Saturday 24 January 2015

The Edge of the World

A comment a post or three ago by Mr Foy raised a question to which I gave a probably too short an answer, so I thought I would have another go here. The question was about the ‘edge of the world’ syndrome. In case of point, it was about how Mr Foy’s  original Napoleonic Peninsular campaign had focussed on the Army of Portugal, assuming the other fronts were simply ‘busy’, and then finding that this was not sufficient for the needs of the campaign. In short, the edge of the world was not where the conceptual edge of the game was to be found.

This is, on a smaller scale, a problem for wargames as well, not just campaigns. A cavalry unit pursues off the edge of the table. In game terms there are in some sort of ‘nowhere’ limbo. Similarly, a division is engaged in a flank march. It is nowhere until some mechanism permits it to appear suddenly, on a table edge. I suspect (although I am not a wargamer of this ilk, as you are probably well aware by this time) that this gets worse the more modern the wargame. In the World Wars, after all, most of the damage was done by artillery, and you would need a very big table (or a very small scale) to place the heavy gun batteries on along with the front line infantry.

Now, in my response to the issue I noted that most wargames do actually acknowledge some sort of external context. Even a simple ‘capture the crossroads’ sort of game gives a context. The crossroads are important to someone, and that someone is not necessarily part of the game. An even simpler ‘destroy the enemy’ has a context; that context may be simply that the other side is the enemy and is, therefore, to be destroyed, presumably for some larger purpose. Very simple scenarios such as these are, in fact, embedded in some larger wargame ‘reality’.

I recall, in the dim and distant past, one of the naval wargame books observing that while in figure gaming, it was fairly easy to identify an objective and fight over it (such as the strategic crossroads in the middle of the board) in naval wargames this was a fair bit harder, and usually was easier to identify in the context of a campaign game. Thus this set of islands, or the movement of this fleet in that direction is better placed in the context of an overall series of events.

The problem is that it is very hard to decide exactly how wide this context is to be drawn. In the Peninsular war example, we can start with the Anglo-Portuguese forces, then expand to the whole of Spain as the fronts were not independent. But then, of course, this starts to ask questions about, say, naval deployments and blockades, as well as the global assignment of forces between, say, the Spanish Ulcer and the invasion of Russia.

Now we can, of course, arbitrarily cut off the rest of the world. Any troops moving off the edge of the table are lost. In this case, beyond the edge of the table is limbo land, a wargame ‘nowhere’. In a campaign game the effects of other fronts, of grand strategy and a distant high command can be modelled with chance cards or with dice rolls giving reinforcements, demands for troops to be redeployed or removed or whatever. This can require a fair degree of imagination from the wargamer, of course. The fifth time that high command demands a battalion of infantry for another front, when you only started with four anyway might stretch our narrative credibility just a little.

I think, however, that this might give us a hint as to how we might handle this. A wargame, or a wargame campaign, is a narrative. That, after all, is part of the attraction of wargaming. Thus, we can, if we so desire, have an overall narrative of the bit of the world we are actually interested in, and, embedded within that, have a rest of the world narrative as well. This latter could be based on the historical world. Thus a major victory for the Spanish in the Peninsular could require the diversion of an extra corps from the Grand Armee to restore the situation, meaning that they are not available to invade Russia and thus, indirectly, leading to the problems that Napoleon had there. With luck, and a bit of imagination, the narratives can be persuaded to coincide.

Of course, with less historical context, we can make our narratives what we want. My Fuzigore campaign is a case in point. There is no “real” world context, so I can really make it up as I go along to get the next battle. Fuzigore also shows up the reverse side of the problem, however. I did (as recorded somewhere here) spend some time setting up the context of a local campaign, including more detailed maps, map moves, couriers and so on. All that effort and the battle, when it came, was so decisive that that was the end of that. One side triumphed, one side surrendered. And my carefully made campaign aides were stuck back on the shelf.

So I suppose that there is a balance to be struck, here, between the quantity of context required and the time available to the wargamer(s) to develop the game in that context. Fuzigore is, as mentioned, a virtually context free zone. The context that does exist is firmly in a scribbled map and my head. The more historical we go for, the more pointed the local and larger contexts become. Unless the campaign is set up fairly carefully, the players can be dominated by external events. Conversely, the French may triumph in Spain to the extent that Wellington simply remains at sea, looking thoughtfully at what might have been.

I realise that I have not supplied any solutions to the issues here, but I think that identifying such issues is a helpful thing to do. The edge of the world syndrome is something which does affect all wargames. My own solution is to deploy relatively small forces on the table, so the players can never rest a flank on the edge of the world. 


  1. Clearly what we need is a scrolling table that can incorporate all the surrounding forces too!

    I generally do not worry too much about the edge of the world. Like you I favour games where the table is much larger than the forces on it so that there are large flanks and room to manoeuvre. In these cases I imagine that I am the general commanding a whole army and that all my available forces are already deployed.

    Where the table is not large enough, I have seen justification for the edge of the world based on the assigned area of operations for the forces on the table. Some rules stated that we should imagine that the force engaged on the table is one force among many and that its progress can be considered to be mirrored on either side. Thus, you may command the central company in an advance and the companies to either side have their own assigned area and will advance or retreat in tandem with your troops.

    I suppose it also depends upon what size force you are representing. Is it one army among many in a war? Is it a small raiding force with no support nearby? These considerations may affect how you perceive the off-table elements of the game.

    One area where I have had significant difficulty was in running a couple of campaigns on hex maps. Each hex was equivalent to a 1' x 1' area on the table, which was great until you got to battles. At this point I had to decide how to align the available table space with the campaign map and assign troops to it. Then there is the need to consider how reinforcements will reach the table, how to deal with the interaction between battles occurring simultaneously, etc. It created quite a headache, so these days I favour nodal maps, where each node is a wargames table and troops are either in the node (on the table) or they are miles from it. There is still the opportunity for troops to become reinforcements, but not in the same way as with hex maps.

    Regarding modern artillery, that is actually less of a problem. It is easy to assign artillery to a rear area and deal with it as off-table. Simple rules can be used for counter-battery fire and the on-table forces can call upon it as needed, subject to the whim of the dice. If the artillery finds itself on the table, then you can safely assume that the front line has broken and that you are in trouble!

    No answers then, but a couple of comments. It is interesting to consider what this means for our gaming, but much depends upon the scale of the game being played (army, warband, etc), and perhaps the period under consideration. I imagine that it is more of a problem for horse and musket period and later when wars were fought across broader fronts, than it is for earlier, smaller wars.

    1. I think that it does mainly apply to horse and musket and later games. I'm not sure (despite DBM rules) that flank marches were that frequent, or that successful. Mind you, I'm not convinced by the area of operations argument. Maybe the ground scale should be shrunk instead....

      I think the nodal map idea takes a lot of the strain out of map move and transfer from map to table, but I guess it can't model some things, like the slow arrival of forces at, say, Edgehill. But that could be handled in a different way.

      I confess to being a bit of an artillery freak. My 17th Century gun park would grace most major world powers. So 9f I were a modern gamer, i suspect I'd like to deploy the beasts, not just make them something abstract.

      But I'm probably odd like that.

  2. I suppose this is why some people prefer driving a campaign using hex and counter paper wargames, which are, at least at the more abstract scales (usually operational and strategic) able to represent large events, and then play out combats on the table using miniatures at certain points in the game, so the board game becomes a scenario generator. At least, that's why I would like to do if retired and/or independently wealthy.
    Campaigns attract a lot of people because of the potential for roleplaying. Some rules, e.g., Sam Mustafa's Longstreet, have a campaign generator that allows you to develop the character of your commander and his units, grow them in experience and skills, etc, as the campaign progresses. My suspicion is that people (including myself) like this sort of approach because role playing and developing a "persona" in the game is more interesting and less intellectually demanding than trying to figure out how a battle in Spain might effect the Grand Army's order of battle for the invasion of Russia (as cool as such a game might be).

    1. I do think that there is a role playing part of all opf us, and for some in comes out in being a general, developing units and so on. if I had the time, i might just develop such a system. The only problem is that many commanders pre- say, 1700 or so, only fought a few actions on a major scale. So a lot of work might go into a brief career.

      I think that one of the Napoleonic sail era rule sets had something like that, though, so you could see if you could out Hornblower Hornblower and rise from midshipman to Admiral.

      Less intellectually demanding? I think that we like the personal; the abstract is a lot more difficult to imagine.