Saturday 27 September 2014

The Problem of Genius

“In a very different subject-matter, Napoleon supplies us with an instance of a parallel genius in reasoning, by which he was enabled to look at things in his own province, and to interpret them truly, apparently without any ratiocinative media. ‘By long experience’, says Alison, ‘joined to great natural quickness and precision of eye, he had acquired the power of judging, with extraordinary accuracy, both of the amount of the enemiy’s force opposed to him in the field, and of the probable result of the movements, even the most complicated, going forward in the opposite armies… He looked around him for a little while with his telescope, and immediately formed a clear conception of the position, forces and intention of the whole hostile array. In this way he could, with surprising accuracy, calculate in a few minutes, according to what he could see of their formation and the extent of the ground which they occupied, the numerical force of armies of 60,000 to 80,000 men; and if their troops were at all scattered, he knew at once how long it would require for them to concentrate, and how many hours must elapse before they could make their attack.’” (Newman, J.H., An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, (2013 [1870]) Assumption Press, p 219).

I have to confess, that that was a somewhat unexpected paragraph in Newman’s book for me, at least. In the passage in question and its surroundings, Newman is pondering the nature of genius. He observes before it that, for example, Newton had a tendency to simply write down answers to mathematical physical problems without working them out or proving them. It then took several generations for the rest of the academic community to catch up and prove that he was, in fact, right. I believe that someone once claimed (with what accuracy I am unsure) that for every time that the mathematician Carl Freidrich Gauss wrote ‘it is obvious that’ or ‘clearly it follows that’ or similar phrases, someone has obtained a PhD for showing it to be so.

Newman continues after the passage just quoted: “It is difficult to avoid calling such clear presentiments by the name of instinct; and I think they may so be called, if by instinct be understood, not a natural sense, one and the same in all, and incapable of cultivation, but a perception of facts without assignable media of perceiving.”

The problem is this: as ordinary human beings, we have little idea of how geniuses proceed, and, in general, cannot cope when they do. If Napoleon was a genius at warfare, it is little surprise that his opponents, no matter how competent, struggled to cope with his manoeuvers. Even Wellington was humbugged by the Corsican, even though the latter was not at his best during the Hundred Days. The fact that the Allies won and Napoleon lost was due more, perhaps, to Wellington’s planning and positioning of his forces during Waterloo, and the Prussian ability to support him than any military genius on their side.

All through history we can see military geniuses, alongside those in other fields, turning received wisdom upside down and winning battles, or solving problems, in ways that were thought impossible. On the military side was can name, for example, Marlbrough, Alexander, perhaps Caesar, Hannibal, Scipio and so on. Some others might be in the running as well, such as Gustavus Adolphus or Maurice of Nassau, but in general I am sure you can see my point. The geniuses were not coped with by the normal military institutions of the day. Until those institutions adapted to cope, victory went to the genius.

This then is a problem for wargaming. Unfortunately, few of us are geniuses; perhaps fortunately, most of us will never need to get involved in major warfare for real. But the problem is how we, as wargamers and wargame rule writers, can cope with these geniuses who upturn the conventional wisdom of warfare. For a set of wargame rules, almost by definition, must represent the normal, conventional warfare of the time.

There is an additional problem, of course, in that we have a splendid dose of hindsight to add to the mix. When Napoleon is facing the Allied army at Waterloo, we might want to explain to him the fact that most of the enemy army is over the ridge and a grand battery, no matter how grand, just is not going to cut the mustard. We also might like to point out that the army closing in on his right is not reinforcements but an army he thought were thoroughly beaten. Thus there is here a question of epistemology (to give it an overpoweringly posh name). Napoleon may not have known these things; somehow he had lost control of the campaign.

The issue is, in terms of wargame rules, firstly, that of course Napoleon, if he had been aware of these facts, might have taken different action, although the politics might have made this difficult. These are issues beyond a simple set of rules to deal with. But the real problem is, if I may call it such, the ontological one of genius. The being of a military genius on the battlefield cannot, I think, be handled as it is mostly by a ‘+2’ on the command rolls, or some other sort of fudge factor to enable the wargame to come out in a vaguely historical manner. The genius who can just ‘see’ the solution, the Marlbrough who marches half an army across the battlefield to obtain tactical surprise, cannot be subsumed within a simple addition to a command rule or radius. These rules and their fudging simply do not reflect the process of the genius winning the battle.

I do not think that there is in fact, any legislating for such genius. Firstly, even Napoleon had feet of clay, or at least had to odd off day on the battlefield. If we construct rules for military genius, then we would also have to construct rules for the genius not having had his morning coffee. And that way, I think, wargame rule writer’s madness lies. Secondly, genius is, well, genius. It tends to operate outside the box, which would mean, more or less, it might well operate outside the framework of the rules. And I cannot think of a rule set that can allow that.


  1. Interesting article. That opening description is reminds me of the 18th century concept of coup d'oeuil (only writ large)l.

    If we could somehow lose the helicopter view during wargames, I think it might be possible to construct a rule for that kind of genius. I suspect that this is one of those areas where miniature figures get in the way of a "good simulation". It probably wouldn't be possible in a traditional 1-2-1 game without some form of technological aid (beyond my feeble experiments with Excel!) or umpires Rather like those old military war-games where the protagonists are in separate rooms and fed information by the umpire.

    The umpire/computer could give "Napoleon" better quality information in any given situation and misinformation to his opponent. Some games use "blanks" to represent formations until they get into closer range, and Napoleon/Alexander etc get to use some decoy blanks too.

    You could also give bonuses when it comes to grand tactical manoeuvres - on the basis that the genius has a better judgement of time and space and therefore how to move thousands of men without it leading to traffic jams and chaos. The same sort of benefit could also be given to armies which might be short on geniuses but have more training on moving large formations (Old Fritz at Leuthen for example).

    But I agree, you can't legislate for the blinding flash of inspiration that leads to a brilliant manoeuvre.

    Having said all that, isn't part of the wargamer's make up is wanting to see what they would have done in Napoleon's shoes?

    1. I think that the problem with blind game, different rooms, umpires and all is the set up time and the feeling that we could be playing a wargame. I guess it is where gaming and simulation grind against each other.

      Me? I like the idea and would certainly umpire, but then I'm as bit odd...

      I suppose the problem with blanks and so on is that they can start to look like cheating, and anyway, if I were facing Napoleon, 'd do something else. I fear he problem might simply be an ever receding one.

    2. Aye, it gets further and further away from playing with toy soldiers too, which drew many of us in to the hobby in the first place.

      I too would be up for umpiring - in my case I think it's down to a character flaw.

    3. I spend a fair bit of time sorting out campaigns. it doesn't seem wasted, until I start pushing toy soldiers around. And being a solo player, of course, is constantly being an umpire....

  2. I agree with much of the post but not the conclusion apart from the bit about not being able to elevate ordinary players into geniuses.

    One thing many people forget about most military geniuses is that in addition to their innate abilities, they usually have done a lot of study and know their business.

    In general these geniuses do not change the rules, they just change their choices. Look at Epimondes or Alexander, the armies they led to such stunning and unconventional victories using unorthadox tactics were not newly raised armies full of troops trained in new methods, they were armies inherited and used as is.

    This is one advantage of rules like the old wrg 3rd edition (laying aside various faults for now). They laid out what various troops were capable of foing and then gave uou a free hand. Using a representative army in the historically appropriate fashion tended to get the best from it but every now and then a player would come around and seem to be able to predict what an opponent would do and how he would react to a certain move and be able to use that to destroy him.

    Rules that lay out not only what troops can do but which also impose a mefiocre "typical" layout or plan do take away the possibility of genius while still allowing for lucky.

    1. Hm. Training and generalship? I do wonder how much Alexander in particular benefited from simply having experienced troops who didn't run away at the slightest provocation.

      I'm not sure about whether these military geniuses (genei?) did actually change the rules, or simply exploited them more extremely than others. The English / welsh longbow was a bit of a shock to continental armies in the 1340's, but should it have been? Was Edward III a genius, an able exploiter of an underused weapon system, of just lucky in meeting inept opponents? And how could we tell?

      i suppose part of the problem, as Nundanket suggests, is that if a set of rules allows you to do something like Marlbrough at Ramillies, then everyone will do it and it is no longer a move of genius, just routine. But at the time it was unexpected.

      So I agree, but I'm not sure how the rules can be made to fit the bill (being too young to remember WRG 3rd ed :)).

  3. Another very interesting post! Thanks for this! I think that you are absolutely correct in deciding not to attempt to create a rule, or rules-system feature to legislate for "genius". I agree that there have been, through history, commanders who repeatedly trounce opponents. Yet the essence of these repeated victories seems far more elusive than something you can just distil to a single rule or set of rules to address those circumstances. For me, one which seems to amount for the success of many of the Great Captains is the ability to obtain information and act on it faster and in a more sure-handed manner than the enemy in the field. Is that genius? I have no idea - but it was always difficult to overcome a Marlborough, Turenne, Frederick the Great or Napoleon acting in such a manner.

    When it comes to reducing that to the tabletop, I think its possible to grasp towards a simulation of those features. Dummy "blinds" for an able or exceptional commander is one way. "Koenig Krieg" had an extreme example of this, which worked rather well in the deployment phase, allowing a Prussian player to field up to almost a dozen dummy units on the table. A pre-game off-map deployment phase, when one side has very limited intelligence and the other had significantly more, is another. Hampering one side with slow moving baggage, which the other force marches with speed and sureness is yet another. All ideas to spread fun and havoc no any wargames table or club night game!

    We can't recreate genius (if it ever existed), but we can conjure up the magical spell that some commanders cast on the battlefield. Great post, Polemarch - I really enjoyed it!

    1. Aye, well, the essence of military genius is far beyond us, even if such a thing exists. But I suppose we want rules which are flexible enough to allow the unorthodox while punishing the really silly.

      Cromwell, for example, is credited as being a bit of a (late starting) military genius. How do we accommodate his political and military nous on the battleifeld; in fact, is it something we want to recreate? Cromwell, I suspect, was a fairly unnerving person to be that close to in battle, but he usually led his men very well.

      Was he a genius? Well, he won a lot of battles, sometimes by his own decisive action. Does he need special rules? That is really not clear to me, and he is perhaps less of an obvious military genius than some.

      But I'm waffling now. Thank you all for the thoughts