Saturday, 26 October 2019

Representing War

I suppose, upon thinking about it, a wargame is a representation of war. It is not, thankfully, war itself. As is often noted, there are no plastic or metal wargame widows and orphans, no horribly mutilated wounded to be tended and treated, not the destruction of the built environment or crops, no refugees, and so on.

Further, I admit that I get slightly uncomfortable when there are such things. For example, a realistic portrayal of the 1940 blitzkrieg in Western Europe would have to consider carefully the impact of terror bombing cities and the resultant waves of refugees blocking the advance of allied forces. While it might make an interesting game, I am not sure that I would really want to play a wargame which had rules for creating such terrified people and for them inhibiting the movement of armed forces. Perhaps I just do not like reality in this case.

For another example, perhaps slightly less heavily charged than World War Two, how about rules for pushing armies back into already devastated regions so they starve and become combat ineffective? It was certainly a known and used strategy in the Thirty Years War, but do I want to wargame it, even at an abstract, campaign level?

I am not particularly wishing to develop this post into another meander through the ethics of wargaming, but wargaming does point up the sort of tension that a recent book I have read suggests happens in other contexts. The tension is between the romance and heroism of war, and the nasty side effects of death, destruction and general mayhem. The book asks how writers of an earlier age confronted the tension:

Bellis, J. and L. Slater, Eds. (2016). Representing War and Violence 1250 - 1600. Woodbridge, Boydell.

This is a collection of essays by an assortment of historians, art historians, and literature, which asks the basic question: how were war and violence represented in broadly medieval writing and art? As the editors' note (p. 3), the terms ‘war’ and ‘violence’ were ambivalent, connoting something glorious, epic, just and noble, while also being fallen, unchristian, hideous and brutal. Ideas of chivalry conjured romanticised notions of exceptional nobility, bravery, courtesy and ethical scrupulousness. But, as the first essay observes (Richard Kaeuper, p. 23 – 38) chivalrous behaviour was a class thing. A chivalrous knight may not assault a noble lady, but a passing peasant girl might be considered fair game. Further, even if the chivalrous knight did not do the rape, pillage, murder and loot thing himself, the people who did were under his command.

The fact seems to be that warfare and violence has an emotional register, both to the medieval authors of chronicles and their illustrators, and also between us and them. The medievals, after all, were of one mind concerning Christianity and its tenets, while we are not. The ideal of a just war, therefore, exercised them in a slightly different way from the manner in which it exercises (or should exercise) our leaders today.

The nub of the problem is here:

The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it… When genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature, it becomes easier to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.

Hard words there, I think, from Theodore Adorno. On the other hand, it can also be observed that witnesses of extreme war and violence often find meaning in it in translated, dramatic, mythic forms, even to the point of the experience being in some way redemptive.  While this refers to twentieth-century suffering, we can wonder if the tension, if not its resolution applied to a medieval framework (p. 8)? Often suffering and torture was represented as Christian martyrdom, but not always. Whether this still makes sense to us is, of course, moot.

Were representations designed to thrill audiences, to titillate them, or to leave them unmoved? Of course, we cannot answer that question; we cannot probe the mind of a medieval author or artist. War can give life to an author’s work, no matter how much they might criticise the existence of violence, the manner of its conduct and the outworking thereof. Even not writing about war can be about war: think of the ‘war and society’ historiography I have discussed before. War, violence, campaigns and battles are, broadly speaking, expunged. But does not this act itself somehow violently exclude the reasons men were brought together in the first place?

There is such a paradox in wargaming generally. However much we abstract a wargame away from reality, we do still represent it. Even by not representing it (and, usually, we do not) it is still present in our games. I have given up (as you may have noticed) using casualty markers in my games, preferring blank markers without dead and wounded figures on them. I suppose this is to remove my game, my hobby, even further from the implied violence which is being modelled. Adding dead or dying figures to my table seems to do nothing for its accuracy or playability as a game, merely drawing attention to the violence and destruction of human life. I do not, really, want to turn that into a game.

My wargames, therefore, retreat (the term is probably used advisedly) into the ‘glorious’ end of the representation debate. My armies are well controlled, well provisioned, never run riot or loot or pillage. Any violence they indulge in is regrettable but necessary, carried out not because they enjoy it but because it is a duty. The necessary chopping bits off other people, or shooting at them with lethal weapons is abstracted away and ignored. But it is implicit.

On the other hand, I am not going to stop wargaming. What, after all, would I do instead? Chess is an abstraction of war. Monopoly is about the violence of capitalism. Even Patience has men waving swords around, and, of course, a violently implied hierarchy (which places males above females, as well). What is a good liberal to do?

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Aztec Affair

I have been waffling on about Aztecs for a while, and, yes, a photograph of all of them is in the pipeline (see below). Not being one for big parades, really, I have started an Aztec campaign. The rules are the ones I wrote up for Miniature Wargames many years ago (I’m not sure when – around about 2000 AD seems to be the best guess).

Of course, back in the day, there were no blogs to record the campaign battles, nor did I have a digital camera suitable for doing so. But I did have a lot of Aztecs, as I have mentioned. Anyway, the campaign was playing card-based. Essentially, the player moved their army to another city and drew a card and determined whether the city would submit or fight. If a fight was decided upon, allies for the enemy city were determined, and I had to decide whether to fight or not. Not fighting had consequences of losing credibility in the eyes of my nobles, but then losing a battle was worse. There were also random events such has unexpected submissions, rebellions and invasions.

The introduction to the article reads as follows:

You are Itzcoatl, newly elected king of the island city of Tenochtitlan, ruler of the Aztecs. As such, you are technically vassal to Azacapotzalco, the capital of the Tepanec Empire. However, the empire has just been usurped by Maxtlatl, and now is a good time to claim independence and aim for empire yourself.

There are, I think, twelve campaign turns, each with a move and a random event possibility (they do not always happen). The wargame rules used are DBA (actually, second edition). The first turn started with a random event, which was a Chichimec invasion. Funnily enough, the first campaign all those years ago had a Chichimec battle first off.

Still, aside from having déjà vu all over again, here are the starting positions.

 I have to offer suitable apologies, of course, for the unexpected late summer sun on the near portion of the table. I am sure it will not happen again. Anyway, my brave Aztecs are to the right and the upstart dog people (for that, apparently, is what Chichimec means) to the left. The Chichimec are mostly psiloi.

The playing cards, incidentally, are ambush markers. If one of my bases approaches within a move of the relevant terrain marker, the card is turned over and, if it is a picture card, an ambushing force is discovered and diced for. On one occasion in the original campaign, I took on a foe, which turned out to consist of 24 bases, with 11 of my own. I lost, as you might imagine. The village in the foreground did have a card, but that has already been ‘sprung’ by the detachment of psiloi deployed for the purpose, and no ambush was discovered.

Appearances to the contrary, the Chichimec are a tough foe in DBA when facing a Mexica army. The latter consists of 6 auxilia (the Aztec militia), three blades (suit wearers) and three psiloi (youth skirmishers). The problem for the Aztec player, as I (re-)discovered is that auxilia can defeat psiloi in combat, but not finish them off. The worst outcome for the psiloi is a flee result, which does nothing for actually winning the battle.

After a few moves, I got the hang of this, and moved my suit-wearers into the centre of the action, slaughtering a few Chichimec skirmishers and just about nudging over the line for a victory. My error in the first place cost me some time (I only just managed victory in the number of turns set out in the campaign rules: 10) and then, of course, the curse of the dice struck and even the blades had a hard time beating psiloi. Still, I did win, at the cost of a militia base.

As you can see, the right had become a rather complicated skirmish, with little advantage to either side, and the left had gone my way, enabling my left-wing skirmishers to turn in and help the centre.

As that was a random event, the next move was mine and I attacked a city which, sadly, in spite of my exalted status as a proven battle winner decided to resist, called in allies and the battlefield consisted of large quantities of ambush-friendly terrain. I am still not sure whether to attack and risk casualties or withdraw and take the penalty to my personal rating.

And now, the moment I am sure you have all been waiting for, the completion of the rebasing project for these Aztecs. At great personal cost and extreme risk, behold:

To appropriate a well-known quote from a film: ‘Aztecs, sir. Fhasands of them.’

Well, not quite thousands, anyway. By my reckoning, there are 934 figures above. Yes, that is nine-hundred and thirty-four figures. And there are thirteen buildings. Or, looked at another way, one hundred and thirty-eight bases of troops and fifty singly mounted officers (and the same thirteen buildings, of course). According to my calculations, I could conduct five and three-quarters simultaneous DBA wargames with this lot. Weird, eh?

Skirmishers to the fore both bow and sling armed, followed by archers. The masses are militia bases, with suit bearers and the single officers behind them, then generals and porters.

This is a closer view of the officers, generals and suit wearers. You might wonder what the hordes of singly mounted officers are for, as they have no role at all in DBA, and it is a valid question. But I do have a plan for developing some more Mexica flavoured rules which includes suit wearers (as they were the professional soldiers and officered the militia) both indicating order status (as per my usual Polemos rules) and also being able to indulge in single combat with other singly mounted officers to disrupt the order status of enemy units. Admittedly, I have not worked out the details, yet, but you can see the plan with the militia units who have officers from the suit wearers on their bases already (usually, it seems, in red; don’t ask me why).

The other thing you can see is a large number of porter units. These were vital in Central America as there were no draft animals or wheels, but will take a little more thinking about.

Now, I think I need a little lie-down, a stiff drink, and to think about something other than Aztecs. Mind you, I am still rebasing the Wars of Spanish Succession and Great Northern War armies and I have not started the Inca yet…

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Something About Nellie

I was admiring the collection of boxes containing my rebasing efforts recently, and wondering what I was going to do next. The Scots in the Armada Abbeys campaign need reinforcements (some more light cavalry, which are undercoated but unpainted), so it was not to be them. Alexander IV is still sunning himself on Ibiza after defeat by the Moors and I am not quite sure how he is going to stage his invasion of Spain, or, indeed, which troops he is going to use, the infantry mostly having surrendered in Africa, you might recall. The Aztec campaign (have patience, an account will be coming) needs a decision by the Emperor as to whether taking on 18 bases with 11 in DBA is an altogether sensible idea and the Reconquista campaign needs a bit of head-scratching.

Still, it is nice, as the Estimable Mrs P observed, to have the range and choice. I made a list of my armies (those that are based and ready to go) and ticked off those that I recall having in action recently. I also observed the position of the boxes in the cupboard and aimed for the ones on the lower echelons, on the basis that they would less recently have been in action.

The upshot of this was that I came up with a shortlist involving early modern Ming, Manchu, Samurai and assorted East Asians, South East Asians, or ancient Persians and Indians. An arbitrary decision was clearly required, and the South East Asians it was.  I fancy that the Persians and Indians can be accommodated in the Alexander IV campaign, but I will have to wait and see, although some of the Indians did make an appearance in the recent Moghul bash.

The next challenge was for a scenario. I am not a fan of a ‘just line them up and bash the enemy’ sort of game, and I like my wargames to be given context by a campaign. I am in possession of Grant and Asquith’s Scenarios of All Ages, and so managed to pick an interesting looking starting point, although, of course, I completely ignored the army strengths and most of the terrain requirements.

The resulting table looked like this:

This is my interpretation of the disputed village scenario, that village being top left in the picture. The Vietnamese approach from the centre-right, while the Khmer appear in the bottom right. The slightly lighter area closest to the camera is, in fact, a steep hill. The Grant and Asquith map has lots of woods and a marshy area, which I have sort of replicated (although without the getting lost rues, or quite so many tracks). The stream has a bridge and a ford.

The roll of some dice indicated that the Vietnamese arrived on table a turn before the Khmer. Once both armies were fully on table, it looked like this.

The Vietnamese plan was to fill the largest woods with skirmishers, hold the bridge with one of their elephant bases and pepper the Khmer with rocket fire before launching their infantry at the hopefully disrupted enemy.

The Khmer plan was a bit different, and had one eye on the winning conditions which were the occupation of the village. The stream was fordable (and had a ford in it as well) and so the Khmer skirmishers were dispatched that way to cross the stream and occupy the village, while the rest of the army entertained the enemy.

The end game is here.

The Khmer plan worked the best: their skirmishers are in possession of the village, as you can see.  They have, in fact, just finished off the Vietnamese elephant that was supposed to be guarding the bridge which had, perhaps incautiously crossed the stream to see them off. An unsupported elephant base in a built-up area against skirmishers was never going to have a happy ending, perhaps. The Vietnamese general has also just met his end against the Khmer general supported by some infantry, although the Vietnamese general had just seen off the Khmer cavalry. At this point the Vietnamese morale collapsed. Mind you, they had lost seven bases including the general, so no wonder.

The game did bring up a number of questions, of course, the first being: what happens next? I will work on that. Another question might be: I thought early modern armies had firearms, and that, of course, is true. Perhaps in the next battle in the campaign there will be said creatures (not just a rocket battery which failed to hit anything all game).

The troops on table, incidentally, are all from Irregular. They are a fine mix of medieval Asian ranges and colonial types. The general’s elephants are, I think, from their Indian range (at least, they came from my Moghul box), and the rocket launcher is from the Chinese range. The buildings are also from Irregular, actually from their Aztec village (the Estimable Mrs P thought they looked like English hovels, but that is probably my painting), and the bridge is Leven. The trees are Irregular (I told you I had trees).

You might wonder how, in a narrative campaign, I can get away without much of a narrative. Well, I suppose for a wargame sequence you do not much need the exchanges that I have created for the Armada campaign, although they do add a bit to the fun. And I know little about Vietnam, Cambodia and other points South East Asian, my knowledge being limited to a little bit about the Vietnam wars post-WWII rather than anything sixteenth century or thereabouts. I could start making up funny names (the village is actually called Lum-Bar Pa’in) but it does feel a little insulting and slightly neo-colonial so to do.

The other thing to do is describe the next battle, almost certainly to be the return of the Vietnamese. They were not outclassed by the Khmer, the latter had a better plan, I think. Returning with firearms seems like a cunning idea. But I also need some new rules as it is a fact that the use of elephants in South and South East Asia declined markedly when firearms arrived, because elephants do not like loud bangs.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Pointless Wargames

Why, you may well ask, would anyone want to fight a pointless wargame? I mean a wargame which is so one-sided as to be entirely predictable. And yet, from time to time, such wargames occur and are even blogged about. For example, I have written about my own breakout scenario, which turned into an amusing, but totally one-sided, rout. Others too have fought out one-sided games, such as a World War Two campaign (based on a chapter in Featherstone’s Wargames Campaign) from Grid Based Wargames. I am not criticising the campaign, by the way, but observing that unbalanced wargames arose naturally from it. These sorts of battles one would hesitate, perhaps, to waste time on in a face to face game, but solo they have their fascinations.

I have just perpetrated another campaign opener (two, in fact) with a very one-sided game indeed of twelve bases on one side against three on the other. But the point is in the careful wording – a campaign opener. Here is the initial set up.

As the regular reader of the blog may be aware, I have been reading a bit about the Reconquista, the re-conquest of Spain by Christian states, with a special interest in the final campaigns of siege and raid from the 1480s onwards. What we see in the picture is the initial set up for the campaign’s first game, which is based around the seizing of a strategically placed castle by the Castilians from the Grenadines.  The castle is not ready to stand a siege, and so the garrison, two bases of spears and one of crossbows, have turned out to delay the enemy sufficiently for aid, in the shape of a Grenadine army marching to the rescue, to arrive.

The Castilians enter by the road, the Grenadine army on a roll of six from the top right of the picture. A neat set-up, do you not think? There are unbalanced forces, uncertainty, a defined objective and a neat narrative. In fact, the narrative is based on the capture of Alhama in 1482, which kicked off Ferdinand and Isabella’s final campaigns. Alhama, however, was a town but I have insufficient city walls to model that, so it has been shrunk to a castle.

I can say, with some confidence, that the castle stands on an important route between Granada and Malaga, and the Grenadines would be considerably inconvenienced by its loss. On the other hand, I can also say that its capture by the Castilian forces will place their garrison in an important but exposed position. Campaign on, at least in the case that the Castilians win.

Anyway, here is the end of the affair (or nearly so).

The Castilians are right up to the walls of the castle. Two-thirds of the garrison troops have routed, the other third have retreated into the un-provisioned castle, where they will surrender in two moves time. The Grenadine relief force will not turn up for another seventeen moves – it really did take me that long to roll the appropriate six.

So, you may very well ask, what was the point? Was this, as a wargame, totally unworthy of the name? I am not convinced that it was. After all, a lot of battles in history were one-sided. Alhama itself was taken by surprise, which is hardly going to be a wargame-able extravaganza. But are we, as wargamers, culturally conditioned that things should be fair?

Those are not questions to which I intend to give answers, of course, at least not directly. As historical wargamers, we may well be challenged to engage in historical wargames, re-creations of battles where the two sides were not equal. History, after all, is not chess. But as people playing games, one-sidedness, unless balanced by some fine scenario tuning, is not going to keep us playing for all that long. Even then, scenario tuning is an art form. How does one really balance, say, an Early Imperial Roman army and a bunch of Ancient Britons?

A conventional answer to that question is via a points system. A base of Roman legionaries is one third more expensive than a base of Britons, and so you have fewer of them. It works, but I confess I cordially dislike points systems as they actually detract from historicity. That is, it is quite likely that, at times, the Romans (and their allies, levies and others roped in to be on the Roman side) actually outnumbered the opposition. Rome was the side with the professional army and the logistical support to put them into the field. No-one else really managed it; you could argue that the decline of Rome was either because the system proved too expensive or the opposition started to get more sophisticated (before anyone starts to argue, I am not seriously putting these views forward as single-cause explanations for the fall of Rome. For one thing we can suggest that Rome did not fall at all).

Obviously I do not think that this was really a pointless battle. It is a point of departure. The Castilians achieved their objective, but now they are the ones with the problem. Even though it has changed hands and the Grenadine relief army decided to go home rather than challenge them, the castle is still un-provisioned and will need significant support. Hence the point of the game: the campaign is afoot.

I suppose that what I am really talking about is the difference between a one-off game, with few consequences in the game world, and a campaign. In the other wargame I had recently, the Aztecs finally returned to the field. This too is the start of a campaign, but I find that in that context, a commander is a bit more cautious. For example, Central American warfare was heavily involved with ambushes. The battle system permits extensive ambushing, at least potentially. Suddenly, skirmishers become much more important and useful than they were. Under DBA (which I am using for the moment) skirmishers are most likely to flee from any lost combat. Therefore, I can use them to discover if a terrain item contains an ambush without losing troops and hence weakening my army for the rest of the year (or more).

A campaign, therefore, I suggest, changes the perspective of a wargame by shifting the context to something slightly different. Or am I the only one to suddenly become protective of my troops when I might need them again?