Friday, November 09, 2012
Two Problems for Historical Game Designers
Two military/political aspects of the ancient world hold a fascination for me, because I've not found or seen a really satisfactory way to represent them in games. These are the problems of "the bump" and of tribute.
The first of these is what I call "the bump" or the push. This is the way that horse barbarians migrating out of Central Asia pushed other barbarians before them. Sometimes the pushing continued until ultimately some of them crossed over the borders of the civilized world. For example, the Huns pushed the Goths into the Roman Empire in the late fourth century A.D., and helped push the Vandals/Alans/Sueves/Allamanni/Franks as well.
In historical games that have the benefit (or curse) of hindsight/foresight often the player representing the Goths, knowing the Huns are coming, moves into the Roman Empire on his own. But in terms of causality that is backwards, a flaw that's a consequence of putting history into repeatable gameplay. Also there can be cases where the player is not certain that the Huns (or whoever) are coming, or are coming immediately (this turn). But there's rarely a mechanism in games to enable the Goths to react immediately according to what the Huns do.
If the nation is not allowed to vacate an area until actually attacked then some of the hindsight/foresight problem goes away. But if they're not allowed to flee and attack somebody farther up the line that we don't have a true bump.
I have tried various rules that allow horse units to withdraw from combat without fighting and move to another adjacent area to cause a fight there, more or less replicating the pushing action, the bump, on the steppe. But this can be complex and time-consuming whken there are multiple simultaneous bumps, and I've never found it satisfactory; and it doesn't reflect more subtle pushes that affect foot barbarians farther on (the other Germans).
Confederations and Submissions
Associated with this problem is the problem of shifting tribal confederations. Historians believe that the typical large tribal groups that attacked civilized areas were confederations made up of many tribes, including tribes of varying ethnicities. So the Huns were not all Mongols - or is it Turks, nobody's really sure - but some were Iranians (Sarmatians, Alans) and some were other peoples that they'd picked up in their travels. The Franks were a confederation of many tribes, although probably all German tribes. The Vandals famous for sacking Rome in 455 A.D. were actually much more complex, with two kinds of Vandals plus hangers-on from other tribes including even the Iranian Alans. Along with them into Iberia came the Suevi who were themselves a confederation of Marccomani and Quadi (IIRC), but again mostly Germans.
This also extends to the long-term submission of one barbarian tribe to another, as of the Germanic Gepids to the Huns. (A confederation including Gepids finally took down the Hun empire after the death of Attila. The Lombards and Avars later did away with the Gepids.) Yes, there are submission rules in Britannia, but those don't reflect the reality that tribes submitted to the Huns made up a considerable part of Attila's force that invaded Gaul in 451.
How do we represent the coming together (and sometimes coming apart) of these tribal confederations? How do we keep track of who is who? How do we decide when a tribe submits and when it unsubmits?
The second fascinating aspect of the ancient world is the interaction between tribute and control, especially in the ancient Near East. It seems that most warfare was not actually intended to conquer new land but only to raid adjacent nations into submission, both to gather loot and so that the victims would peaceably pay tribute in the future. The Assyrian empire especially was known for this, and only gradually did they take full control of areas they raided as their tributaries again and again reneged on their promises, especially when a new king came to power. Typically an Assyrian king went on campaign almost every year in order to chastise some opponent by raiding their lands. Sometimes the Assyrian kings raised stele that described in detail the loot they received in the tribute they extracted. And when the king died it was often necessary for his successor to go back and raid areas that had been tributary but stopped as soon as the strong King passed away. In most ancient Near Eastern empires the borders we see on maps represent tributary areas rather than a year-round control, though a few maps differentiate the two as best we can with limited knowledge.
In the Middle Ages, Charlemagne's Empire had some aspects of that tributary nature, but this often took the shape of feudal military obligations rather than actual payment of money and goods. And once the empire was no longer expanding, no longer collecting loot for the army, those obligations were more often not fulfilled. In contrast, in "modern" (post-Medieval) times in European warfare nations nibbled at the borders of their opponents, taking control of fortresses and small areas, or colonies overseas, and rarely resorted to tribute. Only occasionally as in the partitions of Poland did the attackers conquer large areas.
The Assyrians resorted to mass exportations of population to help gain control of new lands. In the end perhaps there just weren't enough Assyrians to control all that they had, and when there was a long fight over the succession after the death of a strong ruler such as Ashurbanipal, this could drag the Empire down, to the point that it was destroyed by its many enemies in the late seventh century BC. Thereafter there were still people around who called themselves Assyrians, and to this day there are people in Iraq and elsewhere in the region who call themselves Assyrians and proudly hearken back to the Assyrian Empire, but there's never been an Assyrian state of any note since 605 BC.
In an ancient Near Eastern game I'm working on I have a simple tribute mechanism, that armies can temporarily vacate an area (which is not normally allowed) in order to attack an adjacent area and extract tribute, afterward returning to the areas they came from. The owner of the raided area can decide to fight or can simply give up the tribute, which is one victory point to the attacker but no loss to the defender. It's the no loss to the defender that doesn't quite fit the historical situation, but in this game the economy is very simple and it's not worth trying to represent economically that the area was raided. The very long time scale - the game covers about 2,200 years in less than three hours for 3-5 players - makes it difficult to represent something that changed year-by-year in actual history.
For whatever reasons the ancients were not inclined to completely destroy enemy cities the way the Romans destroyed Carthage in 146 BC and Corinth in Greece in the same year (when he entered Corinth "Mummius put all the men to the sword and sold the women and children into slavery before he torched the city"). A common culture may have contributed to ancient reluctance; I think the Assyrians were more willing to destroy cities of enemies who were not part of the ancient Near Eastern culture dating back to old Babylonia and Sumeria. The Greeks may have had similar reasons not to destroy cities. The Spartans refused to destroy Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War, but Alexander the Great - a Macedonian, which is somewhat different from a Greek though the Macedonians liked to think they were Greeks - razed Thebes to the ground after the Greeks rebelled at his accession. On the other hand, centuries earlier the Spartans had destroyed Messenia and enslaved the entire population, who nonetheless retained their identity as Messenians.
All of this can come into play in the great mystery of history, the extraordinary effect that good or bad leadership can have in ancient (and medieval) times. Assyria fell when a three-way succession struggle following the death of a strong leader went on too long, but it wasn't the first time Assyria had suffered because of doubtful succession. The Roman Empire's great problem was the succession, and I wonder if more Romans were killed by one another in succession struggles than were killed fighting barbarians. Again and again and again you see the vast difference between outstandingly good and outstandingly poor leadership. I have leaders in Britannia, but their effect is not massive on its own; the Major Invasions have a much greater effect, and those are sometimes a result of leadership. In the much-shorter version of Britannia that I intend to be one of the new editions, you can only move half your armies when you don't have a great leader, a stronger effect added to the leader's bonus in battle.