Saturday 28 December 2013

Community and Horizon

A few weeks ago there was a bit of discussion about wargame communities. In particular, it was suggested that, in fact, the wargame community is a set or family of communities, some of which struggle to interact with each other, sometimes.

Assorted examples of this are possible. We can start with the difference between science fiction and historical wargames. The latter, could, according to the former, be deemed as boring because history has already happened so the outcomes are already known.  This implies at least an entirely na├»ve determinist view of history, but it could, I suppose, be defensible. Nevertheless, it does rather undercut the ground for holding a dialogue.

Now, please note that I am not saying that all science fiction wargamers are like this, nor that historical wargamers are any paragons of virtue when it comes to communicating across boundaries. Just that these boundaries do exist, even within the overall hobby (whatever that might be).

Now, I have commented before on our wargaming horizons. There are three classes of object within our horizon. Firstly, those which we know, understand and are familiar with. We can think of them as known knowns. To some extent, they are over familiar, rather boring. To think of them is like being asked over and over again about who won the battle of Waterloo.

The second class of objects are, so to speak, known unknowns. They are objects which fall within our interests, but which are interesting to discuss, find out about, research and so on. To find out more about a subject we are interested in enriches our mental models of events and things, and enlarges our knowledge. Furthermore, we feel comfortable with these ideas and methods. We like to discover more in these areas which interest us.

The final class of objects are those which hold no interest for us. They are, so to speak, beyond our horizons. We simply know little about them, and care less. When the conversation starts about them, we switch off, of change channel, or daydream. If we do have to look at them, we struggle to see interest and relevance. We can characterize these as unknown unknowns, although uninteresting unknowns might be more accurate.

Now, these horizons are, of course, individual. I have my interests, you have yours and there is no reason why the two should overlap. We might be able to have an interesting discussion about painting techniques for toy soldiers, but your interest in the Third Gallician War may make my eyes glaze over, while my enthusiasm for developing a philosophy of wargaming cause you to offer to buy me a drink, just to interrupt the flow (I can hope, anyway).

If this is true of the individuals who make up the ‘wargaming community’, it is also true of those communities themselves. While I am not first in the queue to claim that a community is simply the sum of its members, the interests of the members of the community do direct the interest of the community as a whole. Thus, the interest of the Napoleonic wargamer community is directed to the period of 1792 – 1815, or thereabouts. There may be peripheral interests as well, such as the Indian sub-continent during the same period, but essentially, the interests of the community cohere around a fairly well specified core.

Of course, you do not need to be a member of just one community of interest. You can be a Napoleonic wargamer and an Ancients wargamer as well. You might also dabble in World War Two games, and so on. The point is that these are all communities which have a well-defined (more or less) core interest. As a member of all these communities, you do actually bring a different viewpoint to each.

Thus, your outlook is not defined by a single wargamer community. You can bring together the insights of two, three or more communities to a single wargaming issue. Drawing on the resources of all these communities, it is possible to have some sort of sensible conversation across them, such as ‘what does disorder mean, and what does it lead to?’ The answers from the different communities may well be different, but you might be in a position to find some underlying essence to the concept of disorder, or some overarching description of it.

The essential point here is, I suppose, about the context of the individual wargamer, embedded in as many communities of wargamers as they choose. We can be single community wargamers, fascinated by, say, Napoleon, and content to become a community expert on that single topic. (We have to bear in mind that these communities can be geographically and temporally diverse, as well as dynamic). Or we may dip into one and then the other community, never staying anywhere long enough to gain more than a taste of this or that issue, or even being turned off a particular topic and community by some particularly objectionable behaviour or  obscure argument which seems vital but is entirely opaque to a newcomer.

The human being tends to direct their interest to a given topic, within a given community. The history and interests of that community also direct the interest of the individual who is a member of it. Thus we get a (hopefully) virtuous cycle, of interest reinforcing interest, knowledge sparking learning, more research and more knowledge. The care which we need to take, however, is that our particular community does not start to see itself either as a gate-keeper to a given subject, nor at the authority which should be obeyed without question.

You might think that this does not happen in wargaming. We are all nice, easy going people with a relaxing hobby, after all.

However, my observations over a good number of decades suggest that wargamers are no different from other people, and can try to dominate, grab authority, exclude others and do all the things that cause, for example, board room politics (or for that matter, soap operas like Dallas) to grab the front pages.

But that is simply the penalty for being members of these communities. If we did not have them, our lives would be much poorer. But being part of a community with knowledge and, thus, a degree of authority is no excuse for us running amok with authoritarian views about that community and its activities.

Saturday 21 December 2013

The Earliest Wargame

It is, rather surprisingly, that time of year again, the bit where I try to do something a bit lighter as a kind of early Christmas present to the assembled company.

This time, I would like to consider a very early wargame. Now, we know that wargaming has been around for a while. For example, Frederick the III of Prussia, I seem to recall, had toy soldiers. And of course, there is the terracotta army from China.

But were these for wargames?

The earliest literary evidence I have so far stumbled upon for a wargame is this:

And you, O mortal, take a brick and set it before you. On it portray a city, Jerusalem; and put siege works against it, and build a siege wall against it, and cast up a ramp against it; set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it all round. Then take an iron plate and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; set your face towards it, and let it be in a state of siege, and press the siege against it. This is a sign for the house of Israel.

I guess that the last line rather gives the source away. This comes from the book of Ezekiel, Chapter 4, verses 1 – 3 (NRSV in the version above). It is, clearly, an account of a siege wargame.

Commentators on Ezekiel have been rather dismissive of the passage, describing it as a child’s wargame, a sign that Jerusalem would be besieged. Nevertheless, it is a very early description of such a game.

Now the date is, of course, a bit tricky. According to the fairly little I can find out, Ezekiel was in the first tranche of exiles to Babylon from Jerusalem, which suggests that the date of the above passage is before 597 BC, when Jerusalem was captured by Nebuchadrezzar. On the other hand, the book of Ezekiel is generally very odd indeed, the texts we have are not very reliable, and the book is not in chronological order, so I would imagine that other options, and dates, abound.  

Nevertheless, this is certainly the earliest clear account of a wargame I am aware of, although I am willing to stand corrected.

And a very Happy Christmas to everyone who reads these warblings.

Saturday 14 December 2013

On Ideas

Sometimes, ideas for wargaming come from rather unlikely sources. As some of you may have worked out by now, I read rather a lot and, often, read stuff which are not, in particular, wargame or history related. Nevertheless, you can still find interesting concepts, scenarios or ideas for rules, or wargames, or even writing slightly pretentious blog posts.

A case in point is my recent (and, as yet, unfinished) reading of the Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought c 350 – c 1450 (ed Burns, Cambridge University Press, 1991). Not, on the face of it, an obvious choice for a wargamer, nor as a source for wargame rules or writing. That is not to deny that it might be interesting, of course (it is, although a bit dry in places), but it just is not on the face of it likely material for a wargame.

I was, however, reading my way through the section which ran from c 750 to c 1150, and the text was commenting on the situation in France after the fall of the Carolingian ‘empire’. The kings of France had, obviously, lost control of most of France at that point, being confined to the Ile de France and not even all of that. The kingdom was very fragmented and unstable at this time, as you could imagine, with every lord with a half decent castle taking control of the few miles around his castle and entering into alliances and wars with their neighbours.

Of course, the king had a few advantages. A few more resources, naturally, and, of course, the huge ideological boost of being a king. Quite a lot of ink was spilt over what advantages this in fact gave him, but it did give some, certainly. So the king, as king, could do some things to his putative vassals, like demand that they stop fighting each other and live in peace. Not only that, but if they ignored him, he could legitimately go and lay siege to their castles until they became less recalcitrant.

The possibilities here for a wargame campaign are, surely, obvious, even to a bear of very little brain like me. All I need would be a few early medieval types, probably some sort of Normans and Saxons, and a map. I even have in my possession a nice castle. Sieges, of course, are a bit boring, but there are some nice dice based resolution systems out there, or even a bit of a skirmish game could be had. Additionally, the threatened lord could come out and fight like, well, a lord.

Part of the interest here, of course, is in the politics anyway, specifically in the making and breaking of alliances, changing sides at unexpected moments and so on. If one were feeling ambitious, the role of the church could be included. Does the king accept the overlordship of the Pope? If he does, then his enemies can be preached against, but, on the downside, if you start losing you might find yourself displaced by another, as losers, clearly, do not have God on their side.

Slightly anachronistically, of course, you could also be sent on a crusade or have to obey the Peace of Christ, even though your enemies do not. Given all this it is no wonder that medieval kings supported canon lawyers and theologians at their courts.

So, there you are, a simple paragraph in an obscure academic tome which opens the door to a whole wealth of wargaming possibilities. Taking this core of an idea, of course, together with borrowing from, for example, Tony Bath’s Setting Up a Wargame Campaign or C S Grant’s book Wargame Campaigns and you are off for many a long winter evenings interest in medieval high jinks and skulduggery.

Ideas, then, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, or, at least, from different places. I have mentioned before considering local history as a source for such, but there is no reason what someone else’s history could not suffice. The point is to find an angle which is fresh and reasonably new, rather than just hacking through the same old sources, putting the same old battles on.

Since I am banging on about ideas and sources, can I just put in one plea. Please do not get me wrong in this: I like and have many of the classic military history sources, such as A H Burne and Oman. They are very useful and, for people like Don Featherstone, just about the best there was to be had. They did, however, have a certain view point, a certain world view generated by their own location and context in history. Things have moved on, historiographically. I have to confess that my heart really does sink a bit when an article or rule set cites them as sources.

Military history is not, of course, popular in the academy, which is a bit of a problem in getting away from Burne and Oman and their ilk. But it is not impossible. In order to keep the hobby looking and feeling reasonably fresh and intelligent, not to mention interesting to potential new wargamers, I think we have a responsibility not only to present new wargames, but to present all wargames with the very best information and interpretations that we can find.

Now, it might be said that I have an unfair advantage, working as I do on the edge of the academy. That might be true, but the wonders of the Internet open all sorts of possibilities, such as finding the original sources, often for free, and also tracking down some recent interpretations, or even some old but obscure ones. It might take a little time to get into how to find stuff, but once you do there are some real gems out there, not necessarily from the academy or behind pay walls.

That said, of course, we still need imagination. Research of all kinds does, in fact. The popular conception of research proceeding logically and certainly towards a goal is nonsense. Serendipity and imagination are also required. So why not have a go?

Saturday 7 December 2013

Particulars and Universals

Reflecting a bit on the conversation recently about probability, emergence and ‘black swan’ events. I encountered an idea put forward by Soren Kierkegaard (and, probably a few others) about history. Now, I’ve never really considered the philosophy of history, probably because I am, at heart, a physical scientist, but this seemed to hit a chord when it comes to wargaming.

Firstly, of course, Kierkegaard (translated, his surname means ‘churchyard’, which is interesting in a sort of random way), is one of those philosophers of the western canon who is very hard to categorize. There is even an argument as to whether or not he was a philosopher at all, rather than a theologian, or just a pain old writer of some interesting stuff. Actually, so far as I know, theologians treat him a bit like an unexploded bomb, as well. So he is rather a difficult bloke to get a grip of.

Fortunately, for the purposes of this post, I do not need to grapple with the complexities of the authorship, his view of Hegel’s thought and the Danish Golden Age. I do not even have to deal with Kierkegaard’s actual view of irony and its use in industrial Europe. But he does have a certain view of the history of irony which I would like to make use of here.

Effectively, Kierkegaard criticises Hegel for his view of the history of irony for being too conceptual. He also praises Hegel for not focussing too much on the particulars of the history of irony, as Hegel’s predecessors did, at least according to Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard’s view, thus, is that you need both the particulars, in this case an understanding of Socrates, Athens of the period when he was active, the thought of the ancient Greek world, the historical context against which Socrates spoke, came to trial and was executed, and so on. But you also need the conceptual, the universal, by which he means an understanding of the idea of irony which Socrates used.

 Kierkegaard’s point against Hegel was that he rushed too quickly from the particular circumstances of Socrates to the universal conception of irony, that Hegel did not spend enough effort actually grappling with ancient Greece and its world of thought before generalising.

Now, this is not the place to delve into the question of whether Kierkegaard was right or not. Whole tomes have been written on the subject, even though, as I hinted a little above, Kierkegaard is regarded as being a bit of an oddball in western philosophy. In my view (for what little it is worth), Kierkegaard has a lot going for him and is becoming one of my favourite really annoying philosophers of the moment. After all, you do not read philosophers with whom you agree, as that is intellectually flabby. Read the ones with whom you have a beef and explain why you disagree.

But I digress.

Anyway, these concepts of the particular and the universal seem to me to have a bearing on the discussion of probability, emergence and black swan events. All we have in history is a series of events, more or less well known, more or less well interpreted by our current historiographical tools. However, as humans and, perhaps, more specifically, as wargamers, we are conscious that a particular series of events is contingent, perhaps we might say radically contingent (the word ‘radical’ being very popular nowadays).

So, in Kierkegaard’s terms we have something that is particular, the stream of events of, say, a battle. We also know that this stream of events is contingent, in that it could have happened differently. For example, if Prince Rupert had not retired to his coach for supper immediately before Parliament attacked at Marston Moor, his right may not have caved in quite so quickly. We would then have a different battle, as indeed we would if the pistol ball which wounded Cromwell had been an inch or so further over.

As wargamers, however, we rely on abstractions from these contingent events. These are the concepts, the universals which we include in our rules, which we pepper our history and games with. Thus, as was pointed out in the discussion, we prefer rules which evolve modestly, which are not peppered with totally disruptive black swans. And it is here that the distinction between the universal and particular starts to bite.

We only have the one stream of history to deal with, the one set of particular events which make up a battle, a war, a series of wars for which we wish to write a single set of rules. We have to determine, within that set of particular events, which are the concepts we are going to use for our rules. Which of the events are reasonable, sensible, are not going to upset players of the game, and so on.

Some rule sets decide to incorporate as much of the particular as possible. A battle was lost because the troops ran out of water? Incorporate it in the rules: troops in hot weather in dry places suffer such and such a penalty if they are more than x moves from water. Is this, really, a sensible abstraction to a universal rule of war? I am unconvinced.

Such examples could be multiplied, but I will not bother here. You can, I am sure, supply copious examples of your own, or, perhaps, I have just had a tendency to buy that sort of rule set. Anyway, in my experience, such particular rules are usually wisely ignored by the players, and only go to thicken up the rule book, make the rules more complex (how often, after all, do you need to read ‘-1 if thirsty’?) and show off the writer’s historical erudition, if not their ability to decide what is important conceptually.

This is, then, I think the crux of the matter. Given a single set of events, how can we sensibly decide which of them are concepts, universals, for inclusion in the rule set, and which are the oddball, unusual, specific events which need not be covered? And, I suppose, how do we spot the real black swan ones? My hunch is that the two latter would be claimed as ‘scenario specific’ items. But how do we tell, really?