Saturday, 7 November 2015

Critical Points

I wrote last time about perturbation theory. This sort of things occasionally gets one smirked at, as being a pretentious wargaming geek with no friends and no life at all. Well, possibly. But that is not going to stop me.

Anyway, perturbation theory, as applied to wargame rules, has an assumption underlying it. This assumption is that things deteriorate slowly for a unit in a battle. It arrives at the battle all smart and shiny. Stuff happens to it. The unit takes casualties, comes under sustained fire, has a few frights and gets into combat and so on. The idea of perturbation theory is that these are relatively minor items, any one of which the unit will survive as a fighting force. The combination, or accumulation, of negatives, however, slowly undermines the unit and its ability to fight coherently.

This sort of model underlies, I think, many wargame rules. When I started, it was all the rage to have a defined man to figure ratio, usually of 20:1, and to calculate casualties in “real”, so for each twenty casualties a figure was removed. I always found this a bit fiddly, and also a little illogical, as a unit with nineteen casualties would fight as effectively as one with none.  I also came to a bit of a halt when some rules required that you calculated the number of casualties per figure to see if some extra factors were required to be included. Surely, I though (and still think, if I ever do think about it) that we can either have a figure removal, or calculate the number of casualties per figure. Doing both seems a bit incoherent.

Further reading around military history has led me to think that the model adopted, of casualties calculated, is, in fact, wildly incorrect. Early rules had a tendency to permit units to fight on until they are reduced by fifty per cent (or so) in strength. History shows that units became ineffective at levels much below that.

For example, Charles Cartlon, in ‘Going to the Wars’ (I think, it is not on my shelf) argues that casualties in English Civil War battles were low. The scepticism often shown towards the casualty counts from ECW battles is incorrect. Montrose really could win a battle with the loss of only a handful of men, while his opponents could lose hundreds. This is because most of the casualties were inflicted during the pursuit phase.

Similarly, in Greek hoplite battles, the winning side had a casualty rate of around five per cent, while the losers clocked up about fifteen per cent. Again, the difference would seem to be that the losers ran away, which was a fairly dangerous thing to do. Actually, it would seem to be fairly dangerous in all circumstances, most particularly if you are an infantryman and the opposition has cavalry who can pursue. Even so, the psychological trauma of battle, plus the exhaustion of having fought and then run away makes anyone on the losing side leaving a battle vulnerable even to unarmed non-combatants. Carlton relates a story of a router killed by a milkmaid with her bucket as he fled.

So, the original ‘casualty count’ model seems to be incorrect, historically. We can argue, of course, that counting casualties is simply doing accountancy for loss of cohesion, and to an extent we would be entirely justified and correct in that. On the other hand, however, we could also argue that if we are using ‘men’ simply as an accountancy term, we should use some other word that does not make us think of people being blown apart, maimed or otherwise traumatized. And even then, we should stop removing figures.

The other point is that this model, based on a perturbation approach, does not really account for the sudden crisis that causes units to really run away, or at least, render them ineffective, either permanently or temporarily. To some extent the clue is in the rule I have just criticised. The number of casualties per figure in the unit is a way of assessing the impact of a sudden trauma.

More modern rules do not make use of counting casualties, on the whole. The argument is that the counting method gave wargame commanders far too much information about the state of their units. This, coupled I suspect with the idea that not that many casualties are, in fact, inflicted during the battle part of the battle, has led to a move away from such systems and into looking at the unit as a whole. It might be advancing, halted without orders, falling back or running away. The unit is viewed in terms of its current activity, rather than the precise status of its internal functioning.

What, then, changes the status of the unit if it is not some sort of wearing down pattern based on perturbation theory? I think the answer is in the ‘crisis’ model. The key here is that a wargame unit only does something when provoked by a crisis. For different units, of course, different things cause a crisis. An elite guards unit is unlikely to be particularly perturbed by an inaccurate long range bombardment, while a levy unit might just take the opportunity to ‘go as see their friends’, as the Earl of Essex so delicately put it.  But now, in such rule sets as the De Bellis… series and even, I suspect, Piquet, the underlying model is of a sudden crisis which causes the unit to respond, sometimes positively (by winning a combat, for example), sometimes negatively, by running away.

The fact is, I suppose, that both models are required by a wargame. Certainly, some units get worn down by ongoing minor combat. Some units, say, get hit in the flank and disintegrate. Perhaps, in some of the rules, the focus is too much on one sort of underlying model. There is, for example, no unit attrition in the DB* series of rules. A unit can fight, flee and return to combat in the same condition. On the other hand, the perturbation model can make us accountants, not wargamers.


  1. My short comment is "yes".

    In many ways these are 2 separate but related things, actually more than 2 but lets cap it at 3. Lets call it the physical state, the cohesion state and outside stress.

    Starting with the physical, marching and fighting in full kit is tiring, negative emotions tend to make people feel the effects more while enthusiasm and adrenaline rushes can temporarily mask them. In addition combat depletes and degrades weapon capability, bullets, arrows and spears run short etc. A fully armed soldier will tend to feel braver than one who lacks the means to defend himself.

    Morale tends to be closrly tied to discipline and leadership. Average individuals tend to be happier hiding behind rocks, maybe taking occassional potshots when no one is looking. When a unit is taking casualties that co bination of "team spirit" and leadership can overcome natural fear but inevitably some of those losses will be amongst the official and unofficial leaders and will undermine the crucial cohesion. Experience and expectations affect this, both victory and defeat can become habits.

    Thats when the moments of crisis are most dangerous.

    In wargames, from a simulation pov there would some merit in having a 3rd party tracking all this and including it in calculations while just informing players of what they can see from where they are or are told by mesengers. In a game though many of us like to be in on the story as it develops.

    Reading various old wargaming authors I get the impression that some at least understood all of this and used the casualty removal and 50% rule as shorthand to get the right effect combined with a theatric air that would affect the gamer's own morale as he removed figures.

    My understanding of some systems such as dba where there is no visible or measurable degradation is that it is assumed to be taking place but the gamer can't tell or measure it except when the unit ceases to function thus giving the effect of the simulation but without the logical arrival at the decision.

    1. I guess most rule writers know about these sorts of things, it is just a question of which bits they model, and which bits of them are focussed upon.

      We run models for 'grinding down' and deal with that in one way, and then we add a model for some sort of crisis simulation. The two can interact, but one tends to dominate. In DBA it is the crisis. In other rules it is the grinding. We probably need both, but it is hard to get them really working together.

      And, of course, attacking your opponent's morale (wiping out that lovingly painted guards unit he's just finished) is much more effective, except in solo wargames, of course.

  2. Isn't the issue not just one of numbers of men left and the effect on morale but also a question of having to abstract who actually gets killed? A loss of a key commander or an influential NCO would have an impact far greater on the battlefield than the loss of 10 inexperienced riflemen out of a company of men.

    The ability of a unit to keep fighting in the face of casualties, is to me, a reflection of how many men can step up to take positions of command rather than sheer numbers of the morale of the troops.



    1. Yes, fair point, I think. Within a base the command structure is abstracted away, so it cannot be included. I seem to remember that Grant's rules had specific options for picking off officers, and some impact on morale from there. Can anyone confirm my memory?

    2. yes, a mounted colonel worth 2 pts and 4 foot officers worth 1.There was a mechanism for random assignment of hits plus a rule for sharpshooters trying to pick off officers. The pt value of lost officers was subtracted from morale roles. Intetestingly, the contemporary Charge! rules written by 2 officers with combat experience as well as being historians, had a mechanism for randomn assessment of casualties but no negative effect from losing them!

    3. Ah, yes, simple and straightforward, and effective, I should think.

      I suppose the debate is between command and casualties, with the latter winning. Given the rate of junior officer casualties in WW1, it might not be such a bad way of looking at things. I wonder if it works for earlier eras, though.

    4. Young was most famous ad a commando of course while Lawford was in the Indian army, bith in wwii. I suspect the big difference is between experienced professionals vs conscripts/levies vs volunteers and between raw volunteers and experienced ones. The greater the experience the less need of example and the greater ability to step up. Going back 200 years one hears of corporals taking charge when no officers or sergeants were left and both Caesar and Xenephon give example of men stepping forward to take charge when needed. Obviously not every man, esp not the ones running away, but more likely amongst expetiencdd pros.

    5. I suppose this is not incompatible with the model of most soldiers trying to stay alive and a few heroes and junior officers trying to get noticed. someone might, when necessary, step up; I suppose if no-one does, the unit disintegrates.

      It could also be a case of knowing what to do as well, and being believed. A new recruit shouting 'Sarge is dead, follow me, men' would likely be ignored. I suppose it would depend on how convincing they were.