Saturday 27 July 2013

Decisive Battles

There has been some debate recently here about decisive battles, and Chris challenged me to discuss this, so here goes.

What, exactly, makes a battle decisive?

To start with I looked at what is probably the earliest definitive list I could find of decisive battles, from Fifteen Decisive Battles of the Western World by Edward Creasy, which was first published, I believe in the 1850’s. It is free from Amazon on a Kindle, incidentally, which makes it even more suitable for this task.

Creasy’s list of decisive battles is instructive: Marathon, Syracuse, Arbela, Metaurus, Teutoburger Wald, Chalons, Tours, Hastings, Orleans, the Spanish Armada, Blenheim, Pultova, Saratoga, Valmy and Waterloo.

Now, I suppose that any list of battles claimed to be decisive would be arguable, but perhaps more interesting are Creasy’s reasons for choosing them. Firstly, he claims that it is not the size of the battle, nor the casualties, that make this set decisive. Nor, he suggests are to be considered battles which, although dramatic, had either limited effects (particularly geographically) or ‘merely confirmed’ already noted trends. Thus Plataea is not on his list because the trend noted at Marathon, of Greek military success over the Persians, is, he argues, the decisive one. Hence also the absence of Zama from his list and the presence of Valmy instead of other actions of the Revolutionary Wars.

Now, of course, this is a highly debatable issue. Every statement that Creasy makes could be disputed. I have discussed his ideas so much simply because they give a starting point to trying to understand what we mean as decisive. As I mentioned in a comment at the time, decisiveness seems to work at many levels.

Firstly, I think there is what we might term ‘tactically decisive’ battles. These are the ones with clear cut outcomes on the field. Classically, of course, up to the twentieth century (more or less), a decisive battle would be one where one side was left in control of the battlefield and the other had fled.

In ancient Greece, for example, the victors would put up a trophy, while the defeated would send a herald to ask for a truce while the dead were properly buried. This was an established custom, and serious repercussions could ensue if it was not followed. Of course, in some cases, it was unclear as to who the victor might be, in which case both sides could set up a trophy. But the dead were still buried.

The tactically decisive battle, however, may not actually resolve anything. Marathon, for example, only increased the Persian determination to invade Greece (or so Herodotus reports). It could also be argued that neither Salamis nor Plataea actually achieved anything very much apart from a local defeat of the Persians. Looked at from the perspective of, say, 360 BC, you could argue that the Persians had, in fact, won. This victory would not be a military one, per se, but that, by switching their money from one side to another, they could achieve a balance of power in Greece which gave them access to Greek mercenaries and otherwise kept the fractious cities from being too annoying.

At the next level up we have what I suppose we could term ‘operationally decisive’ battles. By this I mean battles which did, at least, terminate a campaign. An example of this could well be the complex of actions which led to Plataea and Salamis. These battles did, in fact, terminate the Persian invasion of Greece, even if the Greco- Persian wars continued. Another example might be El Alamein, which did at least (more or less) terminate the campaigns in the Western Desert.

At the top level are what I am going to call ‘strategically decisive’ or ‘politically decisive’ battles. These are the big ones, the ones which cause the fall of nations, the transfer of territory and so on. Actually, in that case, there do seem to be relatively few of them. Hasting, probably, is one of them, although I believe that historians can see increasing Norman influence in England significantly before that. Waterloo would be another good candidate, although again, given that Napoleon had already fallen it could be argued that it was simply a post-script to what had gone before.  Similarly, while Bosworth was decisive in terms of the switch from Plantagenet to Tudor dynasties, many historians today simply regard it as an aberration, for the “Wars of the Roses” had already finished and the only argument was who, exactly was to be king.

I would imagine that even the categories I have outlined above would be as arguable as Creasy’s criteria for deciding upon which battles were decisive. I suspect that the decisiveness of a battle depends more upon the time frame in which you consider it, and your interests, than by any objective criteria.

If you are interested in the rise and fall of dynasties, for example, then both Hastings and Bosworth are decisive. If you have a broader view history and tend to discount individual events, then, perhaps, Bosworth is a mere hiccough in the development of English monarchy and nation. Perhaps it is only because humanity likes to categorize things extensively that we land up with these sorts of discussions. Ultimately, the answer to the question ‘Was battle X decisive?’ depends on what you mean by ‘decisive’ and at what level you are looking.

So, finally, to the specific example that Chris and I were discussing. Was Solway Firth decisive? Well, obviously, at a tactical level, it was. The Scots were effectively ambushed and trounced by a fairly motley array of  English borderers.

At a campaign or operational level, I think that the answer is that Solway probably was decisive, given that the Scots Lords would not cross the border for another go. Whether the demise of James V was a consequence of the defeat is another question which, I suspect, history cannot answer.

Was Solway a strategically decisive battle? Probably not. The Scots and English were still fighting a decade later; neither had been knocked out nor been dealt a decisive blow. In fact, I think that few battles really count at this level of decisiveness.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Wargame Granules…

… just add water for an instant battle?

Well, perhaps not. What I do want to consider is the issue of the granularity of our wargames, but first I had better explain exactly what I mean by that.

Wargames, I have argued, are based on sets of models, which we then apply to a situation on the wargame table. The models are scale models, representative models, interaction models and computational models, covering aspects of our toy soldiers, terrain, rules, dice rolls and so on. These models interact (or perhaps conspire) to give us a wargame.

In science, models, usually mathematical ones, conceptual models or, possibly, computational models are used to give some insight into the ‘real’ world. Now models in the sciences are applied within a known set of errors. I can apply, for example, a magneto-hydrodynamic model of a tenuous plasma in a tokomak, but I would not expect it to give exactly the right answer. The reason for this is that, in order to make the model even slightly tractable and intelligible, I have had to make a number of approximations. My model calculation needs to be compared with real life and, if it does not fit, I need to adjust the approximations to make it so.

Normally, of course, reality is not adjusted to fit the model, although some attempts have been made.

In terms of wargaming, therefore, we need to consider the scale of battle to which our models, approximations as they are apply. Our battles, obviously, cover all levels of conflict from small skirmish games (or even role playing games) at a one to one figure representational scale, to major battle where a figure can represent perhaps scores, possibly hundreds of original soldier or pieces of equipment.

Within this, of course, lies one of the problems of wargame rules. I have mentioned before that certain behaviours emerge at different levels, and I do think this is true. Isaac Asimov wrote a number of short stories (the titles of which escape me) having fun with the idea that humans only panic in large groups, while the humanoid aliens stayed calm in large groups but panicked in isolation. Either way, the behaviour in larger groups was emergent; individuals did not behave in the same way.

Thus, I think that wargame rules can sometimes use models in inappropriate ways. For example, some skirmish rule sets I have seen suggest that we can simply apply larger group morale rules to individuals. Thus, if an individual figure in a skirmish game is, say, shot at, a morale check is made using the same sort of rules that would be used for a unit in a battle rule set. The question here is: is this appropriate?

It is an interesting fact that role playing games, which a close equivalent of skirmish wargames, so far as I know, do not have morale rules. The reliance is upon the player’s identification with their characters and hence, their desire to keep them from too much harm.

One of the most amusing things I ever saw as a role playing game umpire was a group of player characters running away, as fast as they could, from a machete armed non-player character, from whom, in fact, they needed to extract a vital piece of information. The game was Call of Cthulhu and, of course, in that game there were no healing spells. This meant that the players fled, rather than fought.

So, if role playing games need no morale rules, why do skirmish wargames? Why cannot a set of skirmish wargame rules rely upon the player’s instincts to look after their figures to reproduce small group dynamics?

I suspect that the answer to that question is that there is no particular reason. As wounds build up, both in skirmish and role playing games, the tension builds and players become more reluctant to take risks which might mean further problems for their characters. However, I do think that when the game is undertaken, a skirmish wargame has different connotations to a role playing game.

A set of wargame rules comes with an expectation of certain items in its model, one of which is a model of morale. Morale rules, are, of course, needed in most larger scale (by which I mean battle) wargames, and so a set of wargame rules is expected to have them.

But the point I am vaguely attempting to make here is that, at the individual level of granularity, morale rules may not be necessary. It is only at higher levels, bigger formations, that such behaviour as running away in a group emerges. At a skirmish level, such behaviour becomes ‘obvious’, in that a single figure is not (sensibly) going to stand its ground when all its friends are running away. We do not exactly need to roll dice to establish this, the player, as the figure’s character, is quite capable of making that decision for themselves, on the figure’s behalf. In some circumstances, running away is an entirely rational thing to do.

So the point is that not all items of a traditional set of models which make up a set of wargame rules are necessarily, applicable at all levels of granularity of the wargames which we might play. We need, perhaps, to be a bit more discerning, a little more analytic about which models apply at the level at which we are playing.

Which, I suppose brings me to a last point, which is that sometimes, it seems to me, wargame rules are not that good at deciding on a level and sticking to it. Some wargames are, in fact, skirmish games even though they claim to be big battle games. I dare say that the converse is true as well. This seems to me to indicate serious flaws in the design, even though the mix of models might result in an acceptable, in terms of fun, game.

But, perhaps, I am too much of a purist for my own good.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Problems of Wargame Plumbing

I suspect that we can all agree that wargaming is based around modelling. We model all sorts of things in a wargame. For example, our troops are models of the real thing. So are our artillery, houses, and trees and so on. In fact, these objects are two sorts of models, I suspect.

Firstly, they are scale models. That is, they are scaled down versions of the real thing. As models, of course, they may not function as the real thing functions. Our model cannon do not fire, or at least, if they do they shoot matchsticks, not shells. Our toy soldiers do not march.

Secondly, our models are representational models. Consider a weather forecast on the television. Rain, for example, is shown as a black cloud with black dots coming out of it. This is not a scale model of a cloud, but it represents rainclouds in general. In a similar way, our models do not represent one particular person, but the soldiers in general.

Some rules, particularly older ones, have a representational scale. One model soldier, they declare, is twenty real ones. Even with based groups of soldiers we usually have a representational model, of, say, one base is five hundred men, or whatever.  

So even something as simple as a toy soldier works within two models: a scale model or the soldier in the real world, and a representation of many such.

As I have written fairly recently, there are other models at work here, as well. What I want to do is to try to draw attention to the plethora of models that we need to have running, at the same time, in order to have a satisfactory wargame.

The problem is, I think, that the models in wargames are largely unnoticed until they no longer work together. Then we have what Mary Midgley describes as a ‘problem of philosophical plumbing’. By this she means that plumbing works, most of the time, and we do not, usually notice it.

The only time we do start to be concerned about plumbing is when we start to notice a smell. Then, of course, it is a bit late to start working out how the plumbing has been functioning; we have a far more difficult problem, of working out why it is not functioning, without knowing exactly how it was supposed to work in the first place.

So, we have our wargaming scale models, and they also function as representational models. This applies also to our terrain, and I have observed before that this requires us to do some private mental gymnastics in order to match the scale of the terrain items to the ground scale of the rules. It is something that we often ignore or skate around, but it is the first joint in our plumbing that can start to leak.

I have also observed that rule sets themselves are compendia of models. We have models for movement, ranged fire, close combat, morale, orders and so on. These tend, in many cases, towards the abstract model. The specific aspects of the model may not, indeed, be realistic, and, given the constraints of other models, cannot be.

For example, a command system model cannot be a scale model of the real thing. This is because our scale models of the soldiers do not respond to being given orders, as their real life counterparts would. The models interact, and the model soldiers dictate to the rules the things they can and cannot do. Thus a wargame rule set command model cannot be a scaled down representation of the real thing. Attempts to make it so, by issuing written orders to each unit, for instance, are normally doomed to failure at least, if not real arguments between wargamers.

Of course, with a plethora of models, all interacting, we find that there are plenty of opportunities within a set of wargame rules for leaks in our plumbing. Often there is a failure to distinguish the command levels at which a wargame army has to function. One of the nicest things anyone said about Polemos: SPQR was that it forced the wargamer to micromanage the big stuff. By this, they meant that a wargame general had to act as a general, and not worry about unit facing or giving ‘shoot’ orders. That was the aim I had in mind while designing the rules, influenced by Adrian Goldsworthy and the ‘Face of Battle’ brigade.

There are other models lurking in the background, as well. Firstly, there is a computational model, related to the dice you use and the factors you add up. The choice of dice is quite influential. The first version of Polemos: ECW used matched D10 rolls for combat. We rapidly discovered that this give some really wild and wacky results, because the difference between 0 and 9 is quite a lot, especially when you factors are plus or minus one or two. So we reverted to more conventional D6.

Secondly, there are theoretical models of warfare skulking around. I have tried to point one or two of them out here, recently, such as the romantic theory of the decisive battle, or the enlightenment one of scientific warfare. We all have some sort of model floating around, usually, I suspect, of the romantic variety. So we expect our rules to give us this sort of warfare, one based around a decisive battle. But really this is nothing but another model, in this case perhaps imported from our culture rather than explicit in the rules.

All told, then, there are an enormous number of models floating around even a fairly simple sort of wargame. What makes a wargame work, as a hobby, or as an event in our lives, is the fact that these models can, and often do, work together. In fact, in a really good wargame, we hardly notice the joints at all. To return to the plumbing metaphor, there are no leaks and no nasty smells.

Saturday 6 July 2013

The Politics of Army Choice

I have mentioned before that our choice of army can be a highly personal one and, and also that we tend to reflect in our choices our own society. We do, perhaps, expect that the discourse on war which our society holds reflects back on the armies which we, as wargamers, chose to build and play with.

The discourse of war which obtains at present is not, of course, the same as those of armies and societies of the past. As I have tried to illustrate over the last couple of posts, decisive battle discourse is really something that only came to be popular in the last two hundred years or so. Prior to that, generals were normally advised to avoid battle if at all possible, and to only fight at an advantage.

One of the discourses available to us today about warfare, and within wargaming this is often the one, I think, most heard, is that of technological determinism. The idea that a man with a pointy stick in the word BC is the same as a man with a pointy stick AD should, I hope, by now be one met with an indulgent smile from my readers.  

This is not the only issue within technological determinism, however. Consider the question of the German Army in 1940. Its tanks were not the best tanks in the world. French tanks had thicker armour, better guns and so on. But it was the Germans who were rolling into Paris by mid-summer, not the French in Berlin, even though the former had poorer technology, by any technologist’s measure.

Now, I am sure that voices will be raised pointing out that the Germans made better use of their crews, had better radios (which is certainly technology) and so on, and I would agree. The point is, however, that these factors became true because the discourse of war which the German Army spoke regarded movement, communication and good shooting as important, and designed their tanks accordingly.

This discourse of war proved to be, temporarily but sufficiently, superior to that of their opponents, and victory, as decisive as can be obtained, was achieved.

The discourse of war of a particular army or culture is, therefore, at least in good measure, determinative of the manner of combat and expectations of battle that that army or culture has. Then, along come some wargamers who read about the campaigns and think ‘That looks interesting’, and proceed to write some rules and collect some figures.

Technology, at this point, is a lot easier to measure and handle than the cultural discourses of the opposing sides. A man with a pointy stick, or a bloke in a tank, can, at one level or another, be considered to be the ‘same’. The problem is, however, that they are, in fact, clearly not, and we then look closer at the technology than at the discourses.

These things are also reflected in our games. In a France 1940 game, by technological rights, the French should win, and, so far as my very limited experience goes, often do. How is this reflective of the history? I think it does show that technological determinism is, at least, not the whole story.

So, then, when we chose a wargame era or army, we are choosing not only a set of technologies which they used, by also a discourse of war which the culture from which it came held. The latter, almost inevitably, is much harder to understand and model than the former, and many rules, particularly those covering centuries or more, simply model the technology. A spearman is a spearman is the mantra here.

The next thing that happens is that our discourse of war, or wargaming, is then projected back onto the period in question. We look for the decisive battle, or the siege that changed the course of history. Mostly, as wargamers, it is the former we are interested in, or we would have no wargame.

But the fact is that in most warfare, there are no decisive battles. For example, during the English Civil War most of the battles, whoever won, were strategically unimportant. The winning side split up and went off to capture places, the losers recruited their strength from garrisons and pretty well carried on.

This is not because our ancestors were stupid (Isaac Newton, after all, was born in 1642) but because the discourse of war at the time did not include a crippling, decisive defeat for one side or the other. You could suggest (and I am not sure this has been done, but it is possible) that the formation what has come to be known as the ‘New Model Army’ indicated, in fact, a change in the discourse of war. The NMA was formed precisely to defeat the Royalist main field army, and fighting a big battle, and that is what, eventually, Fairfax was ordered to do.

So, as wargamers and wargame rule writers, we have to be careful. It is very easy to rush in with our technological determinism and our Romantic discourse of war, and create something which, in all probability, is a good and enjoyable game, but which reflects neither the real technical issues that were at stake nor the cultural discourses of war which were prevalent at the time.

In ‘Goths, Huns and Romans’ (Argus: 1990), Simon MacDowall has an interesting bit about choosing armies (p. 27). Do you see the Romans as tragic heroes defending the remnants of civilisation, or the German tribes as fighting for freedom from a decaying and decadent empire? Does this inform your choice of army for late Roman warfare?

I suspect that the fact is that the historical answer is that the originals would not have understood the descriptions given of them in the last paragraph. ‘freedom’ and ‘civilisation’ are loaded terms in our modern political discourses, and the choice we make is simply projecting our choices and values back onto an earlier, and different, discourse.

But then, given this, we have to do so to make any sort of choice at all, don’t we?