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As a university student, I signed up for a course called something like “War and Society.” I did not realize that this was PC-speak for an anti-war twist on the study of military history. The professor was one of several recently hired from the local State school, and was pushing a more “current” curriculum within the school of Liberal Arts. I wound up dropping the class pretty quickly, but I held on to both of the assigned texts for the class. They have collected dust on my shelf until now.

Both books were published in the late 70s/ early 80s, and they came at the peak of a post-Vietnam shift towards an anti-war interpretation of history. The instructor hoped to push the culture of an Engineering school – one heavily influenced by military contract research money and direct military interaction in the form of a large ROTC program.

Upon opening the first book, War and Society in Renaissance Europe, 1450-1620, the editorial note seems perfectly aligned with the goal of the course. I was a little nervous about proceeding further, but the attitude of the editor does not quite reflect the attitude of the author. First, the author does not deliberately avoid anything “pro-military” as the lead-in might have suggested. The narrative seems well balanced. Secondly, in an era where the righteousness of one’s cause was all but given, even while wars were apt to bankrupt the perpetrator for little gain, it would seem all the more important and informative to look at the “bigger picture” of fitting the impacts of war into society as a whole.

On the back cover of the book, the review explains “This book … is full of epigrams and bon mots” and indeed it is. The author seems to delight in pushing the envelope with the prowess of his vocabulary and his ability to relate an obscure literary reference to the topic at hand. Relevant works of literature a described only by title and author, and the reader is expected either to know the work already, or perhaps to go off and read it before continuing on with the paragraph, to understand the authors point. In other cases, it is merely the matter of going to a dictionary and looking up a $100 word. When those words and phrases are foreign language puns, and the translation (much less the double meaning) are left to the reader, I begin to wonder what the author is about.

Perhaps the book was never meant to be read casually, as I am now. I bought it for college classroom work, and one might well expect that the college student reads his textbooks with frequent referrals to dictionaries, related literature, and the language of the primary sources. It also seems to be literary style of the 60s and 70s, where even works of entertainment delight in going over the heads of as many of their potential audience as possible, perhaps for the edification of the few remaining who get it. I don’t know. I’m thinking of, for example, the use in films from that time of foreign language conversation without subtitles or translation assuming that the moviegoer knows Italian. I’ll also add that the author is from England, so some of his “epigrams and bon mots” may be a little bit more familiar to readers from his own country.

To the substance of the book, one item that particularly interested in me is the discussion about the recruitment of the lowest soldiers. The pay was actually quite low. By the end of the period, the pay scale for a soldier was a factor of three or more over workers in building construction. This is something that continues to this day. Starting pay for soldiers is at the low end of what is earnable, even by the standard of high-school graduates. It is made up to some extent by the possibility of pension and other benefits. In the Renaissance, rulers also realized the wisdom of caring for ex-soldiers, but often failed to provide the funding to do so. Unlike today, soldiers were expected to provide for pretty much all of their expenses except housing. They had to purchase meals, clothing, and even provide their own weapons and armor (paying for them with payroll deduction if they didn’t already have it). For most of the 16th century, gunners even had to pay for their own gunpowder. This provided a perverse incentive in that arquebusiers were essentially docked in pay each time they fired their weapons in battle. By 1600 this practice, at least, was modified.

Oddly enough, this was also true for mercenary forces. Local forces were traditionally raised by the lords as a duty to King and Country. The Renaissance saw societal change that, for a variety of reasons, made that more and more difficult. The wars of this time period were often fought with mercenaries. One would expect that said mercenaries would require compensation to make up for the lack of King and Country connection, and yet the pay differential was small. Certainly not enough to raise a soldiers pay above subsistence.

Another aspect that sounds familiar today, the manpower for armies came predominantly from the rural parts of nations. Now, at the end of the Medieval period, the world was still predominantly agricultural, so naturally any source of manpower would be predominately rural. However, the books suggests that, even so, the filling of armies was disproportionately from outside of cities and towns. The reasons for it ring true today. The culture of the cities, and the new “desk job” avocations, created a different mindset that didn’t mesh with military service. Armies also require physically fit and competent soldiers. Working in the fields, using tools, and being able to hunt and fight with weapons were considerably less likely to be a part of city life.

The book also delves into the social conflict between the urbanites and the country folk. Those in rural areas (fairly justifiably) felt they were bearing the brunt of the cost of wars, a resentment that could occasionally turn violent. For their part, the urbanites were thriving under the expansion of the economy and looked down upon the peasants as a lesser species. Sometime, this was quite literally – those who were more developed considered the rural poor to be subhuman, and were apt to treat them accordingly.

Shades of today’s politics.

Beyond those particulars, the general theme of the book (as alluded to by the title) is the intersection of soldiering and society. The life of soldiers and how that is distinct from civilian life, the interaction between civilians and soldiers, etc. Chapters are organized around themes, but the information is presented as a narrative, rather than a highly structure form (which might counter my “textbook” thought, above). A critical factor in all of this are that the details are not well documented. In order to get a picture of life at ground level, one must piece together official records with letters and with fictional accounts (plays and books). None present or complete (or necessarily reliable) on their own, but when themes support each other across different sources, it may be safe to extrapolate. In some cases, the author actually walks the user through his lack of data. Paraphrasing, “I made these tables. The numbers probably aren’t very accurate, due to lack of good records, but the trends they paint are.”

This is the style of the book. The chapters are divided up into themes, but the narrative walks through the data as opposed to proceeding either chronologically or geographically, as one might expect. This again returns to the style of the book where it seems the author expects from the reader some fairly deep knowledge about the history of the period. One comes away with some interesting insights into the period, but not necessarily with any better overview of the period. The subtitle talks about a span of 170 years of which the book is about. It is about all of these years, and in some ways, none of them. Largely the themes are those which span the course of those nearly two centuries. Occasionally, the progress of time and technology appears if necessary to describe a trend (e.g. X first appeared in France, and then 40 years later was a major factor in Venice), but its the exception rather than the rule.

Ultimately, the theme throughout and his conclusion at the end is that wars had a lot less impact on Renaissance society that you might think. Victory in war rarely (if ever) produced a return on its cost. The impact on society, both culturally and economically, was probably minor compared to the cultural and economic changes caused by the Renaissance itself. Yet for all the rise of the individual and the empowerment of the middles classes, the right of Kings to wage war as they saw fit was generally not challenged. As the author says, with the obvious exception of civil wars, the political impact of Renaissance warfare was minor.

I Can Do No Other

For the game accompanying this book, I chose Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation 1517-1555. Obviously, it is a considerably shorter time focus that the above book, covering the span of the Renaissance. Similar to the larger era, the much shorter 33 year period is remarkable for just how much happened within that fairly brief time. The European conquest of the New World, the founding of a major new branch of Judeo-Christianity, and the struggle between Christendom and Islam probably top the list.  Unlike the book, the game focuses on capturing that big picture.

The game is, as the box cover advertises, a Card Driven Strategy Game in the lineage of games like We the People and Twilight Struggle. It is designed for and plays best with six players, although it can be played with as few as two. The game and its genre (and I’m not knowledgeable enough to tell the difference) bring a number of novelties to players used to hex-and-counter wargames. In fact, despite spending time in the game moving stacks of generals and armies, in many ways this isn’t really a wargame. I read in one review that, although the rules and interactions in the game are very complex, once one learns it all the game on the board merely becomes a background for the real game – the Diplomacy phase and the potentially infinite negotiations between players.

I’ve never played this game – not even once. I may never play it. I’m fascinated with the period it portrays and extraordinarily impressed by the way it has made the game simple enough to be playable. However, I simply don’t foresee finding a couple of days where with five other like-minded game players, allowing us to play through a game. In fact, we’d probably need to commit to several such sessions as, others’ experience shows, it probably takes a game or two to get the rules down enough so that a successfully completed game is possible. The target for this type of game are players in tabletop-gaming clubs who meet regularly, and can plan to tackle something of this magnitude systematically. And there are plenty of those types – but I’ll never be one of them.

My interest in the game is in its intersection with game design and the implications (or lack thereof) for solo play and/or computer play. Right off, the simple fact that the meta-layer for this game is a version of Diplomacy should probably disqualify Here I Stand from ever becoming a successful computer game. The endless struggle to create a (much simpler) Diplomacy is a story I may come back to, but not a path to go down today. Instead, let us consider what this game could teach us about wargame design. Because, although it is in many ways not a wargame, it also (in many ways) is – but a wargame unlike almost anything we would see on the computer.

I recall an on-line discussion about the need for computer game designers and programmers to learn from the boardgaming world. This game, as a recent highly-rated and popular boardgame, I think offers some lessons in that regard. What could be learned from this design, and what doesn’t apply?

hereicyber

A CyberBoard game of Here I Stand. While the HRE and France are knocking each other around in Metz, England seizes that chance to conquer Scotland.

Any game needs to be abstracted. Even the most realistic of simulations needs abstractions. But boardgames, in particular, require abstraction to avoid forcing the players to crunch through simulation calculations when they’d rather be playing a game. Furthermore, boardgames need to be clever about their abstractions in that they also mesh well into a “UI.” Here I Stand does very well in both respects. Indeed, its popularity and innovativeness might owe more to the latter.

Another similar example is a innovation that Here I Stand introduced to me (whether the innovation was particular to this game, I don’t know). The game uses player cards, which contain control markers. As a player captures key cities/regions, the marker is placed on the board. In doing so, a space on the player card is uncovered, indicating the current victory point level as well as indicating the number of cards drawn at the start of each turn – the latter is a stand-in for economic power in the game. It is a brilliantly simple game mechanic that replaces several different categories of bookkeeping with an intuitive placement of a marker, perhaps serving double or triple duty, on the board.

Very impressive but entirely useless when moving to a computer translation.

Digitally, a programmer probably wants the various states tracked separately from any UI component – so the different information has to be stored more directly anyway. Also, the bookkeeping and calculation that the board game saves the player is of no benefit to the computer. The computer has no complaints about, for example, counting up the number of controlled “keys” before distributing cards at the beginning of each turn. In fact, were I programming it, I would want to recalculate rather than store the information “conveniently,” as the latter opens up the possibility that (due to a bug) the two or three different places where the information is tracked – key control + victory points + cards – may get out of sync. Better just to spend a few cycles to computer from a single storage place.

From the UI angle, the display needs to be simple to look at, but it can be as complicated as necessary behind the curtain. So, for example, my computer might only display the total score for each side and then, when I mouse-hover over a score, it shows the component calculations (in the case the number of key locations controlled) for the score. Similarly the current card allotment. And even though these two are both calculated from the same source, linking them via the UI is entirely unnecessary.

Similarly, the card driven aspect of this game strikes a balance between the historical narrative and playability. In a historical game, presumably one wants the events of the period to surround you as you play. Of course, if all those event simply occur on cue per the calendar, play gets boring in its predictability. One can “randomize” events, but that leaves potentially game changing card draws outside the players control – driving you towards a game too dependent on luck. So the cards in Here I Stand, while forcing some historical context (the mandatory cards), also allow players some control over order, priorities, etc. In fact, in contrast with Twilight Struggle, the “friendly” event cards generally seem desirable to play (they give you more of an advantage than just playing the points). In the earlier game, it seems that events are generally to be avoided, unless specifically part of a multi-card gambit. In any case, the card mechanic puts the game just outside the players ability to fully understand and control, which I would argue is a major factor in what makes players like a game. The perfect game design (at least in some genres) involves balancing the mechanics of that game right in that gray area in a players ability to grasp the mechanics and their interactions. A supremely balanced Card Driven Strategy game is doing just that.

But go to the computer, and complexity starts to disappear. Fanout from an event can all be made more explicit to the player, making it easier to understand more complex interactions. Similarly, large and gamebreaking events can be replaced with smaller ones. 100 cards could easily become 1000s of events, integrated with things like “tech trees,” all in a way that (given some good UI) is easier, not harder, for a player to navigate (see Europa Universalis IV). Point being that the Card Driven mechanic, despite all its positives, is probably not a great choice for computer gaming.

For other features, its clear they simply become irrelevant when translated to the computer. For example, the point-to-point movement system that often seems to go hand-in-hand with the Card Driven Game genre is, when translated to the computer, likely identical to any “area movement” or other representation of a map with regions/countries etc. Internally, a programmer would probably use some version of the node and connection anyway, so that the computer can understand what locations are adjacent, even if the UI shows a more traditional map.

Moving on, there are innovations in Here I Stand that are very meaningful in terms of the board game, but still don’t “translate” well. Take, for instance, the mechanic whereby a nations armies is limited by the number of counters supplied with the game. As described in the manual:

The counters provided with the game for each power are purposely limited to reflect the total manpower of these powers during the period. Units may never be constructed in excess of the counters available.

In the board game context, this is a very innovative way to provide an additional, historical restriction on army size. One might imagine it can get rather complicated, but for a simple illustration, take a look at Hungary, a non-player nation. At the beginning of the game (1517), Hungary is at war with Ottoman Empire. There is an event card that, if played before the Hapsburgs joint the war, beefs up the Hungarian army in Buda by four factors – but only if the remaining counters allow it.

If nothing has happened yet, the Hungarian army is 3-points below their limit. However, because of the counter set, only one of those can be deployed to Buda. If it is played slightly later, and Belgrade has fallen to the Turks, the Hungarians will have lost the one point, meaning they could theoretically accept all 4 new points, accept again, the counter mix only allows three to go to Buda. Reading in between the lines, the Hungarians can (for example) deploy one large army and several smaller ones, but not field three equally-powerful forces. As I said, the permutations can get complicated and one has to trust the designers in creating certain specifics. Assuming they got it right, it is an easy way to apply restrictions with a minimum of off-line accounting.

But would you do that for a computer game? Certain rules aside, the counters in Here I Stand are meant to be “changeable.” That is, there is no difference between a level 6 regular infantry and 6 level 1 infantries, despite the difference in the pictures on the counter. Thus, as a programmer, if I wanted to represent a location having six infantry points, I doubt I’d want to also track the counter sizes (again, certain rules aside). I have some options, of course, but I can’t imagine that my first choice would be managing exactly which counter mix is used to represent the total. If nothing else, it would require more computer opponent logic to decide when to, for example add another level 1 counter versus upgrading an existing level 1 counter to a level 2 versus trading in that existing level 1 counter along with an existing level 2 for a level 4. To much work for a function where the result, most of the time, is exactly the same.

So what if, as a programmer, I’m counting my units in whatever way I’m counting them, and now I want to impose some historical restrictions on total (global and local) army sizes. Again, the “only use the counters supplied in the box” method is probably more complicated than the alternatives. Given the computer’s computation ability, I could be much more explicit about those limits to achieve my historical goal. A common computer game limitation is to have each node where recruitment takes place have it’s own (renewable) limit.

So much for negativity. Indeed I think there are abstractions that suggest a better way of doing things.

One in particular is the exploration and conquest mechanics of the game. This is obviously an improvement over the moving a piece around on a board, with each move having a possibility of revealing a discovery. For this, I’m imagining a boardgame equivalent to something like Civilization and its fog of war, where one moves units every turn, revealing new world information. While I’m sure we could find some good “exploration” mechanics for the board, the fact is in Here I Stand the player does not want to take on the role of Magellan, he is Charles V! Thus we toss our expeditions out into the Atlantic. Maybe they get lost, maybe they pay dividends, but details are beyond our control.

The other mechanic that just plain excites me is the Spring Phase/Winter Phase. Most games ignore the change of seasons.  If the game is more tactical, or even operational, seasonal effects are modifiers – to movement, to combat, to attrition, or whatever. For a strategic level game, it is rare to see a game that handles the annual cycle. Yes, a Europa Univeralis will penalize the player for operating during the wrong season, but ultimately that becomes a choice – do I pay X extra resources to launch my attack now, or wait until mid-March? In reality, particularly in this time period and earlier, the military calendar was driven by the seasonal calendar. It wasn’t a matter of calculating the cost/benefit of a winter campaign – in many cases, it just wasn’t an option. The effects of weather was only part of it. Forcing your agricultural workers to fight during harvest season would have been a good recipe for winning the battle but losing the war (to famine).

While Pike and Shot Campaigns, I very recently discovered, actually does include wintering rules, the only previous example that springs (heh – no pun intended) to mind is Hammer of the Scots. Here I Stand may have drawn from that system. The game does more than just apply restrictions based on season. Armies must withdraw (and be capable of withdrawing) to fortified areas able to support them. The forced withdrawal is balanced by a Spring deployment step. It nicely (by which I mean simply) models the seasonal raising and dismissing of citizen soldiers, necessary to a campaign of foreign conquest.

Naturally, it is simple and thus abstracted. In the most obvious abstraction, the game’s turns last more than a single year. In fact, the turns are not even a constant over the course of the game ranging (looking quickly) from 3 to 6 year turns. Each turn only has a single Spring/Winter cycle. As a model of history, that could mean one (or more) of several things. Perhaps the idea is that a major offensive wouldn’t be launched every year, year after year. While the turn takes place over, let’s say, 3 years, all the military campaigning takes place within one of those years. Or perhaps its an abstract acknowledgment that some sieges lasted over a winter or, at least, caused a campaign to extend over multiple years. Or maybe it is just a way to keep the game from getting too busy.

So a big shot of realism mitigated by a dose of abstraction. In many ways that describes much about my feelings for Here I Stand.

But I Won’t Do That

I made another try at trying to get Europa Universalis IV to take on the reign of Charles V and the uniting of vast expanses of the world under the Hapsburg name. Once again, I couldn’t get there.

This time I played as Austria and began with Frederick III in control. In the 1492 setup, Austria is in control both of roughly-modern-day Austria as well as the Netherlands. I tried to quickly establish marriage ties with Castile, hoping to come by Spain (this time) through the Netherlands.

Alas, like before, Isabella held on to the throne for decades beyond her real counterpart’s life. Also like before, Isabella married her daughter Juana into the Naples royal family so that, rather than having a future Emperor as a grandson, she had closer ties to Naples. Moving through the 1520s, there is no sign of some of the major historical factors of the time – neither the unions of Castile, Aragon, the Netherlands and Austria, nor the fighting over Italy that served as a proxy war between France and Spain.

Fortunately, a little search magic (that had eluded me before) turns up someone who posted a mod to handle Charles V on Steam. I’m going to have to give that one a go.