August 06, 2002



In the vein of Den Beste's piece on the value of strategy and wargames today (mirrored by another interesting, if atypical piece on Warcraft III in Slate, let me recommend Strategy First's Europa Universalis 2. The game, which plays a lot like a real-time computer Civilization (or the old boardgame Empires in Arms) with real history as the background, covers the world (yes, the whole world) from 1419 to 1820. Not only does the game fix nearly everything I found annoying about the original EU, including that annoying 1492 start-date, it runs fairly stable, and mirrors history remarkably well. I'm playing a desultory campaign as the Ottomans (testing my theory that if they'd stopped dreaming of taking Vienna and just concentrated on uniting the Sunni Muslim world south of the Black Sea when they could have, history would have been a lot different). We're up around 1455 now, and I haven't seen anything on a world wide scale that strikes me as completely implausible. The computer Joan of Arc didn't do as well as in reality, the Castilians are even stronger than expected, and England's more aggressively Catholic than I remember it, but we're well within any acceptable counter-factual deviation here. It COULD conceivably have gone this way. What's remarkable is the way Spain, Russia, Austria and France are all still assembling themselves more or less on schedule. I'm very interested to see how the expected strife in England in the second part of the century plays out, given what's happened thus far.

How am I doing? Well, Byzantium fell early, and instead of wasting my strength poking across the Danube every few years the way the real Ottomans did, I'm avoiding European entanglement, hopefully letting Hungary get themselves trapped in endless Balkan warfare, and instead freeing the Holy Lands from the Mamelukes early. Last night Mehmet II (the real-life conqueror of Constantinople) took Medina and Mecca... so I guess he would have still made the history books, anyway. Left to themselves, the Eastern Europeans are fighting each other... if things weren't somewhat tenuous in Eastern Anatolia and Armenia (controlled at the moment by a rival Sunni monarchy), I'd say I'm doing rather well. At any rate, superb game, superb strategy lesson, and a superb history tutorial.

The trick, by the way, so far at least, has been mid-range planning. Given 400 years of history, the temptation is to set far-off goals that are either unachievable or meaningless, or just go from conquest to conquest, and place too much trust in opportunity. I'm using a five-year planning cycle, which seems about optimal for a couple reasons related to game mechanics, subdivided into 10 six-month budgeting segments. I also developed a clear statement of aim (or commander's intent) before starting seriously.

This is the one quibble I have with Den Beste's piece, btw, where he states "All war is chaos." Yes, it's true no plan survives contact with the enemy, but Steven leaves you with the feeling that therefore there is no reason to plan. I'd have preferred he'd said "no one can accurately predict" a war's course, rather than "no one can predict" it. The reason, of course, is all the strategic functions (particularly logistics) require timetables, routes, destinations. In WW2, the Allies had a series of phase lines drawn across Western Europe, representing their best guess of progress post D-Day. Trapped in Normandy, they almost immediately fell behind schedule... after Falaise, they rapidly exceeded all predictions. But those lines were still essential planning assumptions if all the vital combat supplies (including even the men themselves) had any hope of being delivered when and where they would be needed, often months previously and thousands of miles away.

So all war needs a plan, but all war is chaos. Current warplanners bridge the gap with the idea of "commander's intent," a summary in the shortest possible terms of the overarching objective of the whole battle exercise, that prefaces all major orders to subordinates. The idea being that, once that's defined, you follow the rest of the detailed planning after that as closely as you can... but if amongst the chaos you see a shorter route to achieving the aim that contradicts those details, you discard the details and adhere to the aim. The aim thus should neither be too general (so that you can't divine when you're no longer guided by it) or too specific (to foreclose options that could lead to victory).

(Bernard Cornwell had something similar in his Sharpe novels. The protagonist, a British rifle officer in the Peninsula, had an unruly, often independent command, without the patience or time for the subtleties of ethical wartime conduct. In order to do maximum damage to the enemy without hurting the locals or each other, he boiled it down to three simple specific rules, with death as the only penalty. The act freed him up to fight his own war... once he had got his men into the optimal starting position, they could fight on their own from there, having internalized his intent.)

The Sunni commander's intent in my EU2 game, strictly written down, would be:

1) Keep a constant or slowly expanding military and naval strength.
2) Put economic growth ahead of buying soldiers or military technology.
3) With armies and navies, put quality ahead of quantity.
4) Avoid fighting at a technological disadvantage.
5) Don't unnecessarily anger other Sunni Moslem states.
6) Assuming all those rules are being met, seek to annex two provinces every five years, until some unavoidable limit to expansion is reached.

Whenever I have a choice in game, I refer back to those rules, in order of precedence from the top: right now I've taken 17 provinces in 36 years, but I've taken a big hit in liquidity, so I'm bringing the armies home for a couple years until full economic health can be brought back. My thesis is that, if the Turks had followed a similar political platform, they would have avoided "Sick Man of Europe" status for much longer than they did. We'll see... I'll keep you posted.

Posted by BruceR at 05:13 PM