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.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Confessions of a MegaGame Control - Knowing when to say no

This is part of a series of reflective posts I am writing about my experience as a Game Control in a Megagame*.

Knowing when to say no

This incident demonstrates the problems that can arise when a Game Control is making ad-hoc decisions and loses sight of the the larger picture. 

It is also an illustration of how Game Control will err on the side of caution especially when a player's actions will kill, kidnap or disable another player's character directly. Unless of course it is all part of the plan. I know this because I was once subjected to an attempted poisoning and then later successfully assassinated in a megagame, and this was well within the game designer's expectations.

Survivalists and the Feds

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Three of the Survivalist Militia Players.
They don't get on very well. A bunch a freedom or death, gun totting, whiskey swigging backwoods country hicks don't like the Feds. They are to blame for most of the things wrong in the world today and they have a very long proclomation on the web that says so and lists all their grievances.

I had become the de facto control for the survivalist team who were very adept at creating schemes outside the usual game processes.

The plan

Juan, was the leader of the Well Ordered Militia (WOM). He told me that he had been in email and phone conversation with the player playing the Secretary of State. These conversations had been initiated after Juan had managed to attract his attention after he had released his Wanna B3 ransomware virus that nearly took down the nation's banks.

Juan's plan was to get the Secretary of State into a room with one of his men and explode a suicide bomb.

So several alarm bells should be ringing for any experienced Controls.
  1. A player attempting to kill another player - and not really part of the overall story arc of the game designer.
  2. A member of the Well Ordered Militia was willing - according to Juan - to be a suicide bomber.
  3. It would mean organising the movement of two players across many maps to actually meet.
  4. There would be a stand-off which are generally very hard to control and adjudicate.
  5. If successful his little group would probably be squished by the Feds. Thus diverting their resources from the main game effort, counter to the game story arc.
  6. Did his group have the knowledge to setup a suicide vest.

How to deal with difficult, game changing actions

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Madame President and her Cabinet
My attitude is never to say "no, it's impossible". And also rarely say "yes, that's easy, just do it." As Control I want the players to have a good gaming experience. In fact that is the most important reason we work as Control: our priority is the gaming experience of the players. 

My first reaction was to ask why he was going to do this. Juan pointed to his brief which did actually say he was to do all things he could to attack or disrupt the Feds. So it was part of the main story arc.

I then asked how he knew he had a "volunteer" to do the suicide mission. He admitted he had no card or reason, just a hunch one would volunteer. I would not accept this. One real world thing I notice is that right-wing militias seldom select suicide as an operational tactic. I wanted a special event card to allow this - a game rule - to prove he had a volunteer. Juan didn't so he went away for a bit to think about this.

His next plan was that he was going to do it himself. OK! I am not worried about a player exercising agency over their characters. Though I was worried by this radical exercise of player agency.

So then I started pick at the details of making the vest, organising the meeting etc. And eventually I think Juan realised that the suicide thing was not going to work. The Feds would have too much security, his skill base was not sufficient to hack together a suicide vest etc. So Juan then moved to kidnapping instead, a more likely proposition, though still a very difficult one. Juan hammered out his plan. 

At this point I decided I needed to talk to more people.

Talking to others about wizard wheezes is a good thing.

No automatic alt text available.A big part of megagames is ensuring there is good information flow. This is not just the players. In fact the players information flow and blockages are usually well chartered by the designer and mechanisms are in place to enable or disable the flow of game information. The problem is that Control has to flow crucial information between Control. Sometimes this fails - see my post on my failure as a logistics control in a megagame. Controls have to think carefully about ad-hoc decisions. They sometimes affect other parts of the game remote from themselves and sometimes they need to let other Control know something out of the ordinary is going to happen. The Press and Media players often assist this game flow, but they cannot be relied on and of course Control actually knows what really happened. 

So the first person I wanted to talk to was the player playing the Secretary of Defence. It just wanted to confirm he knew about this militia leader and if he knew of a proposed meeting. I spoke to him and checked this.

I couldn't find the Federal Team Control, so I went back to Juan. Luckily I noticed Jim walking past. So I asked if he could hear out this scheme. At this point, I would have probably asked any other Political Control, or Game Control nearby to hear out this plan. I was worried about.

Jim heard out the plan and quickly stopped it. Jim said no it would be unfair for any State based player in the London game to physically meet up with a Federal player. The Federal team players were kept in a separate room in London and were only supposed to interact via email or phone with the 12 other megagames around the world. Just because Juan was in London would be unjust to the other remote games and their players.

At this point I realised I had forgotten about the wider picture. I had gotten so much into the details of the plan that I lost track of the primary concern of the overall game. 

You learn from your mistakes

I put this example up here as a lesson. If in doubt, prioritise the requirements of the larger game over the concerns of one player. Do it tactfully, but do it and be prepared to explain why.

In my defence I think I was distracted by the many difficult things in this plan. I was very sure it was going to fail, and only clever thinking and a big dollop of luck would successfully implment the plan. So I got involved in the detail in an attempt to dissuade the player. Maybe I should have said "it's not very likely to succeed for these reasons" earlier.


*Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos 

I recently was a Control in a Wide Area Megagame. I would suggest that those who do not know what a Megagame is visit this site - What is a Megagame?

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Confessions of a MegaGame Control

My intention in writing this is to explain and explore how an Umpire in a large multiplayer game makes decisions and rulings where there are no rules or mechanics to guide them.

There has recently been a lengthy discussion on Facebook and in the CLWG about the difference that rules can make to the outcome of Megagames. Some want accurate rules that reward informed and intelligent decision making and others prefer to see a narrative structure building ontop of very simple rule set.

I want to add my perspective to the above, as an Umpire (known as Controls in Megagames) who frequently has to operate where there are few rules.

Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos 

I recently was a Control in a Wide Area Megagame. I would suggest that those who do not know what a Megagame is visit this site - What is a Megagame?

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The City Map of Urban Nightmare
What follows is my view on how I worked as an Umpire (the game calls us Control) working in a game that is deliberately light on mechanisms to encourage emergent gameplay.

Two types of Control

There are two types of Control is most Megagames. In my estimation.

The first are the process focused Control. These are usually those who control maps or areas. They ensure all actions are taken in the correct sequence, they ensure that the rules and the mechanics are observed and they maintain the relentless pace of the game. I do not work well as a Map Control. I get overwhelmed.

The other sort of Control are those that manage the interactions of people. They prod and remind players, they drop hints to players, they make decisions outside the basic rules and mechanics of the games. They are often political umpires, small team umpires etc. I am generally this sort of Control. I like to say its because I am a people sort of person. The less charitable say I am just a snowflake Control and cannot take the heat of real Control at the map face.

My role in the game

I was the Federal Players Control. I was lucky in that I had three experienced and strong players who I could trust to pick up their role and go with it requiring minimal intervention from myself as their Control. Their role was to contact the Federal Team who were in another room and tell them what was happening in their State, Mishigamaa. There was one player for the Pentagon, one for Homeland Security and one representing the Whitehouse. They had a few assets like action cards and a few deployable assets like medicines, and, as I surmised, a small team of assistants, bodyguards and drivers.

I knew from the outset of the game that I was not going to be heavily committed in processing mechanisms like the Map Controls would be. My job as Control was to ensure my three players knew what their role was, to enable them to play their game by providing advice, prompts as necessary and smoothing over rules interpretations. Some less charitable Controls told me that my role was merely to hand out counters that the Federal Players had been assigned by the Federal Team after confirming this order with another Control.

But what this role did was to free me to assist where necessary. So as a good, experienced Control I liaised with all the other Controls at the start of the game. It is a great idea to do this as you need to know who to hand over certain game issues to and who to seek advice from. A central tenet of good Control is ensuring there is good information flow between those who need to know. I also discussed how I might be additionally tasked, as I guessed I was not going to be over burdened.

Actual role in game

In the game I still had to look after my Federal Team. But as the game progressed I was increasingly employed as a Control for the Survivalists. This was a very loose "team" of four players who played armed militias usually with some radical ideology. This job was given to me by the Game Control who noticed that these players were attempting to work with the Map Controls but because of their particular needs and style of play they required more attention from a Control than the very busy Map Controls could give them.

Thus I was controlling two very different teams.

I also noticed that one of my comrade Controls was suffering rather from over work, this was Bruce, who was the political control for the State Team. He had three sub teams of about 5 players, the State Governor, the State Police and The National Guard. I did not take any decisions from him but often was able to advise the player on who to talk to and what had happened in some incident I had controlled. 

Making decisions with no rules - or just making it up as you go along

The only defence of such ad-hoc Control work is that Megagames are designed to be like this. They are not boardgames with precise games, precisely delineated playing areas and player roles. Megagames don't have even have winning conditions or victory points.

Perhaps an example is the best way to illustrate this. (Note I have forgotten some of the names of places and organisations and have had to make them up. My apologies to those who were there, only you can know what it was like to really be there.)

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A Player updating the Federal Sitrep Map
Early on in the game I was approached by the Game Control, Brian, to assist with running an attempt by a Survivalist to attack a Federal jail in his State. The Game Control gave me his estimation of the real world situation. A Federal Jail would hold a couple of thousand prisoners, would be heavily guarded and the State Police would be liaise with them. Brian thought the Survivalists had a cat in hell's chance. Be gentle with them. The main reason he was doing this was that he had ruled that the Federal Prison, at Fireton, would not be on one of the City Maps. He did this to prevent it overwhelming the Map Controls and because Federal Prisons are usually in the countryside away from cities.

So in terms of the game mechanics I only had a State Map with some rules about how units could move with a hastily drawn on Fireton State Penitentiary.

So Brian left me with Juan - a Survivalist, Freedom From Federal F***ers (FFFF) and I asked him what his plan was. Juan told me he had a insider in the Penitentiary who was also a member of the National Guard who was going to assist his break out plan. And he also told me that he wanted to do this break out because some of his FFFF members were inside, one of whom was a very valuable asset, a hacker.

I was surprised. Juan spoke to me, I think on Turn 1 or 2. He had a plan, all sketched out in his head. This was not in his brief, nor on his action cards. And there is one thing Control like to reward in Megagames, and it is player initiative and player narratives, so long as they are grounded on real world thinking.

So I asked to speak to the National Guard player. Juan came back with a National Guard player, Joe (sorry name not remembered) who confirmed he was sympathetic to the FFFF and wanted to do right by him. I ruled that it was likely that one of the National Guard players would be a guard in the Penitentiary, so I rolled an effect dice, that was two 6 sided dice (2 d6) - the lower the number the less effective their support would be. I told the players that if I got a 4 or lower they would not be able to go ahead with the plan. What I did not say was that the higher the number rolled would give a better chance for the break out to succeed.

Did you see what I did there?

I made up a rule on the spot.

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A Press Player - Too much fake news.
I have no idea if there is a National Guard rule that you can or cannot recruit prison guards to their ranks. But I thought that the chance of a Prison Guard being in the National Guard was a relatively likely thing. If they like hanging out in uniform with guns and all sorts of kit, they would like hanging out with the National Guard with even more shiny, lethal kit.

So in game terms I made a ruling based on my assessment of the real world and a dice roll to determine the effectiveness of a players guess of what would be a reasonable thing. And I used an effect dice. I also told the players what the chances were of not having sufficient inside support - just a mouthy National Guard guy who thought bigger than he could act. And I also had a rough idea of how the dice roll would add to the next decision I would take. I call this an effect dice. The answer is not a binary yes or no, but a shade of yes but with a +1, or yes with -1 etc.

I could go on about the detail of this incident. But this is essentially what my role demands of me in a Megagame. It is more akin to running a Role Playing Game. So in terms of any discussion about should the game have better rules that reward intelligent decision making, it is irrelevant. There is no way you can make rules for the imagination of the players who like to play in this sort of game.

But what about the larger game?

I'm glad you asked that. This is indeed the tricky element to making these ad-hoc rulings.

Ad-hoc cannot be replicated

I am unlikely to remember the exact ruling I used to determine a special case. So later on when I about to rule on another special I might be inconsistent. Some players might feel such rulings are unjust, and I have sympathy for this position. My defence is that events are rarely so similar as to require adherence to a strict mechanism.

How does this change the larger game.

This is by far the most serious issue with such ad-hoc rulings. An umpire could make a decision that had larger consequences for the game. In UNSOC I did make one of those decisions. I later on ruled that Juan had managed to bluff his way into a bank and get his hacker to spread a Ransomware virus taking down some local, then State and then National banks. I used similar mechanisms to adjudicate the effectiveness of this intervention: an effect dice for each element of the plan, and an explanation of the risks to the players and the odds as I assessed them.

The problem is that now the larger game is effected in a way that the designer never envisaged and the whole game system has to cope with a Governor, the FBI and eventually the President taking time to devote time and resources to resolving a financial crisis, with no rules for doing this in the game. I must admit, I had not really thought this through. I did make the chances of it happening difficult and I had told the player that his hacker had failed in doing a brute force hack of the banking system and they had to resort to using violence to get the password of the bank manager. I thought this was a good hint that his hacker was again not that good.

My plan was for the virus to be rapidly counteracted within the city the hack had taken place. I had hinted that the FFFF hacker was not that good, more of a Script Kiddie. And that the hack would not go much further than the State it started in.

However I had not counted on Juan, who briefed the Press about what he had done, got me as Control to confirm the "there has been a hack on the banking" story to the press player. I did not realise it would go "viral" and get other Control involved. In the end Game Control ruled that the virus had been rapidly countered and the banking crisis averted, probably after extracting some cash or resources from a senior political player.

Let's put it down to Emergent Gameplay!

This is the rare beauty of Megagames

This is why some players love Megagames. And perhaps why some players dislike Megagames.

There are some situations that call for ad-hoc, decisions taken by Controls like myself. From the first group of Map Control you usually get tactics and optimal strategies emerging within the confines of the rules. With the second type of decisions Control take you get Emergent Gameplay.

Earlier I said that there are two types of Control. Now I think about it, there are probably two ideal types of gamers: those who like imaginative, narrative based, emergent play and those who revel in details, procedure and optimal playing strategies. Obviously there are rarely extreme examples of either type, usually we are a blend of both ideal types. I would suggest that LARPers are on one extreme and Chess and Bridge players are on the other extreme.

Future examples

When I get the chance I will go through in more detail one the decisions I took in this game. I still have my notes from one of the wizard wheezes I ruled on. 

I hope that in sharing such examples I will illustrate what it is to be this type of Control in Megagames. And that my example will enable me to receive critical assessment of how a Control should or should not make rulings. I might find that other Controls or Game Designers would prefer it if I didn't do such ad-hoc decision making. I might find that some players would never want to be involved in such make believe events, and can hardly bare to call the games. 

Whatever, I hope the above helps others get a better idea of what Control sometimes does in Megagames.