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.


I surrender…

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.


 I surrender…(again)

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.

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  • Von

    In ref. Orcish victories, I’m just going to say that my favourite missions in second edition 40K were always High Ground (grab the tallest building on the board and Orkify it!) and Guerilla War (get stuck in and nobble things in melee, ONLY MELEE COUNTS). That’s all.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      While overdone in song and story, there have been societies that viewed missile weapons as ‘unmanly’ and only gain honor through personal combat (The Spartans come to mind).

      I could see how an Ork might only add to his personal glory by hacking down opponents in close combat. Thus, the Orkish ‘win’ could be based on melee kills.

      I did miss the 2nd Edition mission when 3rd dropped. Thoguh2nd was my favorite 40k.

  • Thuloid

    What, indeed, would Tyranid objectives look like? They’ve had them before–so alien as to be incomprehensible to humans, one would think. Could say the same for Necrons. Asterians (Mantic’s Eldar version) are interesting because there are hardly any of them on a battlefield–they use mostly drones, as one would expect of sci-fi elves. Asterians are too valuable to risk themselves in battle.

    Interestingly, one thing that’s coming in Deadzone 2nd. ed. is objectives and army lists are determined for each commander. So, e.g., the commander of an Enforcer recon unit has both different force options and different objectives than another type of commander. I want to see what Jake Thornton does with that–it’s a promising idea.

    Regarding animal intelligence, it’s long struck me how anthropocentric we are in assessing such things. It’s not just that an animal “could be” highly intelligent, but not social in the same way we are–they might actually BE that. That is, even a house cat is positively brilliant in terms of processing certain sorts of things (rapid movement of small objects). I’ve seen small birds coordinate their movements as if they were physically connected, keeping the same orientation to multiple other individuals as they hopped around a rooftop, seemingly without looking much at one another. You’d have to train humans for months to fake that for just a few minutes.

    But again and again I read moronic shit about how a chimpanzee has “the intelligence of a 2 year-old child.” Even as similar as we are to chimps, the flaws in that thinking are obvious. Octopi have shown remarkable abilities to process shapes and mechanical objects. The problem comes in thinking that what makes humanity is being “smarter” than other species on some kind of a crude linear scale. Intelligence is considered in an entirely disembodied way, and this residual Platonism is actively hurting our ability to appreciate the lives of other beings. It seems also to be ruining our war games. Thanks, Plato.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Well, the issue with Tyranids, Elves (space or otherwise), Necrons, etc. is that they don’t have politics per se. Since war within the human understand is ‘politics by other means’ their way of war would make no sense to the human mind.

      One argument I have read from behavioral scientists is that the wellspring of human intelligence is social organization. Not only to humans form huge groups numbering into the hundreds of millions, but based on sight along each individual is able to assess his relative social position to any other individual he might encounter and alter his behavior appropriately. No other animal comes close to that level of organizational complexity. And, you need a lot of intelligence to process that much information.

      Taking that a step further, technological development has allowed for the creation of ever larger and more complex social organizations and interactions. As a species ‘Empire’ may be the core human drive. Build alliances, absorb smaller communities, colonize new territory. That drive to expand the polity (even at the cost of self destruction) could be uniquely human.

      Many animals display mental abilities that we can’t even begin to understand, let alone replicate. Sardines can move in near perfect unison, somehow. Mantis Shrimp have sixteen color receptive cones. When the Good Lord was painting the world he decided that a crustacean should be alone in enjoying most of it.

      Some years ago I sipping tea and watching a vine slowly move from one window to another. What struck me was that while the sun was not yet up the plant was moving towards the window were sunlight would first appear. This implied some awareness of time, or a perception of something in the pre-dawn that communicated were light would appear.

  • The Warlock

    Regarding possible reasons why Magicians, Sorcerers et al don’t run the world would depend largely on the fantasy world observed. In the late Warhammer Fantasy magic is something to be held in awe, fear and a mighty dose of suspicion within the Empire. In addition, magic here seems quite straight forward- fire balls, illusions and so on but not much in the way of summoning infinite amounts of food without any real limits.

    On the other hand, Ursula Le Quin’s Earthsea quartet portrays magic as a rare thing, with severe consquences for misuse. Magical types are limited by their own knowledge of the true names of things and the complications that arise from performing larger spells. Everything comes from somewhere and there’s a focus on a balance being maintained. Compare Cob the Necromancer to Nagash and the difference between systems of magic becomes apparent.

    Then there’s something in between with Paolini’s Inheritance cycle where magic is limitless…if your endurance/stamina can take the effort in addition to knowing the right words. The only severe consequence is overexertion and/or improper use of True Words. Similar to this is the magic used within the Wheel of Time series, where the amount of fireballs you can throw is largely dependent on endurance and ability to weave the spell under pressure.

    On another note, mentioning orks participating in the fight for the pageantry conjured up images of several orks parading down a catwalk in a parody of a Miss Universe competition before a battle. O.o

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      All of your examples make ‘sense’, but in all those cases also suffer from the same flaw in their internal logic. Namely, the milieu spring fully formed into the middle ages.

      If paleolithic people found some among their number commanded supernatural powers, those people would gravitate towards positions of authority. The clans with the most powerful wonderworkers would dominate all their rivals. Magic would alter the entire trajectory of human development.

      For whatever reason (climate change, invaders from parts unknown), in the late copper age-early bronze age the large, well organized, and comparatively placid theocratic states that dominated early proto-civilization were replaced by smaller, more decentralized, bellicose nations powerful warriors and their immediate followers.

      Magic-users, who would presumably occupy the priest-king position, might spot civilization from making that shift. So, instead of moving towards feudalism and warfare society remains preoccupied (indeed, obsessed) with the construction of truly vast temple complexes, which might actually fuel the power of the culture’s sorcerer-king.

      Additionally, magic appears in adventure stories. So, there is a tendency towards the flashy and the interesting. Agrarian people are going to be far more impressed with the fact that I can calm fevers and summon the rain than fireballs and suggestion.

      I not one to praise White Wolf as I find them overly self-indulgent, but thing I liked about the way Exalted handles magic was likening the mastery of sorcery to a sort of twisted enlightenment. Magic-users exist in a world of symbolism and demonology. Consorting with being that others cannot perceive or begin to understand. They’re divorced from the world.

      The Vancian magician is similar, feuding with his inscrutable and terrible peers other matters beyond the ken of mere mortals. Largely aloof to the goings on in the normal world.

      Now, if magic is suddenly discovered, then the sort of default fantasy handling makes sense.