Sunday, 30 October 2011

Random Factors

There has been a lot of discussion, much of it highly critical, about Games Workshop's new game, Dreadfleet. The bulk of the criticism seems to have been focused on the extent to which the game is dominated by random factors, leaving the outcome of the game too dependent on the roll of a dice. I don't want to get into the Dreadfleet debate at the moment as I haven't played it yet, but the discussion did get me thinking about randomness in gaming.

There currently exists a theoretical dividing line between looser, friendlier, 'beer and pretzels' rules and more competitive games. The latter being considered a genuine contest of skill with rigorous rules and less scope for randomness to play a part. The odd thing is, that if you want to design a contest of skill you probably couldn't find a worse field of human endeavor to base it on than warfare.

Lets take a look at one significant example, the Battle of Sekigahara, the largest Samurai battle in history which saw over 160,000 men take the field. On one side was Tokugawa Ieyasu, future founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that would rule Japan for 200 years. On the other, Ishida Mitsunari, loyal defender of the Toyetomi family, that of the Toyetomi Hideyoshi previous ruler of Japan, Toyetomi Hideyoshi and his young son Hideyori. At stake, nothing less than the future of the country.

Despite the stakes and the historical impact that echoed down the centuries to this day (For example, Tokyo only became the capital of Japan because of this battle) very little hinged on military tactics on the the day. Mitsunari had the slightly stronger position on the high ground, but what swung the battle in Ieyasu's favour was that a good proportion of Mitsunari's army refused to move when ordered or actively switched sides. A lot of this had to do with Mitsunari's personality, he was disliked and distrusted by his own side and had insulted several high ranking supporters, and much due to Ieyasu's political maneuvering before hand, but in the end the battle was decided by events outside of the field.

The point illustrated by this battle, is that so much of the outcome on the day is beyond the General's control, at least once they take to the field. Sekigahara is a nightmare to recreate as a wargame because the betrayals either have to be predictable, in which case the Mitsunari player is at a disadvantage but is able to plan for the betrayals in a way that the historical Mitsunari could not, or the betrayals are determined randomly, in which case the outcome is largely out of the control of the players. Sekigahara is a particularly good example of the outcome of a battle being determined by chance, but it is scarcely unique.

A while back, I read a post on a message board in which a gamer complained about the the command and control rules in Black Powder. The crux of the complaint was that real General's don't roll dice to determine if their orders will be carried out. The point missed was that these rules simulate, in an abstract way, the extent to which a general's orders can be lost, misunderstood or simply not followed. There are abundant examples. The Charge of the Light Brigade is probably the most famous example of orders being misinterpreted. Another, less well known example is Agincourt. Although remembered as the famous defeat of the flower of French chivalry by English Archers, what is less well known is that the French general could see it coming. Unfortunately for him, as he had born a commoner elevated to his rank by skill rather than birth, his orders were largely ignored by his Knights.

In the end the outcome of many battles is down to luck, by which I mean the chance collision of uncontrollable factors. To be a good simulation of warfare, a good wargame needs to reflect this. This applies to command and control, but also to troop performance. When committing his forces the general should know that unit x will defeat unit y 9 times out of 10, but also that unit y will be triumphant 1 in 10 times and, crucially, have no way of knowing if this is one of those times. Good generalship is often about gambling with the most favourable odds, not certainties.

It is worth remembering that real generals didn't do this for fun or as an attempt simply to prove their tactical skill. Mitsunari and Ieyasu were in contest for control of Japan. Sekigahara was about contesting the forces they could marshall. There was no use afterwards complaining that the rules were unfair.

Of course, making a wargame a realistic simulation of warfare is not the same thing as making it a good game. This is why some famous historical battles are better to wargame than others. It is also why most wargames tend to allow both players roughly equal forces or skew the victory conditions to make it a contest of skill. Historical Generals didn't fight for fun and wargamers don't play to contest the fate of nations. If Dreadfleet is a terrible game (and I mean if) then arguing that its realistic is no defence.

However, it is still worth considering that adding random elements to a wargame may make it more realistic, rather than less.

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