Saturday 30 August 2014

Wargame Empirical Residues

It is a common misunderstanding of science that it all works out really neatly. A hypothesis is generated. An experiment is built. It is switched on. Lights blink. Things hum. All the white coated scientists stand around, white knuckles gripping their clipboards. Lights flash. Suddenly something goes ‘bing’, there is much applause, mutual back slapping and the chisel chinned hero scientist embraces the pretty female one as the frontiers of human ignorance are rolled back a notch or two.

Actually, as I am sure you know, or at least could guess, science is not like that at all. By definition, more or less, research experiments are at the outer edge of what is actually possible. Bits of kit that go ‘bing’ when the correct answer is obtained are not purchasable off the shelf from any reputable manufacturer. And, in all my years at the sharp end of science, I only ever wore a white coat once (it didn’t help; I still burnt acid holes in my trousers) and never used a clipboard.

Science, like any other human activity, is driven by a number of things, such as technological possibility, fashion, opportunities for funding (see previous item) and, from time to time, the burning desire to get the answer first. Richard Feynman (the Nobel prize winning theorist) waxed eloquent about being the only person in the world to know something that he had just worked out. Science is not all about cold eyed and cold hearted rationality.

Feynman also has an interesting description about two laboratories he considered working at. The first one was pristine, with white coated technicians moving quietly about their work, directed by besuited scientists in the control room. The second, and smaller laboratory (I forget where they were), had technicians and scientists all in the same room, scratching their heads over leaks and electronics. It had wires strung from the ceiling, drops of vacuum grease on the floor and was, frankly, a mess. Nevertheless, this was the laboratory that was producing the interesting results.

Feynman, of course, opted to work at the latter laboratory. The people worked as a team, solving the problems together as they went along. If the cyclotron sprang a leak, they all worked to fix it, pooling knowledge of the device (which they had built) to fix the thing and get back to producing science as soon as possible. The fact that the laboratory was a mess was actually a sign that things were going rather well. A tidy laboratory is often the sign of either an imminent health and safety inspection or a lack of creativity.

Now, what, you might be asking by now, has this got to do with wargaming. The point I want to make is that the environment made no difference to the science. Modern science, to be modern science, actually ignores a whole lot of stuff, as it could not cope otherwise.  Science abstracts away and ignores issues such as the time of the experiment, the place the experiment was conducted, and the people who conducted it, and so on. These are of no interest to the science or scientist and are usually left in what can be called the ‘empirical residue’.

Modern science, of course, developed when the existence of the empirical residue was recognized. Some things are important, and some are not. Some things (like the number of Volts generated per Amp) are significant. Some things (like the colour of the experimenter’s underwear) are not. The latter are ignored as not being interesting or useful. The former are not.

Wargames, like it or not, are an attempt to produce a model of a battle, and hence, with our language of shooting and morale, close combat and rout, we are trying to reduce a complex system to one that is tractable and intelligible. We create, one way or another, ways of classifying what is allowed and what is not, what is within an acceptable manifold of outcomes and what is not.

The thing is about a battle, of course, that we cannot separate out an empirical residue very easily. We might argue, for example, that the colour of the soldier’s coats is part of that residue, but then some bright spark is likely to come along and point out some of the occasions upon which a unit’s coat colour has led to misidentification of the unit, often with serious consequences to one side or the other.

The separation out of the empirical residue is one of the triumphs of modern science; as I have mentioned, science would not really get going without the ability to separate out the important and the trivial. But in battles we cannot achieve that. What might be important in one battle is not important in another.

In terms of writing wargame rules, therefore, the author is left with an almost impossible task. We have a whole bunch of battles in which different things appear to be important. How do we tell which is which? How can we unscramble whether or not we need rules to cover mistakes revolving around coat colours?

Despite the attempts to cover most wargame rules with fig leaves of respectable models and understood dynamics, there is this rather unpalatable truth: we cannot identify the empirical residue of a given battle.

What we can and do do is to extract the things that we think are important. For example, we know that troops advanced, and so we can create a rule for that. But do we know at what speed they advanced? Is it important? Should they have different speeds, or is one quite sufficient? One decision, such as ‘the troops will advance’ has thrown up three more questions. On the face of it, this is not going to end well.

Of course, we do escape from the trap, because the human mind is very adept at dealing with this sort of thing, and just inserts a ‘good enough’ cut off. But the cost is, of course, having to accept that we cannot define a ‘scientific core’ to the rules, except what we have decided is core. Everything else is a residue, but not a well defined one.

Saturday 23 August 2014

Wargame Models

One of the things that has become clearer to me (I daresay it was already obvious to you) is that wargames contain a lot of models, and the important thing in whether a given game is enjoyable is how those models interact.

Obviously, we have the scale models of the toy soldiers, and the scaled units that they represent. Furthermore, we have the various models of the wargame rules we are using, and how well they model the activities of the units. Then there is the idea that the interaction of the units and the rules, at an army level, is also important. As I mentioned recently, you can represent an army in a plethora of different ways, and it is still the same army, it just varies in the number of toy soldiers and their ratios which we place upon the table.

This interaction of models is not, of course, unusual, particularly, in real life. For example, an architect might have a set of plans and a scale model of the outcome before setting the contractors on the site. The two had better be in agreement, or the outcome could be embarrassing or, worse, modern architecture at its worse.

As an aside, at work there is a futuristic modern block. It has a garden on a flat roof, with bushes, in pots, set into a gravel filled trench. Nice idea, so those benighted workers with no view can peer out on some greenery. Except that no-one seems to have considered what to do with excess rainwater, which, when the trench is full, flows down the inside of the windows. Yes, the inside.

I digress, of course, but confess that I stopped in blinking amazement when it was pointed out to me.

Anyway, as set of wargame rules, armies, scale models and so on is supposed to, in toto, bear some resemblance to a historical original. I think that the ruminations on army representations indicated that this can, in fact, be achieved in many different ways. Similarly, it will be no surprise to anyone reading this that wargame rules can emphasise different aspects of the experience of battle, and that these differing models of the various aspects can fit together in different ways.

For example, I have mentioned before the Tercio rules, which include fear factors for, more or less, anyone facing the Ottoman Turks, or, at least, the Janissaries. Now, clearly, this is an attempt to model some part of the observable reality that was the fear which many others felt when facing the Janissaries. This fear, of course, arose, from the fearsome reputation which the troops, at that time, had. Thus, in terms of modelling reality, the adjustment of a fear factor seems a reasonable thing to do. If Austrian levy infantry were facing other levies, then no fear factor      is necessary. If facing Janissaries, then a bit of extra concern is entirely reasonable. In fact, I suspect that part of the art of facing Ottoman Turks in the rule set became screening off the Janissary contingent, or facing it with your own, immune to fear, troops, such as Polish Lancers or Knights of St John (as I recall, anyway).

Now, fast forward twenty years or so of wargame rule development and we come to DBA and DBR, both of which include Ottoman Turk armies with Janissaries. However, there is not a fear or panic factor in sight. The claim is that the morale effect of the different troops in included in the combat factors. In the case above, Janissaries would be classed as something ‘superior’ and the Austrian levies would be something inferior (at least in DBR terms) and hence the fear of the latter for the former would be included in these factors.

The point is that here are two perfectly respectable models for the same thing. Both rule sets have been used by perfectly respectable wargamers, many of which probably have a far deeper understanding of the period, the armies, the social and cultural contexts of the era and so on than I do. And yet, somehow, the models are completely different, they work differently and start from different assumptions. Which is the best, where best means, say, the most historically accurate?

Now, looking at the assumptions the models are based on we see firstly that the Tercio rules are what we could call cumulative rules. They decide what the effect of one man firing a musket might be, and aggregate that to three hundred. Then, this is adjusted for assorted external factors, such as range and fear of the enemy. The fundamental unit of the model is thus the individual.

In DBR, the fundamental unit of the rules is the base, which (while DBR actually models this rather poorly) the base is, roughly speaking, a unit. DBR (and other more recent rule sets) is not really interested in the individuals involved, but in the outcomes of the combats. Somewhere in one of the introductions it mentions that the general cannot see the numbers of casualties of a given unit, only that it is standing, recoiling, surging forward victorious or whatever else.

Now, of course, how we assess the accuracy or otherwise of each set of rules is an individual’s choice. Some folk like the cumulative style, and some like the overall style. I am not, here advocating any one as better or worse than another, and I am sure that there is also a plethora of other models which could be used. However, it is clear to me (and I have played both, quite extensively) that the DBR style is easier, if only because it takes less looking up stuff and keeping rosters.

The other point to make, I suppose, is that the type of model used is constrained by the overall approach of the rule writer to the subject. Perhaps the wargame world of the 1970’s was particularly individualistic, while that of the 1990’s was corporate. I am not sure I believe that, but, perhaps, wargaming only came to understand the issue of emergent behaviour later.

Saturday 16 August 2014

Abductive Wargame Rules

The problem with wargame rules is that they are written down. On the face of it, this is not too much of a problem, because without being written down, they would not constitute wargame rules as we usually understand them, but writing stuff down tends to do a variety of things, not all of them positive.

Firstly, we find ourselves in hoc to language and its variety of understandings. Wittgenstein showed a while ago that language is not a simple, transparent thing with a single reading, meaning and understanding. I guess that anyone who has written a set of wargame rules, even for private use, has come across the problem of multiple readings and misunderstandings.

Secondly, there is the problem of, as Polanyi said, ‘we know more than we can tell’. A set of wargame rules is a result of the author’s understanding of something, in the case of historical wargames, some aspect of military history. This understanding will form the background to the rules, but will almost certainly not be spelt out in them. I may have the opinion that Greek generalship before the Peloponnesian Wars was non-existent, and I may have my reasons, from my reading of history, for believing that to be the case, but they will not find their way into the rules where, for example, Greek armies before 450 BC are not given a general.

Thirdly, and perhaps more subtly and importantly, there are differences in the way we hold beliefs. One way of looking at this is to suggest that there are three types of belief. The first is logical:
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal.
Given the premises, the conclusion follows. The problem here is that, given the premises, the conclusion follows. We do not, actually, learn anything new here. All we do is affirm something that, in the simple form given above, is obvious.

The second way of forming beliefs is that of induction. Every swan I have ever encountered is white; therefore the next swan I encounter will be white as well. Now, clearly, this is not the case, but actually it forms the basis for our scientific understanding. Every electron we have encountered so far is negatively charged, therefore the next one will be negatively charged. This works, of course, but is always open to the possibility that the next encounter will break the rule. Furthermore, we do not learn anything particularly new here. We know that, in general, infantry squares hold against cavalry, so we know that the next infantry square which finds itself to be charges by a load of blokes on horses will probably hold. This is simply firming up our already existent belief, not learning anything new.

New stuff, therefore, has to come from somewhere else. C. S. Pierce called this abduction, John Henry Newman called it the illative sense. I suppose that, in modern philosophy of science speak, it would be called the hypothetico-deductive method. The problem is that, as mentioned above, neither inference nor induction actually generates anything new. However, knowledge is expanding, new things are being found out and verified, so there must be some way of actually figuring out new stuff. This is abduction.

The idea here is that I can think something like ‘the reason squares held against cavalry is because of the morale of the infantry’. I thus have a hypothesis, which I can do two things with. Firstly, I can search of existing evidence to back my claim up or disprove it, and secondly I can implement it in a set of wargame rules and see if it gives me sensible answers. But the point is that the hypothesis is not held like a deduced law of logic, nor is it an inductive rule. Both of these may come into the affirming or rejecting of the hypothesis, but they are not part of forming the belief, the hypothesis, themselves.

An abduction, therefore, is not a rule in the same sense as a logical deduction or a inductive rule. It is held in a much less rigid sense than either of these. It is a conditional, and the things that derive from it in either of the other two senses always has (or should have) an implied ‘if…’ in front of it, as in ‘if the morale of the infantry is decisive in the survival of a square, then I need to check morale each time a square is charged’.

I am sure you can see where this is going. Many wargame rules are abductive. The example of the square is just one example from one particular period. However, that is not how the rule or rules are actually presented.  I have written before, and I dare say I will do so again, that wargame rules require certainty. A set of rules which started each rule with an ‘if…’ statement, such as ‘if you, too, believe that the morale of a square….’ would be a far longer work than most people would put up with, be very boring and probably really hard to use in a wargame.

The issue is, then, that wargame rules run the risk, indeed the likelihood, of being mistaken for either deductive or inductive rules when they are, in fact, held in the conditional, abductive, sense by the author. We can thus land up in situations where there are disputes between the users of different sets of rules because the authors disagree in this abductive sense, while the disputes are disagreeing in an inductive or inferential sense. Writing an abductive rule down, as we have to in a rule set, makes it look like one of the other forms.

When this is added to the other problems of the written word, of course, it becomes remarkable that we can, in fact, agree on what most rule sets say, most of the time. The human mind is much better at working out meanings from ambiguous text that most philosophers of language are willing to give it credit for. At least, that is the way I read them.

Saturday 9 August 2014

Wargaming and Aesthetics

I have, I think, some time ago, pondered the issue of wargame aesthetics. There is, I believe, something which is aesthetically pleasing to the human wargamer about playing with nicely painted soldiers on an attractive terrain. In short, this is a positive aesthetic activity for us; it makes us feel good in some ill-defined way.

Some of the feel good factor is involved in actually playing the game, of course. The narrative seizes us and our imaginations. The uncertainties of the outcomes engage us, the tensions rise and fall as in any good story. That is, of course, one sort of aesthetic engagement, which I have touched on in comments about wargame hermeneutics in the past as well, and will probably do so again when I can think of anything else to say.

How about the actual aesthetic experience of the toy soldiers, the terrain and so on? This is a different sort of aesthetic. Just in case you do not believe that there is any aesthetic experience going on, have a wander around a show and eavesdrop on wargamer’s exclamations over new models: “Oh, that’s nice” is not uncommon. An aesthetic experience is going on.

Now, one of the reasons for writing about it is that I, against what is probably my better judgement, have been reading (or, more accurately, attempting to read) some Heidegger. Heidegger has a lot to say about art, most specifically about what art is, its essence. Having just completed wading through (one does not read this sort of thing for the pleasure of the prose, I am afraid) ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, I thought I would try to apply these (admittedly highly abstract) ideas to wargame aesthetics.

Heidegger is notoriously difficult to read, and his style is, to say the least, dense, and much is untranslatable, at least into English. It also sometimes makes you wonder what is going through his mind as he writes. Sentences including wondering about what the ‘thingness of the thing’ is do make me, at least, wonder if this sort of thing (sorry) is what Wittgenstein was criticising when he wrote that most philosophical problems were a case of language going on holiday. A thing, after all, is a thing and therefore has thingness. Does it really need to be defined?

Anyway, Heidegger recognises three levels of item – the thing, equipment and works of art. The thing is the natural object, a lump of granite or, perhaps, the raw metal from which out soldiers are cast. It has a range of natural properties such as hardness, colour, malleability, a melting point and so on. The point about a thing is it does not have anything else. It is unprocessed; in human terms it has no meaning.

The next level up is equipment. Equipment is what you get if you apply some processing to a mere thing. Heidegger’s example is a pair of shoes. They have no intrinsic artistic merit; they are just something which is worn by, say, a peasant in the fields ploughing. They do not, particularly, notice the shoe, except perhaps when it gets caught in the mud and removed from their foot. It is simply a bit of processed mere thing (or things) which have become something useful. In a sense, the shoe, as equipment, is a tool.

Applying this to wargaming, more or less everything is equipment, and we often refer to it as such. For example, we need a table, dice, measuring devices, rules, toy soldiers and so on. These are all things which are processed from the originals. There is, however, I think, a little more to them than this, a little more which raises them from the equipment level towards that of the top level of Heidegger’s hierarchy, which is towards that of a work of art.

Now, Heidegger defines a work of art as something that discloses the Being through being (I told you this was dense). The work of art and the artist are indistinguishable, in that one cannot exist without the other. The point here I think I want to extract is that works of art are historical, as is the artist. They represent something (peasant shoes in Van Gogh’s painting) which is historically situated, but which also opens up a space for disclosure, for understanding, for truth.

Now, surely I am not suggesting that a humble 25 mm figure of a Napoleonic Imperial Guardsman is opening up some sort of window on truth (or even Truth)?

No, but we have to consider that the figure is representing something that was true, historically, and bringing that truth into our own world, for our consideration. As an aesthetic object, the figure stands or falls on its true representation of the original. The paint job may be more or less good, the casting may be good or poor, but the object has to represent some sort of truth, at least a truth as we can understand it.

That understanding is mediated by our own knowledge and understanding of the meaning of the figure, the figure as representing Napoleon’s elite fighting force, the final reserve of the Grand Armee.  Of course, to be truly postmodern we have to admit that our truth, the interpretation of the original, may be flawed, but we also have to acknowledge that the representation we have of it is representative of at least the historical truth as mediated through the western historiographical tradition. And we would also have to admit that non-western historiographical traditions are probably less than interested in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard anyway.

The point, struggling to emerge from this is that, I think, there is an aesthetic experience in a wargame. Demonstration games at shows can be intense aesthetic experiences. Even single figures have meaning, and part of that meaning is mediated through the historical basis of the figure as well as the pure aesthetic experience of admiring it, its proportions and painting. The wargame as a whole is a historically mediated experience, with a meaning for its participants and observers which goes beyond the pure equipment which is used to put it on.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Late Persian army to go and aestheticize.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Wargame Readers and Reading

I’m not sure when the last time you went to a wargame show was; for me, it was in February, and is also a fairly rare experience. However, one thing that does tend to happen is that you have large quantities of paper confronting you at a wargame show. Obviously there a dealer catalogues and rules for participation games, along with explanatory panels for demonstration games, but for a hobby which has a fair obsession with the material and visual, there is an awful lot of printed pages around.

Not only are there the mechanics of the hobby in print but also, of course, there are rule sets which, no matter how many pictures they include, are word based. Even worse, in fact, some of them contain arithmetic. No wonder it seems hard to recruit new members of the hobby when adding up, subtracting and comparing numbers is so inherent to it.

Finally, of course, there are book stalls. Lots of book stalls, often selling multi-volume tomes on wars which most people, quite frankly, have never heard or cared about and, if they have, have rather hoped would be forgotten. In the present globalised economy, memories of the Opium Wars, or the burning of the White House are generally embarrassments to the real-politic of international relations, or have been thoroughly apologised for in the fervent hope that they would go away.

But still the band of non-politically correct, pre-postmodern wargamers carry on stirring up the past and wanting, in some form, to recreate it. Even though, as present day sceptics and consumers of 24 hour news programs we know that history is only a matter of opinion, they still try to have historical battles and argue about who won. As if it matters.

Well, I am not going to dive back into the questions of history and what history is when it is being done, but there might be a little mileage in pondering this thing about texts and the uses to which they are put in a wagamer’s hobby.

Firstly, I have already written about hermeneutics, and I am not really intending to repeat myself (I have done enough of that already). There are hermeneutic issues about reading an ancient text. The world of the text and our world do not match. In hermeneutic circles, this is something like the incompatibility of two veiwpoints, two horizons. It takes a lot of effort to fuse them into something coherent. Lack of understanding of this point does, I fear, wargamers no good at all in the long run.

However, source texts are not the only texts that we consume. We also, for example, consume rule books. So far as I can tell, wargamers consume more rule books than they can ever possibly use, and some are honest enough to admit that they bought the rules but never fought the battles. Nevertheless, I would guess that most wargamers have at least perused the rules that they have purchased (at great price, most of them these days).

Based on my own extensive experience of buying rules and reading them, I can comment on what I am looking for in a rule set. It boils down to one thing: ideas.

Somewhere on a shelf or in a box, I have a rule set called ‘Have Pike Will Travel’. I cannot at present find it, so I cannot tell you who write it, nor who published it. But it is an interesting set of rules for ‘skirmishes’ in the vaguely Italian Wars period. It uses 25 mm troops, and I have never played it as is. But it is a very interesting set of rules, because it spends most of its time setting up a campaign / role play system and establishing goals for the players which are not simply variations of ‘destroy the enemy’. Admittedly, some of the rolled up goals can be a little annoying, such as ‘get such and such a character killed because you fancy his wife’, but the goals must make for unpredictable games.

Of course, I have not used the rules much, but they did, when I read them (in fact, I think I reviewed them) cause some amusement and some thinking about how a wargame should be conducted. And that, surely, is the point. The question such rules stimulates is along the lines of ‘should we treat our units and commanders as automata?’

Of course, we have dice rolls to give some unpredictability. But one unit suddenly retreating to expose another unit commander to likely death is not really going to be reproduced by those dice rolls. The question then is should they be?

For each wargamer or rule reader, there is probably a different answer to that question. The reading that the gamer has done will inform the answer, as will other games played and also other issues, such as outlook. Some wargamers take their games terribly seriously and probably would not tolerate a bit of speculative adultery affecting the behaviour of the unit. Others might find it simply fun, a laugh, not something to be analysed in any great detail. In hermeneutic terms this depends on the horizons of the players, the rule writers and the cultures (and / or subcultures) in which they move, and their interests and abilities to explain and understand.

So these hermeneutic horizons do not only affect how we read ancient texts, but how we read modern ones as well. The texts can still question us – ask if this is how humans behave and behaved, and if and how we are comfortable in modelling it. Furthermore, it can also ask us about what we think is important. For example, the old Tercio rules had fear factors, where most troops fighting, say, the Turks had a minus one because of their fear of them. This is a question for us as wargamers: do we believe this? Is it a suitable modelling of the reported effect, or simply a fudge factor because we cannot reproduce the numbers of Ottoman armies on the table?

I am not, of course, sure of any of the answers to these questions, but I do think they should be asked, and it is, in this case, the rule writers who are asking them.