Saturday 27 June 2015

Worlds of Imagination and History

I have finally found my Flashing Blades rules and, more to the point, perhaps, reunited them with the scenario books and some very old character sheets. Part of the interest of this, of course, is to marvel at the time we all had to play role playing games twenty odd years ago. Another part, however, is the interest of what, exactly, is going on in the game.

As you probably know by now, Flashing Blades is set in seventeenth century France, where the musketeers battle it out with the Cardinal’s Guards, duels are fought and desperate deeds of daring do are attempted, and sometimes succeed. The rules and scenarios actually often follow more closely the novels of Alexander Dumas than real history. And this is where things get a little bit interesting for my purposes here.

In the introduction to the rule set, the author, Mark Pettigrew, note that the players might prefer to view the game as one set in the ‘France that might have been’ rather than the ‘France that was’. Flashing Blades, he says, requires a creative imagination like all other role playing games. Given that the date on the rule book is 1984, this suggests that the comparisons are with the likes of Dungeons and Dragons and Runequest.

Reading the rules and one or two of the scenarios, I am struck that, in fact, the rules are very much a work of imagination. While some maps are correct (for example, maps of Paris and London seem to be reasonably authentic), others are, to all intents and purposes, made up. They have to be. I am not aware of a detailed seventeenth century map of, say, Bologna. We have to make it up.

The politics of the day are also simplified. While player characters can be students of theology, even members of the clergy, the conflict between Protestant and Catholic, both within and outwith France, is seen in terms of the Huguenot and Roman worlds. The English are Protestant and thus the enemy. The Pope is catholic, and therefore a rather dubious ally. And so on. As a broad brush stroke, this is accurate enough, but there were, to say the least, historical nuances.

This is not to say, of course, that the game is not a huge amount of fun, but it does indicate, perhaps more directly (or even, perhaps, honestly) what is happening in any sort of historical wargame. It seems to me, at least, likely that any wargame set in a specific period, is in fact set in a world of our imagination, which only slightly has connections with the real historical world.

I think, actually, that what might be true of wargaming is possibly true of history, or rather, historiography, itself. I have noted before that history is necessarily partial. We cannot know fully what was going on. We have to select even from that information we do have in order to make a coherent, intelligible narrative, something from which we can start to understand. Thus, for example, Dumas might have taken his cue from his understanding of seventeenth century France, but what he created was something slightly different. Perhaps we could classify this as a nineteenth century understanding of the original, dressed up as a novel’s background.

Historiography, of course, changes. Our view of seventeenth century France is, probably, no longer that of Dumas. The rule of Louis XIV and XV may well no longer be portrayed as a golden age of culture, elegance and, of course, world power. Perhaps today we have a stronger sense of poverty and injustice, of waste and corruption than earlier historians and novelists. Does this, then, make our perception of seventeenth century France more accurate than theirs?

I suppose that the answer to that (slightly rhetorical) question has to be ‘no’. Our view, our construction of the original historical object, is no more valid in principle than theirs. At least, if it is more valid, that is only because there are more archives available, more documents about events known that there were when Dumas wrote. But more to the point, our world, the world from which we interrogate the past, is different.

This relates back, somewhat, to some things that were noted here about books. A wargames rule author was noted as having eight hundred books on the subject, and access to a research library and a major city library. That is fair enough, but what is important is what those books are and what the author does with them. Historiography changes, as I have noted. The view of seventeenth century warfare is different now than it was in, say, the 1960’s, and distinctly so from that of the 1920’s or 1900’s, when Oman and Delbruck were writing. Yet these are, often, the authors upon which wargamers rely to create their worlds.

The second issue is what the author does with the works available. We can just read a paper, put it away and ignore it. We can read it, mark it and inwardly digest it. But we have to be able to tell the difference between those which should be laid aside and those worth engaging with. Simply having a range of material available is not sufficient. We need to read critically.

The aim of all this is, hopefully, to obtain a rather more accurate picture of the world we are trying to recreate. We can, of course, simply try to read the battle reports and books of tactics, and I suspect that is what most wargamers, anyway, do. We are less interested in, say, the social and intellectual history of the period than we are with the military and political. But here, too, we have to be careful, as all of these interacted, inevitable. For example, it is possible that we would not have Vauban forts without the revival of interest in geometry and mathematics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Of course, the shape of the fort was dictated to some extent by the arrival of effective artillery which could demolish castle walls, but would the shape of the star fort have been as it is without the historical contingence of geometry and Cartesian mathematics. I doubt it, somehow, although, of course, things would have been different.

Saturday 20 June 2015

The Dreaded Drift

As I potter around the electronic environment, observing the lipid prose of my wargaming colleagues, I sometimes stumble upon a post which outlines plans, or an avowal to reduce the number of projects and periods that a given wargamer is interested in, or building armies for, or some such most wargamers, most of the time, seem to be working on at least one project, planning another and thinking about the one after that.

I find myself not immune from this drifting and multiplication of projects. As you might be aware, I have spent a fair bit of the last few years painting ancient armies. Indeed, the very address of this blog suggests as such. The aim of these armies was to test the rules I am writing. The aim of the blog was to document the development, note important things that I read which needed to be incorporated within the rules, and so on. We can note, in passing, that this has not really happened.

In pursuit of my overall aim, however, I have painted a fair number of armies: Romans, of various hues, Gauls, ancient Britons, Germans, Parthians, Pontic, Spanish and probably a few others I cannot remember. From there I shifted to the classical Greek and Alexandrian age. Here, as has been documented on this blog, I have painted a double dose of Greeks, early Persians, later Persians, Macedonians, Indians and now, at my last gasp, Seleucids. And here I hit the problem of wargamer’s drift.

On the face of it, there is no problem. All I need to do is finish off the Seleucids and have a few wargames to test the rules, and then they can be published for the discerning wargamer to enjoy while I rest upon my laurels. But those niggles still seem to come along. It seems to me there are so many ways of drifting into another project.

Firstly, of course, there is the discovery. My first wobble in this saga came about when I discovered serried ranks of Spanish Succession and Great Northern War armies. These spring, of course, from an earlier project (which was published in Miniature Wargamer, I think, and might have sold Mr Berry two boxes of soldiers). My painting technique was not what it is today, but, nevertheless, they are nicely, reasonably painted by my (admittedly low) standards. The bases, however, are plain cardboard. So I consulted my wargame guru, the estimable Mrs P., as to whether I should undertake to rebase them. ‘What else are you doing?’ she enquired. I listed the other projects. ‘I think you have enough on.’ And there the matter rests; the armies are in a separate box, occasionally whispering ‘how about us’, but otherwise the drift in that direction is stalled.

Secondly, there is the desire to extend. An army is not (in spite of our army lists and neat categorizations) a static thing. It evolvers, and this can be quite rapid. So I have been reading up a little about Seleucids, and painting an army to represent early Seleucids. The army was part of a nice pack, which included troop types to make the army a later Seleucid one. So now I have the dilemma of whether I should paint up another batch of imitation legionaries and develop the army to cover all ages. Of course, I would then need to do the same for the rest, and then add in Roman and Carthaginian armies and suddenly I have drifted into another era, another project (and, knowing Mr Berry and his ability to persuade, another set of rules). This drift is unresolved. I like to paint the stuff I buy (ha, ha, says to Polish GNW army still in its box) and imitations legionaries are not that difficult….

The third cause of drift is the book. I have been very good, even if I say so myself. My unread book shelf is down to about 25. I have almost sworn off buying books until it is below twenty (I say almost because I cannot break the addiction of a lifetime; on the other hand my car would appear to need a new gearbox, which will put a dent in the book / soldier budget anyway). But I have brought some books recently on my original wargaming period, the seventeenth century. And as I read these I can see interesting wargaming projects looming. How did Lambert prevent the Scots crossing the Pennines in 1648? How did the Spanish form their empire? And so on. At present, I am holding out against this, but it is becoming a close run thing, particularly with the rediscovery of Flashing Blades and my Musketeer figures.

I am quite sure that there innumerable other factors in causing us to drift from one project to another. I can think, for example, of wargaming ‘friends’ who say ‘I have this half army of Confederated Nrudles; would you like them? I know you are interested in the period.’ And so we accept, go online, buy the other half of the army, and their opponents, just for good measure, and so another project is born which will compete for our attention until we give up on it in frustration and despair.

Another factor in this is the wargame show, or magazine. Often these are trying to push a ‘new’ period, that is, one ignored by most of the wargaming fraternity for a decade or two, or deemed to be too uninteresting or lacking in decent information. Thus there is a plethora of World War One games, figures, rules and articles at present, where, when I was a lad, it was all deemed to be too difficult or uninteresting, except perhaps the Middle East campaigns. To some extent, of course, wagamers who drift into these eras are fashion victims. Perhaps we should have sympathy with them, rather than gallop off down the same route.

I dare say we all have our own drift factors. I have tried to describe some of mine. Only time will tell if this blog evolves into a seventeenth century one, World War one or even becomes about the Confederated Nrudles.

Saturday 13 June 2015

Battles and Sieges

I want to return to something that I wrote about a fair while ago, but which still intrigues me. The argument I put forward then was that wargaming, as a hobby, is unbalanced, because far more sieges were conducted than open battles and, as a consequence, many battles were, in fact, fought as a consequence of sieges.

Now, of course, I am not quite so naive as to think that I can get away with such a sweeping statement as that in the company of blog readers here gathered, but I do think it does stand some further examination. That examination is probably more to do with strategy than tactics and politics than wargames, but it still might just give us pause for a little though.

If we consider a war, then, mostly, wars are not about creating battles. One side or the other might consider a battle to be advantageous in its present situation. Thus Edward III tried to provoke the French to battle when it was certainly to his tactical advantage. Winning a battle can change the whole course of a war, as both Edward and Henry V found. Similarly, losing a battle can alter the complexion of a war, as the Swedes found at Poltava. This does not necessarily mean that the war is won and lost, but the whole, so to speak, momentum of the campaign. The war, the political situation is changed.

It is a fairly similar situation with sieges. The successful conclusion of a siege means that a general can point to a concrete success. Rather like a soccer manager who can indicate to the club owner some silverware, a successful siege-winning general can be fairly sure of keeping his job. Additionally, if we consider strategy, then most places that are besieged, at least in any considerable strength and with any significant tenacity, tend to be strategically important. Or at least, they become so; besieged cities can become political symbols as well as physical locations. Think of Stalingrad or Magdeburg. Would Stalingrad have been quite so important if it had been called, say, the Russian equivalent of ‘Smithville’?

The winning or losing of a siege, then, can have important military, political and symbolic consequences. For Magdeburg, even though the siege was lost and the place pillaged and burnt, that very fact was used as a rallying call for the Protestant cause, and played a part in bringing the Swedish state into the Thirty Years War. Of course, it is arguable that Gustavus would have got involved anyway, but even if the siege was not a proximate cause of it, it certainly was used for propaganda. The most important outcome of a military action is not necessarily in the strategic context.

Now, one of the things I wanted to claim (and which must be, of course, nuanced) is that battles and sieges often go together. In the English Civil War, for example, both battles of Newbury were related to sieges (Gloucester and Donnington Castle, respectively). A lot of the manoeuvring before Naseby was also to do with sieges, threats of sieges and the storming of cities (Chester, Oxford and Leicester). In fact, it is arguable that only when the New Model Army was freed from the responsibility of undertaking and relieving sieges that a decisive battle could be fought and the endless local actions, aimed at and around local garrisons could be bought to an end.

The point about garrisons is, of course, that they can control the local countryside and passing major routes. Armies tend to stick to roads. While they could, in theory, strike off across country, the progress they would make, let alone the loss of heavy equipment, supplies and the chance of getting lost mitigate against doing so, at least until a battlefield is chosen. Thus a garrison on a major route can cause all sorts of problems to the other side. Thus, while Basing House had a relatively small garrison of, I think, around 300 men, its capture was a major prize of the 1645 campaign because it opened up a major road to the west from London. If we consider that trade was important for raising taxes, and it was the taxes that paid the New Model Army, then we can start to see that even fairly modest forces could make a fair sized difference.

Of course, it could be argued that the ECW, being a civil war, was a special case. To some extent that is true, but you only have to look a t, say, Belgium and the Franco-German border to see the same sort of issues at stake. The fortresses at least could provide early warning of attack, and, by careful positioning, provide delay to any invader and a magazine to the defending forces. Again, while these places could be avoided or masked, they did control the flow of the campaign and proved to be, in some cases, important symbols for success of failure.

Sieges, however, from a wargaming perspective, are simply overlooked. They lack the glamour, the heroism, the pageantry of battles. We prefer to see our armies lined up ready to fearlessly pursue desperate deeds of derring do. We do not, usually, accept that our infantry, at least, tended to spend most of their time digging trenches and up to their knees in mud. A siege is not, in a word, romantic, not matter how important it is, nor how interesting or exciting the activities within a siege might be.

Perhaps one reason for this is that we often ignore the campaign context of our games. We might play single battles. We might run a narrative campaign, but our narrative still tends towards the romantic battle rather than the dour and pragmatic siege. Perhaps, too, we do not have rule sets for sieges which enable them to be concluded in a reasonable time. The Hyboria campaign abstracted them into a dice roll or two. This may be the only sensible way of proceeding, but it does seem to me to be a shame, given the importance of sieges to history.

Saturday 6 June 2015

(War)Game Theory

Every once in a while I flick through my big book of philosophical terms looking for something that might be interesting to write about. This usually occurs, of course, when I have not thought of or found anything else, so it is sort of my ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ or desperation activity. And so this time I came across an article about ‘game theory’, and the thing that caught my eye was the assumption it makes about the other players all being rational.

Game theory is not, of course, about game, or at least wargames as we would like to know them as an interesting and enjoyable pastime. Game theory is actually a bit of mathematical logic about outcomes. A paradigm case would be of two soldiers, Dan and Tom. They are ordered to stay at their posts. However, they also know that if both run away, then the enemy will break through and their chances of survival will be minimal. If one stays at the post, their chance of survival will be small, but the other, who will run away, will have a good chance. If they both stay, they both have a reasonable chance of survival.

If the two soldiers are in ignorance of the choices of the other, and assuming that both parties are acting rationally, they will, of course, both run away. The way the mathematics works is that given the symmetry of the situation, the biggest payoff is by running.  If the other runs, then I will not survive. If the other stays and I stay, I will not survive. Therefore, the best is to run and hope that the other stays. The scenario where both decide to stay on the off chance that the other will too is not strictly rational, for if the other stays, I will have a better chance of survival if I run. This is, of course, a form of the prisoner’s dilemma.

The scenario assumes, of course, that both Tom and Dan make rational choices and they do not enter an agreement about staying. If they do enter such an agreement, the dilemma then becomes one about trust, virtue and ethical morality, and moves a little way outside strict game theory, although the logic can be modified to account for the collusion between the players.

What game theory does not account for, of course, is the hero. The hero would stay whatever the circumstances, holding the post for his colleagues to run away. The hero, for whatever reasons, breaks the strictly rational assumption of game theory: he does not behave in a rational manner. A normal solution to a game theory scenario is that each (rational) agency will maximise the utility of the situation given other rational agent’s strategies. The hero breaks that; he is not out to maximise his own utility, or at least, his calculation of utility differs from the other rational agents. The hero is thinking, perhaps, more in terms of fame, glory or honour, while his colleagues (who presumably gratefully run away) are thinking in terms of utility being saving their lives.

The hero’s course of action is, in some world views, entirely logical. If returning from a battle with your life intact but your reputation in shreds is, for you and your world view, an unbearable stain on you and your family, then it is likely at your rational utility calculation will be different from Tom and Dan’s. Or at least, if you do run away, you might make sure you are the first into combat in the next battle, to try to regain your reputation.

The point of all this is to suggest two things. Firstly, that our own sense of rationality might not be that of our toy soldiers. Often, as wargamers, we make decisions for them which accord with our own, modern Western rationality. This rationality usually (although not always) argues for the preservation of my life. Thus, for example, various rules of engagement assess the threat to the participants before permitting using lethal force. We can, therefore, force our little lead warriors to act outside their own world-view. It might be rational for the Spartans to retire, but would they really do it? History suggests that the answer is ‘no’.

Secondly, of course, is that the ‘cold’ rationality of game theory is not actually how we, as humans, think, at least, not all of the time. We can set up our soldiers with all due knowledge of history, the capability of the forces, the enemy, the terrain, and the rules and so on. No one, however, can make us do so. We do this because this is how the rules, history, the nature of wargaming and so on have conditioned us. We could simply grab a unit and plonk it onto the table in any order. But we do not. We impose an order, a rationality upon it.

We assume, furthermore, that our opponent is equally rational. He, too, is placing units on the table with due regard to all the constraints and opportunities available to him in the circumstances. During the wargame, we move our forces, open fire and so on, again, with due consideration and rationality, assuming that our opponent is doing the same. In fact, in many rule sets, there are special rules to ensure that our soldiers, or at least their officers, are not acing with such rationality. Thus in DBM, I seem to recall, there were irregular knights whom, at the throw of a dice (I think it was something to do with not issuing a command a turn to stay in place) zipped off to charge the nearest enemy unit. Similarly in Tercio and the old WRG Gush Renaissance Rules there were ‘A’ class troops (or, in Tercio, M1 troops) whose main activity was to charge the nearest foe. Somehow, we have rationalised the irrational decisions of our troops.

Nevertheless, I suppose that our assumption that our opponent is rational is, um, rational. But it is not necessarily so. And, of course, an apparently irrational move could make perfect sense to our opponent. It turns out, for example, that the impetuous charge of Royalist cavalry in some actions of the ECW was perfectly rational: it was designed to sweep the enemy away as they (the enemy) were often present in greater numbers. In this case, the troops simply need to be classified as rational, not A class impetuous upper class twits.