Saturday 31 March 2012

Who Knows?

It was noted after a post a few weeks ago about reserves that a major problem with wargames is that the wargamer knows more than the general on the ground would have done, and hence takes fewer unnecessary precautions, such as keeping a reserve to cover the unexpected.

I know that some wargame rules do allow for flank marches, to place that uncertainty in the player’s mind. DBM was one such rule set (I think DBA does it too), but the fact that part of the enemy army was on a flank march was fairly obvious (or blindingly obvious to an experienced player) and, given the interaction of the flank march rules with the terrain rules, most players could work out where the flank march was likely to arrive and take appropriate precautions.

One of the contributory factors to this problem is that we, as wargamers, have come to expect “balanced” games. Most wargames, so far as I can tell, are between equal points ‘matched’ army, which is supposed to give either side a fighting chance of winning. This is in keeping with good traditions of playing fairly and so on. I think I’ve banged on about that in a previous post, too.

The problem is, of course, that real war does not proceed on the basis of fairness, nor could most commanders look at the enemy’s deployment and say ‘one third of that army is on a flank march’. The brighter might suspect that something was afoot when the enemy accepted battle while being obviously weakened, but some might view it as a wonderful opportunity and get stuck in.

So the question arises: what can we do about this?

From a philosophical point of view, this is a problem of epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Somehow, in order to model the real decisions of the generals, we have to evolve a system to place real uncertainty in the wargamer’s mind. The wargamer must not be able to ‘know’, in the sense of working out from rules and army lists what is going on.

Of course, the standard way of handling this is to say ‘run a campaign’. There, wargamers can accept battle if weakened and hope that the reinforcements making forced marches can make it before the holding force is defeated. Additionally, it does encourage the keeping of reserves and discourage attempts to win at all costs or hold out beyond defeat. If there is another battle to fight another day, then keeping troops intact, even if you have been defeated, is a good idea in a way which is not necessarily the case in a one off battle.

Another effect of a well-run campaign is that the emphasis is placed much more heavily on scouting and reconnaissance. Light horse, dragoons, armoured cars or whatever become much more important. Without them the wargamer is blind. It is amazing to see how cautious movement becomes when you do not know where the enemy actually is.

As Don Featherstone remarks in Solo Wargaming, what you also get are battles between scouting parties. These can be resolved in an abstract manner (one proposal included 3 cavalry figures a side and a chess board) or a full wargame can be set up, switching figure scales and using every cavalry figure you can muster (purists may wince at this point).

I have tried this, and it really does work (and all cavalry battles have a flavour of their own), but it does slow down the progress of the campaign and, often there is no major objective to the action as it is very unlikely that one side will so totally defeat the other that no information is taken back to the army of the defeated side.

An alternative approach is to use a somewhat abstract method, and I’ve tried to do that in the Polemos rules that I’ve been involved with. I confess that this is not original, being based on a boardgame of the English Civil War that I had years ago. I’m not sure it was a very good simulation of the ECW; the winning general tended to build a huge stack of units that could simply pulverise anything in its path. As England was divided into areas, there was no stacking limit, but I suspect that armies of that size would simply have starved. But I digress.

When armies encountered each other in one of the zones, they could both accept battle, or one, or the other, or both could attempt to refuse it. If both refused then there was a one in six chance of them bumping into each other anyway. If one attempted to refuse battle, then the cavalry forces of each side were matched, with a random dice roll, and the winner could choose to fight or not.

Now, obviously, in a table top wargame situation, both sides are going to accept battle, or there would be no wargame, but if we can manage to move away from equal points armies with known components, then we can start creating uncertainty in the minds of the players by giving definite but incorrect information which is known to be incorrect. Of course, this might rely on the services of an umpire, but they would only be needed at the start of the game.

So instead of saying ‘this is a 350 point army’, we can say:

“Scouts report 5 or 6 regiments of foot, two of cavalry and three guns” and also “Spies report that 4 regiments of foot and one cavalry regiment were bivouacked in the town overnight”

Both of course could be right, but how many cavalry units are there. If only one appears on the other side, is there another one? What about the foot? If 4 appear, where are the other two, if they exist?

This is, perhaps, a modest attempt to sow some seeds of uncertainty, but it is surely better than thinking ‘there is one 150 point command missing from that army, and it must be flank marching to the left because the right is an impassable waterway.’

Saturday 24 March 2012

Ancient Literacy

For reasons unconnected with wargaming, I have just been reading a book on the archaeology of first century Palestine (OK, I was sent it to review). One of the issues raised there was about literacy in the ancient world, and how widespread it was. It struck me that this was actually quite an interesting question for wargame reasons, and so I thought I’d explore it.

The initial question is, of course, why it should be interesting?

If we consider giving orders to units, then there are two transmission routes, of course. Firstly, there is the oral route, the general giving an aide some orders and that person galloping off to transmit them to the unit commander.

Clearly, there are some problems here. Firstly, the aide might not make it to the unit or the commander; battlefields are dangerous places, after all. Secondly, it is possible that the aide could get their transmission of the orders wrong, and finally the unit commander may misinterpret them, or, possibly worse, try to implement them against a changed context. Add to this, of course, the possibility that the aide could interpret the rules to suit their own views. From a later age one is put in mind of Captain Nolan at the Battle of Balaclava, waving his sword and shouting ‘There, My Lord, enemy, there are your guns’, contributing in no small way to the debacle of the charge of the Light Brigade.

Written orders do not remove all of these problems, of course. Nolan, after all, had delivered written orders, but they were ambiguous. In general, though written orders would reduce the ability to be creative with the general’s instructions. On the down side, they would also be useful to the enemy if intercepted and read, and they can still get lost.

More broadly, an operation like the Roman army relied on written orders and accounts. The Vindolanda texts are, in general, muster, accounts and instructions, with a few extra bits thrown in like invitations to birthday parties. It is also suggested that the Roman army was responsible for the spread of Latin literacy, at least in the early empire. A soldier might enter the army as a raw barbarian, twenty years later he would leave a Roman citizen. During that time he would have needed to speak and to read Latin. He would also have been numerate, and have a wide variety of trade skills.

Estimates of overall literacy in the ancient world vary. A common number bandied around is 5 – 10 %, the majority of which would have been men. It is true, however, that it is very unclear what the number would have been, and it varied between different areas, social groups and ethnicities.

For example, the Celts, before conquest by the Romans, had little in terms of written culture. The priestly Druids did use Greek script, but most knowledge was passed on orally, which is partly why there is such a rich cultural inheritance of Celtic poetry. Poetry, with repetition and vivid imagery, in relatively easy to recall, and, also, the knowledge transmitted can be anticipated, to some extent, by the hearer.

Alternatively, within the Jewish community, literacy was probably relatively high. The Hebrew scriptures were already written sources and so, probably, a considerable fraction of the male population of Palestine was in some form literate. Given that the Hebrew texts were translated into Greek, presumably for the benefit of Jews living outside Palestine, we can assume a reasonably high level of literacy amongst this section of the community.

More generally, there was probably some degree of literacy amongst the middle class sorts of people. For example, it must have been very hard to run a shop or other sort of business without at least a modicum of literacy and numeracy. Even at the simple level of a market trader, literacy, at least at a low level, must have been the norm, as amphora contents were described by labels on the neck. There is no point in selling an amphora of olive oil thinking it is wine, after all.

With the spread of the Roman bureaucracy, of course, literacy and numeracy must have spread also. The Oxyrhynchus documents are a vast dump of mainly papyrus papers, estimated at half a million documents at the very least. This is just one part of the archive of just one city in Roman Egypt. Other cities, particularly at Alexandria had, of course, whole libraries which, presumably, were not just there for show. Literacy, at least among the non-labouring classes, may have been more widespread than we might think.

Earlier than the Roman Empire, of course, we have the world of the Greeks. Here, again, there is some evidence of literacy. It is hard to imagine the democracies of some of the Greek cities thriving without some sort of literacy amongst the citizens, and one or two made provision for elementary education. We shouldn’t get carried away by the idea of mass literacy in the modern, industrial, sense, however. Most people who could read were probably what we might call ‘craft literate’, that is they could manage to read what they needed, but were not engaged in reading beyond that.

So what effect does this have on us as wargamers?

In a campaign game, you might want to add ‘literacy’ to the characteristics of officers. I’ve mentioned before the friction that is needed to be modelled to represent the time delay between receiving and executing orders, and this could be one of them. The office sending the orders, and the one receiving them, could both be forced to roll against their literacy skill and failure would mean either the orders are ambiguous or contradictory or are not properly understood. Chaos and confusion could then ensue.

It might be a little more difficult to implement literacy rolls during an actual battle when, presumably, more orders will be given orally, but even so, some sort of roll for clear transmission could be made, and, of course, this applies to later eras as well, as Captain Nolan found to his cost.

Saturday 17 March 2012


Well, once again I have been lurking on the MiniaturesRulesDesign Yahoo! Group as an interesting discussion has developed, this time about wargames, rules, and complex adaptive systems.

Now, I’m no expert on the latter, but they do sound interesting. The idea seems to be that, for example, an army is not just a system of automata, responding in given ways to given stimuli, but a complex system of units and individuals that can adapt to a changing environment. A similar sort of view can exist of other systems, be they governments, organisations, industrial firms or whatever.

A further idea within the complex adaptive system view seems to be something along the lines of non-linear feedback. A given stimulus can have a range of results, and how that range of results and the specific outcome is determined is somewhat obscure to us (in fact, it could be entirely closed to everyone).

I suppose that an example of this is in the classic Horse and Musket era exchange of musketry, which could have outcomes ranging from no casualties but both sides running away, to massive casualties on one side but the other side running away, to both sides standing shooting each other to bits.

Put like that, the problems with this approach start to become clearer. Firstly, how do you determine the range of outcomes? In a clear sense they are context driven: the possible range of outcomes from an exchange of musketry is determinable, both by ‘common sense’ and also by looking at historical precedents, but this range is, obviously, not the same as the range of outcomes for, say, a cavalry clash, or artillery bombardment or even an infantry charge.

The second problem is, of course, how do we decide on the probabilities of each outcome? Assuming that the outcomes are clearly distinguishable from each other, we need to know the probability of outcome A (say, both sides running for it with minimal casualties) against outcome B (say, few casualties and both sides standing for another go). Given the environmental factors that go into this sort of calculation it is very hard to see that we could, in a reasonable time, determine them in any other way than a simple guess.

There is yet another problem, which is contained within the expression ‘non-linear’. We, as human beings, like linear systems. They are comfortable, they are predictable and we can weigh the outcomes. Non-linear systems are not; a slight change in the input can produce wildly differing outcomes. So far as our preconceptions go, they are unpredictable. This sort of process is often called ‘chaos’, although a better term in deterministic chaos’.

It is a well-known, but somewhat surprising fact, that even linear systems can exhibit chaotic behaviour. The driving equations do not need to be themselves badly behaved to lead to unpredictable outcomes. A quick Google on the terms ‘deterministic chaos’ will give you any number of sites which will explain the mathematics and physics of the systems, and also display pretty pictures of fractal systems (which many chaotic systems give rise to). These were all the rage as T-shirt designs a few years ago as mathematicians and physicists thought it made them look cool.

Anyway, to get back to the wargaming discussion, it was posited that we need non-linear systems in order to show the complex adaptive systems behaviour of armies in combat. Wargame rules, it was pointed out, are usually linear. Our units take a few casualties and are degraded in performance; they take a few more and get less effective, and so on, until they collapse. Even adding a bit of a random factor does not detract from the essential linear nature of the rules. Whoever argued this (and I do not recall who it was, but they did seem to know what they were talking about in terms of complex systems), also argued that we need complex adaptive rules to simulate the complex adaptive behaviour.

It is about here that I, and some other parted company from the idea. I think others did because, short of running lengthy computer simulations of our wargames, we are never going to manage to write, still less play, such a game. I think this is true, but that is not my principle problem; possibly it is because of my physics background, but I do not think we need non-linearity to get chaos.

For example, the logistic map is a nice, linear equation, which looks something like this:

X[n+1] = KX[n](1-X[n])

The X here is the variable we are interested in (classically, it is a population of moths), the n is the iteration, and K is a numerical factor between 0 and 4. For K between 0 and 1, the solution falls to zero and stays there. For k between 1 and 3, the solution converges to a stable number.

So far, so linear.

But for K>3, some interesting things start to happen. Firstly, the solution bifurcates, that is, you get two solutions and the system settles for one of them, but you cannot tell by looking at the initial conditions which one it will go for. As you increase K, the bifurcated solutions bifurcate, and then do it again and again until the whole phase space of the solution is filled with possible solutions, but you cannot tell which one you will land up in. you can see the effect on the Wikipaedia article for the logistic map:

You might think that that is complex enough, but it is just a start with deterministic chaos.

The point is that even a nicely behaved linear (OK, quadratic, but we can actually cope with that) and deterministic system can show unpredictable behaviour. I suppose that it is possible that a full complex adaptive system to battle simulation (I think you would no longer be playing a wargame) might give you some interesting insights into what might have happened, but I suspect that it might be easier, and more fun, to include something which, in effect, gives bifurcations of outcomes to given stimuli.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Mixing Models

It was asked a few weeks ago how much the scale models of our wargames mattered, or if they detracted from the model which is the wargame itself. A good question, I think, and one to which I’ll try to give some sort of answer.

Firstly, we need to distinguish the models which are in a wargame.

Firstly, there are the toy soldiers and their equipment. As I’ve said before, these are scale models, and they look like an original, be that a Prussian Grenadier, a Roman legionary or a Sherman tank. Of course these scale models are something of an idealisation. For example, all our toy soldiers are the same height, and most of them are in pristine parade ground order. We should also note that the scale model is static here. These soldiers do not march or shoot by themselves, but stay put, doing nothing.

At the other end of the model set we have are the rules and wargamers. This is a dynamic model and a conceptual one to boot. On the face of it the model is just a few sentences printed on a page, but it is the dynamics of the concepts contained therein which cause, in the wargamer’s minds and intentional actions, a wargame to be fought.

Looked at from this point of view, the scale models are simply tokens, markers for location, type and potential of the wargame rule concepts of ‘troops’. The specifics of the marker are largely irrelevant. You could, if you wanted to, use a stand of Ancient British warriors for a company of Tiger tanks, as long as the stand behaved as a Tiger tank marker according to the rules.

There has to be a point of sensible interaction for these two, largely unlinked models. While we could use tribal foot as tanks, we do not, usually, so there has to be some actual point at which the two models have some effect on each other. I suspect that the point of interaction is on a third model, the wargames table.

The wargame table models, in some sense, the battlefield. As such, it is something of a static model, a scale model, at least for a given battle. However, its scale is different from that of the toy soldiers scale models. We have a concept given by the rules of ‘ground scale’, and this determines the size of the features and so on. This is, note, a rules model concept, made static in its concrete instantiation, but upon which our toy soldiers move.

Now, the rules hold sway, here, over the scale of the soldiers, although it is true that the soldiers can be used in another rule set with a different ground scale without, themselves, changing. In this sense, the toy soldiers (and their basing scheme) are invariant across rule sets, while the rules impose differing ground scales upon them.

Now, this throws up an interesting question: why do we worry so much as wargamers in getting the figures ‘right’, while in fact they are just tokens?

I think the answer here lies in the place where the scale model and the dynamic model meet. This is the minds and, more precisely, I think, the imaginations of the wargamers. Wargaming is not simply the setting up of models and letting them evolve using set rules and a bit of a randomising factor. A wargame involves the imaginations of those who play it.

The reason, I think, that these scale model tokens are important is because they aid the imagination. A stand of Ancient Britons cannot stand for a company of Tiger tanks because that causes our imagination (not to mention our logical faculties) significant difficulty. It might be OK for a play test of something (I seem to recall that Polemos ECW was originally developed using stands of ACW soldiers), but as a general rule, it simply does not work.

It would seem, then, that our imaginations need toy soldiers to work properly, at least for those of us who are miniature gamers. Board gaming is, I suspect, as such a different strategic level, and the level of abstraction is significantly higher, that the imagination does not really work that well. Can you imagine a divisional attack on a ten mile frontage? No, nor can I.

So, the original question was ‘do these tokens affect the game we play?’ or words to that effect. My original answer was that good figures cannot make a bad game good, and nor can bad figures make a good game bad, but I do think that the level of accuracy of our tokens as scale models aids our imagination and, as such, good figures enhance our enjoyment of the game.

I suppose the next question is ‘what makes for a good token (or, for that matter, a bad one)?’ Here, I suspect, a fair degree of agreement could be found. A good token is one which is appropriate to the troop type represented, has enough detail to show clearly that it is such a troop type, is not so fragile as to have bits broken off it is touched in normal wargame play, is nicely painted and based, and so on.

The first point, a figure that is appropriate to the troop type represented, is probably the most important. As mentioned above, this helps the imagination, stimulating appropriate responses to the difference in capability between say, a 20th Century rifleman and a medieval archer. That these two are different is indisputable, but it does help to have a little confirmation from the figure itself.

Overall, then, we have two, possibly three, interacting models: the scale models of the figures, the dynamic model of the wargame rules, and (possibly) the wargames table. All of these come together in the imagination of the player, and make for a decent wargame.

Saturday 3 March 2012

On Being Nasty

It seems to be a given of humanity that no-one can stop criticising someone else. I’m not sure why, but it does seem to be there. I suppose the greatest and longest criticism in the world was the Cold War, which was essentially two very large superpowers in a constant state of (highly dangerous, nuclear armed) snit with each other. It continues, to a greater or lesser extent, in geopolitics today.

I’ve mentioned it a few times on this blog, mostly in some of the earlier posts to do with orientalism. There is something about the ‘other’ that we really struggle with. We find the other threatening, for reasons we cannot quite put our fingers on. There is the fear of the unknown, yes, but there is also the fear of difference, of change. Maybe it comes down to tribalism, or, quite possibly, the suspicion that the others are having more fun than we are.

Even in wargaming this suspicion of the other is with us. Role playing gamers huddle at one end of our convention halls, while miniature wargamers are at the other. Board wargamers are now, sadly, a depleted bunch and they might manage a few retail stands in a corner, slipping furtively in and out clutching copies of Advanced Squad Leader in brown paper bags.

Only in retail do these areas overlap; some retailers, at least carry both board and miniature wargame supplies, and quite probably some role playing stuff as well, at least at shows (I speak from the UK, never having tracked down a US convention or store). Mostly, however, the different groups of wargamers sit in their huddles, greeting visitors from the other areas as if they have just come from Mars.

The closer within a group you get, the more you realise that there are deep fissures within them, too. I recall a deep divide within wargaming over whether published army lists should be used. ‘Do your own research!’ the cry was raised in hostility to, I suspect, the WRG Ancients lists. Times have moved on, and army lists are acceptable, indeed, some may argue, vital parts of everyday wargaming life.

Similar attitudes exist within the different figure scales. I recall, also a long time ago, the struggle for acceptability that 15 mm figures had. There were snide remarks about them being ‘versatile’, which meant that they were just lumps of painted lead, or lacking in character, or charm, or some other aesthetic but undefinable feature. Those of us who were not wealthy enough to buy ‘proper’ soldiers should, it was implied, know are place as ‘lesser’ or ‘improper’ wargamers.

When I returned to wargaming a while ago, considerations of time, space and money led me to the 6 mm route. 6 mm figures had been around for a bit, particularly for World War II and later games, but they were less popular for other eras. The first (and last) time I went to a wargaming club, one of the established members, when he found out what my collection of toy soldiers consisted of, smiled grimly at me and said ‘Well, they are versatile, aren’t they?’ I neither replied nor went back.

It does seem that there is a general cold war sort of mentality among wargamers, then. It breaks out, from time to time, in general snittiness (is that a word). A recent case again involved 6 mm figures and one of the wargame magazine glossies. You can read some of the sad story on the Baccus 6mm forum, but suffice it to say that sending 6 mm figures to be reviewed by someone who regards 15 mm as quite small enough is not the smartest of editorial moves.

As I’ve said, it is not just figures that raise this sort of issue. Rule sets too can get people’s blood pressure up to the point that otherwise fairly mild mannered would be Napoleons can be very rude to their co-hobbyists. Many such arguments simply come down to a ‘this is better than that’, ‘tisn’t’, ‘tis’ and so on sort of tiff that is out of place on a children’s playground. Wargame competitions have to have teams of referees and umpires to ensure fair play and resolve disputes over interpretations of the rules. Indeed, I believe some competitions even publish their own clarifications to rule sets to resolve in advance disputes over differing interpretations. I image that the clarifications are often longer than the rules themselves.

The question is, of course, why this happens. It is not, as I mentioned, unique to wargaming, but wargaming is, for most of us, a relaxation, a hobby, a chance to get away from the rat race and the arguments and work and so on. Yet we bring to it exactly the sort of behaviour which stresses us out so much in the rest of our lives.

The above, of course, is the reason that, mostly, I do not belong to a club, do not go to many wargame shows and play my wargame solo. I’m not a competitive type and prefer not to get into arguments over figure sizes, rule interpretations and so on.

I was once standing on the Baccus 6 mm stand at a show, when two attendees walked past, pointed at a rather nice Franco-Prussian War batters on display and laughed at the size. I had to wonder why they bothered. The stand wasn’t in their way, it was just selling things they didn’t want. I go past shops all the time in the street that sell things I don’t want, but I don’t point and sneer at them.

This post runs the risk of sounding like a rant, but it isn’t supposed to. I just look at some of the antics of my fellow wargamers and wonder at the mentality, sometimes. Of course, hopefully you will be impatient to get to the end of the post to correct me and say how wonderful most wargamers are; kind, honest, generous and happy to help, and I’d gladly agree with you. But some do seem to need to heed my old grandmother’s advice: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.