Saturday 26 January 2013

The Language of Wargaming

One of the triumphs of twentieth century thought was probably its focus on language, and the uses to which it is put. Some would probably argue that this trend, in and of itself, has caused an awful lot of problems, leading, for example, to some of the excesses of the sillier end of postmodernism (which, inevitably, gets most of the attention). Whichever way we see it, we cannot ignore language.

The first indication that language is not all it seems actually comes from Claude Shannon, a physicist. He analysed the transfer of information, and concluded that most language is heavily redundant. I am not sure of the exact numbers, but in English something like eighty per cent of the letters are not needed. I suppose that explains a lot of the text speak we see around these days.

The second issue that Shannon identified was that information degrades as it is transmitted. The original thought on this was, I suppose, ‘Chinese whispers’, where the message is passed on from person to person, and is mutated in that process. However, this also happens in electronic transmission, and so some of the redundancy of language to provide context and checks to prevent this from happening. Indeed, a fair bit of our electronic transmissions are devoted to check bits to ensure that the correct message was received.

The other indication that all is not as it seems with language came from Wittgenstein, who observed that his earlier idea, that language gives a picture of objects in the world, is probably false, at least in large part, and language often functions in a different way, or, actually, several different ways. The meaning of a word, he argued, was in its use, not in its definition, as definitions change over time, guided by the use to which the words are put.

I think that this sort of approach to language has two impacts on the world of wargaming, at least. Firstly, we have to live with the fact that language is not a transparent medium. What I write in a set of rules is not exactly what a given reader might understand from those words. As I noted previously, the reader is bringing a whole load of other understandings with them, and using those to interpret my text.

I had an example of this recently with the Polemos SPQR rules, where someone was asking about the ranged fire of skirmishers. In SPQR skirmishers do not fire at range, the skirmishing rules, and the underlying model for skirmishing, are different. You could argue that either my correspondent was not reading correctly, or that my text and writing skills are simply not up to the job of transmitting the ideas (the latter being the most likely, as readers of this blog can testify), but the most likely thing happening is that the words are actually getting in the way of the meaning.

The second issue which arises from this consideration of language is that the language we use shapes our understanding of the world around us. A real world example at the moment would be the arguments around about ‘gay marriage’.  I am not, here, going to take sides, but simply want to observe that the use of the term I have put in scare quotes is, in itself, a change in the usage of the word marriage. It sometimes seems to me that the proponents of such are good Wittgensteinians and are trying to redefine the term by changing the usage, while to opponents are attempting to shore up the ‘traditional’ definition of marriage by rejecting the change in use.

Be that as it may, in wargaming terms the issue is about the language we use in definitions. If, for example, I give a definition of a cavalry unit as a chap mounted on a horse, in close order with other chaps mounted on a horse, with a shield, a couple of javelins and a disinclination to charge home, then that is how the term, in my rule set, will be defined. I will then go through the real world defining the troops as cavalry or not cavalry. The law of the excluded middle applies; there are no ‘sort of cavalry’ troops.

This, of course, has ways of imposing our scheme on other societies. I may well have defined my ‘cavalry’ by means of a few examples in my particular culture, say, European mounted troops around the era of the Roman Empire. When I go beyond those confines, it becomes harder to fit the troops into by pre-decided categories, and things start to look a bit flaky.

The situation in then compounded by the fact that I have not just a single category, but a whole system of categorising troops, in terms of mounted troops as, say knights, cavalry and light horse. In my scheme, therefore, everything has to fit in one of these three categories. There are no alternatives. In the scheme you cannot be ‘sometimes a knight, sometimes a cavalry’.

I dare say that some of you are now recognising the point I am trying to make, for I have, at least, hinted at it before. We cannot honestly impose our categorisation of troops on cultures alien to those in which the category was created. I cannot impose the categories of the early Roman Empire on Warring States China, or on the Carolingian Empire.  At least, I can, but I am then faced with some distinct oddities in terms of nomenclature, as, for example, calling Roman cataphracts knights.

This also links to what I was whiffling on about the other week, in terms of how we read texts. If we come to a bit of Herodotus where he describes the Persian cavalry, do we ask the modernist question: are these cavalry?, or do we attempt to be good postmodernists and ask ‘how did these guys actually behave?’.

It may be that, at the end of the day, it does not much matter, as we have to impose categories somewhere, but I prefer mine tightly linked to a distinct, and named, troop type in a given culture. But, perhaps, I am in a small minority.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Fuzigore – The Campaign

I read somewhere, on a blog, someone worrying that they struggled to start a campaign game, even solo, because they were concerned as to how to transfer from a general map to a battle field. I thought, therefore, that explaining how I managed it in Fuzigore might help. Of course, there are many ways of doing this, and mine is just one; at least I am recording it for my own posterity and later edification here, now, even if no-one else’s (and what is a blog except for one’s own edification, anyway?).

The first thing you need is a campaign map, of course. Here is mine for this Fuzigore campaign in Cillag (real world Gaul, in case you’ve not worked that out).

I was fortunate enough to find, a few years ago, some blank hex maps on the web (by Merrymeeting Games, I cannot find it now) and I’ve got a whole pile photocopied. You do not necessarily need hexes, but some sort of grid referencing helps in case you drop the map and all the counters or pins fall out. The map here is based on a bit of real world France, by the way, but no terrain initially was known.

The two sides were based respectively at Sirap, in the south (Ht-ous) and Sreitiop, to the north east (T-sae). Terrain in each hex was determined by a double dice roll. The first roll was the dominant terrain (1-3 open, 4, 5 wooded, 6 hills) and the second (on the same scale) was the secondary terrain type. Thus, each hex that was passed through received two letters, such as OW for open with woods and HO for hills with open. A rolled double gave an extreme of the type, so a double 4 got forest, while a 4 and a 5 got a double woods.

The army commanders were given a rating each. Xeorg, for Ht-uos was average and cautious, while Nierev was poor and cautious. At this point I did wonder if there would be a battle at all. The ratings came from  CS Grant’s Wargame Campaigns.

The two sides had to roll under a command roll, (I’ve not written that down, but I think it was 30% for Xeorg and 25% for his opponent) to move.  Random rolls for the army compositions give Ht-ous with 10 bases of tribal foot, 6 cavalry and 4 skirmishers, while the T-sae got 14 foot, 3 cavalry and 3 skirmishers.

After some uncertainty and messing around,  (31 days of it, to be exact) the two sides clashed in hex 1409, which is between Setnias and Ellerhor, on the middle left of the map. This was after a forced march of the Ht-ous army to make sure the enemy did not capture Setnias, followed by a chaotic retreat from it when Xerog fumbled a command roll, leaving their cavalry high and dry in contact with the enemy. Fortunately,  Nierev then fumbled his command roll, allowing the Ht-ous cavalry to disengage.

The road actually runs along the edge of hex 1409, which was a plain (open-open double roll), which suited the cavalry heavy Ht-ous army well. The T-sae however, wanted more enclosed terrain, so I drew up the map across the hex boundary.

Now, here I had to do a bit of calculation. My table is 150 by 60 cm, and so is 37 by 30 bases, or 7400 paces wide.  The map is 21 by 19 hexes, and so I decided that the stacking limit for each hex would be 10 bases, excluding baggage and generals, and cavalry would move 2 hexes a turn, or 2/3 of a table width and infantry would move one. A map move would therefore by 4 table top turns; three turns plus a night move would constitute a day.

Tempo points were introduced at this juncture. Nierev got a -1 on his roll for being poor. The orders were lost overnight, just to make things a bit more difficult.

The terrain in each hex was determined by the overall terrain, with two dice rolls to determine exactly what was in the hex. So the Plain hexes got 1-4 as open, 5 as hill and 6 as wood, with a double on the open giving a settlement. A double on the others gave a stream. It was similar (although obviously different) for the HO and For hexes.

I also introduced weather on this level, using an idea pinched from Wesencrafts’s With Pike and Musket, which allows it to vary. However, in this case it had no effect.

Eventually, the armies clashed, roughly in the centre of the map (the table is the box marked above). Both commanders had been trying to get their own way with the terrain, and in doing so had managed to rotate their battle lines by 90 degrees.  Further, the Ht-ous cavalry started the deployment all on the right, and had to be frantically reorganised to deploy equally.

The Ht-ous are coming from the bottom (east), and their line of retreat is to the left, south. T-sae are, of course the other way around. Hopefully, the map conforms to the terrain photographed a few weeks ago. It was generated using the knowledge of the terrain in the hexes and some more dice rolls. With two settlements, you can see I was rolling doubles.

So, there you have it, progress from the strategic map through a tactical map to a battlefield. It really was not too painful. The rules and maps are scribbles on paper. I've gone over the salient points in black ink to try to make them scan decently. It has probably taken me as much time to type it up as it did to run through the process in the first place, so if I can do it, why not anyone else?

Saturday 12 January 2013

Towards a Postmodern Wargame

I banged on a bit ago about modernity and the influence it has, or had, over wargaming. So now I suppose it is as well to try to push on a bit, and see if there is anything in this thing called postmodernism which could have some sort of impact on wargaming.

Of course, the first problem is to describe what ‘postmodern’ is. However, there is little general agreement over that, even. Some would call postmodern late modern, seeing it as standing in continuity with modern thought, springing from the Enlightenment. Some emphasise the differences. In the final analysis, it seems to me, the question is about how we find truth and the sort of thing that truth is perceived to be.

Now, this is all linked into texts, and the way we read texts. The modern way of reading a text was to look for answers to specific questions and decide whether the answers found were true or false. This is particularly pertinent to interrogating ancient texts.

For example, people read the first chapter or so of an archetypal ancient text, the Book of Genesis and find that it describes the world being created in seven days. They consider this text in the light of modern scientific theories and evidence, and decide that the two are incompatible, because both cannot be true. Therefore they either reject creation or they reject scientific theories of origins. But this rejection is because of the modernist questions asked of the text.

Incidentally, one of the interesting things about this is that creationists, while claiming to be holding on to a traditional interpretation of the text, are, in fact, a product of modernism just as much as the scientific atheists are (and possibly more so, but I digress). I do not suppose that they would be particularly happy to learn that.

The wargamer, too, addresses the texts with modernist questions. We do not particularly want to learn about Thucydides’ moral view of warfare and the decline of the heroic ideal, or Herodotus’ account of the inversions and marvels he had found (or been told about) on his travels. We want to know about numbers of soldiers, equipment, tactics and ranges. We approach the texts with these questions in mind and, on the whole, do not find satisfactory answers to our modernist questions.

One response to this is the argue that just because the text does not satisfy modernist questions about being true or false, that the text is useless. For example, many argue that the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis was never designed to be read as a scientific text; it was never meant to answer the sorts of questions that modernists (even creationists) ask of it. This is not, by the way, a recent phenomenon. St Augustine, writing in the fourth century, had already realised that the chapters of Genesis could not be literal; but a lot of modernists have missed that.

This then relates quite closely to a problem I described a while ago, to be found at:
As I noted there, we have a tendency to pick on a given comment about the relative range of bows, in this case, and ignore the rest of the text. Unfortunately, the rest of the text is crucial for understanding the particular comment we are interested in. If we had not, in that case, read the rest of Tacitus and situated him in his context, that is, at least, in Rome about seventy five years after the events he described, we would never have become even slightly suspicious about the comments he made about the battle.

I suppose the ultimate in the modernist approach to ancient texts are those digests which simply snip out the bits from the classical texts about battles and warfare, and put those into a book and sell it to people, claiming that this is the ancient view of warfare. It cannot be, because the accounts of battles and so on are only a part of the authorial aim in the work, and cannot be properly understood without the rest of the text.

What, then can we do? Unless we exhibit a degree of care, we shall stump ourselves and be unable to interpret a single piece of evidence to write wargame rules with.

Firstly, I think that, as wargamers, we need to read the whole of our texts. Some of them may well be dreadfully boring, of course, but even the boring bits help to pad out our understanding of what the author was up to. Secondly, we can try to forget our modernist questions and to accept the author was trying to convey some truth, even if it is a truth that does not fit happily within our conception of truth, where, often truth is thought to be ‘scientific truth’ (whatever that might be) which is, therefore, open to the modernist question of truth or falsehood.

Thirdly, I think we do need to break away from the idea that ‘one size fits all’, or at least a large chunk of history can be represented by a single set of rules, perhaps with some extras bolted on.  If we are going to do anything like justice to the evidence we have gleaned from our authors, we need to tackle the texts as they are written, and hence create our rule sets to match. Hoplites are hoplites, not some sort of generic ‘spearmen’.  As citizens of Greek city states they had outlooks, values and beliefs that should be respected, which were different from, say, Saxon fryd or Italian city militia.

How should this respect for the worldview be undertaken? Well, I think that we have to conform our rules to what is there in the text, not the other way around. At the simplest level, let us call our hoplites ‘hoplites’, not pretend that they fit into some broader category of universal soldier.

Finally, perhaps, we should stop sending our hoplites against armies of Aztecs and pretending that the result has anything at all to do with history.

Saturday 5 January 2013

Wargame Horizons

I am conscious that, in my last post, I kind of ducked the question about what forms our outlooks and viewpoints and hence, I ducked the issue about where the basis for our ethical decisions come from.

There are several possible approaches to this question, but really it all turns upon what you think are the formative events in your life which give rise to the idea that this is good and that is not, that this action is moral or that is immoral. So far as I recall, Aristotle describes the things we do as habits and that these make up our moral character as either virtuous or vicious, but does not really give a list of what experiences might go to form these habits, at least, not in any detail.

As an example, Stanley Hauerwas, in his ethics primer ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’ (SCM: London 2nd edition 2003) describes a situation where a man was on a plane with few passengers. Towards the end of the flight he was approached by an air stewardess who asked him if he would like to come with her to a hotel room on disembarkation for a few hours, and see what happened. The man refused, and the question Hauerwas asks is why?

He argues that this man’s answer to the proposition was inevitable, given his background, upbringing, and beliefs and so on. In short, the man’s character was already formed by his previous experiences to refuse the stewardesses kind offer and return to his wife and children directly. His character, his habits, to use Aristotle’s expression, precluded him from acting in the manner suggested.

One way of looking at this sort of thing, which has, I think, wider implications for wargaming than just ethics, is to consider our attitudes in terms of our horizon. This gives us a model to understand how we react to suggestions and how we interact with new situations, like a new ancient text. Ultimately, I think the idea derives from Heidegger and was developed by Gadamer, who was one of his students.

Normally, to me at least, the appearance of the names Heidegger or Gadamer in a sentence are red flags, as is that of Wittgenstein. Normally it means that we are going to get a postmodern mish-mash of poorly understood regurgitated ideas which these thinkers put forward, usually in hideously complex forms. I will try to avoid that temptation.

According to one interpretation of the idea of a horizon, we can define three areas of knowledge. There are the known knowns, wherein we can ask questions and give answers. There are the known unknowns, wherein we can ask questions but not answer them. In this case, however, the questions are intelligible and we can imagine, at least, that we could answer them if only we thought a bit harder, read a bit more widely, or whatever. The third area is that of the unknown unknowns. In this area we cannot ask intelligible questions; it is meaningless to me. The boundary between the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns is our horizon.

Now, just because something is beyond our horizon, that is, it is in the region of the unknown unknowns only means that, to me, the questions that may be asked are unintelligible. It does not mean that to someone else, perhaps in a different era or culture, the questions are meaningless or unintelligible. My horizons is bounded by my own experiences, education, knowledge and so on.

The upshot of this is that, within the area of ethics, a new situation is dealt with within my horizon. The question is answered within the context of my previous knowledge, upbringing and so on.  The answer to the scenario posed last week about wiping out a village with brutal violence in a wargame is answered within this context. We may not have thought about it before, and therefore the question is in the known unknowns area, but it is within our horizon to answer. How we answer is, of course, another issue, but our answer is mediated by our horizon of experience and knowledge.

As I mentioned, this seems to me to have another impact on us as wargamers. Gadamer suggests that, when we read a text, we have to fuse the horizon of the author of the text with our own. This can never be a wholly successful endeavour, because the author of the text will have a different horizon than we do. Our understanding is never perfect, even if the author is writing within the same culture as we are.

Incidentally, this is why Gadamer thinks that we can never get to a final translation of any text. A translation has to transform one culture into another, and cultures are not static. Even though, for example, the ancient Greek culture is static, being in the past and unchangeable, ours is not and our concepts, and hence the objects into which the original is transformed, change. So there is no such thing as a definitive translation.

The upshot of this, as wargamers, is that we always fuse our own horizon with that of the account of a battle that we are reading. Thus, as I described quite a while ago, we might read Tacitus’ description of a battle and translate it into wargame terms which are quite inappropriate for what the author was actually doing.  We need, in short, to be aware of our own horizon.

Obviously, we can and do change our horizons. We can learn new stuff, we can apply old knowledge in new ways, we can interrogate our texts with different questions. This, however, is hard work and not always successful. For example, simply changing job does not necessarily change your horizon in any important way. Getting more material stuff also does not change our horizon of itself. Another pile of unpainted soldiers is simply a pile of unpainted soldiers; we need to press beyond that to actually develop our horizon.

I am sure there is much more to be said about this, but it does perhaps account for the innate conservatism of many wargamers. Their concept of a wargame is one of individual toy soldiers behaving heroically, or of bases of soldiers or whatever and, without some significant effort on the part of the wargamer, the two remain incompatible.