Saturday 29 December 2012

Narrative Ethics

I have a feeling that I might have mentioned narrative ethics before, but in the light of a recent post on conflicting narratives in wargaming, I thought it would be worthwhile revisiting.

As you probably recall, I suggested that a wargame, in terms of what the participants are doing, was a trial of conflicting narrative with mutually exclusive goals. That is, if I am playing a wargame against you, my goal is that I win the game, and your goal is that you win it. It is very hard to find situations where both of these outcomes obtain. Some scenario games may approach it, as may some campaign games, but in most wargames there are winners and losers, or, alternatively, a draw where neither outcomes have been delivered.

It occurred to me that this might give another angle on the issue of wargame ethics, or why we play some things and not others. The evidence so far that I have found, or people have commented about, or I have seen as games suggest that there are few wargame eras, even up to the fracas in Afghanistan, which you will not find someone, somewhere, playing and producing figures and rules for.

Similarly (or perhaps, oppositely), there are a good number of people who will not play certain games, or eras or particular sides – the Germans in World War Two is one such example. The have an ethical theory which will cover both of these camps has turned out to be a bit tricky, to say the least. None of the three main meta-ethical theories, virtue ethics, utilitarianism and deontological, have proved to give us a particularly good handle on the ethics of given historical wargames. As meta-ethical theories they cannot, in a general sense, take account of individual tastes and viewpoint anyway.

The idea of a wargame being formed of conflicting narratives does, however, give us a potential way in. As human beings we form ourselves, at least to a large extent, by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and those which we tell others. This is obviously trivial to some people, while others need some convincing. However, we do like to tell stories, and many of the stories are about ourselves, our values, our activities. As a minor example, ‘how was your day’ requires some sort of story in reply, if the question is not just to be dismissed as phatic speech.

The stories we tell ourselves, and tell of ourselves, arise from the sets of values and processes which are imposed upon us by our culture, society, education and personal life history. Again, this is reasonably obvious in some senses. If I have lost a leg in an industrial accident, that is going to inform my life story. If, like Roosevelt, I am disabled by childhood polio, that too will inform my life story, even if I spend a lot of my time hiding the fact of my disability from the general population.

Similarly, our society and culture can impact significantly on our stories. For example, the question ‘did you vote?’ is a fairly neutral one in most western liberal democracies, where voting is a right but not a requirement.  In an oppressive one party state where a 100% turn out and vote for the party is expected, however, the question takes on much nastier overtones, and our own personal responses to it have a much greater impact, potentially, on our life stories.

How then do our own narratives of our lives in general impact upon our wargaming choices and hence, on our wargaming ethics?

Wargaming (believe it or not) is not the whole of life, and nor is it separated from the rest of our lives. Therefore, the wargaming narratives that we tell can impact on the stories we tell more generally. If, as I have suggested, our narratives of our lives represent to ourselves and to the world ourselves, our virtues and vices, our outlooks and choices, then our wargaming stories are going to represent something of those factors. Our wargaming stories will impact on the rest of our lives, and we have to justify them, at least to ourselves, somehow.

The give an example, suppose you have just been having a wargame where the two sides are Russian partisans in World War Two and one of those nasty SS rear area units whose job was to keep the partisans down. You return home having won the game. ‘How did it go?’ asks your nearest and dearest. ‘I won,’ you reply, ‘I shot thirty unarmed and surrendered partisans, plundered and burnt the village and raped and murdered the women after killing their children in front of them. Great game.’

You nearest and dearest may well, at this point, be reaching for the phone to call an ambulance to take you to a psychiatric hospital. The above scenario is not one that most of us want within our narratives. It is at odds with most right thinking people’s views and, as such, we do not even wish it to be included in a fictional part of our lives. It has no place in the narratives of decent western liberal people.

The reasons why this sort of (even fictional) behaviour is excluded from our narratives is an interesting and rather complex one. Clearly, given that the sorts of events outlines above did happen and are a matter of historical record means that that sort of behaviour is not outside the limits of the possible. But we temper the possible by the sorts of things we wish to represent to ourselves in our narratives, of which our wargaming activities are a part.

This sort of approach dates back to Aristotle, of course. He argued that the sorts of things that we do become habitual, and they can be habitually virtuous or habitually vicious. If, then, we habitually cultivate vicious behaviour, even at the level of the (imaginary) game described above, Aristotle argues that we will, ourselves, become more vicious, and if we act more virtuously, we will become more virtuous.

Therefore, I suggest that the wagames we feel uncomfortable with are those where we undertake behaviour that we would not feel comfortable with in the narratives of our whole lives. And that, it seems to me, is an issue which is, in the final analysis, a personal one.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Terrain Troubles – The Solution

It is traditional on this blog (where tradition means I have done this twice) to have a shorter and lighter post the week before Christmas. That being this week, I have decided to put everyone who has been reading my terrain troubles posts out of their misery, or, at least, prove that I have tried to tackle the problem.

For those who have missed it, the trouble with wargame terrain is that it needs to be functional, aesthetically pleasing, match the scales of both the figures and the rules, and be, at least for those of us who do not have a permanent set up, easy to put together and to take apart.

That is quite a tall order.

Over the last few months I have been working to update and upgrade my scenery  and the results are in two crummy pictures below.  The first is the first Fuzigore battlefield from the south.

The second is the same from the north.

The trees are by Irregular (I have had them for years, just not based them until now), the hovel building is from Baccus (who no longer makes them), the roundhouses by Timecast. The wood, settlement and road bases are by me, from bits of thin craft foam, which has worked surprisingly well. Of course, the road is Roman, and so straight, which helped…

All in all, I think that this is an honourable conclusion to the terrain thing. The battlefield took less than ten minutes to set up and less than five to put away, it looks reasonable and to scale with the figures and ground scale of the rules, the edges of the features are well defined by the foam and it looks the part, to me anyway (you will have to believe me; photography is not my thing either).

Now, posts to this blog are usually about 1000 words long. A picture, they say, is worth 1000 words. I have two pictures here, so this post is way over length already, plus the fact that I have 30 casualty bases to finish, another 15 to paint, plus 10 bases of civilians, four ox carts and a pile of pack mules of unknown height before I can actually wargame this battle.

So I shall just wish you all a happy Christmas, and get my brushes out again.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Terrain and Rules

I have written a fair bit about terrain, and how I can try to make the terrain items on my table match both the figure scale and the ground scale of the rules. Sitting making and painting the said terrain items has given me a bit of time to ponder the importance of the terrain for the wargame. In short, the question is ‘what is the impact on the game of the terrain?’

Now, as I noted before, terrain items work at various different levels within a wargame. In a historical setting (or, I suppose, a pseudo-historical setting, like Fuzigore) the items are added to lend some verisimilitude to the wargame. The buildings are expected to look like the ‘real thing’, and so I have been painting roundhouses and granaries rather than getting on with figure painting. Of course, the problem of the scale and size of the buildings rears its head here, but there are work around to it.

In a purely historical battle, of course, the terrain needs to match, as closely as possible, the original battle terrain. At a show a few years ago there was a demonstration game of the battle of Lutzen. The features of the battlefield of Lutzen included the town and castle of Lutzen itself, on the Swedish left, and a hill crowned by windmills, facing the Swedish left.  The demonstration had a good number of nicely painted 25 mm (or so) figures, but of towns and windmills I could see no sign.

To what extent, then, was this demonstration game a depiction of the battle of Lutzen? I do not want to pick on it specifically, but the terrain did not, in my view, reflect the original battlefield. I suppose that seven windmills in 25 mm might well have over-dominated the landscape, but one or two, even scaled down mills would have made it more like Lutzen than not. I confess that, without the display panels giving the history of the battle, I would have assumed that it was just some English Civil War skirmish.

The next thing the terrain is supposed to do is, of course, add some aesthetic value to the battlefield. This is actually rather hard to achieve within the limits of what we use wargame terrain for, because, with the exception of demonstration game terrain, we want our terrain items to be flexible.

One of the hallmarks of most wargaming, I think, is that it does not consist purely of model railway type terrain, beautifully done and hand crafted for individual battles. In Fuzigore, for example, I hope that there will be many wargames, and those terrain objects I am slaving over at the moment will be reused many times. Therefore, they have to have an inherent flexibility to allow for that reuse.  

To give an example, I could create (at least in theory, my artistic abilities are sadly limited) for the next battle, two carefully crafted Celtic settlements with additional trees, fields and whatnot. This would be fine for this particular battlefield, which is set in rolling agricultural countryside. But what about the next battle, which could be in hill country where the fields may not exist because the agriculture is pastoral?

In short, most items of wargame terrain need to have a trade-off between specificity, by which I mean that I want roundhouses for my Celts, and generalizability, by which I mean I do not want to have to buy and paint more roundhouses every time the battle is in a slightly different terrain.

Aside from all that, the terrain also has to be governed by the rule set. By this I mean that the items of terrain used on the table have to conform, in some way, to the way the rules say they need to. For example, in at least some of the Polemos rule sets, the size of terrain items is (in principle) governed by the base size adopted for the troops. A village has to be 30 mm by 60 mm if the basing of the units is so. This, of course, makes thing easy in judging whether a unit can hide in the village, but actually imposes a set of limitations on the terrain item itself.

Of course, the usual route to overcome this is to have the terrain mounted on a base and the base placed within a holder, so the whole thing can be modelled without irritating straight edges. In this way the visual aspect of the terrain item and the instrumental use of it within the rules are, in some way, both met.

However, the rules are imposing the constraints on the modelling. In many cases, this is not a problem. After all, in Fuzigore I can simply decree that all villages, fields, woods and so on are a certain size, due to, say, ritual requirements.  In modelling real life battlefields this may not be so easy. To return to my Lutzen example, how many troops, in terms of bases, could hide in 300 houses and a castle? The answer, I guess, is a fair number, although in the battle itself they did not do so.

The upshot of this, I think, is that our wargame terrain has to cover two bases. The first is the aesthetic. It has to look right, in other words. The second is the functional. For example, to make line of sight rules work, we need woods with a sharp cut off. Real woods do not necessarily come to a stop at a defined edge, but our wargame ones must.

Finally, we need to pick out those aspects of terrain which make a historical battle “this” battle. Can a reconstruction as a game of Lutzen be Lutzen without the town and the windmills? These items did not have any particular impact on the battle, although I think the windmills were set on fire, as was the town, which did cause the Swedes some difficulty. But if these items were not represented (we could, after all, just make Bernard’s command job more difficult) are we still refighting Lutzen?

Saturday 8 December 2012

Conflicting Narratives

One of the things I try to do from time to time here is to attempt to answer the question ‘what is it that we are doing when we are wargaming?’ Of course, there are many answers to that question which cover things as diverse as ethics, statistics, historiography and speech-acts, and some of these have been discussed.

This time, however, I would like to take a slightly broader idea: what exactly is a war game? How does it function?

The idea I have is that a game, in general, is a conflict of two narrative, one from each player. Now, I know that there are games which have a single player (I am, after all, mainly a solo wargamer), but even so I think there are two conflicting narratives at the heart of the process. Of course, there could be more than two, with multi-player games where the players have varying objectives, but I will leave that complication aside for the moment.

Consider a different game, say tennis. Now, the objectives in tennis are quite clear. Both players want to win the game. If one of them, does not, it is not, strictly, a game of tennis; it is a knock about, or practice, or training, but not a competitive game. In the case that both players do want to win, each player has a narrative end in mind: me as the winner. Both make such moves as they are capable of in such a way as to achieve the objective of their narrative. So the game proceeds via serves and return, volleys and so on, with each player attempting to obtain an advantage for their own particular narrative. Eventually, one player, and one narrative will be victorious.

He other issue within such a game is, of course, the constraints imposed on the players, and their narratives, by the rules. The rules ensure some degree of ‘fairness’. Now, we have to be a bit careful here. Rules do not ensure absolute fairness: some people are better at tennis than others. That, after all, is something of the point of the game. The rules do, however, constrain the moves the players can make, so they are equivalent. Both players, for example make serves, and, roughly speaking, make equal numbers of serves with equal chances, given the individual’s ability, to score points.

The rules, then, constrain the possibilities of the game. For example, I read somewhere recently that even an omnipotent, omniscient God cannot win a game of chess against Gary Kasparov if all God has is the king and a pawn. This is not any failure of omnipotence or omniscience, but simply that, within the constraints of the rules of the game, no winning strategy exists for God. Of course, God could cause Gary to become confused, make foolish moves and so on, but that is outwith the game rules (and even so may not enable God to win, as it happens).

With respect to wargaming, therefore, the idea is something like this. The two players have conflicting narrative aims, that is, both side wish to win. The process of them winning is decided by the players, how they deploy their toy soldiers, the terrain of the wargame table and the moves they make. These factors are the ones which, broadly speaking, are up to the wargamers themselves. These are the items which the wargamers manipulate to achieve the victory of their own narrative.

There are other factors. We have already noted the effect of rules in constraining the moves that the players can make. It may be, for example, that one player lands up in a similar position to that of God in my chess example. There is no good winning strategy for him, and so his narrative goal has to change from winning, to minimising the damage, or inflicting disproportionate damage on the enemy, or delaying him, or whatever. The scenario possibilities are, of course, endless.

Additional to all these fairly predictable issues there is also a degree of randomness involved in the game, arbitrating, at least in part, between the different narratives. The randomness is not, of course, absolute, it occurs within the game. In most wargames, anyway, troops do not appear suddenly in the middle of the battlefield as a result of a random throw of the dice. Their combat may be more or less effective, but the impact of the randomness is constrained by the rules themselves.

Sitting behind all this is, of course, the expectation that the events on a wargame table will be reasonable and, at least in part, rationally understandable. To link back to the idea of conflicting narratives, we do expect a narrative to unfold in a reasonably linear fashion. This may not, of course, happen in real modern novels, for example, where authors like to try to mess with time and space to show how clever they are, but most popular stories are reasonably linear in time (think Harry Potter, for example).

Not only do we expect linear time, of at least clear cause and effect, we expect that our blocks of toy soldiers will behave, in some fashion at least, like blocks of real soldiers, and if, as seems likely, we are not sure how a block of real soldiers might have behaved, we expect a degree of intelligibility in the behaviour that they do display. Thus our rules have to allow for reasonable behaviour,  albeit moderated by a constrained degree of randomness.

Of course, the ultimate aim of any wargame, indeed, most games, is to ‘win’, whatever that might mean within the context. Winning, in a campaign game will likely be very different from winning a tournament game. In the former there may (and probably will) be a requirement to keep a force in being, leading to less in the way of gambits and more in the way of conservative and solid tactics. In the latter, the aim is to win, pure and simple, with little regard for an overall situation, because there isn’t one.

Overall,, however, the aim of each player is, given the constraints, to obtain the possession of the dominant narrative and win. If nothing else, this is an unusual way of looking at wargaming.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Project Status

It is a truism, but a correct one, that all projects are eighty per cent finished, eighty per cent of the time. Of those that are not, some have just started, while the rest are ninety per cent complete, ninety per cent of the time.

And so it is with wargame projects. There are possibly some of you out there who are waiting with bated breath for the next update of the Fuzigore saga. There may even be some who are waiting for the news of the ‘doubling project’, my scheme to provide two Polemos sized armies for each force in the rule book.

It is also possible that some of you might be waiting to see what terrain I have conjured up in response to the ‘Terrain Troubles’ posts, or (and I know that this is an extreme possibility) some who want to know when Polemos: Polemos, the Greek, Persian and Macedonian wars rule set will be published.

I concede that the last group will be minuscule.

I am pleased to say, however, that all of the above are, in fact, about eighty per cent finished. Well, except the doubling project, of course. And the rules.

The Fuzigore project has, however, proved to be much larger than I expected. The reason for this is slightly interesting (to me, anyway, and I'm the one that writes this stuff). In CS Grants book ‘Wargame Campaigns’ (1995, CSG Publications: Pewsey) he has a bit on the forces which are needed for campaign games. Now, obviously, this includes the normal army forces of infantry, cavalry, artillery and so on. But then he lists the “less exciting but equally essential” (p 24) extras that are needed to make an army function on campaign.

These extras include such items as generals and couriers, pioneers, supply convoys, artillery train, medical support units, river transport, local defence forces and so on. These are the things that we can safely ignore on the single battlefield, but are necessary to enable an army to take to the field at all.

So, I have now completed another 20 base Gallic army, for use in the Fuzigore battle that has been sitting on my shelf for the last several weeks or, possibly months. I have also completed the terrain items that go with the battle: some road sections, some woods, a couple of small settlements. I would be posting a picture, but I thought I had charged the battery on my digital camera, but the battery and the camera both disagreed. Some other time, perhaps.

But now, here comes the rub: if you read the accounts of battles during the periods with ‘barbarians’, you will notice that they had a tendency to take their whole families along. Indeed, these families were those support units which I have just outlined above – the medical support, the supply convoys, and the resources for cooking and so on. They had a tendency to come out of their camps to watch the battle as well, and, for example at the defeat of Boudicca’s tribes, formed a distinct barrier to anyone trying to escape the carnage, as well as being involved in it themselves.

This is not purely an ancient thing, either. We read of Irish (or, more likely, Welsh speaking) women being massacred in the Royalist camp after the battle of Naseby. Spike Milligan refers to Goums bringing their wives along in ‘Rommel? Gunner who?’. Milligan is surprised, but it is an ancient and well known practice. I suppose it is only with the professionalization of armies that this practice stopped.

Baggage, in its widest form, is not well served by wargames. Occasionally you might get a scenario which involves the convoying in of relief supplies to an isolated fort, but other than that the train gets rather short shrift. You do get odd bits and pieces about how many carts and pack animals an army of a certain size might need, but that is usually as far as it goes. The DB* rules, as I recall, do have provision for having camps or baggage, but they do seem, to me at least, a bit small.

So this is where the Fuzigore, and indeed, the doubling project is stalled at the moment. I have all the wargame figures, in terms of units and bases that I need. But I do not have the ox carts, civilians, pack mules and assorted detritus goes along with the army.

Now, you might say that I am overly picky, and you may well be right, but I am trying to do this battle in a way that is satisfying to me. The armies, on the grand tactical map, have baggage units, and so some of them at least should be deployed on the table.  The point is that if an army is separated from its baggage, that army is going to struggle to function. While this has not happened during the map moves, it is a distinct possibility that it will occur during a battle.

Losing the baggage train is a more serious occurrence for a campaign game, I think, than for a one off battle. In a one off battle rules have to be invented as to why the baggage should not be used as a lure, abandoned, allowed to be over run and so on. In a campaign, when you think of all the goods and services the train supplies, the protection of it should be an obvious necessity of the army commanders, and the loss of it a near total disaster.

So here I am again, banging the drum for campaign games and, having done so, stalled my own wargaming until the point that I have appropriate baggage elements for both sides. In mitigation I can only say that the baggage will, at least, be transferable between different armies; a Roman pack mule is similar enough to a German or Gallic one not to be a problem.

So, there you are, my Fuzigore battle project is, erm, about 80% complete….

Saturday 24 November 2012

Modernity and Wargaming

Ah, I hear my loyal reader think, this is about modern wargames. That pre-1700 curmudgeon has finally seen the light and is about to launch forth on the SAS, asymmetric wargaming and all the jolly technology that gets modern (did someone mutter ‘ultra-modern’?) wagaming its good, or bad, name, depending on how you look at it.

In fact, that is not the case. I am as unreconstructed as ever, especially after my experiment last week with baking spelt bread. Spelt, in case you were not aware (as I was not until a few weeks ago) is an ancient grain that was grown in Britain (among other places) in the later Iron Age. The good thing about it, from my point of view, is that the gluten is fragile, so it does not need much kneading, which is great for lazy bakers like me. On the other hand, it does not do well in the bread maker, so it is all hand labour.

Spelt produces a dense (or perhaps that is my kneading), slightly nutty loaf which is nice for a change but will not, I think, become part of our staple diet. However, Mrs P, who is a seed biochemist by origin, did remark as we were trying to track down what sort of grain spelt is, ‘Now, at last, you are doing something interesting.’

But I digress, probably because I am trying to avoid writing about the subject, which I know a little about but not really enough to spout confidently. The subject is modernity, and how it has influenced wargaming, so with some trepidation, here goes.

The first problem, of course, is to define ‘modernity’ anyway. It is one of those things, I think, which we all know when we see it, but it impossible to nail down. It is the train of thought that started during the later medieval period, got going in the seventeenth century with the birth of the natural sciences, and reached its peak, perhaps, with the Enlightenment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It then proceeded, fairly happily, through the twentieth century until sometime, say, in the nineteen eighties, when some of its certainties started to fracture under criticism from, for example, feminists, ecological activists and some French thinkers like Derrida.

It is probably true to say that, whether we acknowledge it or not, all the readers of this blog, along with its writer, are children of modernism. Its way of thinking is deeply ingrained in us. We do analysis, reductionism, and, when we have reduced something complex to its components, we categorize them. Things get nailed down, become mathematical in nature. Indeed, one of the themes, it seems to me, anyway, of modern philosophy is its attempt, from Descartes through to Kant and Whitehead, to nail philosophy as tightly as mathematics had nailed physics.

Obviously, modernity has had profound effects on the way we think and do things. For example, history has been moved from a basically narrative viewpoint to one of themes and sweeps of history. Marxist analysis (one of the upshots from modernity) has focussed historians attention on economics, viewing historical actors as trapped in inevitable cycles of ‘progress’, or of Hegelian ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’ cycles. Historians want ‘facts’, they want to be going through account sheets of early modern companies to understand what was going on with the economics of the time.

How does this sort of thing affect wargaming? Well, I suspect that you might be able to see where wargaming fits into this idea of modernity. As wargamers, as rule writers and players, we categorize events and armies. We start off with, perhaps, the idea of a cavalry army, or an infantry army. We go from there and reduce our infantry to light, medium and heavy foot. Each has different properties, depending on our understanding of our sources (whatever they may be), our hunches, our mental models of what it means to be a medium infantryman armed with a shield and spear.

In short, we subject our subjects to a thoroughgoing modernist analysis, and insist, as a consequence, that our troops fit our categories. We can see the effect of this in some rules and, perhaps most particularly, in army lists. There we find, for example, Aztecs categorised in a certain way, perhaps as ‘blades’ or ‘heavy foot’ or some such idea. In effect, we have taken a modern category, say ‘tribal foot’ and imposed it on a different, in the case of the Aztecs, totally alien, culture.

Fortunately, wargaming has never had to defend itself from charges of imperialism and neo-colonialism, but I do suspect that this, at heart, is what we are doing.

Of course, if we do not do this categorization, then perhaps we would not be able to play a wargame at all. All we would have would be a bewildering array of different troop types to find the capabilities of which we would have to leaf through several large volumes of rules and army lists to find an answer.

Actually, as I type this, it does start to remind me of some rule sets I could name. However, many of them only do this because they have a core system and blot on all the oddities like Aztecs and Samurai as additional rules. I guess the charge of neo-colonialism still applies.

Other effects of modernity include the over reliance on technology. I have lost count of the number of times I read in army lists words to the effect of ‘these troops are recorded as having shields and so are counted as superior’. Well, possibly, but perhaps they were issued with shields to make them feel braver? Technology is not a single edged weapon.

Finally, one of the effects of modernity is to focus attention on the individual. In this regard, human rights, for example, have come to the fore, as they are individual rights, asserted against everyone else. Wargaming, of course, started out with individual soldiers performing acts of derring-do. It them went to something a bit more collective, perhaps, with bases, but now a reaction has set in and old school wargaming is back, proclaiming the power of the individual toy soldier.

Or may I am getting to postmodern for the good of my own mental health.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Black, Grey and White Wargames

A comment from Aaron a bit ago has refreshed my memory as to where my ponderings about the ethics of wargaming started. A long, long time ago, Paddy Griffiths has a couple of articles in Lone Warrior which questioned why some periods were simply not popular.

I cannot find my copies of those articles, but I vaguely remember the arguments and upshot, which I will try to summarize below. Aaron’s point, as I understood it, was that we self-select those wars which we do not wish to game for ethical or taste reasons. If we can identify these wars, and the reasons why they are not wargamed, then we might get what we might call an empirical handle on wargame ethics.

Griffiths, as I recall, decided that there were three categories of wargame which we do not play. The first were the boring games. In this category he placed trench warfare on the western front in the First World War, for example.

The second category were games which were far too one sided to make a good game. Here, I believe he referred to a variety of colonial small wars where a Stone Age technology tribe went up against a high firepower modern army and, inevitably, lost.

The third category Griffith defined, I think, were games that were too raw or political. By this, I think he meant wargames where some of the participants may have more riding on the outcome that was realistic for the game to manage. His examples of this were Elizabeth’s Irish Wars, where anyone with an Irish background might take offence at the representation of early colonialism, and, I think, he observed that an American Civil War wargame could, at least in some parts of the United States, cause offence as well, especially if the “wrong” side won.

Griffiths was writing a long time ago, sometime in the mid-1970’s, I think, and it seems to me that his list of examples may not be sustained today. Even as he wrote, Charlie Wesencraft was publishing ‘With Pike and Musket: Sixteenth and Seventeenth-century Battles for the Wargamer’ (Elmfield: Morley, 1975). This included four scenarios from Elizabeth’s Irish Wars out of twenty seven battles included. It has to be admitted that all except one of the rest were English Civil War, but nevertheless it was a definite indicator that someone, at least, did not find that war too politically hot to handle.

So, can we update Griffiths’ lists of examples? To be perfectly honest, I am finding this a bit of a struggle. Over the years since he wrote many of the subjects he ruled as grey wargames have, in fact, been played and, more often than not, become mainstream.

For example, First World War trench warfare is now frequently seen; at least, I have seen a number of articles on the subject in magazines, and also a few demonstration games at shows. I confess, it is not my thing, but they do exist as games and presumably people play them. I suspect that one of the things that makes the games playable is the design of decent winnable scenarios, although the fact that the war and its carnage has faded from living memory might help a bit too.

Again, with wargames that are deemed too one sided, sophisticated scenario design can make a big difference. This, I suspect, is related to the idea that the natives should stand up and fight like civilised people do – in ranks like real men. They can then be mown down my western firepower, and the result, of course, is a boring and one sided wargame. If the ‘native’ side is allowed to use its own tactics, with a scenario of which the winning outcome is not the standard wargame ‘annihilation of the opposing forces’, then an interesting and (so far as a wargame ever can be) instructive battle can be had.

I suspect that this second category reflects on the type and style or rules which were available then (and mostly still are today), where the non-western forces are forced into categories of western troops into which they do not really fit. The ‘Skulking Way of War’, to quote early North American settlers about the aboriginals, did not fit into the rules of war at the time, nor does it fit easily into our wargame concepts today. The upshot was that the colonists went and destroyed native villages, leaving only death and starvation, while our wargame forces do not really have a battle on their hands.

The final category that Griffiths defined is more of a moving target, I suspect. It is quite possible that a game based on Elizabeth’s Irish Wars would not play well in, say Dublin, even today. I have been trying to come up with a list of games that would today, fall into the ‘too politically hot to handle’ camp, and I am not sure I can. If you can, please let me know via the comments button!

Even so, I think that there probably are some currents in contemporary wargaming where things just are not done. I suspect, for example, that some things which were highly acceptable in the 1970’s might raise an eyebrow or two today. For example, some colonial games may well have been rebalanced, or at least renamed as such titles as ‘The Indian Mutiny’ may well be deemed to be inappropriate. For that matter I vaguely recall an episode of ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ where the events of that war had to be rapidly re-invented when an Indian politician came to visit.

I do not seem to be getting very far along this track, however. I cannot think of any particular period that wargamers in general avoid. Perhaps that is a sign of the times, or perhaps it is counter-cultural, in that wargamers, qua historians, at least accept that battles happened, they were not pleasant and someone often won. Maybe, our politically correct historical narratives cannot bear those unpleasant truths today.

Saturday 10 November 2012

The End of the Tribe

Those few of you who purchased a copy of Polemos: SPQR may have noted the demise of the term ‘warband’, much loved of players of DBA, DBM and, for all I know, various other rules. In the descriptions of the different troop types I actually offer no explanation of why I have described what other rules might call warbands as ‘tribal infantry’ or ‘tribal foot’.

Firstly, of course, there was the desire to be different. The term warband had passed into wargaming language and would be freighted with certain expectations which I was by no means certain the rules would deliver. So some change in the language seemed to be required.

Secondly, my reading suggested that the expression warband should, perhaps, be reserved for the immediately available following of a chief or leader. These would be the ‘comitatus’ or noble’s retinue. According to Tacitus, the power of a noble would be displayed by the size of his comitatus, at least for the Germans, and these would be the men who rode out on raids and so on, so would be better trained and equipped.

However, the bulk of the foot for big battles would not be formed from the comitatus of the noble elite. Firstly, many of those men may have been equipped as cavalry within an army, and secondly, even if they were not, they would be likely to be the leaders of the rest of the foot. The rest of the foot would, of course, consist of agricultural labourers, peasant farmers and the like.

As Polemos: SPQR was designed to be a big battle rule set, I decided that the term warband would be unhelpful, and renamed by foot of the northern barbarians ‘tribal’.

Recently, I have read a very interesting paper, entitled ‘Detribalizing the later prehistoric past: Concepts of tribes in Iron Age and Roman studies’ (T. Moore, Journal of Social Achaeology 11(3) 334-360 (2011)), which I happened on by accident. In this paper Moore examines the idea of tribes in late pre-Roman Britain. The conclusions do not bode well for my nomenclature.

Essentially, as I understand it, Moore argues that the first sighting we have of tribes in Britain is during the second century AD. That is both Tacitus and Ptolemy note certain tribes and locations within Britain which they describe as ethnic and geographical entities. Thus, we get maps based on Ptolemy of the tribal areas of Britain, with such stars as the Votadini in the Scottish Borders and the Brigantines in the north.

The issue is, of course, that there is precious little evidence for these tribes existing before the invasion by the Romans. While Caesar encountered native forces, he does not really describe them as a distinct tribe. Indeed, at one point he observes that there were four kings in Kent (Conquest of Gaul V.22), an area usually described as belonging to the Cantiaci alone.

There are also issues of translation hidden in these depths. The texts of the authors of note here were often translated into English by men during the nineteenth century. As such, they imported into the texts a number of imperial and colonial concepts, such as tribe and state and nation. These terms are interpretations of such words as ‘civitas’ and ‘gens’ and may not have a one to one relationship with our concepts of their translations as ‘tribe’ or ‘people’. Confusion thus can abound.

Moore then goes on to suggest that, before contact with the Romans, there was no such thing as a tribe in Britain, and that the tribes described in the second century were formed by reaction to the invasion of the country.

The narrative goes something like this: The first contact was via long distance trade and gave the elite extra clout, as they were the people obtaining the valuable trade goods. Thus the elite became more so. Then, when the invasion happened, war leaders emerged who either were already the elite, or became so. As the Romans occupied the country, they would deal with the native elite only on terms that the Romans understood, that is, only by dealing with a select few of native nobles who were held responsible for the behaviour of the rest of those that the Romans defined as their responsibility.

The upshot of this, of course, is to argue that the tribes of Britain were, effectively, Roman constructs, together with the cities which are attributed to them. These were the places where the Roman administration decided to administrate from, and the conquered peoples had to conform. Even in a hostile colonial situation, there has to be some sort of contact between conquered people and conquering forces, and this contact is conducted on the terms of the conqueror.

This has a number of consequences for some  of the ideas that are around of the continuity of these tribes from pre-history through the Roman era to post-Roman kingdoms and  even, as has been claimed, to the English county boundaries. The fact is that, even if continuity can be traced from the Roman imposed ‘tribal’ system, the geographical boundaries cannot be traced through a stable tribal system pre-dating the Romans. Such a thing simply did not exist, and it is doubtful that the aboriginal Britons thought in those terms anyway.

So, what does this have to do with wargaming?

Well, as I mentioned above, I renamed warbands as tribal foot. Perhaps that term too is freighted with ignorance, and I should find some other description. It has to be said, though, that ‘political entity imposed by the Romans foot’ lacks a little as a snappy term for wargame rule use.

Aside from that, I think what this shows is that we need to be very careful in terms of our assumptions about the political entities from which our toy soldiers spring. Mostly, we have assumptions which, as the above shows, are based on nineteenth century concepts such as ‘tribe’ and ‘nation’ which may not fit the originals entities which they were designed for. History, for those who care to look into it, is fraught with these sorts of difficulties.

Saturday 3 November 2012

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

I am sure that I have mentioned some of the work of Walter Wink before, but he says much more than simply observations about the behaviour of crowds. Wink is a theologian, but you do not have to buy into his metaphysics in order to hear some of the things he has to say.

One of the interesting things Wink does talk about is the issue of violence in our society, or at least in society in North America. He starts from a Popeye cartoon. If you think of the standard narrative trajectory of a Popeye cartoon, Popeye gets duffed up by an opponent, usually Bluto, and Olive Oyl gets ‘stolen’, either kidnapped or willingly because Popeye has upset her. After some futile efforts at rescue, Popeye ingests some spinach, defeats his enemy in a major fight and recaptures Olive Oyl. Might and right have triumphed.

Wink’s argument is that, in the case of Popeye, the violence displayed is redemptive. Popeye is defeated by a baddie in the first instance, and his efforts to win are unsuccessful until, with wit, guile and additional strength, he returns to the foe and defeats him, much more decisively than Popeye himself was originally defeated. The violence, then, not only restores the status quo ante bellum, but has improved the situation. Olive Oyl is Popeye’s girl again, practically worshipping him; the enemy is heavily defeated and practically annihilated, certainly for all practical purposes no longer a threat, but often an object of laughter and derision.

Wink traces this myth of redemptive violence though a number of generations of US culture. He notes that, for example, Tom and Jerry cartoon are inherently violent, and the remakes of them which attempted not to be were, more or less failures. In film, he observes that many are violent, and uses, for example, Rambo. Here, he argues, the myth is presented in a very clear form. Rambo blows up and shoots practically everything in sight to make the world a better place.

While Wink does not claim that the myth of redemptive violence is the only strand in North American culture, he does suggest strongly that it is pervasive in that society and thus, given the relative dominance of US culture on the world stage, that it is influential across the world. He notes links to other ideas in culture and warfare, such as the idea of “gunboat diplomacy”, as well as frantic efforts by international agencies to ameliorate or deflect the idea that shooting first and negotiating second is the correct way to conduct international affairs.

Now, I imagine that you, gentle reader, are sitting there and wondering what on earth this has to do with wargaming. If you have read this far, take courage, for we are nearly there.

One of the aspects of the myth of redemptive violence is, I think, that the violence often happens in a poorly defined context. For example, one of Raymond Chandler’s novellas (called Red.. something, Thursday?), has, by the end of the first page or so, a body count of startling proportions. The point is that there is no context as to why this should need to be the case. These are simply the enemy, the other, the baddies, while the point of view of the narrator is the goodies side. (Of course, Chandler is a bit more subtle than that, but I am not here indulging in literary criticism).

If Wink is correct in his assessment of the influence of the myth, then we might be able to see one of the aspects of wargaming which makes people uneasy in a new light. As was noted by a comment a while ago, context in the history and historiography of warfare is everything. History (or historians and their readers, anyway) judge wars as to whether they are justified or not.  A decontextualized war is a ‘bad’ war, an immoral war.

Most wargames, I suspect, are exactly decontextualized, even if there is the opportunity to provide context. For example, most tournament or competition games can have no context, for the sides never met on the field of battle in history. The battle depicted, therefore, can have no meaning and, to an outside observer, is simply violence (or rather, the abstract depiction of violence) for the sake of it.

Even when some context is provided, for example in a magazine article or a demonstration game, the context is, largely, that of the campaign, armies, commanders and tactics. The even larger backdrop is not given. Having perpetrated a few magazine articles, at least, in my time, I know that an author cannot give the full meaning and context, and provide a summary of the rest of the campaign and battles in the space provided. So inevitably some sort of decontextualization is going to happen.

The upshot of this, of course, is that unless we provide a huge book detailing the social, economic, political and military backdrop to our battles, we have to ignore some of the context at least. And that, I suspect, starts to makes us, or at least some observers, uncomfortable. The decontextualisation of the implied violence makes us, as wargames, look like schoolchildren taking irrational dislikes to others, picking on them and so on. Warfare, in context, might be acceptable, wargaming looks too adolescent, because the context is lacking.

Finally, Wink observes that violence is not redemptive. To some extent historians accept this, focussing usually on how wars start and end rather than how they are conducted (this is frustrating to wargamers, of course). Violence breeds more violence. The victory at Agincourt led to Treaty of Troyes, but that then led to a half century of further warfare as the Dauphin tried to regain his birthright. Gunboats may achieve a certain amount, but someone has to go in a clear up the mess afterwards.

Does this help us in our quest to find out why wargaming might make us uncomfortable?

Perhaps a little. It shows that the ambivalence towards violence is deeply seated in our society and that our sometimes simplistic approach to it can be unsettling if we consider the implications.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Terrain Troubles II – The Countryside

My grumbling about the problems of getting the correct balance between figure and ground scale for terrain items a few weeks ago have led me off down a slightly different path. I do, now, have something of a solution to the original problem (of which more later) but the question which was posed in my mind was:

‘What did the Gallic countryside look like anyway?’

This has turned out to be rather harder to discover than I expected. I kind of expected to amble out into the electronic environment, or at least the scholarly one, and be overwhelmed with studies explaining the varieties and techniques of ancient farming and, at least, to be able to deduce from those what the environment looked like, and how it could be represented on the wargame table.

I have been disappointed. Perhaps I have been looking in the wrong place, but I have not been able to find anything particularly useful, certainly about Gaul. Of course, it is possibly because I am, after all, a monoglot, and pre-Roman and Roman Gaul is not a major item of interest in Anglo-Saxon parts, but it has to be said that even British agriculture of the period is a bit of a stuggle.

I did find, however, one extremely useful web site, that of Butser Iron Age Farm ( This covers quite a lot of what I wanted to know, and a few bits and pieces in Peter Salway’s ‘A History of Roman Britain have helped  to flesh out some of the rest. That is not to say that there is a definitive answer to the original question (how could there be?), but there is probably sufficient to create a suitable wargame terrain.

Butser suggests that, at least in the south of Britain (and hence, I hope, by extension, to France, agriculture was focussed on fields around settlements. Depending on where you were, the settlements could be stockade or not. It is not entirely clear if the stockades were for defence or to keep grazing animals out of some areas.

The fields could be of wattle fencing or of live hedge, and would be rather small. If you Google for ‘Celtic fields’ images, you will see a large number of pictures of small fields in various parts of the country. These suggest that field boundaries could be of banks and ditches, or of dry stone walls. I suppose that local materials were used, whatever was available, pretty much as they are today.

It would seem that quite large areas must have been under arable cultivation, as the estimate of the area required to fill a storage pit is about three and a half hectares, which is eight and two thirds acres, more or less. Salway quotes the director of Butser as saying that the problem is really to identify areas where there was no prehistoric agriculture, not where there was.

That said, the Celtic fields do not seem to be sufficient to supply the grain required by, say, an occupying Roman army, so the question of where the major source of arable land was has to remain open. Outside the enclosures around the settlements, however, animal ranching of sheep, goats, cattle and horses was a major occupation.

Within the fields, a variety of grains were grown, spelt, emmer, einkhorn, wheat and oats, barley and rye. The yields were not great, but would probably have been sufficient for some trade for luxury goods. Interestingly (or at least, it was to me) if you plough frequently perpendicular to the slope of a field, the soil slowly settles in a downward direction, giving you terraces, with a bigger one at the bottom. This is called a ‘runrig’, although I would guess that most of you already knew that.

Interestingly, the advent of the Romans does not seem to have disturbed this pattern too much. The Roman villas were generally placed to be central to (and sometimes in higher places than) the native farmsteads, and presumably served as the focus for the collection and storage of the produce. Hence, and again this is probably only of interest to me, the French word ‘ville’ meaning town, and the English ‘village’.

So, in wargame terms, what should the countryside look like?

The terrain is probably reasonably heavily settled by, effectively, small farming communities. There may be some local overlord, either in a villa once Romanized, or a local hill fort or oppodia. I have not been able to find out thus far if, in England, the diversity of settlement shapes found in medieval times operated. I mean the fact that some villages in England are focussed around a centre to keep the good arable land to a maximum, while some are linear, with each plot having its own paddock, indicating a more animal focussed farming. It is possible that this happened, but I am not at all sure.

Outside the enclosed areas, the land would have been for grazing and growing other crops such as timber. Wetlands would have been used for water meadows and for growing willow, and of course hunting and fishing would have been happening too.  Orchards would also have been kept, and grazed by pigs.

So, far from a largely unpopulated landscape, much beloved of wargamers (who prefers to fight battles on a flat plain?), we are looking here at a complex, heavily used countryside with a distinct stamp of the hand of man.

So, now, my solution to my terrain problems:

I have decided that I need to roll with the problem of the two scales. The areas of woods, settlements and fields will be marked out by pieces of felt (or, hopefully, some nifty bits of thin foam stuff that I have run across). These will be in the correct ground scale. The terrain items (houses, fields, trees) will be the correct figure scale, but mounted on the same bases as the figures (or double bases, to be exact; even roundhouses can be quite big). They will, thus, be interchangeable with figures if the units move into the areas of terrain.

I have nearly finished the first of my new tree bases, and am pondering the enclosures. If I am happy with the results, I might even post a picture here, but I would not hold your breath, because ‘nearly finished’ can still mean 'quite a long time off' in my world.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Why I Stopped Buying Wargame Magazines

It is a sad fact that I do not buy any wargame magazines any more, I I suppose that asking the question ‘why’ is a reasonable one. After all, in my time I have subscribed to a few, both mainstream and amateur, and even contributed articles to both kinds.

So I suppose the question is: why did I stop?

I am not so na├»ve as to suppose that there is a single reason for my ceasing to purchase such publications. Firstly, the price kept going up. When a subscription to a magazine starts to look like the same price as a decent sized army, then one has to look to one’s priorities. Nevertheless, being reasonably happily employed means that price could not have been the overbearing issue.

Another reason could be the range of articles in an issue of a journal. The mainstream journals, in general, claim to try to keep a wide spread of articles. As far as I can tell, not having done a major survey and statistical analysis, the journal I mostly read always has a World war Two article, usually a Napoleonic or Seven Years War one, often a modern one and, from time to time, an ancients or medieval article. I suppose this was for a few reasons.

Firstly, the editors can only print articles that they have to hand, so if no-one had sent in any ancients material, it could not be printed. Secondly, the editors, presumably, know their market fairly well, and the two most popular wargame periods are, so far as I know, precisely Napoleonics and World War Two. So it is inevitable that the articles written and published will be in there two areas, at least in the main.

Now again, I am not suggesting that this, either, is why I stopped buying the magazines. I am, after all, a solo wargamer and quite prepared to borrow good ideas from any period you might like to mention. If a good mechanism is described in an article on, say, the Battle of Balaklava, and it would work for my Romans, then I am absolutely not averse to using it.

It was not even the photographs of miniature figures that stopped me buying the magazines. These, I suspect, are also linked to the issue of which articles are printed, it is true, and could be of varying quality. However, they were all better than the figures I can paint, so I am not going to criticise, although some of the image manipulation just did not seem to work well from my point of view. I also have to say that, having had a few articles published, the editor’s decision about what formed suitable pictures to accompany a given text sometimes seemed a little bit, um, interesting. But then I am not an editor of a magazine, so who am I to criticise?

Finally, I did not stop buying wargame magazines because they are, in general, opposed to 6 mm figures. I am not convinced, despite recent issues, that they are, in particular, anti small figures, but I suspect that the editors simply feel that, except perhaps for World War Two, such figures are not mainstream and so fall outside what they want to publish. There is also, I suspect, an increased difficulty in taking pictures to satisfy the eye candy lobby who want to see the whites (and the pupils) of the figure’s eyes. As I said above, if the text explains a nice rule mechanism or bit of insight, it is still something I can  use. Furthermore, the nice colour pictures enabled Mrs P. to say “Oh, those are nice”.
So, having explained why it is not that I have stopped purchasing wargame magazines, I suppose that I should try to give some real reasons. My real reason for stopping buying magazines was that I got bored and irritated with them.

Magazine articles, I feel, fall into two types. Firstly, there are re-hashes of battles that have been described many times before. I finally despaired of historical articles on these ‘mainstream’ battles when I read the third one in a few years on, I think, Neville’s Cross (1346). This was a lengthy article but it essentially followed the description from, I think it was, Oman. Now, a lot of work has happened between Oman’s time, (1920’s or so), and now. I am not saying that Oman is useless, far from it, but he is not the last word in the subject. At least one book has been published on the battle recently, and a number of scholarly articles have been written, incorporating sources of which Oman was unaware into the story of the campaign and battle.

Your response to that may well be ‘so what?’, but one of the aspects of most historical wargamers is, I think, a wish to get the details right. If you set up your figures in accordance with Oman’s description, you will be fighting a nice medieval wargame, but it will not be Neville’s Cross. So my problem with this is the very limited range of sources that most wargame authors access. If you are going to write an article, base it on the latest work you can access, not on near hundred year old accounts.

The second type of article is based on research, but is on such an obscure wargame idea that you know, before you read it, that you are never going to wargame it. For example, there was a very nice and lengthy set of articles on the border wars in Thailand. I am sure that they were very interesting to someone (presumably the author), but quite how many people were inspired to follow suit I am not sure. There are few figures, books or other resources to cover these periods, and the effort to find figures and other items is greater than I, for one, am prepared to make.

So while mainstream battle articles tend to the predictable and outdated, the obscure ones tend to suffer from a lack of resources. So, for me, magazines became much less useful than they had, perhaps, once been. So I stopped reading them.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Context and Criticality

To summarize where I am at present in the ethics and wargames debate: I am not sure I entirely understand what the question is. I have proposed a number of positions, but I have found that none of them apply strictly enough to wargaming to really give a decent handle on why wargaming might be considered unethical.

A number of people have been kind enough to comment on the issue. Firstly, it was suggested that perhaps using utilitarianism and Mill’s harm principle was too broad. Mill argues that you can offend people, but if you do it does not count as harming them. The problem is that some forms of offence are counted, by many people, as being harmful, and so, practically, the argument fails. I have tried to answer this criticism by switching meta-ethical theory, and arguing from virtue ethics that wargaming armies from evil regimes makes us more likely to be evil. I’m not convinced that this works any better, but it is at least different.

Secondly, it was also suggested that ethical concerns are simply a reflection of our (perhaps overly) politically correct culture. It is certainly true that few people would have raised objections to wargaming a few hundred years ago, but then few people had the time, money or leisure to wargame. I reached a tentative conclusion that perhaps the ethical issue with wargaming reflects a broader ambivalence to warfare in our society.

Finally, at least at time of writing, it was noted that wargames are often played without context and without critical engagement with the two sides. In effect, both sides in a wargame are treated as ethically neutral, even though one may consist of an SS Panzer division. They are simply tokens on the table which are used to create an narrative between the two adversaries.

To quote Phil Sabin, quoting Tim Cornell:

“The trouble precisely with wargames which take you back into periods about which we know nothing, or very little, and cannot understand, is that you do it in a moral vacuum. I don’t think wargaming is wicked in itself, or that war is necessarily bad at all. I think there is a very strong moral dimension and you’ve got to have good reason to engage in war, and this should be reflected at the level of games too.”

Now, I know that this is a quote of a quote, and that the context of this paragraph might well be something different, but I think there are a number of things going on here.

Firstly, there is a very strong historical dimension to the idea of wargaming presented here. The periods, it is argued, are ones about which we know little and can know little. I am not entirely sure that the statement is quite accurate, put as baldly as that. It does need some nuance: historians can and do tell us a lot about many periods. We do not have to operate in a historical vacuum, we can choose, for example, to examine the origins of the English Civil War and decide for ourselves who was right and who was wrong.

Of course, the problem with history is that it does tend to move in fashions. With the ECW interpretations vary wildly, from neo-Marxist arguments about the rise of the gentry to revisionist historians arguing that the problem was really Charles I. With such variation in historical accounts, even within the last 50 years or so, it is hardly surprising that wargamers do not engage with this sort of historiography, but simply reach for the nearest Osprey and call that research.

Nevertheless, it is possible to contextualise our table-top armies, and perhaps it is a moral requirement of them that we do so. We can then wargame SS divisions knowing full well what they stood for in the broader context. I do wonder, however, if that should mitigate our pleasure when we win.

The second thing that is going on in the quoted paragraph is, of course, a projection of our moral dilemma, in a liberal, western democracy, over the use of force.  There is a moral dimension, and, it argues, we have to reflect that in a wargame. This is an interesting point, as it indicates an issue that I have touched on  in the past, and rather dismissed as not being very helpful.

The issue is that of the western tradition of the just war. This arose from the Judaeo-Christian context, and is still much debated today. For example, most theorists consider the first Iraq war to have been a reasonably just one, but considerable doubts have been raised about the second, as I’m sure most people are aware. Governments are accused of fixing the evidence and ignoring the precepts of the just war tradition.

Nevertheless, the just war does give us a yardstick to measure the justice of a given conflict against. The problem I have with it is transferring that from the real world (where it is usually an ideal but never fully implemented) to the wargame table.

To see the problem, let us transfer back to the World War Two example of, say, a US Marine company against an SS Panzer Grenadier one. Clearly, we have a moral context here. One side, most people would agree, are the goodies, and the other are the baddies. According to the just war argument, the baddies should simply surrender, or at least, not fight hard in a bad cause, or even deliberately lose to increase the justice in the world.

As I’m sure you can see this lands us up with no wargame at all.

So yes, I’m all for context, and I think it is vital that someone wargaming world war two Germans knows the context in which they are wargaming. I also think that such a person should undertake a critical look at what their army prototype stood for, and carefully differentiate themselves from that political position.

The problems is, so far as I can tell, knowing when to stop, so that there still exists the opportunity of having a wargame at all.

Saturday 6 October 2012

When Did Wargaming Become Unethical?

Ruaridh asked recently whether wargaming would have been regarded as even ethically questionable in past ages. The short answer is, of course, that I have no idea. On a more considered reflection, however, I might be able to offer some tentative suggestions.

Firstly, there has always been a strand of peace, and yearning for peace, in our culture. A recent book, called “The Glorious Art of Peace” by John Gittings ((2012) Oxford: OUP) examines some of these aspects, as the subtitle says, ‘from the Iliad to Iraq’.

Gittings is not interested in wargaming, of course, but he does point out that in almost all cultures, peace has been an ideal, particularly as it is often associated with prosperity for the peasant farmers, who could and did lose everything when land was despoiled during campaigns.

An interesting start is to be made in, in fact, the Iliad. Here, Gittings argues that while about a third of the poem is devoted to battle scenes, many of them gory, Homer does not give unequivocal backing to the idea that war is a good thing. For example, the exploits of the heroes, their blessings in their own country, exploits, wives and families are often given; and then they die, gruesomely in most cases. Heroes, even in Homer, are not bomb (or even spear) proof.

A second Homeric item is the shield of Achilles, which was decorated with scenes of both peace and war. Gittings suggests that Homer is arguing that peace is the true aspiration of the human race; that what we really want to do is eat, drink and make merry, but the cares of the world (including warfare) often, if not usually interfere, and even the noble and heroic are not immune.

So, even as far back as the Iliad, peace and war are juxtaposed, in tension, and not to be accepted at face value. Of course, that is not how the text has necessarily been treated down the centuries. Alexander the “Great” is said to have slept on it on campaign, and it influenced generations of Greek and Roman scholars, poets and authors.

It is not just the Greeks, or the western tradition which has put forth this ambiguous view of warfare. In China the literature from the Warring States era also presents a less than fulsome picture of warfare. Gittings multiplies his examples from history, but the point remains: war has never been a straightforward issue.

It can hardly be a surprise, then, if wargaming has its ambiguities. If, as it does, our culture has a tense relationship with war, then a hobby which represents war cannot be without its own issues. What they are, exactly, is of course more difficult to define, as some of the posts on this blog have demonstrated.

So, when did wargaming acquire the status of being something polite society did not mention?

I am not sure, as I said, that I can really answer that question. However, we can, I think, see that it is linked with the rise of leisure time in the West. Speaking very broadly, before the Victorian era, (late 19th century) few people would have had the leisure to indulge in wargaming, and if they did, there was not much in the way of equipment to assist them. Of course, there are a few exceptions among the super-rich, and the Prussian army started to use wargames for professional reasons during the same century. However, it is Robert Louis Stevenson and H G Wells who start wargaming as a leisure practice in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Before the first world war there were, I think, two things going on. Firstly, there was a good deal of nationalism, jingoism if you will. This led, for example, to the Prince of Wales storming out of the first night of Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ when one of the actors inadvertently referred to the ‘British Army’ rather than the ‘Bulgarian Army’ running away. Even after the Boer war (and even, perhaps, particularly after the Boer war) the British army simply did not do that.

Secondly, there was what HG Wells called a lot of “whoosh” going on. Certainly from the point of view of the British (and probably US) middle classes, things were getting a lot better and were going to continue doing so.  The British authorities were shocked, for example, to find how many young men from poor areas were unfit for war service due to ill health and poor nourishment.  The society which was so forward looking was found to be mired in poverty.

Similarly, although revisionist historians have had a good go at this, the battles of the first world war were a profound shock, particularly as the Pals battalions were mown down and the war poets started to write (OK, not all of them, but Sassoon and Owen, at least). Now the view from 1918 or 1919 was that the allies had won, but the cost had been horrific. Peace movements (League of Nations, Peace Pledge Union and so on) grew and peaked during the 1920’s and 1930’s.

So I submit that, sometime around the end of World War One, wargaming (which was in its infancy) probably ran into ethical issues. Why, you can imagine people asking, would you want to wargame with the recent war to end all wars so vivid and awful in memory; when there are so many widows and unmarried women around because the death toll was so high?

I guess that this sort of question, which is akin to the ones Ruaridh was asked, are the ones that continue to dog the hobby to this day. On the one hand there are good reasons to wargame: to remember, to understand, to investigate what happened and why. On the other hand, there are the reasons not to wargame: it revisits the horror and pain, even vicariously.

So it could be the ‘wargame ethics’ debates we are having here are, in fact, related to our society’s ambiguous relationship with warfare, and that neither war nor wargaming have ever not had these issues hanging around the margins.

Saturday 29 September 2012

Virtue and Wargaming

I suspect that I may be flogging a dead horse, or at least boring most of the readers of this blog (that would be both of them….) but I am still pondering the reasons why some argue that only modern warfare (more or less from World War Two onwards) is subject to some degree of angst from some members, at least, of the wargame fraternity, while other periods are not.

I think I have sufficiently argued that, at least from a utilitarian point of view, the issue is not an issue at all; it is simply a matter of giving or receiving offence, which is not an ethical issue.

So, is there an alternative point of view from which the wargaming of World War Two Germans could be argued as being problematic? I think there might be, and so I shall try to describe what it is, in my view at least, here.

The underlying issue seems to be this: we become what we do habitually. This is an argument or claim that, in fact, goes back to Aristotle. It suggests that, in order to become virtuous, and to live the good life, we have to practice. So, for example, if we habitually rob banks, our lives are unlikely to be virtuous ones. On the other hand, if we habitually go and work in a charity shelter, our lives are, at least in theory going to be virtuous ones, at least if we do not combine the two.

In this idea, I suspect, lies the problem that makes people uneasy, or at least feel they have to justify themselves, while wargaming WWII Germans. The idea is that by habitually wargaming WWII Germans, we might become like them.

I suppose the first question to tackle is why the Germans and not, say, the Assyrians or Babylonians, or even the Romans, all of whose track records when it comes to modern human right is dubious, to say the least. Wargaming Romans, even campaigns like the Spartacus slave revolt, does not seem to fill us with the same angst as, say, the Korsun pocket. Why not?

I think the answer to this one lies within our ability to identify with some fictional characters. We cannot, I suggest, really identify with characters from the Roman Empire. Their world view was simply too different to ours for us to manage that. While there is much decent material out there on the Romans, it just does not help us to identify ourselves with the world view, but simply makes it alien.

While literature and film can also take us to this other world, often the concepts and themes tied up in it are simply our own. The same is true of science fiction, of course. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is, at least in part, a response to Vietnam, while Miller’s A Canticle to Leibowitz is a response to World War Two. Similarly, without wishing to push things too far, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s A Sword at Sunset could be interpreted as focussed around the end of the British Empire. The contemporary issues behind Gladiator and 300 are left to the reader.

The difference between the nasty empires of the past and that of Nazi Germany is a matter of memory. We cannot remember the atrocities carried out by, say, the Romans when the crucified revolted slaves every few hundred yards along a road. We cannot have known these people, and while we can have pity on them, it is a bit hard really to empathise; this may be in part because the Romans who did the crucifixions also wrote the history recording them.

With the Nazi regime, of course, things are different. It was a system that obsessively recorded things. The names and even faces of those slaughtered are available to us should we choose to find them. There are tours to places to Auschwitz, where the horrors took place, and there is scholarly analysis of why it happened, the mind sets which enabled people to follow orders and permit, without question, unimaginable awfulness.

The difficulty, then, in terms of wargaming Nazi Germany, is that we too live in a system which is not wildly dissimilar. While I am sure that no western style democracy is headed in that direction, Nazi Germany is close enough to us to permit us to imagine that it could. In short, we can much more easily identify with the people on the ground, receiving orders that they either execute or get executed themselves. This places the moral question directly before us: what would you have done?

A second issue here is, I suspect, that World War Two is a highly charged political issue. Even writing about it here, in wargame terms, makes me feel a little jumpy, wondering who I might upset, or whether I am going to be lambasted by some secret Nazi sympathiser. The fact that this is unlikely is neither here nor there; the issue is highly charged and sensitive, and we, as wargamers, have to live with that.

So, what advice could we give to someone who is interested in wargaming World War Two Germans but worried that they might upset people, of be morally compromised?

From the utilitarian point of view, the answer is ‘it is not a problem’. However, from the virtue ethics side, these is an issue of some description.

The advice, therefore, would be along the lines of:
Remember always that, no matter how heroic, innovative or how cool the uniforms, these toy soldiers are representative of an utterly evil regime. It is perfectly legitimate to wargame with them, but always remember, when reading and thinking about them, that the politics and actions of many leading the regime and the orders they issued and enforced have no place in any society at all.

I suppose that, as I suggested before, the major danger of wargaming World War Two Germans is that of running across Nazi apologia in books, not representing battlefield occurences.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Terrain Troubles

As some of you may be aware, I am running a (solo) campaign in a fictionalised Europe of the Roman era. It is fictionalised because I want to use both Late Republican and Early Empire troops. If you are not aware of this, you can find out by hitting the ‘Fuzigore’ posts on the blog, but I doubt if it will make much difference to what is below.

In Fuzigore, I have recently arrived at my first battle. I did this ‘properly’ for want of a better word. The movement of the two armies was plotted on hex paper, using a map I copied from an old road atlas of France. The protagonists are, of course, two tribes in my country of Cillag, who are the real world equivalents of Gauls.

Those of you with good memories will realise from the above that I must have finished painting the second Polemos army of said Gauls, which is quite correct. I have also finished eight half bases of civilians (my noble role playing character Ocram is with one of the armies as a civilian observer). This is the end (more or less) of the first phase of my ‘doubling’ project, which aims to provide tow each of the listed Polemos armies. This arises because, of any given nation in the time of the Romans, the answer to the question ‘Who did they fight most?’ is usually ‘Themselves’.

But I digress.

I have decided to try to do the terrain in a decent manner, not least because I would like a photo-record of the battles for my war diary. The armies are now in contact, in the real world a bit south of La Rochelle. The battlefield is fairly open with a few woods and two settlements.

Here, my troubles with terrain begin.

The settlements are not, in truth, too much of a problem. I have some old Baccus hovels which are already painted, so basing them up and making them look pretty, or at least similar to the bases of the soldiers is not a major problem. I did toy with the idea of making roundhouses out of card, but found it is very hard to make a card roundhouse round, so my citizens of Cillag will have to be content with longhouses.

The woods do not present too much of a problem, although I am thinking of making the sort of ‘roof wood’ that is described in the DBA rules, which consists of a base, some stalks to support the roof, and a roof with lichen on it to show the wood itself. I might; I will see how time goes.

The real problem I hit, however, was the enclosures.

Now, the issue is not materials. Over the years I have collected a fair bit of hedging in 6 mm scale. In fact, I discovered an alarming quantity of hedges in my terrain box, and so I happily sat down to consider how to use it. It came in single hedges of about four inches in length, and it is here that I hit a problem.

A 100 mm strip of hedge is, in 6 mm scale, 100 feet long. That is fine, and so a square of these hedge strips would constitute a reasonably sized ancient field.

However, in the ground scale of the rules, 40 mm is 200 paces, or, put another way, 10 mm is 50 paces and so 100 mm is 500 paces. This seems to be getting a bit big.

I case you do not believe me here, an acre is what a man can plough in a day, at least in medieval terms, and is 4840 square yards. 500 by 500 paces is 25000 square paces, which is a far too large an area of the battlefield.

Now I know that probably the farming would have been in strips, so the fields would have been bigger, but 50 or so strips seems to be a bit big.

I have mentioned before the dissonance there is between the figure scale on out wargames table and the battle scale. The terrain, as I mentioned there, is the mediator between the two. Buildings, it seems are not that much of a problem, on the whole you stick to the figure scale. Trees too are general of the figure scale. Even the hedges I have are the correct scale for 6 mm figures, being about 8 mm high.

But the area of enclosures seems to be a bit of an issue.

Looking at my rule sets, it seems that most dodge the issue. An area of enclosures is a set of fields and hedges, and does not need to be represented accurately on the wargame table because you need to get troops in and out and so just some representation of hedges or walls is sufficient.

I confess that Polemos: SPQR also dodges the issue, suggesting that a bit of felt with a few representative hedges on it is sufficient.

Having tried this out I am no longer so sure. A scattering of hedges does not look the part, I fear. But a full blown figure scale field is far, far too big for the ground scale of the table. So I am in a bit of a quandary.

Perhaps I should just experiment until I find something that looks right, but I fear that all this pondering what we are doing while we wargame is hitting me. How can I have a game with fields on the table knowing that the scale of them is wrong, one way or another.

Normally, in a post like this, the last paragraph would be a stunning resolution of the problem, in this case a visually acceptable method of representing fields which both looks correct and is a reasonable scale representation of the ground in the tabletop battlefield.

Not so here, I think.  I am still struggling with this one, so in desperation I as the obvious question:

Is it just me?