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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Perspectives on Wargaming: Movement

Hi all,

I tend to think quite a lot about what makes a wargame. No idea why, it's just the way my mind works! So this article, and the ones that follow it, are going to try to encompass my thoughts on the basic elements of a wargame- not a specific game, but the elements which are common throughout all of them. They started with one of my first posts, the General's View, but for the next few Perspectives posts I'm going to dig into a few more of the specifics. In this post, I'll be focusing on movement.

Quick note- this is designed to provoke a few ideas and suggestions, not re-write rules or make for weighty tomes of additional rules. I've tried to give a few rules suggestions as ways that the ideas given below may be represented, purely as some ideas. Feel free to bounce ideas back in the comments. 

Particularly, I have been thinking about the way troops and vehicles move onto and around the battlefield, and how they interact with the other game mechanics. I'm a fan of lists, since they break weighty topics into manageable chunks, so I'll set out some headings now:

  • Basic movement of men and machines
  • General command and control
  • The arrival of Reserves
  • Enemy in sight
  • Reaction to enemy action
Now to tackle them :)

Basic Movement of Men and Machinery.

All wargames have some kind of Movement mechanic. In some this is grid based (eg BattleLore, Memoir 44), more commonly it is measurable over a free area (eg Games Workshop, Privateer Press.)It also depends on the genre- historical wargames have to deal with set Troops formations (Rank and File) while Modern wargames (and usually Sci-fi) handle a more Skirmish based structure. Regardless, men and machines are usually free roaming.

By this I mean that there are no set restrictions to movement, aside from terrain and changing formations. There is not necessarily any problem with this, however historically battles have been pretty static. Units didn't move around much once battle was joined ie once two armies came to the point at which we visit the tabletop.The reason- it is unfeasibly difficult to get men to reliably move into the teeth of enemy fire. Charging is one thing- the blood is up, adrenaline is pumping and getting to grips with the aggressor is simple for a General to encourage. Getting men to move parallel to enemy formations, exposing their flank? Not so simple. Yet the only thing most games allow for to represent this is the natural consequence of the manoeuvre- which thanks to the Fog of War being absent, we can predict. Warmaster (amongst others) handles this pretty well, since all movement is based on a Ld test. Leading us rather neatly onto:

General Command and Control

A quick definition:

"...The exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned and attached forces in the accomplishment of the mission. Command and control functions are performed through an arrangement of personnel, equipment, communications, facilities, and procedures employed by a commander in planning, directing, coordinating, and controlling forces and operations in the accomplishment of the mission. Also called C2.. "Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. US Department of Defense 2005.
There's also a pretty good Wikipedia entry here.

Some games emulate this at the core of their rules- Warmaster, Memoir '44 etc. They concentrate on implementing a Fog of War mechanic, to make gameplay less reliable. However, this does not demonstrate the issues involved with C2. 

Before the age of Radio Communications, Command was agreed before the battle and then followed by individual Officers. Orders during an engagement could only be communicated by Runners. There are two factors to consider here- firstly, the accuracy of the orders, and secondly the time delay. If a General issued a Movement order to their right flank, it could be 5 minutes before those orders were received, understood and communicated to the men- only then could the orders be carried out. This process was made easier by the use of instruments and banners to communicate fresh orders. Still, those orders could easily be misunderstood- one of the reasons that a simple battle plan is generally better than a complicated one. 

That process changed after the Somme, when Allied forces (specifically British) were given operational command on the ground. This meant that Sergeants could react to enemy action more swiftly, and engagements became more fluid. By the same token, this means that overall strategy became far more difficult- when the man on the ground can alter the plan at any given moment, having a coherent battle plan for all forces engaged is almost impossible. Therefore, actions must be communicated backwards rather than forwards, the men informing the Officers. This then allows other men to be informed of what is happening. The faster this happens, the greater the advantage. Note that this does not hold true for Guerrillas, which is a specialised reaction to modern methods. Small groups acting independently do not need an unwieldy command and control system. unfortunately, they also cannot engage and defeat a larger force. If anyone knows of a game which reflects this, then please let me know!

So, how many games reflect the difficulty of command? Specifically, how many games reflect the difficulty of getting soldiers to do what you want, when you want? In most games I have played, there are no restrictions- as a General, my authority is absolute. Here are a few rules from systems that may translate into others, to represent this.
  • Leadership tests to move. Not an idea of mine, this has been around for some time. For a ruleset that demonstrates this idea, check out the Warmaster rules for free. 
  • Order counters. Introduce an additional phase at the start of a turn, where all units under your command are issued orders, and that is how they must act for the turn. This was the basis of Epic Space Marine, if you have a copy of it.
  • Strategy or Tactic Trees. All units under your command have a specific way of reacting unless ordered otherwise. A simple tree would be "If enemy in range, charge. If enemy not in range, advance towards closest visible enemy. If unit is charged, Flee" A few games have toyed with this system- if you want a ready example of this kind of Tree, then look up the rules for Tyranid ships in Battlefleet Gothic. The disadvantage is that simple trees do not represent Command and Control sufficiently to be worth it, and complicated Trees are- well, they are complicated! :)
Reserves in Games

A significant factor of many battles was the timely arrival of reserves. From use of the Rearguard, to allies arriving in the nick of time, it is a critical factor. It also tends to be a gambit- Generals usually prefer to have their forces deployed, rather than incoming. Yet reserves are commonly a tactical advantage in wargaming- not only are they reliable, they are also easy to position. 

This also touches on a broader theme- how big is the battlefield? If reserves arrive on the flank of the battlefield, then either the opponents flank off-table has been defeated, or the engagement is exactly as big as the table describes. If the former, then the opponent would either be in a Rearguard action, allowing the rest of their forces (off table) to escape; or they would be routed. Neither is represented. Bizarrely, both players can use this tactic, indicating the latter- the whole engagement is reflected on the tabletop. In this case, why are there not picket-lines and defenses set up to defend against this eventuality? 

Reserves are treated fairly loosely in most wargames. It is a way of mixing up a game by introducing units where they would usually not be expected. There are a few ways to make them more difficult to use:
  • Reserves arrive at a set location, on a set turn, noted down before the game.
  • Units arrive on the basis of a Psychology test. For example, Outflankers arrive in 40K upon a Ld roll. This mechanic can be furthered by introducing modifiers, such as the roll plus the turn number must be over their Ld value. This would make Imperial Guardsmen far less likely to arrive on time than Space Marines.
  • Units are given a value to represent their operational strength. this is then compared to the turn number, modifiers can applied, and when the value of the total reserve equals the turn number, they arrive. In a situation where both sides have reserves, then each turn the forces can roll off (Reserve value + D6)- whoever rolls lower must reduce the value of their Reserve by 1. When the reserve eventually arrive, then the total value of the units deployed cannot exceed the final value (this is a way to reflect the difficulty of moving through an enemy force off-table to arrive in position.
  • Reserves can always fail to arrive on a "1." this would mean that it is technically possible for reserves to never arrive.
Enemy in Sight

It is assumed in games that forces are aware of each other. The total awareness of troops is a huge topic, and not one I will fully cover now. Instead, I want to touch on how units react to enemy being in weapon range.

Squads will tend to halt in the presence of enemy forces, and prepare themselves for the fight. Historically, this would be redressing the ranks, levelling weapons and preparing to engage at the order of an Officer. It would also take time to build up the courage of the men in advance of close-quarters fighting. More recently, units will seek cover and fields of fire before engaging. In either case, upon spotting the enemy units are suppressed for a period of time.

Yet in gaming, units act immediately without fear of their own safety. As heroic as this is, I cannot help but find it unrepresentative. Freedom of movement frees up the battle, and makes gameplay swifter, so it is definitely a good aspect of rulesets. I cannot help but think that a few elegant rules to show force suppression in games would be a boon, though. It would also add a new tactical element- can you pin your opponent in place whilst remaining mobile? Perhaps this would add to the importance of movement in games? Here's a few ideas:
  • Units in charge range/ effective weapon range of an enemy are Suppressed- they can fire, but cannot move unless it is towards cover.
  • Units within  Spotting distance (eg Initiative) of enemy cannot move until they pass a Psychology test (eg Ld)
  • Units that see fresh enemy (an enemy unit they were previously unaware of) must test or Flee.
Reaction to Enemy Action

Units receiving fire will want to do one of two things- get out of the field of fire, or retreat. Note- casualties do not need to be inflicted for this to apply, the mere act of being fired upon will encourage the survival instinct. If they cannot retreat or reposition, then they will hunker down and return fire. So- if the enemy is shooting, the unit will not advance. Looking at wargames, this does not apply.

i am not just referring to modern era either. Regiments would shelter behind shields, or erect a pike wall to disrupt arrows. It took several centuries of training before units would stand still in the face of enemy fire (the Napoleonic era) and the tactics of the period were overturned after the First World War. Rare exceptions do exist- such as the Normandy landings- but even then there was significant support, and usually numerical advantage, allowing forces to advance. 

Yet units in wargames simply do not care about enemy fire until enough casualties are received. Occasionally they are forced to fall back, but they are not otherwise hampered by enemy action. This is one of the reasons why casualties in wargames are so prevalent- the basic mechanic for making a unit suppressed is to remove them from the game. This prevents them from taking any further action in the fight. from a rules perspective, any change to this will be significant- it will essentially change the game from the ground up, by restricting the flow of battle through pinning vast swathes of the enemy in place. It would also, I imagine, not be fun. 

So this is the one heading where I am looking for suggestions and ideas on how to represent these ideas on the battlefield- use the comments section or e-mail me.


It is often said that movement and manoeuvre win or lose games. Adding complexity to movement rules will make this even more true- the difficulty is in maintaining game speed and balance. Any additional rule slows down a game (unless it is both clever and intuitive), and can lead to added frustration. If you decide to try out any of the ideas in this post (and feel free to do so) then please bear this in mind- if it isn't working for you, then try something else.

Comments, as always, are welcome.

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