Sergio's blog: hints, ideas, pictures and news about SDS (and more) from the author

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Orders in Wargame rules (Horse & Musket)

The mechanics that regulate Orders (in the pre-radio era) are always a nightmare for the Game Designer. Basically, what we want to represent is what a Commander may and may not do when he is under a certain Order from his Superior. We will skip for the moment the order comprehension by the subordinate, and concentrate on the “MAYs” and “MAY NOTs”. Let’s take a typical “set” of basic orders: ATTACK, DEFEND, MANEUVER, HOLD and start from the top of the list.
ATTACK: Your CinC wants you (his subordinate general) to attack an enemy unit, defending a hill. Within the above set of orders this is the most offensive order, so everything seems simple: you have to attack your target, i.e. move your troops to engage the enemy to annihilate it or force it to abandon the position (and carry it). So you cleverly move your – say – 6 units of infantry at full speed towards the target, and sooner or later you’ll engage the enemy.
There’s always a BUT, because battlefields are rarely empty, or one Vs. one affairs. There is Artillery threatening, Cavalry lurking behind hillcrests or woods, strong enemy units in reserve. So it happens that while you boldly move towards your target the local situation changes (an 8” pdr battery unlimbers just in front of the target) and your attack seems doomed.  You desperately need an Order change from the CinC but it will take time (turns) and in the meantime that battery will cut your units in pieces.

In this situation, I think that 1 player out of 10 would carry on the order (and have his command slaughtered) while the other 9 would REFER TO THE RULES. Why? Because they want to check what they are allowed to do when under an attack order they don’t want to execute anymore.
And here the can of worms opens….
Some rules don’t say anything about this, so in principle you are free to do what you want. You apply the concept: “if the rules don’t say it is not allowed, you can do that”. Your opponent will not agree, however.
Some rules try to stop the flood with a spoon, stating that “under an attack order, units must advance towards the target”. How many units?  How many inches? You may fulfill the order moving ahead 1 unit of less than 1 inch…  
OK, let’s rephrase the rule: “under an Attack order, all units must move towards the enemy at full speed”.
A rather drastic rule that players will not like (“I don’t like suicide rules. I’d like to have an option”).
Mmmmhh… try this: “under an Attack order, more than half of your units must move towards the enemy at full speed”. Problem solved…..? Nope, for two reasons: rounded up or down? (this is easy) and “what does moving towards the enemy means”? If I’m allowed to wheel or oblique, for instance, I could make all sort of evolutions, spending  inches as I go, so that at the end of the movement, my units used up their movement allowance, even if they are just ¾ of an inch nearer to the enemy than before.
Giving a proper definition of moving toward the enemy could help.
What about this: “under an Attack order, more than half (rounded up) of your units must move towards the enemy at full speed, wheeling only once and using the most direct route to the enemy. Oblique movement is forbidden”.
Even so, the most direct route can be an argument, and there is another problem: changing formation.
If your game has formations (most Napoleonic games do) you must be allowed to change formation in order to attack, but at the same time you must be prevented from doing it too much. A common trick in fact is to change formation several times  per turn in order to decrease the movement allowance of your units. It is so common that many game designers specify that “consecutive, unnecessary formation changes are not allowed”. This (apparently) simple rule becomes more and more complicated… Sharp gamers could also have noticed another potential bug when it comes to moving “towards the enemy”. Which enemy? “The one in front, it’s obvious..” you would say. Nope, it’s not. Because in linear games (i.e. those not using hexagonal or square grids) quite often you have more than one enemy around, and it can be difficult to determine which one is in front of another. Should we try with the “nearest enemy”?
“Under an Attack order, more than half (rounded up) of your units must move towards the nearest enemy at full speed, wheeling only once and using the most direct route to the enemy. Oblique movement is forbidden and consecutive, unnecessary formation changes are not allowed.” Sounds good?
Not so much. Who is the nearest enemy? If I have 6 units in my Command maybe the leftmost unit has enemies belonging to command X nearby, while the rightmost units may have enemies belonging to command Y just in front and near. Who is the enemy?
I could go on for hours.
Now multiply the problems above for each other order (Defend, Maneuver, Hold) and I think you’ll realize that – in a competitive environment – it is simply impossible to use such an Order system unless you write a 100 pages chapter about it. And please don’t tell me that you are not so competitive. Maybe you are not, but I’m sure there is a rules lawyer in your group, and the problem will pop up.
The vast majority of the wargame  rules out there simply ignore this problem, even in good faith: many rules are the result of years and years of Wargaming in a Club where people is always the same and – little by little – some conventions take over, so that no one is arguing about this or that rule. It is so because…. It has always been so.  Many, though, ignore the problem because they are not able to solve it.
So there is no solution. Probably not, but maybe… slightly changing the angle something can be done. If you are interested follow up (and comment) …


  1. This is an interesting point Sergio and I totally agree with you. Many 'orders' cannot be followed to the letter as (as you rightly say) the battlefield constantly shifts and alters. The one and only 'rule' I use personally is that infantry under Attack orders must do so in column as to me it is highly unrealistic that units advance in line to simply maintain their most effective firepower. I think I'm right in saying (but don't hold me to this!)that as a rule of thumb most assaults were performed in column both for shock effect and speed of movement.... I do agree with you though, orders on our tabletop battlefields are tough to replicate in a realistic manner especially as we have a birds-eye view of all our units surroundings... I'll be interested to hear any suggestions as to how best to achieve this.

  2. Forcing units under an Attack order to do it in column can be a part of the solution, but then you enter a new cathegory of problems (Linear tactics, when you can change formation to get maximum firepower and the like). Also, the helicopter view does not help, but without a Master (or an extensive use of the technology) it can just be slightly mitigated (blanks, dummies, and the like).. I'll soon write a new post about this.

    1. The question of 'when' a unit can change formation should be dependent upon it's order. As I mentioned before, to my mind a unit (or Brigade / Batallion dependent upon the game scale) under 'Attack' orders is planning on closing to melee with the enemy at the fastest possible rate in the formation that has the appropriate 'punch'.. and that is column. I doubt that any planned attack order was envisaged using linear formations (these being more defensive than attacking formations).. However let's take an order that doesn't appear in SN 'Engage'. This order (to me anyway) suggests an order to engage an enemy and thereby 'pinning' them in position to stop their use elsewhere. It does not necessarily order the formations to close into hand to hand combat but merely engage in ranged fire. .... Getting back to formations and formation changes; A body of troops under the 'Engage' order should again advance in column but be allowed to form firing line at a certain distance from their intended target. I would probably play it as a column may change to line when it is within one full column move of it's target unit..... I'm rambling again but these things are worth suggesting I suppose!

  3. A very interesting post on what a simple movement can generate! Please, more on these themes

  4. @leadaddicted: see my today's post :)
    @Steve: please remember that I'm not talking only about Napoleonics (during the SYW most movements were made in line). Apart from this, what you say makes sense, even if could be difficult to make a good rule out of it (for the same reason mentioned in the post).

    1. Many grand tactical wargames of course 'assume' troop formations (V&B, Grande Armee for instance) and even though I really do like Snappy Naps I'm not entirely convinced that actual formations on the tabletop are actually necessary.. this 'micro-management' seems a little odd to me when playing a game of this scale.
      However, I do believe that formations per say should have an affect of sorts. This being the case would it be completely out of place to assume formations dependent upon the actual forces stance? For instance a corps on 'Hold' or 'Defend' orders would be considered to be in line and benefit from the added firepower that his formation offers (and similarly it's vulnerability to cavalry). Again, a corps in 'Attack' stance would be considered to be in column and hence move at greater speed and enjoy a greater impact upon contacting an enemy unit... Food for thought or am I just waffling again?

  5. Steve,
    if we assume that formation is not essential to our rules then yes, your idea is sound and makes a lot of sense. Grande Armee uses Brigades and you do not care about their formation at all.
    About the greater impact of columns, however, let me disagree with you... :)

    1. Sergio,
      'Grande Armee uses Brigades' ... as does V&B and SN...
      Do you disagree that a column formation has less impact than a line? Are we to assume that column was only used to maximise speed across the battlefield?
      Really enjoying this discussion by the way!

  6. Steve,
    as many recent historians have demonstrated, the myth of "column vs. line +1" typical of most wargames of the '80s and '90s, was in great part false. If you read Alessandro Barbero's "The Battle (Waterloo)" one of the most appreciated books on this battle, you'll find - in particular when he talks about D'Erlon attack aganst the British line - a documented explanation on this subject. The French battalions were supposed to advance in column and then deploy into line to maximize firepower, but they were suprised by the British position, behind the crest and a slightly sunken road. In a matter of seconds, they found themselves under fire (from a line), still in column and in total confusion...

  7. Interesting stuff Sergio..... Now back to how we best represent this on our tabletop!

  8. Steve,
    if you give Drums & Shakos Large Battle a go, you'll see how I represented this on a tabletop, i.e. giving the column a clear advantage for moving but not for the Approach-Close Combat procedure. This way you must carefully plan when you open your columns before the approach. As an alternative, you can attack in column but when the enemy line has been softened before (maybe by some artillery fire?).

  9. The problem is one because largely rules have you give orders for a TURN and not an ATTACK. If you had to give multi-turn orders for a planned ATTACK, you would not have so many false arguments to create wiggle room.

    Interesting set of posts.

  10. Dale,
    you comment is right on target. A system that forces you to give multi-turn orders creates many interesting situations, a nice fog of war and strongly limits "wiggles". I tried it (and wrote at least 10 pages on the subject) taking inspiration from games like RoboRally and Wings of War (and its ancestor - Blue Max). It could work, but IMHO only in non linear games, i.e. those with a grid. I'll write a post about it.
    Thank you Dale!

  11. I think Dale has hit the nail on the head there. Many rule sets allow us to chop and change rules somewhat at the drop of a hat dependant upon what WE are seeing developing on the table top. Perhaps a better way to represent our 'orders' to our formations would be to 'fix' our commands on a certain order for X amount of moves? So for instance a force under 'Attack' orders must do so for the next 'X' (perhaps 2-3?) moves?

  12. Steve,

    one of my last post was on this topic (Multiple Turns Orders), what do you think about it?