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.


  1. One of the traps of classification is deciding how broad or narrow to make the classes and sub-classes. Another is deciding which sorts of similarities are relevant and which aren't.

    Does one lump a peasant and a spear and an armoured and trained Flemish spearmen because both are medieval and armed with spears? Or does the training and discipline of the latter and the cohesion supplied by the need to keep the respect of his neighbors if a citizen or earn his pay and be hired again if a mercenary make the latter a different beast? ( make them substantially different in battle field effect, (eg Courtrai etc)

    Does one lump a Democratic Athenian Citizen with A Spartiate or a conscripted Spartan Helot or a Thesalian hoplite following his King to war? Is a picked mercenary hoplite serving a Syracusian Tyrant the same as a conscripted citizen who has been cowed into reluctant obedience? What about a hoplite defending the Pharaoh against a Mede invasion or serving one Persian lord against another?

    Their armour and tactics are all similar though some are better trained and drilled than others and some may have more say about things off the battle field. Their options in battle are pretty limited though, stay in ranks and fight or run away. The reason Socrates was praised was that it was unusual to NOT run away once the ranks were broken apart from the Spartans who took good care not to let their ranks be broken.

    Which is how the old WRG rules came to classify troops by discipline & training, morale, tactical style, armour and weapons (as in Regular B, heavy infantry with long thrusting spear and shield vs Irregular D medium infantry with short thrusting spear etc.) Unfortunately it turned out that was either too few classifications, or else too many.

  2. I think that this is pretty well the nub of the problem; our classification systems are either too broad, or too narrow to be workable, too simplified or too complex. which is why I try to stick to fairly narrow time bands. Even then there is room for argument, at least.

    I think the point is that somehow we have to classify in order to make the troop types and battles intelligible, but that sometimes our classification systems may not achieve that simplification, or are too simple to really explain anything.

  3. Hmm, a couple of fairly contradictory thoughts came to me as I read this. (Congrats once again on making me think.)

    First thought was that the culture is the important thing. The rules should classify troops according to the culture they operate in, and there is no point in having classifications which cross cultures or time periods. That is, why would you ever need to compare the hoplite with the fyrdman, unless you were (heaven forfend) writing a WRG style 3000BC - 3000AD rule set? The difficult bit is fixing the boundaries of your rules, because all wargaming periods are subject to woolliness round the edges.
    The boundaries aren't always chronological. A British redcoat at Waterloo operated in a very diferent culture to his brother fighting the Gurkhas in Nepal in the same year; British light cavalry in Europe should be reclassified as heavy the moment they're sent to India, and so on. Classifications should be comparative with the troops that might be encountered as allies or enemies.

    The second thought - which I hate myself for - is that the object of the game should frame the classification to some extent.
    If you are writing rules for large numbers of units where the player is C-in-c of an army, a highly detailed troop classification system adds confusion, not clarity. WRG were a case in point, but it wasn't the rules writers' fault. Detail in classification made sense when you were considering 1000 point armies, but when the norm became 2000 or 2500, or in one game I remember 12,000 points, it gets out too much to handle.

  4. I think part of the issue is that the classifications and game actually are part of the same thing; they do not exist one without the other.

    So the cavalry in Europe would be different from the same unit in India, because the game is different, not necessarily because the classification changes.

    I do think it is important also to realize that rule sets do work at different levels. I made a conscious effort to write PM:SPQR from a general's eye view. I suspect that WRG was really a unit view, with generals bolted onto the top. But then, I am too young to have played them...

  5. Well yes, entirely the point - I did the same with Polemos NApoleonic. The general doesn't need to know the cultural stuff - it's sufficient to know the unit is lost, rather than that the individuals in it are fleeing for the hills, standing back to back and being cut to pieces or rendering themselves up as prisoners for ransom or exchange. It's very important if you are one of the individuals.

    Ok, I'm an old git, and remember rulesets being written in latin.....
    WRG very much unit based,but wargamers' megalomania being what it is, we were never going to stick to the size of 'armies' the rules were written for. Armies grew, and the detailed classifications became a burden.

  6. Some of the stuff deriving from Keegan's 'Face of Battle' is quite interesting on this - the individual, unit and general's eye view of the battle.

    The point is that it looks very different from these different levels.

    Surely the general didn't need to know the cultural stuff 'cos he was part of the culture. Except some Roman generals, of course...

  7. "So the cavalry in Europe would be different from the same unit in India, because the game is different, not necessarily because the classification changes."

    I'm not sure I follow your train of thought here? Do you mean that the opposition in India would be classified in such a way that the European cavalry, without having to change its 'game classification', would end up being used in a different way than when fighting the French in Spain, for instance?

    Also, can you think specifically of where other rulesets get into trouble with this classification issue - i.e. has produced in-game effects which you have thought, that just *could not* happen?


  8. Well, I think the the last point the Cv classification in DBM was a bit flakey, because it covered all sorts who were not Kn or LH. But some fought with spears, some with javelins, some with bows, and some with a combination. Now, you might argue that this is fine, shooting to disrupt but then charging, but it isn't exactly what we read about some of the troop types classified as Cv, like Persian cavalry at Platea, for example.

    The thought I'm trying to pursue in the first bit is that the same troops in India are treated differently because their context has changed. The troops might still be classified as Hussars, but their effect will be different because they are facing Indian troops rather than European.

    We could change the classification, and call them, in an Indian context, heavy cavalry, say. But then the same troops with the same tactics are treated differently at the same time.

    It gets a wee bit confusing at that point, whichever way you look at it.

  9. How much of a problem do you think this ends up being, game-wise?

    And is this as much of an issue in games which employ a 'stat-line', like Warhammer or many air/naval wargames, compared to those which use broad troop classifications? The stat-line dictates that a Spitfire, say, uses its tight turning-circle against a Me109, but uses its speed and dive characteristics against a Zero, without changing 'the rules'?



  10. I suppose it depends on the rules and their view of 'historical accuracy', whatever that might be....

    At a tactical level, getting the characteristics right is hard, but if you can do it you can create Spitfires, Zeros and Me 109s. At a higher level they are all 'fighters'. If you try to mix the two then it does matter.

    Within the game, the players just live with it, of course. Whether this has got anything to do with anything historical is moot.