Saturday 25 February 2012

On Reserves

I’ve recently joined the MiniatureRulesDesign Yahoo! Group, and stumbled into the midst of a lively discussion about the keeping of reserves, and why wargamers do not do so.

A variety of opinions have been presented, along with suggested rule changes that would ensure that wargamers would keep reserves. For example, it was suggested that a reserve must be designated and that it would not be available to be used before turn X of the game. All well and good, I agree, except that reserves were used when they were needed. I mean, can you imagine an aide-de-camp riding up to Napoleon and saying ‘Sorry, Emperor, the Imperial Guard won’t be available for another hour…’

Now, the fact is that wargamers do not usually keep reserves, and I suspect that this is partly due to rules not rewarding the use thereof, and partly due to the ‘6 year old soccer syndrome’.

Try this experiment. Go out to a sports field and watch a group of 6 year old boys play soccer (football). I suspect that you will find the 2 goalkeepers by their posts, and the other 20 players all running after the ball. I certain circumstances, they can look rather like a comet, with a small head and a long streaming tail.

Now watch a game of professional football. The players are spread out all over the ground, often in a recognisable formation. They will be in two lines (given a 4-4-2 formation) and while these may bend around the field, you will usually see them reform in fairly quick order. We might ask the question ‘why to professionals play like this when the 6 year olds do not?’

We might also ask the question ‘what has this got to do with wargame rules?’ but bear with me.

The junior football team is an ‘all hands to the fight’ type of thing. The whole idea of most of the players is to get hold of the ball and score; in a sense it is the last bastion of heroism available to many of us in our world today. The professionals, however, have a different approach. They aim to interact as a team, to outmanoeuvre the opposition, to conserve as much energy as possible and, if you watch a really good team, attack and counterattack as such speed that the opposition cannot react in time.

I suspect that something like this is happening in our wargames. We want to get all hands to the fight, and our rules encourage this. There is little point in having significant reserves at anything but a tactical level. My first line unit may get beaten, routed, removed from play, whatever, but all I really need is another to plug the gap. This is not a grand tactical reserve, but a local one.

I think that this comes about because of a number of factors. Firstly, our units last too long in combat. There are few rules that I know of which force units back and out of the fight through exhaustion, having been in combat for too long. The psychology of men in combat is not particularly well understood, but it seems to me to indicate that individuals, and hence units, are quickly drained by combat. Bases of toy soldiers seem to carry on for ages.

Secondly, it is possible that our moves, for units in combat, are too long, and for those not in combat are too short, or, possibly, the other way around. Someone pointed out that it took the Confederate units 3 hours to assemble for Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, but 20 minutes to cover the same distance in the charge itself. This seems to suggest different move rates for different functions for the same units. I suppose that drawing the units up, dressing the lines and so on takes a lot longer than we suppose.

That said, consider Marlborough’s battles. In quite a few of them he shifted significant forces across the battlefield and into action to wrong-foot his opponent and score stunning victories. This suggests fast movement out of combat for the reserves.

Furthermore, not all armies did keep reserves, and even if they did they were not necessarily useful. At Naseby, the New Model Army had no real reserve. I assume that Fairfax and his colleagues reckoned that with a near 2:1 advantage in troops, they could draw on troops from the second line where the fighting was less intense if they needed to, as indeed happened.

The Royalists, however, did have a fairly large reserve, but it did need to be committed early to try to shore up the line on the left to allow the right to continue its success. It failed, and the result is, as you might say, history.

As a last point, I’d also note some of the battles on the Western Front in World War 1. The first waves were often successful, but by the time they had seized their objectives were spent. The second wave usually ran into heavy artillery barrages as they tried to move forward, and so the exhausted first wave were easily rolled back by fresh enemy troops. The point is that the plans called for the first wave simply to achieve a single objective; after that it was recognised that they would be unable to even hold what they had gained.

Which brings me back to my original point. Do we just allow units in wargames to fight on for too long? I don’t think, certainly in pre-WW1 days, that the actual casualty rate would cause the units to become ‘spent’, but the sheer terror of close fighting could well have this effect.

If our units were not so enthusiastic as to fight for prolonged periods without relief, perhaps we, as wargamers, would be keener on having reserves. But there is still the more hands to the fight argument to worry about; numbers, in the end (c.f. Naseby again) count.

Saturday 18 February 2012

Models and Representations

Just to prove that I don’t write in an entire vacuum, I saw recently a debate on the ancmed yahoo group about modelling, in which it was asserted that someone had said that we do not have models in wargaming, but wargames are simply representations of ancient battles.

My problem is that I’m not sure I know what that means.

Now, obviously I have some idea of what a model is. A model is, in some way, a metaphor for a real life event. The Bohr theory of the atom is a metaphor – it does not represent a real thing, but it enables us to do some calculations and get some answers which we can relate to the real world. However useful it is for that, and for teaching people about atomic theory, it is not an atom, or a representation of an atom; it makes no ontological claims.

So, what is a representation?

At one level, of course, our toy soldiers themselves are representations. An Assyrian warrior (at least when painted by a better hand than mine), is a representation of a seventh century BC warrior. It is a scale model, in terms of what I have said before. But I do not think that this is what was meant by the comment.

I suspect (although I do not know), that what is meant is that an ancients wargame vaguely resembles an ancient battle, and no more than vaguely. This is not a scale model, in any way, shape, or form, but perhaps what is meant is that the wargame is a poem or a play set around the original battle; not accurate in its form or activity, but giving a flavour of the action.

I think this is for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the sources are not really adequate to a reconstruction. I’ve moaned before about the inadequacies of the accounts we have of both Marathon and Issus, and the situation for most other battles of the period is no better. Even if we do have more than one account of a battle, usually they are contradictory, at least in part. Of course, if they agree in every detail, they are presumed to derive, one from the other. There is no pleasing us, sometimes.

Secondly, of course, we cannot reduce all the reality to the table top. The smaller details of terrain that affect the action, the overall flow and interlocking of the decision making and so on are not fully modellable. When this is added to the problem of the lack of knowledge of the action already referred to, I think we can see that there is only a small chance of really simulating the battle.

Is a representation, a flavour of a battle, all we can aspire to, then? I suspect that here things get a little complex.

If, as I have surmised, a ‘representation’ of an ancient battle is akin to saying that the wargame is like a metaphor or play or poem of the real thing, then all this is really saying is that it is a model of the original, but in a different form.

Let me try to explain.

Poems and plays (and, for that matter, literary novels) rely on metaphors for their effect. In fact, our entire language, or at least large chunks of it rely on metaphor to work, even though we rarely notice the fact. For example, to say ‘I understand’ is easily understood (ahem), but actually means ‘I stand under’, which is a metaphor for knowing intimately. This is not just the case in English, incidentally.

Now, a poem or play is a set of metaphors to describe something, in terms of something else. That is what metaphors do. Thus, we can say that even a poem or play is a model of some event, because models are extended metaphors, or sets of metaphors which describe something in the world (like an atom) in terms of something else (a solar system, in the case of the Bohr atom).

Therefore, it would seem that a representation of a battle, no matter how vague, is in fact nothing more than another model of the battle, but expressed in different terms. I’m not sure, on that basis, if the person who tried the draw the distinction was actually making any helpful progress towards understanding how wargames function.

As I’ve tried to hint above, the problem with this sort of discussion is that it all turns on our understanding of language and meaning. In spite of Shannon’s work over 50 years ago, and Wittgenstein’s arguments a little bit later, we still have this idea that language, the words we use are, or at least should be, transparent. It would be nice (but probably boring) if that were the case.

Language is a little bit like the three laws of thermodynamics. The simplified version of those reads:

  1. You can’t win.
  2. You can’t break even.
  3. You can’t get out of the game.

Language is a bit like that. We can never be entirely precise – that sort of precision is the remit of logic and mathematics, so we cannot win. We can never even be sufficiently good at language that we do not need metaphors, as the language is metaphors in large part, so we cannot break even. Finally, we need language, as we cannot communicate otherwise, so we cannot get out of the game.

Language, therefore, enables us to speak, even if what we speak about are ‘only’ models. In fact, when taken seriously, much of what we do is done via model and metaphor, and these are representations of reality, seeing a ‘this’ as a ‘that’. The only alternative, as both Wittgenstein and St Augustine acknowledge, is silence.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Painting and Psychology

Just to prove that I do some normal wargamer type things, as well as apply Wittgenstein to the hobby, I have been painting so toy soldiers recently. Greek hoplites, as it happens, some of Mr Berry’s finest. It has raised a few questions for me, which I thought I’d share (or witter on about anyway), at least as a change from talking about models and metaphors.

Although toy soldiers are, of course, scale models.

I suppose that I’m not alone in struggling with painting. After all, if painting was easy, none of us would have those piles of unpainted lead that any brief surf around the internet can find many wargamers bemoaning. I suspect that, concealed in most wargamer’s cupboards there is at least one unpainted army.

Neither my inner critic, nor my external ones, is happy with me playing with what we might call ‘grey armies’. Ever since I got my first proper wargame army, 15 mm Peter Laing ECW, as it happens, at a Christmas long, long ago, using grey, unpainted, armies has been frowned upon. Mind you, I did rope my sister in to helping me paint them then.

This year, Santa delivered again, and I am now the proud possessor of a 15 mm ground scale, 6 mm DBA Classical Greek army. For those of you for whom that is gibberish, the idea is to crowd as many 6 mm figures as possible onto a DBA base, so even a 12 base force looks like a proper army; try it, it works.

Now, I’m not a good painter, I know that, and I’m also slow. So I have to go with my line of least resistance, which means for me a 40 mm base frontage and the minimal number of figures per base I can get away with, in my case, for Greek hoplites, that means 8, or 2 strips of toy soldiers.

This is not the strongest selling point of 6 mm figures, I have to admit. I did try putting four strips on a base, once, for my Pontic pikemen. I confess, they do look quite nice, but painting that many figures for that few bases nearly killed me. You can see them in the middle of the photograph.

Painting, for me at least, is thus a very psychological process. I look at a set of 20 strips of unpainted soldiers on lollipop sticks and get depressed. In fact, with the Greeks I only managed 10 strips, or 5 bases, which is a quarter of the army I want to produce. That in itself is a bit demoralising, so I struggle to find the motivation to actually do any painting at all.

The idea of painting 6 mm figures is a little different from other figures. It is impossible that someone would pick up and examine an individual figure for its correct cuff colour, which can be done with a 15 mm or 25 mm figure. So the painting to achieve an impression of rightness, not rightness itself.

This is supposed to be achieved, according to the Baccus painting guide, by dry brushing. Now, I’m sure that this is very successful for some people, but I do not seem to be one of them. It may just be that I’m too heavy handed, or too light handed, I’m not sure, but I can never get the coverage right. I land up just painting, because that is all I can manage.

Another problem I have is with detail. Some people manage to paint the white stripe around the tricorn hats of 6 mm eighteenth century soldiers. If I try that, I get white hats. It is a similar issue with shield designs on ancients figures.

In this case, I think I have a good excuse. I’m an asthmatic, and the drugs used to treat asthma these days actually impart a slight tremble to your hands (and, indeed, other muscles). No one believed me when I explained this, but then I met someone who was a GP who said ‘Yes, that is a well-known side effect’. So, that is my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

I suppose that all this is working up to the question of what our toy soldiers really are. In some cases, mine for example, they are counters in a game. I like my counters to be representative and nicely presented, and I do the best I can, but they are still counters.

For other people, they are miniature works of art, beautifully painted and based and even, with 6 mm folk, based as little dioramas with skirmishers to the front, officers conferring and scrubby bushes all on the base. Wonderful, but very labour intensive, I should imagine. And it must be a wee bit frustrating if such a work of art is removed from the fray by a random cannon shot first move.

So, for all the pondering the imponderables of wargaming, I’m not very good at painting; indirectly, of course, that explains the lack of ‘eye candy’ on this blog, which may itself explain the relative lack of popularity of the blog compared to some out there. It is a good excuse, anyway, and means that my lack of marketing of it can be quietly left to one side….

Saturday 4 February 2012

Game Mechanics, Models and Metaphors

One of the things which most opinion is agreed upon is that metaphors are irreducible. By this is meant that a metaphor cannot be reduced to some ordinary language.

For example, the metaphor ‘war is a game of chess’ cannot be reduced to something like ‘war is a thing with two sides and different pieces with different capabilities lined up against each other…’

The attempt at reducing the metaphor to ordinary language (if there is such a thing) does not capture the resonances, links and differences between war and chess in the same way that the metaphor itself does. Metaphor is not simply a rhetorical flourish; meaning is added.

If this is the case for metaphor, it must also be the case for models, only more so. I mentioned before that multiple models are useful for capturing the full picture of a real thing or process.

The most obvious example is in physics, with wave-particle duality. One way to model photons is to describe them as waves; another way to model them is to describe them as particles. Which is correct? Actually, the question is meaningless – photons are both, and neither.

Modelling photons in these different ways helps us to understand, to predict physical behaviour, but does not give us an ontological commitment to them being waves or particles. The underlying reality is closed off to us and we cannot tell what a photon ‘really’ is.

Now, consider a set of wargame rules. They will need, say, some system of command and control, otherwise the toy soldiers will simply respond to every whim of a wargame general’s mood. The command and control mechanism, be it DBA PiPs, or Polemos Tempo points, or written orders or whatever, is a model. It is also a game mechanic.

Now, someone had a mild go at the PM: SPQR tempo points command system a while ago. As I understand the point, it was that the tempo points system is just a game mechanic and that it penalised unnecessarily ‘unformed’ troops. Now, in PM: SPQR terms, unformed troops are those not formed in ranks and with less clear command structures. The person in question argued that Germans, in the Roman period could have been ‘formed’, we just do not know. The rules, however, penalise them for being unformed.

Now, there are a number of points I could make here about epistemology (i.e. we don’t know how German troops behaved) and about the flexibility of the rules in question (which I know ‘cos I wrote them). On the latter point, they do actually say somewhere that German tribes can consist of formed foot (the reference is to a slightly obscure sentence in Tacitus), but that is not the point I’d really like to make here.

The tempo bidding process and use to move troop bases in PM is, admittedly, a game mechanic. It is also a hallmark of the Polemos rules sets. If it was not there, I would not have been writing a Polemos rule set. But I do not think it is ‘just’ a game mechanic.

The tempo use actually is an attempt to model the command and control processes in a battle. This is not to argue that the tempo processes reflect real battlefield processes. In order to do that, we would have to dress the wargamer in armour, create a large amount of noise and convince them that the other side were out to kill them. But we can attempt to model some of the aspects of the overall outcomes of the command process.

Now, actually, the tempo process consists of two parts: you bid to control the tempo of the battle, and then you use the rest of your allocation to order units about. The second part is, I admit, reasonably conventional – DBA uses its PiPs for a similar purpose, although I submit that DBA bases are too dependent on PiPs; if you haven’t got the points, the bases stop.

The tempo bidding phase is, however, a bit more subtle, and aims to capture the overall generalship processes. Here is some skulduggery, attempting to outthink and outwit the opponent. The balance has to be struck between seizing the initiative and being able to order troops about.

This, I think, is the irreducible part of the Polemos command process and this, therefore, raises it a little above the ‘mere game mechanic’ category.

Now, I do need to be careful here not to start any special pleading. If I had started out with a completely blank slate for the rules, I would probably not have had a similar sort of command system. Nevertheless, I do think that the tempo system attempts to model something in reality.

Now, as discussed above, just because we model something in a certain way, it does not mean that we have an ontological commitment to that thing being there in reality. Photons are modelled as waves but are not thought to be waves.

In a similar way, tempo points model command commitments and generalship, but they are not the reality. The reality was almost certainly messier and more fluid than any model could capture. What the tempo points model does add to, say, a PiP or orders based system is the interaction of the two commanders in trying to control the pace and location of the battle.

Now, it could be argued that the tempo system tries to do too much, in both reflecting the initiative control in the battle and the command and control system. Perhaps that is true, but it does, I think, reflect the resource allocation problems that generals might have had, at least in some senses. Again, this is an attempt to model this aspect – in model or metaphor terms it is and is isn’t a reflection of the reality.

Overall, then, I don’t think that any part of a rule set, a model of a certain reality, can be dismissed as just a game mechanic. However abstract, the parts of the rule sets are trying to model some sort of underlying reality. Whether they do that successfully or not is another matter, and that is why we need multiple models, multiple rule sets.