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).


  1. Interesting. For myself (like), I am not completely aligned with the idea that a chance of winning the game is essential. This probably stems from the fact that I do almost all my gaming solo (and thus own all the armies in all conflicts), and have come to enjoy what I have come to identify as my role primarily as facilitator of pieces of fake history. Yes, I do care about the game, and I am not always impartial - far from it - but I always start a battle interested to see how it develops, what happens.

    I am currently embarking on my biggest ever wargames folly - building an early-Peninsular-War Spanish Army. A number of people have asked me why would I want to do such a thing, since the army was very unsuccessful. I believe the word "crap" is used frequently in this context. I think the answer might be that otherwise my French army would be short of someone to fight around 1808-9, and also I can't really see why I should avoid them simply because of lack of fighting kudos. It was a well-equipped, attractive army, in which I am interested and about which I have read a great deal, and if they usually lose that's OK. They have the great strength that they can lose one week and come back fighting the next, a virtue which Napoleon never began to understand.

    I'm sure they will have the occasional victory - it doesn't matter too much - I can stack the campaigns so they have more troops, better supplies, greater local support - whatever. I shall love them and follow their adventures on my tabletop with interest. It doesn't mean that I embrace their religious principles or condone their approach to caring for prisoners, in particular it does not imply any admiration for Ferdinand VII, but they will make a really nice toy army, and their occasional successes will be memorable.

    1. I suppose it depends on what you mean by 'win' - a smaller force can still win even though it looses. Perhaps I used the win word, or 'fairness' ill advisedly.

      Mind you, a lot of people (below) seem to like Spanish; is it a super army that only the cognoscenti know about?

    2. The Spanish were certainly a pretty army if they could get supplies of clothing organised (rare). Its merits as a fighting force have eluded most people, especially historians and wargamers!

      As a rule of thumb, if I know about something then the cognoscenti will be nowhere to be seen.

  2. I found Cunaxa to be a good motivator for painting Persians. Since it is a civil war one of the Persian armies is bound to win, probably the one with the big block of Greeks although that side lost the campaign. Once the armies sre built, well might as well use them against other hellenic armies.

    But there are other Persian enemies, Egypt, then oater Egyptian rebels, skythians, sacae, India (I don't have details of those campaigns but we know something of the armies thanks to Alex and since the Indian provinces of the Persian Empire are unlikely to have petitioned to be allowed to pay taxes and send levies and since there is no evidence of Persia conquering all of India, it seems reasonable to suspect that opposing armies were reasonably balanced and won some, lost ones. (Ok probably different Indian kings involved but possibly similar armies based on descriptions of troops supplied). So a sort of real imaginary campaign.

    Lastly, few of the battles were walkovers and the Persians did win some smaller engagements (leaving aside the question of who won tactically at Thermopoli). Was it all about troops or was some of it generalship? Endless refights of Gettysburg and Waterloo are based on the question "what if the generals had made different choices?"

    Marathon saw the Athenians using atypical tactics, Platea was st leadt in part decided by the Athenians defeating the Thebans, surely not preordained, What if the Greeks had been holding the line of the Granicus instead of the Persian cavalry. And so on.

    1. I think that you are right, but we do have to depart from what we know about (or at least, what our sources tell us) to find a reasonable chance of the Persians 'winning'.

      Generalship or army quality? Hard to tell; in the scientific age we can hardly re-run the campaign to see who wins in a statistically significant manner. The problem is that almost all battles seem to be one offs. Perhaps I am looking in the wrong place, though; maybe there is no 'essence' of Graeco-Persian warfare to be found, just a series of connected unique events.

      But then, can there be a wargame at all (or maybe I've gone all postmodern again).

  3. I am not too sure of the history of the Greeks vs Persians, but I hadn't got the impression that these battles were all walkovers for the Greeks? And if the Persians can win some of the tactical encounters within a battle, then it was possible that they could have won an entire battle, by having more of those successes at the same time. I tend to think that most things other than Spanish vs Native Americans don't need much fixing to make an interesting game.

    Certainly with the Napoleonic Spanish, with whom I'm much more familiar and own a sizeable miniature army myself, they did win some battles, and were tactically successful in some segments of others, so there is certainly no reason not to play them.

    One of the most successful computer games of all time in the UK is Championship Manager/Football Manager. Millions of people try to do 'better' with their favourite team, they certainly don't all pick the biggest Premiership clubs.


    1. A lot, for the Persians, seems to have depended on the general being there and being alive- Plataea, Issus and Guagemala all being cases where the general died or fled before the battle was clearly lost, thus ensuring it was lost. Alexander is described as clearly aiming for Darius, which might mean we underestimate the power of the the mere existence of the Great King.

      I think there are power gamers, and then there are their mirror image, who delight in winning with historically poor armies, if only to tease the power gamers for years thereafter...

  4. I like unpopular armies. (Just to maintain the pattern, I have early Peninsular Spanish too, in 25mm and 6mm)
    I've always thought that, if you have 'crap' armies and you win, you get the credit, but if you lose, the army gets the blame.
    If you have 'good' armies, it's the other way round.
    Seems obvious to me which is the best to have.

    1. I'm totally with you on that. I like stylish armies better than winning armies. Of course, if you can win with style then so much the better.

    2. How about a bad but stylish army? Charles the Rash Burgundians? Very stylish, but a 100% losing record.

      I rather like them.

    3. The Burgundians are on my list of armies to paint and field. Unfortunately that is a rather long list at the moment so they will be waiting a while.

    4. They are also difficult to paint, all those blue and white checks, and the heraldry.

    5. It depends what you think is stylish. Personally I think my Spanish infantry's white uniforms patched with brown cloth very fetching. Not to mention the sandals.
      My all time favourite army is still the civil war Covenanters. Grey is the new ... well, grey.

    6. I rather like the Romans; they have no sense of style at all, they just trample over you no matter how artistic your woad or how ancient your temples. Which has a style all of its own, of course.

    7. Well, obviously I like Vikings and they have a stylish sense of dress as well as a stylish sense of pillaging and looting, but I also like armies with lots of flags. Flags are really stylish and the bigger and more colourful the better. My Wars of the Roses armies have oodles of stylish big flags/standards.

      Regarding grey being the new grey, I completely agree but I like my armies to have a sense of humour too, so my greyest army is WW1 Austro-Hungarians. The colour of the early war cavalry sets off the grey of the infantry very nicely indeed.

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    9. Absolutely with you.
      When embarking on WWII, I HAD to have the Italians. I mean, not only do they have machine guns which put spent cartridges back in the belt thereby ensuring the battlefield is kept tidy, but they then mount the machine guns on pedal tricycles.
      Now that's style.

    10. It is odd, but sometimes bad armies are regarded as good, no matter how stylish - Montrose' highlanders have some sort of stylish romanticism associated with them, even though they were equipped with conventional weapons as soon as they were available.

      So do armies have to be stylish, romantic AND bad to be interesting?

    11. There is something inherently glamorous about being doomed - if you have symmetrical features as well then you are even more likely to score the night before battle. I guess that being bad is a simple enough route to being doomed. It worked for CV Wedgwood, as we have discussed before.

    12. Montrose is an interesting case. Much of his army was quite bad, technically, and certainly fulfilled the other qualifications of style and romance, but it also had quite a run of victories based, as far as I can see, on pure dumb luck.
      Is this army popular DESPITE being successful? Or is the fact that is was, ultimately, doomed enough to swing it?
      Mind, you have to love troops who rout attacking enemy cavalry by pelting it with rocks.

    13. That's interesting - suppose MacColla had not disappeared to fight the Campbells, suppose the better Scots troops had not been brought back to fight the Royalists in Scotland, suppose Montrose had, in fact kept going throughout and - however unlikely - had eventually helped restore the monarchy in Scotland…

      How boring is that? Montrose would now be another vainglorious hanger-on like Rupert; the really glamorous guys would be the unsuccessful Parliamentarian rebels, who tried gallantly to overthrow the oppressive King and his corrupt advisers in the cause of democracy(!). You could actually put together a continuous history however it worked out, and you could make it convincing, but Montrose's star rating would not be the same.

    14. Nice one. And Argyll would have been the tragic hero of a doomed cause.
      (He'd have needed a better portrait painted. The usual one wouldn't look good on shortcake tins.)

    15. Of course, if Montrose had won we might have been desperate for a bit of dour, elderly Presbyterian on our shortcake tins, being fed up of all these dashing Cavalier victors who, i'd guess, would really do smug if they won.

    16. France 1940 for me.
      Hapless A9s with 14mm frontal "armour"; 2pdrs with no HE; CS tanks with no AP; and AT rifles that can have an effect. Altogether more interesting than the high-tech King Tiger era and I agree with MSFoy in post 1 that it is the playing that matters with the unexpected small victories for the underdog emphasising the human element.

  5. I really like the Persians and have a Late Achaemenid Persian army to fight against the Macedonians. I like to think that Darius lost, rather than Alexander won! That way the army does not seem like a loser, it was the commander! I do a fair bit of solo battles, recreating historical battles at times. think they were closer than it may seem, especially as I am no Alex!

    MsFoy sumed up what I do in his first paragraph of his comment above. I agree with him. The narrative is more important that the outcome.

    I have no idea on what battle you have moved to a different time and place, unless it is originally in Sicily; then I may have a chance.

    1. Hm. As, I think, Chris commented a while ago, our sources make it seem that Alexander was the military genius and personally won all the battles. That can't be true (can it?).

      Darius managed to get large armies to battles intact and, in one case, cut off the enemy from his base. He can't have been a total dolt, although no military genius.

      And no, the battle isn't in Sicily...