Polemos: SPQR the idea was to make things a bit slower to react to untoward events, and I think the same is necessary (perhaps even more so) with the Greeks. Whether I’ve succeeded in this with SPQR I’m not sure, and it may not be for me to say, but there have been one or two comments that the system of orders adopted may even persuade wargamers to keep a reserve under the general’s immediate and direct command. If that is so, I claim a result!

Be that as it may, the Greeks were not as good as commanders as the Romans may have been, so I do think that the command and order systems will have to be different. The problem is how to make it hard to command armies without boring the players during the game.