Saturday 28 June 2014

When is a Unit a Unit?

I have, I think, written before about emergence as a concept in wargaming, but I suspect that there is a bit more to say, more specifically. This pondering was triggered by a piece on Ross’ blog about sixteenth century wargaming, and the cross over between skirmish type games and big battle ones.

Specifically, I think Ross was considering how small units, which we might find in a skirmish wargame, became bigger units which we might use in a battle wargmae. When does one become the other? When does an individual become part of a unit, and when does a unit become part of an army?

Of course, this is a complex question which I can only pretend to have a stab at answering. Intuitively we sort of know the answers, at least at the extremes. A skirmish game is one with a handful or so of figures in which they move and act individually and who are identified as individuals, perhaps with some characteristics, personal goals, individual injuries and so on.

A battle level game is one where, on the whole, personalities are ignored. A unit acts as a unit, and the only individuals who may be taken account of are at the general level, or at most the individual unit commanders.

The question to ask here, however, is how does one merge into another? Is there such a thing as a ‘small’ battle  scale, one in which units and individuals matter? If so, how on earth could we wargame that?

Now, obviously, at the smallest scale, the individual comes to the fore. The choices the individual makes, for example whether to keep his head down or to charge forward, are specific to that individual and the context in which he (or she) finds himself. Thus, at a role playing game level, individuals, controlled by a single player, can make these decisions. The decisions made are moderated by the player, the other players (“You’ve not done anything brave all game”), the skills and abilities of the characters and so on. But the individual reaction is based around some sort of risk analysis by the individual concerned, and whether the potential benefits will outweigh them.

A group of role players is probably not a terribly good place to start an analysis of the next level up, however. Player characters are supposed to be the hero level in their world, and thus to be a cut above the usual soldier in a skirmish. You could add to that role playing is, perhaps the ultimate in the assertion of modernist individuality. In some games, after all, a single player character can take on an entire army with a reasonable expectation of winning.

The shift up from a small bunch of individuals to a small unit means that, in order for the game to be playable, we need to defocus from the individual to some extent. We might not have the same level of detail of skills and outlooks. We may retain that for, say, the officers involved, but   the men start to look more like cannon fodder than anything else. We can also start to consider the impact of orders and reactions to them. In role playing, there are few orders per se; mostly actions are from peer pressure or simply ‘doing the job’. In a unit based skirmish game, individuals can be given specific orders, such as ‘provide covering fire’. Whether they are carried out efficiently or effectively is, of course, a matter for the players and the rules, but the principle is there.

At this level and the ones above it there is not much room for the individual as individual.  Our toy soldiers have become less individuals on the battlefield, and more tokens of the troops and their types. This increases, of course, as the scale of the battle increases. Once a toy solider is representing more than one individual, the effect of those individuals qua individuals is washed out in any rule set. The mass starts to rule.

Of course, this impacts on our rules. The effect of 100 men firing is not the same as the effect of one man firing. The former has some sort of averaged effect depending on range, average training and so on. The latter is a matter of skill, plus a bit of luck. The effect of 100 men firing is not the same as the effect of one man firing 100 times. At least, the moral effect of being on the receiving end of a volley of 100 shots delivered at the same time is going to be different from 100 single shots, even if they all miss in both cases.

Moving up the scale, we have to leave behind individual morale and decision making, and start to consider command, control and unit morale. And of course, the word ‘unit’ can mean varying things. Is it this platoon, this company, this battalion, this brigade, this division, wing or even the overall army? The emergence of these higher levels tends to wash out the impacts of the lower ones, and yet somehow those lower levels impact on the upper ones. A unit is still composed of individuals deciding to keep their heads down or not.

So when we come to a wargame I think we do have to consider what level we are playing at, and what sort of effects we are aiming for. The older sorts of rules still regarded the toy solider as an individual. Once that legionary has thrown his pilum, he had to get stuck in with his sword. There was not that much consideration of the unit as a whole. If half the unit had thrown their javelins, there were still a fair number of javelins left to go around.

More recent rules do account for the unit, but perhaps in more abstract terms. The most widely known abstraction of unit morale I know of is in the DBA family of games, where it is implied that unit morale is included in the combat factors and die rolls. This might be acceptable, but it does seem to have abstracted the whole question of collective behaviour away, and, in fact, parked morale squarely on the army as a whole, and, in part, on the player.

So there is no real answer to the question of when a skirmish game is a skirmish game. But I guess we know one when we see it.

Saturday 21 June 2014

History – Can Wargames Help?

Wargamers, at least of a historical nature are, almost by definition, consumers of history. That is, your average historical wargamer reads a fair bit of history, whether historical sources material (usually in translation), secondary sources or, I suspect most frequently, popular accounts of history.

Certainly my shelves are groaning under the weight of history, or at least historical tomes of varying sorts, ranging from the inevitable Oman (you have to have him to be a wargamer, I think) to the slightly more abstruse or, at least to a wargamer, peripheral, such as Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down.

The point is that, however we construe it, as wargamers we not only consume toy soldiers, paints, rules and so on, but we consume history. Many other people, of course, consume history; you do not have to be a wargamer so to do, but as historical gamers we perhaps attempt to go one step further. We not only consume history, we attempt to make (or, strictly speaking, remake) it.

I have wittered on before at great length here about the process of doing history, the philosophy of history, if you like. I concluded that, more or less, Collingwood has the right sort of idea when he argues that history, for the historian, is the recreation of events mentally which are then written down. The writing down is thus an attempt to to instill the same insights in the reader’s mind as were in the historian’s and, hence, to communicate an understanding of historical events and why they might have happened thus.

History is, of course, contingent. As inquiring minds read about historical events, it is nearly impossible not to ask questions about them. If so and so had known such and such, would the outcome of history be different? Slightly different circumstances, different knowledge, differing motivations could significantly change history, given the contingency of the flow of events anyway.

One way historians can and do work with this is to ask these questions. What, for example, could the Confederate South have done to win the American Civil War? What other resources could have been bought into play? What other strategies, military or political or diplomatic could have been used and would they have materially affected the outcome of the war?

Of course, some answers are either trivial or assume such wholesale changes to previous history as to render them more or less irrelevant. The South could, theoretically at least, have been a non-slave area, and, thus, there would have been no pretext for the war. The problem with that counterfactual is that it would require significant changes to the history of the previous two hundred years or so. It is thus not a counterfactual about the American Civil War, but about the foundation of the colonies and their subsequent history. The problem with large scale alterations of history such as this is that they rapidly lose focus and become hand waving fantasy, not anything grounded in the world in which we live, or are trying to question with our counterfactuals.

To work, therefore, our counterfactuals need a tighter focus, something more narrowly defined in the scheme of things but which, nevertheless, could have an effect on history. For example, the cotton factories of Lancashire were dependent on the cotton exports from the southern United States. The British Empire has the largest navy in to world at the time. What factors could have persuaded the British to intervene and break the blockade and, probably, assist the south by trading manufactured goods for cotton? How could this have changed the outcome of the civil war?

At a smaller scale, of course, other questions arise. If Prince Rupert had not received an ambiguous letter from his uncle before Marston Moor, would he have decided not to fight the battle? What happens then? The Parliamentarian Scottish army is still around York. Rupert needs to maintain his mobility and cannot afford to get trapped there.  Nor is there a lot of point in him simply leaving and letting the city be besieged again. You are Prince Rupert; what do you do?

Perhaps, in that case, the answer is obvious, particularly if you are an overconfident solider with a very high regard for your own and your soldier’s abilities. But given the context of the decision, was it inevitable? Could an alternative be found?

It is, perhaps, here, that wargaming could help. Now of course, a wargame is fraught with a whole load of other factors, such as the “accuracy” of the rules, the world view of the players, and so on. But possibly, by considering the potential in a given situation, and, if necessary, by fighting a wargame to try to define the manifold of outcomes, we may gain some insight into the original situation and why it might have evolved in the way it did.

Some historians, for example, might argue that Rupert did, in fact, have to fight. Some would argue as well that the letter from Charles was not ambiguous but an instruction not only to relieve York but to defeat the besieging army. On the other hand, a case could be made that the Parliamentary army was quite likely to go its separate ways after the siege was lifted and that if Rupert had waited, he could have defeated one, at least, in detail.

Thus, with a wargame, we could explore some of the counterfactuals, trying to assess the considerations the original actors had to contend with. However, we do have to admit some limitations of our efforts. Firstly, the outcomes will only be as good as the rules. Any refight of Agincourt with the original actors making different decisions will be undermined if the rules make the English archers like machine gunners.

Secondly, the outcomes will only be as good as the players. If the player acting and Henry V decides that Rommel is the correct model for the commander, the outcomes could well be skewed.

Finally, we cannot press the counterfactual far, as history is too complex. Some counterfactuals start with, say, a draw in the American Civil War and finish with the avoidance of World War Two. This is fine, but it is fantasy, not counterfactual history any more.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Wargame Hermeneutics

Someone mentioned recently in a comment that working with source texts is difficult and not something that most wargamers really want to do. I think that this is entirely correct. Original texts, particularly ancient ones, can and usually are really difficult to work with. Without that sort of engagement, however, it is quite likely that our wargaming will become stereotyped and sterile. We need to input of the original text as a stimulus to our thinking, to our viewpoints of events, so as to reproduce them, or something similar, on the table top.

The topic of working with a text, of understanding it, is hermeneutics. I have been reading ‘God Talk’ by John Macquarrie (London: SCM, 1970). Now aside from being a distinguished theologian, Macquarrie was also an expert on Heidegger. For example, he was co-translator of Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ from the original German into English. Heidegger was, of course, the hermeneutic philosopher par excellence, and a lot of his thought leaks into Macquarrie’s writing.

I confess, I have nerved myself to tackle Heidegger himself. His books tend to the weighty and the translators have found themselves having to retain German terms to distinguish between nuances of meaning that would otherwise get lost in English. So what follows here is distilled through the eyes of a man who could, quite seriously, use the word ‘being’ seventeen times in one (fairly short) paragraph.

Firstly, of course, we have to establish what the text actually is. This is not too great a problem with fairly recent texts, but as one plunges back into medieval history and beyond, we find that the texts become more and more difficult to authenticate. Even something like Biblical texts can be a bit tricky, as scribal errors and edits make for a variety of available texts, and the judgement of which is the ‘true’ or ‘original’ version can become contentious. Add to this the fact that there are a lot of early Biblical texts around (copying Biblical books as gifts for friends and family seems to have been something of an early Christian hobby), and you can get a fair bit of confusion, although with a bit of care and attention the original, except in a few cases, can be reliably obtained.

The same is not true of other texts. Neither Arrian nor Curtius Rufus were writing particularly close to the date of the events they reported, and nor have their writings been received in particularly complete editions (the same would be true of Tacitus). So we are reliant on their fair treatment of their own sources (now lost to us) and on the accurate passing down of the text through far fewer manuscripts than the Bible.

Even when we have established the text, our troubles have only just begun. We approach any text with questions, such as ‘what happened at Issus?’ or ‘How do these wargame rules work?’ These questions are framed by our preconceptions.  We already have some idea about how wargame rules work, or what happened at Issus. If we did not, we would hardly be able to engage with the text at all. On the other hand, our preconceptions may prevent us from engaging with what the text actually says, rather than what we think it should say, or we have been told it says, or what we would like it to say.

This indicates that we land up in what is often called a hermeneutical cycle. We bring a set of preconceptions to the text, which we expect to give us a new understanding. Our preconceptions enable us to understand the text, but must themselves be open to modification by the text as we read and understand it in the light of those preconceptions. Thus the understandings we obtain of the text modify our preconceptions, which themselves then modify the reading of the text. The text, as well as being interrogated for meaning by the reader, interrogates the reader and, at its best, challenges the very preconceptions the reader needs to engage with the text.

No wonder a lot of people prefer not to engage.

Sadly, this is not the end of the matter either. In order to read the text fairly, we have to know something of the culture and society of the writer, and of the time the writer wrote about. Historiography often tells us more about the time of writing than the history of the events and their meanings. The same event may be re-described in different language, even within the writing of a single author. Literary conventions are used as shorthand for events (most Roman armies in Tacitus are described as being very lazy and lax before the hero general arrives and disciplines them.) We need to be able to untangle these things and get the text to answer our questions.

Interpreting a text, therefore, is not simple operation. There is no such thing as a final understanding of the text, and nor can that text be read in isolation from the rest of the work in which it is contained, from the rest of the corpus of the author, from other writings of the same era and, of course, from our own context and interests.

Yet somehow we have to emerge from all this with a sense of meaning and the equipment to interpret all of it in terms of a wargame rule set, a table, a bunch of toy soldiers and some wargamers. It is, in some senses, a wonder that we manage to produce anything at all.

Interpretation of a text and its reimagination into our wargaming context is not a scientific procedure, no matter how much science dominates our public discourse as the epitome of knowledge. There can be no one-to-one correspondence of a few paragraphs of text in, say, Arrian, and the performance of a unit of troops on the wargame table. Each rule set is different, depending on the hermeneutical disposition of the author, whether this is explicit or implied. We all have one, whether we know it or not.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Scale Models Again

Someone was kind enough to post a link to my ‘Scale Models’ post on The Miniatures Page recently, and it got quite a serious reply (you can see it here:

A serious reply deserves a serious reply, I think, and so I will try to explain what I think some of the points raised mean, and what I think can address them.

The first issue seems to be about the scale model of a toy solider participating in a Platonic way with the idea of the original soldier. The question that this then raises is does this, therefore, mean that my figure of a SS soldier is also linked to the activities of the original SS solider, and, if so, does that make me in some way responsible for those original activities, such as the atrocities the SS carried out.

My first reaction to this is that I have never understood exactly how this participation is supposed to happen. Perhaps I am an insufficient Platonist, or too much a physical scientist, but I have never bought into the idea of ‘participation’ in the Platonic sense. No-one has ever explained to me how an object in the real world can participate in the ideal form in the ideal plane. Nor do I think that such an explanation exists. But I have been shown to be wrong before.

Now, the original responder on TMP quite rightly rejects this view of toy soldiers and the ethical and philosophical minefield that such a view would open. Our model soldiers do not participate in some ideal form of the particular soldier they represent. My view is that the two key words we must keep in mind are ‘model’ and ‘representation’.

Firstly, ‘model’. Well, Ruarigh commented a few weeks ago that we were due for another post about models, so here is a bit. It is in the form of a reminder that a model is not the real thing. We model things to understand some aspect of the world, not all of it. A scientific model is restricted in what it models, because to model everything would be to recreate the original thing, and, in most cases, that would be too complex to understand (if it were not we would not need to model it) and so the purpose of our model would be negated.

Thus a model soldier is a limited model of the real thing, essentially a scaled down version of the appearance of the original. If our model were to be any closer to the real thing, it might have to move, shoot and, yes, carry out atrocities. But it does not, because it is really there as a representation of the original a model, not the original itself.

So model soldiers are representations of the real thing, not the real thing itself, nor a participation in the real thing (whatever that means). Now, Aristotle suggested that a thing had two parts, a form and some matter. The form was the part which gave the shape to the thing, the matter was what made it up. I do not think that I want to dive into problems with this concept, but we can see, perhaps, that a model solider might have a scaled down form of the original, but not the matter. Thus, the model stands for the original in some sense, in looking like it, but aside from that need have no other properties.

So, if we say that a solider has various properties, such as being in the SS, wearing such and such a uniform, carrying a particular weapon and carrying out particular atrocities, we can see that, in fact, only really the uniform bit is required for the model, and the other properties are ignored in the model itself (and others are added, such as ‘made of metal’).

So a model soldier is a representation of the original, but in a specific and limited way.

Now the other question is whether model soldiers are mere tokens, that is whether a given model can be used simply as a marker in a game and, if not, why not? I could, if a model is a mere token, use my Assyrian cavalry as Panther tanks and my Roman legionaries as bazooka teams. But in general, wargamers do not do this.

I think that the reason for this has two aspects. Firstly, there are the limitations imposed on the model by the real world. We want some sort of representation of the original on the table. I can use Romans as GIs but I do not because the model does not even come close to the original. The limited form of the model, as described above, is wrong for the representation of the original.

Secondly, the purpose of the model is to help us to understand the original in some way. Thus, my model solider standing for a GI does not have to look like a GI, but it helps if it does. I could, for example, paint all my GI models in bright pink uniforms, but that would probably detract from the game as I would have to play imaginative games with myself to convince me that they were GIs. To a greater extent, my imagination would not be helped at all by using legionary models for GIs. The disparity between the limited form of the model and the form expected for the representation would simply get too great.

So to summarise, I think that we have to view our model soldiers from a perspective of ‘limited representation.’ The representation of the original soldiers is limited, in that the model only represents limited parts of the form of the original, along with a set of attributes of its own. This means that we do not have to worry about lead widows and orphans, because they are specifically excluded by our model.

On the other hand, our models are meant to represent a limited part of the real world, in modelling uniform, weapons and equipment. So our models are models and not simple tokens which are interchangeable across the whole of history.

So I suppose the last word on this for the moment is ‘its complicated’….