Saturday 26 April 2014

The Great Upheaval

Strange as it may seem to many readers, this blog was originally designed to be a vehicle for recording my progress towards writing yet another set of rules, this time for Classical Greece and the Hellenistic wars of Alexander and the Successors.

Those of you who have been patiently awaiting these rules have, of course, thus far been disappointed. And I am not about to announce that the rules are to be released upon an unsuspecting wargame world. Far from the truth, that would be, but I have been thinking.

Mainly I have been thinking about my previous effort in Ancient Wargame Rules, called Polemos: SPQR which were rules for the late Republic and Early Empire. Someone recently blogged that they found them original (which was nice), baffling (so my prose is not as lipid as I would like) and that they had a large following (of which I was not aware). Someone else has expressed appreciation for my ‘trenchant’ views on Roman troops, which I take to mean my claim that auxilia and legionaries, being armed in much the same way, fought and functioned in much the same way.

However, I have to confess that as wargame rules they are, in fact, fairly conventional. I have lists of troop types with descriptions, a ground scale, a command structure, and rules for movement, fighting, running away and terrain. This is more or less what would be expected in any set of rules. The precise content may vary, but all the rule sets I own are of this nature.

Perhaps I am far too hide-bound by my own worldview, but it does seem to me that it is a bit unlikely that a rule set could be written which would not contain some or all of the above items. I know that assorted rule sets have claimed to do away with some bits. For example, some sets dispose of a fixed turn sequence, but they do substitute it for something else. So I am not sure that this is quite as innovative as might be claimed. Other might dispose of measuring ranges; on the other hand, for modern weapons, this is fair enough, so seems to represent the basis of recent warfare rather than being a, if you’ll pardon the expression, game changer.

It is also possibly true that wargamers are fairly conventional folk. Those rule sets which do not conform to the expectation are, as far as I can tell, a bit like yeast extract spreads: you either love them or hate them. Even while writing and testing SPQR I was somewhat conscious of having to attend to the conventions of the hobby; kicking over all the traces did not seem like a viable option.

Now, coming to the wars of the Greeks and Persians (and, let’s face it, this is what everything down to the Successors was) I am starting to wonder if another completely conventional rule set, even if one with some innovation in it, is really what is needed. The wars are so clouded in obscurity and myth that it is, I think, really hard to convince a player that what they are playing is something historical, rather than something which matches a construct which claims to be historical.

I shall probably elaborate on that statement in a different post, but just for the fun of it, let me see what could happen if I just try some thinking about ancient battles.

We have cavalry and infantry as our basic two types of troops. Within each we conventionally define ‘heavy’ and ‘light’, but actually these are metaphors relating to armour and are not validated by even a cursory glance at the historical record. So let us have close combat and distance combat troops. So we have four basic troop types: infantry close combat (ICC), infantry distance combat (IDC) and their cavalry colleagues (CCC and CDC).

Now, so far as the distance types go, this is probably far enough. However, our close troops need a bit of nuancing. Persian infantry of the Marathon era relied on firepower, so we need a category for them: ICCF, and their mounted colleagues did the same, so CCCF. Greek hoplites and pikemen can come under the ICC category. Greek cavalry would be CCCF and Macedonian Companions would be CCC.

So, for example, the army of Alexander would consist of CCC, CDC, ICC and possibly a few IDC.

Now, immediately I can hear protests that a Macedonian phalanx was not the same thing as a hoplite phalanx. The pike, it is often claimed, gave the former a decisive advantage over the latter, as demonstrated at Chaeronea 338 BC. This, of course, is technological teleology – the weapons system in question gave a decisive advantage.

Well, did it? I’m not in a position to argue terribly well either way; I do not think the evidence exists. But suppose the pike does not give a decisive advantage. Suppose that the Macedonians are experienced and highly confident troops and the hoplite are much less confident and, to some extent, the last dregs that their city can muster. Add to that the fact that the Macedonians could execute combined arms tactics coordinating their cavalry and foot.

So what I am starting to aim towards is a system with just six or so troop types, and little differentiation between them. I am also considering ignoring tactical factors, partly because people complain about them as being too complex, but also because, for example, standing on a river bank at The Granicus does not seem to do you much good. So for tactical factors we give all troop types a 3 against others of the same sort, and a 2 or a 4 against heterogeneous forces. What we can also do is give veterans a +2, and elite another +2, and poor troops a -2. I suppose we had also add 1 per extra depth as well, as depth did seem to matter.

And there you have it, a simple, swift and accurate set of ancient wargame rules. Six troop types, three different factors, and 4 tactical factors to consider.

The question is, of course, would you buy them? They seem to me to lack a bit of colour; would simply changing the names to familiar ones (like hoplite, peltast) suffice?

Saturday 19 April 2014

Virtue Ethics and Wargames

As, probably, many of you have worked out by now, I am something of a fan of virtue ethics. I am sure I have already wittered on about how virtue ethics date back at least as far as Aristotle, but were largely ignored after the utilitarianism of the nineteenth century, and only fairly recently made a comeback.

Partly, I think, the ignoring of virtue ethics was because, at the end of the day, virtue ethics is a lot harder than utilitarianism or other sorts of rules based ethics. Utilitarianism offers a calculus for determining whether something is ethical or not, even though it fails to deliver on that promise. Rules based (deontological) ethics also appears to offer a neat solution, giving a clear boundary between right and wrong, until you realise that it cannot offer a rule for every situation that life throws at an ethical agent.

As a consequence of this, I was interested to stumble across a chapter in a book called ‘A Virtue Ethical Case for Pacifism’, by Franco V. Trivigno (in Virtues in Action: New Essays in Applied Virtue Ethics, edited by Michael Austin, New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2013)) and even more interested to find that the author had placed a copy on, where I snarfed it from. I am not exactly sure what the copyright implications of this are (I presume he had permission to post it), and I have no intention of making any money out of my use of it, so I guess it is above board. Mind you, the book itself is seriously expensive, so the circulation of the chapters would be very restricted if it were not for the internet.

My interest, of course, was at least partly related to the question of whether anything Trivigno says could possibly be related to the ethics of wargaming, and, if so, how it could be so related. In fact, Trivigno comes up with an argument for pacifism which I have not really seen before, certainly not as a standalone argument.

The key point of Trivigno’s argument is that modern military training is designed to overcome our innate resistance to killing other human beings. He argues two training strategies are used. Firstly, soldiers are trained in life like situations and rewarded for ‘kills’ and punished for failures. The idea here is that the troops, on a battlefield, engage in conditioned responses without actually thinking about what they are doing. What happens afterwards, of course, has been shown to be rather problematical, as the frequent diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder shows.

Secondly, the enemy is euphamised away. An enemy solider becomes a target. Units are degraded rather than killed or wounded. Civilians become collateral damaged rather than people killed though accident or intentional double effect. Once dehumanised, the enemy becomes easier to kill. They are no longer people, moral agents themselves with lives, interests, families and friends, but objects. Moral distance enables us not to treat them as people; dehumanisation, particularly, is easier where there are social and cultural gaps as well, as all too often there are.

Trivigno’s problem with warfare is not, a priori, therefore with the act of war in general, but with the moral damage that such training does to the soldiers. People who cannot empathise by training with another human being are damaged by that training, and so, Trivigno argues, the training for war in itself is immoral.

As a consequence of this, Trivigno argues that the state, which is responsible for the flourishing of its citizens, should not engage in war because the training for modern war involves damaging the flourishing of some of its citizens, even if the state does not participate in any wars at all. On the other hand he does admit that, for example, being invaded is not something that is likely to increase the flourishing of the citizens of a flourishing state. This latter is what Trivigno calls a narrow pacifism. The state may defend its citizens from invasion, but not engage in any other military activity.

I am not, here, trying to agree or disagree with this stance. It is to me a rather novel one and not one I can find described in the pacifist literature, for example John Howard Yoder’s Nevertheless, which outlines more pacifist positions than you can shake a stick at. But, as I said, I am a bit interested in the implications for wargaming.

Firstly, Trivigno claims that his virtue pacifism only works for post-World War Two wars, where these training methods were applied. The implication of this is, of course, that before this, troops were not trained to hate the enemy and did not have their innate resistance to killing broken down.

I do wonder if this is correct, because if it is, then we do perhaps have to rethink our views of morale and training. Having just finished Peter Wilson’s mighty work on the Thirty Years War it is clear that frequently, defeated troops were simply recruited to the victor’s side, even when one side was Protestant and the other Catholic (it worked both ways). Clearly the troops did not hate the other side, and also, at least on the ground, religion was not a major issue in the wars, whatever the propaganda said.

Secondly, if the argument (and it is based on Marshall’s investigations, which are not perhaps the most reliable ones) is correct, then casualties should be light, as indeed my memory of actions in the English Civil War suggests. Most people cannot bring themselves to actually try to harm a fellow human being. Only a few trying to be heroes or psychopaths will, without training, actively try to harm another human, at least without provocation. The other factor which may play here is the oversight of an authority, an officer standing over the men to make sure they did their duty.

Now, I expect you thought that this post would turn into another one of wargame ethics, and so, in fact, did I when I got the paper. But maybe it should cause us to think again about what we mean by morale and training for our wargame armies. 

Saturday 12 April 2014

The Idea of a Campaign

I suspect, although I do not know (a poll of local wargamers gave an overwhelmingly positive response, but since that is only me, this is hardly a surprise), that for most of us a wargame campaign is something we might dream of, occasionally sketch plans for but rarely actually get around to delivering on. And this is a shame, because my experience of wargame campaigns is that they can be extremely satisfying.

Of course, that raises the question of why, exactly, we should run campaigns as wargamers. A recent comment (I think by Ruraigh, but I could be wrong) suggested that the idea of a wargame campaign was to create battles or, presumably, a series of linked battles. A battle set in the context of an ongoing campaign has more hanging on it than a single “pick up” wargame.

I am reminded of a comment in one of the naval wargames books (although I forget which, perhaps some kindly reader with a better memory can supply the details) wherein the author comments that in a land based wargame, a cross-roads or village can simply be designated strategically important and hence provide a motivation for the battle. At sea, one cannot simply designate a stretch of water strategically important and then fight over it. Naval wargames, he argued, were better if fought in the context of a campaign.

Now, of course, the concepts of ‘better’ and ‘worse’ are highly subjective. I doubt if any wargamer worth his or her salt would seriously baulk at a wargame because it was not offered as part of a campaign. Any game is perhaps better than no game at all. But if a wargame is in any sense better for being part of a campaign, it rather behoves us to consider why that might be.

On the positive side of wargame campaigns, firstly, they tend to take away the dreaded ‘equal points’ battle so beloved of competition games. Smaller forces in campaigns can be forced to, or may accept, battle for entirely logical reasons. A weaker force may lose the battle but help to win the campaign.

Secondly, a campaign does provide reasons for having a battle, and also a context within which to have the wargame. Often, a win or loss is defined by one side getting to a certain morale level, or losing so many bases, or whatever, and, in a pick up game, that is so far as it goes. In a campaign a player on the losing side, instead of holding out until the last, might start a withdrawal sooner, so as to preserve a force in being. A beaten army is a more potent force (in many circumstances, at least) than a routed one.

Thus, a battle in a campaign context is different from one where the battle is the focus and end of the activity. As wargamers (and, indeed, as humans in general) the battle is the final activity of a lengthy campaign. If we read modern accounts of battles, we get lengthy accounts of the forces, the strategy, the grand tactical manoeuvres and so on, and then we get the battle. Perhaps this is followed by a brief ‘aftermath’ and account of the follow up and consequences, but it battle is the high point of the whole account. But, I suspect, real generalship is not, particularly, about the battle, but on getting to the field and getting off it afterwards. Certainly, I think, in ancient and early modern times, generals had little control of the battle itself, only the deployment, following up and retreat were theirs to organise.

On the downside of campaigns, there is, of course, the necessity to organise one and to play out map moves rather than to bang the figures on the table and get on with rolling dice. I suspect that this is the biggest block, psychologically anyway, to campaigns. Why fiddle around with bits of paper and maps when we could be having a wargame? My only response to this is firstly to agree, and secondly to point to the positive effects of a campaign as outlined above.

Secondly, I think, and this is confirmed by my own experience, that often the campaign is viewed rather as a grandiose scheme. Perhaps we have, in the long run, been badly served by accounts of Tony Bath’s Hyboria campaign and similar huge, multiplayer games. The complexity of running these is, even in these computationally sophisticated days, mind boggling.

I do not mean to be negative about such campaigns, of course. ‘The Campaign that Grew’ was some of my favourite reading in Battle and then Military Modelling, but it does give the impression that this is the Holy Grail of campaigns. In fact, if you read Setting Up a Wargames Campaign, Bath actually developed a wide variety of techniques for running campaigns in various forms and formats. Nevertheless, I suspect that Hyboria is, in the back of many wargamer’s minds, the gold standard for campaign games.

However, I do think that campaign games can add dimensions and purpose to wargaming. My own Fuzigore campaign is not complex. It consists of a scrawled map, some tables of international relations, and a narrative thread. As I have already documented here, this has led to a Gaul vs Gaul bash, followed by a raid by the beaten Gauls into Roman territory where they besieged and captured a city, ambushing and defeating the relief force, and finally a stand up battle between the Gauls and the miffed Romans which lead to the heavy defeat of the former.

Apart from the first of these, the battles were not heavy duty campaigns, but the narrative thread strung the three combats together, and made each one greater than just the pushing of lead on a table. Of course, I am now in a narrative quandary about what to do next, but that, in fact, is part of the fun. If I want another battle, I’ll roll a few dice and make something up.

But I think the campaign games need not be complex, but do need a strong narrative. A bit like normal wargames, really.

Saturday 5 April 2014

In Defence of War

I mentioned before that I was reading this book (Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War (2013) Oxford: OUP), but that was in the context of thinking about callous generals, and how, in actually planning and managing the battle, generals have to be callous, even if the rest of the time they can look after their men rather well.

I have now finished the volume, and I am not going to review it, particularly, here. It is a good book, focussing on the just war tradition in the west and whether recent conflicts measure up. These include Kosovo, Iraq and World War One. Biggar considers whether international law requires a UN Security Council resolution, for example, and discusses what happens if the Security Council is politically divided but some states still want to take action.

So, this is a very interesting book, but not, on the face of it, one for wargamers. However, Biggar does observe that the default position in political and social circles today is that of effective, if not actual, pacifism. The initial response of governments, particularly in the west, is that of finding the path of peace, of negotiation, of sanctions and certainly criticising governments that do, in the end, go to war.

As I have mentioned before, this has also been seen in the arguments over the teaching of the First World War. Was it heroic British Empire forces saving Europe from the dark hordes, or was it a simply error on the part of the political classes which led to the pointless waste of blood in the carnage of the Flanders trenches?

Biggar, in fact, spends a little time in the book discussing the causes of the First World War, and comes down on the side of modern German historiography that, in fact, the whole war was, in significant degree, orchestrated from Berlin and that the British Empire did have legitimate reasons for declaring war, both practically (having the southern Channel coast held by a weak nation like Belgium was in the national interest) and legally (the 1839 treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality was still in force).

Still, the interesting bit of the book for me as a wargamer is the idea that pacifism is the norm in modern cultural and political circles. Biggar spends some time discussing both faith based pacifism (John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas) and secular pacifism (David Rodin). In fact, he spends much of the time tackling the latter. However, it is the bigger question which interests me here, and that is the fact that if Biggar is right, it might go some way to explaining some of the immediate hostility and incomprehension that we can experience in response to the statement ‘I am a wargamer’.

Here I have to depart a bit from what Biggar is interested in, so what follows is not critique of the book, but my own views. Firstly, we have to note that the Christian just war tradition requires just authority to declare a war and use violent coercion.

Up until the mid-nineteenth century, this was, in general, not a problem. The authority was the sovereign, and wars were declared by them were, by that very fact, just. The actual justice of the cause was, thereby, fairly irrelevant. There was a mystique about government; those who governed were those who were born to do so, trained through a lifetime to make governmental decisions and, hence, had a right to declare war, negotiate peace and intervene in nations far away.

The coming of democracy did, in the end, make a difference to this idea. Government was, no longer a mysterious process worked out in (in the UK anyway) Whitehall corridors and gentlemen’s clubs. In part, of course, this was a result of the wars made under the old regime. Monarchs had to get money to fund the wars from somewhere, and that meant their people and, as the people realised this, representative government became more widespread and started to look more dimly on monarchs and their creatures going to war for dynastic purposes.

I generalise, but only a bit.

Anyway, with the coming of democracy it became rather harder to declare war on other countries, and, as it turned out, with increasing technology and communications, it became a lot more expensive in men and money to go to war. Furthermore, wars went on for longer, requiring new taxes (income tax in the UK was a temporary measure brought in, I believe, during the Napoleonic Wars. It is still going. Napoleon has a lot to answer for).

The experience of the carnage of the First World War, along with a lot of dubious propaganda about it in the late 1920’s, led political life to turn away from the idea of war as a good bit of international relations, and it took the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich to persuade people otherwise.

Of course, after the Second World War and the arrival of nuclear weapons, lots of people started to (quite rightly) get worried that a conventional shooting war could quickly turn into a nuclear war if one of the powers involved was losing and had access to nuclear weapons. No-one, after all, really wants to conquer a nuclear wasteland, but if the excuse is to stop a brutal regime conquering my own innocent country and this was the only way to do it, there is some justification for the response.

So it is against this sort of background that, I think, pacifism has become the public norm, and hence, against which wargamers live. War is regarded as being a failure of politics (even when the other side refuses to negotiate meaningfully) and, while it may still be an acceptable last resort, it is not the sort of thing that nice, middle class people like to think about.

Wargamers are, therefore, suspect, because we do think about it rather a lot, even if, as is sometimes the case, our thinking about it pushes us towards the pacifist end of the spectrum. But, in the eyes of society as a whole, it does seem to make us look rather odd.