Saturday 25 August 2012

The Beautiful Game

Consider the following scenario:

You go to a wargame show. The first game you see if a veritable feast for the eyes. The miniatures are wonderfully based and painted. The terrain looks like a slice of the countryside has been lifted up, reduced in scale, and plonked artistically in the room. The wargamers responsible have managed to remember to keep all beer glasses, coke cans, rule books and other paraphernalia off the table. You admire in awe the skill of those who have put the game together.

Having pulled yourself away from the first game, you wander, eventually, into the competition area. Here, a series of wargames are underway. However, in contrast with the first game, there is nothing here to keep you admiring them. The miniatures are very nicely painted, it is true, but the terrain is, to put it politely, rather less good to the demonstration game. Woods are irregular bits of felt, roads and rivers are chalk marks or coloured string. The aesthetic impact is rather less than the first game.

I am not now going to launch forth about how competition games should up their standards and be able to hold their heads up high before the world with wonderful terrain. That, after all, is not the nature of competition games. The terrain is only decided when the game is about to start, and so it is a bit difficult to have already sculpted the relevant pieces.  In a competition game, the game is the thing.

I am also fairly sure that the game we go away with the memory of, that we wish to contemplate and, if we can, emulate, is the initial demonstration game. While we realise how much time, energy and effort goes into that sort of game, it is what we imagine our games should aspire to. That, we might consider, is the beautiful wargame.

I could, at this point, give lengthy descriptions of these sorts of games, but as I am sure much of the readership of this blog (such as it is) will realise by now, I do not really do pretty pictures. Many other blogs do, however, and so I suggest you check them out (say, God’s Own Scale or The Awfully Big Towton Project) to see what I mean.

The point is this, however. Why does one wargame stick in the mind, while the others do not?

Here, we land up in the field of aesthetics. By what means do we judge between one object and another, and declare one to be more beautiful than the other? Why is it that we do judge, that we can even think that making these judgements is a reasonable and rational thing to do?

One answer is that “it is all relative”. One wargame is as good as another. The competition games are just as valid as an expression of wargame-ness as the beautiful demonstration game. To claim otherwise is simply to express a personal view, that of an observer. The true values of any wargame is that given to it by the participants.

That is all very well, and certainly scores quite high on the post-modern aesthetics table. On the other hand, the post-modern aesthetic scale is also responsible for (to quote Prince Charles) some monstrous carbuncles, including, in my view, the “Shard” in London. But I digress.

The thing is that the claim ‘it is all relative’ is clearly not the case. Firstly, the claim itself is contradictory. To argue that it is all relative is to either reduce the statement itself to relativity or to give it a privilege that it claims does not exist.  This is, to put it in philosophical terms, self-stultifying.

The second thing about the claim that our view of the different varieties of wargame and their aesthetics is all relative is that, in our own experience (or mine, anyway; I suspect it is a wider view than just me, however) it simply is not true.

In terms of wargaming we do, I think, make aesthetic judgements all the time. I see it on the wargame related internet frequently, where wargamers enthuse over the latest line of wonderful figures from their favourite manufacturer. These are aesthetic judgement – the reviews in magazines are packed with them.

You could argue that the view of a figure is, in fact, based on something other than a purely aesthetic judgement. You could say that it is based on how well the designer has captured the human body, on the historical accuracy of the clothing of the figure, on the pose, and so on. All this would be true, to an extent, but the basic question we have is “does it look right?”

Here, I suspect, we start to get to the crux of the matter. The demonstration game, in some way, looks right. It has some undefinable rightness about it which the competition games do not have (and, indeed, cannot have and should not be expected to have).

The question now arises ‘what is this “rightness”?’

Here, I think, we are in some tricky areas. For example, we can look at a door frame and say Yes, that looks right. We can look at a building and say Yes, that looks right. In each case we need to consider what this rightness consists of. The door frame is appropriate to its use and its proportions please us. The building is, in some way, balanced, and again, the proportions please us.

How does this work with a wargame?

The truth is, I am not sure. But it is the case that we do draw these conclusions.

However, I think I do have to add that it is not about the match of reality to our game. One of the things that does please us is uniformity. We like our figures to be all of the same height, and all doing exactly the same thing on a given base or in a given unit.

I defy anyone to find an example of that in reality, but somehow it seems right to us.

Saturday 18 August 2012

Polemos SPQR Q&A Part 3: Army Lists and a Scenario

Being now in the business of increasing the size of my own PM: SPQR armies, I have been looking at my own army lists and spotting a few infelicities and typographical errors, so I thought I may as well record them here.

On the other hand, no-one has pointed them out yet, so have either ignored the lists or made their own up, or assumed we cannot count….


P57 Numidian Army list: For some reason the composition table and the random troop type table have got swapped around. I suppose the correction is obvious, but I thought I had better mention it.

P59 Dacian Army list: The total number of bases listed in the composition table is 19. The extra base should be a Dacian light horse.

P59 Dacian Army list: The Youth (skirmisher) bases are interchangeable with Archer bases. So you can have either 4 youth, or 4 archers, or two of each, of whatever, totalling 4 bases.

P60 Pontic Army list: The total number of bases listed is 24. This is because you can have either 4 bases of pike or 4 bases of imitation legionaries, but not both. Nor, in this case, can you mix and match.

As this seems a bit short for one of my normal posts (do I hear distant cheering?), I thought I would add another scenario below. No pretty maps, though, sorry, but some ideas for scenarios.

The original manuscript for PM: SPQR actually had loads (well, nine) scenarios picked up from my various reading, of which only two, Charonea 86 BC and Mons Graupius 83 AD made the final cut.

Below, then, is a scenario for Nicopolis, fought during 48 BC between the revived Pontic state and a fairly scratch force of Romans and hangers on. The small army sizes total 20 bases. The large actually attempt to represent the forces on the field to Polemos: SPQR scale. The medium sized armies are, of course, somewhere between the two. The formatting of the tables has, of course, gone bonkers,  because blogs do not seem to render either columns or HTML tables very well.

Nicopolis 48 BC

Mithradates’ Crimean kingdom was, with the blessing of the Romans, inherited by Pharnaces, the son of one of Mithradates’ concubines. During the civil war, Pharnaces resolved to attempt the recapture Pontus. He had a small army of Bosporan Greeks and some Scythians.

Initially sucessful, he met with Domitus Calvinus, one of Caesar’s generals with a scratch force. This consisted of XXXVI legion with two Galatian legions led by Deiotarus the Galatian tetrarch and another raw legion raised from Roman citizens of Pontus. Domitus sent to Cilicia and Cappadocia for auxiliaries and had about 200 cavalry. Numbers are largely unknown, but we can speculate about 4000 legionaries in legion XXXVI, 9000 in the two Galatian legions and 5000 in the raw Pontic legion. We do not know how many Cilician auxilliaries were raised, but could guess at about 4000. Possible armies are below:

                                       Small  Medium  Large
Legionaries                        4          6            8
Imitation legionaries           12         20          28
Tribal foot (Cilicians)          2          3            4
Skirmishers (Cilicians)         2          3            4
Cavalry                              1          2            2

Even less is known about Pharnaces’ forces. His cavalry greatly outnumbered Domitus’, and his frontage was three legions wide, as this matched Domitus’ deployment. Presumably they consisted of imitation legionaries and thureophoroi. Later, at Zela, Pharnaces deployed scythed chariots, so it may not be unreasonable to include a few here, although their employment usually caused some comment in accounts. The numbers are speculative, to say the least. Possible armies are below.

                                     Small Medium Large
Imitation legionaries        12         20        28
Thureophoroi                 4           6          8
Skirmishers                    2           3          4
Cavalry                          2           4          6
Scythian light horse         2           4          6

The Pontic army deployed in three or four lines, and dug trenches between the wings and centre, with the cavalry outside. Pharnaces was aware of the fact that Caesar was in trouble in Alexandria and had ordered Domitus to send reinforcement. Pharnaces therefore believed that he could afford to wait. Domitus, on the other hand, felt he could not disengage successfully unless he defeated Pharnaces. Domitus formed up with legion XXXVI on the right, the Pontic legion on the left and the Galatians in the centre on a narrow frontage. The fighting was fierce and Legion XXXVI broke the Pontic left and attacked the centre. The Galatian legions, however fled quickly and the Pontic legion was disordered by the trench and overwhelmed. This left the XXXVI legion isolated and surrounded. However, they drew off to high ground and Pharnaces did not further attack them as the battle was won. Domitus rallied the remains of his army and withdrew.

Pharnaces carried on conquering Pontus and living the life of an eastern despot. The next year, Caesar himself marched against him and utterly defeated Pharnaces at Zela. Pharnaces rallied a few and withdrew to the Bosporous. He was killed fighting against a revolt.

Webster, J., The Battle of Nicopolis 48 BC, Miniature Wargaming, October 1999, p 7-8.
Duggan, A., He Died Old: Mithradates Eupator, King of Pontus, London: NEL, 1976.
Caesar, J., The Alexandrian War, The Civil War, London, Penguin, 1967.

Saturday 11 August 2012

Games and Simulations

When is a game a game? When is a simulation a simulation?

That gnomic expression actually arises from some ‘professional’ reading I have been doing. I happened to stumble across some papers on ‘serious play’ and serious games’. In one of them the author was at pains to try to distinguish between simulations and games.

I suspect that, like me, you were probably unaware that there was a particular distinction between them. However, my author (Rushby, N.,(2012),  ‘Making Serious Games Better’, British Journal of Educational Technology, 43, 2, 179) declares that serious games are not simulations, although a serious game may include simulations.

Now, it is possible that you are as confused as I was by this, so I will try to unpack what is going on here.

A serious game is something which is designed to help people to learn. Empirical evidence suggests that people learn quite effectively using serious games, and they enjoy doing so. In this context, a serious game is something like the computer games that the US Army uses for training purposes.

For example, I seem to recall that, a while ago, there was some amusement in the press when the Australian Army bought a US Army training package, and the US vendors changed all the cattle in the package (I think it was for helicopter pilot training) into kangaroos. The veracity of the story is, in my mind, somewhat open to doubt, but you get the idea of the purpose of the game.

A simulation is something slightly different, at least in this context. For example, a flight simulator is reasonably familiar, at least in concept, for most of us. If you turn left the simulator turns left, and if you slow down too much you stall. The point about simulation is that represents a slice of reality, with known inputs and outputs, and this can be assessed for correctness.

The key words used here are validity and fidelity. Fidelity, at least, varies with the skill of the trainee. Someone start off in a flight simulation will need something that is more forgiving of mistakes than an expert there to learn how to deal with specific emergencies. Both, however, need a valid simulation, that is, one which does replicate some real world qualities. Furthermore, in this case, the learning needs to be transferrable, but which we mean that some aspects of the system need to be recognisable in the real worlds as well.

So, then, what is the difference between a serious game and a simulation?
A simulation has a well-defined set of inputs and outputs, closely related to the real world. A game is, I suggest, more open ended, and, in some senses more immersive than a simulation, and has a stronger narrative thread running through it.  

Therefore, the argument is, a game may well include a simulation, or even several simulations, but a simulation does not, of itself, include a game.

Fair enough, I hear you cry, but why is this interesting and what is it to do with wargaming?

Well, I think there are a number of issues, here which the distinction points up.

Firstly, the question is which camp does wargaming, as an exercise in pushing toy soldiers around a table, fall into?

I guess the answer to that is fairly straightforward. Wargaming is a game, in the sense defined above it could also, possibly fall into the serious game category. But wargames also include a simulation, in the sense of a model of combat and movement.

Now a model, as I’m sure I’ve bored you with before, is a stripped down and abstracted version of reality, often represented (even in wargames) by some mathematics, even if it is just adding and subtracting numbers. So a wargame, in this definition is some sort of mathematical model engine of reality, with known inputs and outputs (the simulation) plus something else.

The something else is, of course, that which makes a wargame a wargame, and it is, I think, to do with narrative. Even a simple ‘pick-up game’ has a narrative, even if it is an abbreviated one. The abbreviations comes in not having some sort of back story as to why the two forces are there opposing each other, but the main narrative of the battle is usually unaffected by this.

The second issue to come out of this is to question how educational a wargame might be. A serious game is there for people to learn stuff – about how to do things in terms of achieving overall goals, negotiations with other players and so on, while a simulation concentrates on the immediate inputs and outputs.

Therefore, a goal of educational wargaming might be to try to understand why some decisions were taken, or even forced on the opposing sides. A simulation of a battle would be more constrained; the suggestion is that simulations should, for a given (historical) input produce a given historical output, even if you can see, by working out the process from one to another, how it happened in real life.

Most wargames are not of that nature, however, but we do require some sort of historical veracity and validation to our games. That is, if we wargame Waterloo, we want a logic to why, on the table, Napoleon won, something which we can reflect upon and say “well, that was the critical point”.

This brings us to another issue about the relative failure of educational games to make an impact. A game is more than just doing stuff, it is part of a culture, where wargames do meet, face to face or virtually, to share experiences, tips, ideas and concepts. This blog is an example of such. This relates back to the immersiveness of the game, and how the cultural context of the game and gamers impacts on their playing.

That last point is a big subject, and I have mumbled about it in the past (and I probably will again in the future). In the mean time, perhaps we should be a bit more careful with our language, and say that we game rather than simulate, because I suspect we can agree that the narrative is important to us as wargamers.

Saturday 4 August 2012

Generals and Communication

Some thought has been niggling away at the edge of my consciousness for a while, now, and I have finally managed to bring it out into the open and take a look. It was originally caused by a paper of generalship I was reading, and then tucked up as an interesting thought, but it has been re-awakened by a thread on one of the mailing lists I keep an eye on (but I forget which).

The issue is this: I have covered how generals can plan, react to events in the middle of a battle and so on. But what is much more difficult to ‘model’, in I think any sense, is the fact that general can, and did make mistakes.

I dare say that we can all think of mistakes that were made by commanders. Off the top of my head, Prince Rupert is often blamed for losing control of his cavalry at both Edgehill and Naseby rather than exploiting the fact that the Parliamentary infantry had a flank exposed. At Raphia, Antiochus attempted to exploit the victory of his right flank, while Ptolemy launched a counter attack with his centre. Antiochus, on incomplete evidence, assumed that he had won, and turned out to have lost the battle.

I dare say that these sorts of accounts could be multiplied throughout history, and these are simply the tactical or grad tactical errors. Strategic mistakes are also manifold. As many of you probably know, Monty’s third law of warfare is ‘Don’t start a land war in Asia’. Both Napoleon and Hitler made this mistake, and paid for it in spades. As a matter of fact, it could be argued that Alexander of Macedon made a similar sort of error when he invaded India.

As a wargaming issue, I am sure that you can see the problem. Wargamers, standing over the table watching all the action going on, are unlikely to make these sorts of errors. The information presented to them is much more complete than any real commander and his staff could possibly have hoped for.

As mentioned in a previous post, there are some things that you can do to limit the damage. Scenarios can be disguised, so that Edgehill looks like an American Civil War battle, or Gettysburg is presented as a Franco-Prussian war clash. All this is well and good, and at least might throw the players initially as they try to match the set up with the real battle. But once the action starts, the knowledge that the players have of the status of the units and the state of the battle is far more complete than any real commander.

It is, I think, very hard to find any rule sets that tackle this as a problem. I suppose DBM, with its irregular commanders who could lose control of themselves and their troops made a stab, at least, in the direction of making sure that troops did things that generals did not expect or even, particularly, like or want.

In a similar way, older rules had some sort of ability for certain troops to run out of control. For example, the old WRG Renaissance rules by George Gush classed (some) Royalist cavalry as ‘A’ class morale, which had to check morale when, for example, they saw enemy troops for the first time. All well and good, perhaps, except that it does not really account for the times when the Royal horse did behave as their commanders wished, or, for that matter, when the Royal horse did not just charge off on a whim (which in fact was most of the time).

The normal response to this sort of problem is for wargamers to start muttering the word ‘umpire’. However, in this case, I am not at all sure that an umpire, except under special conditions where the players are given highly restricted views of the table, really solve the problem. Most wargamers are sufficiently experienced in the way of wargame to know, roughly, how things are proceeding and how they might turn out.

Only if the commanders are in a separate room, fed incomplete information from forward commanders and subject to intermittent cannon fire can we really start to ‘simulate’ the sorts of conditions where commanders make real time mistakes.

Of course, we could argue that as normal humans, we make mistakes all the time, and that would be true. Even Grand Masters make errors in chess, but I suspect that, in the cosy world of a friendly wargame, general mistakes are less common than they would be in the real world.

One way of simulating mistakes might be via a campaign game, where it is relatively easy (using a matchbox system, or an electronic equivalent thereof) to create some uncertainty in the minds of commanders, and thus create the conditions where errors due to lack of information might occur.

This is fine so far as strategic moves may go, but does not really create the battlefield conditions where tactical mistakes might happen.

I suppose the most sophisticated attempt to deal with this sort of issue is the Piquet series of games (which I have seen but not played). Here, you can see what combats are occurring but not how it is going, and thus, at least, some of the information is concealed from the player. A similar situation can arise in a role playing game where the players can see that they are inflicting damage on the enemy, but not how much damage they can take.

The problem with both of these, as compared with a conventional wargame, is that both have a fairly high threshold for preparation. In a role playing game, the game master has to set up and control the non-playing characters, and asses the state of their morale (for want of a better word).  In Piquet the card deck has to be created, and a whole load of equipment is needed to run the game (at least in the demonstration games I have seen at shows).

Maybe, then, this is a problem that does not have a particularly good or elegant solution, but until it is tackled, we cannot really gain much insight into the problems of command.