RogerBW's Blog

Morale and command in wargaming 20 March 2014

There seem to be two basic approaches to command in wargames: do you get to move every unit as you'd like to, or are you restricted in what you can do?

Every game has some sort of restriction, of course, even if it's as minor as a difference in movement speeds. But I'm thinking here about restrictions that take different forms during the game.

There are several ways this can happen: a card-based system that selects units for you as in Piquet or Tin Soldier, dice that constrain your options as in Chain of Command, or simply an aggressive pinning/morale system which means that troops under fire are likely to keep their heads down rather than charge out and be heroes.

Some of this depends on scale, since there's an averaging effect. It's fairly unlikely that a whole company or battalion will hide behind cover when told to advance, but if you're dealing with people as individuals it's much more plausible. Similarly in a naval game, every ship will keep moving and fighting even if her captain is having a temporary mental embolism; it would be unrealistic to say that you could only move some of them, though a system could limit the number of changes of orders that can be given.

But I think the objection to restrictions, and similarly to random movement, is more of a psychological one. Many people drawn to wargaming, certainly including me, like the idea of being in control. As with a game of chess, or Luke 7:8:

For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.

In a restrictive system, I say unto one, Go, and he saith, Are you quite sure about that sir? If you're used to chess-like games, this can feel quite different and wrong; it's all very well, but it's not the sort of game I'm used to. It as if one's Lego bricks had the option of saying "I don't want to be stuck to that bit over there".

I have had similar visceral objections to other game mechanics, but I have grown to like this one. It's a way of remembering that the little plastic soldiers on the table are representations of real people, who want to go home to their wives and families even more than they want to win the battle.

Tags: wargaming

  1. Posted by Ashley at 10:39am on 20 March 2014

    It comes down to psychological temperament, and what you want out of a game. Me I'm all about the story, so bring on the friction as it leads to the best outcome for all parties.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:01am on 20 March 2014

    As a role-player, the question that comes up in my mind is "whom am I playing". If I'm playing one soldier, I want to be able to decide how brave he's feeling that day. If I'm playing the commander of one side, I should be having to deal with the same sorts of problems he deals with, and that includes soldiers who won't do exactly what I want them to do when I want them to do it.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:31am on 20 March 2014

    On the scale that most wargames are played at the issues aren't on the individual scale but the collective. The individual soldier may or not baulk at an order: as one of the characters in Shaw's DON JUAN IN HELL says cowardice is as universal as drunkenness in the army and as unimportant. It's dealt with by the discipline of the unit and making people afraid of appearing afraid, ashamed of 'letting down the side' and other things.

    So what you're worrying about is the reliability of the unit. One of the things that makes games like THE NEXT WAR (one of the few wargames I ever owned a copy of) seem so odd nowadays is that in order for the whole Third World War to start you have to assume that the Warsaw Pact units are going to respond to Russian orders to go and attack NATO, something that seems a little unlikely given how easily the whole structure fell apart just a decade or so after the game was published.

    You can always make some individuals more significant than some units. I recall an ancient computer game of WATERLOO in which the two commanders spent their time writing orders to subordinate units which they would then most likely go and creatively misinterpret. You had to be especially careful if you gave Marshal Ney anything to do since he would tend to feel a swift cavalry charge was the best means of achieving anything...

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 11:48am on 20 March 2014

    I've certainly heard it argued that one of the reasons for the British red coats was so that you couldn't run away without being seen.

    A little while ago I dug up the Royal Navy's wargame rules from 1921, and there's an awful lot of focus on command delays and misinterpretations, not surprising given that it was used for officer training. This is much easier if you have multiple rooms and a game staff, of course. One of these days I'd like to run a game like that at a convention, with the two teams in separate rooms and the master map in public where passers-by can see what's really happening.

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