Sunday, 7 February 2010

Representing wargame army 'commanders' on the battlefield: Some thoughts

When I wrote yesterday’s blog entry I expected some feedback; what I had not expected was the level and detail of that feedback!

Interestingly everyone agreed that representing commanders on the tabletop was a positive step forward, and as this is something that I wanted to do it, it has encouraged me to look at the best way of achieving it.

Now I am an incremental wargames developer. I like to get the basic structure and mechanisms right before I start to add any extras or ‘chrome’. I am happy with the way my version of Joseph Morschauser’s basic rules work, and so whatever I add has to fit in with his basic design philosophy. My first port-of-call was therefore to read the relevant section in his book – HOW TO PLAY WAR GAMES IN MINIATURE – before proceeding. In the chapter YOUR OWN RULES, Morschauser suggests using command figures as a means by which morale effects can be generated.

’Another means of adding morale factors to the game is to have a staff and a commanding general represented on the table by a tray. This Staff Unit never engages in active combat, but it must remain within a certain number of move distances of at least two-thirds of the army’s Units. If the Staff Unit is lost, then the entire army must roll for morale. In other words, a die is then rolled for each Unit to determine the effect of the death of the commanding general and staff on that Unit. If a 1 or a 2 turns up, things remain as before, and that Unit continues to fight on. If a 3 or a 4 comes up, the Unit reverses direction on the next turn and moves, turn by turn, off the table. It can only fight if attacked, and if not, it will soon be out of the battle. If a 5 or a 6 comes up, the Unit retreats for that turn. The effect of this on your formation can be devastating. A carefully planned attack can go to pieces because Units break and run when the commanding general is killed.’

‘To prevent unfair concentration of fire on one tray – the commanding general’s – and the rapid conclusion of a well-arranged and exciting game when it has barely started, it is wise to have not only a commander and Staff Unit but one or two other Staff or Substaff Units. These can replace the main general and staff, and will stop the battle from coming to a too quick and unfair conclusion.’
I can see why he has made this suggestion, and that it will fit in with his rules. The latter do, however, generate quite a large number of casualties, and the mechanism he outlines above seems to accept that fact as a given. As my version has moved on from that somewhat, I need to develop a different approach.

So what do commanders do? Obviously, they command, either in person or by order. Joseph Morschauser’s suggestion does not seem to take this into account, and it is in this direction that I want to develop whatever mechanism or mechanisms I use.

Indirect Command and Control – Giving Orders

When a commander is not in personal contact with a Unit, they can only control that Unit by giving orders. Due to a variety of circumstances (the quality of the commander, poor basic staff work, lack of communications, orders getting lost) Units do not always do what they are ordered to do. So how can this be simulated on the tabletop without too much complication?
  • The PIP system: Phil Barker et al developed a very simple system for DBA, and this has been copied extensively … because it is simple and it works. I could follow suit and ‘borrow’ this system knowing that players understand it and it will fit in quite easily with most of my existing rule mechanisms. However since I began using a card-driven turn sequence, this might be problematic as the PIP system is essentially designed for an ‘IGO-UGO’ turn sequence.
  • Limited Command Radius: This follows on from what Joseph Morschauser suggests. Units have to be within a certain number of ‘move distances’ to receive orders; the problem is how many ‘move distances’, and how to measure them? My first thought was to make the Command Radius 6 grid squares, measured orthogonally. This fits in with existing method used to measure distances on the gridded battlefield, and is easy to remember. However, my gridded battlefield is a 12 x 12 grid, which means that if a commander gets close to the centre of the battlefield he can give orders to Units almost anywhere on the battlefield (the exceptions would be the corners, which would be outside the Command Radius).
  • The WEC system: When I wrote WHEN EMPIRES CLASH! I developed what I thought was a simple system for restricting the number of stands a commander could ‘activate’ each turn. Each commander was rated according to ability, and this rating – added to either a D12 or 2D6 score, depending upon whether or not the commander was a non-native or Native commander – generated the number of stands a commander could ‘activate’. This could easily be adapted to restrict the number of orders a commander can issue each turn. Commanders could be given a basic rating (Good = 3, Average = 2, Poor = 1). At the beginning of each turn each commander would throw a D6 die, and the two numbers added together would determine how many order ‘cards’ a commander could deal that turn. This system has the advantage of being simple; it also gives the commander control over which Units will get orders each turn, whilst stopping them from being able to control the entire battlefield. It also gives a ‘poor’ commander the outside chance that once in a while they might just be able to out-general a ‘good’ commander!
Direct Command and Control – Supporting Units in combat

It has been argued that the presence of a commander with a Unit can have both a positive and a negative effect on that Unit. Whereas I accept the latter can happen, from a wargaming point of view I prefer to concentrate on the former.
  • Enhancing a Unit’s Fire Combat capacity: If a commander is co-located with a Unit, their figure will increase the number of dice the Unit can throw when firing at an enemy Unit. This is as far as I think that the commander’s ability to ‘enhance’ a Unit’s Fire Combat capacity should go. I do not advocate any change to the scores a Unit must throw to ‘hit’ an enemy Unit as this would skew the results too much.
  • Enhancing a Unit’s Close Combat capacity: If a commander is co-located with a Unit, their figure may increase the number of figures both the Units can throw a dice for in the Close Combat. This could result in higher casualties on either or both sides – including the commander. This may appear unfair on the Unit that the commander is co-located with, but if he places himself in a situation where he is at risk, there should be a possibility that he will become a casualty.
Commanders becoming casualties

If a commander is ‘hit’, either because they are involved in Fire or Close Combat as an individual or because they are co-located with a Unit, some mechanism is needed to adjudicate whether or not they are killed. Looking for a suitably simple mechanism, I am drawn back to both Joseph Morschauser’s basic mantra of
and the system I developed for my REDCOATS AND NATIVES wargames rules. In the latter the fate of the commander was decided by the turn of a card:
  • King, Queen, of Jack of Hearts = The commander is killed
  • Any other red card = The commander is wounded
  • Black card = The commander is unwounded and may carry on fighting
Whereas I am happy to use the cards to ‘drive’ the turn sequence, I would prefer to use a dice-based system to determine if the commander is killed or not, as this follows both the style of the other mechanisms used in the rules and seems to be closer to Joseph Morschauser’s design philosophy. My suggested system would require a D6 die to be thrown whenever the commander – as an individual – becomes a casualty or is with a Unit that suffers casualties:
  • 1 or 2 = The commander is killed
  • 3, 4, 5, or 6 = The commander is not killed; another figure is removed if the commander is co-located with a Unit.
Whilst none of the above is a perfect solution to representing commanders on the tabletop, they are paths along which developments can progress.


  1. Strong leadership at the small unit level appears to have been almost as decisive a European advantage as superior technology in 19th century colonial warfare. Good to see you tackling this issue.

  2. This is a toughie and no mistake. My own feeling is that the command stand should be involved with the business of actually fighting - leading units into the breach etc is not really quite the thing! Troops should be more enthusiastic under the eyes of the commander which is not the same as being more effective so giving an extra dice is probably right - making it easier to hit is probably wrong (as you have pointed out) as whilst a mob/unit may be whipped up into a frenzy it does not suddenly turn them into crack shots or expert close combat specialists.

    My feeling is that units that are adjacent to the command unit should enjoy this benefit but it should be carefully used.

    I need to think about this further.

    All the best,


  3. Ogrefencer,

    I had not thought about including adjacent Units when considering the 'influence' a commander might have on situations, but you may well have a point that I should do so.

    Something more for me to think about.

    All the best,