Saturday 25 October 2014

What is in a Name?

As regular readers might be aware, I have had a couple of wargames recently, trying to test out the rules I am supposed to be writing (more like mouldering in a computer file, in so far as computer files can moulder). I was not terribly impressed after the first one; Alexander seemed to win really easily and the rules simply ‘felt’ wrong.

Upon reflection, I decided that there were some issues. Firstly, in the first battle, I had simply whacked onto the table every Macedonian and Persian base that was painted with little regard for historical accuracy and balance. As a consequence, I hypothesised; Alexander had far more Companion style cavalry than he should have had and had thus won far too easily.

Secondly, there were command problems. Neither side had enough tempo points (roughly translated for you non-Polemos players out there as ‘command points’) to get most of their troops into action, or even to get them moving. Now, while the accounts of the battles of Alexander may well be biased, they do not claim, in general, that only the forces under Alexander’s direct command were in action at all. So, something was not working quite right.

Finally, at least as far as my ponderings went, the rules just did not behave as I wanted them to. Now, those of you who have read Poiemos: SPQR (don’t worry, this is not a commercial break) will know that I classified troops there as ‘formed’ and ‘unformed’. This was an attempt to capture and model the fact that the ‘barbarian’ tribes, the enemies of Rome, did not line up in neat ranks and march in step. The Romans and some of the other Eastern Mediterranean cultures did that, granted, but the Celtic and German tribes did not (mostly; there are some hints in Tactius that the Germans might have started to do so).

Applying that directly to Alexander’s battles, however, just did not seem to work. Unformed troops are harder to get moving in SPQR than formed ones, but are more devastating on first impact than the latter. This, so far as I am any judge, seemed to work for modelling tribal foot against legions, but simply seemed to fail with phalanxes and Persian foot and hoplites; Alexander’s early battles could be described as “hoplites on both sides”).

I did, so far as I am able, sit and consider this problem for some time between the first and second battle, and eventually I came to the conclusion that, at least, the name was wrong. There was much less distinction between the formations in Alexander’s day than there was (even with wargame rules and their pardonable exaggeration) between the legions, auxilia and tribes a couple of centuries later or so.

I also considered that what seems to have been important at the time was not the actual deliverable fighting prowess of the troops, but their reputation. Somewhere in, I think, Thucydides, a bunch of hoplites pick up some Spartan shields and march on. No-body bothers to stop and fight them, assuming that they will lose anyway. Similarly, I think there is a story of Spartans using non-Spartan shields and their opponents running away when the truth was revealed. If anyone can quote me chapter and verse on these I would be grateful, but I think I remember correctly.

Anyway, the idea of training also seems to have been something of an anathema to the Greeks. While individuals did train a fair bit as individuals and individuals weapon skills, there does not seem to have been much in terms of unit training. Thus, I hypothesise, these units might be competent in action, but slow to respond to unit orders, simply because it might take longer for commands to filter down and be acted upon.

So, whereas Polemos: SPQR has morale and formation as its unit specifiers, at present Polemos: Polemos has reputation and training. The second wargame proved to be a more comfortable affair for me as the wargamer. Most of the troops got into action; defined mainly as of average reputation and as trained, the command points cost of even moving the phalanx was not excessive, and it rolled nicely over the Persian foot while Alexander’s cavalry was crushed by the opposition. However, Alexander himself, unscathed, managed to form a flank guard to check the triumphant Persian cavalry with a bunch of hoplite mercenaries while the phalanx finished off the Persian centre. At the point I ran out of time the action, while not finished, was going the Macedonian way.

So, was this a simple name change of a particular facet of the game which made it feel better, or more comfortable? Was it a deep change in the structure of the rules which improved the outcome? Indeed, was the outcome improved when Alexander’s Companions went down under the weight of Persian horse?

I am not sure I can answer any of those questions, of course. It was a simple name change, but that name change actually changed the behaviour of a lot of the troops on the table. However, referring to the troops as of average reputation and so-so training meant that the rationale for getting them moving in the first place sounded better. It also meant that the peltasts, unformed but trained mercenary, could behave like peltasts and not like some really hard to get going untrained peasantry.

Finally, of course, there is the question of luck. In the first game Alexander was lucky, in the second his luck only came to the fore when the Companions went down with him attached and he managed to ride away unscathed. Perhaps, on that basis, there is not much more to be said. After all, Napoleon is reputed to have asked of his opponents ‘are they lucky?’. Furthermore, I suppose that my tactics as Alexander were fairly well ‘hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle’ for the cavalry. While that might work for the phalanx, it does not seem to be how the man handled his heavy cavalry.

Nevertheless, the wargame felt better, whatever that means. The language was more appropriate, the command rules meant that the generals could do stuff, albeit within limits. So somehow an improvement was achieved.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Thoughts Upon A Wargame

In an unusual move for me, I have actually just ‘had a battle’ (to use Mrs Polemos’ expression), or, to put it another way, I have just wargamed. Specifically, the battle was between my new and shiny later Persians, and my slightly less new (but still quite shiny) Macedonians.

The terrain was entirely flat, and the troops were entirely average, as I wanted to test my putative Polemos: Polemos rules, which are, as you probably already know, aimed at warfare in the Classical Greek and Age of alexander era, whatever we might decide to call it.

I meant to get pictures, but never the wargame and a charge camera battery shall meet in my case. I thought the armies looked rather splendid, however, and their deployment was reasonably conventions. Thus, on the Macedonian right, there were some light horse, then the Man himself with six bases of Companions (in two lines), followed by two of peltasts, six bases of pike in a line one deep in the centre, two more bases of peltasts, three bases of Thessalonian horse and then four bases of light horse. Six bases of skirmish infantry covered the front of the phalanx. Fairly conventional, as far as Alexander goes, anyway.

The Persians started on their left with two bases of light horse, then six cavalry, four up front and two in reserve, the Great King (just the one) followed by a front infantry line of eight bases of Persian infantry, with four of hoplites behind. The right was five bases of cavalry, three up front and two behind, then two bases of light horse on the extreme right. In front there were six bases of skirmish foot and two scythed chariots. Again, fairly normal, I suspect, for the Persians.

Now, what happened was that alexander won the tempo, advanced his skirmishers and cavalry. As the lights got to grips, the Companions got into Persian charge range. The Persian horse, sensibly (possibly) refused to charge, whereupon Alexander did so.  On the other flank the Persians charged the Thessalonians, routing two of the bases. The Companions smashed up the Persian horse and then disposed of the reserve, which the Great king had just joined. In my mind I had decided that if the Great King was killed or routed, the Persians automatically lose. So they did.

I sat for a while pondering this outcome. In a way, the result of the battle was entirely historical, at least in vague outline. The armies line up. Alexander charges a perceived weak point. The Great King flees and the Persians collapse. If you wanted a summary of the great Macedonian – Persian battles, that would, pretty well, be it.

The reason I sat and pondered, however, was the thought that although the outcome had been historical, I was not sure if it was a good wargame or not. The whole battle lasted four turns, or about forty minutes. Arguably, as I have said, it had a historic outcome. But the infantry on either side had not moved an inch (or base width, in this case).

However, I did feel that a bit more action, a bit more drama, even some ‘clashes along the hole line’ were called for before one side or the other streamed away in disorder. Now, of course, I could, as the Persian, have fought on but, to be honest, there did not seem to be much point. With six bases of heavy cavalry sitting on their flank, the Persian foot and hoplites were not going to put up a major fight, particularly if Alexander had got the phalanx moving forward. In fact, the Macedonian lights were slowing gaining an advantage over their enemies anyway, and the Persian morale, having taken losses and lost the general, was going to get flakier. So it was a correct call, in my view, to concede.

But I think the wargame does raise a question. Is a good wargame the same as a historical one? As I say, the outcome was arguably historical (even down to the Thessalonians having a hard time on the other flank to Alexander). But I am still not sure if it was as enjoyable as I would have liked it to be.

Pondering further, I could see the crucial point of the battle was at the point where the Persian horse refused to charge the Companions, while the Companions did charge the Persians in the next bound. On the other flank, the Persians got the drop on the Thessalonians and were winning. This of course raises further issues for the wargame rules: is it all a matter of luck on a few crucial dice throws?

Another consideration is that of bias. I do not think my rules are biased towards the Macedonians, nor do I think my set-up or orders favoured them. But as a solo gamer, am I biased either for one side or against the other? I tried hard, in fact, to be biased against the Macedonians. Being lazy I tend to stand on one side of my table or the other, and the near side tends to win. So I stood behind the Persians all game, and they lost.

Now, there are a number of possibilities left. Firstly, the Macedonians do (at least in what I have painted) have a lot of heavy cavalry, but under the rules as they stand at present they are no different from Persian cavalry. So it was not that. Secondly, as the Macedonian, I had a plan, which was pretty well Alexander’s plan, while as the Persian I am not sure I did, at least, not a specific or quick one. The Persians wanted to clear the way for their scythed chariots to hit the phalanx while delaying on the flanks. Like a football team playing for a draw, this was a dismal failure.

So, did warfare of the time favour the attacker? Do my rules? Does fortune simply favour the brave? Is any quick plan better than no plan? Have I painted all those Macedonian and Persian foot in vain?

I suppose that I shall have to have another go to find out.

Saturday 11 October 2014

A Metaphysics of Wargaming

Yes, I know, a title that takes pretentiousness to new levels of ultra-bizarreness. But bear with me, there might be something interesting below.

By some measures, metaphysics is not a popular subject in modern western philosophy. This might be something to do with the influence of Heidegger (or, as the Epictetus blog described him recently, “the tainted Heidegger”. Well, OK, he was, at least, a Nazi sympathiser. But then, so were a lot of other people). Heidegger, of course, was not a fan of metaphysics, to the extent that he spoke and wrote an awful lot about it. I think this might be an older manifestation of the Streisand effect, whereby attempting to ban something simply draws attention to it.

Anyway, metaphysics is rather sniffed at these days, which is a bit of a shame because eventually most things can be tracked down to metaphysical presuppositions. Science, for example, does not do metaphysics. If you run into an atheist scientist (and they do exist) then, if you track back far enough, they will often simply claim that the laws of nature are a brute fact, a given, arbitrary, about which we can say no more. Now, obviously, this is to an extent attempting to admit either ignorance about the origins of the laws of nature, or an inability to define said laws (which is not as easy as we might assume) or a last ditch attempt to avoid metaphysics and the ‘G’ word. But the conclusion that the laws of nature are simply brute facts is a metaphysical one. There is no evidence to suppose that it is the case, it comes from a presupposition.

Similarly, in fact, science uses metaphysical assumptions in carrying out its day to day activity. The assumption is that the physical world is regular, intelligible and predictable. These things may have been shown inductively to be true, but as Hume pointed out centuries ago, there is no justification for induction, and any attempts to do so have failed. Of course, most science is massively indifferent to this; most scientist are just trying to get their experiments to work, write the next paper and grant application and not worry about ultimate justifications.

In the determination not to worry about ultimate justifications and the presuppositions which they might rest upon, scientists have much in common with wargamers. After all, the presupposition of a wargame of any description is that the universe is, in some senses, explicable. If someone is shot at with a musket, a ball will likely fly in their general direction and there is a chance that it will hit them and disable them. We assume that this is the case, without a huge quantity of justification except that we know, somehow, that it is the case. The presumption of regularity in the universe is metaphysical.

In fact, recent historical research suggests that modern science would not have come into existence without Christianity. The presumptions of Christianity are that the universe is intelligible, regular (because guaranteed by a good God) and that part of our activity as humans created in God’s image (whatever that might actually mean; don’t get me started) is to try and understand it. Many early scientists were people of faith, such as Roger Bacon and Robert Grossteste. Without Christianity, modern science might not have got going.

But I digress. I am trying to examine here what I might have referred to before as the framework assumptions or the conceptual archetypes of wargaming. I think that we can probably assume that wargaming, in common with more or less every other human activity, takes some metaphysical items pretty well for granted, such as the regularity of the physical world and the validity of induction. Without that, wargaming, let alone anything else, would not have got going.

So what other assumptions are made in order to have a wargame at all? I think that possibly the main one is that there is an interplay of chance and necessity. As I said above, if you pull a musket trigger, you have a reasonable expectation that a bullet will come out of the other end of the gun, that it will fly in the general direction in which you pointed it, and that it will do some damage if it happens to hit something or someone. But note that the sentences are hedged with conditionals – it might do some damage if it happens to hit something.

Thus the elements of chance are introduced into the game. Few wargames operate entirely without chance elements. Most use dice, but it is not obligatory. I seem to recall that HG Wells used matchstick firing cannon, and I’m fairly sure I read somewhere about entirely card driven games. Whatever the mechanism, we recognise that despite the necessity of some effects occurring given certain causes, chance is also a factor in war and, even more so (because we cannot model every level of human decision) in wargames.

At the risk of reinforcing my pretention credentials, I think I would want to classify such presuppositions in wargaming as metaphysical. I think that such assumptions are made, tacitly, in most, if not all wargames. Stuff happens. There are causes and effects, and sometimes things go a bit awry, but not so much that the awryness cannot be accounted for by chance or awkward human decisions. Hume, after all, argued that we only link cause and effect because that is how we link them together. His claim is that cause and effect are only due to our habits of associating the events. Of course, this is another metaphysical claim, and this from a man who argued that all books of metaphysics should be burnt.

In sum, I think that we should, as wargamers, try to be aware of some of our basic assumptions in holding a wargame at all. I am not really arguing that we should hold the laws of cause and effect, or the laws of nature in mind when wargaming (that way, I suspect, madness probably lies, and I do not wish to be held responsible for a decline in the mental health of the wargame community), but I do think that, from time to time, an investigation of what those assumptions are, and their validity, might be a good idea.

Saturday 4 October 2014

Concrete Wargames

I have, perhaps, hinted before that wargames, wargame rules and wargamers do not really tolerate uncertainty. This is one of the issues there is with respect to wargaming which is one of the most difficult to tackle, both in general and in particular. So I thought I would give it a go, not really expecting to make much headway.

It seems to me that there are at least two issues at stake here. Firstly, there is the creation of fictitious forces in our wargame armies. What I am thinking of here is, for example, “morale”. Morale is often a critical element in our rules and plays a key role in the outcome of battles. But it is one of those things that does not exist, at least to a reliably measurable extent.

In a set of wargame rules morale is generated as a mathematical model, but it does not behave like that in real life. A person with a clipboard does not pop across to the 25th line battalion and have a survey of how the lads are feeling.  Morale is a construct of those who report of warfare, perhaps, but it is perhaps more eminently a construct of wargaming. In perhaps over-technical language, we can stand accused of reifying morale, taking a concept which is useful to our games and making it concrete to suit ourselves. It could be argued that morale, at least as it occurs in most wargames, simply does not exist.

Another issue which occurs, which needs a concrete answer which cannot be given, is that of armies and order of battle. I have (remarkably) finished (insofar as any wargame army is finished) my late Persians, all 34 bases of a 20 base army, including two Great Kings in their chariots. Why, you might ask, two Great Kings? Well, firstly, of course, I had the figures. You might object that there was only one Great King at a time, and I would be forced to agree with you. But which Great King is the real Great King? Obviously, the one who wins the next battle…. The reason I had two Great King chariots was because one came with the early Persians and one with the late Persians, and I had never bothered to paint up the one for the earlies because the Great King was not present at Marathon.

Anyway, having now finished the Late Persians, I am now considering moving on to the Classical Indians, the ones who fought Alexander. Here, of course, information runs very thin. Our sources do not say a lot about the Indians, because they were exotic, far away and, by the time anyone got around to writing about them, they had reconquered themselves (as it were) and no-one was really interested in people who were on the far side of a hostile empire (with respect to looking from Rome, anyway).

So, much of what we do know about the Indians is conjectural, inferential and, if you do not mind a bit of sarcasm or rudeness, frankly invented, or at least it has alarmingly little evidence to back it up. Clearly, there is some evidence, contradictory as it is. The Indians had archers, a few swordsmen types, javelinmen, cavalry, chariots and elephants.  They had what usually passes in ancient sources as ‘lots’ of these. At Hydaspes they had somewhere between 200 and 50 elephants, according to Sabin’s reporting of various modern reconstructions.

Here, again, the wargamer has to do some reification (have you ever wished you had not used a word like that?). We cannot do, as historians can, with a hand wavy ‘we don’t really know, does it matter?’ sort of response; nor do we particularly wish to move on to more interesting subjects such as Alexander’s sexuality (at least, I do not; classical scholars might demur). We need some sort of concrete number. Sabin makes a middle of the road estimate of 85 elephants in Porus’ army. He might be right. How do we know?

Now, you might argue, if you had read this far, that my claim of reifying morale in rules and my claim about doing the same for troop numbers in armies are two different things. To some extent I would agree with you, but in fact what we are doing in both cases is making something up to cover over something we cannot measure.

We cannot measure morale, so we make some sort of model up to cover the fact, and use that as the morale of the army, unit or whatever, even though it has no measurable equivalent in real life.

We cannot measure the number of elephants at Hydaspes, because time machines have not been invented so we cannot go and count them, the reports we have (at second or third hand) from people who could have counted them are contradictory. So, essentially, we have to make a reasonable guess.

The problem is, in both cases, unless we make these guesses – a guessed model for morale; a guess at the number of elephants present – we cannot really have a wargame on a historical basis. It simply cannot be done unless we invent these things.

Thus, we have to make concrete these things in a wargame in order to model them. We need a concrete model of morale in order to measure it. We need concrete (or is that lead?) models of elephants to show a given number of pachyderms in real life. These things have to be concretised in order to make the game work at all.

Of course, you could argue that it is only a game anyway and so it does not really matter, and, as a game, of course that is correct. As an imaginary encounter, we can deploy however many elephants we like, and we could, if we so wished, dispense with morale rules entirely, or simply make something outlandish up.

But then I suppose the worry would be that we have cut the final links between reality and human reason and the activities modelled on the wargame table. Even imaginations have some real world logic involved.