Saturday 28 July 2012

Elegance and Complexity

One of the joys of having written a set of wargame rules is, of course, the opportunity for people to criticise them (I may be being a tiny bit sarcastic, here). Recently, the order mechanics of Polemos: SPQR were praised by someone, who then went on to say that the combat mechanics were far too complex because they had 20 factors which needed to be added up.

Now, there are several responses, more or less grumpy, which I could make to those sorts of comments, along the lines of ‘you might think this is complex, but look at those rules over there’, or possibly some insulting reference to the fact that adding and subtracting numbers is not actually complex per se, and I’m sure that given some thought I could come up with other, more or less crushing, responses.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that any of these sorts of responses would help and, after all, my critic did describe the order and movement rule as elegant (although, of course, someone else described them as a ponderous game mechanic – I guess you cannot please all the people all the time).

I have written before about the problems of complexity in battles, and I think it is generally agreed that a battle is a complex thing which cannot be handed by probabilistic mathematics, and least within any reasonable time frame. So I will focus on the other factor that is mentioned in this context, that of elegance.

Now, in my chequered past, I was a physicist and, as such, encountered, as regular readers of this blog are probably painfully aware of by now, mathematical models. The interesting thing about these things, in the context here, is that some models were described as elegant, and even as a struggling student with a reasonably low mathematical ability, I could see that some were, indeed, aesthetically pleasing.

The most obvious place where this occurs in modern physics is in the theories of quantum mechanics (QM). It is not a widely known fact that there are three basic approaches to QM. These are the Schrodinger equation, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Dirac’s spinor.

I will not go into detail, but I will say this. Of the three, I used Schrodinger’s equation most, because it gave tractable answers that could be compared with observations (which I what I did as an active researcher). However, the most elegant of the theories was that of Dirac. I recall sitting in a tutorial while my tutor expounded Dirac’s theory and came up, inevitably with a 4 vector (a single column of items, with four entries). The top two ever electrons, and the question was ‘what are the bottom two?’.

The answer, of course, was “anti-electrons”, and that piece of work both predicted anti-matter and won Dirac a Nobel prize. But how did anyone know at the time it was right? Why would anyone go and look for anti-matter, which is a pretty counter-intuitive sort of thing?

The answer, of course, is in the elegance of the theory. Nothing is forced; anti-matter arises quite naturally in the mathematics. Dirac knew it was correct because it was an elegant theory.  

Now, of course, we have to let complexity have a bit of a play. In some senses, particle physics is easy, because the objects at its heart are simple. Bosons, electrons, leptons and so on are, at core, fairly simple, (so far as we know) unstructured objects. They are tractable by mathematics, conceptulisable (if not imaginable) by our minds, and, of course can be observed (or strictly speaking, their effects can be observed) in the world.

On the other hand, someone once said ‘Understanding atomic physics is child’s play compared with understanding child’s play’. Human behaviour, even in relatively benign environments, is not simple, and cannot be predicted by mathematics, no matter how elegant.

That being the case, how can a set of wargame rules ever be described as elegant? Not only are we dealing with humans on mass, under very stressful circumstances, but we cannot even start a mathematical model of the environment. There are too many factors to take into account.

Let me take an example, that of DBA. There are 17 basic troop types, with a factor against foot and one against mounted. There are 6 tactical factors. However, by my counting, there are 78 different combat outcomes. This is generally accepted to be a fairly elegant example of a set of wargame rules, but it has to be accepted that the complexity is hidden in the combat outcomes; as I recall, these are the bits that people find most confusing.

Secondly, let me have a look at PM: SPQR. There are 11 troop types, each with 4 factors, and 22 tactical factors (not all of which apply, of course). However, there are 5 outcomes to combat.

If you add on to this analysis the fact that PM: SPQR has provision for different grades of troops (so is more like DBM than DBA in this respect), then, I submit, that it is no more complex than DBA. The difference, of course, is where the complexity is hidden.

Now, I am not claiming that PM: SPQR is the simplest, most elegant system that is possible. I do think that some aspects could be tidies up, but I do claim that, by comparison with a widely used fast play rule set, it is no more complex. After all, the close combat factors are clearly set out in two tables, and a little experience means that you can glance at the table top situation and work out the factors very quickly. In DBA, I’ve never managed that, I always have to read the outcomes (it helps, I discovered, if you read them out loud).

So where are we left?

I think the answer is that a battle is inherently complex, and that complexity has to be represented somewhere. In SPQR it is in the initial factors, in DBA it is in the combat outcomes. There just does not seem to be an elegant solution to this, so, to return to my QM analogy, we will just have to stick with Schrodinger, as Dirac seems to be beyond our reach.

Saturday 21 July 2012

Return to Fuzigore: Ocram’s Tale

Some of you may recall, about a year ago, the start of an imaginative campaign called Fuzigore. At the end, I commented that the next step was to zoom in on one particular person and their experience, and to feed that into the overall game. Here, then, is Ocram’s’s account.

Ides of Hcram
Dear Father,
We have arrived safely in Sirap, although not without incident. I have delivered the scroll to Oicn, and he seemed pleased to have received it. He took me to the market and helped me to get an excellent price for the wine – 35 denarii! The drum beats of war are increasing the price of all imports here, I think, but a fivefold return is more than I could have hoped for.
The biggest thing on the journey, though, was on the first day, towards evening. We had walked all day, leading the donkeys, thirteen merchants in all. We were all, I think, looking forward to the inn, washing the dust off and having a meal.
Suddenly, Mr Yrret, near the front, cried out in pain. Almost at once, Mr Kcab, behind me, screamed. Father, we were under attack. I looked round to see Mr Kcab on the ground, with a scoundrel or two running at him. As I looked, another stood up and shot a bow at our party, but it missed, and another javelin came in hitting Mr Nevele in the arm as he was trying to draw his javelin.
The scoundrel who had hit Mr Yrret shot his bow again, but missed. Then, at a cry all of the scoundrel charged at us. Mr Eno and Mr Eerht threw their javelins at the one in front but missed. Behind me, Mr Nevele tried to defend himself from one of the scoundrels, while Mr Evlewt  had to fight another one.
Father, I started running towards the scoundrels at the back, to rescue Mr Nevele. Mr Enie shot his bow at one of the scoundrels and hit him in the chest, and the scoundrel fell over. It was a great shot and I saw it with my own eyes, father!
As I turned, I saw Mr Evif loose as sling stone against the scoundrel at the front, and he too hit. See father, how the good merchants of Emor can defend their good name and that of their country! The scoundrel fell as the stone hit his leg and he lay there, moaning.
Mr Xis and I arrived where the other scoundrel was still fighting Mr Nevele. We both lashed out at the scoundrel, but neither of us hit him. I did so want to be a hero, father! Lots of us were now fighting at the back of the donkey train where poor Mr Kcab lay on the ground. There was lots of confusion, but I think Mr Xis hit one of the scoundrels in the leg, who then made to hop off. I was going to hit him again but Mr Xis said ‘Let him go, lad’ and I did, because the other two scoundrels decided to run off then as well, leaving us all panting, with weapons in our hands and looking at each other and wondering what had happened in those few moments.
We patched Mr Nevele up as best we could, and did our best for Mr Kcab, loading him on his own donkey. I do not think that a wounded man on a donkey is the best treatment, but it was all we could do, for evening was drawing on and we had to get him to the inn.
The innkeeper was extremely good, and he patched Mr Nevele up really well, but he struggled to help Mr Kcab, and we agreed to leave him there until we returned while the innkeeper brought him back to consciousness, he having fainted after being hit in the leg. Indeed, the arrow was still sticking out of it. I hope we will find him better when we return.
We sat in the bar afterwards and ate and drank, but none felt like carousing, and after a while I started to shiver and Mr Xis said I should retire and I wrapped myself in a blanket and slept.
The next morning we set off again, the innkeeper having assured us that the road to Sirap was clear. My Lord told you to ask me to keep my eyes and ears open. Aside from the scoundrels on the first day, this day we saw some cavalry men, and travelled with them for a while. I may say we were all pleased to see them after the attack the day before.
Anyway, the commander told us that they were going to a muster of the whole T-sae army which was called out for battle. He said that if any of us would join him, he would be pleased to have us along, but none would, and he laughed and took his leave of us.
The next day we met a merchant train he told us that the way ahead was clear. They too were going to the T-sea muster to sell at the market there. They said that they were expecting raiding parties from Ht-ous, but we would be as safe in Sirap as anywhere. They said they had met several tens of warriors going to the muster, and the next day we met some ourselves, although they must have been late for it and passed us without a word.
The day after we arrived in Sirap, where the trading conditions were good enough, but as I said Mr Ocin helped me to get the best price I could have imagined for the wine.
So father, I wait at Sirap for a returning caravan, and remain your most obedient son,


So, now, I really do need to get painting some more Gauls for the inter-Cillag battle which is now on the horizon. Ocram’s journey has fleshed out some of the earlier issues, and we are definitely looking at a battle, not some ineffective raiding by the two sides.

The skirmish with the bandits did cause me a little pain. I spent some time looking for my copies of either Runequest of Flashing Blades for rules for the combats, but found neither. I think they have vanished over many house moves. So I had to make my own up, based on Runequest’s ‘strike rank’ concept and Flashing Blades’ ‘slash, lunge or sidestep’ tactical approach. It seemed to work quite well, and the skirmish (despite the write up above) was quite exciting and fun to do. It actually lasted 32 strike ranks, which I suppose would be about 4 minutes in real time.

Now, back to the paintbrush!

Saturday 14 July 2012

Rituals, War and Wargaming

I’ve been pondering a few interesting snippets I have gathered over the past few months, mostly around the rituals associated with wars. There is a school of thought that seems to suggest that most ‘primitive’ warfare is mainly ritualistic, by which they seem to mean that it is mostly displays of aggression rather than sticking spears in people. I suppose this is something along the lines of the display the New Zealand All Black rugby football team give before a match.

The last comment, of course, about the All Blacks indicates an immediate issue which arises from the use of words like ‘ritual’. We all have rituals, after all, even if we do not describe them as such. Take a soccer match, for example. The teams process out to the applause, cheers and so on of the crowd. Why? They have not actually done anything yet.

Ritual goes on. The teams greet each other, exchange tokens of some description (flags or banners, usually), handshakes ensue, the referee calls the leaders over to decide how the combat (I beg your pardon, I mean ‘match’) is going to take place. The whistle sounds, the crowd roars and so on. Those who were warmly greeting each other a few minutes ago are now scything each other down in ‘committed’ tackles.

Now, while death is not one of the outcomes for a football match, it does have to be said that there is a lot of ritual going on, so we need to take a closer look at the rituals of, say, the Classical Greeks or the Aztecs and their enemies before we just dismiss it as posturing and pointless ritual.

Now that Mesoamerican ‘Flower Wars’ are an interesting case in point. From one perspective they are a pointless waste of time. The warrior elites of two sides engage in a heavily formalised form of combat which may result in a few deaths but nothing too important as an outcome for either side.

Is this view in fact correct? Actually, it almost certainly is not. The issue is that from a certain, western, economically driven point of view, with a ‘decisive battle’ viewpoint, a Flower War is not that important. However, the Aztecs and their enemies did not have such a point of view. For them the outcomes of Flower Wars were of huge significance, in terms of prestige, discerning the favour of the gods, acquiring victims for sacrifice and so on.

The fact that the warrior elite of the other side could be depleted via a Flower War, and hence some sort of strategic advantage could be derived, was a bonus, but not really the point of the exercise. From the outside, from our dominant cultural viewpoint, it might seem a pointless waste of time and blood, but from the inside it must have looked very different. Just consider what another culture might think of our obsession with ball games, for examples. Rituals? Yes. Popular? Yes. Producing heroes? Definitely. The difference between this and a Flower War is what, precisely?

I would not wish to push the analogy between a soccer or rugby match and a Flower War too fact, of course, but the point is that lots of the things we do are ritualised, at least to some extent.

Now, consider another issue, in this case the dis-analogy between modern and ancient warfare. In modern warfare, the emphasis is on concealment, firepower at a distance, speed of movement and, to a significant extent, individual initiative from lower ranks. Our soldiers have battledress and parade dress, the latter of which is a colourful throwback to nineteenth century uniforms, but which a modern combatant would only be seen dead in.

This is very different from the viewpoint of the Greeks and Romans, at least. In Greek and Roman warfare, you wore your best for a battle. Your armour was highly polished, you wore your best crest on your helmet and so on. Even on the ‘barbarian’ side you put on your best show, however that might be construed.

The differences, of course, go much further than that. As an ancient warrior you lined up in formation, perhaps in ranks, and, as I have mentioned before, had very little room to manoeuver, let alone see what else was going on around you. You charged your enemy, perhaps after a few exchanges of javelins, and did your best not to be killed or thought a coward.

As a Greek, at least, after the battle there were further rituals, of obtaining or giving a truce, recovering the bodies of the fallen and so on. Around this were whole religious rituals of sacrifices and omens before battles, paens during the opening phases and so on. The battle, qua battle, was about being killed, wounded, running away and so on, but it was constructed around a whole bunch of rituals.

Now, as wargamers, this gives us a few choices in terms of the game. We can try to recreate the ritual significance of a combat, or we can take a western view that the only really important bit is the combat itself. Some rule sets, such as Hoplomachia and Simon McDowall’s rule sets try to take the rituals seriously while other, perhaps an example of which would be DBA, simply ignore the cultural and ritual context.

In terms of what I have written before, though, we could simply regard the DBA style game as another expression of cultural imperialism. By this, I mean, we are simply imposing our own lens, our own expectations and understanding of battles and their meaning, on a representation of another culture. Now, you might argue that this is entirely justified, as these cultures do not exist any longer and, anyway, it is our game, our hobby and leisure time.

On the other hand, we could be construed as simply being utterly insensitive to the events of the past and, thus, refusing to acknowledge that our way is not the only way of living. It could also be pointed out that most of the wargamers I know have what can only be described as ‘pre-battle’ rituals anyway, even down to picking specific dice. Perhaps we should incorporate that into our rule sets.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Wargames, Morale and Crowds

A few weeks ago I remarked, in passing, that I thought that morale was more of a function of officers than of the rank and file. The argument, put forward very briefly, was that in, say, a hoplite phalanx, the ordinary rank and file could not see how the overall battle was going. They were wearing helmets with restricted views, hemmed in by comrades and, above all, attempting to avoid getting killed while not being accused of cowardice. They are not going to have much time or opportunity to look around and see what else is going on on the battlefield.

The role of an officer, however, is different. Part of an officer’s job is to look around and see what is going on. At least, an officer’s job would include, for example, trying to make sure their unit is not going to be hit in the flank. That requires them to be aware of what is going on on the flank, so they have to have a broader view of the battlefield, and so they are more likely to know whether things are going well or badly.

This consideration, I submit, should probably apply throughout what is often known as the era of linear warfare, which means, I suppose, most wars to the Franco-Prussian one in Europe, maybe the American Civil War and similar sorts of times. The idea is that the rank and file are some sort of ill-informed automata who just keep shooting or charging or marching or whatever because they have no information upon which to choose to do something else, and, even if they do, discipline and fear of punishment keeps them from making such a decision.

So, as units (and entire armies) can and did run away, what sorts of things happened to make this happen?

Here, I fear, we enter into speculation, but we may manage to at least ground it in some sort of empirical behaviour. Group reactions are not well understood, I think, in psychology, but we do have a certain amount of information which suggests that some sort of model could be created.

I’m going to start in a slightly odd place, however, but hang in there. The (US) theologian Walter Wink makes, in his ‘Powers’ books, some interesting points about crowds. He was a civil rights activist, and recalls his fear when, on his way to a protest, he and a colleague were pulled over by the police. As it happened, they were pulled over for a minor motoring offence, but, Wink observes, they thought it was for being a civil rights protestor in that time and place.

Upon arrival at the protest, Wink and his, by then, thousands of colleagues did something that, on his own, he had not dared to do: defy the police and the orders they gave to disperse. There is, Wink observes, a significant difference in our behaviour when we are alone or with just a few, as oppsed to being en mass.

Wink goes on to refer to another example of the same sort of thing. A rioting football (soccer, presumably, American football fans seem to be much quieter, or rendered somnambulant by fast food) crowd is made up of individuals  who, in the normal run of the mill sort of times are law abiding, usually hard working sorts of folk.

A brief look at the histories of the recent riots in the UK suggests that, in general, the individuals in question were not particularly gang or crime related; many had already been in court for minor offences, true, but nothing like that they were accused of during the riots themselves. Thus, Wink concludes, there is a single ‘spirit’ or ‘power’ or ‘angel’ of the crowed, which gives it a ‘mood’, and overpowers the individuals own volitions.

Now, if we transfer this sort of thing to an army unit, we immediately see that, while not expressed in these terms, a lot of time in armies is spent building up this ‘power’ of a unit; often it is called ‘esprit de corps’, or tradition or something similar. In the British army, for example, battle honours, flags, formal dinners, parades, oaths and so on are all used to try to build up some sort of unit ‘power’., in Wink’s sense.

Some units go beyond this, of course, in building up a mystique. For example, the British Paratroop regiment have bright red berets, a tradition of fighting against the odds and doing what few other units could have done (most recently clearing and holding Helmand province in Afghanistan with less than half the troops it takes now). Whether you believe the story or not, that is how the unit is framed, that it its power, its spirit, its angel.

So, when a unit runs away, who has cracked? Looked at from Wink’s perspective, it is, in fact, no one individual, but the ‘angel’ of the unit, the collective will of the individuals. That is probably the case, but the question is then, how did the angel of the unit (look, I’ll drop the scare quotes, OK? Just don’t go on about incorporeal spirits, messages from God and Thomistic beatitude) get into this state?

Given the arguments deployed above, it is probably not the rank and file who have decided to give up on the battle. The most influential people on the angel of the unit are probably the officers and NCOs. The latter, in particular, would be likely to have the experience to know when to fight and when to run, when to hide and when to surrender. Therefore, in measuring the morale of a unit, we are probably, broadly speaking, measuring the morale of the officers and NCOs (in whatever guise they are).

Of course, in a wargame we are also looking at the morale of our human opponent. I’ve seen a number of wargamers get so depressed by a few bad dice rolls that they have conceded the game, even though they were not technically losing. Or, perhaps, that is simply a measure of the general’s morale on the field.