Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Military Mindset of Medieval Man

I have become a little tired with the prevailing "real politik" culture that pervades a lot of gamers.

Here is a quote from Reappraising Late Medieval Strategy: The Example of the 1415 Agincourt Campaign by Jan Willem Honig. War In History April 2012 vol. 19 no. 2 pp.123-151

“The tendency to apply a binary concept of 'battle-seeking' or 'battle-avoiding' strategy – or of battle vs attrition, genius v incompetence, and chivalry v pragmatism – is problematic. The emphasis in modern strategic theory on the uncompromising physical destruction of the enemy's means of resistance, either through battle or attrition, does not fit well with the strategic praxis exhibited by the French and the English in 1415. To see the campaign [Agincourt] as an aberration in which norms of restraint, or inefficiencies in means, momentarily triumphed over the pragmatic, objective demands of military necessity also fails to convince, as do oscillating attributions of genius and foolhardy recklessness to Henry's generalship. A different explanation and approach to understanding strategy has been proposed here which has attempted to integrate norms into strategy-making.”

I don't just play games to win. Don't get me wrong, winning is nice. I play wargames and megagames to experience the fun of being in a game - I am mostly a social gamer and I accept the magic circle of gamers to be a place I can explore ideas as well as compete and have fun. I like megagames because I attempt to occupy the mindset of a historical character. Call it role-playing; call it historical reenactment.

I think I can learn something in attempting to recreate the culture, the thinking of historical characters. And perhaps this is why I am getting a little tired of the prevailing "real politik" I meet in wargames.

Part of the problem is the modern theory of strategy likes to consider itself true and universal. Perhaps I exaggerate, but some modern military historian use contemporary military thinking to comment on a medieval commander's choices. Warfare is as much a social and cultural expression of its time as say feasting, marriage and gambling. There are cultural norms that inform our actions, above and beyond the rational dictates of rational theory.

I was pondering this and wondering how to design a game that actually rewarded the players for adopting the mindset of the time.

I read an article many years ago about the Medieval attitude to warfare that had always made a great impression on me. The Battle of Verneuil (17 August 1424): Towards a History of Courage by Michael K. Jones. War in History November 2002, vol.9 no.4, pp.375-411

The Battle of Verneuil, 1424, was a closely fought battle. It ended in the complete rout of the combined French and Scottish forces. Jones takes issue with the standard narrative of the battle, influenced by Alfred Burne's analytical methodology using "Inherent Military Probability" (IMF) to determine what had really happened. Burne seemed not to trust the primary sources, often dismissing them. IMF was based on Burne's twentieth century military training. He interpreted terrain, and tactics using IMF as a universal concept that should have been available to the right thinking commanders in the past.

IMF leads to the sort of military history that too many wargamers sign up to. It is the sort of military history that looks at weapon systems, terrain, and tactics; and not much else. This sort of approach that sees debates about the incompetence of the French in 1871, in not using the Mitrailleuse properly!

 " is tempted to speculate what might have happened if the Mitrailleuses had been fielded in addition to the 4-pounder field-guns and not as a substitute. The war and its issue might have then worn an altogether different complexion…"

Jones uses Verbruggen's ideas to attempt a new understanding of the battle. Verbruggen says, in his "The Art of Warfare in Western Europe during the Middle Ages":

"the essential element of each battle lies in the attitude of the soldiers during the fighting. The way they handle their weapons , the manner in which they react in the face of danger and behave in a battle for life – that is what counts.”

Michael K Jones uses Verbruggen's model as a starting place to critique Burne's IMF. Jones reads the contemporary accounts and does not dismiss them as the inventions of heralds and scribes. He attempts to interpret them with the mindset of chivalry, with its concepts of honour, and oath-keeping, with rules.

"Nevertheless, willingness to take risks for a right cause was the hallmark of real honour, or 'worship'. As the chivalric aphorism put it: 'do the right thing, come what may' ".

In Jones' re-telling the battle, the Duke of Bedford builds an argument that he will prevail and win based on morality. The fact that the French failed to turn up to an arranged battle a journée and had broken their oath. That was wrong and God will punish this. Bedford swore an oath to St George that he would pursue and attack the French. Jones, also illustrates Bedford's speech to his arrayed army and the clothes he chooses to wear. He likens it to a pageant, but a pageant to demonstrate his authority, his righteousness and his legitimacy. All these lead to a courage and resolve that led to the English army to fight and overcome a battle against a much larger army and after their line had been pierced by Lombardian armoured cavalry.

There must be a game in this.

The eternal question is of course, how to design this into a game?


And there has been a similar sort of game from Brian Cameron, called Agincourt. 

It is a neat game in that the players are the French nobles a few weeks before the battle of Agincourt, 1415. All the players know we are going to most likely fail. Our briefings outline our thinking, our rivalries and the internal political game. Some of the players hate other players. Some of us want revenge. Others want to gain honour by being the most aggressive. It is a fun game and usually results in the French breaking themselves against a very familiar British position.
Brian's game is probably a better way to understand that warfare is a social expression as opposed to to an iteration of the principles of Burne's Inherent Military Probabilities (IMF). No doubt if Burne had been there in 1415, he would have ensured a French victory using his IMP principles. No doubt a modern wargamer thinks that too. 

The challenge for a modern wargamer is to design a game that takes as its starting point their concept of the universality of how weapons and tactics are used. The wargamers IMF. They have to assign bonuses and minuses to weapons and units so that the game has the correct output - an almost certain English victory.

And this is my point. Most wargamers design and play games that embody our modern ethos, the Inherent Military Probability. They emphasise tactics, terrain and weapons like Burne. If you want to understand how the English succeeded against the French in 1415, you need to understand how warfare is always an expression of the society and the culture. And if you want to game this then you need to design a game that emphasises politics, social perception, inter personal relationships etc.

What I think I am suggesting is the game design methodology is appropriate to the period. A World War 2 game can use IMF style wargame rules as that is how the participants knew battle. A Medieval battle game should emphasise other aspects.

It is a difficult challenge.

I have yet to design my game for the Battle of Verneuil.

Each time I attempt it, I find myself going down the rabbit hole of pluses and minuses for this action etc. It is a radical concept. I hope to persevere and get closer to my dream.

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