Saturday 30 July 2016

Respectable Wargaming

You might wonder, amid all the pontificating here, when the author has time to actually commit wargaming. I mean, it must take up most of his limited mental capacity just writing this stuff, let alone the time it takes to read some of the obscure tomes he refers to, to make actual wargaming a practical impossibility.

You would, of course, be right.

Nevertheless, occasionally wargaming does happen. For the last few weeks (or possibly months) I have been working up towards having a battle, as the estimable Mrs P calls it. Why, you might ask, has it taken you so long?

As those of you with very long memories might recall, the current campaign of choice is one set in around 360 BC in Greece and the surrounding seas, islands and bits of the Persian Empire. The first, and so far only, battle we an episode in a Spartan Civil War where one king and his allies defeated the other, with a little help from his Theban friends.

For battlefields I usually use a random terrain generating system, and takes what it throws at me. For the Spartan battle I landed up with a ditch running across the battlefield, and so had to pause while I created some ditches. This was not too hard, but it did take some effort and a tiny bit of ingenuity, and the resulting battle, with the new terrain, was an interesting success.

This time, my random campaign system (OK, it is not quite that random, but it does throw up some interesting battles between groups that the Greeks would probably not have recorded) yielded an encounter between a Persian punitive expedition and some recalcitrant Thracians. Needless to say, my mind’s eye was filled with famous episodes from wargame history, such as Charles Grant’s Wagon Train Table Top Teaser, and Donald Featherstone’s punitive expedition to the North-West Frontier as described, if I recall correctly, in Wargame Campaigns.

I accordingly reverted to my random terrain system, and started to roll. And here everything unravelled, of course. I rolled a settlement (fair enough, we have to have a target for a punitive expedition, after all), a road, and a river. And that was it. Not much for the Thracians to hide behind and jump out at the Persians from.

A little thought and a few more dice rolls yielded the fact that at least the Persians would have to ford the river to attain their target. A few more dice rolls also established that both sides were, in total, employing more peltasts that are in my collection. However, a little sweep through my collection and pondering yielded the Persian peltasts being re-interpreted as earlier Persian infantry, possibly militia types left over from the invasion of Greece a century or so before.

This left me with only three further problems. Firstly, there was the fact that my terrain box had no rivers in it. Secondly that my road sections were both inadequate and, if looked at sideways, nearly as tall as the figures. Thirdly was the problem that my buildings did not, by any stretch of the imagination, cover a town and port on the north coast of Turkey.

The road problem was the simplest to solve. A number (about 5, I think) of new road sections were produced, consisting of ‘fun foam’ with glued and dusted banks. A lot lower than the originals, and something that the troops can see over. I also managed to make a junction piece, and some curved sections as well. A great deal of terrain for minimal cost and effort, I thought (rather smugly, as it turns out).

The rivers were a bit more problematic. I did the same again with the banks, but then thought that it would be nice if the water bit were, at least, slightly shiny. I painted the bed in a rather fetching cappuccino brown colour, and then applied a coat of gloss varnish. That should do it. After it dried, I showed it to the estimable Mrs P, who asked if I had varnished it yet. Another coat was applied, and then another. Finally, a surface which was a little shiny was obtained, and so I left it at that. A bit shiny is good enough for me.

This left me with the buildings. Some Middle Eastern flat roofed houses and some Middle Eastern shacks were painted. Fine, but not enough buildings were painted for the area to cover. I went through my buildings, but even I cannot quite justify Saxon longhouses as Greek or Thracian homes. A few Roman bits were added, but I really thought that I would have to make the various bits left over from my Irregular Mediterranean town. Fortunately, I found a half-painted Italian farmhouse, that was going to double as a mansion, and I am now in the process of finishing that.

And this ramble has, finally, led me to the point. All this is very fine (if very slow, I’ll grant) wargame fare. Perhaps I have given myself too long to think about it. But is a wargame where one side sets out to destroy the homes of the other really a respectable game?

I have even written rules for the length of time the Persians have to occupy the town to consider their mission accomplished. I cannot deny that such missions did take place, and probably did during the Persian Empire (certainly they did under Alexander, and the Romans did a lot of punitive expedition-ing). There is no doubt, really, that the game is historically justified. The war might even be legal – the Persians, to measure them by a later yard-stick, may well be entirely justified in their actions. So, too, might the Thracians. But as I, as a wargamer, justified in creating the battle, involving the (admittedly fictional) destruction of people’s homes and livelihoods?

I am almost certainly not going to let this qualm put me off, of course. It is, after all, fiction. I have no pretence that my town would look like a Greek town in Persia, not that my 360 BC campaign bears anything like resemblance to the ‘real’ thing. But just occasionally I do get a little bit wobbly about this. Someone tell me I don’t need to, please.

Saturday 23 July 2016


One of the questions that comes up periodically is that of why we have toy soldiers at all. After all, the critics or commentators say, they act as tokens and therefore could simply be replaced by another token. So our beautifully painted First Foot Guards could (and, the implication perhaps is) should be replaced by a scruffy piece of cardboard with the name of the unit scrawled on it.

There do not seem to be too many answers to this suggestion. We tend to smile nicely, and move on, continuing to buy, paint and wargame with our beautiful creations. The critic too tends to continue wargaming with toy soldiers. The deduction has to be that there is more than simple cussedness (although that, presumably, plays a part) in this continuation of an expensive and time consuming aspect of our hobby.

I know that there are good aesthetic reasons for using figures in games, although I am not really the person to comment on aesthetics. There is, I know, pleasure in handling beautifully painted figures on nice terrain. It is a feeling, I think, of experiencing beauty, as in the experience of sitting at a table carefully laid for a meal. The aesthetics enhances the experience, the symmetry of the table makes eating more of a pleasure, the attractive figures and terrain makes wargaming similarly more pleasurable.

We can, of course, eat off a table upon which the cutlery has just been dumped. We can wargame using unpainted figures on a table where the terrain is marked out by chalk. In both cases, the primary aim can be achieved, that of eating or having a wargame. But the pleasure in each is below what it can be if the table is prepared more carefully.

There is, however, a second, perhaps more minor issue concerning wargame figures. A set of pieces of cardboard do not give us the instant recognition of troop type and status as wargame figures do. For example, I can tell at a glance if this base of soldiers is cavalry or infantry. If they were cardboard, I would need to read the card. Even if the pieces used those NATO standard symbols, I would still need to read and recognise them. The cognitive load is just a little higher when having to translate from symbol to troop type.

The toy soldiers, therefore, give us an instant visualisation of what the base consists of. It, can, of course, go a bit further, depending on our specific knowledge. We might recognise this base as being the Imperial Guard, and that base as being a levy infantry battalion. That too might cause us to alter our channels of attack of defence. This sort of information would (within limits, of course) have been available to battlefield commanders, and, we could argue, therefore should be available to the wargamer. While again, it is true, that the information could be available by scanning the information on a piece of cardboard, the cognitive load is less if we just can notice that ‘Cripes! That’s the Guard’ and react accordingly. The instantaneous visual quality of the figures makes a difference.

Now of course this situation has to be nuanced. There are some very nice printed pieces of cardboard out there which come fairly close to the recognition that can be accorded to wargame figures. I suppose too that there are wargame figures that are rather hard to recognise, either through poor casting or painting. There might also be rather fuzzier areas where the figure for the historical equivalent cannot be found, and a substitute is used instead. Nevertheless, we do make efforts to find a substitute that is close to the original. We do not substitute Panzer Grenadiers for Seventeenth Century Moroccan musketeers.

I think a third element might be to aid our imagination. While I can engage a part of my brain in cognitive examination of the table top to see what is to be done to the best advantage, I am not sure that that is the only reason for wargaming. I can, of course, shuffle pieces of cardboard around on a campaign map to create a battle, and that is one thing. But pieces of cardboard clashing on a table top does not fire my imagination as to what might be going on in the ‘model world’. For that to happen more easily, I think I need figures and terrain.

Thus, I think there is a big difference between looking at a map and saying ‘X Brigade is holding this BUA’ and ‘X Brigade is defending the village’. If we can see the troops on the table, perhaps it is easier to imagine them digging in, loop holing the walls and cooking the hens than if it is just a cardboard counter on a brown bit of map.

Of course, cardboard counters have their place in wargaming more broadly. They are, as I’ve mentioned, much more appropriate for campaign games and, of course, for more modern wargames where the fighting is on a front several hundred miles wide. The counters have some advantages over wargame figures as well, in ease of production, storage and, indeed, the quantity of information which they can contain. But I do not see them really replacing wargame figures, even if such a replacement were necessary or desirable.

I do not think that I am trying either to denigrate wargame figures or cardboard counters. Each has its place in wargaming. But I am trying to suggest that the wargame figure is a little more than just an interchangeable token. The figure itself, and its disposition on a base (are they in line, dispersed, and so on) also contains information about the type of soldier represented and the tactics they are employing. It does so in an easily cognized way, which takes little effort in reading and recognising by the player.

A base of wargame figures is not, therefore, just a token. They cannot, I think, be easily swapped for another token for aesthetic, cognitional and imaginative reasons, quite aside, of course, from the thought that there would be no reason for doing the swap in the first place, given that wargaming is a hobby.

Saturday 16 July 2016

Varieties of Wargamer

As with so many things in human life, we, as the humans with those lives, are forced, somehow, to cope with it. Largely we do this by categorizing things and people that we encounter. Thus, we say of something with four wheels and an engine ‘it is a vehicle’. If we want to be more specific, we say ‘it is a car’ or ‘it is a truck’, or whatever. Once we have categorized the object in such a way, the details of it are of less interest to us. It is a such-and-such and thus will be have in this sort of expected way.

This way of thinking is as old as Aristotle, and quite probably a lot older. Aristotle divided the world by genus and species. We have a tree, it behaves like a tree. We have another tree. It is not the same as the first tree, but it looks similar, so it is the same species. We have a third tree, which is also a tree but it is different to the first two. It is a different species but the same genus. All of them, by whatever means, are recognised by us as trees.

This sort of thing can, of course, break down. We categorize things that orbit the sun as planets. But then we find asteroids, and have to work out if they fit into the genus planet or are something else. Similarly, we can classify Pluto as a planet, and then change our mind and call it a planetoid, and then, perhaps, change our minds back. Our neat categories do not fit nature quite as well as they seemed to before we encountered this sort of data.

We might wonder if this really matters. After all, so far as we know, Pluto is not sentient, and is unlikely to take economic sanctions against Earth as a result of us being able to decide if it is a planet or not. On the other hand, the arguments over the status of Pluto do make it sound that something is at stake in the classification, even if it is rather hard to make out what that something is, exactly.

Humans do this sort of classification all the time. We classify rocks, life, planets, stars, activities and food, to name but a few. And our classification systems tend to overlap: food can be nice or nasty, good for us or not, fattening and pleasurable, and healthy and dull. Out categories overlap and, if we stop to think about them for a few minutes, can be overwhelming. But mostly they work, even if it would be nice if ‘experts’ could work out whether eating, say, chocolate, is bad for us or not. I suspect the answer is ‘it depends’, because so many things are driven by context.

Which brings me, in a roundabout sort of way (mmm, chocolate) to wargaming. We do a lot of categorizing in wargaming. Our troops are heavily categorized, for one thing: infantry, cavalry, light or heavy, we categorize by weapon, tactics, training, morale, expectation of performance and so on. Of course, this is how we make wargame rules work. The rules, the models, have to accommodate everything into as few categories as possible.

We do the same for battles, of course. We have set piece battles, ambushes, encounters, skirmishes, sieges, escalades and so on. We also write rules for the specific sort of battle. We have ‘big battle’ rules, skirmish rules, role playing, and, I dare say somewhere, rules for medium sized wargames as well. We read history (itself a category, incidentally, wargamers, at least those who do read history, tend to read military history, a sub-genre of the species) and work out the sort of battles fought, according to our schemes of understanding.

In this way, of course, we can all stand accused of imposing our categories upon the world. Now, I am no Kantian, but I think there is a grain of truth in his claim that we impose our pre-conceived categories on our world. The best discussion of this is, in fact, I think, Douglas Adams’ concept of ‘someone else’s problem’ fields. The general idea is that we do not see some things because we think they are someone else’s’ problem, and thus we ignore them. We impose a pattern on the world and miss things out which we do not want to see.

I suppose the danger here is reading our histories of battles in this way, or reading the battle narrative with a certain point of view, set of rules, or array of models in mind. This scheme we already have can, and probably will, dispose us to read history in a certain way. Depending on what we think about say, imperialism, colonialism can be read as either bringing the benefits of civilization to the benighted heathen, or as the systematic destruction of a functioning society for the gain of metropolitan centres. Of course, there are also all points in between, and considerably more nuanced points of view, but the point is that what we already think, what we already conceive the world in categories as, will affect how we read and what we make of it.

So finally, to wargamers themselves. We assess other people in categories, of course. How else can we survive? My cat categorizes the world into unfriendly and friendly, and runs away from the former. I might categorize other wargamers into historical and fantasy, or role player and figure gamer. In fact, as I’m sure we all could agree, there is not a huge difference between these categories, and they are, anyway, flexible to an almost unbelievable degree. But we have to do it to make any sense of the world, and it does have unfortunate consequences.

One of the most powerful ways in human experience to gain fresh insights or new ideas is to find a synergy with something else. This is usually beyond the bounds of our categories, or at least, across the boundaries of them. Harry Potter, for example, crossed the categories of school story and fantasy novel (and made the author very rich into the bargain). As wargaming is a relatively small hobby, can we do the boundary crossing thing and gain from it?

Saturday 9 July 2016

Ambush in the Western Tradition

I have just been reading ‘Ambush: Surprise Attack in Ancient Greek Warfare’ by Rose Mary Sheldon (2012, Frontline: Barnsley). The aim here is to disabuse the reader of any concept of there being a Western Way of War which revolves around stand up, knockdown, drag out battles. As I have observed before, recent historiography of warfare has rather claimed that there is such a thing as the Western Way of War, that it started with the Greeks and comes up to date with such operations as the invasion of Iraq.

Such claims started with Victor Davis Hanson, particularly with his book of the same name. There has been a fair bit of heat generated by it and, surprisingly for scholarly activity, a fair bit of light, as well. Even more surprisingly, some of it is of potential use to wargamers.

A fair number of people have taken the trouble to attempt to refute Hanson. For example, John Lynn’s Battle is an extended look at the western way of war, and if there is such a things as an extended tradition from the Greeks through everyone else to today. His answer is ‘no’. There is no such thing as an universal soldier, who has basically been doing the same things for centuries while the technology of doing it has change. Battles were fought as battles, each in their own way, with people with a given world-view, technology of a given time and place, and so on. There is no tradition of decisive battle reaching back to the Greeks.

A secondary thesis of the Western Way of War concept is that the Greeks, and everyone else who derives their concept of winning a war from them, are good, noble, courageous, moral and upstanding. By contrast, of course, everyone who is not western in this sense is devious, immoral, decadent, cowardly, and, most of all, likely to ambush you or attempt to kill you at night, rather than stand up and be slaughtered by Western armies. This stance, which has been named ‘military orientalism’ can, of course, have overtones of racism and cultural superiority. It rather ignores the fact that a opponent who is under-armed and overrun does not have that many strategic and tactical options. All you can really do are surrender and hope your opponent goes away or use guerrilla tactics. I think very recent history tells us which is most likely.

Anyway, Sheldon’s book aims to show that, in fact, Greek warfare had as much to do with the sneaky, indirect, surprise attack and ambush as with good classical toe to toe stabbing and screaming. She starts with the Iliad, for the very good reason that this was basic cultural information for educated Greeks the world (Mediterranean) over. It may not have happened, and not have happened in the way described, but it did and does proscribe warfare for ancient Greek culture. The point is that the Greeks and their opponents spend as much time ambushing and surprising each other as they do in massed battles.

Sheldon goes so far as to suggest that there are two strands in the poetic tradition, that of Achilles and that of Odysseus. Achilles is the prime example, the exemplar, of the good warrior – shining arms, ready to go nose to nose with anyone. The fact that he is hugely prickly, thinks more of his honour than of his side, and is a regular pain in the neck for his commanders might, or might not, have some bearing on this.

Odysseus, on the other hand, is the exemplar of the ambush, the surprise attack, the indirect approach. Book X of the Iliad shows him capturing a spy and obtaining the intelligence required. Of course, further to this, it is Odysseus who comes up with the stratagem which, finally, takes Troy. Achilles is dead by then, a victim of his own courage and bravado.

Sheldon traces these two themes down through Greek history, attempting to trace the evolution of the phalanx (a subject mired in controversy and lack of sources) to the emergence of the peltast. Greek armies, she observes, would not have needed peltasts if all their battles had really been knock ‘em down and drag ‘em out massed phalanx encounters. She also notes that part of the Spartan training was to go and steal things (including food). These are hardly skills needed to fight in a phalanx. Inherent in all this history is the idea that both ambushes and formal battles were necessary parts of Greek warfare.

It did come about, however, that later writers started to look upon the battle as being more virtuous, more courageous, than the ambush. Ambushes are for the weak, the devious, the Eastern. Battles are for the brave, the strong, and the moral. There emerges some sort of denigration for the coward who takes away life from cover, or in the night. This, Sheldon suggests, is firstly not true in the Greek tradition anyway, but, secondly, the way in which some sort of Western Way of War can be put together. It ignores vast swathes of evidence, and also takes an ethical stance on ambush which the original protagonists would not have recognised.

Throughout history, I would guess, well-armed troops have complained when the enemy has refused to come out and fight in the correct manner. By this, I suspect, they mean ‘get slaughtered’. Certainly in 17th Century North America the ‘skulking way of war’ adopted by the natives was despised and disparaged by the colonists. This is propaganda, rhetoric, of course. The colonists would have blown any native contingent away who did come and fight in their manner, so why would the natives do such a thing? Whatever else the Native Americans might have been they were not stupid.

And so to the wargaming question. I have a feeling that ambushes and surprise attacks do take place on our tables, but the question is whether we really write rules and scenarios that are suitable for them. Most wargame rules I am aware of are for big battles. Are we then in danger of falling into the military orientalism trap?

Saturday 2 July 2016

Somme-ber Reflections

I am not, and do not intend to become, a First World War wargamer. There are a number of reasons for this, as I have noted before, along the lines of the sheer size of most of the Western Front battles, and the horrid experiences of the participants. I do accept that the Western Front can be wargamed, it is just not for me.

However, the memorials of the events are now passing us by, and there is a debate to be had over the ‘meaning’ of those events. Was the Battle of Jutland a victory for one side or the other, or a defeat, or a draw? What could have happened if the battle had gone in a different direction? A similar debate is raging about the Somme. Some argue that it was wasteful and tragic but not futile. Others claim that it was all three.  All seem to be seeking some sort of meaning in the destruction and loss of life involved in both battles, and, for the matter of that, in the whole war.

There are historiographically, a number of views which can be taken, but broadly the debate splits into two. Firstly there is the idea that the whole war and the Somme in particular, was a huge waste of effort and of lives. This is broadly speaking the view of many First World War poets and the ‘Lions Led by Donkeys’ and ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ sorts of commentary. It is possibly worth noting that this view did not really gain purchase in the popular consciousness until the 1920’s, with such texts as Robert Graves’ ‘Goodbye to All That’ and Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’.  Possibly we could also add to that list ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. The point is that the cultural interpretation of the war shifted from it being a victory to it being a disaster.

At alternative ‘revisionist’ view of the Somme is that it was a vital learning curve for the massed British Army. The historians who support this view regard the battle as part of the learning curve for the generals and the units involved in how to win a battle in the military and technological context of the early Twentieth Century. They observe that while Haig did make mistakes, the army as a whole did learn how to do things better, from artillery barrages to communications, the introduction of the tank different ways of assaulting enemy trenches. They point out that, in fact, British troops did not just climb out of their trenches and walk across No Man’s Land into a hail of machine gun fire. The precise tactics adopted varied unit by unit, and was not imposed by high command.

Was the battle a disaster? Well, it depends on what you mean. For those involved it most likely was a disaster, but the British Army was not broken by 1st July and the battle kept going into the autumn. Politically, of course, the British had little choice. The French (who were meant to be more heavily involved than they were) were being bled dry at Verdun, which is a fact that rather few British historians care to recall. For the British to stop an offensive while their allies were attempting to stem the German assault (and later recapture ground where the Germans had gone onto the defensive) would probably have been alliance-suicide. Only the alliance of Britain and France was going to enable victory; Haig had to keep the alliance intact.

There is a further view that the Somme made the German High Command take notice of the British Army, which they had previously rather disregarded. The later withdrawal to the Hindenburg line is taken, by revisionist historians at least, as evidence that the German High Command had decided that the British were a potent enough threat to require special handling. Alternatively, of course, the withdrawal can be taken as strategic, freeing units from the German Army to be transferred east to knock the newly revolutionary Russia out of the war entirely. In that sense, of course, it was successful and the troops were then transferred back west for the 1918 spring Offensive.

Is there a wargaming way of understanding this? To some extent, there might be. For example, what might have happened in 1st July if Gough’s Reserve Army had been ordered forward rather than stood down? An optimistic view suggests that while gains may have been limited, ground would have been gained and held. A pessimistic view would argue that the ground had been so badly damaged that any reserves would not have made any difference and possibly been destroyed in attempting to reach the new front lines. As it is, it seems likely that Haig was not aware of Rawlinson’s order standing down Gough’s army, but it does seem that the impact of this could be wargamed and a view taken as to the impact of the decision.

A wargaming answer to these sorts of questions is, of course, speculative. But is it possible that something along the lines of Phil Sabin’s ideas about mapping out the possible result and parameters could be achieved here? It could certainly be argued that, at least, careful and creative wargaming of the battle could provide models for the arguments about the possibilities and mistakes that were made. While we cannot, of course, base our historical assessment on wargaming alone, we might at least develop some models of what happened and why, rather than relying on the arguments of historians which are becoming, to be honest, rather sterile, in that one side says ‘X’ and the other says ‘Not-X’, and there the debate gets stuck.

So, there you are, all you modern wargamers, a real challenge. What would have happened if Gough’s army had advanced at, say, midday of 1st of July? Would be be celebrating a British victory, albeit at heavy cost, of an even more tragic waste of life?