Saturday 31 March 2018

Maps of Wargamer’s Minds

‘Geography’, the old graffiti joke goes, ‘is everywhere.’ From my position on the edge of academia, in the “modern” neo-liberal university, the Department of Geography is the one which is aiming for hegemony. There seems rather little that Geography does not cover. From my school days, geography was a fairly innocuous subject to do with maps, climate and why tea plantations were not found in Scotland. Today it is a bewildering array of intertwined subjects relating to everything from philosophy to madness (some people would argue that these are fairly close together anyway), including some fairly mysterious forms such as health, social and cultural geography.

A few days ago I was trying out a new toy which our institutional librarians are very proud of. It is one of those integrator sorts of things which searches more or less everything. It was launched with a massive fanfare a year or two ago, and has just been made to work reasonably properly (although for my money it still has annoying ‘features’). In an idle moment I typed ‘war game’ into it, and had a look at what was returned.

Inevitably, there was a load of stuff on how games of various sorts are used by the military-industrial complex to prepare itself for the next round of proving how vital it is to the survival of humankind. There was also a fair bit of stuff on non-military wargames in the business community, proving to themselves how vital their activities are to the neo-liberal capitalist project they are already committed to (and commit the rest of us to; don’t get me started). In desperation I added to word ‘hobby’ to my search. This brought the numbers down to the easily manageable less than sixty, but also turned up an interesting paper:

Yarwood, R., 'Miniaturisation and the Representation of Military Geographies in Recreational Wargaming', Social & Cultural Geography 16, no. 6 (2015), 654-674.

I thought this was worth a look, and so, in time honoured fashion I downloaded and printed it (I find reading on a screen rather trying after a while, particularly for academic stuff). I hope that the journal in which the paper was published explains the link between the first paragraph and the rest, by the way.

There is, apparently, some interesting work on miniaturisation which has been done. Miniaturising a scene gives the observer a degree of power after it. Yarwood cites, among others, the Siborne model of Waterloo, an enormous panorama of the battle. It looks and feels convincing. We have power over the battle, an all seeing gaze, which the participants did not. However, Wellington insisted that the Prussians were not represented. The discourse was that Waterloo was a British victory. The model represents but distorts reality.

In a similar way, Yarwood argues, models of ships and planes celebrate technology and industrialisation. The model is shaped by political and economic factors which shape both it (as, say, a mass produced Airfix model) and the original. Reality is presented by the model in a semi-detached (at least) way.

On the other hand, model making, such as building kits or painting toy soldiers, is a craft. The power of a model is only realised through someone doing something with it, be that looking at it, painting it or playing with it. The artisan imbues the model with their own self. A quick browse of assorted modelling and wargaming blogs will verify this to the reader (aside from this one, of course. If I imbue my models with anything, it is the characteristic that I am not very good at painting them).  

Playing with a miniature animates it and creates a new world. The imagination is reinforced by the three-dimensionality of the model. In play, space is transformed. A wargame is a miniature, separated world which is still linked to the wargamer and their ‘real’ world, but is different to it. Playing with miniatures can bring new understandings and experiences. The question arises as to what these new meanings might be rooted in, and how they reflect the wargamer’s own perceptions of the world, both as physical geography and as mental geography, political, economic and technological realities.

I have not enough room to do justice to the paper in a single post, so I shall have to continue with this summary and discussion next time. However, the next point Yarwood makes is a kind of interesting one, so I shall finish with that. Yarwood observes that there is a fairly long tradition of using games in military training. There are thus two sorts of linked wargame – one driven by the military and one by recreation.

Simulation of war has been undertaken at least since the inception of Kriegspeil in the nineteenth century. These sorts of thing also get scaled up, so the military uses life sized built up areas and real actors to generate ‘realistic’ war games as training exercises. Sometimes the distinction between a training exercise for the military and a game for recreation has become blurred. Some authors refer to a ‘military – industrial – media – entertainment’ network, where film, game, war reporting and training exercise blur. Insofar as this might actually take place, civilians are ‘recruited’ to the military; indeed, occasionally this might happen in real life, even though war is not a video game (except, perhaps, in the hands of drone controllers).

Miniature wargames have largely been ignored by the military. They have developed, largely, from playing with toy soldiers and do not have the same sorts of hang-ups as the military might do over accuracy, authenticity and, of course, contemporary relevance. Yarwood does note later on that some of the foundational figures in miniature wargaming were soldiers on active service and that, perhaps, wargaming was a form of catharsis for them. Thus, for this academic interest, that of examining a miniature world and its imaginative interactions and performances, unlimited by the boundaries imposed by makers of game software or the exigencies of the military-industrial-media-entertainment network, miniature wargames are, perhaps, a purer form of imaginative world and thus worthy of study in and of themselves.

Still, there is more to come, hopefully next week, unless the MIME network have got me.

Saturday 24 March 2018

What to Consider

In wargaming, as in life, there are limits to the factors we can actually consider. We might suppose (and some people argue) that there is no such thing as free will. Everything, they suggest, would be accountable for if we knew enough about the causes. Thus, by this reasoning, I am a wargamer for a certain set of reasons. If these were known in sufficient detail, then it would be obvious why I am a wargamer.

The problem with this is, of course, that the causes can never be known sufficiently. By analogy, the mechanistic universe also fails, not because of quantum mechanics (although that, of course, does not help) but because too much has to be known about the initial conditions to be able to predict the future. Given that we cannot know the location and momentum of every particle in the universe, we cannot predict the future.

You might well, and quite correctly, object that we can and do make predictions, and some of them are quite accurate. This is not done, however, by a mechanistic approach, but by modelling. And the trick in modelling is to model those bits which are important, approximate those bits which have a visible effect, and ignore the rest. Models are, of course, quite scientific. The creation of models, however, is more of an art form.

Switching back to wargaming, of course none of this should be a surprise to the regular reader of this blog. A rule set, I have suggested before, is a set of interacting models which pick out the bits of the real world battles that seem important. How accurately they do this (whatever the term ‘accurate’ might actually mean here) depends on how well we have done the job of picking out the important bits, and how well our models cohere both with each other, and also with our ideas of how battles are supposed to go.

I read on someone’s blog recently (sadly, I cannot recall which one) some comments about how playing a wargame and playing a wargame campaign differ. In a wargame, a stand-alone action, that is, we can commit the Guard Cavalry because they might swing the final conclusion. In a campaign game we might keep them in reserve to cover a retreat. Our perspective differs according to the context.

Thus a set of wargame rules really should, if it is to hold a mirror to reality, be asking the sorts of questions of a wargamer in a stand-alone action that reality would ask. But, usually, they do not. I imagine that this is because the wargame rule set is more focussed on the battle, rather than its context. Blasting away at the enemy with a grand battery is a lot more fun than ordering them to limber up and move out because the left flank has just collapsed.

The question then is what is important to a campaign game, and how are those things modelled. Here, of course, we can delve into the details of logistics, reinforcements, replacements, training and so on. There is a huge field out there of possible factors. The problem is, of course, that it all starts to get far too complex and collapse under the weight of administration and, at least relative, lack of interesting stuff going on.

So we need to try to pick things that are both relevant and interesting. Many a fascinating wargame has been fought around supply trains and relief of forts, I know. But I suspect that these have mostly come about through scenario choice rather than a campaign game, certainly one which tracks the supplies a fort has in stock. We might decree a situation, manufacture it, but relatively rarely, I suspect, does it arise organically.

I have, over the years, tried a number of different approaches. I have tried out the full Tony Bath Hyboria approach, and concluded that he must have enjoyed bureaucracy very much. I have tried linked games, where the next wargame depends on the previous one, and these have worked, at least insofar as I have managed to guess the broad parameters of the outcomes.

I have mentioned before other things I have tried. I once indulged in a campaign game set in the Japanese Samurai era invasion of Korea, where two Samurai armies fought their way inland, beating off Korean and then other armies until they ran out of men and were overwhelmed. I have had a ECW campaign where the two sides pursued each other up and down a valley, neither, because of losses, quite able to deal a knockout blow.

All of these campaigns modelled some aspects. Some included logistics – if your supply line was cut you had to stop. Some modelled attrition – how do you get reinforcements and recruits? Some modelled movement. Most of them had the previous battle affecting the next one, at least in numbers of troops deployed.

Currently, I have abandoned most of these models. The games are linked, true. But, thus far at least, the Spanish invaders have not suffered from attrition in their march inland. In my ancients campaign, (which has also stalled, by the way) army sizes tend to get diced for when a battle is indicated. I have also abandoned map moves. It is not that my armies zip around in some imaginary space, or turn up where they want to, but that my reading suggests that, in general, defending armies adopted defensive positions, and attacking armies tended to attack them, more or less in situ.

The key, then, is deciding what to include into a set of models for a campaign or a battle. We tend, as modern Western people infused with a worship of numbers and things we can control, to aim for the things we can enumerate – numbers of men, rounds of ammunition, and quantities of rations and so on. These are, of course important, but actually our ancestors rarely seem to have considered them too much. The Ancient Greeks, for example, simply made sure they stopped for the night near a market. Should I really need to model that?

Saturday 10 March 2018

Failed Monarchs

Let no-one convince you that history, even academic history, is boring. It might seem like a rather staid and dry sort of subject, with crumbling professors poring over even more crumbling manuscripts, but, sometimes, a light is shone on a previous ‘thoroughly understood’ subject and it is turned upside down.

Thus, for example, the historiography of the English Civil War was well understood in the middle of the twentieth century as the rise of the landed gentry linked with the up and coming merchant and legal classes in London and important cities, who fed into the members of the Long Parliament. These controlled the means of production and, as any good Marxist materialist historian will tell you, the class that controls production eventually wins political power.

It took someone to go and take a look at the data to dent this idea. The new generation of historians traced the careers of merchants and MPs in the 1630’s, 1640’s and 1650’s. They did not find, for example, that the court sponsored monopolists of the 1630’s automatically supported the King, nor that the London merchant class supported Parliament. Things were, inevitably, a lot more complicated than that. The nice neat, clean, materialist narrative was holed below the water line, and finally exploded when it was noted that, in fact, religion mattered to the people involved.

As with the seventeenth century, so with the sixteenth and, I suppose, probably with most other centuries as well. The case in point here is Jenny Wormald’s book, Mary, Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure (Edinburgh, John Donald, 2017). This is a re-issue of a book first published in 1988, almost as a reaction to the outpouring of work relating to Mary Stuart that occurred around the three hundredth anniversary of her execution.

The book is not a life of Mary. Wormald notes that such a work had been performed, highly competently, by Antonia Fraser. Wormald has a narrower focus than the whole of Mary’s life, although she does fill in a lot of the bits of her life to give context to the points of interest. Those points are that as a monarch, Mary Stuart was a useless failure.

I suppose that, to wargamers, this is a rather less than interesting point. After all, Mary was hardly a military commander. Her involvement in the Scottish Civil Wars of the late sixteenth century was fairly marginal, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the wargaming of such stand offs and action as did take place is infrequent, to say the least. Nevertheless, I think there is a point or two worth making.

The first point is about Mary herself. Wormald argues that she failed as a monarch of Scotland because she was never interesting in being Queen of Scotland. She had, after all, been married off very young to the King of France’s son, Charles, and brought up at the French court, out of the reach of Scotland’s English enemies. Charles acceded to the throne and Mary became queen consort. In terms of early modern achievement, this counted as a success. Scotland, of course, was ruled through a regency.

It did not last. Charles died and Mary was forced to return to her native land. The normal historical narrative then goes that her reign was subverted by Protestant lords and her own romantic entanglements. Factional fighting in Scotland fatally undermined Mary’s reign, and she was forced to flee to England to what she thought would be safety. Bored in confinement, she got involved in Catholic plots and, probably promoted by the English Secret Service, betrayed her cousin Elizabeth who eventually had no choice but to execute her.

Wormald has little truck with this narrative. The problem was, she argues (and I am convinced, even if no everyone will agree) that Mary wanted to be Queen of France, or England, but not of Scotland. Her marriages were part of attempts to find a Scottish ‘strong man’ who could run the country for her. But make decisions as a royal ruler was expected to, she would not. She just was not interested.

Thus, the Scottish nobility eventually deposed her. This was not for the reason of religion, particularly. The Reformation already had a deep hold in Scotland by then. It was because she was useless as a monarch. The only decent thing that Mary did, on this analysis, is produce a male heir. The comparison is, of course, with Elizabeth. Also female (no, really?) she managed to hold onto power and executive decision making for decades, defying the demands of nobility, foreign powers, Parliament and people to marry, of make decisions she did not want to. But Elizabeth, too, wanted to be Queen of England. The difference was that she was Queen of England, and was determined to remain so. Mary did get involved in plots against Elizabeth and so, ultimately, she had to be removed. Elizabeth’s prevarication was, in fact, policy to avoid blame for killing a fellow ruling monarch.

The second point is about reputations. I have done a bit here to lay into a few reputations of people who probably do not deserve it. Alexander III of Macedon, for example, is commonly called ‘the Great’ but the reality seems to be more that he was an egocentric, unstable, war obsessed murderer. Yes, he conquered most of the known world but, given the nature of the known world at the time, anyone who inherited a decent army from his father probably could have done the same.

As with Alexander, so it is with Mary Stuart. She has an aura of a tragic, romantic, heroine. Who cannot be melted by the story of her ride into the wilds of the Borders to nurse her true love wounded in a skirmish? There are trails to follow her perambulations around the country, and exhibitions and books about the lost Queen of Scotland, and her callous cousin.

Alternatively we can ask: what on earth was the Queen doing dashing across the countryside and catching what nearly turned out to be her death of cold? Why was she not doing some ruling? Elizabeth perambulated widely across the south, anyway, of her kingdom. But she actually did ruling along the way. She did not remove herself from the seat of power; she took it with her.

Wormald’s case, then, is that Mary failed as a renaissance ruler because she did not want to rule Scotland. Romantic as the other narrative might be, and much more appealing to a sentimental age, Mary failed because she did not want to engage in the real political decisions that were needed in Scotland at the time. Romance only takes a ruler so far, at least during their lifetimes.

Saturday 3 March 2018

The Rivals

I actually have a small pile of books sitting on my shelf (all right, one of my shelves) awaiting review on this blog. I have little idea how this has come about. I must have been blogging about something else in the meantime. Wargaming, possibly. Anyway, as I think the books are quite interesting, I shall attempt to work my way through them, while, in the background, terrain construction continues.

Anyway, some of you may remember a while ago I wondered about finding a book about the English Civil Wars written from a Scottish point of view. The inherent paradox in that sentence suggests reasons why historians have, from time to time, attempted to re-name the English Civil Wars to the British Civil wars or The Wars of the Three Kingdoms (and one Principality, of course). Nomenclature aside,  there is not all that much, at least accessible to the average reader without an eye-watering book budget, on the causes, course and consequences of the Wars (call them what you will) in parts of the British Isles other than England.

An honourable exception to this is the current book: The Rivals: Montrose and Argyll and the Struggle for Scotland by Murdo Fraser (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2015). The author is a Conservative Party Member of the Scottish Parliament, and apparently has been since 2001, which at some points during that period must have been a rather lonely existence. Be that as it may, it is a good book.

As the title suggests, the book focusses on the contest between James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, and Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll. They were of similar background and separated by five years in age (Argyll being the older). Their early careers were, in fact, rather similar. They were both Scottish nobles attempting to make their way in the world with the paradox that the seat of Scottish political power was in London with the King and his court.

Both men were supporters of the Scottish kirk and its Presbyterian ways, and both signed the National Covenant, the protest against the imposition of a new Prayer Book on the Scottish Church by Charles I and his government. Argyll was more the political steerer, Montrose the man of action. Montrose dealt with Scottish supporters of the King in the north of Scotland, Argyll pulled the strings in Edinburgh, and the Bishops Wars turned into a military, financial and political fiasco for Charles I.   

The alliance of Argyll and Montrose did not last. The problem was, inevitably, the King. Charles I, whatever his faults, had the ability to inspire loyalty in some of his subjects. This seems to have been in the case of Montrose, simply because he was king. Alongside many others of Charles’ subjects, he simply could not conceive of the king not being kingly, that is, of not having the rights and privileges of being king. This, of course, was, at least partly what the wars were fought over: what exactly did these consist of?

Montrose then, drifted towards the Royalist party while Argyll became the political head of the Scottish ‘rebel’ side. Contacts and apparent shared interests with the English Parliament (such as was left in London) lead, eventually, to the Solemn League and Covenant, the invasion of England by the Scottish army and the defeat of Prince Rupert at Marston Moor in 1644, and the loss of York. Montrose, at about the same time, after a number of abortive attempts, started to win a series of victories over Scottish forces in Scotland itself.

Fraser notes a few things about the campaigns of 1644-5 in Scotland. Firstly, Montrose might have been a good, inspirational commander but his ability to undertake scouting was poor. Three times he was surprised by Government forces. Once he won (Kilsyth – he was lucky), once he drew Fyvie Castle, and once he lost (Philliphaugh). Montrose’s problem, of course, was that he had to keep winning; the war was one of reputation, at least in part.

The second thing Fraser observes is Argyll’s activities during the war. He was accused of cowardice, not least for being half-way down the loch on his boat as his forces went down to defeat at Inverlochy. Fraser thinks that this was probably sensible. Argyll was not a military man particularly, and his forces were led by an experienced solider. Further, he was not terribly well anyway, and, finally, his existence alive as a political operator in Scotland was, probably, much more important than a heroic death against clan rivals.

The machinations of the various sides after the end of the First Civil War are complex enough in England. In Scotland they are even more tortuous. There were various factions, within the Kirk, within government, within defeated Royalist themselves, and that is without taking into consideration the involvement of English and Irish affairs. The point of importance is that the Scottish army was a respectable force which no-one could afford to ignore. An invasion of England from Scotland was a serious matter. The Scots, in general, had experienced officers and that made their forces quite formidable.

In the end Montrose and Argyll are linked by the fact that both were betrayed by Charles II. Montrose launched a rather pointless campaign in 1650 which he knew was hopeless, and which was used by Charles to apply pressure to the Scots. When it inevitably failed and Montrose was captured, execution was inevitable. After the Scots were smashed by the New Model Army, Argyll sort of retired and attempted to rebuild his estates which had been ravaged by the war. After the Restoration he went to London to kiss hands, and was arrested for treason. He faced a lengthy trial in Edinburgh, packed with his enemies. Argyll’s defence was sunk by letters showing that he had informed on Scottish Royalists for the Cromwellian regime. He, too, was executed.

Fraser notes that it is impossible to understand seventeenth century politics without understanding the religion of the people involved. He also notes that the tensions between centralisers and the periphery continue to this day, particularly with reference to Scotland. Montrose, he suggests, saw the King and central government as a bastion against anarchy. Argyll saw central government as potential tyranny. It is always possible that both were right, to some degree.