Saturday 26 July 2014

Balanced and Unbalanced Wargames

I wrote recently about having a level playing field in a wargame, and was quite rightly gently chided for my loose language. There are a number of aspects to this sort of thing, and , even though one of the early “famous” posts on the blog was about the wonders of unfair wargames, it is possibly worth having another look in this direction.

Firstly, of course, there is the problem of history. Real life generals do not often overlook their battlefield and think ‘they are about 100 army points down, so we will just wait around until they turn up’. The correct real life response is, in those circumstances, more likely to be ‘charge’. A fair fight is not what most generals are after, they want to win a battle, not fight fairly.

Now of course there are some points at which one army might not attack immediately, but hang around until the enemy is properly deployed. This might be, but usually is not, chivalry in action. Usually waiting for the whole enemy to be present is brought about by wanting to defeat the whole lot, giving no part of the enemy army the chance to fight another day (especially against your victorious army which might be a bit disorganised and tired after fighting the rest of the enemy army).

Now, a defender of a point system set of rules might well argue that, if you count up the number of bases and calculate the equivalent number of soldiers, it is quite likely that equal (say) four hundred point armies will have very different numbers of men, and thus one side, being outnumbered, has either been forced to battle or has overconfidently accepted the same. However, I think the point here is in the premise: generals do not, often, go around thinking ‘I may be outnumbered here, but my men are of higher fighting quality’. Well, they might, but do not often express it as such.

So the issue slowly resolves into one of wondering what the point of a point system is. Now, obviously, the point is to give a balanced game, one of the sort I have just argued never happened historically. A balanced game gives both side an equal chance of winning. After all, it is only a game and with would be a pretty sorry and sad sort of game and hobby where both sides did not have a chance of winning.

Furthermore, the defender of points based rules could argue, the points of an army are only, if you’ll pardon the pun, part of the point. There is arranging favourable terrain, choosing the structure and deployment of your army, having a plan, and so on. There is, it can be argued, a lot more to being a wargame general than just shouting charge and rolling some dice. You have to be organised, to have a plan, and so on.

That may well be so, but real life generals rarely have such luxuries. They may have a vague idea of where the enemy is, and they may even have a vaguer idea of what troops they have, but often it goes little further than that. The idea of an equal number of army points each side rather puts the cart before the horse. You have a fair idea (if you too have read the army lists) of what troops the enemy has even before you know where they are.

I suppose that I am drifting once again towards commending campaign games to the audience here, and that is certainly one way of tackling the problem of balance. In a campaign game you need to do the troop raising, organising and deployment thing but on a much larger scale. It might be that your main strike force is over there, and a blocking force must hold up the enemy until your blow falls. Hence, the delaying force might win, even though it is annihilated. And a jolly interesting wargame can be had in these circumstances too.

However, I do not think that we always need to have campaign games to have interesting and unbalanced games. After all, there are a number of books of scenarios out there which suggest unbalanced forces with different aims for each side. The side that wins does not need to be the side with the most hits, or that kills the greatest number of the enemy, or whatever. Achieving specific targets or outcomes can decide the battle more decisively than simply routing the enemy.

I think the problem for me, though, is that many of the scenarios I see are still fairly stereotyped. An attack – defence game is unbalanced, in terms of points, but the balance is created by the terrain, defensive fire zone, minefields or whatever. Somehow, as wargamers, we still grasp for the balanced, even when we are looking for the heroic or mythic; the last stand against the odds is circumvented by our sense of fairness, our sense of honour.

This is, I think, somewhat related to army choice. Power gamers, by definition, adopt powerful armies. Those who are in the other camp adopt weak armies, partly for the bragging rights. In these circumstances can there be balance in a wargame? What is the aim of the weaker army? Simply to do a bit better than the historical prototype?

As is usually the case, I do not have any really good answers to these questions, but that is not really the point. The point is that I do think that we need to ponder these things and apply whatever comes up as a consequence of those ponderings to our wargames. A straight ‘destroy the enemy’ wargame is, often, a cathartic undertaking in our lives: dealing out destruction to toy soldiers can make us feel a lot better. However, just doing that, game after game, can pall a little. As humans we are problem solvers, and simply defeating the enemy becomes a boring problem in the end. Real warfare is much more complex.

Saturday 19 July 2014

Army Representations

The original idea behind this post was that it would be illustrated by beautiful pictures of well painted miniatures to show what I mean.

A number of factors have conspired to prevent this. Firstly, while I have finished painting and based the army in question, I doubt if the figures would pass muster as well painted. In fact, I believe that, even as I type, they are considering a class action against me for cruel and unusual punishment. Negotiations with wargame lawyers are ongoing.

Secondly, I have failed to charge the battery on my camera. On the other hand the pictures would have been fairly rubbish anyway, as taken by yours truly, so you will have to use your imagination. As with reading books or listening to the radio, however, you imagination will provide better pictures, I am sure, than anything I could snap.

Enough of the digressions and excuses, anyway, and on to the question. What is this?

1x3Kn, 1x3Cv, 1x2LH, 1x4Ax, 6x4Pk, 1x4Sp or 4Ax or 2Ps or art.

There are, naturally, no prizes for guessing the right answer: the Alexandrian Macedonian army from DBA (version 2.0, if you are interested).

The point is that, whether in metal, plastic or simply in type and imagination, as here, this is a representation of an army, with, at least, a historical basis of some form.

How does this work, then? According to what I have seen, Alexander at Granicus had 32000 foot and 5100 cavalry, of which 12000 of the foot were pikemen. Of the above, in fact, pike seem to be over-represented, which is interesting. On the other hand, I do not think that DBA has a bases to original men formula.

Another representation of the same army, which I have been working on for the much vaunted Polemos: Polemos rules, is

6 pike, 4 Thracians, 4 allied Greek, 3 mercenary infantry, 1 archers, 1 Companions, 1 Thessalonians and 1 Paeonians.

I know that this makes 21 bases, and Polemos armies are supposed to be 20 bases, but this is a work in progress. The numbers were worked out on a direct ratio, so 12000 pike in the original work out to be 6 bases in the representation (6.4 if you work it out properly – divide the number of a specific troop type by the total number and multiply by 20 for a 20 base army ).  Thus the ratio of pike to the rest of the army is a bit more accurate (in the sense of being less than half) than DBA. I cannot, of course, vouch for the overall accuracy of the rules.

So here we have two different representations of the same army in wargame bases. Which is the best? Can we even put forward criteria for deciding which the best is, especially if we also allow for local conditions, availability of toy soldiers and so on. Or even what we mean by ‘best’ at all. After all, how much we enjoy the game is a function of the rules, not just the army lists.

Another view (used, among other, in PM: SPQR) is to vary the number of troops according to the type. So, in SPQR, I think (without looking it up) that infantry were 500 men to a base and cavalry 250, while skirmishers were 75. As I have written elsewhere, this doesn’t really work for the numbers of skirmishers reported in the sources, so is best rationalised in some other way, either as non-combatant looters who happened to be nearby, or as much larger numbers of skirmisher units spending most of their time hanging about looking threatening but not really doing much.

In this case, if I had say, a pike block representing 1000 men, a normal infantry base representing 500 and cavalry at 250, I would obtain 12 pike bases, 14 Thracians, 14 allied and 10 mercenary hoplites,6 Companions, 6 Thessalonians, 2 Greek cavalry and 4 Thracian and Paeonian light horse. A total, I think, of 62 bases, which I, at least, am not going to start and paint.

Of course, there are other ways of representing armies. Charles Grant, I recall, used to measure the frontages in a given battle he was recreating, and fill them with his units. So the overall frontages and ratios were correct, but the number of units was nowhere near. This was probably just as well for sanity and getting the battle finished in a reasonable time, but it does add another way of representing armies to the pile.

I am sure that there are many other ways we can think about representing the original historical army on the wargame table; it is just that in my slightly addled state, I cannot think of any at the moment. But the point, I hope, is fairly clear, and may even be germane. There are many ways of representing an army (let alone a unit) on the wargame table, and, at least at first glance, they do not all look the same, nor, given different sets of rules, do they act in the same way.

In short, even something which might be expected to be fairly uncontroversial, the plonking down on the table of representations of armies, turns out to be rather more complex than might be expected. Rules have different representations, by ratio, by number, by fighting power,  or even (as I suspect DBA does it) by a sort of trial and error to get the right (whatever that means, let us assume ‘historical’) results.

So, the question lies before us: is there a right way of doing this? We spend a lot of effort in compiling orders of battle, but then there are various ways of translating this onto the table. Which is the best way of doing this? Is there a good way, or is it just that we do what ‘feels right’? And if the latter, what does it? Simply that it is historical, or that it agrees with my prejudices, or that it gives a good game?

Saturday 12 July 2014

Wargames and Power

It is, I think, largely impossible to read very much in the arts and humanities, probably particularly in theology and philosophy without encountering the idea of power, its use and abuse. In fact, in some areas of both subjects, you run across quite a lot of analysis and polemic about the fact that, historically, white, heterosexual males have largely run, or at least been seen to run, the show. This perceived domination and its concomitant oppression of everyone who does not fit the bill is now the subject of a good deal of argument. For example, we have liberation theologies, which shade into feminist ones, which shade into queer theologies, which themselves borrow from queer philosophy, and so on. To someone who was bought up in a more or less straightforward, white, straight context, the whole gamut of voices now being heard is a bit bewildering.

However, not being one to be deterred by my own bewilderment, I started to ponder on the power structures of wargaming. It is quite possible that, in fact, there are no such things, but the human condition being what it is, I doubt that. Nothing, it seems is above the general flawedness of humanity, its propensity to argue, exclude that which it does not understand and so on.

So, then, who has power in wargaming? Firstly, I suspect that, in many circumstances, it can be one player in a game or another. An early memory of wargaming was with someone who seemed to think he was actually Napoleon. I, of course, was given the British, but I was not given a sight of the rules. I confess that I was deeply suspicious of this, particularly as no longer-standing members of the club were involved in the game. Given the option of walking away before the set up (in both sense of the word) was completed, I did. Obviously, the guy with the figures and the rules has a certain amount of power, the only problem being that they cannot exploit it too nakedly because if the other party walks, there is no game.

At higher levels than the individual, can we suggest some places where power in wargaming exists? I think there are some obvious candidates, such as figure manufacturers, magazine publishers and rule writers. All of these people could exert considerable influence over the direction that the hobby takes.

To take a perhaps extreme example, Games Workshop does show something of such an influence. When White Dwarf, many moons ago, stopped being a general role playing game magazine and became a vehicle for GW products, influence over the hobby was felt. Similarly, the figures they produce and the rules they sell influence the hobby in its broadest sense, although the target demographic is, perhaps, less influential in the overall hobby.

Nevertheless, figure manufacturers could be power holders in the hobby. After all, they make the products that we play with. As I recall from the hobby thirty years ago or so, if the figures did not exist, it was hard to have the game. These days, of course, this influence is less, due to the plethora of manufacturers and figures for almost any conceivable conflict in history being around. As an aside, however, I still cannot find any nice Roman and barbarian civilian figures to have a skirmish game with, at least, ones that fit my pocket.

So figure makers have, probably, less influence over the hobby than they used to have. What about rule writers? I suspect a similar thing has happened here. It used to be that Wargames Research Group pretty well held the field in many periods. They were always held up as the gold standard, as I recall. However, more and more voices have entered this field as well, and there are now so many rules for a given era that it is hard to know where to begin, let alone to start assessing ‘accuracy’, ‘historicity’ and ‘playability’, whatever those somewhat contentious terms might mean.

How about magazines? Well, recent changes in the landscape suggest that magazines are not as influential as they used to be. Most printed media is having difficulty with the transformation from print to digital, although the death of the book is, I think, overstated, usually by vested interests. But magazines, as with figure makers, have to sell their products to people like you and me, and so their freedom to operate (or in feminist, queer or liberation terms, their ability to oppress) is limited. If we do not like the articles (which, after all are sourced from individuals within the hobby) we do not buy the product, and it fails or folds.

So where, then, does power in the hobby lie? Perhaps I am not looking in the right place. Possibly, except in some situations like the one I described with ‘Napoleon’ above, or in wargame clubs (where politics rather than wargaming can take over) there is no power to be held in a hobby. But I somehow doubt that; as my explorations of various aspects of the hobby hopefully have shown, wargaming is an intensely human activity, and so political factors, or even simple personality clashes will come to the fore.

I suspect that power in the hobby does lie in the bulk of wargamers, the ones who have wargamed this way for twenty years and see no reason to change. Even after a couple of decades of 6 mm wargame figures, for example, I still seem people at shows walking past and sniggering at them. This, perhaps, is the power, but it is a negative one, a power of derision and belittling the different.  Any wargamer not conforming to the dominant paradigm, which, even now seems to be big figures in small numbers, seems to run the risk of a certain amount of public derision.

I think, also, that it applies to wargamers who take a slightly different view of history. History, as interpreted by wargaming, seems to be a history of great and bad generals, good and bad units or armies, and so on. This, possibly, is the oppressive power in wargaming that I have been wondering about.

Saturday 5 July 2014

Level Playingfields

One of the problems inherent in writing wargame rules is to have some sort of game balance. In my case, of course, this is a major problem. The Greeks and Persians fought a good number of times in major battles, such as Marathon, Plataea, Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela. The result? Five nil to the Greeks.

You might well argue that these results are not representative. The Persian forces at Granicus, for example, were satrapal levies and therefore of lesser fighting value. Darius, you might add, was not one of the world’s greatest generals. And so on. On the other hand, we can see from the outcomes of the campaigns and battles that the Persian Empire lost.

Thus, the problem for the wargamer, rules writer or player, is to provide the losing side with some reason for turning up. After all, a refight of Gaugamala is hardly likely to set the Persian wargamer’s pulses racing. The problem is turning up and expecting (almost knowing) that you are going to lose.

Of course, this is not limited to the Persians. Napoleonic Turks have a similar sort of track record, and I suppose that early World War Two French and Russians would suffer from the same issues. Naturally there are always some wargamers who build these armies, just for the bragging rights that come when, on the odd occasion, they win. How embarrassing would it have been to Napoleon to have lost in Egypt? We do not know, but it would not have been a great public relations exercise. So, by extension, would it be for the Napoleonic French going down to a Turkish army.

In the annals of history you can usually find some campaign or battle which does give the historical losers a bit of a chance. The attack of De Gaulle’s tanks in 1940 is one instance. The ambush of some of Alexander’s men in the constant insurgency in modern Afghanistan (sound familiar?) would be another. But overall, persuading the losers to turn up is a bit of a problem.

We could, if we wanted to, launch an imagi-nation (as the word seems to have become) and, for example, stiffen our Persian levies with some elephants, or super-weapons of some sort, or cripple the Macedonians by removing the Companions. We are not, then, of course, playing a historical battle, but we might get a better wargame out of it. On the other hand, I am reminded of an account by a solo wargamer who did just this for his Napoleonic armies, got half way through painting them, and then decided that if they were equipped as British, they might as well look like them, and set to to repaint them. Not the most inspiring job in the world, I am sure.

I suspect that one of the problems might be that we usually look at history through the eyes of the victors. The Germans won in 1940 because of better tactics, communication, low level unit initiative and so on. We can list the deficiencies of the Allies by the same token and, hence, find some sort of reasons for the spectacular loss the campaign was. For Alexander of Macedon, we can search for the same sorts of reasons. We could list the sarissa, perhaps, or better command, better training for the Macedonians, and so on, and, similarly, lack of the same in their opponents. In fact, if you look up a bit, I did exactly that above.

But I still have no reason to launch on my next project, which is the painting of a late Persian army. There are a lot of them, and I do need some impetus to get started. I do not want to regard them simply as targets, as victims for the Macedonians (who are very nearly finished).  

Assuming that my rules give historical outcomes (which is, I concede, a big assumption) the historical record of the Persians would suggest that they should be exactly victims. Short of delving into imaginations, fantasy or simply a-historical narratives, what can I do?

Firstly, I think the idea is to stop identifying with the Greeks. Our sources are all Greek (or Roman, as it happens) and are thus a wee bit biased against what they saw as the soft and indulgent Persians. Placing the player(s) as Persian generals would probably balance the game up a fair bit. Secondly, there is the issue of objectives. What would it mean for the Persians to win? After all, by some accounts, the Persians did win the Graeco-Persian wars by bribing the Greeks to fight themselves to exhaustion.

So how about something like this:

You are Memnon of Rhodes, Darius’ commander in the Mediterranean. Despite a recent grave illness, you have successfully landed a considerable force in Asia Minor and your objective is to relieve the citadel of Sardis, which is being besieged by a detachment of Alexander of Macedon’s army. Alexander himself is much further east. To relieve Sardis you must cross a major river; there are three bridges, one on the direct route between you and Sardis, one twenty miles north and one fifteen miles south. You have an army of reliable Persians and Medes, some local levies and some possibly reliable Greek mercenary hoplites. You know that the besiegers have a few Macedonians, some fairly reluctant allies from Greek cities, and some Greek and Thracian mercenaries. The latter will only get paid when the citadel in Sardis falls, which it will do in approximately fifteen days.

The actual details of the forces, the maps and so on can be worked out according to local circumstances, but the set-up is there. This surely is a reason for the Persian hordes to be painted; they have a chance against an enemy who cannot really move very far. I know that the scenario is not precisely historical (Memnon, in fact, died of his illness) but it is not so far from the bounds of probability. If, after all, Memnon had lived, Alexander would probably have had to turn back west anyway.

I would be interested in any further suggestions and ideas for similar balancing acts. And, of course, there is a small prize of internet kudos for anyone who spots the historical basis for the above scenario (it isn’t difficult; I think I have mentioned it before).