Thursday, September 4, 2008

Athens & Sparta and the challenge of blunders in wargames

'They were utterly and entirely defeated; their sufferings were on an enormous scale; their losses were, as they say, total; army, navy, everything was destroyed, and, out of many, only few returned. So ended the events in Sicily'
-- Thucydides

So the great Greek historian describes the fruits of Athens' campaign against Syracuse.

Some wars, campaigns or battles are distinctive because they're outcomes were colored so much by some spectacular blunder by one side or the other.

Here I'm not talking about the run-of-the-mill kinds of errors that are unavoidable in war. War is nothing if not an unending catalog of folly and errors. But some events manage to stand out even among this crowd as blunders of epic scope that can change the course of events dramatically.

This kind of blunder creates a serious problem for wargame designers, however. For one thing, players, unlike the actual participants, know how things turned out, and are therefore not likely to repeat the historical blunder. In addition, players necessarily have more information than real-life decision makers, so the misconceptions that hindered them aren't likely to be the same for the player. Players can, of course, supply their own epic blunders -- and we all know we do sometimes -- but they are likely to be new, fresh blunders that won't replicate the historical events.

The very long war between Athens & Sparta portrayed in the Columbia game of that name is a classic matchup between two equally powerful powers, who nevertheless have distinctive strengths and weaknesses. Athens was a democratic, wealthy sea power with imperial ambitions. Sparta was a tradition-bound kingdom renowned for its disciplined troops and primarily a land power. Sparta resisted Athens imperial ambitions, although it was not immune to the idea of expanding its own influence.

In an attempt to break the stalemate between the two sides the Athenians hit upon the notion of attacking Syracuse, the leading city state on the island of Sicily. Syracuse was also a democratic state in the Greek style, and was a neutral power, not aligned with Sparta. The Athenians managed to convince themselves that it was a good plan -- it seemed like a good idea at the time.

But historians and strategists from Thucydides onwards have been close to unanimous that it was an awful blunder, full of risks that even success would hardly justify. As it turned out, of course, the expedition turned out even more disastrously than anyone could imagine and the entire Athenian force -- a large army and most of its fleet, were utterly wiped out.

Every wargame on the Peloponnesian War has to deal with the problem of Sicily.

On the one hand, "idiot rules" which simply force the player to do something stupid because the historical commander was an idiot are never popular.

On the other hand, if one tries to create incentives for the player to do the stupid thing the designer risks creating a historical influences on the decision making. And if the incentive is too powerful, it risks being merely an idiot rule in disguise.

In Athens and Sparta capturing Syracuse is worth 4 towards the goal of 30 BPs (build points) worth of cities. This is a significant reward, but perhaps not enough of one considering the resources required for success. The Athenians can also escape the effects of losing the Hellespont by having Syracuse, although again, the same amount of resources could probably more easily defend the Hellespont in the first place.

There's an optional rule which has each player set aside one card from their initial draw with the total of the two cards being the value of Syracuse. The cards are not revealed until Syracuse is attacked. This is a good rule, adding some nice game play to the process. It also helps capture the effect of Athenian democracy on the decision. In effect, Syracuse is worth a lot because the Athenian public says it is., not because of any intrinsic value.

Typically Syracuse will probably be worth a bit more than 4 BP using this system and it could be worth as much as 10 (if both sides play a 5), and would would mean that the entire game could turn on the outcome of the campaign.

I think the optional rule does a good job of capturing some of the problems the historical blunder creates for the game designer. In effect this is done by putting the decision in the hands of the players, jointly. If both players value the site fairly high then it's likely to play a role close to the historical one. If, on the other hand, both players discount the value then it's quite likely that Sicily may remain a backwater. Of course, the players only know what value they placed on Sicily, so there's a level of uncertainty which creates the kind of opportunity for misdirection and bluff that are the hallmark of block games.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very important and difficult topic in historical wargames. I tend to notice it the most in games covering the German invasion of France in 1940 and the German Case Blue operation leading to the attack on Stalingrad and the Soviet counter-offensives. There are numerous other examples and it would be interesting to explore more ways that games encourage players to replicate poor historical decisions.