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.


  1. From a psychological point of view, if youdon't feel comfortable with the rules or the way they perform then the whole game will deteriorate. The 'feel' of a set of rules is crucial and it can often be that a set of characteristics aren't 100% historically accurate, but the overall contribution they make to the 'feel' of a set of rules actually give the historical flavour which you believe most accurtately represents that period or even a praticular battle. It can even be something as simple as troop classification. I was never comfortable with the WRG 1685-1845 set because they included oddities such as classifying 7YW Highlanders as "irregular charging soldier infantry additionally armed with muskets". What? Once I'd translated such things into 'my speak' and tweaked a few other things I found unconfortable, I played with the modified set for years.

    1. I think I agree. I like to use, for example, the proper name for a troop type. I don't do Irregular Spear (Inferior), I prefer 'bad hoplites'. Clearing these wrinkles out of a rule set does improve it immeasurably.

      I have to confess to my ignorance of WRG 1685 - 1845, but it does seem a bit of a wide range of periods to have in a single rule set.

  2. As teenagers/young adults we spent many a weekend and evening playing with those 1685-1845 rules. They worked pretty well and just needed to make a few tweaks to adapt them to the sub-periods. After a gap of 30 years me and a buddy managed to play a game in the Summer without too many stops to check the rule book.

    Sorry this isn't germane to the article, just that Gary's comment got me all nostalgic. Regular Line Infantry Capable of Skirmishing, Trained, 5 points :-)

    1. Ah, now R LI S, T @5 points....

      All that is both good and bad about points systems and army lists.

  3. The wrg reference is an easy one, it essentially covered the era of smoothbore muskets and covers less than 200 years which horrified some people who were happy to have 1 set to cover from the Pharoahs to Hastings. There is (speaking broadly, not specifically) a tendancy to think that because the basic weapons that were available remained broadly the same that warfare did not develop but when what evidence we have is examined with an open mind it is not the case even where the phalanx remained an important feature. But that's too big a topic.

    Reputation is important, but had to be earned. The Athenians at Marathon were afraid of the Persians, less so at Platea and the opposite afterwards. The Spartans whom the other Greeks were afraid of were reportedly afraid of the Persians and tried to give the place of honour to the Athenians.

    The Spartans earned their reputation not only being brave due to culture (fir short) but because they trained more and trained in formation and had subunits and officers in a 1,000ish man regiment (sic) unlike most citizens who struggled (anecdotally) with the concept of staying in ranks. As far as I can see, without standards to follow, without sub commanders, there was really only 1 order a general could give once deployed. Sound the paean and attack. This is different from later mercenaries who seem to have been organized and trained along Spartan lines ( though without the cultural bits) and were thus more flexible and easier to manouver. The Macedonians added standards which allow simple preset orders to be transmitted.

    Wouldn't it be nice to know more about the Persians?

    1. I think I came across a term for the WRG thing once: technological teleogoly. The idea is that the weapons systems are the (sole) driver for the mode of use. You would have thought that the various non-European forces using European weapons would have been sufficient to see that idea off, but apparently not.

      As for the Spartans, I am reminded of an old Flanders & Sawnn song 'The English are best' where the non-English 'practice beforehand which spoils the fun'. That isn't to say that the overall standard of generalship was brilliant by later standards, either, but there was a gradual improvement until the Alexanderian commanders can be said to 'battle manage', which is more than can be said for, the earlier ones.

      As to Persains, yes, more information would be wonderful. My current best guess is that they were not so far different from the Greeks, when we have removed a lot of accretions we have placed on the Greeks. With the best will in the world, our democracy is not Greek democracy, and I suspect the same could be said of warefare, no matter how much some would like to argue for a western way of war.

    2. Actually your comment on WRG is the inverse of their approach to wargames which is what made them rather revolutionary in its day. The main base was an attempt to balance a General's intent/orders with troops reactions to their situation including attempts to include their training, tactical system and morale as well as the situation in their immediate area. Armour and weapons affected combat performance but not as miuch as training, morale and tactical systems. The research of course was of the day and thus not absolute but everything can be argued but at least crucify them for what they tried to do not for something they weren't trying to do..

      I think Generalship is affected by many things but some ancient commanders had better tools (as in the armies they commanded) than others and absolute rulers had more choice. trying to battle manage when your subordinates are allies who don't feel any real pressure to agree with the plan makes things particularly tricky. So Cyrus showed better generalship against the Lydians than must later Greeks because, in part, because his army would at least attempt to do what they were told.

      I'm not sure the Persians would be that similar to the Greeks since the social structures and traditions were different. Possibly there was a greater similarity between Macedonians and Thessalians who also had more rural societies not to mention more aristocratic cavalry and the Persians than between Persians and other urban Greeks. .

    3. It is always a bit tricky to generalise; sweeping statements about anything tend to fail in the details. WRG were revolutionary in their day, but the later rules (DBA, DBM) seem to me to become more driven by technology. When the army lists start describing troops as superior because they have shields I start to get sceptical.

      Generalship is probably one of those things that are indefinable when you get to the details. some can do it, some cannot. Marlborough held together an alliance of disparate allies. the Greek city state could barely form an army without falling out.

      The creation of the army is another interesting thing. In Tacitus there are a number of occasions when a defeated Roman army is taken over by someone else who instills discipline, makes them march with their own kit, etc. The army then has a successful campaigning season. A literary trope? A description of what actually happened? A rationalisation of how a defeated army became victorious?

      similar tropes can be found in more recent times - the stories around Montgomery and Patton, for example. Is this fable, myth or reality (whatever your view of their abilities as generals)?

      Finally, well, elite culture in the near Persian Empire did borrow (and lend) to the Greeks quite a lot, to the extent of employing craftsmen who were Greeks. So there was significant cultural exchange; whether that was played out on the battlefield is anyone's guess. Later Persians do start to use hoplite type shields, but then Greeks start using bows. I think the point is that 'Greek' and 'Persian' might be more fluid than our categorizations might permit.

    4. The use of language in DBA is terrible and the choice of brevity ovrt clarity is imo a bad one. The superior in such case is an extremely minor modifier dwarfed by the troop type classifications and the description of with shield a sort of short hand for "trained and equipped for hand to hand". But what can you do with a set of simpke rules that cover such a long tine period?

      Your leadership example is good and probably means different things at different times but I have seen similar results on a much lower level when a new manager takes over a demoralized department which is not producing and turns it around.

      I agree that there was cross cultural exchange over time, probably more so amongst social elites than peasants and rank and file. The Greeks had been using bows since before the met the Persians and indeed according to Herodutus (fwiw) it was one of the archers attached to the right 300 Athenian hoplites who moved to repel the Persian cavalry in one of the skirmishes before Platea that brought down Masistius's horse. But I've not seen evidence of massed archers in Greek armies, unless you count the Byzantine Empire. The increase in importance of cavalry in Greek armies might be Persian influence though even if though the Greek city states never raised large bodies of cavalry, not good horse rausing lands.

    5. I agree that you can't expect miracles from the DBA year range. However, another interpretation of having shields could be 'useless cowards who might obtain some spine from having something to hide behind'. A bit of technology does not necessarily point in a given direction.

      I'm sure there are good leaders around. I've just never worked in an institution with any. But in ancient sources it does happen a bit too frequently for comfort.

      Cultural exchange, yes. But how far did it extend? A lot of Greeks worked as Persian mercenaries, after all. What happened when they went home? (Did they go home?). The Greeks don't seem to have been big on archery, really, relying on allies or mercenaries when they wanted them. I guess it take practice which they didn't have.

    6. I'm starting to feel nitpicky so this will be my last attempt to set the record straight on this topic.
      (and for the record DBA/DBM is not a ruleset of choice for me)

      Yes the shields could mean that if that was what the rules actually said but it isn't and its very misleading. For example for Auxulia there are examples given of troops with shields in each of the superior, ordinary and inferior category. Obviously the mere having a shield is not key. Instead they describe various troops types (trained to fight in close order when necessary etc) and give examples of what is meant (eg Roman Auxilia, Hellenistic Thureophorai, Spanish Scutari vs Greek Peltasts, vs porrly trained late Roman border auxilia ) The gamer may then go do his homework or he can just buy a list and take it at face value. But in each case for various troop types their behavious, factors etc on the table top are described primarily based on formation, training, discipline and morale. DBA itself of course doesn't have subclassifications so all auxilia are the same regardless of equipment and training, the fighting style trumping all.

      I have been lucky to have experience both good and bad leaders. But over a few hundred years, are there really that many good ancient leaders given the time span as well as the numerous bad ones (A Varus for every Hannibal?) and the much MUCH more numerous ones who were neither good enough nor bad enough to be remembered?

    7. No worries about nit-picking; actually, I think we are in agreement. I guess my original question revolved around why slingers who has shields were given a superior rating; after all, having a shield won't make your sling shots any better (although it might have indirect benefits, of course).

      I think my beef was that DBA/M claimed to assess troops on their battlefield performance and tactics; assessing even a relatively minor modifier by having a shield seems to cut across that.

      Anyway, leaders. yes, well, we probably hear so little about most leaders in the ancient world to be unable to form an opinion of them. We hear of the truly outstanding ones - Alexander, Hannibal, Scipio, a lot about the manic self-publicists - Alexander again, Caesar. A little about the incompetent or unlucky (Crassus, Varus) and practically nothing about most of them. If we or they are lucky we might have a name, a battle they won, a nation they defeated. But leadership is a rather nebulous thing; we only notice it when it isn't there...

    8. Re slingers, in my copy of the rules which is admittedly 1993 vintage, superior psiloi are only those armed with javelin and shield capable of driving off rival psiloi. In other words the standard wargame/academic view of ites, early peltasts etc equipped for hand to hand as well as shooting compared to Grekk camp follower types or to ordinary psiloi who are all slingers and archers. However, I'm sure someone has argued a case for 2 classes of slingers. One of the downfalls of having authoritative rules and a tournament player customer base. In any event, because of the opposed single die roll combat system, a die roll modifier may be better shooting, higher morale or better protection. They all look the same, a relative advantage. It is based on getting the desired end result, not a reflection of process.

      As for leaders I think we sometimes notice the flamboyent whether good, bad or indifferent.

    9. of course, I am relying on memory which is often flawed, and I don't feel like trawling through the army lists to find the quote, but it does seem to me that the definitions are sometimes applied a little creatively.

      I think the problem does lie in the (linked) items you identify - tournaments and authority. I try to avoid both.

      And of course any leader makes themselves a target for being noticed, simply be being a leader.