Graphs, Maps, Hoplites

Lost Battles

Philip Sabin’s new book, Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World, is now available in the US.

Sabin, who teaches courses in conflict simulation in the War Studies department at King’s College, London, seeks to use gaming to resolve discrepancies between the scant and often contradictory sources for ancients battles. Capitalizing on the long-running appeal of this era for both gamers and popular audiences, the book is essentially the presentation of his research model, along with the rules set and data needed to refight several dozen of the actual battles. Here’s a quick taste of the methodology:

What I aim to contribute to this and to similar debates is to set each battle much more clearly within the context of the general run of other similar ancient engagements, and thereby highlight which of the various conflicting interpretations are most in line with what we know from elsewhere. How long a frontage did other armies of similar size occupy, what sort of numerical odds was it feasible for armies like Alexander’s to overcome, how many war elephants did it take to sway a battle and what kind of cavalry manoeuvres were practical as the infantry lines engaged? To give a scientific analogy, one might imagine plotting the different interpretations of the Hydaspes as different x and y coordinates on a piece of graph paper. Without any further information, it is very difficult to tell which of the various plots is more valid, but if other battles are also plotted on the same paper, and if it is possible to evolve scaling principles to take account of differences that exist between similar engagements, then it may be possible to discern a ‘best fit’ line that will link up the majority of points and thereby make outliers stand out as unlikely exceptions to the general rule. (xiii)

From Sabin's Lost Battles

This work has obvious and important similarities to the discourse of modeling in digital humanities research (my day job), as articulated by Sabin’s colleague at King’s, Willard McCartry, as well as Franco Moretti in his Graphs, Maps, Trees—so, in order to help cement that connection, I’ve also opted to review Sabin’s book for Digital Humanities Quarterly.

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Guy Debord’s Kriegspiel

Turns out Situationist extraordinaire Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle and other works) was also a grognard:

In January 1977, the French Situationist Guy Debord founded the Society for Strategic and Historical Games. The Society had an immediate goal: to produce the “Kriegspiel,” a “game of war” that Debord had already designed in his head years before. Inspired by the military theory of Carl von Clausewitz and the European campaigns of Napoleon, Debord’s game is a chess-variant played by two opposing players on a game board of 500 squares arranged in rows of 20 by 25 squares.

Debord’s Kriegspiel has now been reimplemented online by new media arts collective RSG. There’s also a printed edition available from Atlas Books. Here’s an excellent background article.

Debord and his wife, Alice Becker-Ho playing the game

Debord's Kriegspiel, as implemented by RSG

(Via GrandTextAuto.)

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My Spring Seminar

Syllabus for my graduate seminar this spring:

SIMULATIONS

Is simulation the consummate genre of the 21st century? How can we negotiate between simulation as a trope of science fiction and cultural fantasy (the Matrix, to name one obvious example) and the non-virtual reality of the Strip in Las Vegas, or the best-selling video game franchise The Sims? The objective of this seminar will be to range freely between simulation as the essential focalizer of the postmodern, between practices of applied modeling in humanities research online (such as the Virtual Vaudeville project, which painstakingly recreates a performance in a turn of the century Manhattan theater), and between simulation as an established mode and form of digital gaming. We will read widely in the literature and theory of simulation, from obvious high postmodern candidates like DeLillo, Baudrillard, and Haraway to more exotic sites of engagement, such as military technology, theoretical mathematics, artificial life, and the philosophical discourse of modeling. Indeed, our goal will be eventually to adjudicate among three interrelated terms: simulation, modeling, and gaming; and to come to grips with their import and distinctions in the contemporary milieu. To what extent are these forms and practices rivals or competitors to the literary? Can a simulation (or a game) sustain a narrative? Is the virtual merely the latest act or art of wish fulfillment in an age-old progression of mimetic conceits, or is it something else? Something new?

A key component of the course will be a set of hands-on explorations using the popular virtual world Second Life. You will engage with the cultures and sub-cultures of Second Life by creating avatars and participating in the communities and events of this thriving virtual world (current population: 10 million). With only slightly greater investment, you may also learn to “build” in Second Life, contributing your own objects, structures, and experiences to the world. Part simulation, part model, and part game, Second Life will be the social arena in which we seek to activate and literalize our weekly conversations.

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Kriegsspiel Rules Back in Print

A small British hobbyist outfit is publishing a reprint of Bill Leeson’s translation of the original 1824 von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel rules:

Kriegsspiel

Pricey at £22 shipped to the States, but I’ll probably cave and pick up a copy.

More info here.

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Damage Control

No, the title of this post doesn’t refer to my feeble effort to reverse the drought here. Real life, including a house move and the start of a new academic semester has significantly curtailed my ZOI activity. But I did want to post this shot of an experimental home-brew game created by one Jonathan Miller, spotted in play at TriaDCon 07.

A commentator who saw the game writes “It’s a naval battle between the Bismark and the Prince of Wales, but the focus is not on moving ships and comparing armor to broadside weight. The real game is about keeping the ship afloat after it starts to take damage, and how you allocate damage repair resources.”

How brilliant is that?

(Damage Control, btw, is my title, not the game’s.)

Game Played at TriaDCon 07

Photo by Walter O’Hara.

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Larry Bond’s New Site

Larry Bond, co-author (with some guy named Tom Clancy) of the classic military fiction Red Storm Rising and designer of the Harpoon series of naval wargames (on which episodes in the book are based) has a new Web site.

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Preserving Virtual Worlds

[News of new funded research I’m involved in. MGK]

The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) is delighted to announce we are partnering with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Stanford University, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Linden Lab (creators of Second Life) for a project funded by the Library of Congress’s National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) on PRESERVING VIRTUAL WORLDS. The two-year $590,000 award under NDIIPP’s Preserving Creative America program will be shared among the project participants.

The researchers leading the work at the University of Maryland are NEIL FRAISTAT (Professor of English and Director, MITH), MATTHEW KIRSCHENBAUM (Associate Professor of English and Associate Director, MITH), and KARI KRAUS (Assistant Professor, College of Information Studies and English).

The Preserving Virtual Worlds project will explore methods for preserving digital games, interactive fiction, and shared realtime virtual spaces. Major activities will include developing basic standards for metadata and content representation and conducting a series of archiving case studies for early video games and electronic literature, as well as Second Life, the popular and influential multi-user online world. According to Fraistat, “This award from the Library of Congress places MITH and its partners at the forefront of those addressing a range of increasingly urgent questions involving the preservation of creative works that are “born digital”–from interactive electronic literature, to digital games, to virtual worlds such as Second Life. We are especially pleased to have as an industry partner, Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life itself.”

In addition to contributing to the work on Second Life, Maryland will take the lead on interactive fiction/electronic literature as a sub-domain of the project, and will be occupied with all aspects of scoping, metadata, intellectual property, evaluation, and archiving of these materials. We will initially focus on a small number of targeted works of recognized cultural and literary significance, including former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s 1984 interactive novel Mindwheel, Will Crowther’s ADVENTURE (written in 1975 and widely considered the earliest interactive text of its kind), and selected items from a large private collection of 1980s-era hardware and software recently gifted to MITH. The international Electronic Literature Organization will also extend its support and in kind contributions to our work here at Maryland.

The project begins in January 2008. Notice of other recent Preserving Creative America NDIIPP awards is available here:
http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2007/07-156.html

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Grognards Invade Terra Nova

Nice thread on board wargames unspooling on Terra Nova, a group blog that serves as a hub for the virtual worlds brain trust. They give a shout out to the first piece of online writing I ever did about wargames, “I Was a Teenage Grognard,” which originated as a blog entry over on my MGK site and which seems to have found a good audience. That same piece garnered an extended reference over at Scratchpad a few weeks ago.

I’m glad to see the interest in board wargames in the mainstream ludology community, and that more and more folks are picking up on what’s seemed obvious to me for a while now, that these games remain relevant and have things to teach designers, players, and game scholars.

That’s basically the thesis of a longish piece I have forthcoming in Third Person, the follow up to the First Person and Second Person volumes already published by the MIT Press, and, like its predecessors, expertly edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. My chapter, called “War Stories: Board Wargames and Vast (Procedural) Narratives,” argues that it is procedural granularity that stimulates what Marie-Laure Ryan has termed narrativity, i.e. a game’s potential to serve as a narrative agent. The volume should be out in late 2008.

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The Good Old Days

Picked up an old issue of The Avalon Hill Game Company’s house organ The General on eBay (May-June 1977) and was amused to read this response from the editor in the letters column:

Although S&T [Strategy and Tactics, SPI's rival mag] delights in passing along news of our impending games before we do, you’ve got to keep in mind that their “Gossip” column is aptly named. Much of the information they pass on in reference to our operations is inaccurate, if not pure fabrication. It’s sort of a friendly game we play. They try to “jerk our chain” by printing our “news” first and we get our jollies by feeding false reports to their “spies.”

Ah, the good old days, when there were only two companies and three numbers on the counters.

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Napoleon’s Triumph on Pre-Order

Napoleon’s Triumph, Bowen Simmons’ follow-up to his unique Bonaparte at Marengo, is now available for pre-order. As previously discussed on ZOI, Simmons’ designs are distinguished by their graphical fidelity to “the look,” the distinctive visual aesthetic characteristic of battle maps and military cartography.

Napoleon's Triumph (photograph by Bowen Simmons)
Photograph by Bowen Simmons. 

The Austerlitz game (pictured above), which is about twice the size with twice as many pieces as its predecessor, promises to remain faithful to the core elements of the previous design, while also introducing hidden units, leaders (note the battle flags above), and corps-level formations.

Bonaparte at Marengo has come into criticism in some quarters for typically bearing scant resemblance to the actual battle, either at the tactical or the operational level. In the case of Austerlitz, the game will need to convey some sense of the shambles that was the Austrian/Russian command hierarchy, without straitjacketing the Allied player (the tension between the desire to preserve some evidence of historical fidelity without making the game run on rails is ubiquitous in wargame design). The game will also need to account for the literal fog of war that covered the battlefield at the beginning of the day and screened the initial troop movements on both sides, dispositions that sealed the fate of the respective armies.

Napoleon’s Triumph is due to ship on August 15; I am looking forward to playing it.

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