Saturday 9 November 2013

A Wargame Dialogue Part II

Socrates: So, then Bellus, are all these authentic historical wargames?
Bellus: Not really, Socrates. They are more like representations, flavours or similar.
S: Are they all good wargames?
B: I imagine that the players are enjoying themselves, Socrates.
S: So to be a good wargame it has to be enjoyable?
B: Well, Socrates, I suppose that as a hobby, if the activity was not enjoyable, we would not partake in it. Only fun runners and cyclists seem to enjoy the pain they inflict on themselves with their past-time.
S: So is a good and enjoyable wargame on in which you win?
B: Not necessarily, Socrates. It has to be a bit difficult, a bit of a knife edge cliff hanger to be a truly memorable wargame.
S: But, my dear chap, you’ve just changed the terms. Is a memorable wargame a good wargame, or an enjoyable one, or simply one that you have won?
B: A memorable wargame is one you remember, Socrates. I mean, it is usually enjoyable, or amusing, or unexpected, or all of these. But you do not really need to actually win the game for it to be that. I mean, some wargames you lose heroically, against the odds, but you do remember it as a good game.
S: So is the goodness of the game related to its game-ness. A good, even contest which could have gone either way, but some small misfortune or ill-advised move give rise to one side or the other winning.
B: Quite so, Socrates. A one sided wargame is no game at all, no fun.
S: But historical battles are often very one sided, are they not?
B: Well, sometimes, Socrates, but usually generals did not try to fight at huge disadvantages. And you do have to include troop quality, terrain and so on, so sometimes in real life what looks like a big disparity in sides can be reasonably equal.
S: So, then, why not do as your demo game coordinator and simply follow the timetable of the real battle?
B: Because it’s boring, Socrates!  History is contingent, battles are so in spades. If we follow the original battle, there would be no wargame as a game, anyway. But a wargame lets us explore that contingency; what could have happened.
S: How does that work, Bellus? A battle happened in the past. I’m not sure I know much about battles, but I do know that the past in unchangeable.
B: That is sort of it, I think, Socrates. We can make a model of a battle, or, more likely, a whole load of battles, and try to create some general rules as to how the battles might progress. We can test them against the original battles, by playing a game, and hope that the results are reasonably in line with the original. But it also gives us some latitude, within reason, to have a battle with a different outcome.
S: So the wargame can attempt to model contingent outcomes other than what actually happened in the real battle?
B: Quite so, Socrates. And then, you see, if we are reasonably happy with the model, we can go further and fight imaginary battles, battles which did not take place, just for fun, or for entertainment.
S: But these have nothing to do with real history.
B: No, Socrates, but it doesn’t really matter. It is, after all, a hobby.
S: Let us wander a little further around the club. Hm. What are these chaps doing, pray tell?
B: Oh, these are our tournament players, practising.
S: Practising a historical battle?
B: No, Socrates. You see the competition games can mean that they encounter any other allowed army in the rule set. So they could fight anyone. This one looks like, um, Medieval French against Inca.
S: So is this a historical wargame?
B: Well, the sides are historical. I mean, Medieval French are a historical army, and so are Incas.
S: But even our friends with the imaginary American Civil War battle at least had armies that did fight each other. Correct me if I’m wrong, Bellus, but the Medieval French never invaded South America, and nor, so far as I know, did the Inca assault the Isle de France.
B: No, Socrates, of course not. But you have to fight the opponent you get in a competition game. The problem here, as you see, is that the Inca army is huge and the French are small, but much higher quality. So the French player has to kill lots of Inca quickly to win the game, but the Inca has to swamp the French and make lots of reasonably lucky rolls to win.
S: So actually, this is more an exercise in problem solving within the model and rule set than anything to do with history?
B: Well, really, I suppose so, Socrates. But the model and rules are validated against historical match ups.
S: So the competition game is a sort of unvalidatable generalisation of the model contained within the rules?
B: Yes, I think that would be fair to say, Socrates. After all, Medieval French and Inca were on the same planet at the same time, so they could have met and fought.
S: So we are back to your historical contingency again, Bellus. It could have happened, and you happen to have a model which might tell you something about what would have happened has these two sides met, even though they didn’t meet.
B: There are a lot of ‘happens’ in the sentence, Socrates, but yes, I think that is the gist of it.
S: To, to go back to my original question, what is a good historical wargame? Does it really have that much to do with history?
B: Well, Socrates, it does and it doesn’t, I suppose. We can’t change history, but we can see what might have happened contingently otherwise. And, of course, however you look at it, we can still have an enjoyable game.


  1. Love it! I wish I'd used the line 'unvalidatable generalisation of the model contained within the rules' to that chap who kept pestering me to take on his samurai with my 16th Century Irish. It's so much more erudite than what I did say.....