The Ballbusch Experience: The Nature of Victory
You pal, mentor, and ball-room dance instructor, Cedric Ballbusch here again to give you your dose of semi-informed commentary while we await Thuloid’s next highly literate post, Seasons of the Spirit in a land of endless summer: themes of cyclical redemption in the Upanishads and the Popol Vu, and their relation to the 40k assault phase.
Ahh, survivors? Yeah there are a couple…
Victory is central to wargames (all games really), but the definition of victory tends to be rather narrow. Kill enemy and perhaps accomplish some objective (like taking ground) in that order. But, for who is that really a victory? Newpapers back home carry stories of widows and orphans while editors question what can be worth such costly campaigns. Allies grumble that they’re being used to cannon fodder. Mercenaries can’t spend their pay if their dead. And nobles gain neither prizes nor honor for a bloody slugging match. Private soldiers start using the word ‘frag’ in a disquieting way…
Different societies have drastically different attitudes towards warfare. Not only do those attitudes shift over time they can also change depending upon whom war is waged. When we stop to consider aliens, demons, etc. departure from modern concepts of war is only going to be more pronounced.
Most wargames calculate victory based largely on the scale of battlefield slaughter. Regardless of the mission or the conditions of the campaign if you kill enough of the enemy you win. There is such a thing as search and destroy missions, and, at times, armies have taken to the field with on other goal in mind that to inflict disproportionate attrition on the enemy. However, this speaks of attritional warfare, a concept which rightly terrifies almost any army or government.
To paraphrase General Clausewitz, the goal of warfare is to force a political settlement on your enemy by breaking his will and capacity to resist. Virtually all modern (AD 1700 on), professional military forces have, knowingly or not, based their operations around this concept. While reducing your enemies military forces is critical in this calculus casualties matter much less than seizing population centers, cutting lines of communication, reducing fortifications, etc. are far, far more important. An army can be out maneuvered and defeated in the field without firing a shot. While none have managed to do this with the skill of Napoleon, it remains the acme of modern warfare.
Karl Mack von Leiberich lose his entire army without firing a shot in anger
In any engagement the leadership is constantly asking ‘is it worth it?’ Unless you’re manning the last ditch there is a point at which the casualties are not worth the benefits of successfully completing the mission. Wargamers have no tomorrow to worry about, and no superiors to answer to, which encourages wasteful tactics. While not quite worth a year at Sandhurst or VMI, ‘he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day’ is a great truism.
For modernish games like 40k or FoW the forces represent something ranging from a reinforced platoon to a reinforced company. A company might be asked to size ground, but a lot of the action at this level is going to involves patrols bumping into each other (meeting engagements) and either having a firefight (40k) or waiting for reinforcements to come up (FoW). This is, in essence, a fight over nothing. The point of a patrol, even a patrol in force, is to maintain or expand your area of operations, locate the enemy, and/or determine his intentions and dispositions. Simply encountering another patrol fresh and full of fight completes the mission. Maybe you’ll set up an ambush, maybe you’ll try to take out a high value target, but there is very little logic to running up the butcher’s bill in this situation.
Then there are political considerations. In the midst of a rebellion or civil war there maybe a political or popular backlash against heavy or unnecessary loses among the enemy. Someone is always going to question ‘unnecessary causalities’. Many times in ‘gentlemanly’ civil wars victors on the battlefield are lax or unenthusiastic in pursuit because they have little stomach for killing their countrymen.
But, all of this is basically post-enlightenment thinking. Other people, and things, have very different ways of looking at these things.
Swine, the cause of a huge amount of human conflict
At the proto-state level of development politics and international relations are so primitive that ‘political settlements’ don’t really exist. The aim of warfare is to capture livestock, goods, and get bragging rights. This is clearly shown in the records of the early Shang, who make little or no definition between a military campaign and a hunting expedition. While raiding would remain a popular pastime in many parts of the world up until the 19th century, it would become less and less the activity of professional fighters and more the action of paramilitary forces.
Still, for any force up and through the early medieval period (and for rougher people, even later) looting might be a force’s only objective. In that case, seizing an objective or cutting down enemy warriors would not count towards victory. The only thing that matters is getting valuable stuff off the table. On the other hand, the defenders might seek to inflict damage on the raiding force in addition to driving them off. Not only Vikings, Saxons, Scots, Nubians, Arabs, Mongols, et al, raiding is a reasonable goal for orcs, beastmen, and maybe even orks.
For the Aztecs the ‘point’ of battles was to capture prisoners for sacrifice. Fatalities while clearly unavoidable and necessary for conquest would be wasteful. A fantastic people, Dark Eldar perhaps, could have a similar or more extreme outlook, requiring the player to minimize both his own and the enemy’s loses.
As an aside, up though the Second World War inviting or compelling vanquished fighters to switch sides occurred with varying frequency and success. A national at war cannot have too many men under arms. Prisoners, already trained and equipped represent a very tempting store of man power.
Greed is easy to understand, but that about more alien goals? Orcs love to fight. So, perhaps, the point of the battle is to have a good fight. But what counts for a good fight? The length? The size? Should an orc player get victory points for every melee fought, or every unit engaged in combat? Making the prime determination of orcish victory the sheer scale of chaos brought to the battlefield. A species that seeks only to fight might see the pageantry of the fight as more important than winning or losing the battle in the human sense of the terms.
Elves are another problem. Being near immortal is going to make dying on the battlefield seem all the worse. Any causalities might be seen as too many, prompting elves to fight defensively and fall back at the first sign of concerted enemy action. Of course, if ever there was a people likely to use proxies, slaves, or mercenaries to fight their wars it would be elves. Really, D&D’s Drow (hordes of orcs and goblins stiffened by penny packets of elvish warriors) is probably the most realistic even approach to combat. But, we perceive such behavior as ‘evil’ and elves are ‘good’, which brings us back the whole issue of value judgements.
Orcs (and Orks), Elves, Eldar, Hobgoblins, and all the rest are fundamentally human-like. They’re social mammals. As such, they can be assumed to possess vaguely human psychology. But, what of the truly alien? Something I find refreshing in Vance’s science fiction is the presentation of aliens (on the rare occasion they appear) as inscrutable, even insane by human standards.
The notion that all placentals would experience roughly similar drives and imperatives, which in time, would lead to the creation of generally similar societies is fairly reasonable. Granted, biology could create very different social needs. But, the basic unit of any society would default to a female and her (helpless) infant(s) the requirements of supporting and protecting the unit would then go on to inform the development of any culture and ultimately civilization.
Suck perfect social order, mammal!
Organized hymenopterans raise their young communally and in some cases have specialized breeders within the colony that are notably dimorphous from ‘common’ members of the species. Many reptiles simply abandon their young. In that later case the absence of any family unit would create no imperative for civilization or higher organization even in a highly intelligent being. This could create the interesting situation of a highly intelligent species with no material culture, even no language, because they have no cause to cooperate with each other.
Expanding on this to the space opera or fantasy we see that very different beings could have very different concepts of battlefield ‘success’. It’s easy to see how ‘bugs’ could have little or no sense of self preservation and by extension be more or less indifferent to causalities. Which, actually comes close to the victory conditions in a lot of major wargames. Complete the objective and take 75% losses? No problem. You win.
Which leads to the supernatural. Obviously, a Lich King couldn’t care less about the loss of his pawns since they are immediately and infinitely replaceable. Surely losing zombies should have no impact on whether the undead win or lose on the battlefield. Of course, their remains the question of what would drive an immortal sorcerer who has both conquered and become one with death to war in the first place.
One of the problem with setting that feature very powerful spell casters is the dual questions of one, why magic users don’t run everything and form a distinct ruling caste; and two, why anyone could can summon food, see the future, and consorts with demons would care about mundane, mortal concerns of wealth, land, and temporal power. I’ve never really seen a good answer to this paradox. One thing is for sure, medieval battle tactics would not develop along historical lines if fireballs were a feature of the battlefield.
Perhaps I am simply covering the old ground of seeking more a return to role playing (after a fashion) in wargaming. But winning and losing has such rich potential beyond removing figures from the table.