Saturday 30 March 2013

Ethics on and off Table

A while ago I suggested that our ethical stance towards wargames was influenced, if not defined, by our own narratives of ourselves. In essence, this came down to the question of ‘do I want this activity as part of my story?’

In the case of wargaming, where we are, at least in principle, recreating some pretty nasty bits of history, the activity referred to could be something like ‘commanding an SS unit that murdered people in cold blood’, or ‘commanding the New Model Army at Drogheda’.  Where you stand on this ethically is, of course, up to you. It is your story, and depends on your own values.

For some, the value of playing with SS troops is that they were a disciplined unit with strong esprit de corps, cool uniforms (everyone loves black?) and wonder weapons. There may also be pinch of heroism, defending to the last a doomed cause. This need not be a political stance, of course; I’m sure many play SS themed wargames without buying into Nazi values.

On the other hand, it is rather easy to argue that the SS were simply organised thugs, the storm troopers of an evil regime who unthinkingly carried out orders of huge repugnance which no ordinary human would have countenanced. While someone could be willing to play the baddies in a World war Two game they could, reasonably coherently, refuse to command SS units.

However, despite the (hopefully) unique status of the Second World War in its carnage and horror, all wargaming faces some sort of ethical challenge, at least if we penetrate to any degree below the surface. Prufrock came up with a good example in the discussion of the original post: a small force had taken many prisoners and, as commander, he was concerned about security. His first thought was to put the prisoners in barns for the night and set fire to them. Problem, concern solved.

Now, one issue which immediately raised itself was the concern about the difference of real life (I believe the example was being kind to spiders) and the incorporation of unethical behaviour in a wargames campaign. How different can our ethics on the table be from those we have in real life?

Of course, the first question to ask is ‘why should we worry?’ Many wargamers, I am sure, would not worry at all about the question. Wargaming is a game; what happens on the table stays on the table.  That is perhaps true, up to a point, but the concern which is there is that it simply does not happen in all cases. While murdering prisoners of war in a wargame has no impact on anyone outside the wargamers concerned it might have an impact on them, their morals, their virtues.

As I am sure I have already mentioned, Aristotle argued that what we do habitually becomes part of us, whether that is virtuous of vicious. If, as a schoolchild, we sell sweets to our friends at vastly inflated prices then, in later life, we might become a fraudster, gangster or international banker (or all three). How much, as wargamers, do we want to keep our real world consciences clear of even fictional unethical behaviour?

Of course, if our wargames are anywhere near realistic, we much also land up with realistic moral dilemmas. The issue of prisoners was a real one in real battles. For example, one of the best known battles, Agincourt, had precisely this dilemma. Henry V was stuck with a small and ill army facing a large and well fed one. After some of the battle, he could reasonably assume that his troops were becoming exhausted and that the enemy still has fresh troops to throw at him. While his position was a strong one, it could still be outflanked and so he ordered that the prisoners should be killed.

Was this an unethical decision? The argument has continued over the centuries with no real resolution. It is undeniable that it was a reasonable situation, given the context and Henry’s knowledge of the state of his own army and that of the enemy. The stakes were high; he felt he had to act for the safety of his own army and himself.

There are, in these circumstances, two conflicting views which would apply in an Agincourt wargame. Firstly, of course, the decision of the Henry V wargamer profoundly does not matter. Agincourt was fought nearly six centuries ago. A refight of the battle, if it goes according to the original, will land our modern day Henry in precisely the same dilemma as the real world one, except that, of course, no lives will be lost. Not killing the prisoners will take the refight into an interesting ‘what if’ world, but will not change the outcome of the battle.

The alternative view is that such behaviour, while explicable in the real world of the real battle, is not acceptable behaviour in terms of the context of the refight. While, whatever happens, no-one is going to get hurt, the idea of murdering prisoners is repugnant and cannot be countenanced, even in a game situation.

The decision which we make as a wargamer is, of course, linked to how strongly we feel that our activities on table and those off table are those of the same person. It may be that as the wargamer Henry V we assume some of the characteristics of the original and so make the decision to kill the prisoners in a perfectly rational way. We have to justify that behaviour, at least to ourselves, subsequently, even if that justification is ‘well, that’s how it happened in reality.’

On the other hand, we may believe in a greater continuity between our on table personality and our real world selves. In such a case we would not murder the prisoners, even if it meant that we lost the wargame. Again, this points up the difference between game and life: Henry V did not have the luxury of walking away from it as just a game.

So the resolution of these sorts of issues seems to come down to this: how closely tied to the action on the wargaming table are you, the wargamer?

Saturday 23 March 2013

What I Have Not Learnt From Wargaming

In a desperate attempt to follow up a previous desperate attempt at something approaching humour and possibly getting someone to read this stuff (no chance of the latter, I know) I thought I might have a go at outlining what I have not learnt in my wargaming career, such as it is.

Obviously, there are a lot of things that I have not learnt from wargaming. For example, I did not learn about wave particle duality while reading Phil Barker’s finest, nor did I come to even a very slight understanding of Kant’s transcendental idealism by rolling dice. However, within some sorts of limits around the central idea of wargaming, there are some things which I have not learnt by being a wargamer or indulging in wargaming.

The first thing I have not learnt anything about is history. I have, it is to be admitted, learnt a fair bit about history along the way, but I do not think that any history has been learnt as a result of a wargame, or of wargaming. On the whole, historians tend to look down on wargaming and wargamers as being somewhere beneath living history re-enactors in the food chain, and only just above pond slime. Of course, this does not stop retired historians banging off a few books about military stuff to pad out the pension, much of which may be bought by wargamers, but it does not stop the pond scum viewpoint.

The second thing I have not learnt anything about is statistics. Now, we can all analyse dice rolls to those nice bell shaped curves of the roll of two six sided dice beloved of school probability projects.  However, even when you try to use them for writing or checking rule sets, the laws of probability only give the results for a single encounter. Wargames (let alone real battles) are much more complex than this.

The third thing I have not learnt from wargaming is any sense that historiography has, in any sense, developed over the last fifty years or so. Wargamers still refer to the weighty tomes of late Victorian and early twentieth century military men for interpretation of campaigns and battles. Now Oman and Burne and their colleagues did their best, but they were constrained, as we all are, by their view of history, politics, life and what armies were like. This may not have been how armies actually were, or, at least, how we now think armies might have been. Wargamers seldom catch up with this, and so the older descriptions and discussions are maintained.

The fourth thing I have not learnt from wargaming is any sense of proportion, especially when related to buying wargaming figures. Walk around any show and you will find vendors happily selling wargamers huge bags and boxes of figures, terrain, books and other paraphernalia of wargaming. Both parties must, surely, know that the bulk of the figures will remain unpainted, unbased, unloved, and the rest might be used or looked at once and then never see the light of day again. Now, of course, it is entirely possible that the vendors know this and really cannot do anything about it. After all, they have to make a living and a toy solider sold is a toy solider sold, whether or not it ultimately gets painted. You might have thought, however, that the rest of us might have wised up a little, but we do not seem to.

As an example of the above, you might be aware of my doubling project, the plan being to double each Polemos: SPQR army that I have, given that most armies of the era spent most of their time fighting each other. To that end I ordered a pack of Roman archers. I needed 4 strips of archers to make two bases for my second Early Empire Roman army. But then I thought: paint an extra one or two, because the random rolling might give you armies with more archers. So I did, and then thought again – just a few more. And so on, until I painted the whole pack of archers and now have, in total, eight bases of archers.  Now, while that has much reduced my unpainted lead pile (well, slightly reduced it) I have to confess that I’m unlikely to need all those archer bases. But I do now have archers for any possible eventuality…

The fifth thing I have not learnt from wargaming is the information I need to be a wargamer. I suppose that this is linked back to the issue about history and historiography, but the information that I want, deployments, numbers of troops, command chains, uniforms and so on is simply not out there. Some authors, for example of Ospreys, do their best. But if you try to track down sources and chase the assertions to their origin, you find that most of our understandings of practically any period of history is at best built on air, or a single statement of something.

Even sophisticated wargame authors occasionally fall into this trap, treating, for example, Herodotus’ list of Xerxes’ forces as a real list of units (if not their numbers), when it is just as likely to be a rhetorical device aimed at raising tension an emphasising the Great King’s power. At least the latter method of understanding the list means we do not have to argue or wave away the actual numbers Herodotus comes up with.

Modren wargamers should not be looking smug at this point, either. For all the bureaucracy of modern states, it is often not knowable which units were up to strength, or what the actual TO&E of a particular unit really was, rather than what it was supposed to be. Matching reports from unit diaries and individual recollections, where they are available, with the official paperwork is a game that has defeated many professional historians, after all. And that still assumes that the paperwork exists.

So there you are; five things I have not learnt from wargaming. I am sure there are many more, not least time management, in that I spend too much time writing a wargaming blog, and not enough time wargaming…

Saturday 16 March 2013

Wargame Houses

To return, for a moment, to some thoughts I had a while ago about horizons, wargame and, I suppose otherwise. If you recall, I postulated the existence of three areas: the known knowns, where we can ask questions and get answer them, the unknown knowns, in which we can ask sensible questions and hope to get intelligible replies, and the unknown unknowns, where we cannot ask meaningful questions or get intelligible answers.

These three areas fairly clearly describe our limits of understanding. I can ask, for example, who won a the battle of Hastings. That is a known known; we can get a reply, of ‘the Normans under Duke William’. The next question might be ‘how did they win?’ This, for most people anyway, is an unknown known. Someone out there will have read the sources, examined the Bayeux tapestry, analysed the archaeology (if there is any, I’m not sure) and so on, and there will be some sort of reply along the lines ‘the Normans did this, the Saxons did that…’ and so on. Someone out there in our world can answer the question, even if we, ourselves cannot.

Finally, the question could arise ‘what did it feel like to be a Saxon foot soldier on Senlac Hill?’ Here we are in tricky territory. We can imagine the weariness, terror, hunger and so on of such a person and, perhaps, if we are literary minded, write an account from that person’s point of view. However, we can never be sure which bit of that description could be correct, and which bits are our projections onto them. Would a Saxon foot soldier feel in the way we think we would? Can we even realistically consider what his situation might have been like, what his considerations would have been when King Harold went down?

We are heading here into the territory of unknown unknowns, at it is all the more treacherous because we might actually think that we can or do know. One of the things I have been trying to say here is that we cannot know. Any set of wargame rules, and any wargame along with its wargamers, is at a considerable epistemological distance from the original battle or warfare of the period it is setting out to represent. I suspect that this, in fact, is why most scholars reject the idea of wargaming as any aid to understanding a given battle.

To change the metaphor a little, consider observing a building. From your vantage point, say on a hill, you can see a wall or possible two, and part of the roof. You can see colours and outlines, maybe a window or two. You descend and walk around the building. At each point you can observe things much more than you could on the hill. You can see colours in more detail; you can see textures and make informed guesses about materials. If you are particularly nosey, you can peer into the windows and see a room with furniture. Books, televisions and so on. But you cannot see the whole building, nor can you see all the bits you saw before.

Now go into the building and explore the rooms. You might have seen some of them from outside, but there are bound to be ones which you did not or could not peer into. And anyway your perspective from inside the room is different now; you are, ins some sense, part of the furnishings of the room. The details of this bit of the house, if not anywhere else in it, are exposed to you.

Now, consider giving a description of the house to a friend who has not seen it. You would, I think, be able to give a reasonable outline of the building, its construction, internal layout and furnishing, aspect and situation within its plot. All of these things would be, in so far as your memory is accurate and your descriptive powers adequate, quite correct. If you took your friend to some part of the house blindfolded, and then removed the blindfold, they should be able to say ‘Oh, this is the library you told me about’, or whichever bit of the building you chose to show them.

Now, your description is of the whole house that you have explored, but there is no one viewpoint from which you can construct that viewpoint. You cannot actually see all four walls at once, even though you can walk around them, or even infer their existence from the bits you can see. Even if you have a full description of the outside of the house, the inside would be unknown to you until you have viewed it for yourself. And you cannot, of course, view both the inside and the outside at the same time.

By now, you are probably asking ‘what has this got to do with wargaming?’

Well, the thing is that it shows that no description of anything with any structure can ever be complete. The describer has a given viewpoint. Even a complete description is unattainable in reality. Some relationship between the differing viewpoints has to be assumed. In the house description we have to assume that the inside and outside of the house are, in some way, related and Euclidian geometry is in force.

A battle description is, of course, similar to a description of the house. It is necessarily limited by the viewpoint of the writer and the sources they have to work with. They may synthesise the reports they have, ask people who were there, write down their own observations, but they can never see the whole battle from all aspects, all viewpoints.

Of course, it gets worse with wargame rules. A rule writer can only read these limited accounts and construct some limited model of what they think may have been going on. This rule set is going to be even more limited by the perspectives of the writer themselves. So it is hardly surprising that wargames are a long way from anything real world; of course, in some respects that is a good thing.

So it is, in the final analysis, little wonder that most of us spend most of our time painting toy soldiers. They at least can be modelled on some aspect of real life, hopefully a little closer than our wargames can be.

Saturday 9 March 2013

Seven Things I Have Learnt from Wargaming

I thought I might try to ponder what wargaming has meant to me as a learning experience. This is partly based on an idea from Ulrich Betz, in a BJET article a while ago, about what your children (or you) can learn from fantasy role playing games. I confess that the main thing I learnt from playing FRPG was the maxim ‘don’t split the party’.

First, it is important to recall that few beverages are improved in flavour by having a paint brush dipped in them. This might seem very obvious (but then it is the first point), but I have found it quite easy to forget when in the middle of painting a bunch of toy soldiers. I suppose that the human mind, or at least the half of it which is supposed to belong to the male part of the race, is not cut out to multitask, and so consuming a beverage and painting is beyond us, and we somehow combine the two. That said, while the paint may not improve the flavour of any drink, with some of these modern fruit combination squashes on sale these days, a good douse of Vajello’s finest may well improve the appearance,

Secondly, it is important not to believe what historians say we should. All history is something of a reinterpretation of another history, probably disagreeing with it. As a corollary to this, any book claiming startling new discoveries or insights or myth busting or any of these sorts of claims is quite likely not to be worth the paper they are printed on. This is particularly true if the book in question is written by a non-expert, and start off ‘As I was sitting on the sun drenched beach on Crete looking out across the azure sea of the Ancient Mediterranean, I realised that Homer was right and every other interpretation was wrong, and that Troy was, in fact, right here…’. This is neither speculation nor history, but simply nonsense. Nor is it even good journalism.

Thirdly, research into wars, battles, campaigns and the like is, in fact, more than reading the Ospreys on the subject. Now, do not get me wrong, here, I like Ospreys, but we do have to realise that they are very short, not terribly nuanced and based, often on selective information. They have to be. Some Ospreys are very, very useful, and some are not. All in all, you do need to be highly selective when parting with your hard earned beer tokens.

Fourthly, I think I have learnt that you will never reduce the size of your unpainted lead pile. In my case, I have a large plastic box which contains all the unpainted lead I own. Except for the armies which are not in that box, because all it contains are my unpainted ancient armies, so the renaissance ones are in the cupboard. And there are probably a few more hanging around in other boxes. My current project is aimed at painting all the ancient figures which I currently own. It should take a decade or two. Furthermore, in order to make armies out of these figures, I will, of course, need to buy some more to fill in the gaps. For example, I recently painted some chariot bases to double the ancient British army. I now have sufficient to place two standard PM: SPQR ancient British armies on the table at the same time. But when I finished them, I realised that I could only just manage this, and if one side rolled for extra chariots, I would be stuck. So more are needed. Finishing is not in sight.

Fifthly, I have realised that reading widely is the only way to tackle wargame fatigue. I am sure you know what I mean. You look at your massed armies and think ‘do I really want another battle with this lot’. You (and I) get stale and staid. Reading something, even if it is out of period, can give you fresh ideas and comparisons, new vision and impetus. So I read the Greek and Roman historians, interleaved with some philosophy, ethics and early modern and medieval stuff. How else do you think I manage burbling on here on a weekly basis?

Sixthly, it is quite possible to wargame entirely happily on your own. I suspect that more wargamers do this than we imagine. Certainly the solo wargaming Yahoo! Group is a far size now, and it seems to keep growing. Furthermore, I think that most wargamers spend much more time planning, reading books, rules and army lists and particularly painting than actually putting figures on the table and ‘having a battle’. As an extension of this, I also think that few people, although they may pay lip service to campaigns and how wonderful they are, actually settle down an fight one out. Many historical campaigns were, after all, settled (more or less) on a single battle. Why not cut to the chase and miss out all the boring map bits?

Finally, a few tips about running your own wargame blog. Mostly, these seem to be used for demonstrating the wonders of the wargamer’s own wargaming life, in painting wondrous figures in practically no time at all, putting on amazing battles with knife edge results which all involved agree was the best experience since the last one, or explaining how many figures have been painted, based and, of course, purchased at the most recent show (or required an articulated lorry to deliver, and even then one of the axles was bent). If you can compete with this, and most of us cannot, then do not bother writing a blog about your wargaming activities. You will only be read by a handful of people, particularly if you insist on considering the ethics and philosophy of wargaming, and not proclaiming your painting skills, ability with a camera, and luck with the dice from the rooftops.

And on that note I shall shut up, for the time being anyway, and await other people’s comments, if anyone does actually read this…

Saturday 2 March 2013


One of the issues that has been circled gingerly here is that of troop classification. I suspect that this is an issue which is fundamentally one which affects ancient wargaming more than some others, but I still think that it probably affects us all to some extent.

Humanity is a classifying species. In fact, it is presumed that all animals are. Our cat, for example, classifies the world into things to eat, things to play with and things to run away from. Being of a slightly nervous disposition, she classifies all things in the last category initially, and might then upgrade them to one of the others. It is a way in which we, as animals, cope with a complex world.

This sort of classification has not been without its philosophical problems, of course, and they date back to Plato, at least. On the face of it, people are not obviously, in any sense, the same. They have similar features to each other, of course, but there are also significant differences in size, shape, colour, hairiness and so on. How then can we say that all humans are, in fact, the same kind of thing?

Plato tackled this by imagining an unchanging other place, where the ideals of tall the things that we see and understand are to be found. A chair, in our world, was just a flawed instantiation of the ideal chair. People, then, are instantiations of the ideal person, and obtain their single species status by participation in the ideal, although obviously that participation cannot be perfect.

This idea of participation is one that has puzzled me for a long time, because I cannot for the life of me see how it works. How does something in this world ‘participate’ in another thing in another, perfect world. Recently, I have started to have a sneaking suspicion that no-one else knows how it works, they just hide behind the word and hope no-one finds them out.

Plato’s idea did not go unchallenged, of course, and Aristotle subjected it to significant criticism, arguing that we only have the instances we see, and that we can categorize them because they do have sufficient similarity to be recognised as the same species, of the same genus. Humans, therefore, are of the human species and the animal genus, whereby they share some similarities with other species in the genus but are differentiated from them.

Here, I think we can see already, the issue which affects wargames and wargame rules: what is a sufficient difference to create a new species? Is a citizen hoplite different from a Saxon fryd spearman?

I suspect that the answer to these questions depend on your point of view. From a technological point of view, a bloke with a large shield and a pointy stick is very much like another bloke with a large shield and a pointy stick, no matter how many hundreds of years there are between them. You might argue that, whatever the  differences in world view between the Greek and the Saxon, the technology is very similar, and that means that the tactical options are the same, so there is no difference in the way a set of wargame rules should treat them.

On the other hand, you can argue that the world of a Greek citizen hoplite was very different from that of a fryd-man or a similar medieval spearman. The hoplite, by definition, was a citizen of his polis and had rights and power. There are, for example, a number of instances of hoplites taking their generals to court (after the battle) and using them for things like defamation and incompetence. In short, a Greek army did not score highly in the discipline stakes, and hoplites could and did argue back against orders.

A medieval, feudally raised army was not of this nature. A spearman would have been raised by his Lord who, even in cases where the soldier was not actually in serfdom, was still a powerful figure in the soldier’s life. Arguing back, or taking his landlord to court, would have meant that the soldier and his family could quickly have become landless, homeless and starving. Discipline may well still have been lax, but there would have been a lot less argument over decisions made by the leaders than in Greece.

There is also the cultural view to be considered. A citizen hoplite was sent out by his polis to fight for it, and was expected to return either with his shield or on it. Running away, in theory, was not really an option. Socrates, for example, received a good deal of acclaim for being one of the few Athenians who did not run away after Delium, forming instead a point on which others could rally. For a polis citizen, honour was of great significance, and to lose it was to lose so much that suicide or exile became really viable options.

I suspect that for the medieval spearman, honour was not such a big issue. Obviously, for the knights and lords, honour and chivalry were big deals, but not so much for the lower ranks. Running for it, if things looked a bit dodgy, was much more a viable option and, often, Lords were not too punishing on those who did because they still needed tenants to farm their land and provide income. A feudal levy was probably as untrained as a Greek phalanx, but more unstable, as those who made up the spear array had less invested in staying for the fight.

Now, of course, the determination of how these differences play out is in the eye of the rule writer and wargame player. I am of the camp that thinks that this sort of difference is significant for our wargame rules; not everyone would agree with me, I am sure.  But I do think that those who regard a hoplite and a feudal spearman as equivalent need slightly better grounds than the simple technological one.